30 June 2015

'They're not actually supposed to be voted on.' A word on Rights and Democracy

MSNBC is running ads in some magazines -- I saw it in The New Republic, -- featuring a photo of and comment by prime-time talker Rachel Maddow: "The thing about rights is they're not actually supposed to be voted on. That's why they're called rights." Is Maddow a believer in natural rights? It would seem so, for only on such an assumption does her comment make sense. The timing of the ad, if not the person in the picture, makes the context obvious; the implication is that gay rights are natural rights -- that sexual-preference equality is not to be voted on. There may be other ways to describe her opinion, but "undemocratic" is the one that comes to mind. Of course, as conservatives love to remind us, we are not a democracy under the Constitution and the document does place certain rights beyond the reach of votes short of amending the document itself. But the Constitution itself was ratified; it was put to a vote -- many votes, in fact. The amendments to the Constitution were ratified, including the Fourteenth, upon which the Supreme Court majority in the Obergefell case depended to strike down laws banning same-sex marriage. Rights are not merely discovered and accepted as law, as Maddow may believe or wish; they must be enacted and ratified. This is not an argument against Obergefell, since the authority exists in the Fourteenth Amendment and I see no reason to assume, as the minority did, that the amendment covers only marriage in the "traditional" sense. But the fact remains that the right affirmed in Obergefell was neither an invention of the majority nor an eternal principle. It existed because the states, through their representatives, voted to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment. There are no rights in this country without voting. By Maddow's logic we never needed to ratify an amendment abolishing slavery, since people always had a right not to be enslaved, even though the necessity of an amendment seemed obvious enough to Lincoln and his allies. The populist opposition to Obergefell may be wrong to demand a popular vote on same-sex marriage, but the progressives are just as wrong to argue, as Maddow appears to, that rights have nothing to do with democracy. Would she prefer a rule of philosopher kings and queens, exclusively qualified to intuit natural rights from who knows what? Remarks like hers only fuel the conservative argument against all forms of progressivism, hypocritical as it may be, which is that progressives distrust democracy because they distrust people less learned (or "sensitive") than themselves. But Maddow may simply harken back to a pre-Constitutional notion of rights theory. The Declaration of Independence, for instance, was an assertion of rights that didn't throw itself on the mercy of voters. Instead, the Founders ratified it by force of arms. I've often described the 21st century gay-rights movement as "revolutionary," but I didn't think the movement meant it that literally. Maybe they don't -- they seem pretty pacifist much of the time -- but when Maddow says things like this you wonder a little.

Let them eat cake

One of the silliest stories of the month involves a man who tried to make a point after Walmart turned down his request for a specialty cake with Confederate flag frosting. Thus rebuffed, the Louisiana man requested an alternate design, black with Arabic lettering, apparently without informing the store rep that the design was based on a battle flag of the self-styled Islamic State (i.e. ISIS, ISIL, Daesh, etc.). The cake was duly baked and delivered and the customer made a YouTube video to point out the apparent double standard: a much-beloved symbol of regional heritage was unacceptable to Walmart, itself a product of the South, yet a terrorist banner representing killers of Americans was OK. Walmart has since explained that no one at the local store realized what the customer was asking for, and that they'll bake no such cakes in the future. Well, the man has had his little joke, but what's the moral of the story? I suppose we can agree that Walmart has gone slightly too far in refusing to handle any more Confederate-themed merchandise. We can want the rebel battle flag purged from our public squares, but if people want to identify themselves to passers-by and partygoers as parochial bigots, why should we make it more difficult for the rest of us to recognize them? I think Walmart should feel free to make Confederate cakes on request, and Islamic State cakes as well. In either case, of course, it might be a good idea to keep track of who's ordering them and let the government know.

For all I know, genuine IS sympathizers might find a battle-flag cake blasphemous -- they may even find decorated cakes in general blasphemous -- but screw 'em.

29 June 2015

The shame of it

The current Time magazine has a little piece about an alarming trend of parents creating videos to shame their children. This trend came to many people's attention after a 13 year old girl in Washington state committed suicide after her father filmed her with her hair shorn for "sending a boy a racy photo." That father didn't post his video for the public to see, but the daughter apparently started sharing it -- who knows why? -- until it spread beyond her control. Some parents are posting shaming videos, however, and kids seem to have enough problems with shaming from their peers. Kids today can't take shame, it seems. Old-timers will complain that people have no sense of shame today. They think of shame as a necessary tool of social discipline. Whether that was ever true or not, the formula is complicated in our time by the fact that, as one expert says in the article, "The Internet is forever." A recorded shaming could literally haunt a person for his or her entire life. But how bad should shame haunt us? The real problem may be that in our time shame has become something more severe and scarring than it once was. Another expert says, "The reaction to shame is an inherent sense that you're no good, that you're damaged as a person. And if you're no good, what hope do you have of correcting what's going on?" Yet I assume that in the past people were shamed with the idea of improving them. While in some cases, as with cowards in wartime, shame was meant as a permanent stigma, on other occasions we must assume that shaming was meant to teach people, young or old, a lesson they were presumed capable of learning. What seems more certain is that people were thicker-skinned then, whether they learned from shame or not. I wonder whether our different attitude today has something to do with a belief that each of us has an immutable self, one that never really changes drastically over our lives and should not be expected to change much. We still presume ourselves capable of learning facts from books or from the Internet, but perhaps we think there's a limit to how much, on other levels, we can improve, or simply change, and yet remain ourselves. For what other reason would anyone assume that he or she will always be the contemptible loser that irresponsible peers or parents sometimes portray? Shaming is irresponsible if it doesn't point the way toward improvement. Peer shaming is probably the worst form since it often follows the logic of alpha animals thinning out a herd and isn't interested in whether you can someday redeem yourself. Parents ought to know better but some of today's parents were yesterday's students, presumably going through the same ordeals if not inflicting them on others. There's a lot in American life for many if not all of us to be ashamed of. but what's the point of shame if it doesn't spur us to change our lives? The reason a person should feel ashamed is not because she isn't fit to live, but because it should be obvious, to her as an individual just as it should be to whole communities and nations, that she can and must do better. The shame that comes from a sense that you can't do better, or that no one should ask you to, is an unhealthy form of shame, but it can't be the only shame, or else our whole civilization is in trouble.

26 June 2015

John Roberts, centrist

One day after "saving" the Affordable Care Act for a second time by deferring to the original intent of its drafters against the hostile nitpicking of Republicans, Chief Justice Roberts issues a vehement dissent against the majority in Obergefell v. Hodges, the case whose resolution strikes down the remaining state laws against same-sex marriage. Roberts, a George W. Bush appointee and possibly that President's most interesting legacy, is clearly something different from the Court's three more ideological conservatives, who predictably join him in dissent today. Because Roberts isn't as predictable as Scalia, Thomas or Alito, we should pay some attention to his dissent. The majority, guided by Justice Kennedy, the main swing-voter on the panel, recognizes a right to marriage for any consenting adult in the language of the Fourteenth Amendment. Because the right to marriage is in the Constitution, it isn't subject to legislation limiting which consenting adults may marry. Homosexual couples are as entitled to marriage under the Constitution as interracial couples are. In dissent, Roberts is careful not to pass judgment on the idea of gay marriage. He claims that the majority has gone further than their predecessors did in Loving v. Virginia, the case that struck down laws against interracial marriage, and further than the Fourteenth Amendment permits. In Loving, Roberts writes, "the Court held that racial restrictions on the right to marry lacked a compelling justification." It "did not change what a marriage was any more than integrating schools changed what a school was." Obergefell overreaches, in the Chief Justice's opinion, because it does change what marriage is and does so undemocratically. We're still in a transitional moment in which some say the Court majority is bowing to public opinion today, while others believe the majority is defying public opinion. Either way, Roberts and the other dissenters disclaim their right as the Supreme Court to define what marriage is. Their implicit argument is that, given how long tradition has defined marriage as one man, one woman, that definition should not be changed by judiciary fiat. The deeper assumption is that the Fourteenth Amendment neither itself changes the definition nor empowers the Court to compel the states to change their several definitions. To Roberts, Obergefell is no more than an act of political will, with a majority of justices imposing their policy preferences on the minority and the states. Interestingly, he repeatedly compares Obergefell with Lochner v. New York, the infamous case in which the 1905 Court struck down a ten-hour day labor law for violating a "liberty of contract" implicit in the Fourteenth Amendment. That decision was criticized by its minority as reading  policy preferences (for business, against organized labor) into the Constitution, and Roberts believes the Obergefell majority is doing the same thing. To him, gay marriage, whatever its moral or social value, remains a policy preference rather than a fundamental right.

