30 July 2015

Jew-on-Jew terrorism in Jerusalem

An act of terrorism took place in Jerusalem today and Muslims had nothing to do with it. An ultra-Orthodox fanatic went on a stabbing spree at a gay pride parade and injured six people before being taken into custody -- again. It turns out he did something similar ten years ago and after his release resumed what he considers his religious duty. He's reportedly on record calling on Jews, Christians and Muslims to join forces against the "desecration" of God's holy city by homosexuals. There seems to be some debate over whether this was "terrorism" or a "hate crime," but the conventional American distinction may be so much hair-splitting. The kind of hate associated with "hate crimes" presumably has a terroristic intent when it expresses itself violently, and this guy seems to have seen himself advancing an ecumenical political agenda. However you slice it, there ought to be as much investigation by the Israeli government of how someone comes to think this way and act on his thoughts as there is by any government when someone commits violence from religious or ideological motives. Many Israelis find the haredim a nuisance but today's stunt may have taken the nuisance to a new level. For the rest of us, this is a reminder that, contrary to propaganda, it isn't just one religion that acts violently on its more primitive and intolerant beliefs. One religion may do so more than others, but on the zero-tolerance principle advocated for that religion there ought to be more intense scrutiny and accountability for the sources of this man's violent hatreds -- or if you prefer to see him as an isolated nut for whom no one else is accountable, go and do likewise for all religions.

29 July 2015

Jonathan Pollard: Israel's consolation prize?

It's pretty self-evident that the convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard is getting paroled after nearly thirty years in prison as some sort of sop to Israelis and American Zionists offended over the nuclear deal with Iran. It's ironic, if not simply sad, that someone whom George W. Bush and his advisers, including Cheney and Rumsfeld, didn't think worthy of clemency is being let go by the Obama administration. If the President thinks this will mollify most of the critics of his diplomacy, he must not take their objections very seriously -- and if they are mollified, neither should we. There are, no doubt, many people out there who think it's not treason to spy for an ally, or a nation to whom Pollard's sympathizers believe the U.S. is morally obliged. But in this case we probably should trust the opinions of the powermongers and manipulators who know better than most of us the damage Pollard did. Yet if we're letting Pollard go to prove that we're still friends of Israel, doesn't that somewhat prove the point his sympathizers have been making all along, that the special relationship between the two settler democracies transcends the normal rules of security and secrecy? It will be argued that a parole, as opposed to a pardon or any form of clemency, doesn't count as any vindication of the prisoner, and that like any parolee Pollard won't be an entirely free man. The timing of the parole announcement tells a different story. If it doesn't concede Pollard's harmlessness, it definitely concedes something that makes the presumed humanitarian gesture look a little pathetic.

28 July 2015

Obama on term limits and time limits

The President boasted to his African hosts today that he could win a third term if he wanted and was allowed to run, but his real point was to tell African leaders that it's a good thing that he can't run again, while it would be a better thing for Africa if its leaders were likewise term-limited. Obama admitted that there are things he'll regret leaving undone, but he doesn't see himself, as he suspects many an African leaders sees himself, as an indispensable man. "If a leader thinks they're the only person who can hold their nation together," he said, "then that leader has failed to truly build their country." It's a noble sentiment that will probably go unappreciated in the U.S., but is it more idealistic than realistic? Let me play devil's advocate for a moment. It's well and good for Obama to praise term limits -- I don't like the idea of indispensable men, either -- but let's note that his office wasn't term-limited until approximately fifty years ago, nearly two hundred years after the Declaration of Independence. Until then, a two-term limit for presidents was merely customary, the example set by George Washington holding until Franklin Roosevelt smashed it. Washington and others most likely could have won three terms or more had they wanted to. But was Washington's retirement an act of principle or simply an understandable act for one who, in his mid-sixties, was an old man by the standards of his time? At the other end of the timeline, was the constitutional amendment limiting presidents to two terms an act of principle or an act of fear? Obama implies that the only alternative to term limits is rule for life, but that doesn't follow. Nor does his assertion quoted above stand scrutiny. It reflects the luxury of his own position as the President of a country with a long-established rule of law, an entrenched civil society, and only the mild form of tribalism we call partisanship. The circumstances of a revolutionary regime, or a nation newly liberated from foreign rule, are necessarily different. Let Obama pick a number of years. Would that amount of time be enough, in his judgment, for any leader in any nation to "truly build" his country? Time is one thing, of course, and personnel another. Ideally neither a revolution nor a government should be made by one man. A movement for governing a new country or new regime should itself be governed by a principle of peaceful rotation of office, but presuming an imbalance of talents must a movement surrender an advantage of leadership for the sake of an abstract principle. Obama would seem to say yes and take doing so as proof unto itself that a leader has truly built his country. Then again, he thinks himself a good president who would be re-elected if he had a chance. There may be a certain principled naivete to his perceptions that people committed to real radical change can't afford to share. They have their own naivetes to deal with, which only goes to show that there are no easy answers, no matter how much liberals like Obama wish for them.

