28 April 2016

Lucifer's wedding

Just when Senator Cruz seemed to be settling into the role of the "establishment" candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, suddenly there comes John Boehner, the former Speaker of the House, with a personal attack of unprecedented vehemence. Driven from power by the Tea Party that forms Cruz's base, Boehner has called the Texan "Lucifer in the flesh" and "a miserable son of a bitch," which is the former Speaker's way of throwing poo on the metaphorical wedding of Cruz and Carly Fiorina, his newly designated running mate. In a gesture perhaps more futile than Ronald Reagan's naming of Sen. Richard Schweiker as his running mate before the 1976 Republican convention, where he would fail to topple President Gerald Ford. For once a Reaganite precedent isn't exactly a recommendation, as the Gipper's move was recognized as desperate from the moment he made it. If anything, Cruz's attempted coronation of Fiorina as his consort may prove more futile; it may actually hurt his already-dwindling chances of stopping Donald Trump. While Fiorina may be ideologically compatible with Cruz -- she told an interviewer this morning that "getting things done" in Washington is rarely a good idea -- she makes an unlikely rallying point for Trumpophobic Republicans and is unlikely to lure actual Trumpites away from their hero. Her problem is that she's seen as a loser after dropping out of the campaign early to endorse Cruz. Cruz's problem is the same one anyone faces who tries to advance the first woman into a formerly exclusive realm. No matter how reactionary Fiorina is, her deployment by Cruz is bound to look like an act of pandering, if not of political correctness, by the man supposed to be the most ideologically conservative, and hence presumably the most indifferent to identity politics, of all the Republicans who have run over the past year. At a moment when Trump is snarling that Hillary Clinton would be a marginal candidate were she not a woman, Cruz's stunt is bound to look exactly like a stunt, and a cynical one at that, whether the Senator believes sincerely that Fiorina is the person best qualified to be Vice President or not. By the standards of his own base, in all probability, it was not conservative, while women who actually care about getting a woman at or near the highest seat of power probably won't give a corporate creep like Fiorina the time of day. Cruz may hope to energize his campaign by anointing Fiorina, but it seems more likely now that it will prove his last gasp.

27 April 2016

Trump: America first, Israel second

Time magazine's website has a transcript of the foreign policy speech Donald Trump made today. The Republican front-runner made "America First" his theme, which guarantees you another wave of editorials denouncing the man for isolationism. For generations that has been a toxic slogan because it was a slogan of the pre-Pearl Harbor opponents of American intervention in World War II. However, the isolationists of 1941 didn't copyright the phrase and people 75 years later ought to be able to use it without being condemned by association -- and in any event Trump himself has no problem characterizing World War II as a good war in which "the greatest generation beat back the Nazis and Japanese imperialists," while the true heirs of the old isolationists still question whether all the trouble was worth it. For Trump, "America First" means, in his own words, "Under a Trump administration, no American citizen will ever again feel that their needs come second to the citizens of a foreign country." That doesn't sound unreasonable, and overall, despite his still-primitive rhetoric -- our leaders should be able to talk in complete sentences all the time and avoid using "beautiful" and other favorite adjectives too often -- his priorities appear mostly free of ideology. Trump's foreign policy would be conservative in the old sense of the word, out to "promote regional stability, not radical change" around the world. He boasts today of having opposed the invasion of Iraq -- a random comment to Howard Stern notwithstanding -- and points to that country and Libya as examples of what happens when democratization by force results in destabilization. He refuses to demonize either Russia or China, though he sees the latter as an economic adversary, but promises to make them respect the U.S. more than he thinks they do now. He wants the other NATO countries to pay what he points out to be their existing fair share for defense when most of them, he claims, are not. He didn't mention Vladimir Putin's name in the speech, and while he sees room for common ground in the fight against Muslim terrorism -- there'd be common ground there with China, too -- he warns that "If we can’t make a deal under my administration, a deal that’s great — not good, great — for America, but also good for Russia, then we will quickly walk from the table." I actually like his lack of certitude about Russia when he says "Some say the Russians won’t be reasonable. I intend to find out." I infer from that a lack of ideologically preconceived notions of what Russia wants or represents. If he can extend that open-mindedness around the whole world he might actually accomplish something.

Unfortunately, Trump has a couple of blind spots in the usual location: the Middle East. Understandably, his main concern in that region is defeating the self-styled Islamic State, which he promises to do sooner than anyone expects. But you would think that if Trump's number-one foreign policy goal -- apart from bringing jobs back to the U.S. -- is to destroy the Sunni Muslim terrorist entity that is provoking terrorist attacks in this country, that the self-styled master of the deal might hasten to make a deal with the IS's Shiite Muslim enemies. That doesn't seem to be an option, however, because if there's one nation out there that Trump sees as evil in the all-too typical American way, it's Iran. Why not? I don't think he's so dumb that he doesn't know the difference between Sunnis and Shiites, and I don't think it's because he sees all Muslims as the enemy. In his speech he vows to work "very closely with our allies in the Muslim world, all of which are at risk from radical Islamic violence," though I wonder which countries he means by that. Could it be that Trump still carries a grudge over the hostage crisis of 1979? He definitely takes the recent incident involving American sailors to heart, seeing it as a huge humiliation for the U.S. But I can't help thinking that his animus against Iran -- a nation whose government admittedly gives you plenty of reasons to despise it -- is that Iran, more than the IS, remains the great existential threat to Israel's existence, the country most likely, in the Zionist imagination, to nuke the Jewish state. Trump can find a lot of reasons to legitimately criticize President Obama's foreign policy, but the fact that Obama has pissed off Israel is not really one of them. But when the subject turns to Israel Trump sounds just like a neocon.