Roberts's fundamental question is a fair one: who gets to define what marriage is? His answer is: the states, through their elected legislators. The Obergefell majority says, in effect, that marriage falls under "due process," and that the Fourteenth Amendment defines due process in a way that forbids the states from denying marriage rights to same-sex couples. The tiebreaker question is whether anyone is entitled to read the "traditional" definition of marriage into the language of the Fourteenth Amendment. Roberts believes that any "due process" right to marriage defaults to traditional man-woman marriage, and argues implicitly that changing the definition of marriage itself requires the due processes of elections and legislation. That's a conservative argument in a time of moral revolution aimed at purging all social and cultural disapproval of homosexuality. Roberts doesn't choose to dispute whether that revolution has a laudable goal, but he seeks to impose a limit on it. Revolutions are notoriously disrespectful of due process, but in this case is anyone entitled to enact the revolution by fiat? Does the Court itself have an implicit power either to define what marriage is or to deny that power to the state and federal governments? If there should be one rule for all the states, should we make it more explicit through a constitutional amendment or a federal law, or do we accept the Obergefell assumption that the Fourteenth Amendment has already decided the issue? On gay rights my position is that no one has the moral right anymore to say, or legislate on the assumption, that homosexuality is "wrong." But do I or five justices of the Supreme Court have the constitutional authority to back that up, or should we get the true opinion of the American people, if not on the rightness or wrongness of homosexuality then on whether our government should recognize homosexual pairs as married couples? Since we know that the consensus once opposed the idea, must we formally overrule the old consensus, or can we interpret existing law, as the majority has, to say the consensus was wrong all along? The simple answer is that the majority is the Supreme Court, and their word goes. Court opinions often raise questions revealing the tension between democracy and constitutionalism. Controversial decisions like Obergefell don't merely beg the question of what marriage is. They compel us to clarify for ourselves what the rule of law is, and on occasions like these controversy is a good thing.

25 June 2015

What is the Confederate flag?

A lot of people seem unsure, because they don't seem to understand why there's another movement to eliminate the battle flag from public life. This really seems more problematic for a lot of people than it should be. In a local paper a columnist (he's behind a paywall online) worried, despite agreeing that the Confederate flag stood for nothing good, that any symbol that may have been implicated in slavery might be targeted for purging. His worry is that taking down the flag will set us on a slippery slope. A coarser view also perceives a slippery slope but fears a kind of "political correctness" that seeks to take down the rebel flag and other symbols for no better reason than that certain people don't like them. For such people, the reductio ad absurdam is that if you take down the Confederate flag because black people object, we'll soon have to take down Christian symbols because Muslims object, or else memorials to civil-rights leaders will have to go because they offend certain white people, or else anytime someone doesn't like a thing, it'll have to be taken down. This is the fear of a tyranny of hurt feelings, and it misses the point of the moment. The Confederate flag is not merely unlikeable. No matter what its apologists claim, it represents something that should be unacceptable in American life. It is the chosen flag of the Charleston killer, who had himself photographed burning an American flag. Since the 1950s it has stood pretty plainly for white supremacy and racial segregation. There are reasons to dislike these things that will stand up in objective discussion. Our nation has an obligation to make clear that these beliefs are wrong and should not be endorsed, even if only on inference, in our public squares. Those who see the current movement as just another case of black folks throwing a fit until they get their way, and are indifferent to the offense the flag causes, are racists whether they realize it or not. I don't know whether they agree that Black Lives Matter, but they clearly think that black opinions, and more importantly black history don't matter. Perhaps they should be made to wear the flag they seem to care about so much like a scarlet letter. The flag might actually be useful then.

24 June 2015

The wisdom of the serpent

The predictable Republican criticisms of Pope Francis's encyclical Laudato Si are starting to come in. Since Republicans must affect piety and dare not criticize so popular a Christian leader, they can't simply dismiss Bergoglio's criticisms of capitalism and materialism by saying there's no God or that the Pope is an idolater. Instead, they must attempt to draw some line dividing the topics on which the Pope is competent to comment from those to which his opinions are irrelevant. Many may do this not long after or not long before denying a "separation of church and state" in their country. In the New York Times, David Brooks seems disappointed that the Pope is unworldly. To him, Bergoglio's condemnations of competition and acquisitiveness indicate a lack of "moral realism." For Brooks, "moral realism" generates "practical strategies for a fallen world" while recognizing "the obvious truth that the qualities that do harm can often, when carefully directed, do enormous good." Where the Pope sees egotism and selfishness, Brooks sees enlightened self-interest. "Within a regulated market, greed can lead to entrepreneurship and economic innovation. Within a constitution, the desire for fame can lead to political greatness." At the core, Brooks is repeating an old argument against the so-called "social gospel." Since the 19th century, preachers of a social gospel have argued that Christianity is concerned with the poor above all. Brooks doesn't attempt to say otherwise, but while social-gospel Christians typically call for redistribution of wealth, Brooks argues, like many critics of the social gospel before him, that if you want wealth to redistribute, you have to welcome (if not practice) capitalism. He has a typically Anglo-American faith -- one part the digest version of Adam Smith's "invisible hand," another part James Madison's checks and balances -- that self-interest can be "channeled" to serve the common good. He has a 21st century faith that wealth can solve our current environmental problems by fueling further technological innovation, but he doubts whether the Pope would permit the kind of competitive creativity that alone, in Brooks's mind, can bring about the desired results. Brooks rightly credits many advances in global standards of living to competitive entrepreneurship, but if he's right to argue that the Pope is blind to these facts, he seems equally blind, if not simply dismissive, of the dangers the Pope perceives, preferring to treat Bergoglio as if he were some crazy hippie out of the 1970s: uninformed if not misinformed, resentful and above all naive. The Pope may be "a wonderful example of how to be a truly good person," but in this world, Brooks argues, "The innocence of the dove has to be accompanied by the wisdom of the serpent." I don't know if that last metaphor is intentionally provocative or simply clueless; in any event it's a false dichotomy. The "wisdom" Brooks compares to Francis's "innocence" is really just another form of faith. Brooks's faith is that capitalism is a perpetually self-correcting machine that alone is capable of solving whatever problems it creates while improving our lives as no other economic system can. The Pope may believe a lot of odd things himself, but I suspect that he would find Brooks's particularly faith misplaced. Whether he'd call it "innocent" or not is another matter. Who, then, is the wiser man?

23 June 2015

Is this the end of the Confederate battle flag?

