30 September 2015

A question for the Pope

In case Americans needed a reminder after he was gone that the Pope belongs to none of their parties, it looks like the liberal media has to reconcile Francis's progressive positions on poverty and climate with his endorsement of Kim Davis's resistance to federal law. Davis, who was jailed briefly for refusing to issue marriage licenses to homosexual couples in her capacity as a county clerk in Kentucky, started boasting a couple of days ago that she'd had a secret meeting with Bergoglio in which he encouraged her to "stay strong." One could only hope that she was delusional, but the pontiff had already hinted at his position on the controversy, without naming the woman, by endorsing the principle of conscientious objection during an interview on his flight back to Rome. Now, perhaps with some embarrassment over Davis's boasting, the Vatican states succinctly that it won't deny that the meeting took place. That's not enough. Americans need to know what Francis meant by meeting with Davis and encouraging her. It's one thing to praise conscientious objection, but the difference between Davis's stand and the way conscientious objection usually works, in the context where the term arose, is that Davis insists on wearing a uniform and carrying a gun while refusing to fire it. Conscientious objection is when you tell the draft board you can't be a soldier because you don't believe in war or killing, at which point they find something else for you to do. In the Kentucky case the right thing for a conscientious objector to do is resign her post. Instead, Davis has practiced obstructionism, claiming a moral right (or as the Pope says, a "human right") to refuse a duty mandated by federal law as interpreted by the majority of the Supreme Court. The Court says it is unconstitutional to refuse marriage licenses to gay couples. All laws denying gay couples marriage licenses are void, and no positive legislation is necessary to secure homosexuals marriage rights. Davis has no discretion in the matter. Perhaps the Pope sees her as a moral equivalent of the soldier who refuses specific orders on moral grounds, the archetypal good German of World War II or the good American of other conflicts. If so, that would be a pretty sick comparison, since it equates allowing gays to marry with ordering people to be tortured or massacred. But it's up to Bergoglio to clarify this point. He now has an obligation to state whether he believes Kim Davis has a right to use her office to obstruct gay marriage. He ought to be asked that question in plain language by the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, and he can answer in whatever language he feels most comfortable with, so long he makes clear to all where he stands on the rule of law in the United States. If a Muslim mullah or a Russian diplomat said something similar to Americans in legal jeopardy there'd be an uproar in this country, and perhaps there will be now. There definitely should be until the Pope explains himself.

29 September 2015

Single Payer or Die?

A forceful begging letter came in from Public Citizen today. They're waging a petition campaign, hoping to get legislators to support some form of single-payer health insurance as an alternative to Obamacare. The letter makes many good points and includes a useful list of myths (or lies) about single-payer systems and Public Citizen's somewhat speculative corrections. The alternative to single-payer, the letter says starkly, is a "pay or die" society. Despite Obamacare, the U.S. remains such a society, along with "most poor countries in the world." Public Citizen claims that 45,000 Americans, or 120 a day, die because they lack health insurance. Author Robert Weissman wants legislative action as soon as possible because premiums continue to increase. Obamacare can't do anything about this, he argues, because Obama "sought a compromise with the health insurance industry" when "there can be no compromise with the health insurance industry. If you keep them in the game, they will devour you." He proposes nothing less than legislating the big insurers out of existence. But the audacity of his proposal isn't matched by Public Citizen's strategy. The petition is, of course, attached to a donation coupon, with "Do Not Detach" instructions. You can give as little as $20 and you get Public Citizen's bimonthly magazine. The arguments for single-payer are compelling enough to make this appeal for money tempting, but what will Public Citizen really do with it? "We need to strengthen our presence on Capitol Hill and to make the case in the states," Weissman writes. Put that way, I agree, but what sort of "presence" does Weissman mean? I'm afraid he means a lobbying presence because Public Citizen, however well intentioned it is, is still a lobby. Given the urgency of the situation, as Weissman portrays it, this seems like a distractingly indirect approach. Rather than spend money to lobby elected officials, shouldn't they spend it to elect officials who'd be sure to vote as they want? Instead, it looks like Public Citizen is less audacious in the field of electoral politics than it claims to be in the realm of health insurance. Weissman believes that Aetna, Humana, etc. need to go, but has he considered that the Democratic party may need to go before his legislative agenda can be realized? Public Citizen wants money so they can counter the influence of corporate lobbyists. It boasts that it takes no corporate money itself. Shouldn't it make sense to elect people who will not listen to corporate lobbyists, people like themselves, rather than compete with those lobbyists for the attention of legislators? Is it any more impossible to overthrow the Democratic party than to revolutionize the health insurance industry as completely as Public Citizen proposes? Both may be more possible if the problems are tackled in tandem. When Public Citizen is ready to consider that possibility they'll be closer to getting my dollar.

28 September 2015

The Obama-Putin Debate

It's that time again when heads of government come to New York to represent their nations at the United Nations General Assembly. The highlight of the event for most observers was hearing Presidents Obama and Putin give their nation's -- or if you prefer, their own -- interpretation of the crises in Syria, Ukraine, etc. Predictably, they differed on several points. On Syria, Putin called for a coalition comparable to the anti-Hitler alliance of World War II -- several leaders noted the 70th anniversary of the end of that war and the forming of the UN -- against the self-styled Islamic State, but insisted that President Assad was a necessary part of such a coalition and any ultimate settlement of Syria's future. Obama still insisted that Assad ultimately had to go, arguing that there could be no peace in Syria so long as Assad wielded power repressively. It's interesting to see a Russian leader sound a conservative note in global affairs, though it would be less surprising to a time-traveler from 200 years ago than to one from 50 or 75 years ago. Putin has virtually appropriated the anti-communist, anti-liberal rhetoric of the American right wing. He accuses the west of  reckless "social experimentation" in the Middle East. Whatever he said in Russian could probably be translated just as well as "social engineering," long the bugaboo of Republicans. However self-interested Russia may be in propping up Assad, who is perhaps the sole reliable guarantor of their Syrian naval base, he is still articulating an authentic conservative principle: be careful of unintended consequences -- among which, in Syria and Iraq, is ISIS. Obama's rhetoric was just as predictable: self-critical in historical context, which will win him no extra love at home, but adamantly intolerant of the idea, advanced implicitly by Putin and others, that national differences in culture or historical development legitimize different degrees of civil liberty in different places. For Obama, "human rights" remain unconditional and are not determined by culture or history. True stability depends on governments recognizing these inalienable rights, as Assad, presumably, mostly does not.

Reading the transcripts of the Obama and Putin speeches reveals what we should describe as two conflicting theories of destabilization. According to Obama, "repressive" regimes like Assad's effectively destabilize their countries before anyone takes up arms against them.  The American President extends a presumption of legitimacy to uprisings against repressive regimes, so long as the insurgents respect human rights and civil liberty, that Putin most likely does not. The Russian President is more likely to attribute uprisings to meddling from the outside, particularly in Ukraine, whose Maidan uprising he described as a "military coup," but also in Syria, where American "social experimentation" and Sunni extremism actively destabilized a situation Putin presumably presumed stable.  

Obama summarized his position best here:

Just as force alone cannot impose order internationally, I believe in my core that repression cannot forge the social cohesion for nations to succeed. The history of the last two decades proves that in today’s world, dictatorships are unstable. The strongmen of today become the spark of revolution tomorrow. You can jail your opponents, but you can’t imprison ideas. You can try to control access to information, but you cannot turn a lie into truth. It is not a conspiracy of U.S.-backed NGOs that expose corruption and raise the expectations of people around the globe; it’s technology, social media, and the irreducible desire of people everywhere to make their own choices about how they are governed.