27 July 2015

If you can't stand the heat, move away from the oven

Apparently the 2016 presidential campaign is going to be more about how the candidates express themselves than what they express, manners rather than issues. Now we have to be scandalized, or at least shocked, by ex-Gov. Huckabee's warning that the nuclear treaty with Iran, through its alleged lenience, brings the Jewish people closer to another genocide. Not only President Obama himself but some of Huckabee's rivals for the Republican nomination have deplored the Arkansan's hyperbole, while the former governor has stood his ground, backing it by citing menacing quotations from Iranian leaders and their associates. I'm not as pessimistic as he about the treaty, of course, but you can understand his attitude and that of all those who do not and will not trust Iran. As I noted earlier this month, the Iranians seem to have done nothing during all the negotiations to address the reasons why people mistrust them with nuclear power. Rather, their position during the negotiations has been along the lines of, "Lift the sanctions, bitch!" while Head Theocrat Khamenei has pretty much assured the world that Iran will not change its ways. It will continue to challenge "arrogance," whether on the part of Americans, Zionists or Sunnis. It will continue to indulge in "death to" rhetoric toward its antagonists. If Congress rejects the treaty by overriding Obama's expected veto of negatory legislation, Iran will have itself to blame along with Republican or Islamophobic prejudice. Huckabee may be a little hysterical on this and other issues, but the Iranians are equally hysterical in their fulminations against Zionism, which have as much justification as American bluster about regime change, and if we are to be outraged by Huckabee's fearmongering we ought to be as outraged by persistent Iranian warmongering. We needn't be outraged enough to reject any treaty with them -- nor should we act as if Huckabee has committed some sort of rhetorical atrocity.  I don't think anyone is obliged to denounce him for anything beyond being an idiot, any more than Iranian idiocy means we should give up diplomacy as the neocons and Islamophobes wish.

Have I forgotten that the Israelis are jerks, too? Forgive that omission, but among their many injustices toward the Palestinians I hadn't noticed routine explicit threats of annihilation against Iran from the nation's leaders. I don't hear Netanyahu, who is certainly full of idiocies, calling for the return of the Pahlavi dynasty or the "liberation" of Iran. But Israel isn't the problem here; we are. What Americans need to understand is that our past and present rhetoric of regime change, no matter how much we claim it's for the good of subject peoples, is morally equivalent to the routine threats against Israel from Iran's Imperial Wizards and Grand Inquisitors. Both of us claim a right to destroy nations -- and where one failed against a particular nation in the 1980s, the other succeeded in the 21st century. To a certain extent we deserve each other, and both of us need to learn to behave better. The President may think, like Nixon and Mao, that hostile public rhetoric is a domestic political necessity that diplomats needn't take seriously as they build detente. But sabre-rattling self-indulgence isn't so easily ignored in the Middle East, where everyone will need to swallow some pride before they have peace. If the U.S. is to renounce regime change, the regimes themselves need to do some renouncing. They have as much right to destroy Israel, or else Sunnis and Shiites have as much right to subjugate each other, as we have to overthrow dictatorships that displease us. However you calculate those rights, they add up to zero. We ought to have zero tolerance of such claims whenever and wherever we hear them. Huckabee can be as pessimistic as he likes about the treaty, but if his only alternative is something pointing toward regime change, then we can and should be outraged.

26 July 2015

The Republicans' uncivil war

You reap what you sow. In a contentious pre-campaign season, Senator Cruz arguably has topped all of Donald Trump's invective by calling the Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate, the leader of his own party in that body, a liar on the Senate floor itself. Some observers have noted ironically that Cruz was one of the few Republicans to refrain from criticizing Trump this summer. Maybe if Senator McConnell were running for President too Cruz would have been more courteous. But we'd be missing the point if we were to assume that Trump's rhetoric and his freedom with insults, to which some rivals have responded in kind, e.g. Senator Graham calling him a "jackass" before Trump made Graham's personal cell-phone number public, has emboldened Cruz. It's more likely that Trump and Cruz represent the same impulse, and if some Republicans find that impulse deplorable they have only themselves to blame. For the past thirty years or so Republicans have led the rhetorical charge against "political correctness" while characterizing it as the suppression of honest debate on the ground of hurt feelings. We see where such talk has led when we hear idiots complaining that the Confederate flag was lowered in South Carolina only because it hurt certain people's feelings. Right-wingers are as much believers in slippery slopes as liberals are, so a coarsening of discourse in reaction to perceived political correctness should not have surprised them. Respect for people's feelings has become virtually synonymous with political correctness to many people, so that for them straight talk proves itself by its disrespect for feelings. They know someone has made a point when it hits a nerve. As I've written before, this idea isn't entirely wrong. Sometimes the truth does hurt -- but the hurt itself doesn't prove anything. It's been easy for Republicans to assume that liberals and minorities flaunt their hurt feelings to avoid hearing hard truths. It will be less easy for individual Republicans to dodge the same assumption when their own feelings are hurt by fellow Republicans. On top of that, does anyone doubt that there are truths to be told that will hurt Republicans or their constituents generally? They may answer that they can prove those untruths, but when others have done the same to their arguments the same Republicans have sneered about hurt feelings. To the extent that people's feelings have been hurt by current political discourse, much of the time those feelings are merely a poor substitute for what we used to call honor. Our ancestors may have had thicker skins than we and could stand sharper criticism, they also made a distinction between invective and insult that is lost in our current concern about "straight talk" and indifferent to hurt feelings or political correctness. In their day McConnell might have summoned Cruz to the field of honor and, Trump's wealth notwithstanding, any number of people may have horsewhipped him in the street. Such responses remain politically incorrect today, and today's Republicans don't seem to have a problem with that limit on accountability for what they say. They're going to want to draw a line somewhere, though, but how do they do that without looking hypocritically politically correct? It should be fun watching them try to figure that out.