Israel, our great friend and the one true democracy in the Middle East has been snubbed and criticized by an administration that lacks moral clarity. Just a few days ago, Vice President Biden again criticized Israel, a force for justice and peace, for acting as an impatient peace area in the region.[sic?]

By his own stated principles, or in line with his disavowal of ideological principles, Trump ought not to care whether Israel is a democracy or not. Meanwhile, describing Israel as "a force for justice and peace" borders on the delusional. Why he should think this way when he is neither an End Times believer nor in need of Sheldon Adelson's money is beyond me, but what else is new when it comes to the Middle East? Yet if an aspiring American president needs to show he's open-minded about foreign policy, that part of the world is where he has to do it, and that's where Trump's mind seems to be closed by prejudice and fantasy. He boasts of being willing to walk away from the table with Iran when Obama would not, but he should be willing to walk away from the table with any nation. If Israel is to be an exception to this, he should come up with better reasons than those that make him sound like every other mainstream American politician. And if he can't think originally about the Middle East you have to wonder how different the rest of his foreign policy actually will be. I'm not suggesting that he embrace Iran and throw Israel under the bus, but I would expect Donald Trump to talk about bringing those two countries to the table and making a deal, yet I didn't today. He's clearly going to take sides in the Middle East, it seems, and the consequences of that are a lesson he has yet to learn.

26 April 2016

Ego trumps collusion

The big story yesterday was that Senator Cruz and Governor Kasich had formed some sort of last-ditch entente to stop Donald Trump from winning a pre-convention majority of delegates for the Republican presidential nomination. Trump immediately cried foul, claiming that his rivals' pact was morally equivalent to criminal acts of collusion in the business sector. He needn't have bothered, since Kasich appeared determined to sabotage the entente almost instantly. As he understands it, the arrangement between himself and Cruz allows each man to concentrate his resources on the remaining states where he fares best against Trump in the polls, so that neither man wastes money in a state where he's likely to finish a distant third. That sounds reasonable, but saving money isn't going to beat Trump. Either Kasich or Cruz has to win these states in order to force an "open" or "brokered" convention in which delegates will be free to vote as they choose (i.e. against Trump) on the second ballot. In Indiana, Cruz trails Trump but leads Kasich in the polls. The sensible thing -- from the viewpoint of the Republican party if not that of any sane person -- would be for the anti-Trump vote to rally around Cruz. Yet obvious stubborn pride, barely disguised as modesty, prevented Kasich from saying so last night. Asked repeatedly by Anderson Cooper on CNN whether he would tell his Indiana supporters to vote for Cruz, Kasich answered repeatedly that he didn't believe in telling anyone how to vote. He tried to make it plain that he would not contest the state, or at least would no longer spend money there, but it was painfully more plain that saying "Vote for Cruz" was like swallowing hot coals for the governor. Again, for any normal person that's exactly how saying "Vote for Cruz" should feel, but Kasich was supposed to be making some sort of strategic sacrifice in order to stop Trump, and the only way to stop Trump seems to be to do all he can to help Cruz win in states where Kasich has no chance, as Cruz supposedly will do for Kasich in Oregon and other places, where, as in tonight's states where it's too late to stop Trump, Cruz is rightfully despised. The problem for this new entente is that, as far as I can tell, Kasich himself still despises Cruz.  But perhaps he loves himself more than he hates either Cruz or Trump. At this point, Kasich is nothing but an oldschool "favorite son" candidate trying to run a national campaign on the spurious premise that the Republican base is longing for a reasonable man to lead them this year. His persistence throws his own reasonableness (by Republican standards, that is) into question. I hate to say it, but we probably have to blame the news media, which want desperately to have a "good guy" in the Republican race besides Gog and Magog. They can sustain Kasich with ego-fueling free publicity, but in doing so they perpetuate both his own delusions and the larger illusion that the Republican party is still animated by sanity at this late hour.

25 April 2016

Populism and trade

For a few minutes yesterday I watched the President defend international trade from protectionists at the side of the German chancellor. On this subject Barack Obama, supposedly a flaming liberal and definitely a Democrat, is hardly any different from most conservative Republicans. You can hear the same argument from either party: individuals suffer but the nation benefits. For Republicans (and libertarians) it's a strangely collectivist argument to make, and for the GOP in particular it's arguably an even greater betrayal of the party's founding principles than its infamous Southern strategy. Donald Trump is made out to be a heretic (or an ignoramus) for seeking the Republican presidential nomination on a protectionist platform, while Senator Sanders is seen by many Democrats as nearly as heretical on the subject. Their common failing, the free-traders say, is their assumption that in global competition American companies and employees lose unfairly. The free-traders argue that we can't have the benefits or foreign markets opened to our products without accepting the reciprocal risk of competition with foreign products in our stores. In such an argument the "we" is the nation, but the cost-risk balance breaks down when we think in individual terms.