Putin might question whether "dictatorships are unstable," but he might also question the pejorative "dictatorship" label, both for Assad and especially for himself. I've questioned whether Putin really has a theory of government, as those suspicious of his "authoritarianism" suspect, but it might be helpful if he would articulate one. When we in the west hear "dictatorship," "authoritarian," etc., we presume that leaders like Putin or Assad are asserting an unconditional duty of citizens to obey the leader, but I doubt that's what they actually mean. They are most likely less interested in theorizing the citizen's duty to the state than they are in constructing effective governments. They may not demand unconditional obedience, much less unconditional praise, but they can't abide obstruction, which by now is probably the defining element in foreign eyes of the American theory of government, or its opposite. What this means practically is that "free speech" can cross a line that will provoke a reaction. That's not necessarily a good thing, but neither is the opposite, where dissent is empowered to obstruct effective, necessary government in the name of abstract principles or plain old prejudice. As I've written before, liberals should be more willing to accept a degree of risk that comes with the benefits of effective government, the price of which for them is vigilance against abuse of power. Does Assad abuse power? Probably -- and none of this paragraph is intended to legitimize or exonerate the Syrian leader. But the UN debate has provided another convenient occasion to remind readers that a more realistic view of politics, that takes into account needs as well as rights, not to mention responsibilities or duties, is necessary if the U.S. is to engage more equitably with the rest of the world, whether we like it or not, in the future.

25 September 2015

Boehner sacrifices himself?

Apparently determined to prevent a government shutdown that would be blamed on his party's fanatic opposition to funding Planned Parenthood, the Speaker of the House announced that he would resign at the end of next month. Early reports have interpreted his decision as a concession to Tea Partiers in the GOP congressional caucus to ease passage of a "clean" spending bill that would preserve funding for Planned Parenthood and prevent a presidential veto. The party's right wing reportedly was gearing up for another challenge to Boehner's Speakership, and it was believed that he could not survive the next attempt without getting support from Democrats. TPs are celebrating all over the Internet this afternoon. In their mirror universe John Boehner has been a lapdog for President Obama, or else a coward for failing to take the radical steps the TPs demand. Many feel the same way about the Senate majority leader. As far as the TPs are concerned there can be no reason for party leaders not to do as the base allegedly demands except cowardice or corruption. Whether they can put one of their own in Boehner's place is unclear. Wiser heads among the Republicans may realize that the kind of brinkmanship the TPs want to indulge in probably won't play well in an election year. In fact, right now would be a good time to ask the presidential candidates who'd they favor as the next Speaker, i.e. the leader of their party in the House of Representatives, if only because I'm sure some of the candidates couldn't name a single Representative. Some people actually want to credit the Pope for Boehner's decision, claiming either that the pontiff's homily before Congress yesterday inspired the Speaker to make his conciliatory sacrifice or that Boehner considered bringing Francis to the Capitol his ultimate accomplishment, after which there was no reason to remain. But maybe he was jealous of the Pope, or didn't like what he heard from him yesterday, and knowing that Bergoglio was going to deliver more of the same today at the United Nations, decided to steal his thunder and crowd him out of the headlines. Check your news channels tonight to see if Boehner succeeded.

24 September 2015

Carly Fiorina: front-runner for the neocon nomination

One of the highlights, or at least one of the most-repeated sound bites, from the most recent Republican presidential debate, was Carly Fiorina's announcement that, if elected, she had no plans to talk to President Putin of Russia, but would instead send him a message with an arms buildup and deployment of American forces in Eastern Europe and the Baltic. Right there you could tell that the disgraced former Hewlett-Packard CEO -- that's honestly her primary credential -- was angling for the neocon or hawk vote. She was throwing red meat to those who feel that President Obama's policy or general attitude has weakened the U.S. and emboldened the world's terrorists and authoritarians. Fiorina apparently has an idealistic, absolutist notion of American history. We learn today that she told a gathering in South Carolina earlier this month that "We are the only nation in human history that does not conquer territory, but liberates people." The blindness of this statement is breathtaking, considering that every inch of the United States was conquered from indigenous people, or previous colonial occupiers, by people from across the Atlantic Ocean or their descendants.

Her supporters and right-wing apologists in general are now trying to tell us what Fiorina really meant, which apparently was that whenever the U.S. projects force in the wider world, we liberate rather than conquer. Tell that to the Filipinos, some of whom may regard us as liberators twice over -- first from the Spanish and then from the Japanese -- while thousands died more than a century ago fighting an American occupation, premised on the islands' unfitness for self-rule, that lasted, not counting the Japanese interruption, for almost half a century. Tell that to the Hawaiians who may not mind American statehood and representation in Congress but still remember that they were an independent state unilaterally annexed by the U.S. Ask the Iraqis: if a vote were held today, how many would say they were "liberated" from Saddam Hussein and how many would say we "conquered" them? Quite a few might say "all of the above," but the moral of the story is that "liberation" is subjective, a propaganda word. The Germans and Japanese may have been glad to be rid of their respective tyrannies after World War II, but do they really feel liberated or conquered? Consider Germany more closely: is it fair to say they were simultaneously "liberated" by the U.S. and "conquered" by the U.S.S.R.? Had West Germany any more right to go Communist, ever, than East Germany had to go capitalist until Gorbachev let go the leash? Were the Americans, and later NATO, ready to let "liberated" western Europe vote in Communist governments,had voters so chosen? Evidence suggests that they were not, and that they took steps, admittedly non-violent (as far as we know), to influence elections to prevent such results. It can't be proven that we actually did thwart the will of the people, but any intent to thwart the election of an ideologically unwelcome government is the intent of a conqueror, not a liberator. You can go on and on and it proves only this: when Americans talk about liberation they really mean making a nation safe for America and Americanism, but they sincerely believe that this is what everyone in the world wants, unless they're barbarians or religious fanatics. The Soviets rationalized their conquests similarly; they were just as convinced that everyone wanted to be "liberated" their way, and whoever didn't want to live under Leninism suffered from "false consciousness" and required re-education. If nations have any rights that people everywhere are bound to respect, then people have to respect whatever indigenous process produces governments in nations. To take any other attitude or, worse, to act on it, is really the opposite of any objective meaning "liberation" has. When Carly Fiorina speaks of "liberation," she endorses conquest. Perhaps she even promises it.

The Party of Francis

Part of my job involves listening to raw opinion over the phone. Over the past week I've heard people griping about the Pope's visit to the U.S. and his address before Congress. All the griping comes from the right. From that perspective, Bergoglio has committed sins of both commission and omission. Someone says it's none of his business to tell other countries to take in more refugees. Another says it's none of his business to try and mediate between the U.S. and Cuba. It's also none of his business to talk about climate change, someone said, unless he lectures the Chinese, the Indians and his own people in South America first. As for the sins of omission, after the address today, someone complained that he had not denounced Planned Parenthood for its for-profit organ harvesting. In short, whenever Francis ruffles Republican feathers the reactionaries say he should stick to religion, which to them means morality as preached on Fox News or political talk radio.

By comparison, from the broadly-defined left only a relative handful of hardcore feminists and Native activists have criticized the pontiff, the Natives for his canonization of a new saint they accuse of cultural genocide, the feminists for all the predictable but still-valid reasons. For the most part, liberals and progressives have been the current Pope's loudest cheerleaders. They're happy to see a Pope who's on the side of science on climate change, who's more concerned about the plight of the poor than the dangers of socialism/marxism/communism/big government, who seems at least more forgiving, if not necessarily more indulgent on gender and reproductive issues. If he makes Republicans angry -- at least one Representative boycotted today's address over climate politics -- he must be doing something right. But Bergoglio himself today warned against "the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners." While that's sound advice, it should also remind his liberal American fans that Francis isn't necessarily on their side, even if he's more obviously not on the other side. His protest that the traditional family "is threatened, perhaps as never before" by "fundamental relationships ... being called into question, [including] the very basis of marriage and the family," should remind us that the Pope isn't as progressive on all fronts as some would hope. Again, however, that doesn't put him on the Republican side of family politics. "At the risk of oversimplifying," he said, "we might say that we live in a culture which pressures young people not to start a family, because they lack possibilities for the future. Yet this same culture presents others with so many options that they too are dissuaded from starting a family." In other words, the problem isn't just gays and feminists but also poverty and individualist consumerism. One can still ask what's worth saving about the traditional family (for Francis it seems to be all about the children) but few on the left are as daring on that issue as their predecessors were a century or more ago.