22 July 2015

The Republican gold rush

Republicans love to praise the market and the multitude of choices it offers us, but it's hard to find many who are really thrilled to have so many people running for the party's 2016 presidential nomination. The news that John Kasich had become the 16th declared candidate inspired little more than exasperation. It exasperates some because it means Donald Trump can be declared a front-runner with what's really a rather small base of support. Others simply can't understand why so many people are running. It's seems simple enough to me. A wide-open presidential campaign is a Republican jobs program. It brings in money and gives people work -- and unlike Democratic jobs programs, the workers are getting paid by voluntary contributions. Whether donors big or small get any more of their money's worth from the candidate of their choice than the taxpayer does from Democratic programs is a matter of chance. But donors are encouraged to think of their giving as free speech rather than gambling or investment -- hints of the latter are really to be avoided lest they create the appearance of corruption. They probably don't think of money spent on a losing candidate as money wasted -- and candidates depend on that. If you think about it, it's kind of like backing a play the way it was done in The Producers, and yet it's all perfectly legal. Who knows whether some of these candidates are simply delusional about their chances or simply see a chance to make a lot of money for their cronies? More so than in the Mel Brooks movie, the people who throw money away giving to political campaigns are suckers rather than victims. The real risk isn't that they'll get ripped off in any sense by hopeless candidates who quit early, many of whose campaigns are comparable in intellectual content to Springtime for Hitler, but that, as in the play within the play, someone will prove so outrageously bad that the show becomes a freak hit. If that happens, neither the producers nor the investors suffer -- but the rest of us might.

21 July 2015

The Trump Card

It remains to be seen whether Donald Trump's comments about John McCain's military career and the Vietnam War in general will prove to be the "jump the shark" moment of Trump's presidential campaign. Last weekend Trump dismissed McCain's credibility on military and veterans' issues, remarking that the Senator was considered a hero "because he was captured" and implicitly only because he'd been captured. Yet again the self-styled billionaire was dogpiled by the media and most of his Republican rivals, with Hillary Clinton jumping on top of the pile to defend McCain's honor. Trump has since tried to clarify his position without apologizing to McCain, while continuing to feud with McCain's protege, Sen. Graham. As I understand it, Trump feels that the soldiers who weren't captured were as much heroes as McCain, but don't get the attention they deserve from either the Department of Veterans Affairs or Sen. McCain. Interestingly, his negative comments about the entire war have been virtually overlooked in comparison with the firestorm over his seemingly more personal comments about McCain. Now 69, Trump was of fighting age during the war but won deferments and had some problem with one of his feet -- he doesn't remember which one. On top of that, he says he "wasn't a big fan" of the war, which he considers a "disaster." I can't recall whether Bill Clinton expressed his opinion of the war as starkly while he was running for or serving as President. Many people hope this controversy will be the beginning of Trump's end, but I wouldn't be too sure.

It's very possible that Trump's target constituencies share his opinion of McCain, if not of the Vietnam War. After all, right-wing Republicans themselves have said ever since McCain lost to Sen. Obama in 2008 that much of their imagined hidden majority stayed home on Election Day because they found McCain uninspiring as a politician and unconvincing as a true conservative. Doubts about McCain's heroism as a prisoner were aired openly, and not only by Democrats, and reported on this blog. If Trump is after the Tea Party vote, it should be recalled that, however Islamophobic they are, they are also, at least reportedly, more ambivalent about military adventurism than many in the GOP establishment, particularly the neocons identified with McCain. These potential Trump voters may not have the Rambo view of Vietnam many might expect of them, even if those old enough to remember still hate hippies. Whether Trump's record on Vietnam will hurt him with these voters is questionable, and for younger voters it will hardly matter. In any event, Trump owes his current prominence in opinion polls partly to his position on illegal immigration and partly to a personal style that appeals to many who may have little clue where he stands on any other issue. People who like Donald Trump say they like him because he "speaks his mind" and/or "tells it like it is" and doesn't care who he offends by doing so. He appeals to people who think tough talk and action are necessary to save the country, and their measure of tough talk, at least, is the expressions of offense felt by those thought to need at least a rhetorical slap in the face. The potential Trump voter is likely to feel that someone who offends so many people must be doing something right, since their gut feeling seems to be that effective solutions will offend many of us. Even if they think John McCain was a hero in captivity, or that Vietnam was a noble cause worth the effort, they may forgive Trump for not backing down or apologizing if his refusal to do so reveals a character they deem necessary in the next President. If I read them right, I doubt that this week's furor will hurt Trump much. But I won't assume that Trump is invulnerable just yet, if only because the other candidates have not yet really begun to fight. Trump's real test -- and the test for his fans -- will come when his rivals start running ads about him.

