30 November 2015

After Colorado Springs: will gun nuts fight the pro-life movement?

Investigators in Colorado Springs remain scrupulously careful about assigning a motive to the apparent Black Friday amoklauf in that conservative city, the second mass-shooting there in one month. It's an unusual case because the shooter, finding himself surrounded, decided to surrender after several hours holed up in a Planned Parenthood clinic, during which time he shot five policemen, killing one, and murdered two other people. Live reports established the ambiguity, raising the question of whether the shooter had struck first at a nearby bank; it turned out that people fleeing from Planned Parenthood fled to the bank and reported the incident from there. By now many of you have seen the shooter; he looks like the sort capable of multiple motives competing for dominance in the cramped space of his consciousness. Sources within the investigation have emphasized that among many other things, he said something to the effect of: "no more baby parts." While people who knew the shooter in recent residences have described him as an apparent right-winger with no particular grievance against abortion that any can recall, it would seem that he, like many less violent people, was galvanized by the video revelations about Planned Parenthood's dealing in body parts for researchers, and that that widely-shared outrage contributed to, if it didn't determine, his attack on the clinic. While some people are already unambiguously affirming that premise, the pro-life movement has grown defensive, denying any linkage between what they say and what anyone does -- at least when someone does something violent. The usual charges of hypocrisy have already been exchanged. If the right is so eager to blame Muslim violence on Islam, the left says, then they must admit anti-abortion propaganda's share of responsibility for the Black Friday shootings. If the left is reluctant to blame Muslim violence on Islam, the right says, they should not blame anti-abortion propaganda for the shootings.

It may be up to the gun lobby to tip the balance. That lobby's usual argument is that mere possession of guns is never sufficient to explain an amoklauf. Instead, gun lobbyists prefer to emphasize mental illness and, more importantly for this new debate, the corrupting effect of media. Rather than do something about guns, they say, do something about violent video games or violent movies. To be consistent, then, and in the absence of more than superficial psychoanalysis -- the shooter only looks crazy to us -- organizations like the National Rifle Association should have to affirm that the Planned Parenthood videos and related propaganda are dangerously inflammatory and a more immediate and remediable cause of the carnage in Colorado Springs than the shooter's easy access to firearms. Conversely, the pro-life movement might consider coming out for greater gun control, if only so no one will blame their propaganda for future shootings, if not also because a "pro-life" movement really should take such a stand. It's amusing to imagine these two core constituencies of the Republican party turning on each other to avoid blame for Colorado Springs, but it's more likely that both sides will agree that the shooter was nuts and end the conversation. While that might not exempt him from personal responsibility for the shootings by their moral standards, it will certainly take them off the hook.

26 November 2015

Let's talk Turkey

Just the thing everyone was afraid of happened this week: a NATO power shot down a Russian plane in the Syrian war zone. That's where the Russians claim it happened, but the Turks say that the Russian bomber had violated their national air space, ignoring repeated warnings (the surviving crewman denies hearing any) before it was brought down. It fell on the other side of the border in rebel-held Syrian territory, from which the surviving Russian was rescued soon afterward. President Putin called the shootdown a "stab in the back" and accused Turkey of supporting ISIS. President Erdogan retorted that Putin is more interested in protecting the Syrian dictator than in his stated goal of destroying ISIS. His evidence is that Russia has been bombing a border region where ISIS is nowhere to be found. Instead, the Turks claim, the Russians are attacking Turkomen Syrians, Sunnis and ethnic kin to the Turks, who oppose Assad but aren't affiliated with ISIS or al-Qaeda. The Russians, however, see any group that opposes Assad as "terrorists." The Turks claim that a campaign of ethnic cleansing is underway in the border region, the Turkomens being oppressed by the Syrian government, by Russian air power, and by pro-Assad Syrian Kurds. The Turks hate Kurds wherever they find them, and the Erdogan government itself has been accused of taking their eye off the ball, of being more interested in fighting Kurds in both Syria and Iraq than in fighting ISIS. Turkey belongs to the "Assad must go" camp; despite alleged authoritarian tendencies of his own, Erdogan opposes the other "authoritarian" forces in this conflict: Assad, the Russians and the Iranians. But let's be honest: this isn't a simple "anti-authoritarian" or "anti-terrorist" conflict for any of the belligerents. That should be obvious when Saudi Arabia is part of the "Assad must go" camp. All the countries in that coalition could live with Assad and his oppression of his people, if he wasn't friends with Iran, if he would make peace with Israel, etc., etc. You can argue likewise that Russia and Iran are less concerned with "terrorism," and much less concerned about the Syrian people, than with the strategic advantages they enjoy as long as Assad retains power. It's fine that all these countries want to destroy ISIS but unless they forswear their other strategic concerns their inherent conflicts will leave openings where Daesh can still flourish, while people who are "innocent," insofar as they are not ISIS, will suffer. If the international community wants to outlaw ISIS, they should not leave it to individual nations to enforce the ruling. Otherwise each nation, unregulated, will pursue its own interests, and their contradictory interests will have consequences like those we've seen in the disputed skies above the battlefield. Syria today is the best argument for international law enforced by a single global authority, indifferent to the interests of any one nation or group of nations. For all we know, a just outcome in Syria and Iraq would please none of the meddling powers, and that might be the proof that it was just.

24 November 2015

Race war in Minneapolis?