An institution like the Catholic Church that can't reconcile itself to full gender equality or the equality of all sexual choices of consenting adults clearly draws lines against progress on some fronts while leaving the borders open, if you will, on others. Just as the Pope appears to agree with the left on some issues but not on others, the left should be able to applaud him when he deserves it and criticize him and his church when they deserve it. Right now, contra Stalin, the American left seems convinced that Francis can bring many divisions to their long twilight struggle with Republican conservatism. If he does help, fine, but the left can go too far in making him a moral leader of any aspect of their struggle. It should always be understood that while a Pope may agree with the left on important issues, it remains both possible and preferable that people arrive at those positions without assuming that they're true only because God wills it. The limits of any Pope's alliance with the historic global left illustrate, perhaps better than anything else, the limit of God's will in the real world.

23 September 2015

Growth vs. Progress

Growth and Progress are two words that should or at least could be synonymous, yet in politics they're not. Notice how many right-wingers appear to despise "progressives," presumably the advocates of "progress," yet promise "growth" if they get power. A major fundraising group for Republicans, now turning its guns on Donald Trump, is the "Club For Growth." Notice how people as diverse as Bernie Sanders and Pope Francis, both considered progressives in their fields, criticize "growth as an end in itself." On some level growth is progress, but progressives increasingly question the notion while right-wingers wouldn't describe it that way. The Pope's position offers a clue to this increasing antonymity. His idea of progress, as compared to his recent predecessors, does have an important materialist aspect when it comes to providing to the poor, but his job inevitably encourages a more spiritual sense of progress. Likewise, if Sanders really is a socialist he must adhere to an essentially materialist philosophy, but I think that, as with the Pope, his idea of progress has a non-materialist element that makes it uninteresting if not threatening to the American right. On a secular level, the distinction isn't made between materialism and spiritualism, but "growth" can still be seen as essentially quantitative while "progress" is essentially qualitative. On the right, "growth" means more stuff, more wealth. It has to be something they can measure or see for themselves. It means baking a bigger pie in the hope that everyone gets more instead of dividing the existing pie into smaller, equal-sized pieces. It means the rising tide that lifts all boats, while progressives, both secular and spiritual, now tend to identify rising tides with the bad effects of climate change and the long-term consequences of "growth as an end in itself." For both Sanders and Bergoglio, I suspect, "progress" really means improved social relations as the precondition for necessary, just and sustainable growth for those who've been stunted by the current social order. For the right, this essentially qualitative aspect of "progress" is consistent with their century-old stereotype of the "progressive" as the busybody who tells everyone how to live without knowing how to provide for anyone. As for the Pope, the right probably would like to tell him that the only remedy for poverty is growth, that people have to become wealthy in order to help the poor, that "punishing success" in whatever way progressives propose ends up punishing everyone in the end. The Pope may have a different idea, in keeping with a tradition in his faith arguably dating back to its founder, a suspicion that the sort of growth the wealthy (and the would-be wealthy) idolize is a cause of poverty for many people. On the secular side, Sanders probably would agree that growth without some commitment to the well-being of all is not progress. It's fine to criticize growth as an "end in itself," as more people are doing these days, as long as we don't abandon growth, understood as a quantitative, material improvement in people's health, diet, etc., as part of progress. We'll have made real progress, on one level at least, when "progress" and "growth" are synonymous again.

22 September 2015

The Sanders Presidency: a preview

At least Bernie Sanders has gotten a Time magazine cover out of his underdog campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. Inside the September 28 issue, the Senator from Vermont offers an explanation for Barack Obama's shortcomings as a President and hints at what he'd do differently Unlike the notorious "community organizer," Sanders believes in a perpetually mobilized movement. "The biggest mistake [Obama] made," he says, "is that the day after the election, in so many words, he said, 'Thank you very much, but I will take it from here.'" Sanders expects that a movement capable of getting him elected would be capable of overcoming Republican obstructionism. Here's how:

How do I convince John [Boehner]? Is my personality that much better than Obama's? The answer is to say, 'Hey, John, take a look out your window. Because there are a million young people there that are in support of the legislation [a theoretical bill to provide free tuition at public colleges]. They are voting. They know what's going on. If you refuse to make college affordable, they're going to vote your people out of office.' That's the offer you can't refuse.

What makes Sanders so sure? Liberals and progressives have gathered in Washington by their thousands and millions many times before. How many more could Sanders bring in to make the impression he hopes for? Is he threatening Boehner's own seat? How many of the people out his window are in Boehner's own district? Leaving that number aside, didn't Republicans long ago reject the notion that mass gatherings of people who don't look like them represent anything more than themselves? On college tuition Sanders thinks he has a winning issue because he'd fund it all with higher taxes on the wealthy, but he almost certainly underestimates the cynicism of voters who take for granted that higher taxes trickle down to them as higher prices, and he definitely underestimates a likely resentment by older generations of the next generation getting a break they didn't get. But let's not get too specific about the theoretical. Is this how Sanders proposes to push through a legislative agenda? Tactically I don't get it. Maybe if he could stage demonstrations in all fifty state capitals it would make a deeper impression on Republican incumbents. But government by demo in Washington looks a lot like mere playing to the media, while to more hostile observers it will look like the first hint of "mob rule" and as such may only harden many hearts. Sanders seems to miss the heart of the problem with Republicans. He thinks he can get them to enact his agenda by intimidating them with mass demonstrations in the capital, but it's more likely that he won't have his agenda enacted until a more sympathetic majority is elected to Congress. If he isn't working now to get a sympathetic Congress elected alongside him in 2016, he shouldn't expect victories in Congress until he makes such a commitment. He probably overestimates what he can do as both President and movement leader, as if he and the million young people can make Congress vote their way no matter who's in Congress. He and they had better get their priorities straight, or else in the still-unlikely event of a Sanders presidency a successful presidency will be still more unlikely.

21 September 2015

Dr. Carson: Front-runner for the Islamophobic nomination

When you're being reminded by the likes of Ted Cruz that there's no religious test for public office, and when you're saying you can't accept the idea of a Muslim President while Donald Trump is saying he'd readily consider putting a Muslim in his Cabinet, you've clearly moved, as they used to say, to the right of Attila the Hun. That would make you Dr. Ben Carson, who may be more the Uncle Ruckus than the Uncle Tom in the field of candidates for the Republican presidential nomination. Dr. Carson, a renowned surgeon and proponent of a by-your-bootstraps social philosophy, told one of the weekend talk shows that he could never "advocate" a Muslim President because he deemed Islam incompatible with the U.S. Constitution. Here's an easy-to-remember definition of an Islamophobe: it's someone who can't tell the difference between Islam and Islamism. Carson is an Islamophobe; he could not say such a thing as he did say unless he made that very mistake.

Islamism is incompatible with the Constitution since it holds the shari'a as the supreme law of the universe, but not all Muslims are Islamists. Islamophobes and Islamists share the belief that the "true" Muslim is an Islamist. But while the Islamist knows better and, resenting it, questions whether non-Islamist Muslims are Muslims at all -- the implicit excommunication is called takfir, hence the takfiri label mainstream Muslims often use for Islamists -- the Islamophobe simply assumes, out of either pure stupidity or the conspiracymonger's form of faith, that all Muslims are Islamists, and that those who deny it are lying, as Islam purportedly authorizes them to do. Dr. Carson would be as accurate if he said that he couldn't advocate a Christian President on the assumption that all Christians are Christianists -- but I doubt the word "Christianist" is in his vocabulary.