Given the instant backlash the moment someone suggested that the Charleston massacre should spur us to do something about guns, it's not surprising that politicians have turned to an easier target: the Confederate battle flag that still flies over the South Carolina state capital and other provocative locations. It was symbolically infuriating to learn that the flag at the capitol could not even be lowered to half-mast following the massacre, while the state and federal flags were lowered. Now Republicans are among the political leaders in South Carolina trying to get the offending banner removed. Yet even in New York State I still hear people defend that flag against "political correctness." Such people, I suspect, are more interested in denying the Other a win than anything else, but where it counts it looks like the tide is turning. But if anyone wavers, try this cynical analogy: letting the Confederate flag fly over South Carolina is like building a mosque at Ground Zero in New York City. The analogy is unfair to Muslims, of course, but sometimes it's just pragmatic to defer to mass outrage, especially -- from the perspective of the right --  if the left claims victory over the flag and goes home instead of probing deeper into enduring bigotry against blacks. Victory will be symbolic and hollow if taking down the flag distracts us from making every reactionary answer for molding the mindset behind the massacre. We know that Americans abhor forbidding thoughts -- they couldn't even ban communism at the height of the Cold War -- but if anything in this country ought to be banned, at least from the public square, it should be the symbolism of the Confederacy. Can we agree now, in 2015, that it stands for nothing but the subjugation of black people? That secession was all about slavery? If you think not, recall that the South had a chance to fight a civil war over the dreaded tariff that neo-Confederates today make so much of when Andrew Jackson signed the Force Bill against South Carolina's nullification of the tariff, and South Carolina backed down. Nobody but a handful of fire-eaters was going to secede, much less risk their lives, over the tariff. Many more were ready to secede, fight and die rather than see the western territories closed to slavery. Nothing else could have motivated them, just as nothing but Negrophobia could pull the trigger in the Charleston killer's momentarily uncertain mind at the prayer meeting. Across the country, the Confederate flag remains a rallying point for all those who feel that black people demand too much, or get away with too much, or are simply too many for comfort. If I've suggested that the flag may be too easy a target now, I should add that this is still a fight worth waging simply because it'll further expose many of the haters among us, North as well as South, whose disclaimers about "heritage" and "history" won't conceal that hate for which that flag stands.

22 June 2015

A war on Christianity?

Another word about the Charleston massacre: some grim fun was had in the metamedia at the expense of Fox News personalities and other opinionators who speculated early that the attack on a church might have been part of a "war on Christianity," that the victims might have been targeted because they were Christians, not because they were black. Maybe they wanted to believe it was anything but what it proved to be: a racist hate crime. But the talk about war against Christianity would be more grimly ironic still if that gut feeling that faith was targeted was shared by those who now say that, regardless of the killer's motive, he would have been thwarted had anyone in the church carried a gun. The irony is that we've probably not seen more perfect Christians in ages than those nine people who had to have had some inkling of what that sick kid had in mind, yet kept on praying and let him sit in their midst. As we know from the killer's own confession, their prayer very nearly turned him from his mission. The point isn't whether Christianity works in this sense or any other, but that these Christians were something like classical martyrs, and certainly more Christian than those well-meaning people who wish one of them had shot that kid. That impulse toward lethal self-defense seems as much at war with Christianity as any atheist or Muslim or white racist. It treats Christianity like a possession when real Christianity, I presume, teaches people not to value possessions. The Christian martyr, in ideal form, dies rather than violate his faith by defending himself -- he dies to defend his faith and its principles rather than himself or any thing we'd call "the church," while the Muslim martyr, in the stereotypical case, dies fighting to defend his faith with physical force, determined to take as many with him as he can. Good people should not have to die when evil enters the room, of course, but if people claim to judge Charleston by Christian standards, then let them ask whether it is Christian to say those Christians should have armed themselves. If there's a war on Christianity at all in this country, it may be a civil war that the combatants don't even recognize.

19 June 2015

What didn't happen in Charleston

Let's review the last 48 hours or so. In Charleston SC a white kid murdered nine black people, in a black church, in the most blatantly indisputable hate crime the U.S. has seen for a while. How many people expected the other shoe to drop last night? Strange to say, there's less a sense of pleasant surprise than we might have expected at the absence of violence -- of rioting and looting -- in Charleston last night. On some level I think that's because people didn't really expect it. Yet based on what we've seen and heard in the last year, you'd expect a lot of people to expect it. What did we hear, or read, ad nauseum about angry black people?  "They look for any excuse to riot and loot." Could there be a more obvious excuse than the church massacre? Yet -- nothing. Some people have told me this was because they caught the killer promptly. Some might suggest that the real acid test will come with the kid's trial. I agree that the trail may prove a test, especially if people start demanding nothing less than an undiluted guilty verdict and nothing less than execution. But let's pause here and now for a moment to remind ourselves that the reactionary argument against black protest since last summer has been that black people will take advantage of any excuse to riot and loot. For the moment, Charleston proves them wrong.

Now let's make the most of this moment. It should not only refute the assumption that blacks will use any excuse to riot, but it should also compel us to reconsider why they have rioted in the recent past. If blacks in Charleston did not take advantage of this week's big fat excuse to riot and loot, does that mean that when they do riot, and even when they loot, it isn't just thuggish opportunism but also a conscious act of protest? When people assume that there was no riot in Charleston because the killer was caught, doesn't that imply that rioting (and looting) is a specific reaction to perceived injustice? The riots we have seen, after all, were provoked by killings by police, or by government's refusal to punish the killers. These things don't make it right for anyone to loot or vandalize, but the fact that the riots have been triggered by perceived abuses of power by public officers, while a crime more vicious than any recent shooting by police has not been answered with riots, should show that the riots, in all their deplorable messiness, have been political rather than criminal acts. They are responses to something wrong in our system of government and law, or to a widespread perception of wrong, and one or the other must be addressed by our political leaders. They should not be dismissed because some idiots decide to loot and burn stores. The restraint shown in Charleston so far makes the church massacre a clarifying moment, as long as it makes people think more carefully about how black Americans respond to violence and injustice. There's no excuse for us not to do so.

18 June 2015

Charleston's bloody trifecta

It was an amoklauf, a hate crime and a political assassination.The shooter, who apparently had no death wish and was captured without a struggle at a traffic stop, reportedly sat in on a prayer meeting. From the words of a survivor, he may have been mulling over whether or not to kill church people, whose pastor was a state senator. Finally, a survivor relates, the young man said, "I have to do it. You're raping our women and taking over our country." He killed nine people, including the pastor, and reportedly spared the rest to tell the story. We have learned since then that he is a white supremacist who hoped, so a onetime friend claims, to provoke a civil war. He may or may not have known that the church he chose was Denmark Vesey's church back in the 1820s when it was burned by white arsonists because of Vesey's role in planning a slave uprising. Was the pastor another Vesey in his eyes, or did names matter, or did anything matter but skin color?

It's a good thing the kid was taken alive because we now have a living specimen of a species many would say no longer exists. Today, we're told, it's the blacks who are the haters. When there's a mass shooting, many people's first question is whether the shooter's a Muslim. Fortunately, a surveillance camera told the true story promptly this time and helped get the killer captured quickly. Yes, folks, there are white people who hate black people and want to kill them. So now we'll hear that he's an "isolated case," which means that no one else is responsible for him. If he's an isolated case, so is every "lone wolf" killer, whether he's a white supremacist or a wannabe jihadi. Conversely, if you're going to hold an entire religion accountable for the acts of lone wolves, then you had better acknowledge that the Charleston killer didn't get that way in a vacuum. If people think we need "anti-sharia" laws to stem the tide of Islamism in America, then the Charleston atrocity should convince them that we need stronger anti-racism laws to suppress the murderous spirit in young men like this murderer. You can't have it both ways. If you want to, that tells us that you probably see this vicious boy-man as more of an individual than the average Muslim or black man, either of whom is more often automatically assumed to represent a more menacing or at least more culpable collective. Writing off this murderer as an isolated individual is thus a kind of inverse bigotry, and more obviously a way of getting everyone else off the hook. If collective responsibility is assumed for every black or Muslim crime, then it should be assumed here, or else you've got a lot of explaining to do -- and you could probably save your breath.