In what way, after all, does an American worker who suffers from foreign competition benefit from another American company selling more stuff abroad? For some, this is the wrong question to ask, the point of free trade being that every American benefits as a consumer from the lower prices and better quality of goods resulting from the widest possible competition. In other words, that unemployment check will last longer thanks to cheaper imports. It's all sophistry, of course, to cover up the true feeling of free-traders that economic competition means survival of the fittest, and that patriotism that protects the unfit is misplaced if not scoundrelous. I could almost buy this as long as price isn't a factor in fitness, but the most dogmatic free-traders seem determined to make it the primary factor. They definitely seem determined to make it appear oppressive to have to pay more than you might, when people are working cheaper than others say they should. They're also unbecomingly quick to decide when Americans deserve to lose.

Free-traders make a sophistic distinction between free trade and "trade war," while populist protectionists, from Trump on the right to Sanders on the left, may be more inclined to see trade itself as a form of war that Americans should win, victory meaning that Americans keep their jobs. Left protectionists like Sanders may be more inclined to wage a war of liberation, so to speak, by pressuring other countries to increase wages, while right protectionists like Trump, also recognizing low wages as a form of foreign cheating, are less interested in leveling that playing field than in defending the homeland with tariffs. Either way, the populist protectionist simply isn't as willing to write off the worker who loses to foreign competition as the free-trader appears to be -- and that resistance may help us a little more toward getting at the essence of populism.

While individual populists remain maddeningly selective about whom they include in their zone of solidarity -- "populism" and "humanism" are never quite synonymous -- they're still defined to some extent by that unwillingness to write off those toward whom they feel solidarity as losers in the game of life, whether through their own fault or through the breaks of the game. For the sake of analogy, Black Lives Matter is a populist movement because members refuse to write off anyone to whom they feel solidarity -- not even those who, to others, seem self-evidently deserving of death. Populism and its motivating solidarity don't seem to come as naturally to white people, given how readily they'll write off people of their own race or culture for "losing" in many facets of life. But white populism roars to life when whites perceive, as blacks arguably do more often, that shit doesn't just happen, that not all bad things are simply breaks of the game. Populism is a reaction to perceived unfairness, a perception that things are rigged by malicious or indifferent powers against the average person of populist self-regard. It assumes that it's not the loser's fault when he loses a rigged game, nor his responsibility, as the free-trader claims, to adapt to its rigged rules. The rules seem most obviously rigged in the labor market these days, so that's where populism makes its stand, whether by opposing the "race to the bottom" that results from global competition with unequal wages or by opposing the immigration of competitors for the dwindling labor market. By comparison, free-traders, be they ideological Republicans or progressive Clinton/Obama-style technocrats, insist that nothing is rigged, that the global market is an irresistible force of nature, its voice the voice of God. That might be hyperbole on my part, but they do seem to demand that we all accept the global market and its discipline on faith, while populism appears when faith is broken and appeals to faith ring hollow. Populism's opponents argue that the Trump and Sanders campaigns are also appeals to faith in their respective champions' ability to do the apparently impossible. While there may be cults of personality in play in these campaigns, they also seem to be, for good or ill, appeals to people's own power to change the rules that everyone says are immutable, including the rules of global trade. At least on that subject there's been a real debate this year.

20 April 2016

Clinton vs. Sanders: who is the enemy?

Hillary Clinton won the Democratic primary in her adopted state of New York by a landslide margin generated mainly in the biggest cities. Where I live, Senator Sanders crushed her, amplifying an unexpected volume of left dissent first expressed two years ago when Zephyr Teachout ran strongly against Gov. Cuomo in the Democratic primary. The way some see it, however, we must be a bunch of whitebread Bernie Bros up here. To some, the Sanders supporters are the right wing of the Democratic party, precisely because they are, to whatever extent, socialist. That seems to be the premise of a piece written on primary day for the Quartz website. According to Marcie Bianco, Sanders and his supporters are backward, or worse, in their failure to recognize, as Clinton supposedly does recognize, that "the long arc of equal rights in America is primarily based on identity." Sanders' sin is to propose a "revolution" that is primarily economic in orientation.

And despite what he may say [Bianco adds] an economic revolution is not tantamount to a sociopolitical overhaul. To put a finer point on it: Achieving a $15 minimum wage will not stop racially prejudiced cops from shooting black people. It will not stop immigrants or refugees from being detained at our borders. Dismantling Wall Street, whatever that means exactly, will not shore up or extend women’s reproductive rights.