Christianists are as incompatible with the Constitution as Islamists, and yet Dr. Carson was heard recently saying that the federal government ought to have exempted Kim Davis from issuing marriage licenses to homosexual couples in Rowan County, Kentucky, because of her religious scruples. By his logic Davis should not have to resign because she was elected to her job before the Supreme Court forbade restrictions on gay marriage. In other words, when the law changes Christians shouldn't have to accommodate themselves if the new rule contradicts their dogma. If you suspect a double standard, that may be because Dr. Carson depends less on the Constitution when setting his standard than on his conviction that this is a "Judeo-Christian" nation with which, naturally, Islam of any sort would be incompatible. The Founders, however, had a very narrow understanding of what "Christian nation" would mean, and while they can be quoted at length on the value of a Christian upbringing or the utility of Christian moral teachings, they probably would deny overwhelmingly that they meant the U.S. to be a Christian or Judeo-Christian nation in any legally exclusive sense, and their generation did deny the premise explicitly in the famous Treaty of Tripoli. To assume that Muslims, in the face of Islamist pressure, are less capable of accommodating themselves to secular citizenship than Christians have been in the face of more constant Christianist pressure is to deny the evidence of generations of law-abiding Muslim citizenship in the United States. Islamophobes always want to argue that Islam is different, uniquely incompatible with civil society in some way or other, but if we change the subject from religion to people -- and nobody is ever going to elect a religion President --  Muslims have proved them wrong time and again.  Christianists -- not to mention a lot of plain old Christians, atheists and people in between -- won't be satisfied until Muslims say what Christians supposedly do, that their kingdom is not of this world. But if that's the standard Christians want to hold Muslims to, shouldn't Christians themselves live up to it? As Jesus himself might observe, if Islamism is the sty in the Muslim's eye, Christianism in any form, from the obstructionism of Kim Davis to the moral-majoritarianism of many others, is the beam in the Christian's. Maybe Dr. Carson should have his rival Dr. Paul take a look at that for him.

Update, 22 October: Since this was posted Dr. Carson has attempted a clarification, saying what he presumably meant all along -- the presumption is admittedly generous -- that a Muslim presidential candidate would have to renounce the shari'a or at least affirm the paramountcy of the Constitution. Meanwhile, Trump elaborated on his comparatively Islamophilic position, stating that he'd have "no problem" with a Muslim President who'd been properly "vetted" over the course of a campaign. Both candidates, and the rest of the Republican contenders, their ranks reduced again by the welcome withdrawal of Gov. Walker of Wisconsin, should be asked whether Kim Davis, who still claims that marriage licenses issued to homosexual couples by her deputies are invalid, should be obliged to renounce the anti-homosexual verses of the Bible, and her general belief that the "word of God" overrides the supreme law of the land, in order to remain a public official.

18 September 2015

The McCain Rule

Nothing Donald Trump can say will please some people; they don't even like it when he keeps his mouth shut. It was his responsibility, rivals and reporters claim, to correct the New Hampshire man who said in his presence at a "town hall" meeting yesterday that President Obama was a non-American Muslim. Everyone was reminded of the example Sen. McCain set back in 2008 when he corrected a woman at one of his events who had described Obama as an "Arab." Unlike McCain, of course, Trump has been a "birther," one of those doubting Obama's right to be President on the ground that he was born outside the United States to a non-American father. I don't know if he's renounced those views, but he certainly didn't renounce them yesterday. Now that I think of it, I wonder whether repudiating birtherism should be added to the list of things Trump could do to alienate his hard core of support. I don't mean to suggest that all Trump supporters are birthers, but I'd guess that a majority of them don't trust the President for one reason or another. To them, for Trump or any candidate to repudiate birtherism would be like telling them they have no right not to trust the President. From their perspective, McCain's condescending correction of a concerned citizen probably proved him an establishment stooge and a poor excuse for a patriot. It probably made him look weak.

These days, one person's factual correctness becomes another's political correctness. Many Americans probably feel just as entitled to believe conspiracy theories as they are under the Constitution to believe any set of religious myths. In such cases faith counts more than facts and anyone who appeals to facts is just trying to tell everyone else how to think. In that context, it's interesting to see that, whatever Trump's own faith may be, his campaign manager is a Christianist. Corey Lewandowski told the Washington Post that the real problem with Obama is that the President "is waging a war against Christians in this country." There's no room for ambiguity here; whether you're familiar with the label or not, if you believe that the government is "waging a war on Christians," you're a Christianist, the intellectual equivalent of Islamists -- most of whom, after all, claim to defend their religion against a global attack. For his next performance, Trump should be asked whether he agrees with his manager's belief, and if so, why. That'd keep the reporters and opinionators happy for another day, at least.

17 September 2015

Broken Clock Alarm: Ann Coulter on Republican pandering

Broken Clock Alarm may become a regular feature of this blog, noting those occasions when people who are almost invariably wrong on the issues manage to get something right. Ann Coulter certainly belongs in the "almost invariably wrong" category, and her antics on Twitter during the Republican debate Wednesday night only confirmed that status to many observers. She now finds herself accused of being anti-semitic because she grew exasperated with so many GOP candidates pandering to Jewish voters or, more likely, Jewish campaign donors like Sheldon Adelson. She seems to have been particularly irked by candidates' answer to the question: what will America look like after you become President? At least four candidates -- Christie, Cruz, Huckabee and Rubio -- mentioned Israel in their responses, presumably indicating that America would have more loyal relations with the Jewish State. It seems clear from reading Coulter's tweets that she didn't object to the idea of better American relations with Israel -- her Islamophobia is indisputable -- but did object to the subject coming up when candidates were supposed to describe how the U.S. would look different under a new Republican president. Throughout the evening, she tweeted her annoyance with what she perceived as cheap applause lines, e.g.: "How to get applause from GOP donors: 1) Pledge to start a war 2) Talk about job creators 3) Denounce abortion 4) Cite Reagan 5) Cite Israel." If her opinions were to be judged consistently across the board based on reactions to her comments on Israel, Coulter would stand accused of hating Ronald Reagan, favoring abortion, opposing war and being indifferent to job creation. She's accused of none of these things, however, which only goes to show how irrationally hypersensitive some people are to the very mention of Israel, or at least to any hint of anything less than unconditional American support for the Zionist Entity bordering on symbiosis. Merely to be bored by mandatory affirmations of support for Israel, as Coulter clearly was, renders you suspect. Maybe Coulter should be excused for being bored by a three-hour panel show passing for substantive debate, highlighted -- if that's the word -- by Jeb Bush pathetically demanding that Donald Trump apologize to his wife, by Carly Fiorina emerging as possibly the leading warmonger in the field while defending her tenure as Hewlett-Packard CEO from criticism that, for once from Trump, might be presumed knowledgeable, and by anti-vaccination hysteria taking the stage, despite attempts to refute it from the one candidate with medical expertise. Coulter has seemed a little crazy for a long time, but subjecting herself to the debate may have deranged her just a little further, to the point where she starts to make occasional sense, if only by accident.