Jamar Clark was just another punk or just another victim -- or both, unless you see things purely in black and white. Unarmed, he was fatally shot during a scuffle with police in Minneapolis earlier this month, making the Minnesota city the latest rallying point for the Black Lives Matter movement. The cops say he was trying to grab a gun. His friends say he was on the ground, if not already cuffed, when he was shot. Business as usual on both sides, but things escalated when alleged white supremacists showed up to heckle the BLM demonstrators. Last night a group of three such characters allegedly shot their way out of a tense confrontation, wounding five people. In other words, if current accounts are correct, the sort of people who aren't supposed to exist anymore, except in black folks' paranoid heads, showed up in Minneapolis armed for combat. Of course, so far we have only the BLM side of the story. One suspect has been arrested, and another man taken in only to be released, as I write, but I'm sure once we definitely have the shooter or shooters we'll hear a different story, one having a lot to do with self-defense. And I don't doubt that the poor men felt threatened. After all, didn't you know that a black man of teen age or older can kill you with his bare hands? That may not actually be true, but juries and review boards across the country have ruled that you're entitled to believe that, at least if you're a cop or some sort of security guard. I don't know if people will be as indulgent toward the alleged knuckleheads in Minneapolis, but I may be underestimating, despite the evidence I see and hear every day, how infuriated many white people are by Black Lives Matter, which they see as a criminals'-rights movement. My hunch, though, is that examples will be made of these goons, unless truly extenuating circumstances come to light, since throwing the book at them, or applauding the throwing, will show that the rest of us aren't racist like that. Then it'll be time to double down on the true article of faith: the cops are always right.

23 November 2015

Is this a Nixonian moment?

What the country needs now, or next year at the latest, according to Ross Douthat, one of the New York Times' house Republicans, is someone like Richard Nixon. Ideally it should be someone with all Nixon's strengths and none of his weaknesses or pathologies. What were those strengths, exactly? Douthat sees a relevant set of virtues for both domestic and international politics. Globally, Douthat prefers Nixon's "cold-eyed view of world affairs," his realpolitik, to the "full-spectrum hawkishness" of the most likely 2016 Republicans. Douthat wants a President who can "see the strategic chessboard whole, who can instill fear in our rivals but also negotiate boldly in situations where opportunity presents itself." At home, we need more of Nixon's "ideological flexibility," compared to little from President Obama and less from most Republicans.

Some Republicans, and even more Democrats, have speculated that Ronald Reagan could not win a Republican primary today. That begs the question whether a Nixon would be possible in our time. On the domestic front, what Douthat is looking for in a modern Nixon is a tricky talent for appealing to his (or her) party's base voters without really pandering to their more radical impulses. The historical Nixon, he writes, "addressed (liberal historians would say exploited, but we can have that debate another time) widespread anxieties over social change and disorder without ever repudiating racial equality or civil rights." This looks like hair-splitting to me. Many people will tell you that Republicans have never stopped pandering to base anxieties and have never really given them what they've wanted. After all, did Nixon's successors, Reagan and the Bushes, ever "repudiate" racial equality or civil rights? But perhaps Douthat uses those issues as analogies. Perhaps the 2016 Nixon has to address some other base concern without "repudiating" anything really valuable. The context Douthat offers is an economy that requires some loosening of regulations, as Republicans want (e.g. Obamacare) while calming fears of "any fraying of the safety net." But to some ears it's going to sound suspiciously like Douthat wants a President who'll promise something but not deliver. Yet if one thing is indisputably different today from 1972, when Nixon ran for re-election, it's that incumbent Presidents can't get away so easily with promising but not delivering. Who remembers John Ashbrook? He was an Ohio congressman who primaried Nixon from the President's right in 1972. He never polled above 10% in a primary and in some states did worse than a GOP primary challenger to Nixon's left. Nixon never had to debate his challengers and probably never ran an attack ad against either of them. Who doubts that circumstances would be dramatically and expensively different for a 21st century Nixon? Nixon may have had to deal with the Tea Party's precursors in the John Birch Society, but the empowerment of super-rich donors and PACs in our time is something Nixon never really had to reckon with, and the accountability that money enforces might have made him less of a master opportunist than Douthat idealizes.

The changed political economy might also limit a Nixon's options in global politics. Nixon is the only President to have become a proverb, i.e. "Only Nixon can go to China." Well and good, but where does Nixon go now? The obvious answer, I suppose, is Iran, but for what purpose? To crush Sunni terrorism in the Middle East? To break their ties with Russia? Well, why did Nixon go to China? Primarily, it seems, to spook the Soviets, and with the actual result of detente. In our time, our theoretical neo-Nixon could go to Iran in order to spook the Saudis and/or the Israelis into better behavior, e.g. an end to subsidized Sunni radicalism or a definitive settlement of the Palestine question. Again, however, neo-Nixon would have to be prepared to pay a price the original never paid. Nixon's trip to China was a stop on the road to a landslide re-election victory. Nixon 2.0 would almost certainly get primaried after returning from Iran; Sheldon Adelson's existence alone probably assures that consequence, but there are many others like him in their biases if not their faith. The flood of money into politics threatens to make Presidents more accountable to factions and donors within their own parties, and undermines the sort of "imperial" Presidency Nixon supposedly embodied. I have to say "threatens" because we haven't yet seen an incumbent President defeated in a primary campaign, but does anyone doubt that the day is coming? For anyone to be "Nixon" the way Douthat wants, that candidate would almost certainly have to resolve, if not promise, to be a one-term President, and would have to care not a fig for what the party does after four years.

Douthat is open-minded enough to suspect that Hillary Clinton may be the most Nixonian candidate in the 2016 field, but he's also partisan enough -- some might prefer "perceptive enough" -- to see more of Nixon's flaws than his virtues in her. She certainly gave no evidence of Nixonian instincts in foreign policy when she conducted it. Whether Douthat's judgment is fair or not, his warning to Republicans remains this: they'll need to be more Nixonian (in a "better way" that doesn't involve breaking into her offices or files, I presume) to beat her, not to mention deal with the sort of crises Nixon thrived on. I guess it would be interesting to see them try, but they're probably all too pure or simple to succeed.