Pope equates capitalism with pedophilia

How do I justify this bit of clickbait? I refer you to the official English text of Laudato si', Pope Francis's long-awaited and long-controversial encyclical on the environment. Like many a religious person Bergoglio rails against modern-day moral relativism, but he differs from the American religious right, for instance, in the scope of his critique. After all, if you're a Catholic, and especially if you're the Supreme Pontiff, a lot is going to seem relativistic today, and a lot will have seemed relativistic for a long time. Some things that in some places have not seemed morally relativist for some time, and in fact strike many people today as perfectly moral, don't meet Francesco's more exacting standards, whether those standards are particularly or exclusively Catholic or are, as many Americans fear, mixed with baser stuff. Anyway, enough suspense. Here's our money quote from what should prove a very interesting document throughout. This is Paragraph 123 of the encyclical:

The culture of relativism is the same disorder which drives one person to take advantage of another, to treat others as mere objects, imposing forced labour on them or enslaving them to pay their debts. The same kind of thinking leads to the sexual exploitation of children and abandonment of the elderly who no longer serve our interests. It is also the mindset of those who say: Let us allow the invisible forces of the market to regulate the economy, and consider their impact on society and nature as collateral damage. In the absence of objective truths or sound principles other than the satisfaction of our own desires and immediate needs, what limits can be placed on human trafficking, organized crime, the drug trade, commerce in blood diamonds and the fur of endangered species? Is it not the same relativistic logic which justifies buying the organs of the poor for resale or use in experimentation, or eliminating children because they are not what their parents wanted? This same “use and throw away” logic generates so much waste, because of the disordered desire to consume more than what is really necessary. We should not think that political efforts or the force of law will be sufficient to prevent actions which affect the environment because, when the culture itself is corrupt and objective truth and universally valid principles are no longer upheld, then laws can only be seen as arbitrary impositions or obstacles to be avoided. [emphasis added]

Some will say that the Pope of the Catholics has a lot of gall, or a lack of shame, to bring up pedophilia, but my understanding is that this guy is trying to clean things up in his church. Some may say that I have some gall to cite his remarks against relativism since I may be assumed to be a relativist himself. But I'm only a relativist if everyone's a relativist who doesn't believe in God. I believe that people are capable of articulating values and sticking to them, and that they should be able to answer for going against the values they espouse. Looking at it another way, if Francis is right that libertarian laissez-faire capitalism is relativism, than I'm not a relativist unless you're a relativist if you don't agree with Francis on everything. I could just as easily say that Francis is a relativist for not agreeing with me on everything -- and that wouldn't make me a relativist, either. That just makes me a critic, and ideally one who can back up his criticisms. I think Francis's criticisms can be backed up without appealing to God, which will be a good thing when Americans of all denominations deny that God gives the Pope any basis to criticize the Market. But if Francis infers from the criticism that is sure to come that the critics worship the Market rather than God, then things could get very interesting....

17 June 2015

Keep on rockin' in the not-so-free world

Republicans and rock music have had a problematic relationship since at least the 1980s. It was in 1984, if I recall right, that Bruce Springsteen objected to President Reagan playing "Born in the U.S.A." at campaign rallies. In nearly every election since then, it seems, some rocker has objected to some Republican using his or her song as part of the campaign soundtrack. Now we have Neil Young throwing a fit over Donald Trump playing "Keep On Rockin' in the Free World" at his campaign launch this week. Young's protest reminds us of Republican ignorance of what popular music actually says. Just as Reagan's handlers really cared only about the Boss's "BORRRN! IN THE U.S.A!" chorus and ignored the song's rather bleak lyrics, so Trump's people hear only Young's chorus, which only echoes their own enthusiasm for a "Free World" if you ignore the lyrics about poor and homeless people. It seems as if the rockers could score important points if they would explain how their songs contradict Republican messages and let the candidates revel in their own idiocy. But invariably the musicians get proprietary about their songs, warning the politicians not to play them at all. I can sympathize with their disapproval of the Republican party but their own act has grown just a little tired. The assumption behind it, I assume, is that despite the way the song lyrics often contradict Republican rhetoric, innocent bystanders will infer from Donald Trump playing a Neil Young song that Neil Young endorses Donald Trump. I don't think any such inference is made. I think people no more infer that the singer playing on the p.a. system at a political rally endorses the politician than they infer that the singer playing on the p.a. at a ballpark is a fan of the home team. They more likely assume that they'll hear the same song at any ballpark or at any political rally. For them it is only more or less rhythmically appealing noise -- and they probably hear only the chorus in either case. For all that, I still sympathize with Neil Young's outrage -- he prefers Bernie Sanders but as a Canadian can't do much about it -- because Donald Trump is an outrage. If I seem annoyed at Young, it's really because his outburst has given Trump an extra day of free attention from the news media. Thanks a lot, Neil!

16 June 2015

Race is a social (but not individual?) construct

Once upon a time, the light-skinned black person trying to pass for white was an American archetype that testified to racial inequality in the U.S. Now that we have a black President, racial inequality and race hatred remain seemingly intractable facts of national life, yet we now have a white woman caught passing for black. It appears that Rachel Dolezal did this partly for personal advantage, having risen during her imposture to head an NAACP local branch, from which she has now resigned under fire after her parents -- whose word so far goes unchallenged -- affirmed that they were white. Dolezal has black siblings by adoption and black children of her own. She claims to identify culturally as black -- her skin is quite tanned -- and attended the historically black Howard University, where she accused officials of racial discrimination against her. Cynics may be tempted to see her as one of their own, out to benefit from modern regimes of "reverse discrimination." Others have compared Dolezal to Caitlyn Jenner in order to address the complexities of voluntarily changing categories that were long considered involuntary yet essential to not just personal but political identity. On a weekend talk show a black host asked whether Dolezal's choice to identify as black could be described and discussed in terms analogical with Jenner's transition from man to woman. Her black panel shifted uncomfortably in their seats.  It's a rightly uncomfortable moment.

We are often told that race, if not gender also, is a social construct, by which people presumably mean that minority-group or subordinate-group traits are defined by a dominant group to include factors that are not actually biological or genetic but allegedly explain their inferiority or subordination. In short, if race is a social construct it means that white people unilaterally defined what black people were, and if gender is a social construct it means that men unilaterally defined what women were. In neither case does it necessarily mean that a purely biological definition is impossible or forbidden, but it is implicit that the formerly stigmatized groups have priority in defining themselves along lines of their own choosing. But it also can be inferred from "social construct" rhetoric that exclusive definitions are undesirable, no matter who makes the definitions, since they artificially separate the masses and suppress each person's autonomy over self-identification. Inevitably, in our time feminists have had problematic dealings with the "trans" community over what it means, and who gets to say what it means, to be a woman. Since race is at least as much a matter of culture as it is a matter of genetics, and as such can have political implications, the prospect of whites identifying as black may seem heartening on one level, but it's also understandable if some blacks don't see it that way. Many may echo the complaints of some feminists that trans people haven't had the life experience that may, arguably, truly define gender. But black people have been having such arguments for quite a while already, and readers may remember some debate back in 2008 over whether inner-city blacks would recognize Barack Obama, raised mostly abroad, as one of their own. To argue that life experience defines race or gender begs the question: which life experience? Within any race or gender, life experiences vary vastly. To insinuate that Obama was less authentically black because he wasn't raised in a ghetto was unfair, but what of someone like Dolezal who wasn't even raised black in any sense? Her identification as black itself begs the question: what do you mean by black?  It's not like she had to pass a test or swear an oath, after all. Instead, she defined her racial identify on her own terms, and now for many people she's either a con artist or a laughingstock. Her exposure should get us all thinking a little. It probably does testify to this country's progress on race that someone would want to pass for black, but the fact that she felt a need to identify herself racially, and the fact that her choice has become controversial if not criminal, reveal that there's still a lot of progress left for us.