Marxism itself is on the right of Bianco's political universe because  "The universalism of the workers’ fight against “Wall Street” or the “1%” or whatever term is currently being used to describe the capitalist bourgeoise deliberately overlooks oppressed identity groups such as women, people of color, the disabled, immigrant communities." Bianco notes cryptically that "The Achilles heel of Marxism is humanity itself." I find it cryptic, at least, because I'm not sure what she means. I suspect she means something along the line of "humanity has a tendency to oppress itself prior to the introduction of class, and Marxism at its worst only further empowers some of the oppressors." Whatever Bianco actually means, she paints herself into an uncomfortable corner with her rhetoric. What she's saying, after all, is that "the banks" or "Wall Street" (or any particular economic class) are not the real enemy, and that those who say they are are fools or knaves. What does that leave us? It seems pretty clear from Bianco's rhetoric that there is an enemy out there, and if there is, it may not be the white devil of a slightly different political imagination, but it is definitely the Man in any number of senses of the word. Equality in American won't really be equal for Bianco unless it is equal along racial, gender and sexual-orientation lines, at a minimum -- and to oppose Hillary Clinton, she implies, is to oppose all of this. Can Bianco really believe that Bernie Sanders opposes all of this? Her only real evidence for such a belief is that Sanders opposes Clinton. Perhaps any male candidate opposing any female candidate would be equally guilty of standing in the way of history, but to interpret the Clinton-Sanders race in all its particularity in this broad manner is absurd if not downright sinister. After every victory Clinton crows about breaking barriers, a concept that clearly resonates with her multicultural base. But if the Clinton campaign is as essentially about identity politics as Bianco claims, and as implicitly accusatory toward those who don't get with the program, it may build as many barriers to progress as it breaks.

19 April 2016

An American 'spring?'

It's only coming to my attention -- which probably isn't a good sign for the new "Democracy Spring" movement -- that more than 1,000 people were arrested in Washington D.C. last week for protesting outside the U.S. Capitol. It only came to my attention because some celebrities, most notably Ben and Jerry of ice cream fame, were among those arrested. Democracy Spring wants to start a mass civil-disobedience campaign across the country, disrupting campaign fundraisers and the like in order to force their two main issues, the reversal of the Citizens United decision and the rollback of perceived vote-suppression laws, onto the election agenda. While the group cites a number of American models for their movement, not all of which can be called successful, their name -- I asked myself why it isn't "American Spring" and my cynical answer was that someone must have thought that sounded like bottled water  -- is meant to evoke all the "Spring" movements, not all of which can be called successful, either, that have appeared around the world since the Prague original in 1968. In practice, the intent seems to be to combine the passive resistance of the Civil Rights Movement, embodied in members' willingness to get arrested, with the fervor of the "Springs," the "color revolutions" and other "people power" movements. It all seems very naive.

"People power" would have a hard time catching on in the U.S. no matter what the cause behind it, because the legitimacy of "people power" in other places is based on the absence of "rule of law," "civil society," etc. in authoritarian or totalitarian countries. That is, the legitimacy of people power is inversely proportional to the availability of other options for expressing and organizing dissent. Where civil society does exist, or is declared to exist, you'll find that any mob is just a mob. Such a mob can be dismissed by the casual observer and the determined opponent alike, each of whom can call the mob sore losers because they can't get their way at the polls or in the courts. It may call itself "Democracy Spring" but it will be seen as a threat to democracy itself, as many if not most Americans understand the term. The civil-disobedience side of the movement is meant, presumably, to shame Americans into recognizing an injustice so glaring that people are willing to be jailed, or worse, to protest it. But while many Americans outside the south in the Sixties could plead ignorance of the racist injustice down there until the footage from Birmingham and other places got on TV, many Americans now are well aware of the injustices Democracy Spring is protesting, and doesn't see them as injustices. They see the potential for fraud at the polls as sufficient reason to demand photo i.d. from voters and remain suspicious of those making excuses for those without i.d. They see the commodification of political speech as a necessary (if not necessarily harmless) counterweight to the self-interest of the state and the iron law of incumbency. They are unlikely to be swayed from their own beliefs by the sight of kids and celebrities in handcuffs. Groups like Democracy Spring need to realize that they're up against not just money and power but belief, and that nothing they do will amount to an argument against that belief.  If they're really radical, they may decide that the crisis is past the point of argument. They may decide that the belief that money is speech is not to be refuted but suppressed. If they're seen as a threat to democracy, and if they really believe in democracy, their main challenge is to show that democracy doesn't mean what the other side thinks it means, but more than Citizens United might get overturned in the process. Democracy Spring's agenda seems like small potatoes compared to the stakes involved in other people power movements, but let's reserve judgment until we see how ambitious they really are.

18 April 2016

The three estates: workers, consumers, entrepreneurs

Medieval societies, France especially, were divided into estates: nobility, clergy, and the rest, each represented in the rare representative assemblies of the nation. While anyone in theory could join the clergy, with that exception you were pretty much locked into the other estates. American society is different. You can choose to which estate you belong, and while that doesn't determine how you're represented in government, it can determine how you vote. Much of our political culture actually discourages working class people from identifying as such. More specifically, most of the political establishment doesn't want the working class to think of itself as a class, much less a proletariat. Thomas Frank recognizes this. The April Harper's ran an excerpt from his latest book, a critique of the American liberal establishment as embodied by the Clinton family and their foundation. The Harper's piece was concerned with debunking the trendy global fad of microbanking, as promoted by the Clintons. It gave Frank a springboard for his main thrust against Clintonism. Hillary Clinton's drive to make history echoes her family's commitment to breaking barriers to achievement, particularly those created by discrimination; "no ceilings" is a popular motto in their circles. There's nothing wrong with that in isolation, but what Frank perceives is that the Clintons and liberals like them seem more concerned with making it easier, through remedies from microlending to affirmative action, for people to become entrepreneurs than with making life better for the working class, the people who most likely always will work for someone else. Frank fears that, amid their concern that there be no ceilings, liberals neglect the threat of "no floors," no limit to the immiseration of the permanent working class. I'm sure that Clintonites will say that Frank's portrait is at least selective, at worst unfair. They might claim that Frank betrays a bias against entrepreneurs. Perhaps they're right, but if we can't all be entrepreneurs, despite the utopian dreams of liberals, libertarians and others, then someone has to speak for the working class and affirm the primacy of their concerns.