19 November 2015

The tax seizure of a dissident American newspaper

It looks pretty certain by now that Metroland is dead. The Capital District arts weekly with a political bent hasn't published an issue since October. Its offices were seized by the government for tax delinquency. In its mix of national and local stories Metroland was probably the most anti-establishment in the region, though that really isn't saying very much. It was the paper most likely to be critical of the U.S. government regardless of which party was in charge, especially when it came to foreign policy. It was the paper most likely to endorse Bernie Sanders for President, unless the Green party came up with someone better. There's some sort of irony in taxes being the downfall of the paper most likely to advocate more taxes on the rich, but that's not why I bring this story up. What I want to point out is that Metroland was what we can comfortably call a dissident publication that was shut down, in effect, by the government for violating the law.  Were Metroland published anywhere but in the U.S., Canada or western Europe, and were it shut down under the exact same circumstances, people would immediately speculate that the action was politically motivated, that the government was cracking down on a journalistic gadfly or a brave critic, and that freedom of the press in that country was in danger. In the actual case, however, not even the publisher of Metroland makes such an argument on the paper's behalf or against the U.S. government. He knows too well that business has been bad for print media for the last decade or so. In the U.S., then, the forcible closure of an independent element in the media is no cause for alarm, nor should it have been. That does not mean, as you may think I imply, that there's never anything fishy when governments close down independent media by taking them to court. But it does mean that we should avoid coming to the knee-jerk conclusion that something is always fishy when such actions are taken. The end of Metroland does not prove any conspiracy against independent media, but proves that media are not above the law. That should be true everywhere, and if you're going to question other countries' laws (other countries' leaders may be another story) you may as well ask why media shouldn't enjoy some sort of tax-exempt status, or even state subsidies, to guarantee a diversity of viewpoints in public discourse. No nation will ever do that; the media is as accountable to the market everywhere as it is to the law. Freedom of the press everywhere has limits; that's why freedom of speech is always dissent's last resort before violence. Media must answer to a bottom line, but the courage to speak truth to power is priceless.

18 November 2015

Is Sanders selling out?

Another begging letter from Senator Sanders came in today, but he isn't begging for himself this time. Instead, the Vermont independent wants us to donate to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. As others have noted, the Democracy has a shot at retaking the Senate next year if only because far more Republican than Democratic seats are being contested in 2016. If the election were held today, I dare say that Democrats might get wiped out entirely because of the hysteria over the Syrian refugees -- and no one should question that there is hysteria amid the reasonable skepticism -- but conditions may be more favorable next November. Sanders tells us the same things President Obama or former Senator Clinton might tell us, starting with the commonplace that Republicans are no damn good. That just about sums up his argument, and that's kind of funny if you think about it, since the "Republicans are evil" argument is a favorite of those in the Democratic party who'd like to see Sanders abandon his campaign for the presidential nomination. It's the favorite argument for all those who've been saying for the past three or seven that we should do our duty in 11/16 and vote for Hillary Clinton. Another argument they favor is that anything that weakens Clinton, like an aggressive challenge during the primaries, will only improve the Republicans' chances. I don't mean to suggest that Sanders shouldn't say that Republicans are evil, or that they "just don't care" about what's happening to the nation and world, or that they want to "turn back the clock" to a less egalitarian time. It just occurs to me that there's something missing to Sanders's argument, the very something that justifies Sanders's own challenge to Clinton.

The message of the Sanders campaign is that it's not enough to have a Democratic candidate, and that it matters what kind of Democrat gets nominated -- that the likes of Clinton are part of the problem, and a specific problem with the Democratic party. Does he apply the same analysis to the Senate? You can't tell from this begging letter. He cites three actual or possible candidates by name, including former Sen. Feingold of Wisconsin and campaign-finance reform fame, but the letter itself is an implicit endorsement of every 2016 Democratic senatorial candidate, many of whom, obviously, are yet to be determined. How many Senate Democrats actually support Sanders for the presidential nomination? The answer, according to Wikipedia, is none, while 38 out of 44 have endorsed Clinton. Rep. Tammy Duckworth, whom Sanders endorses in the begging letter for the retiring Sen. Reid's Nevada seat, has also endorsed Clinton. Can Sanders depend on these people to support his particular agenda in the unlikely event of his election as President? Recall that his position within the party is tenuous. He seeks the presidential nomination while remaining an independent Senator who chooses (or is allowed to) caucus with the Democrats. Perhaps composing a begging letter for Democratic candidates is one of the prices he pays for that privilege. Sanders supporters should read the letter with care, since it carries no promise whatsoever that the campaigns Sanders asks them to subsidize will produce Senators in his mold. Perhaps he assumes that they'll all have to endorse them if he beats Clinton in the primaries, and probably they would endorse him. But should he get elected, all bets will be off. And for that reason, what Sanders is touting now is a bad bet. Perhaps he values his caucus privileges too much to call for candidates more likely to support him all the way, but the people who plan to vote for him in the primaries should also plan to vote for such candidates, whether he says so or not.