15 June 2015

Christian libertarianism: against the brotherhood of man

A religious fanatic commutes between Albany and Troy, New York. In both cities, I see his signs on bus shelters, streetlamps and street signs. His signs are little decals he sometimes manages to stick quite high up, containing his interpretations of Christianity. In one such post he rejects the idea of a brotherhood of man under the fatherhood of God. There is only the brotherhood of the saved, he says, and only when you join that brotherhood is God your father. Like many Christians for the last century or more, he rejects the premises of a Christian egalitarianism that has found expression in American "Social Gospel" preaching and in sometimes more militant Latin American "liberation theology." I was reminded of this anonymous fanatic as I was reading Kevin M. Kruse's new book One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America. Kruse describes the rise of what he calls "Christian libertarianism" in opposition to the New Deal and its rise to something like cultural dominance in the 1950s. While corporate America didn't literally invent Christian libertarianism, Kruse shows that many of the corporate leaders who bitterly opposed the New Deal threw their support behind preachers who shared their antipathy toward the welfare state, organized labor and anything vaguely socialistic. These preachers merely continued the polemic against the Social Gospel that conservatives had been waging for more than a generation, and they made good money at it. Kruse focuses on James W. Fifield, who built a California megachurch into a media empire that propagandized for Christian libertarianism. Interesting, Fifield was no fundamentalist, preferring a selective reading of Scripture for his own reasons, yet he shared the hostility of many early fundamentalists toward Social Gospel ideals. For Christian libertarians, it seems, preaching the brotherhood of man under the fatherhood of God could only lead to collectivism and statism and away from the churches. Critics of the Social Gospel had long argued that Christian egalitarian -- or worse, secular egalitarianism -- downplayed sin and each individual's dependence upon God's grace and his own discipline for salvation in the next life and success in this one. By seeming to goad people into demanding justice in this world, the Social Gospel, not to mention the atheistic communists waiting in the wings, became supplicants, if not worshippers, of the state. The great fear expressed from the Christian libertarian pulpit was that the state would become the people's god. Worse from their perspective, the social justice demanded by the left wasn't even justice at all. Redistribution of wealth violated the "Thou Shalt Not Steal" amendment, while the demand for redistribution, or the demand for better wages from organized labor, violated the commandment against coveting what others had. You can understand the preachers' anxiety. If the church no longer defined what was right or wrong, how could ministers like Fifield accumulate the fortunes they'd made under the free-enterprise system. As for the threat of international communism, Kruse suggests that it was no more than a useful coincidence, since Christian libertarians saw their struggle against the New Deal in almost apocalyptic terms already.

Kruse somewhat chillingly describes a high-tide of Christianist politics during the Eisenhower years. This movement had its limits, which were recognized when a constitutional amendment that would recognize "the authority and law of Jesus Christ" failed to make it out of Congress. But these were the years when the National Prayer Breakfast was established, "under God" was added to the Pledge of Allegiance" and "freedom under God" became a mantra differentiating the American Way from the secular or communists way. For some people, "under God" may have meant nothing more than "rule of law," compared to which everything was permitted, presumably, for an atheistic and thus absolute government like the USSR. For Christian libertarians, "under God" also served implicitly to limit the aspirations of ordinary Americans. They were not to look to the state for a better life, but depend on themselves, with plenty of guidance from their local churches. The churches seemed to assume that if you weren't a success it was because you were a sinner, while Fifield, Billy Graham and others hailed millionaires and billionaires as exemplars of the Godly life of hard work. It's hard not to assume that Kruse sees these characters as little more than toadies for the rich, but he notes that not so long before the clergy was skeptical toward political conservatives, or at least reluctant to play the role of propagandists for the Republicans or the Liberty League. The right finally won them over by convincing them that a crusade against the New Deal and all we'd call "big government" today was their own idea, to be waged for their own reasons. On the defensive in the Thirties, Christian libertarians took the offensive in the Fifties but sometimes overreached. A climax of Kruse's book is his discussion of Engel v. Vitale, the case that struck down mandatory school prayer. It makes you thank, er, Providence that the Supreme Court exists to stop crude majoritarianism in its tracks. The Court's decision set a firestorm of protest, but it was really an easy call, because the New York Board of Regents had been so blatant as to write a prayer to be read in schools. Although that prayer was designed to be as innocuous and non-sectarian as possible, the mere act of drafting it was unacceptable state interference with religion. To this day, people date the decline of America to that decision, but it was really one of the Court's finest hours.

Before long, the Sixties would have the churches back on the defensive, with the fundamentalists poised finally to enter the lists in the Seventies. But for a time the U.S. had resembled the milder forms of Islamism, which demand a similar acknowledgment from their nations of their laws' dependence on Allah. Of course, few if any Christianists in the Fifties called for killing secular humanists or even Communists. On the other hand, Islam does have a stronger notion of social justice than many forms of Christianity, though it, too, is often honored in the breach. Kruse's book is useful for helping us recognize the existence of something that can be fairly described as "Christianism" on analogy with "Islamism," not to mention how much power it won here not so long ago. Christians can say the label -- which is mine, not Kruse's, though his own "Christian libertarianism" is problematic in the full context of libertarianism --  is unfair because Islamism carries connotations of violence, but let's not confuse means and ends. They may prefer to compare means, presuming they'll look better for it, but from my perspective the end is hardly better than that of Islamism, and justifies no more. Even on their own Christian terms, it seems wrong to recruit Jesus to the side of the moneychangers against the poor. It's like pulling a camel through the eye of a needle in the other direction, and the result is pretty nasty.

11 June 2015

It takes courage to hand out a courage award

The stakes are far lower this time than they were when writers and artists dared honor Charlie Hebdo magazine with a Courage award for its Muslim-baiting cartoons, but the current kerfuffle over the bestowal of the Arthur Ashe Courage Award upon Caitlyn Jenner at the forthcoming ESPY awards reminds us that courage is a touchy subject. As few don't know by now, Caitlyn was once known as Bruce Jenner, and as the greatest athlete in the world for having won the decathlon at the 1976 Summer Olympics. More recently he was known as an appendage to the Kardashian family, and people are bound to speculate over whether exposure to that particular milieu contributed to Jenner's decision to undergo a sex change, though some may have suspected something from the time Bruce appeared in the Village People musical Can't Stop the Music back in 1980. For any athlete, active or retired, to admit to non-standard expressions of sexuality is still considered courageous by many; I note, for instance that last year's Ashe winner was Michael Sam, the first active openly-gay professional football player. It's also worth noting that the award is named for Arthur Ashe not just because of his pioneering accomplishments as a black tennis player but also because he was deemed courageous for publicizing his terminal diagnosis of AIDS (from an infected blood transfusion) in the early 1990s. In this context honoring Jenner should be uncontroversial, but it is not. Many people, including some with bully pulpits in the media, question the honor, either because they don't find Jenner's decision so courageous anymore -- some see it as a publicity stunt -- or because, following the award to Sam last year, they see it as the forcing of an agenda down the throat of the sports world. Some have proposed nominees they deem more worthy, most notably the late Lauren Hill, who played college basketball despite a terminal brain tumor. But every criticism of the award to Jenner, and every implicit criticism of Jenner, may only confirm the justice of the courage award. As with Charlie Hebdo, people stumble over the idea that courage, a value unto itself, can be appraised in an otherwise value-free context. Critics of Charlie Hebdo deny the premise that you can honor the cartoonists for courage without implicitly endorsing the contents of cartoons many deem hateful toward the inoffensive majority of Muslims. From this perspective courage isn't an end unto itself, but a means to an end that determines the value of courage toward that end. But with both the cartoonists and Caitlyn Jenner the point of honoring them seems to be that courage is precisely their defiance of judgments. Charlie Hebdo, from this perspective, is courageous precisely because so many consider the cartoonists blasphemers, infidels or bigots, while many consider Jenner courageous precisely because others consider a transgender person a pervert or a creep. But precisely because many will conclude that critics of Jenner like the sportscaster Bob Costas are bigots or reactionaries, I suppose we also have to give them credit for courage on the same grounds for which Jenner and Charlie are honored. The more interesting debate, should we ever see it, will be over whether courage really can or should be recognized as an end unto itself, but we probably won't see many celebrities at that one.