18 July 2015

How do Black Lives Matter?

As if to prove a point made by supporters of Hillary Clinton, two of her rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination, Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley, were shouted off a stage at a "Netroots Nation" town meeting today in Phoenix by black protesters who were dissatisfied by the two politicians' apparent lack of specific proposals to address the threat to blacks from police brutality and other injustices. O'Malley committed the apparent cardinal sin of responding to the "Black Lives Matter" chant by saying "All lives matter." This was a clarifying moment in some ways. To some it may show how narrow minded and disrespectful some black activists are, and on one level such observers wouldn't be wrong. "Black Lives Matter" can not be the defining issue of the 2016 campaign, if only because there's so much going on, or going wrong, that there rightfully can't be one defining issue. To judge a candidate for President only on their position or perceived lack of position on that one issue is parochial to a fault. And yet after reading the reports of the Phoenix incident I feel I have a better understanding of what "Black Lives Matter" means and why "all lives matter" is not the correct answer. Protesters like the hecklers in Phoenix point to what they perceive as threats to black lives in particular, or to black lives disproportionately. They perceive a "state of emergency," as one protester said, so plain and painful that "you are not human" if you don't recognize it. The hecklers shouted down O'Malley and Sanders, fairly or not, because they believed that neither man had proposals ready to protect black people, those most endangered by the emergency. They believe that anyone planning to be President ought to have such a proposal in mind already. Any serious candidate needs to have a lot in mind, of course, but if black hecklers shouldn't try to advance their issues to the exclusion of others, neither should any candidate try to advance his or hers to the exclusion of theirs. For what it was worth, Clinton did not attend the Phoenix event. It would have been interesting had she done so, if only to test whether blacks' loyalty to her (or her family) is as assured as so many assume. It will be interesting now to see if anyone asks her about what happened in Phoenix and what she thinks of it. Then we might get a hint of what matters to her.

16 July 2015

Terrorism in Tennessee?

Inevitably there will be a debate over what happened at the military installations in Chattanooga and how we should describe them. Prejudiced minds will presume that some in authority will be reluctant to describe the murder of four Marines as terrorism, and it's most likely that a few will hesitate to use the word because of the potential consequences for innocent co-religionists of the shooter, an American citizen who had immigrated from Kuwait with his family when he was a small child. Neither side should worry. Unless we learn something that proves his outburst a pure amoklauf, driven by purely individualist compulsions and hangups, I think it's most reasonable to describe his attack as guerrilla warfare of the lone-wolf sort apparently encouraged by the self-styled Islamic State or other militant Islamists, especially since he targeted the military. He seems to have been less interested in striking terror in the populace than in counting coup and earning prestige in the afterlife. He probably will have proved to have struck terror in us anyway. Almost certainly he will have made life more miserable for American Muslims -- but pity (never mind "political correctness") should not deflect us from necessary questions. This is the other side of the Charleston coin. After that atrocity, I said that if we feel a need to investigate the sources in Islam and Muslim communities of terrorism, we should also feel it necessary to investigate the sources, including the intellectual enablers, of racist violence. So if it is appropriate to place white supremacists and segregationists under scrutiny after Charleston, it's apporpriate to place at least Islamic media under scrutiny after Chattanooga. If this shooter was at all encouraged to take the offensive, we need to know by whom or what. What we do about it is another question, but at a minimum we need to know. We don't need to outlaw Islamism any more than we ever needed to outlaw Marxism, but if there are Islamists in our midst saying, "Kill!" something has to be done about that just as something had to be done about the Weather Underground and similar violent groups in the Seventies.

Meanwhile, wouldn't it be interesting if this was the moment when the NRA tide began to ebb? How many people tonight are wondering whether Muslims really ought to have guns? With every such question, however unfair or simply bigoted, gun-rights absolutism may begin to die, especially if it could be argued that no denial of Second Amendment rights to Muslims could stand constitutional scrutiny. And the moment some of us decide that certain beliefs disqualify someone from gun ownership, how long will it be before others argue that other beliefs -- white supremacy or Neo-Confederatism, for instance --  are likewise disqualifying? For others still, of course, it will matter less that this was a radicalized Muslim with a gun -- lately radicalized if reports of a DUI arrest last spring are correct -- than that yet another American nut had a gun and used it. These people of consistent principle might be reluctant to emphasize this shooter's religion, but if this murderer were to become the face of American gun ownership, it wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing.

15 July 2015

The problem with the Iran deal.