17 November 2015

The refugee crisis and the clash of individualisms

You should know this by now because you're told it often enough: Republicans are the party of individualism, Democrats the party of collectivism and statism. Yet it should be obvious, whatever you think about the U.S. taking in refugees from Syria, that the Democrats, represented by the Obama administration, are taking the individualist position by resisting demands, amplified after last Friday's attacks on Paris, to refuse Syrians entirely, or to allow only Christians while rejecting Muslims. In this case, the individualist position is "We mustn't assume that every Syrian refugee is an undercover terrorist, and we shouldn't allow the majority to suffer because some might be terrorists." Why don't the Republicans recognize this? Rather than jump to the conclusion, "They've never been true individualists, but only tribal bigots," let's recognize that, as always, there are two kinds of individualism in conflict in American politics, rather than a battle between individualism and collectivism. Call it a conflict between "individual liberty" and "human rights." One side is concerned mainly with removing limits on what individuals can accomplish or how much they can accumulate. They want to make sure the individual can be all he can be. The other side is concerned simply with making sure individuals stay alive as long as they can and suffer as little as possible. This side appears collectivist to the other side because their commitment to everyone's survival implicitly limits what any individual can earn in a competitive world. That commitment to what may look like mere survival may appear contemptible from the "individual liberty" standpoint. How can the "human rights" view be individualist if it puts individuals in a state of dependency on the state, as the Syrian refugees are believed likely to become? The answer is that the "human rights" view doesn't equate individualism with autonomy in the same way the "individual liberty" view does. If one side implies that a life with limited autonomy is not worth living, the other rejects the implication. There's an irreducibly hedonist element to the "human rights" position in its desire to minimize suffering and want that can be seen in the readiness to take in refugees, while the "individual liberty" stance is more existential, for want of a better word, in its concern for autonomy and, perhaps more crucially, its contempt for life as an end unto itself.  That accounts for the indifference of avowed individualists to the plight of refugees, but what of the distrust? It may have a similar root. While "human rights" presumes that each and every individual person is an end unto itself and thus automatically entitled to respect and protection, and further presumes that each person is innocent until proven guilty, "individual liberty" sees individuals as something people become by choosing autonomy (or "personal responsibility"), and may not recognize individuals until they distinguish themselves from the rabble whose mere existence is of no concern to them or, worse, a burden they prefer not to carry. "Human rights" sees a mass of people whose self-evident needs are self-evidently compelling, while "individual liberty" reserves the right to ignore them or, if necessary, repel them.

None of the above is meant to sway anyone to one side or the other in the refugee debate. Some people may have reasons to reject refugees, and others reasons to demand unconditional acceptance of them, without reference to the continuum of individualism. That still leaves us with the seeming paradox we started with: those who most loudly avow themselves individualists refuse to recognize refugees as individuals, while those alleged to despise individualism seem more inclined to treat refugees as individuals rather than an undifferentiated "other" or "enemy." Recognizing this probably shouldn't decide one's position on taking in refugees, but it's worth remembering the next time some people boast of their belief in the individual and individualism, should you wish to ask who the real individualists are.

16 November 2015

Are you a Progressive?

George Will has taken a break with his feud with Bill O'Reilly -- they've been arguing over O'Reilly's claim that the assassination attempt against Ronald Reagan hastened the President's mental decline -- to cast a contemptuous glance at a controversy on the Yale campus over potentially insensitive or emotionally harmful Halloween costumes. It does sound pretty contemptible, but I'm not sure whether Will's right to blame it on progressivism. His argument is that progressivism as it has evolved in the U.S. is inimical to free expression. Since this obviously begs the question of what, exactly, Will means when he says "progressivism," the columnist has helpfully attempted to define the term. I'll give you his definition in full, and then I'll break it down into individual components:

If you believe, as progressives do, that human nature is not fixed, and hence is not a basis for understanding natural rights. And if you believe, as progressives do, that human beings are soft wax who receive their shape from the society that government shapes. And if you believe, as progressives do, that people receive their rights from the shaping government. And if you believe, as progressives do, that people are the sum of the social promptings they experience. Then it will seem sensible for government, including a university’s administration, to guarantee not freedom of speech but freedom from speech. From, that is, speech that might prompt its hearers to develop ideas inimical to progress, and that might violate the universal entitlement to perpetual serenity. 

"Human nature is not fixed, and hence is not a basis for understanding natural rights." While there obviously is a "human nature" of a biological sort or else we couldn't separate human beings from other species, what Will means to claim is that progressives deny that unchanging moral or ethic claims follow from human nature. Will's own position, presumably, is that we can deduce from an understanding of our nature as humans a "naturally right" social order, or that nature (or "nature's god") confers an inalienable sovereignty on each individual that entitles individuals to resist encroachment upon it. Since God has proven a poor guarantor of human rights, presuming that you attribute them to him, Will must mean that man is the guarantor of his own rights as a matter of instinct, the rights being natural, even though his intellectual tradition argues that the true natural rights are discovered through reason rather than instinct.

"Human beings are soft wax who receive their shape from the society that government shapes." You may be a progressive if you believe this, but I don't know if anyone believes that government exclusively shapes both society and individuals, as Will implies. I am not aware that progressives reject the idea of "civil society," that there are institutions independent of the state (but not of laws) that are crucial in defining each person's identity. As for the rest of this claim, unless all of Will's erudition and ideology are innate, then he has been shaped from outside, though this doesn't mean that there can't be resistance to the shaping from inside, or a complementary self-development as people learn to reason.

"People receive their rights from the shaping government." Practically speaking, rights require a guarantor, and given likely disagreements over assumed natural rights the only effective conferral of rights comes from the only effective guarantor, the government. Governments must determine what rights are in society rather than in any state of nature to which individualists or ideologues might appeal.

"People are the sum of the promptings they experience." Again, I doubt whether any self-styled progressive believes such a thing. They more likely believe that the human mind is capable of analytical and even creative reason, but they're also likely to believe that these are inescapably responses to experience rather than phenomena generated in a "natural" vacuum.