16 September 2015

Debating Trump

There's going to be another debate for Republican presidential candidates tonight. Many people will watch to see Donald Trump stick it to the other candidates, the media, the Democrats, and whomever else they think needs sticking. Many other people will watch hoping to see Trump make a gaffe that will cripple his candidacy. But it should be clear by now that Trump's campaign is just about gaffe-proof. That doesn't mean he'll win the nomination -- I still think that once it comes down to him and one or two others, Trump will lose badly. But he'll lose only because his constituency remains a minority among Republican primary voters, not because that constituency will suddenly repudiate him. Trump's fans refuse to hold him to a standard that they believe was imposed unilaterally and unfairly by the "mainstream media" or the "establishment." It doesn't bother them when Trump fails a "gotcha" test on foreign policy, and as is well known by now, they're not offended by him when prominent others are. I've written before about his fans' belief that the American people need tough talk -- that certain people need to be told they're stupid or weak or whatever. That feeling isn't exclusive to Trump supporters or Republicans, but the other factions don't have anyone as brazen on the stump right now. Another part of Trump's appeal is essentially populist, proving again that populism is more a matter of attitude than any sort of class consciousness. That populist streak among his supporters bristles when pundits mock their man for not knowing about some Iranian general. Trump supporters are rallying to him because they feel he has the character needed in a President, and they suspect that character can't be measured by "gotcha" questions.  They probably like to believe that a President-elect can learn the names of the people he'll have to deal with in short order; the important thing is that he already has an idea of how he wants to deal with countries and regimes. A further implication of "gotcha" questions is most likely resented even more. Trump fans -- and Ben Carson fans, while we're at it -- may think that only "career politicians" can memorize all the names of foreign leaders, parties, etc. They probably suspect that "gotcha" questions are designed by the media to show that only career politicians are competent to hold high office. They needn't draw such a conclusion, of course, since thousands if not millions of non-politicians are reasonably self-educated about foreign affairs, but their defensiveness probably reflects their own ignorance of such matters and their fear that their own opinions are unjustly devalued by the establishment. In short, if Trump, with all the advantages of a billionaire, is deemed unfit to be President by the mainstream establishment, what chance have his ordinary supporters to make a difference in an alleged democracy? Trump is flourishing now because people can see him more than any of his rivals as a projection of themselves. He'll still lose because most voters can do without such projection, but Trump would have to do or say something almost unimaginable to lose the support he has now. He'd probably have to come out as gay, convert to Islam, or worst of all, declare himself an atheist to turn them off. Don't expect to see any of that tonight.

15 September 2015

The "post-authoritarian" dream

Pundits like Thomas L. Friedman spend a lot of ink and pixels decrying "authoritarian" regimes and policies around the world, but Friedman himself believes such regimes are doomed. In his most recent column for the New York Times he predicts a "post-authoritarian" world brought about by climate change, economic globalization and Moore's Law of constant technological innovation, which presumably contributes by unemploying more people and further destabilizing societies. It's apparent that what Friedman means by "post-authoritarian" depends on what he means by "authoritarian." In this context, authoritarianism is equated with centralized order, while Friedman predicts "a post-imperial, post-colonial and, soon, I believe, post-authoritarian world, in which no one will be able to control [the] disorderly regions with an iron fist." This prediction mistakes devolution for extinction, since it's likely that authoritarianism will persist on a smaller, decentralized scale. Once the forces Friedman describes "blow up" the "most artificial" countries, e.g. those with borders drawn by imperial powers without regard to "ethnic, tribal or religious realities," the result may still look like chaos from a globalist perspective but within each ethnically, tribally or religiously homogeneous unit that emerges authoritarian government of some sort will be more likely than "liberal" government founded on civil society or civil rights. I don't think Friedman would disagree with this assessment, but we have a slight disagreement over labeling.

The only alternative Friedman sees to what we might call, compromising my view with Friedman's, authoritarian chaos is the sort of imperialistic "boots on the ground" policy for which no one wants to "will the means," since for the imperial power, "all you win is a bill." Nor does the political will exist, he writes, to "build a wall and isolate these regions of disorder" by whatever means. As a result, "the world of disorder keeps spilling over into the world of order," and things are likely only to get worse as the three disrupting forces "are just revving their engines" now.

Friedman's belief, I assume, is that liberal civil society may have immunized many nations against the disruptive forces. I infer this from his characteristic lament that authoritarian leaders in the post-colonial world "wasted the last 60 years plundering natural resources" rather than "creating citizens with equal rights." Ironically, he now seems to believe that liberal civil society can only be imposed on some places by force, i.e. "boots on the ground." I wonder whether Friedman has ever come to terms with the necessity of authoritarian government -- or at least the necessity of effective political power -- in history. The great liberal hope since decolonization has been that the newly independent nations could do without an authoritarian (much less totalitarian) phase and develop instantly into liberal civil societies. It's certainly nice to think so, but the perceived imperatives of development in the face of enduring privilege and vested interests pointed in a different direction, one no doubt more appealing to the would-be strongmen of the decolonized world. Leaving ad hominem arguments out, however, it can be argued that every major civilization in human history has had to go through an authoritarian phase in order to eliminate vested interests standing in the way of objective historic progress. In the case of the U.S. Europe did the work for us through absolute monarchy before Europeans populated North America with relatively liberal communities, unencumbered by much of feudalism, after conquering the natives. Liberals remain uncomfortable with such ideas, I suspect, because they assume something that doesn't follow, namely that recognizing the necessity of an authoritarian stage of development means that citizens have an unconditional duty to obey authoritarian rulers during that stage. They do not. Power is always liable to abuse, no matter what safeguards you put in writing, and rulers are always answerable in fact, if not by letter of the law or custom, for abuses of power.  What must be understood, however, is that critics during an authoritarian stage of history must weigh the risks of principled criticism against the risks of powerless government. The question is whether, to guarantee immunity for himself, the critic should render government incapable of the heavy lifting it must undertake at that point in history to overcome vested interests and obsolete privileges. The answer is not to give up criticizing rulers for their abuses or mistakes, for those have been all too real throughout history. Instead, the answer is not to throw the baby, state power, out with the bathwater of an abusive ruler, and to accept the risk of getting wet. If there were more people of courage in history, authoritarian rulers would have gotten away with less, and the worst would barely have gotten off the ground. If anything, the decline of the United States may teach that constitutions, for all their virtues, are no substitute for the courage and vigilance on which the Founders also depended, even when authoritarians were nowhere to be found, and that constitutions designed primarily to constrain rulers end up entrenching privileged vested interests until progress grinds to a halt. If authoritarianism isn't the answer in all times and places, the sort of risk-free government idealized by many liberals may prove even more useless at critical times. No wonder Friedman has no answer for the world today.

14 September 2015

Do black manners matter?

In the October Harper's Randall Kennedy writes "In Defense of Respectability" against colleagues in the civil-rights movement who seem to despise the idea. We saw one of them a few weeks ago writing in defense of "black rage." By comparison, "respectability" looks like a hard sell these days. The very word implies an accountability to an Other that many feel compelled to reject. As Kennedy notes, respectability "is denounced as a flight from blackness, an opportunistic gambit, a cowardly capitulation, a futile exercise, and an implicit confession that racist mistreatment is excusable unless committed upon a perfect black victim." Further, it "wrongly shifts attention from illegitimate social conditions to the perceived deficiencies of those victimized by those conditions." Against such arguments, Kennedy argues simply that respectability is pragmatic and has worked in the past. He points out that Rosa Parks was anointed the "face of black suffering and resistance" during the Montgomery bus boycott after a process of elimination carried out by blacks in which people arguably equally worthy were passed over because they didn't meet the respectability test -- one simply because her father was a drunk who went barefoot a lot. He recalls that Thurgood Marshall, during his days as an NAACP lawyer, would only take on clients in civil-rights cases whom he thought "able to present a good face to the public." In our time, some blacks (including Kennedy?) questioned whether Michael Brown of Ferguson was a proper rallying point for a protest movement compared to the more indisputably innocent Tamir Rice of Cleveland. He notes that many of the black writers who sneer at the politics of respectability "typically dress to impress" when they go on TV. Such a person "practices the politics of respectability even as he disparages it."