Perhaps the Clintonian embrace of "opportunity" is another expression of the Neo-Lincolnism evolving in our time. Lincoln, we're told, was all about eliminating barriers to achievement; that was why he opposed a slaveholding oligarchy that retarded opportunities for whites, by monopolizing and wasting land, while oppressing blacks. Lincoln, of course, was also the man who said, refuting the concept of "wage slavery," that Northern workers had only themselves to blame, with exceptions for very bad luck, if they remained employees all their lives instead of becoming entrepreneurs. Perhaps the Democrats under the Clintons, rather than the Republicans, are the party of Lincoln now. But for those who see themselves as workers rather than thwarted entrepreneurs, there's still the party within the party, the party of Senator Sanders. There's even the party outside the party, the party of Donald Trump. Each candidate reaches out more to the American as a worker than his rivals within each of the major parties. Each is a critic of modern American trade policy, which each man blames for the loss of manufacturing jobs. While Jonah Goldberg, a conservative columnist, dismisses Trump as a misguided patriot, he regards Sanders and the liberals and progressives who support him as hypocrites of a sort. Assuming the progressives are "citizens of the world," he questions why they oppose free trade policies that have improved the lives of millions of manufacturing workers around the world. Does Bernie Sanders want these people to keep foreigners poor by denying them American markets? It's one thing for Trump to cry "America first!" but Goldberg thinks it odd for progressives to say the same thing -- forgetting the narrative that portrays Sanders and his supporters as populists. If that magical word means anything, then in this context it means that Sanders' first concern is with shoring up American workers' standard of living, while his second, at best, would be to improve working conditions for the rest of the world rather than their American market share, perhaps by using trade policy as leverage.

Even were Goldberg to abandon his sophistic argument against Sanders' alleged hypocrisy, he'd still say that Sanders is as wrongheaded as Trump about trade. When we come down to Goldberg's real argument for free trade, Trump and Sanders are wrong for the same reason. Each, on this issue at least, refuses to recognize Americans' primary identity as consumers. 'Free trade is good for most American workers and all American consumers, not just the “1 percent.”,' Goldberg writes. The columnist is a right-wing consumerist, as opposed to left-consumerists more concerned with quality than price (think Ralph Nader) and thus committed to a degree of regulation Goldberg abhors. For right-consumerists like Goldberg, only price matters -- or should matter. Any other consideration, presumably, distorts the workings of that all-wise singularity, the Market. It's also necessary for the citizen to think of himself as a consumer first and a worker second at best. Right wing consumerism differs again from the left wing variant by requiring you to define yourself as a consumer -- in effect, to renounce any solidarity with fellow workers that might require a sacrifice from the wallet. A consumer remains free to pay more for quality, but he should not feel pressured to subsidize "uncompetitive" fellow citizen when imports can be had for less. When Goldberg sneers in print that "American labor unions hate foreign competition," his hope that foreign competition will further  break down organized labor could not be more obvious. While union folk and many liberals will still tell you that organized labor swelled the ranks of the American middle class in the 20th century, Goldberg tells an alternate history according to which "it is largely thanks to trade that the average American worker is in the top 1 percent of earners in the world." In other words, you owe it not to yourselves but to consumers worldwide. In this narrative the consumers are always on the winning side of history, and to take the workers' side, probably superficially in Trump's case and perhaps more substantially in Sanders', is a chump's call. So there are your choices: liberal entrepreneurship and its risk of debt; conservative consumerism sacrificing all to competitiveness; or the world as it seemed to be not so long ago, when workers could make the market answer to them. Don't say you don't have any real choices in politics.

Goldberg closes his column on a curious note:

One irony to this all of is that despite all the textbooks that claim nationalism and socialism are opposites, the reality is that when translated into policy, they’re closer to the same thing. The rhetoric may be different, but the economic program of nationalism is socialism, and the emotional underpinnings of socialism boil down to nationalism.

The curious thing about this is Goldberg's implicit repudiation of nationalism. You'd think any self-styled conservative would be a nationalist, on the assumption that the conservative is loyal to traditions, and particularly cultural traditions, while distrusting cosmopolitanism and individualism. Of course, Goldberg may mean something more sinister by "nationalism" than a mere synonym for patriotism, as he is the man who wrote a book called Liberal Fascism. But what is he actually defending by casting these aspersions? The individual, presumably, and the consumer especially. Above all, Goldberg defends the principle that if I can make and sell a product cheaper than anyone else, I deserve to win -- and I can never sell too cheap or pay too cheap. He's defending the idea that no one has the right to say I sell or pay too cheap, much less penalize me for it. When he invites you to think of yourself as a consumer, this is what he expects you to believe. And if you imagine yourself an entrepreneur, with help from Clintonian liberals, you'll have to think this way to if you want to survive in Goldberg's world. If you don't think that way and don't want to think that way, you'd better hope that another world is possible, no matter how unfair or unfree that world may seem to other people. You have to choose which of the modern estates you belong to, and you have to act and vote accordingly.