This was the time to do something more ambitious. The Middle East needs to get its shit together and deal with the self-styled Islamic State, which seems to be a threat to every other player in the region. What the region needs is a grand coalition, with U.S. and Russian backing, to wipe out the Daesh. Iran should be for this because the IS threatens their friends in Iraq and Syria. The Saudis should want it because, for all the rumors of conservative Sunni backing for the Daesh, the proclamation of a caliphate is an implicit threat to the guardians of Mecca and Medina. Yet the IS remains in a position to exploit every dispute among the regional powers and their superpower backers. What is the major malfunction? You can't just blame it on the U.S. and Israel anymore, although their distrust of Muslims remains very relevant, because the whole Sunni-Shiite thing is getting out of hand. Iran has a lot to do with that, of course, but what do they want? Why do countries other than Israel and the U.S. fear them getting a bomb? They are the largely self-appointed defenders of Shiite rights -- and, in Syria, the rights of other Muslim minorities -- but is their objective Shiite equality with Sunnis in Iraq or Yemen, or Shiite supremacy? A conference negotiating Iran's right to develop nuclear power should have been as much concerned with addressing the reasons, legitimate or otherwise, why other countries fear a nuclear Iran, as this one was with establishing rules and regulations. If Iran is sincerely interested in developing nuclear power for peaceful purposes, they should have been willing to address and quiet the fears of the Saudis and other Sunnis, not to mention the Israelis and Americans. We can criticize the knee-jerk reactions of the Israeli government, the Republican party and many Sunnis, but we can also ask what Iran has done, or is now willing to do, to earn the trust that so many withhold from them. Can it really be that everyone is unreasonably paranoid about Iran? That's no more likely than that Iran has absolutely no legitimate grievances of their own or on behalf of the region's Shiites. But however legitimate their grievances may be, Iran still has an obligation to reassure the rest of the region that they are not after Shiite regional hegemony nor the destruction of Israel, just as Sunnis have an obligation to respect Shiite rights and the U.S. and Israel have an obligation to respect the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic. This is absolutely the wrong time for the world to whine about Iran's repressive political practices. In fact, diplomacy is never the time for that sort of posturing, whether it's labeling us Iran an evil empire or Iran railing against imperialism, Zionism or Sunni chauvinism. All these people have a common enemy in the IS, and unless they're all crazy -- which we can't rule out -- they have to see how their common enemy benefits from their conflicts. Joining forces to defeat the Daesh would seem to be a good first step toward region-wide reconciliation, but too many people seem to think of the IS as no more than a distraction from their real, permanent feuds with each other. As a result, if the IS wins anywhere, everyone will be to blame.

14 July 2015


Jeb Bush denounced President Obama and Donald Trump as practitioners of divisiveness during a campaign appearance yesterday. "Divisiveness" is shorthand for racial politics, at least for the Florida dynast. In his eyes, it seems, the President's observations on persistent racism in the U.S. are morally equivalent to Trump calling Mexicans rapists. Of course, Republicans have been calling Obama "divisive" from the moment he took office, so I suppose it's bold of Jeb to criticize divisiveness within his own party. The irony of it, however, is that the people most likely to support Trump are the ones most likely to think Obama "divisive." They'll deny that Trump is divisive for the same reason most Democrats reject the label for Obama. One person's divisiveness is another's telling of hard truths. Jeb doesn't necessarily have hard truths on his agenda. He's preaching Reaganite optimism, telling audiences that a winning Republican will give people "hope that their lives will be better when we apply conservative principles the right way." Whether that's also an implicit slap at his brother or any other Republican who applies conservative principles the wrong way is unclear. What's clear is that Jeb claims to reject divisiveness along racial and class lines. It's apparently just as divisive for the working class to criticize the reactionary rich as it is for non-whites to criticize reactionary whites. "We need to stop tearing [and] separating ourselves," Bush says, but his appeals may come too late. No radical solution to the country's problems can fail to be divisive, since we can be sure that, barring some rhetorical miracle, nearly half the voting population will oppose it. Jeb doesn't seem to realize that in our toxic political environment even appeals to unity can appear divisive to the extent that they offend someone's identity politics. It may be wrong, as Trump seems to be doing and Obama is thought to do, to be divisive along racial lines, but for Jeb Bush to flee from the possible necessity of divisive (not to mention decisive) politics indicates that he probably isn't the leader for this moment in American history.

13 July 2015

The politics of crime: when should the President speak out?