Yet even if I agreed that the ideas listed by Will were progressive beliefs, or if someone actually chooses to affirm them all, I don't see how this leads to Will's conclusion that progressives would want government to guarantee "freedom from speech." Will has made a strawman of the premise that progressives deny intellectual autonomy. His "progressives" are tantamount to totalitarians, and maybe there is a certain trivial totalitarianism on college campuses today. But as I must wrap quickly this evening I'll conclude that on the subject of progressivism, much less progress, George Will is full of crap.

13 November 2015

Terror returns to Paris

As I write I'm listening to an English-language French news channel for the latest updates on multiple gun and explosion attacks in Paris tonight, including an ongoing hostage situation at a concert hall. Since I started listening the estimated body count has grown from six to thirty, with more expected. There's some inexplicable hesitation to label this a wave of terror attacks -- but just now one of the reporters spoke of a "coordinated terror attack." It certainly doesn't look like multiple coincidences. There will probably be little doubt about who did it, too. After all, since so many French people declared themselves to be "Charlie" last January, they were bound to be targeted by the same forces that targeted the actual Charlie Hebdo newspaper. By now, I think, little actual provocation is necessary for such attacks as Paris is seeing tonight. In the age of ISIS, or the days of Daesh, terror is how would-be caliphates assert themselves. The people of Paris are as eligible targets as the people of Beirut who were blown up by IS affiliates yesterday, presumably to punish them for the Lebanese Hezbollah militia's support for the Assad government in Syria, or those Russians who most likely were blown up by a bomb over Egypt on board their passenger plane. And now the death estimate is up to 40 in Paris, and there may be a hundred hostages in that concert hall, and yet another shooting is being reported. I suppose you can still interpret all this as an understandable if not excusable demand to leave some part of the world alone, but who thinks that the perpetrators of all these attacks will behave differently if let alone or, worse, allowed to win? It's most likely too late to solve the problem simply by withdrawing -- and I mean not just the U.S. or the west but every foreign power -- from one part of the world. Most of the world agrees that the Caliphists, to suggest a new term, should not be allowed to win, on the assumption that they'll behave no differently toward the rest of the world if they do win. But a lot of us aren't as serious as we should be about that priority. There's still no agreement, whether between Americans and Russians or between Sunnis and Shiites, over what horse to back against the Caliphists. But if all of the above want to crush the Caliphate in its cradle, then everyone has got to get behind Assad in Syria, whether they like him or not, and behind the Iraqi government. The U.S. didn't ask Stalin to renounce Communism or hold free elections during World War II, after all, and however bad Bashar al-Assad is, he's not as bad as Stalin. There's a chance that this little rant may prove irrelevant to what's happening in Paris tonight, but it's worth repeating just the same.

11 November 2015

Redefining socialism, continued

Like Sen. Bernie Sanders, Prof. Eric Foner of Columbia University styles himself a democratic socialist. Unlike Sanders, who unselfconsciously suggests that Americans could learn about democratic socialism, and learn not to fear it, from European examples, Foner argues that American democratic socialists should look to American traditions for examples and inspiration. In an article that went online shortly after the first debate of the 2016 Democratic presidential contenders, but has only just seen print in the November 16 Nation, Foner chides Sanders, in a more-or-less friendly fashion, for making democratic socialism sound like some foreign import. During the debate, when asked how a self-described socialist could win an American presidential election, Sanders said he would point to "countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway" as examples of democratic socialism in action, showing Americans "what they have accomplished for their working people" Foner agrees that "we can learn a few things from them (and vice-versa)," but argues that basing a campaign on that premise will get Sanders nowhere, since "most Americans don’t know or care much about Scandinavia." Instead, Foner advises, Sanders should "talk about our radical forebears here in the United States, for the most successful radicals have always spoken the language of American society and appealed to some of its deepest values"

Who are these radical forebears? Starting with Thomas Paine, Foner runs through a pantheon of abolitionists, populists and progressives expansive enough to cover Democrats like Franklin D. Roosevelt. Going through the list, Sanders might ask whether any of Foner's heroes actually were socialists. Foner's answer seems to be that it all depends on how you define socialism. There seems to be a movement, if not a competition, afoot to redefine socialism. A few weeks ago we had David Brooks -- a Republican! -- attempting an anodyne redefinition of socialism as putting "society" at the heart of politics, or something to that effect. More audaciously, Foner argues that socialism has already been redefined for all American intents and purposes. "[T]he term today refers not to a blueprint for a future society," he writes, "but to the need to rein in the excesses of capitalism, evident all around us, to empower ordinary people in a political system verging on plutocracy, and to develop policies that make opportunity real for the millions of Americans for whom it is not." Still more audaciously, Foner suggests that this isn't even a redefinition. "This is what it meant in the days of Eugene V. Debs," he claims, "Debs emphasized [that] socialism is as much a moral idea as an economic one—the conviction that vast inequalities of wealth, power, and opportunity are simply wrong and that ordinary people, using political power, can produce far-reaching change." Foner implies that no particular change matters as much as that there is change; any incremental improvement short of socialism as the concept was understood for generations will do so long as capitalism is "reined in," and to the extent that capitalism is reined in, the people are empowered, if not to the extent Debs actually envisioned. At a minimum, as long as plutocrats can lose an election, the people are empowered and capitalism is reined in. No further blueprint is needed.