14 April 2016

Christianism in Tennessee

A Republican governor has vetoed a bill narrowly approved by the Tennessee legislature that would have designated the Christian Holy Bible as the official state book. Gov. Haslam is no liberal, but he and his attorney general recognize the obvious unconstitutional implications of this legislation. Haslam's challenge was to veto the bill without greatly offending his state's Christianists -- my word for those who believe that Christian morality is the unacknowledged foundation of American law, and that the Christian majority is entitled on democratic and moral principle to have the polity reflect their preferences and prejudices. It was necessary for Haslam to denounce perceived efforts to "drive religion out of the public square," and in addition to the obvious constitutional objections to such a bill he borrowed an idea from Teddy Roosevelt, arguing as Teddy did against putting "In God We Trust" on currency that putting a state seal of approval on the Bible actually trivializes it. Haslam's spin on the idea is that making the Bible the state book makes it equivalent to the raccoon, the state animal, and the tomato, the state fruit. He probably has to resort to such an argument because his fellow Republicans would reject the real argument, also offered, that the state-book designation comes too close for comfort to an establishment of religion. To them, it seems self-evident that the majority should be culturally dominant, that the U.S. should declare itself a Christian nation by affirming and enforcing their preferences. When Christians whine that they're losing their rights in this country, as they do so often now, they mean that some Americans won't allow them to do exactly this sort of thing. They whine the same way when anyone challenges their cultural prerogative to stigmatize and marginalize homosexuals. Haslam still has a "religious liberty" bill empowering homophobia on his desk, another result of such whining on the part of people who think doing business with homosexuals is sinful. He told interviewers last week that he hadn't yet made up his mind to sign it or not. He should recognize that both the "religious liberty" bill and the Bible bill express the same Christianist impulse. If he's capable of making a distinction between religion's real role in the public square and unconstitutional Christianism he shouldn't have to do any more thinking before vetoing the "religious liberty" bill. Unfortunately, Tennessee requires only a simple majority to override a gubernatorial veto. If Christianist Republicans override Haslam on either bill, the one he he did veto or the one he might, it might be seen as a vote of no confidence in the governor. In that case it will probably be up to American business, as it has been in other homophobic states, to cast a vote of no confidence in Tennessee.

12 April 2016

C.P. Time

Someone is desperate to embroil Hillary Clinton in a fresh scandal. I suspect the Sanders campaign will make much of it in the hope of alienated black voters from the front runner. It's really one of the most pathetic scandals I've seen in a while. In case you haven't found out about it already, it seems that Clinton participated in a little skit with Mayor DiBlasio of New York City over the weekend. The idea was to poke fun at the mayor for his belated endorsement of the former Senator. Asked why he took so long, the mayor explained that he was running on "C.P. time." At this point, I now understand, the audience is supposed to be hesitantly outraged at the mayor's remark. They've been set up for the punchline, which comes when DiBlasio explains that he meant "Cautious Politician time." You were supposed to have thought that DiBlasio had meant "Colored People's Time," which has apparently been a thing in pop culture since at least the 1970s. This is one of those somethings that black people can say about themselves, while the propriety of white people mentioning it is open to question. And so, even though no one in the skit actually said "colored people's time," the idea that the idea was in the air on stage has offended some people, if not as many as some hope it will.

Just this morning I was reading the latest In These Times, in which columnist Salim Muwakkil discusses debates over the Clintons in the black community. He notes that many black leftists who support Sanders have expressed frustration with their siblings' apparently uncritical support for Clinton. Muwakkil himself claims to be more understanding. He attributes black support for Clinton, despite the recurring anger of the Black Lives Matter movement over measures taken under Bill Clinton, to "functional pragmatism." The basis of this functional pragmatism seems to be an unshakable belief, regardless of the relative merits of Clinton and Sanders, that Clinton will be the stronger candidate in the general election. The only thing that matters, in this analysis, is keeping a Republican out of the White House. Muwakkil hints at divisions among blacks over the priorities of race and class. Muwakkil himself is a black nationalist, which in this context seems to mean placing the highest priority on the interests of black people and communities. He notes that black nationalists have been criticized in the past by black intellectuals of a more Marxist or generally leftist persuasion, while Muwakkil himself criticizes Sanders (on inference) for seeing blacks as a lumpenproletariat. The columnist's own belief seems to be that Marxist categories are inadequate to address, let alone remedy, the specificity of racial oppression. In simpler terms, a black Sanders supporter, Nina Turner, says elsewhere in the same issue that "African Americans are brand loyal," while a sympathetic interviewer observes that "Making the conversation only about race doesn't yield anything productive for people who are working for $8 per hour." So it seems that, despite enduring BLM anger at the Clintons, those blacks more likely to "make the conversation only about race" prefer Clinton to Sanders, presumably because they see a Republican president as something like an existential threat to them specifically. Their "pragmatism" means always taking the minimal deal the Democrats offer out of fear of a Republican terror, and thus never really pressuring Democrats to offer a better deal, rather than take a risk that might bring greater rewards by moving to the Clintons' left, either by supporting Sanders in this year's primaries or by joining a third party. Blacks have a pretty firm idea -- accurate or not -- of what Clintonian governance means for them, and yet they'll take it if that'll prevent a President Trump or Cruz. What that tells me is that, at least when it comes to politics, C.P. time is a real thing after all.