Whenever a black man has been killed by police recently, activists appear on the scene and are accused of exploiting tragedies -- which in such accusatory accounts are never anything more than tragedies -- for unwholesome political purposes. Now, as so often, reactionaries believe they have caught President Obama in a double standard, but only reveal their own. Republicans, radio talkers, and the rest of the usual suspects (here's a sample) want us to believe that Obama has a moral responsibility to address the killing of Kathryn Steinle earlier this month in San Francisco, allegedly by an illegal alien with a criminal record who reportedly was shielded from deportation because Frisco is a "sanctuary city." If Obama can speak out about the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray and others, his critics say, there is at least as much reason for him to speak out about the Steinle case. Since no one can reasonably expect the President to comment on every murder in this country, however much they ask that he mourn blacks killed by blacks as much as blacks killed by whites, the reasoning seems to be this: Steinle was white and her alleged killer Hispanic, making this a racial crime. They reason further that if Obama does not condemn the murder of Steinle with as much fervor as he has condemned the killings of black men, then the life of a white woman must matter less to him than the life of a black man. They suspect also that Obama is reluctant to place blame where it is thought to belong, with the "sanctuary city" policy and federal policies that seem soft on violent immigrant crime. From what little I've read about the San Francisco case, it looks like immigration policies do need an overhaul. If the suspect had prior convictions for violent crime on top of being in the country illegally, he shouldn't have been eligible for any kind of "sanctuary," and if any community's sanctuary policy requires it not to ask questions about an alien's criminal past, that policy needs to change. But does it follow from that that the President needs to lead the mourning for Kathryn Steinle? Must he take note of all interracial crime? To demand that is to be historically color-blind in an intellectually unsustainable way. Does anyone have any ground for believing that Steinle's murder was a hate crime? Does anyone really believe that all interracial crime is equal in the eyes of history? It must be equal in the eyes of the law, of course, but history is a different and in some ways more rigorous tribunal. The President's bully pulpit, meanwhile, is a different tribunal from either of these. It is political and democratic. In his role as rhetorical representative of all the American people, he will eventually speak if enough people clamor for it. But that shouldn't persuade anyone that the killing of Steinle, abhorrent as it is, is historically equivalent to the shooting of unarmed (albeit "resisting") blacks by police. Everyone takes some murder for granted, but many of us feel that it's especially bad if certain people, most likely those most like ourselves, are murdered, and it's even worse if certain other people do the killing. Those who make a great show of mourning Steinle aren't proving that "all lives matter." They most likely don't even believe that themselves. Didn't many of the same people recoil at any public mourning of the deaths of Martin, Brown et al? If they think Obama should mourn Steinle as much as those others, let them acknowledge that those deaths were as much injustices as the death they denounce now. Until they can do that, they have no business judging anyone else's selective grief.

09 July 2015

The Greatest Threat

Who's the greatest threat to the American national security? The President's nominee for Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff says it's Russia. His reasoning is twofold: Russia has nukes and has behaved in an "alarming" way in Ukraine. The nukes make Russia an "existential" threat in his opinion. His argument before a Senate committee today seemed detached from reality, but that perception is probably just a matter of perspective. Most Americans probably believe by now that the so-called Islamic State, if not just plain Islam, is the biggest threat, perhaps even on an existential level, to their country. From what we can tell, the I.S. or Daesh wants to attack us on general principles and is looking for every little opportunity to do so. From what we can tell as well, Russia, even under Vladimir Putin, has no such compulsion. If they are an existential threat right now, it's not because they want to conquer the world or impose Putinism or Eastern Orthodoxy on everyone, but because they feel we're butting into their historic sphere of influence. We can all agree in theory that spheres of influence are a bad thing and unfair to small countries, but just as Americans can still justify the Monroe Doctrine by saying European countries shouldn't interfere in Latin America, the Russians have just as much right to say that outsiders shouldn't influence Eastern Europe. Any way you slice it, to forbid outsiders from interfering with the little countries in your neighborhood is hegemonic. It can't help but be your sphere of influence if you won't let anyone else influence them. Try to tell a Latin American that the Monore Doctrine is no more than a Prime Directive forbidding interference in their countries' natural evolution and they'll laugh. It's hardly different in Eastern Europe. Yes, Russia wants to dominate Ukraine and that's unfair to the large number of Ukrainians -- does anyone really know if they're a majority? -- who hate Russia and identify with the West, but Russia has every reason to doubt that a Ukraine whose independence from Russia is guaranteed by NATO power is going to be neutral in any sense meaningful to Russia.  It may seem crazy that Russia might threaten nuclear war in defense of their rights and interests in Ukraine, but they may be crazy enough to do that, if only on the "no gun, no respect" principle. But if Ukraine -- or possibly the Baltic states in the future -- wasn't an issue there'd be no reason to believe that Russia would want to attack the American homeland, while the I.S. is the djinn out of the bottle, unlikely to be quieted by any diplomatic revolution in American foreign policy. By dubbing Russia the greater threat, General Dunford shows his priorities. He is less interested in the I.S.'s potential to do harm on American soil than in Russia's ability to thwart American ambitions abroad. I presume he will answer to a Secretary of Defense, but there's nothing defensive about his priorities. Whether the rest of us will be able to make our priorities in foreign affairs understood remains to be seen.

It looks like someone better work longer hours

For what it's worth, I take Jeb Bush at his word that he did not meant to imply yesterday that we should do away with the eight-hour day. The former Florida governor got into trouble for making the bald statement that "people need to work longer hours and through their productivity gain more income for their families." After Democrats dogpiled on him, Jeb clarified that he meant that people now working only part-time due to a stagnant economy should be able to work full-time jobs. There's nothing wrong with that, but it's clear that Jeb needs coaching before he does live interviews. If that's what he meant he should have made it clear in the first place, but he failed then to make the distinction between part-time and full-time he now affirms. That's clumsy if not clueless and he deserves the misunderstanding he's getting. He should know that, as a Republican, he'll be assumed to believe that the rabble ought to work ten, twelve, fourteen hour days, if they're not already working two or three jobs to "gain more income for their families."