Foner doesn't really let Debs speak for himself. Writing in 1904, Debs compared the agenda of his Socialist party to that of the trade union movement: "[W]hile the union is limited to bettering conditions under the wage system, the party is organized to conquer the political power of the nation, wipe out the wage system, and make the workers themselves the masters of the earth." The goal of democratic socialism, understood to mean socialism dedicated to achieving power through elections rather than by violent revolution or coup d'etat, is "to conquer the capitalist forces on the political battlefield; and having control of the machinery of government, use it to transfer the industries from the capitalists to the workers, from the parasites to the people." As one of the most honored American historians and holder of one of the most prestigious faculty chairs, Foner certainly knows what Debs stood for, even if Debs's heyday comes a generation or two after Foner's field of study. But for Sanders' instruction Foner argues that "It was Debs’s moral fervor as much as his specific program that made him beloved by millions of Americans." I'm not sure the program and the moral fervor are as easily separated as Foner claims. I'm more certain that if neither Foner nor Sanders can endorse Debs's agenda, neither has any business calling himself a socialist, whatever adjective they modify it with and whatever moral fervor they retain. Each might object to that verdict, but if they did I'd have to wonder why. Wouldn't it make life easier for both of them? As it is, I wonder why they want to call themselves socialists? Do they know something about the American people that I don't? Do they see an opportunity for personal advancement that I don't? Since I don't see a grass-roots hankering for socialism of any sort for them to exploit, I have to suppose that for reasons of personal history they need to kid themselves, even if they're hardly kidding anyone else.

10 November 2015

What's the matter with Missouri?

Expect a backlash, if you can't already see it and hear it on the Internet or the radio, following the resignation of the president of the University of Missouri under mounting pressure from black students and sympathizers culminating in a threatened strike by the Columbia campus's SEC football team. Expect anger from whites, since the president was targeted not for sins of commission but sins of omission: an inadequate and purportedly insensitive response to a sequence of racist or racially-charged incidents on campus and in the state dating back to the Ferguson incident. What I hear already is that those uppity black bastards are forcing their will on the rest of us again, that the football players should have had their scholarships revoked, etc. Beneath all of this is the fearful question: what do they really want? What do they want from us? The answers should be obvious. They want zero tolerance of race hatred. It appears also that they want indoctrination (though we probably can just call it "education") against racism. More controversially, they seem to want some indoctrination/education on the concept of "systemic racism," towards which the university president, in the closest he came to a sin of commission, appeared to express some skepticism. "Systemic racism" is the current label for the argument that racism is something different from race hatred, that racism requires power, and that ending racism requires some redistribution of power to an extent that remains unclear. Putting it another way, the "systemic racism" argument is an argument for collective responsibility, refusing to the majority of whites the privilege of blaming racism, and placing the burden of ending it, exclusively on the most blatant rednecks of the old confederacy. No one has accused the university president of making cruel jokes or even of condoning the fecal swastika that seems to have been the final straw for black activists who take for granted that the symbolism was directed primarily at them rather than Jewish students. But those activists and their supporters in the athletic program believe that nothing short of radical change can end racism as they perceive it, and radical change in this case means a change at the top. Tell them that they're just too thin skinned for their own good and you'll probably be told that that's your privilege talking. They're asserting a right to be thin skinned, a right not to tolerate slurs or the supremacist attitudes behind them. Like it or not, whites aren't the only ones who get to be angry in this country. Black people (and a lot of their friends) are as mad as hell and they're not going to take it anymore. You can still look at it as an overreaction, as it objectively is. You can still believe that the president didn't deserve to lose his job over it, though that's a question of accountability. You can look for some proof of black hypocrisy to crow over or make excuses with. But that leaves it up to you to explain what can be done to end racism to everyone's satisfaction, unless you'd rather explain why no one should demand its end.

06 November 2015

Crybaby Carson and the politics of vetting

I caught a little this morning of Dr. Ben Carson's pathetic exchange with a CNN reporter who had dared question the veracity of the Republican front-runner's autobiography. Echoing the consensus tone of all the Republicans following last week's CNBC debate, Carson griped that there are important issues to discuss -- that is, there are issues he wants to discuss -- while the terrible mainstream media wants to bring up trivial stuff. Actually he and any other candidate is within his rights to criticize the quality of the questions reporters ask, so long as he doesn't seek to dictate the questions they should ask. But none of the Republicans are criticizing the triviality of journalism in general. The problem, as they see it, isn't that reporters are banal but -- of course! -- that they are biased. What was pathetic about Carson's chat was his claim that Barack Obama never got the vetting from the mainstream media that Carson himself is getting. The reporter moved quickly to defend herself and her profession, reminding him that they'd gone through Senator Obama's writings with a fine-tooth comb and had found that he had created composite characters for different episodes of his life. In response to this reminder, Carson laughed with blatant contempt. There's really no way for journalists to convince Republicans that they properly vetted Obama, because it's an article of GOP faith that, had Obama been properly vetted, he never would have been elected. Since Obama has been elected twice, it's self-evident to Republicans that he was never vetted properly, and it's a small leap from there to conspiracy theory. Since Obama's faults are screamingly obvious to Republicans, and have been since 2008, he can only have been elected through a willful refusal of the media to vet him properly. Yet Obama's faults, real and supposed, are well-known, because they actually have been well-publicized, to everybody. You could not watch news -- not Fox News, but news -- without hearing about skeletons in Obama's closet, from Rev. Wright to Bill Ayers, and while Fox may claim to have led the way, it cannot be argued that the other news channels refused to talk about these matters. If vetting means that potentially troubling issues with candidates are brought to light, then Obama was quite thoroughly vetted, at least as far as Republicans are concerned. They heard enough about him to know they never wanted him in the White House. They like to blame his occupancy of that building today to both the biased mainstream media and the "low-information voters" on which all Democrats depend. If anyone failed to vet Obama to Republicans' satisfaction, it's these voters, but it cannot be claimed that they didn't hear the same things about Obama that Republicans heard. In short, the Republican argument that Obama wasn't properly vetted, or that the media refused to vet him, is a lie, and that makes Dr. Carson a liar. But let's be more specific: the Republican argument -- the argument that the details that make him abhorrent to them should have discredited him generally if properly publicized -- is a lie. On the other hand, there are probably many self-styled progressives who feel, after seven years of the Obama presidency, that he may not have been as thoroughly vetted to their satisfaction as he could have been. They only have themselves to blame, though, because we know their vetting process stopped as soon as he secured the Democratic line, and the Democratic party hasn't been properly vetted by true progressives in a very long time.