The American Dream is Dead

He was a fat old wrestler and he'd been a fat young wrestler, and when he didn't call himself "The American Dream" he was offered to the public by the WWF as a fat, middle aged incarnation of the "Common Man." Virgil Runnels renamed himself "Dusty Rhodes," invoking not just the hero of the 1954 World Series but an archetypal drifter, his notion of a working-class hero. It was impossible to see this fat man as anything like an athlete -- he beat people by using a "bionic elbow" -- but he was just the sort wrestling fans wanted to see beat all the arrogant types who played heels in the ring, the ones who drew heat by affecting superiority to both the man across the ring and the people in the seats. I watched wrestling a little in his heyday, when I was a kid, and I found him kind of disgusting. I suppose I was realizing then that I wouldn't be a wrestling fan for long. Pro wrestling is a lower order of power fantasy than comic books. Looking at comics, an unhappy reader could imagine becoming powerful and handsome like the guy in the Charles Atlas ads and taking revenge on all the bullies of your past. Wrestling fans skipped the part about becoming handsome and athletic; their dream was to get their revenge -- vicariously, of course, -- as they were, as Dusty Rhodes was. I don't think this is an exclusively American dream, and it's arguably less of a dream here than it was, now that most of the hero wrestlers are as chiseled and preening as only the heels used to be. But I bet if Dusty Rhodes could come back for a night, waddle into the ring, and hit that bionic elbow on whoever the champ is now, the marks would still pop for him.

10 June 2015

How many voters does a candidate need?

With understandable dismay, David Brooks cites a quote from an interview one of Hillary Clinton's advisers gave to the New York Times: "If you run a campaign trying to appeal to 60 to 70 per cent of the electorate, you're not going to run a very compelling campaign for the voters you need," said David Plouffe. Brooks disapproves because this seems to indicate that Clinton is going to run a narrow campaign aimed at maximizing turnout from Democrats' base voters instead of building a broader coalition. His opinion aside -- Brooks believes Clinton should run a "centrist" campaign on her husband's model -- you can wonder why a candidate would rather have 52% of the vote than something between 60% and 70%. But there's some implicit realism to Plouffe's point, if we understand him to mean that it's impossible at this point in our history for any party or candidate to get between 60% and 70% of the popular vote, let alone the electoral vote. Yet he seems to be saying more than that. He seems to be saying that appealing to a broader electorate risks alienating your most dependable voters. That assumption reveals a problem with partisanship. Plouffe appears to assume that Clinton will do better if she presents herself as the candidate, and actually the representative, of her party base rather than as the presumed representative of the entire American people. It also reveals a problem with apathy on one hand and partisanship on the other. Part of the problem of shooting for 60-70% of the vote is that you'd need to appeal to people who don't normally vote. You can't know whether devoting time to them will pay off in November, while your base voters, for ideological or identity-politics reasons, can be depended on, as long as you tell them what they want to hear. Brooks suspects that Clinton may take it for granted that the permanent presidential majority for Democrats, upon which Obama depended, is already in place, so that if you follow Obama's model no Republican can beat you. Brooks thinks that's a premature conclusion, and that a significant portion of the electorate is still open to persuasion and could swing from one party to the other. But his only alternative is for Clinton to occupy a middle ground between the major parties rather than reach for 60-70% by expanding the electorate. If for Plouffe the key to victory is to energize the base, for Brooks the key is to blend Democratic and Republican (or liberal and conservative) policies into a moderately palatable mix. Neither considers the possibility that a 60-70% majority could be had by offering Americans something entirely different. It's widely assumed that many Americans don't vote because they can't make up their minds between the major parties or are equally disgusted with them. It could be said that these non-voters don't really know what they want. But what if many of them had a more clear idea of what they want than they're given credit for, yet the Republicans and Democrats alike don't want to give it to them? Merely mixing Democratic and Republican positions into a centrist stew won't reach the millions who are not in the middle but outside the conventional consensus. There's no guaranteeing that these millions have coherent, complementary ideas about our nation's future, but if politicians or parties emerged with a better understanding of what they want, or at least a greater interest in learning what they want, then even the major parties might worry about the solidity of their bases against the tide of a real American majority. Wishful thinking, yes, but what else should we imagine, when our political strategists and our pundits seem so unimaginative?

09 June 2015

Democracy in Turkey: apparently it works

The Justice and Development party is the largest single political party in Turkey and the party of the current president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The AKP (to use its Turkish acronym) remains the biggest party in the republic's legislature after this week's parliamentary elections, but it and Erdogan are generally understood to have suffered an important defeat. Ergogan's party, normally described as moderate Islamists, had enjoyed an outright majority before this week, but hoped to increase it past the two-thirds threshold necessary to amend Turkey's constitution. The idea apparently was to institute "presidential government," with increased power for the executive, i.e. Erdogan. Depending on what you read, he wanted powers like President Obama's or President Putin's. Perception clearly makes a difference. However, in recent times Erdogan had alienated many Turks with what they perceive as an increasingly imperious, bullying and repressive style of rulership, and has only grown more belligerently defensive in the face of journalistic accusations of corruption. In the west, Erdogan was seen as a budding authoritarian in the Putin mold, and his desire for presidential government was seen as a personal power grab that threatened dictatorship. Apparently quite a few Turks felt the same way, for the AKP lost several dozen seats and its majority in the legislature, and will have to form a coalition with one of the other three major parties -- those that won at least 10% of the popular vote and thus earned seats, often at the AKP's expense. According to the "authoritarian" scenario that prevails in the west, this should not have happened. If Erdogan was the imminent authoritarian so many feared, he should have rigged the voting, as Putin and others are always suspected of doing, to get the result he wanted. So Erdogan is either an incompetent authoritarian or, despite obvious attitude problems and apparent abuses of power, he never was one at all. If the proof of democracy is that voters can defeat the ruler, the Republic of Turkey has passed the test. They haven't toppled Erdogan yet, and given the relative strength of the parties it's unlikely any one contender could beat him in a presidential vote, but they have made him weaker than he was. Grade them a C or B depending on how generous you feel, but it's still a passing grade.

08 June 2015

Can you see the GOP from Hillary's left?