Hillary Clinton's reported response was just as predictable. She issued a pandering tweet: "Anyone who believes Americans aren't working hard enough hasn't met enough American workers.” I find this to be pandering because it seems self-evident that, collectively speaking, Americans aren't working hard enough. In part that's because they're denied the opportunity to do so by selfish corporate decisions that have taken "longer hours" jobs away from them. But it's also because we're not using our heads and we're not doing many things that clearly ought to be done in this country, above all upgrading our infrastructure. Clinton's tweet illustrates an unfortunate complacency in liberals that I've touched on before in discussing our modern suicidal vulnerability to shaming. For many people, it seems to be taboo to tell Americans as a whole that we can all, each of us, do better. In part that's because we fear the emotional consequences of telling anybody they aren't good enough, even if only for now. But it's also because some will infer what was inferred from Bush's remarks: you just want people to work longer hours than they ought to, etc. Do liberals really think our nation's problems will be solved simply by having the rich pay more taxes? That may be a prerequisite of progress, but without others contributing more of what they can it'll just be throwing money at our troubles. Everyone, the poor as well as the rich, must be challenged to improve themselves, but the true progressive must enable them to improve themselves. Otherwise all your talk will be no better than Republicans' self-help bootstrap rhetoric, and that isn't going to cut it in the 21st century. Nor is patting people on the head and telling them they've done all they can going to cut it. Flattery will get the Democrats nowhere, except maybe back in the White House for another four or eight years, which may be all they want. The rest of us should expect more of them and everyone else in this country.

07 July 2015

A defense of political correctness

The U.S. has gone through cycles of outrage against "political correctness" periodically since the 1980s but the current backlash seems unusually virulent. For the past year the complaints have been mounting. It was "politically incorrect" to criticize protesters (not just rioters) against police brutality. The Confederate flag is being sacrificed to "political correctness." Donald Trump is being crucified by the "politically correct" for saying what many Americans feel to be true. Even people who are not reactionaries are getting into the act. Jerry Seinfeld seemed to sniff the zeitgeist when he spoke out against political correctness specifically as an offense against his vocation, stand-up comedy. This apolitical backlash is nothing new. It unites stand-ups and shock jocks against all the uptight people out there who supposedly can't take a joke, whose outrage is proof that a comic must be doing something right. Seinfeld and other comedians may not agree with the real reactionaries on any other aspect of political correctness, but it's he, and not the politicians, who provoked an op-ed response from Dan Napolitano in the Albany Times Union. That's probably because Napolitano books comedy shows for Alfred University and thus represents the academia that Seinfeld specifically called out for excess political correctness. He's dismissive of most of Seinfeld's explicit or implicit arguments, observing that the comics who play colleges aren't likely to lose their livelihoods because some people complain about insensitive jokes. He defends college students against the charge of humorlessness, making the common-sense observation failing to find certain things funny doesn't mean you don't find anything funny. That matches my own observations. I look at some websites that could be described as "politically correct" or even "SJW," to use a relatively new pejorative. They're often quite funny, especially when mocking the bigots and reactionaries whose own jokes fail to amuse them except in some ironic or unintentional way. That may still be a matter of perception, but Napolitano's final point has the broadest relevance. Seinfeld had apparently equated "politically correct" protesters with the Boy Who Cried Wolf, his idea being that there was really nothing to see where the protesters were pointing. In response, Napolitano acknowledged that some "politically correct" outbursts were excessive, but implied that he could deal with excess if the alternative was complacency.

Our critiquing culture is creating a generation extremely comfortable confronting injustice. This may absolutely result in an era of frequent "wolf crying." Unfortunately, for every example of hypersensitivity there are tenfold examples of privileged apathy, where biases are overlooked, lives are devalued, and injustices go unaddressed. For every outraged overzealous youth, there is at least one rich, old, white man (perhaps a comedian) telling everyone to just relax. 

The implicit argument against "political correctness," that "P.C." types make too much out of too little, is an unexamined premise. Who is anyone else to tell anyone that there's nothing to see here? Why is it not "politically correct" -- that is, why shouldn't we call it that -- when someone complains that their feelings are hurt, as is obviously the case, when their overlooked biases, privileged apathy, etc., are exposed, denounced, or simply mocked? The supposedly principled argument against political correctness is that some people go overboard politicizing everything, but the real visceral argument against the phenomenon is an ad hominem argument that the politically correct are simply too thin skinned for their own good or the good of society -- that they would suppress or censor things because their feelings are hurt. This is the reasoning behind facetious arguments against the "gay flag," the colors of which decorated the White House the night after the Obergefell decision. If the "gay flag" offends a reactionary, so goes this thinking, then the reactionary has just as much moral right to protest against its display as anyone has to protest the display of the Confederate flag. It's the same reasoning that leads people to believe that Donald Trump is being persecuted because his comments about immigrant rapists hurt the feelings of Hispanics and their bleeding-heart sympathizers. For all that the term "political correctness" evokes an image of doctrinaire intellectuals dictating campus speech codes on ideological grounds, many reactionaries perceive political correctness to be void of intellectual content and based entirely on emotions. They are mistaking their own reaction to political correctness with the thing itself. Nevertheless, if the reactionaries -- not counting Jerry Seinfeld, who has a different agenda if any -- want to make a case against emotionally driven, hypersensitive politics, they ought to set an example and stop whining in such an obviously hypersensitive, purely emotional way whenever anybody criticizes them. Otherwise it will look like they whine and flaunt their hurt feelings because they have no intellectual defense against those things the "politically correct" attack. If that's the case, it should be no more offensive for someone to be politically correct than it is for them to be mathematically correct, no matter how much people wish that two and two would make five.