11 April 2016

Too bad I have to work for a living

I live in Albany, New York. For a few hours today the state capital was the center of American politics. Senator Sanders came to town this morning, while Donald Trump arrived in the evening. In between, Gov. Kasich passed through during a lightning tour that took him to Troy and Saratoga Springs as well. It's too bad that I work in Troy, and that I work an odd shift that made it impossible to see anybody, and that the announcements of Sanders and Trump's appearances came on too short notice for me to take the day off. It looks like a lot of people with time on their hands had fun today.

I saw this much: at 9:30 this morning I was walking up Washington Avenue toward my bus stop. Across the street, at the corner of Washington and Lark, is the Washington Avenue Armory, the Sanders venue. He was scheduled to speak at 2 p.m. and the doors were to open at 11 a.m. Ninety minutes before, the line stretched from Lark to the other end of the block, the corner of Washington and Dove, and then it turned, extending to Elk, the street parallel to Washington. I'd never seen that long a line outside the Armory before. I later learned that the line finally snaked around the entire block, and that something like 2,000 people had to be turned away, and that Sanders, to his credit, actually came out to address those people briefly. Sanders might well have filled the Times Union Center, the city's big sports and music venue, but I assume that Trump had spoken for it first, and that the staff didn't want to herd two huge political rallies in and out of the place in one day. In any event, the Trump show was just letting out as I was coming back into Albany at the end of my work day. People were streaming up Pearl Street and climbing the State Street hill for the bus stop. I saw an acquaintance of mine who'd been to both rallies -- outside in both cases, alas -- to cheer Sanders and jeer Trump. He was carrying a sign that read "Veterans Against Hate Speech," or words to that effect. It was crazy outside the arena, he told me, but he complimented the Albany police for keeping the protesters safe from those Trumpsters who wanted to protest their protest. It seems like a good time was had by all.

For the record, Hillary Clinton and Senator Cruz had already put in appearances in the region, far less spectacularly in both cases. Clinton was the first to show up and held her rally in Cohoes High School, across the river from Troy, on April 4. Cruz was even less conspicuous, holding his rally in a Christian academy gym in Scotia, Schenectady County, on April 7. He has momentum nationally now, but all indications are that he will do poorly in New York, running behind Kasich. The Texan will not be forgiven for his "New York values" crack of some months ago, even though many people here in Upstate (i.e. anywhere north of the metropolis) sympathize with his criticism. On the other side, in New York as in many places, Sanders has the people who go to rallies, but in the Empire State the people who go to vote -- and, more importantly, the people who get people to vote, are for their former Senator and First Lady. Some may say that New York isn't "white" enough to give Sanders another win, but I don't think the problem is that ethnic minorities dislike or ignore Sanders, but that ethnic voting here is well organized, and that the organizers are all for Clinton. Sanders continues to reach out -- I learned via coffeeshop eavesdropping that he was to meet with some Black Lives Matter types this morning -- but I suspect he remains hopelessly alienated from the party establishment types who actually get people out to vote, the types for whom Clinton's questioning of Sanders' Democratic credentials resonates. Current polls suggest that Clinton will win the state by at least ten points, but there remains time in both parties for strange things to happen, and we know they can this year. But as I'm an independent and can vote in neither primary, it's out of my hands. As with today's rallies, I'm on the outside watching from a distance, but in the case of the primaries I choose to keep my distance.

08 April 2016

Equality: what's God got to do with it?

Cal Thomas asks a rhetorical question in his latest column:

[I]f you say there is no God and then turn around and tell me I should not be a racist ... and I say, “why should I?” how do you respond? If we are all evolutionary accidents, why can’t I believe and practice anything I wish? Perhaps you respond that there are laws prohibiting discrimination. To that I answer, “Suppose the laws are changed, is it then OK to discriminate?” It was once legal to own slaves, but did that law make slavery moral? 

Thomas's query begs a question in response: Is belief in God the only reason you're not a racist? To put the question a little differently: Is belief in God the only reason not to be a racist? To think so, as Thomas apparently does, presumes that man is absolutely incapable of recognizing all human beings as fellow human beings and treating them the way he'd want to be treated. As usual, religion presumes that people are hopelessly stupid and incapable of civilization without guidance from a god. But if religion distrusts human intelligence, it distrusts human will even more. It's human will, after all, that explains why theoretical Thomas shouldn't be a racist and can't practice anything he wishes. Civilization is an expression of human will, but human nature will always distrust human will to some extent, both on the "who are you to say?" level of nihilistic individualism and Thomas's "how do I know you won't change your mind?" level of theological skepticism, which sees all secular civilization as nihilistic individualism. The answer to such skepticism is that the will to civilization, founded on reasoned principles, creates a standard of accountability to which anyone who changes his mind or betrays his ideals, even the original lawgiver, can be held. Civilization depends on will but isn't founded on will. It depends on the will to uphold and enforce the principles reason has discovered (and continues to discover) against both individualist and theological nihilism -- the belief that one's own will vetoes the will of the whole world, on one hand, and the belief that civilization is founded on nothing but a will in which reason has no voice and which sees reason as an enemy.