Here's a handicap Hillary Clinton's progressive challengers face going into the Democratic presidential primaries next year: while they attack Clinton, she attacks Republicans. It was clear this past weekend that the former Secretary of State knows how to push the buttons of both the Democratic base and the Republican candidates. Her comments describing Republican-initiated voter ID laws as an attack on minority voting rights infuriated the GOP contenders, and no doubt that's exactly what they were meant to do. She wants them to attack her, which is why she went after them by name. When they attack, Democrats see that her enemies are their enemies, while it can easily look like the progressives' only enemies are Clinton and her supporters. They need to dispel that perception by attacking Republicans with every breath they use to criticize Clinton. After all, they most likely agree with her about the partisan intent of voter ID laws. If so, they ought to say so, and at the same time make the argument, which I've seen elsewhere, that the "wealth primary" that threatens to preempt the primaries by pricing Clinton's rivals out of the market is a kind of indirect attack on voting rights by effectively taking the selection of candidates out of the hands of the rank and file. No matter what apologists for unlimited campaign donations say about voters having the final word, does anyone really believe that most voters go into the booth with equal understanding of where all candidates stand on the issues that matter, or even with an idea of what issues matter formed independently of TV advertising? At a time when Clinton is reportedly pressuring her wealthiest friends to step up and match the monster donations to the Republican party, progressives should be able to argue that disenfranchisement can take more than one form, and can be perpetrated by more than one party.

As for the scarecrow of voter fraud, let anyone ask any of the Republican contenders this question: if a person who has voted unchallenged in past elections now must acquire a photo ID in order to vote in the next election, do you presume that person to have voted fraudulently before? If the answer is no, then why impose any new test for this person? If the answer is yes, we want the nation to hear it. As I've said before, photo ID is not an inherently bad idea, but the qualifications for it should be minimized to remove any suspicion that the system is designed to discourage the old and well-traveled from voting. Meanwhile, keep the questions coming to Republicans. Do they believe that Democrats commit fraud at the polls? Make them say so, and then make them prove it. Do they believe blacks or Hispanics commit fraud at the polls? Make them say so and watch them lose the election. If they insist that there's no ethnic or partisan bias behind the new laws, ask them if they believe Republicans commit fraud at the polls? Since the argument against the laws is all about motive, drag motive out into the open at every opportunity. By no means should any progressive have to depend on Clinton to do this for them. If progressives are perceived to be silent on this subject, people may wonder whose side they're on. It may be important if not essential to convince the Democratic base that Clinton is not on their side when it counts, but the base has its own opinion, presumably, about what counts, and if the voter ID controversy counts for them, then progressives have to let the base know where they stand. This shouldn't be hard. Campaigns are usually about more than one issue at a time. Progressives should be able to take care of this and call Clinton a corporate lapdog at the same time. If they can't, they have no business challenging her.

04 June 2015

Are blacks the conservative Democrats?

Everytime there's a challenge from the left to the Democratic mainstream -- the most recent one is Senator Sanders' decision to run in the presidential primaries, despite being a nominal independent, against Hillary Clinton -- we hear of a major handicap facing the challenger: an inability to gain support among black voters. The last time such an insurgent could show otherwise was Jesse Jackson, so the problem is clearly with white progressives. It's early in Sanders' campaign, but polls already show that he appeals to a considerably smaller percentage of blacks than whites, though his support is pretty small across the board. Sanders' handicap -- one shared by progressives who run outside the Democratic party like Ralph Nader -- seems to be one of perception. Because they run on the issues they feel differentiate them from the Democratic mainstream, most notably their more confrontational attitude toward corporate America, there's a perception that they care less about the issues that presumably matter most to the Democratic base and especially to blacks. Blacks presumably want to hear about voting rights, reforming the police, further reducing economic inequality, while progressives typically want to talk about fighting the big banks and corporations. I'd like to take it for granted that any self-styled progressive is concerned about voting rights, police brutality, etc. and committed to doing something about it all. But just as blacks need to hear people affirm that "black lives matter" and aren't satisfied with well-meaning general statements that "all lives matter," they may need to hear candidates like Sanders, or anyone else who runs to Clinton's left, talk with as much passion about the issues that concern blacks most as they show when railing against big money. Clinton has that base covered already; the Hillary news today is all about her warning against new Republican threats to voting rights and how she'll stop them. As much as her opponents would rather dispute her than echo her, sometimes you have to worry less about what she says than about what people want to hear.

The other side of the coin, it seems, is that black Democrats may not be as concerned with the malpractices of big money as progressives would like. If so, why should this be? I should like to hope that the havoc wrought by under-regulated banks and brokers doesn't fall under the category contemptuously labeled, "Rich [or White] People's Problems." But maybe many of them think that you've got to have wealth in the first place to redistribute, so why mess with the system? I can't say and I probably should be careful about speculating, but if we assume that blacks expect white politicians to say certain things to secure their support, then the perfectly democratic principle of mutual accountability entitles the rest of us to ask whether blacks think something should be done about the "too big to fail" banks, whether they think money has too much influence in politics, and so on. Some blacks may fancy themselves the moral center of the Democratic party, but if you consistently oppose the "progressive" candidates when they appear, doesn't that make you the "conservative" element in the party -- the right rather than the center? If progressive insurgents sometimes fail to reach out to blacks, or even to the working class in general, isn't it also true that the poor often fail to seek out alternatives with more potential to improve their lot and even empower them more? If progressives poll poorly among blacks or other minorities, it seems more fair to describe that as mutual misunderstanding than as some characteristic failing of white progressives. Either way, something has to be done about it or else the Clintons or people like them, who know how to say the right thing to all classes of people without necessarily ever meaning it, will dominate the Democratic party for years to come.

03 June 2015

The world's most popular spectator sport ...

... is scandal!

Americans have taken more interest in international soccer over the past week, it seems, than they have at any point in recent times. They aren't interested in a particular game or a particular player. Instead, they're fascinated by the scandals that have rocked FIFA, the international soccer organization, and driven its longtime president, Sepp Blatter of Switzerland, to resign less than a week after claiming vindication in a landslide re-election. Part of our interest seems to be a matter of taking credit for bringing down the controversial Blatter. The FBI has been involved in arresting FIFA officials this spring amid charges of widespread bribery and corruption in international soccer. Some observers blame this on American anger over being denied the right to host the 2022 World Cup, which will take place in Qatar instead. It is widely believed that the Qatar government bribed FIFA officials in order to secure the Cup, and it is apparently proven that South Africa bribed some officials to get the Cup in 2010. Nor would Americans be surprised if it turned out that the Russians, who will host the next Cup in 2018, got it the same way -- especially after President Putin denounced the campaign against Blatter as a western conspiracy. Objectively speaking, it looks like there's a lot of corrupt politics in FIFA, but despite that Blatter has been a popular figurehead for soccer in most of the world. That's because he brought the bacon home to many small, poor countries. He spent FIFA money to build soccer facilities all over the world, and in return those countries proved their loyalty last week, when Blatter was considered especially vulnerable though he remained defiant. In this context, the persecution of Blatter and his cronies is again seen as a western plot, born of alleged European/white resentment of Blatter's more egalitarian and inclusive approach. It's most likely that Blatter's administration was at once egalitarian, inclusive, progressive and corrupt to the core. Such policies often are "corrupt" by many standards since they require redistribution of wealth to those once deemed undeserving. But professional sports have had the taint of corruption about them from the earliest times, ever since it was assumed that someone who played sports for money in the first place would take more to lose on purpose or otherwise influence the outcome of the game. As for Americans specifically, I wonder whether Blatter's fall from grace isn't simply a bit of sour-grapes vindication for a superpower whose soccer teams, though improving steadily, still haven't cracked the world's elite. If we're so great, why can't we win the World Cup? The FIFA scandals allow us to say that it's all rigged somehow, whether that's a rational answer or not. They also allow us to sneer at the so-called "beautiful game" and forget all the scandals of our own sports for a while. Blatter is multilingual and might have many words to describe this feeling, but schadenfreude will do on its own.

02 June 2015

Who defines human rights?