04 July 2015

The Founders on Immigration

Among the grievances against the King of England's government enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, conveniently reprinted in my local paper today, we find this:

He has endeavored to prevent the population of these states, for that purpose obstructing the laws for naturalization of foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migration hither, and raising the conditions of new appropriations of lands.

Today, twelve score years later minus one, many claim to walk in the path of the Founders, yet seek, in the Founders' words, to prevent the population of our states by obstructing the naturalization of foreigners. Of course, it can be argued that the Founders today would think the U.S. overpopulated rather than underpopulated today, but if they were right about the King and Parliament's policies, we can infer that even in 1776 some people felt that the colonies were already overpopulated. For what it's worth now, we should also note that Jefferson and his drafting committee put no qualifiers on "foreigners." There's no implication that the Founders are looking only for the "right" kinds of immigrants. As far as you could tell from their main propaganda document, they didn't care where foreigners came from to populate the states. Rather, they seem to have taken it for granted that the more people, the better off the new nation would be. The moral for this year isn't that the Founders were right then and right now. It's that, as noted already, the people today most hostile to, or selective about, foreigners populating the country are the people most likely to take every word of the Founders as gospel writ, an infallible guide for how to govern ourselves now. They can defend their position on immigration however they will, but they had better explain as well why the Founders they revere seem to disagree with them.

02 July 2015

North and South, white and black

Jelani Cobb made an obvious yet noteworthy observation in a New Yorker piece this week on the lastest Confederate flag controversy: "Americans, both in the South and beyond, attach a particular brand of exceptionalism to the region. This is the reason that there is a Southern Historical Association but not a Northern one; a genre known as Southern literature but no Northern corollary; and a concept of Southern politics as something distinct from the national variety."

Unintentionally, since  his piece is a critique of Southern "denialism" regarding the Confederate flag's embodiment of racism. Cobb reminded me of past comments on the purported double standard by which colleges have, for instance, Black Studies departments but not White Studies departments. The facetious way to link the two observations together would be to say that "Southern" studies are "White" studies, but as someone experienced a little in academia I know better than that. There is a valid analogy, I think, between the absence of "Northern studies" and the absence of "White studies" (as opposed to "whiteness" studies, which are deconstructive in a way our theoretical White Studies wouldn't be). More so even than whites do, Northerners unselfconsciously identify themselves with (or as) the default American culture, while the South, by virtue of losing the Civil War, may always have a quality of Otherness outside the erstwhile Confederacy. If Northerners think about it at all, they most likely differentiate themselves from Southerners by thinking of themselves as the Union, not as a irreducibly or irreconcilably distinctive part of it.Victory in 1865 allowed this.

Before the Civil War, it was probably less clear whether any group in any part of the country could assume they were the American people in a way people in other sections weren't. If the Southerner was distinct from the outside perspective, back in antebellum times the Northerner -- or to be more specific, the "Yankee" -- was perceived just as distinctly as one type of many from both South and West. Southerners, seeing Virginia as something like the American heartland, saw the Yankee as something parochial and often obnoxious, something that may well have become the subject of academic study had the Confederacy won the war. Instead, many of the Yankee's reputed obnoxious qualities are no longer identified with geography, but identified with ideology that crosses sectional lines yet, admittedly, seems to find the South persistently hostile ground. Northern reactionaries may hate "liberals" and "progressives" in their midst, and may resent the stigmatization of the Confederate flag as a bow to "political correctness," but they are unlikely to identify either themselves or their ideological antagonists as Yankees. Nor are the liberals, the progressives, or the supposedly politically correct likely to think of themselves as Yankees. Hence there is no demand for "Northern Studies" programs or calls for "Northern Pride" like those you hear from self-conscious whites who are resentful toward or envious of Black Studies or black pride.

We have four different things, two actual, two theoretical, but only one of these things is not like the others. Black Studies exists, at least in part, because blacks need to explain themselves to themselves and others, and others need them explained. Southern Studies exists, at least in part, for the same reasons. If there is a demand for White Studies, it is to some extent similarly motivated. But few feel a need to explain the North, and self-conscious Northern identity, as opposed to American identity, hardly exists. If there's any problem with this, it may be that in the absence of strong regional identification with a distinct culture or heritage, white Northerners are often tempted to identify with a Whiteness that is defined by the South and the Confederate heritage in adversarial relationship not just with blacks or other minorities but also with a national government presumed hostile to liberty as the old South understood it. It may be that the most offensive symbols of the Confederacy need to be seen rather than purged from national memory, if not necessarily flaunted on public land, to remind people outside the South that it didn't just rebel for the hell of it, or because Lincoln was acting like Big Brother, or because tariffs were too damn high. We don't necessarily need "Northern Pride" to recognize that the Confederacy -- as opposed to the geographic South -- was not just the enemy in the Civil War, but also, in some way, our enemy for all time. But whatever helps us recognize that will be a good thing.