Kennedy is up against the opinion that blacks have no more to prove to whites, and that when even black leaders make demands of the rank and file, they're "letting the oppressor off the hook." Another way of putting this is that many blacks, contra Kennedy, now believe that black people shouldn't have to do anything until white America does what it ought to do. Kennedy rejects the inference that demanding respectability means asking less or whites or of the establishment in general. He returns repeatedly to the pragmatic argument for respectability, best summarized thusly: "any marginalized group should be attentive to how it is perceived." Of course, the marginalized people may understandably resent their conditions and rebel against the obligations it imposes on them, but Kennedy takes the "realistic" ground in arguing that "the support or at least the acceptance of many whites is necessary to enact policies that will bring about substantial positive change." It can be asked why whites can't accept the justice of the black position on principle without having to be won over by respectability, but Kennedy would most likely answer that respectability has benefits for blacks apart from whatever positive effect it has on whites. Respectability is a discipline for Kennedy. In an interesting analogy, he compares it to the physical rehabilitation the victims of automobile accidents often must undergo.  Even if the victim was hit by a drunk driver and was entirely in the right, she still has to do the rehab, however onerous it may be. "Similarly," Kennedy writes, "deprivations that are wholly attributable to white racism may still force blacks to work hard at personal and collective advancement if they are to have any chance of continued elevation."

In closing, Kennedy suggests that the major difference between defenders and detractors of respectability is one of temperament. The detractors are pessimists, convinced by the recent publicity given excessive-force killings of blacks by police, that race relations have hit a wall or have deteriorated. As for himself, "an underlying optimism animates respectability politics." Kennedy believes that despite the "accumulating outrages" of the Obama years, the country "day by day ... offers more racial decency than any previous era." He believes that "shrewd, disciplined and forceful action can help blacks, individually and collectively, to advance." Whether that's true or not, there's something about our time that makes Kennedy's defense more difficult. Think of "respectability" as the black equivalent, in the pejorative sense, of "political correctness" and you may see the problem. Whether they're public intellectuals or street activists -- or looters -- a lot of black people claim an unconditional entitlement to one key freedom whites appear to enjoy already. They want just as much right as any American has not to give a damn what anyone else thinks. If there's anything old-fashioned about Kennedy's appeal to respectability, it may be that he preaches it to black people while so many other Americans seem to have abandoned the idea, ironically enough, in the name of freedom.

11 September 2015

Insert atheist/islamophobic snark here

Objectively speaking, it's only an accident, albeit one more lamentable as the casualty count grows, but this news from Mecca, Saudi Arabia, may seem to prove something about God -- his preferences if not his absence -- to many observers. Make of it what you will.

10 September 2015

In defense of Syria

I'm not necessarily defending Syria -- much less the Assad regime -- but Russia is. Americans are in an uproar this week over reports that the Putin government is increasing military aid to Assad on the actually rather reasonable pretext of combating terrorism. I assume that any reasonable person would assume that the self-styled Islamic State, one of the factions fighting Assad, is a greater threat to global security than Assad himself is. To my knowledge, no one ever accused Assad or his father, for all their misdeeds, of seeking regional hegemony or more than that. The most that can be said against them is that they've meddled consistently in the affairs of Lebanon, a neighboring country, but Syria isn't the only power guilty of that offense. If you have to choose between the Daesh and Assad, the choice ought to be pretty easy -- but Americans don't like limits on their choices. The way the Obama administration sees it, Russia is unfairly tipping the balance in favor of Assad as against the legitimate dissidents and rebels we'd prefer to see in power in Damascus, despite their oft-demonstrated inability to make headway against Assad or the IS or other jihadist militias. In other words, the bipartisan dream of replacing the region's dictators with reasonable, cooperative, liberal regimes -- or at least with reasonable, cooperative dictators -- endures despite the emergence of a threat potentially greater than that posed by any existing regime. Not so long ago the U.S. did things differently. When Iraq occupied Kuwait, G.H.W. Bush went out of his way to secure Syria, no less tyrannical under the elder Assad and no less hostile to Israel, as part of his extraordinary coalition against Saddam Hussein, Assad's fellow Baathist. So what's different now? For one thing, we have a Democratic President this time, and Obama and Clinton (not to mention Mrs. Clinton) have proven time and again, despite all the Republican railing against their alleged anti-American activities or attitudes, that Democrats are as fanatical about spreading "freedom" as the neocons, if not more fanatical about "humanitarian intervention." For all the elder Bush's talk of a "New World Order," his Democratic successors seem just as convinced that the U.S. is "the indispensable nation" and just as intolerant, if not more so due to their humanitarian pretensions, of "authoritarianism" in any form. Leaving parties aside, a generation of de facto hegemony has spoiled us and stunted our capacity for strategically realistic thinking. By comparison, while the Soviet Union often was a subversive force in the world, under Putin Russia is acting as a conservative force, either for good or ill depending on your opinion of popular uprisings in Syria or Ukraine. From an objective international perspective the Russian stance in defense of the sovereign, whatever his moral legitimacy may be, is the only legitimate one, especially when you consider the alternatives that are actually plausible instead of building foreign policy on dreams.

09 September 2015

"one momentous week in late June"

The President's latest begging letter reached me today. He signed it in a nostalgic mood, looking back fondly on "one momentous week in late June, when the course of our nation pointed, once again, squarely toward progress." The letter itself begs for donations to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Obama's idea being that if his party can take four of the 24 Republican seats in play next year, while holding all ten of theirs, Democrats will reclaim the upper house. Recalling those momentous June days, I assume, is supposed to inspire us to donate to Democrats -- but what was so momentous about that week, and what did Senate Democrats have to do with it?

Obama explains, first, that after that momentous week, "A woman in Florida working two part-time jobs no longer has to worry about whether or not she will have access to affordable health care. [boldface in original]" Once you reach the end of the sentence you realize that he refers to the Supreme Court decision upholding the Affordable Care Act against the most recent nitpicking challenge. Next,"A devoted same-sex couple from Ohio can now build a life together with equal dignity in the eyes of the law." And indeed, in that same week in June the Court struck down laws denying marriage rights to same-sex couples. Finally, "across the South, lawmakers are calling to take down the Confederate flag, a symbol of systematic oppression for so many, from public grounds." Here the President refers to initiatives by state governors and legislators, including some Republicans. Can U.S. Senate Democrats claim leadership on this issue? Alas, the credit really belongs to the perpetrator of the Charlestown massacre of the previous week, whose avowed white supremacism and brandishing of the rebel flag shamed many of the old banner's former defenders while newly emboldening its longtime opponents.

The only thing Democratic Senators can take credit for out of all of this is voting to confirm the Supreme Court justices who voted in favor of Obamacare and gay marriage. But in all four pages of the President's begging letter on Senators' behalf, their role in replenishing the Court gets one sentence -- a sentence fragment, really -- of recognition, and then the main priority is "Appointing Supreme Court justices who will defend a woman's right to make her own decisions about her body and her own health." A devil's advocate might note that by upholding the ACA, the majority of justices, confirmed by Democrats, denied women the right to at least one decision regarding their health: the right not to buy health insurance. But we know what he meant, and as Justice Roberts said back in June, what the author means matters more than how he puts it in writing.

"During that historic week in June, I felt, more than anything else, an open heart," the President writes boldly, "And I know you felt it, too." But if you think rather than feel -- and this is often as hard for Democrats as it is for Republicans -- the change Obama has waited for until that momentous week in June had little to do with national legislation. It resulted from judicial deliberation and state initiative, in the latter case provoked by violence. If the President could point to actual accomplishments of the U.S. Senate during the Democratic majority of 2007-14, besides their approval of his signature health-insurance legislation, he would probably make a better case for donations to Democratic candidates. Instead, he goes on for three pages about how great next year's candidates look after making a compelling argument for their irrelevance. Senators ought not even appear irrelevant, but Obama's sort of flattery will get Democrats nowhere.