Fifty years ago, part of the inspiration for American civil-rights legislation was the idea that ending racial segregation would take a Cold War debating point away from the Communists. Back then, whenever Americans wanted to point to political repression in the Communist bloc, Communists or leftists in general would say something like, "But what about the blacks in your country?" In response, a short-lived bipartisan consensus emerged -- as Republicans today often like to point out, Republicans then who in no way resemble today's GOP supported the key legislation -- around the idea that we could preach credibly on civil liberties around the world only if we recognized civil rights at home. Of course, given persistent black poverty critics of the U.S. have never entirely given up the debating point. Today, in fact, here's an editorial from the English-language news site of China's official news agency deploring what it characterizes as American hypocrisy on the issue of human rights. The editorial writer points to new findings on police brutality as proof of "the real human rights situation in the U.S.," to which most American politicians and media have been "turning a blind eye" while criticizing China and other "authoritarian" or "totalitarian" countries.

The Chinese themselves have sometimes argued that "human rights" are a sort of cultural construct and that there can't be a single "universal" standard for all nations in a pluralistic world of different yet equal cultures. Yet in this case they seem to argue either that American police brutality violates a universal human right or that it contradicts Americans' own human-rights principles. In the first case I'm sure that there are many out there who can testify that the Chinese have no business criticizing other countries for police brutality. The other case is more interesting. We still have a lot of Americans who won't even see most or any of the recent highly-publicized cases as "brutality" because they hold the victims at least partly responsible for their own deaths (by resisting arrest or failing to comply with instructions) or because they believe cops (excepting that guy in South Carolina caught on camera shooting a fleeing suspect in the back) are acting within legal bounds in reasonable self-defense. Some other Americans may say that the Chinese are comparing two different things in order to get themselves off the hook. When these Americans talk about "human rights" they know what they mean: political rights, freedom of speech and assembly, all the stuff presumed absent in a nation like China where organized political opposition is still more or less illegal.  Many of these same Americans are sincerely and deeply concerned about police brutality, but they may well still find China guilty of false equivalence for saying that we can't criticize their system of  political repression because we have police brutality. Excessive force is one thing, they might say, and deliberate repression another -- even as a minority may argue that excessive police force is part of a deliberate system of oppression. The main idea is that most Americans won't accept the premise that police brutality disqualifies them as citizens of the U.S. from criticizing human rights violations around the world, and they'll see Chinese commentary on police brutality as just another way for the Chinese to excuse their own tyranny. Their implicit assumption will be that political repression is worse than police brutality, and they'll point to the protests over police brutality all over the country as proof of our system's superiority to China's.

But who defines human rights? Where do they come from, anyway? There are at least two ways of answering. A "progressive" view might encompass an increasing number of human rights over the course of history on the premise that an increasingly civilized society will constantly demand better lives for all its people as their due. The "natural rights" view is more likely to argue that there are a set number of human rights that can be determined intellectually and will not change in the future simply because we feel entitled to better things. The progressive view is more likely to accept that a demand is sufficient to establish a right because the right in any case comes not from "nature" but from ourselves. A third view, possibly that of China, works from a Marxist premise that rights depend on where we stand in the history of class struggle. This view is the one most likely to envision a retraction of rights on the assumption that "bourgeois" human rights are no longer relevant to, or may prove subversive of, a "proletarian" regime whose historical rights trump everything else. That viewpoint irks not just the natural-rights school but also many progressives who take a "no going back" stance on human rights. But if progressives concede that human rights depend on human will, can they assume that every human right asserted is valid for all time. Can they claim that rights are eternal with the same confidence shown by the natural-rights school? These questions matter because if we're ever to have a truly global or universal standard of human rights by which all countries can be judged fairly it will require input from all our cultures as well as a debate over whether, and if so what rights are unconditional or irrevocable. Americans may be forced to recognize rights that require greater redistribution of wealth to realize, and Chinese may have to learn that public dissent doesn't always mean turmoil. But unless you do believe in natural rights and assume that one culture knows them all, you'll have to concede that it can't just be one country or one culture's ideas that prevail over all. Until then, all nations may not be equally hypocritical, but their rhetoric about rights in other nations is all equally propaganda.

01 June 2015

Can foreign policy split the GOP?

For decades, Democrats have spoken hopefully of contradictions within the Republican party that should prove unsustainable in the long run. Libertarians and religious conservatives have been considered ultimately irreconcilable, for instance, and yet the party has held and flourished, still more united by what all oppose -- "big government" above all -- than divided over doctrine. Perhaps it will be foreign policy that does the trick. If so, the libertarians may still play the destructive role liberal hopes have assigned to them. Given the heated rhetoric within the party over extending or replacing the Patriot Act, and Senator Paul's role as a provocateur, one can honestly wonder whether foreign-policy debates could tear the GOP apart.

The field for the party's presidential nomination next year is now as polarized as it can get with the long-expected entry today of Senator Graham into the race. The South Carolinian is spoiling for a fight with the self-styled Islamic State. Graham's is the rhetoric of a decade ago: the U.S. will have to fight the Daesh on their ground if we don't want to have to fight them on our own. Paul's is also the rhetoric of a decade ago, but his is the anti-interventionist rhetoric of blowback. Apart from his grandstanding tactics against the Patriot Act, Paul has provoked a firestorm within his own party by arguing that American foreign policy created the IS, or at least made it whatever threat it is today. He blames our zeal to topple the Assad regime in Syria as well as the long-term destabilization or Iraq. All this is heresy to those GOP hawks -- and not just Republicans think this way -- who insist that the IS, like all Islamic extremists, generated spontaneously out of pure religious fanaticism. Republican hawks in particular want to blame President Obama for getting out of Iraq too quickly and leaving us incapable of controlling events -- in other words, for not projecting American power aggressively or pre-emptively enough. As long as Islamist extremists remain rhetorically committed to waging jihad against or within the United States, Republicans and hawks in general believe they still have grounds for preventive war in the Middle East. Paul appears to disagree, and for that disagreement fellow Republicans are telling him he's unfit to be President. Do they mean he's unfit to be a Republican? Since they can't read them out of the party, all they can hope to do is primary him eventually or so humiliate him during the primary season that he'll never be taken seriously by Republicans again.

Naturally enough, foreign policy defines neither major party. There are Democratic hawks as well as Republican anti-interventionists. Understandably, domestic policy defines the parties, but should globalization dim the border between foreign and domestic policy, it may be more difficult for either party, but the Republicans especially, to accommodate potentially polarizing disagreements over foreign policy. Paul clearly sees some linkage already, since his main concern seems to be the way warmongering abroad threatens freedom and privacy at home. Some have always seen a linkage, assuming that war forces a zero-sum choice between guns and butter. Could a party eventually define itself by its foreign policy while accommodating disagreement on domestic issues? Could the people demand that the parties define themselves by their foreign policies? If that happens we could have a moment like the 1850s, when a party system defined by one set of issues fell apart because new issues had to be addressed. Could foreign policy be for the Republicans what territorial slave policy was for the Whigs, whose demise opened the Republicans' way to power? We shouldn't be too optimistic, since this isn't the first time the GOP has seemed split between interventionists and "isolationists." Those earlier conflicts ended with isolationist submission to interventionist ascendancy, but what if the stakes do become higher, as we concede is possible, and what if Paul refuses to submit? What if he becomes convinced that the "national-security state" specifically, rather than "big government" in general, is the real threat to American liberty? What he does matters because right now Rand Paul probably is the most powerful and popular dissident in this country against American foreign policy and its attendant surveillance practices. It's a shame that a Republican has to play that role, but he hasn't played it to the end yet -- and for all we know there may be a costume change to come before the curtain falls.