To return to Thomas's original question: if we reason that people should not be treated differently due to race and will that races not be treated differently, then we will that Thomas shouldn't be a racist whether he can reason his way to that point or not. And if someone changes the law to permit racial discrimination without refuting the original reasoned objections, the will to civilization should work for repeal -- by legal means first and then however reason and will deem necessary. God is not necessary for reason to be compelling to man, but will is necessary for reason to amount to anything. Theological skeptics often get reason and will mixed up because their universe is founded on a will upon which, so they believe, reason depends. Those who know better recognize that reason is independent of will as well as its judge, and that no one can undo reason by an act of will. Those who try have a god to sell, or sell themselves as gods. They're not as different as people like Thomas might think.

06 April 2016

Does Trump know his own strength?

Donald Trump lost badly to Senator Cruz in Wisconsin yesterday, and as with every setback people ask whether this was the beginning of the end for the Republican front-runner. The answer depends on how you account for Trump's loss. The simplest explanation is that it follows a week of bad news for the billionaire, from the assault charge against his campaign manager to his perceived gaffe about punishing women who have abortions. It's entirely possible, however, that those embarrassments had little to do with the Wisconsin result. Thanks to Gov. Walker's anti-union campaigns and the attempt to recall him, Wisconsin may be the most ideologically polarized state in the nation -- a fact that apparently benefited Senator Sanders as well. It may be that Republicans in Wisconsin are such true believers that most automatically ruled Trump out as a heretic, and it's even more likely that Walker has developed an effective get-out-the-vote machine that was put at the service of Cruz. Another factor ought to be considered: Trump's new disinterest in debates. He doesn't seem to want to face either Cruz or Governor Kasich, preferring rallies where the spotlight stays on him exclusively. I think this is a mistake on several levels. First, debates have helped Trump remain a dominant figure on the news; the casual observer may pay more attention to them, given their competitive atmosphere, than to Trump's speeches. Second, to duck debating Cruz, presumably because the Texan has a reputation as a master debater, makes Trump look afraid, which can only hurt him with his base. Third, Trump himself may not appreciate that his success in past debates has had little to do with his own forensic skills. Let's be blunt; Trump's fans respond to him on a primitive level. When they watch the debates, they want to see Trump show dominance, which he has done not by outwitting his rivals but by insulting them. They probably won't be able to tell if Cruz has outwitted Trump in a debate, but they'll be impressed if Trump doesn't appear to back down to the Senator. For the moment, Trump is tweeting away about Cruz being a Trojan horse for the Establishment. But Twitter is no substitute for the sort of face-to-face encounter that might expose what Trump's followers would take to be Cruz's true character, whatever that may be. There's an evangelical smarminess, a plastic sanctimony, a contemptuous smugness to Cruz that's obvious to all but the true believers, yet I don't think Trump has really exploited any of that in all his attacks on "Lyin' Ted." He should. It might seem irresponsible of me to coach Trump in his campaign, but I have to admit that Cruz, not Trump, is the candidate I least want to see as President. The ideal scenario for any conscientious American now is for Trump and Cruz to bleed each other white, to make each other even more toxic (if possible) than they are now, so that somebody else -- and we can still debate who that should be -- can win the general election. But if Trump doesn't confront Cruz on the debate stage, he could collapse faster than anyone expects, giving Cruz crucial time to consolidate his position and maneuver for the fall campaign. It's like rooting for Stalin against Hitler in 1941 and really wanting both to lose -- though who is who in that analogy I leave for you to decide.

04 April 2016

The Panama Papers

The reporters at the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists are quick to remind readers that setting up shell companies through the Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca is not itself illegal, but the implication of the ICIJ's massive expose of leaked Mossack Fonseca documents is that Panama provides the world's elite -- politicians and their families and cronies, businessmen and celebrities -- a platform for activities that are essentially if not legally corrupt, from tax shelters to money laundering.  The revelations are global in scope and apparently nonpartisan, in that both close associates of Vladimir Putin and the president of Ukraine have been shown to be up to dubious stuff. Privilege knows neither party nor ideology, after all, and both those for whom wealth is power and those for whom power is wealth seem at home in Panama. Both the Saudi royal family and the family of the current President of China have business with Mossack Fonseca, it seems. Wealth and power convey a mobility that keeps the global elite beyond the reach of local regulation. Until law is as mobile -- which is to say until law is global -- powerful individuals, families and corporations will find shelter from their duties in either sense of the word. Even if the "Panama Papers" expose isn't meant to lead to criminal charges against anyone, it's clearly meant to stir up universal outrage. It has had immediate consequences in Iceland, where growing numbers are demanding the resignation of their prime minister, and it has no doubt exacerbated political crises in other places. Let the local consequences be what they will, but if the Panama Papers prove anything it may be the need for greater world government, or at least enough to close off these shelters from the obligations of citizenship in a civilized world.