05 November 2015

The death of the angry white male?

It sounds like someone's conspiracy theory at work: the National Academy of Sciences published a report this month showing that the death rate for white Americans aged 45-54 has increased sharply since 1998, while death rates for minority groups, in some cases still higher than for whites, have been dropping. Many people in that particular demographic may already think they're being targeted for extermination, and the ones we might presume most likely to believe such a thing, the less-educated, are the ones dying the most. Self-destructive behaviors seem to explain much of the trend, from increased suicide rates to greater use of drugs from heroin to Oxycontin. This provocative analysis suggests that these people are dying with the American dream, victims of despair over their diminished economic prospects in the modern (or postmodern) economy. It might follow that they are dying in greater numbers now -- though, again, still not in greater numbers than still-poorer but improving groups -- because they're less accustomed to hard times and perhaps more traumatized at the apparent loss of a supposed birthright. Yet if sociological factors are killing poor, ill-educated whites, it can be argued that they've contributed as much to their premature deaths by voting Republican so often -- if not for sustaining the entire bankrupt two-party system -- as they have by abusing drugs, alcohol and junk food. Republicans, of course, will offer a second opinion. They will continue to blame outside forces or conspiracies from within, from a President allegedly dedicated to his country's decline to a party that allegedly would prefer to replace whites entirely with more compliant non-whites. And for many this will continue to be a comforting diagnosis, because it will mean they've done nothing wrong. But there's little point in blaming Republicans if your only remedy is voting for Democrats. Regardless of which party is in power, and regardless of what country you live in, the global economy simply doesn't need as many people as the globe holds. It's no more necessary to that economy, it'd seem, for everyone to consume than it is for everyone to work. From a libertarian perspective, this seemingly alarming trend in the U.S. may simply be nature and market forces working together to correct an imbalance. But for the rest of us, this is no time to gloat, no matter how obnoxious this demographic often seems. More educated people might give themselves credit, but the numbers may only prove that education, for now, is a competitive advantage. It does not help us set the terms of the competition, nor does it assure us that alternatives are possible. If we want an alternative, we'll need numbers on our side, and with those numbers education may matter less than common sense. Their problem may not be that they're dumb, but that they've been bamboozled by flattering pseudo-intellectuals peddling ideological snake-oil. The remedy may not require us to demonstrate intellectual superiority to such sophists. It might be as simple as telling the majority, in language they'll understand, "come with us if you want to live."

04 November 2015

Will Russia reap the whirlwind?

The question just as easily could be "Has Russia reaped the whirlwind?" A sense of schadenfreude no doubt leads many to believe, if not hope, that the Russian passenger jet that went down with all hands and passengers in the Sinai desert last weekend was brought down by a terrorist action. While expert observers of the so-called Islamic State and allied forces doubt whether the would-be caliphate has the missiles to knock a plane out of the air at such a height, it's less implausible that a bomb could have been smuggled onto the plane. The Metrojet airline has fueled suspicion by denying that pilot error or prior technical issues could have caused the mid-air breakup and crash of the Airbus, while the Russian government refuses to jump to conclusions. I guess we should at least rule out the otherwise-predictable paranoid theory that the Putin government blew the plane up to further justify its anti-IS intervention in Syria, since had that been the plan Russian officialdom presumably wouldn't hesitate to blame terrorists. I suspect they're probably more concerned with their air industry's reputation for safety and reliability, and even more so now that one of their cargo planes has crashed in South Sudan. Back in Soviet days, as I recall, Aeroflot was a global joke just as most Eastern Bloc industry was. Today's Russia doesn't want to have that reputation again, nor do they want people to think that they're taking their lives in their hands by flying Russian for any reason. By comparison, western observers seem eager to conclude that the Sinai crash was terrorist work. Since they supposedly dislike Russia's intervention in favor of the Assad regime, presumably they don't want to egg the Russians into an escalation by telling them that the IS has murdered a few hundred of their people, and they most likely doubt that a definitive finding of terrorist guilt would terrorize the cruel and ruthless Russians into quitting their air campaign.

Schadenfreude probably factors into Anglo-American investigations, or at least a desire to tell the Russians that we told them so. Confirmation that terrorists brought the plane down probably would inspire a perverse feeling of relief from an anxious, somewhat jealous feeling that the Russians, through some mysterious advantage of authoritarianism or by virtue of Putin's mastery, and in spite of a recent history of repercussions from their pacification of Chechnya, could get away with bombing the Daesh, and rescuing their client dictator in the process, without consequences. In cruder terms, westerners and Russophobes probably feel the same way about the Sinai crash as many around the world felt, whether they admitted it or not, on September 11, 2001: that however tragic the disaster was for the innocent victims, the nation had it coming. Since few Americans, I hope, will be so gauche as to say that openly about the Sinai crash, blaming the terrorists is an indirect way of blaming the Russians themselves,  even (or especially) if we think their real offense is not attacking the IS but protecting Assad.