08 September 2015

The Christianist Candidates for President

Kim Davis was released from prison today on the understanding that she would not interfere in the issuance by her deputy clerks of marriage licenses to homosexual couples in Rowan County, KY. The judge's thought in releasing her may have been to take an issue away from two candidates for the Republican presidential nomination who had come to Kentucky to publicize their solidarity with the homophobic county clerk. Former governor Huckabee of Arkansas took her side early, but was joined quickly by Sen. Cruz of Texas has jumped in with both feet. Did they merely oppose her imprisonment as a matter of judicial excess -- Cruz called her imprisonment "judicial lawlessness turned into judicial tyranny" -- or did they support her assumed moral right to obstruct gay marriage? Increasingly it sounds like the latter. These two have broken from the rest of the Republican field to pursue the Christianist vote. For those just joining us, "Christianist" is my term -- I didn't coin it but the term is relatively new -- for those who believe that American law must not contradict the Bible, much as Islamists believe the law in Muslim countries must not contradict, but rather should echo the Qur'an. "Christianist" is a fair label for Cruz and Huckabee. Christianism explains Cruz's crack about "lawless" judges, while Huckabee clarifies the sentiment by saying that "Supreme Court lawyers [sic?] did not and cannot make law" and that the Court is "certainly not the Supreme Being."   Their interpretations of the Davis case are more telling in their seeming hysteria. Cruz says that jailing Cruz implies a belief that "Christians should not serve in public office," while Huckabee sees Davis's imprisonment as a step toward "the criminalization of Christianity in our country."

Whether you're a Christianist or simply a Christian depends on whether you agree with the candidates. They imply that no Christian could do otherwise than what Davis did. They imply that all Christians have a duty to obstruct gay marriage -- yet it's self-evident that many Christians disagree, whether because they respect the rule of law in this country or because they can no longer see any good reason for God to object to homosexuality or gay marriage. The gay marriage controversy is a potentially formative issue for a genuinely Christianist political movement in the U.S. because it appears or is alleged to force a decision on Christians. The premise of conscientious objection to facilitating gay marriage depends on an idea that opposition defines a good Christian -- that gay marriage is, as Davis put it, "a Heaven and Hell issue" upon which a Christian's salvation implicitly depends. This assertion of duty is a call to jihad -- nonviolent so far -- that Cruz and Huckabee hope will carry one of them to power. It might be comforting to dismiss their irresponsible ravings as mere opportunism, but you'd have to be deaf and blind to deny that anger over America's endorsement of same-sex marriage is real and intense and ready to be exploited. Christianity certainly isn't in danger in the U.S., but Christianism does need to be nipped in the bud, and just as it's up to Muslims to defeat Islamism, it'll be up to Christians here to defeat Christianism. It's up to them to reject Christianist claims that "true" Christianity opposes gay marriage, if not homosexuality itself. Given all the churches across the country that now gladly conduct same-sex weddings, there should be ready answers for every homophobic command the Christianists want to give. If the Christianists want to challenge the Christianity of those who disagree with them, as the Islamists challenge the Islam of their opponents, this unbeliever will gladly cheer on the other side with the words of J. W. Wimpy: "Let's you and him fight!"

07 September 2015

Syria: Whose responsibility?

Syria has given us a humanitarian crisis in the form of a flood of refugees fleeing the country's all-against-all civil war and risking their lives -- and sometimes losing them -- to reach Europe. It has given us a cultural crisis of a sort in the ongoing obliteration of the ruins of ancient Palmyra by the iconoclastic thugs of the self-styled Islamic State. It has been an ongoing diplomatic crisis as the regional and global powers take sides, Iran and Russia backing the incumbent dictator, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States demanding his ouster but praying for alternatives to the Daesh. In the U.S. we debate whether it's our responsibility to end the Syrian crisis by defeating the Assad regime and/or his Islamic State enemies. In Europe they debate whether the developed countries have a moral responsibility to accept refugees, and in the U.S. as well it's suggested that we should welcome more here. Some say the refugee crisis is Obama's fault, either because he failed to act decisively to speed Assad's exit or because he helped start the trouble by demanding Assad's ouster during the "Arab Spring." The debate over Obama's responsibility is parochial and partisan, but it does raise broader questions. If the rest of the world cannot or will not resolve the Syrian conflict -- on the assumption that Iran, Russia, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia could impose a settlement if they could agree on one -- does the world then bear a responsibility to help the people whose only option is escape from Syria? If the rest of us effectively condemn them to a hell of conflict in Syria, oughtn't we at least facilitate their escape?

To the humanitarian it sounds like an easy call, but as a devil's advocate let me take up a different line of argument. The humanitarian impulse assumes that refugees from Syria are innocent victims of the multisided conflict or trying understandably to avoid becoming victims. But are they innocent? In asking this I don't mean to suggest that these people had taken one side or another in the conflict, since the opposite is more likely true, but I want to raise the issue of their responsibility for their country's plight. By assuming them innocent and presuming them helpless we absolve them of any responsibility, and common sense seems to suggest the justice of doing so. What can they do against the men with guns, after all? At the very least, I'd suggest, they could pick a side. Admittedly there don't seem to be many or any good choices, but if these people haven't simply given up on their country and want the conflict to end they have to help somebody win, and unless Syria is so broken along sectarian and tribal lines that consensus is no longer possible the masses ought to be able to get behind one group or another if only to end the war more quickly. As helpless civilians they may not be able to form their own side, but I'm sure the able-bodied would be welcomed by any side. This may not be a realistic notion but it helps make the point that while the rest of the world is accused of abandoning Syria -- or, worse, meddling with it -- millions of the nation's own people are more obviously abandoning it. It's their prerogative to do so, and if we could rest assured that anyone who wants to get out of Syria can do so, at whatever risk, the rest of us might feel more comfortable abandoning the remaining Syrians to their fratricidal fate -- so long as the IS doesn't end up on top, I suppose. On the other hand, it might be that if people couldn't get out so easily -- leaving aside how hard it's proving to actually reach some other country -- a critical mass of frustration might bear fruit in a new force that could change the course of the conflict. Such an event wouldn't be the first time a new force arose amid the chaos of multipolar war. Not so long ago another country's people got sick and tired of warlords fighting each other and bulldozing civilians in the process, and some of those people did something about it and actually beat down all the warlords. Since the country was Afghanistan and the new force was the Taliban, that may not be the most inspiring example, but it does suggest that an aroused, indignant people could call a plague on all the houses oppressing them and sweep all of them off the board if sufficiently motivated.

A refugee crisis, by comparison, may really mean that people are giving up on their country too easily. Again, it's their prerogative to do so, as we've acknowledged for the last few centuries as people leave their homes even in peacetime in search of better opportunities. The real question for the rest of the world remains whether the refugees' prerogative presumes an international obligation to welcome them. The assumption behind arguments for such an obligation is that not welcoming refugees condemns them to a hellish existence back home for which we would become doubly responsible, first by not ending the conflict as we (meaning the world, not any particular country) presumably can, and then by not allowing them to escape. The fundamental question is whether the whole world shares responsibility for the agony of one country and thus has a right to resolve that country's civil wars to the world's satisfaction. If such responsibility is an inherent fact, that's an argument for establishing an effective world government whose legitimacy will depend less on what it might do about Syria than on whether it behaves consistently during the next humanitarian crisis, not to mention its behavior toward those many countries besides Syria where ordinary people's lives are pretty miserable right now. Syria commands our attention not so much because there are so many militias fighting and so many refugees fleeing, but because several major powers are determined to prop up a widely unpopular ruler at all costs, and several other powers are determined to remove that ruler at all costs, even with no popular alternative available. While we theorize that Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia and the U.S. could settle the Syrian conflict themselves, presumably by reaching an arrangement that satisfies all their geopolitical interests and making their proxies respect it, a real world-government intervention ideally would leave all four of these meddlers out of the settlement. These countries combined to prevent either theoretical quick resolution of the conflict: the quick exit of Assad during the early uprisings or the quick victory of Assad once he started to crack down. So if we assume "innocent" Syrians are owed new homes by an international community assumed responsible for their plight and flight, they are the countries that ought to take them on, or else subsidize them wherever they end up. But any such assumption in the absence of effective world government is merely a preference with moral pretensions. The really responsible thing to do is work for effective world government and let it decide what should be done the next time, since it's probably too late to save Syria that way. It may be that the best Syria can be now is an object lesson in how the international community should not work.