What do I think? I think that it's natural for the IS to take credit, whether they did it or not, but I'd need to hear more from them about how they did it before I take such knee-jerk claims as seriously as some want to. From what I've read about Metrojet it seems that private-sector incompetence and neglect can't be ruled out, but we're still too early in the investigation to rule anything out, apart maybe from crackpot theories blaming the U.S., Israel (why?), Saudi Arabia (why not?) or the Russians themselves. What the hell, let's have someone blame the Ukrainians, too. Some people have to blame somebody when shit happens the way Don Corleone was going to blame somebody if Michael got struck by lightning when he came home from Sicily. The possibility that the crash may have been an accident that not even the airline could have anticipated might be the scariest of all for many of us, since it would remind us that human will doesn't always control history.

03 November 2015

The cartoon electorate

My local paper ran a cartoon on its editorial page this morning showing a mass of people divided into two disproportionate segments, representing the third of the voting-age population who actually voted in recent elections and the two-thirds majority that didn't vote. The majority shout with one voice: we don't vote because it doesn't make a difference! The cartoonist hoped to show the absurdity of the claim; the majority so outnumbers the voting minority that their potential to make a difference is self-evident, their refusal to recognize that potential self-defeating. But the cartoon itself is absurd. Can those two-thirds of the potential electorate make a difference in determining who appears on a November ballot? They might be forgiven for thinking little of their power to decide whether the Democrat or the Republican gets in this time when what they really want is something else entirely. If they're to be faulted, it should be for not knowing how to get around the party system and elect someone whom they, rather than a party, nominate. Too many are thwarted by the mere sight of a ballot and its implication that the state has decided whom you can choose from. Of course you can write in any other name, but few feel confident that others will do likewise, and any little rebellion feels pretty futile in the solitude of the voting booth. We're supposed to have a representative democracy, the democratic part being the election, but how democratic is it when the state sets the terms candidates must meet to have even the pretense of equality on the ballot? What right has the state -- practically speaking, a partisan legislature -- to set deadlines for filing or quotas of signatures for candidates, especially in our time when, in theory, a flash-mob candidacy could sweep the country, not to mention smaller constituencies, in a weekend? What kind of democracy are we, in our vaunted openness of authority to challenges, when the most popular "insurgent" or "outsider" candidates still must seek legitimacy through one of the major parties, and in doing so are pressured to renounce any right to continue their campaigns independently? In a real democracy the majority should be able to decide at any time that they've had enough of such a system and abolish it. And those who would remind me of the Constitution should recall that our charter of government was not designed to enable political parties to consolidate power, that in fact the Framers hoped to prevent such a result before some of them found parties useful. When people throughout the country say they're sick of both parties yet can't find a way to do away with them, you can blame the people if you like but you have to blame the system, too. Bipolarchy -- the codependent cohabitation of genuinely opposed but fundamentally consensual parties --  has usurped democracy in America, and apparently it was all legal. So what can the two-thirds majority do? They haven't figured out how to beat the system, and probably wouldn't all agree on what to replace it with, and since it apparently was all legal, they'd probably and understandably feel antsy about reclaiming democracy through force. So what does that leave us with? They're still there and they can still make a difference, but a cartoonist who chides them simply for not voting in a two-party election probably should be careful of what he wishes for.

02 November 2015

On media bias

Most newspapers began as partisan propaganda organs, bankrolled by party bosses and sustained, when the right party was in power, by public printing contracts. Once publishers found that they could sustain themselves and even flourish by selling advertising space or by running popular comic strips and other entertainment features, most began to aspire to greater objectivity in reporting. The goal was to avoid the appearance of partisanship anywhere but on the editorial page. Ideology doesn't recognize objectivity, unless it presumes itself objective. Despite media pretenses, ideologues perceived bias whenever their beliefs were not confirmed or at least represented in reporting. Ideological complaints of this sort grew in vehemence beginning in the 1960s. Ironically, many ideologues opposed the Fairness Doctrine that had obliged media to give all (usually both) sides of controversial issues. This was the tip-off that fairness and balance were not what the ideologues actually sought. They praised as "fair and balanced" whatever reflected their beliefs, and whatever did not reflect their beliefs, or reflected on them unflatteringly, remained biased. Roundaboutly, self-styled champions of liberty adopted a viewpoint similar to that of the authoritarian statesmen they claim to abhor, if as yet they haven't adopted their policies toward the media. The authoritarian viewpoint is that alternative viewpoints -- presumably any private or non-government viewpoints -- are biased by definition, and most likely in an inherently subversive way. They believe, so we're told, that the media should be unbiased, which to them means, so we're told, that media should take, at the least, an uncritical attitude toward the state, i.e., the ruling party, if not an affirmative attitude of cooperation in shaping public consciousness. In the U.S., the Republican protests against debate formats determined by media outlets are another signal of a stirring authoritarian attitude in the rightist party. It will be one thing, and perfectly within their rights, if the GOP withdraws their presidential primary debates from the cable news networks altogether and finds alternate ways to present them to the public, e.g. streaming media. But if they want to get on cable they have no business dictating terms that in any way limit the sort of questions moderators may ask. As I wrote last week, it'd also be no problem if they did away with moderators, because then we might get real debates where the candidates question and answer each other. But since there's no indication that the Republicans actually want to do without moderators, their obligation is to give the moderator or moderators the freedom of inquiry consistent with their primarily journalistic role. To blame tough questions, "gotcha" questions or even puerile questions on presumed "mainstream media" bias is to assume that a natural unwillingness to serve as mere shills for party propaganda is somehow illegitimate, which is how the authoritarians of the world, not their supposed sworn enemies, are supposed to think. The more Republicans talk of dictating terms for their debates, the deeper they dig a hole for themselves -- of for the media, should they win it all next year.