03 September 2015

Judge not, lest ye go to jail

Who was more lenient? The plaintiffs suing the Rowan County (KY) Clerk for contempt, who asked that she be fined rather than jailed, or the judge who ruled today that Kim Davis should go to jail? The fine might seem more lenient, but if it plaintiffs meant it to be so burdensome that Davis would feel compelled to resign, the time in jail, with no monetary penalty necessarily attached, and no threat (as far as I know) to her remaining in her elected office, probably looked more attractive to the embattled Clerk, a Christianist homophobe who has refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples on the assumption that "the authority of God" overrides the U.S. Supreme Court. Going to jail is certainly more dramatic, which will help her inevitable "as told to" book. She might even get a movie made with this sort of drama in her story. Thrice-divorced woman gets born again and becomes a brave defender of the divine sanctity of marriage in the face of secular humanist pervert persecution -- I think there's an audience for that sort of thing. Meanwhile, state law says she can only be removed from office through impeachment and conviction by the state legislature, and I wouldn't hold my breath for that. It's more likely that she'll resign, once out of prison, to take advantage of her new celebrity. Whatever she does, her case ought to be a teaching moment for everybody. What I hope people learn is that Davis is not legally (not to mention morally) equivalent to those private businesspeople who claim a religious exemption from demands for service from potential customers they find objectionable on religious grounds. It is one thing, and odious enough, to refuse service to gays due to superstitious intolerance, but it would be another if that legendary homophobic baker attempted to prevent the gay wedding from taking place at all. That's what Davis has been doing. To put it a different way, it's one thing to opt out, as homophobic businesses apparently may do, and another to obstruct citizens in the exercise of their rights, as Davis has done. It's one thing to refuse to obey an order you deem immoral, and another to frag your superior officer; doing the latter crosses the line at a necessary cost. The only ethical thing Davis and other obstructionists can do in the face of the Supreme Court's decision is resign their offices; anything more is less an assertion of their own rights of conscience than a violation of other people's rights. To borrow some old phraseology, your conscience ends where another person's rights begin, or else you're waging revolution against the prevailing legal and social order, and presumably accepting the risks that come with that. Not that there's much risk in this case, with Davis's fame assured and probably immune to shame. We can only hope to make her a byword in civilized circles for reactionary bigotry, the modern equivalent of George Wallace at the schoolhouse door. And when her defenders, including the despicable Mike Huckabee, assert the authority of God, we can answer that when the word of God conflicts with the Constitution of the United States, God's word is not law, but lawlessness.

02 September 2015

The peak of absurdity

The interesting thing about the dispute over Mt. Denali (or is it just "Denali?") in Alaska is how solicitous some people have become toward the memory of William McKinley. The mountain, long known by natives by some variant of "Denali," was first associated with the U.S. President before he took office. According to Wikipedia, a gold prospector hopefully renamed the mountain in 1896 after the then-candidate and champion of the gold standard. It was formally named Mt. McKinley is a spirit of reverence toward the since-martyred President in 1917. Tastes change, of course, and starting in the 1970s Alaskans sought to restore the mountain's original (or aboriginal) name. The recent move by the President authorizing an official restoration of the Denali name reportedly has bipartisan support in Alaska, and while our most famous Alaskan hasn't yet been heard from to my knowledge, Governor Palin referred to the mountain as Denali during her time in office. Meanwhile, there has been bipartisan outrage in Ohio, the onetime "Mother of Presidents" and McKinley's home. Ohio lately has been a pivotal state in presidential elections and neither major party, presumably, wants to miss any opportunity for advantage. Each, then, will rise up to protest this perceived slur on their state and their hero, and they have a friend in Donald Trump, who has tweeted a promise to restore the McKinley name if elected President. I'm really surprised that so many people care about a President whose most positive achievement, arguably, was to stay in a Buffalo receiving line long enough for Leon Czolgosz to clear the way for Teddy Roosevelt. McKinley was a protectionist whose signature tariff legislation raised rates but reportedly resulted in reduced revenues for the government. We're stuck with Puerto Rico and Guantanamo Bay because of the Spanish-American War McKinley waged (admittedly much goaded by TR). Some Republicans may yet think of the McKinley administration as a golden age, but today's provocateurs seem more concerned about the hurt feelings of Ohio than the neglected memory of the man. All this chivalry toward Ohio is opportunistic, of course, but it's also euphemistic; it's a way to denounce the President for "political correctness" in his apparent favoring of Native heritage over national history without having to say the words. Maybe the fact that Alaskan Republicans favor "Denali" makes the usual railing against political correctness politically incorrect this time -- and maybe, just maybe, this is an early hint that the rhetoric of "political correctness" is growing tired, or at least less appealing to Republicans tired of Trump taking the issue from them. As for the mountain, since it's part of a national park I suppose we're all entitled to a voice in the naming. Why not make a popularity vote of it like the recent contests for new faces on the $10 or $20 bill. Actually, let's get some revenue out of this. If people care enough to have an opinion, let them pay to vote, while the rest of us who don't really care one way or another get some benefit out of it. Let then nominate any name they want, while we're at it, and then we'll really see democracy at work.

01 September 2015

A theocratic insurrection in Kentucky

Ever since the right to refuse service to gay weddings was equated with religious freedom, I've challenged religious homophobes to prove that their religion and their salvation require them to repudiate gay weddings, my own position being that, whether I really like it or not, religious believers should not be compelled to do anything that would discredit them within their religion or condemn them, according to that faith, to Hell or its equivalent. My hunch had been that no religious homophobe could prove that their souls would be jeopardized by catering to gay weddings -- but I had not reckoned with Kim Davis, the Clerk of Rowan County, KY. Citing religious grounds, she has refused to issue marriage licenses to homosexual couples in her county, and continues to refuse even after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that she had no right to refuse. Davis announced her defiance today and explicitly stated that she refused "under God's authority" to issue the licenses. She elaborated on her stand in a press release, explaining that, in fact, for her at least, whether or not to issue marriage licenses to homosexuals is "a Heaven or Hell decision." Davis believes that she is as securely protected against reprisal as a public official as private businesses are under the federal and state constitutions and Kentucky's Religious Freedom Restoration Act, but she faces prosecution as gay couples have sued her for contempt and will be subject to financial penalties, at least, if found guilty. Whether the county government will hold her accountable depends on the political and religious environment there, but her refusal to resign disqualifies her from any claim to leniency. It would be one thing, and perhaps questionable at that, if she challenged the requirement to issue the licenses on constitutional grounds, but the Constitution is at best her second line of defense. Instead, this public official claims the prerogative to put "God's authority" before the word of the Supreme Court. If a Muslim tried this a mob would be out with torches and pitchforks, and people in some states have even proposed legislation against such a possibility. Kim Davis is doing nothing different from what many fear Muslims want to do. She is claiming that a Christian shari'a overrides the supreme law of the land. Worse, instead of resigning with some vestige of honor, she is claiming a right to override the supreme law of the land herself, while in a position of public responsibility, based on a personal interpretation of her religion that we have to take on faith, since she cites no scriptural authority for her implicit claim that allowing gay weddings is a mortal sin. The lines can hardly be drawn more starkly. It may be that no one has the power to remove her from office immediately, but whatever due process is required to remove her is by now overdue.