Monday, January 28, 2008

Church and State, God and Country: The 'Culture Wars'

When politicians want votes, they declare war on something or someone. This isn't new. All the way back in 1812, a cadre of young Democratic-Republican congressmen called the 'war-hawks' managed to push the United States government into war with Great Britain. The leaders of this little band of brothers (Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun) would eventually disown one another (not until after they co-founded the Whig party to tear down Andrew Jackson, which didn't go so well) after disagreeing on sectional issues wrapped around the unsavory surprise package of slavery, but each would go on to a distinguished political career: Clay would be the first 'great' Speaker of the House and Calhoun would be Vice President and then Senator.

A few years later, give or take, James Knox Polk was elected president promising to get tough with Great Britain and Mexico over border disputes (in the former case) and expansionist greed (in the latter). Perhaps he remembered that Washington got burned in the War of 1812, because he reached a very reasonable compromise with Great Britain. He did declare war on Mexico, however, and in the Mexican War the United States was more than doubled in size and Mexico was gutted. More important, from a political perspective, was the fact that Polk's party (the Democrats) were able to label their political opponents (the Whigs) as 'cowards' and 'un-patriotic' for their charge (true) that the Mexican War was primarily intended to add new slave states to the Union and increase Southern political power in the Senate. The result was that Democrats swept the wartime elections and the Whig party was gravely crippled and ultimately destroyed.

Wars with countries became less popular, but other kinds of wars have become quite the fad since. Lyndon Johnson declared a 'War on Poverty', which hasn't gone as well as he might have liked. It was a president from Johnson's own party, Bill Clinton, who put the axe to Johnson's Great Society. Though most narcotics were already illegal in 1969, Richard Nixon declared 'War on Drugs'. That one has made the 'War on Poverty' look like a victory. George W. Bush declared his 'Global War on Terrorism' in the wake of September 11, but that quickly became 'The War on Everyone We Don't Like and on Everyone The Countries We Want To Be Friends With Are Worried About, Just To Be Safe.' My guess, sorry to disappoint all the Democratic Senators and congressmen who voted for the GWOT and the Patriot Act, is that was what it was always intended to be.

The original 'Culture War' was Bismarck's 'Kulturkampf', which he said was a war between the German civilization and the medieval barbarism of the Roman Catholic Church. It was really a war between the government of the relatively new German Empire and the political power and influence the Catholic Church still held in parts of Germany. In the 1920s, Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci blamed the 'cultural hegemony' of the capitalist class for the failure of a true global Marxist revolution to take hold and argued for a 'culture war' to create a new cultural hegemony. It was with Gramsci's writings in mind that Mao Tse Tung would launch China's 'Cultural Revolution.'

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the idea of cultural warfare between the old 'Traditional America' and the 'heirs of the Counter-Culture' began to take hold among conservative Christian politicans. The 'Culture War' was referenced in Pat Buchanan's speech at the 1992 Republican Convention, and his declaration of a 'religious war' against liberals brought the entire Republican Party hard to the right. The entire convention became an outburst of bile against gays, minority activists, feminists, and liberals. Even the very moderate George H.W. Bush (who had been liberal enough, after his election in 1988, to claim he sought to be remembered as 'the environmental President') was surprisingly savage in his acceptance speech. In the 1994 mid-term elections, reactionaries who had been laughing-stocks even in the Republican party had become the GOP mainstream. They went on to write the bill that Bill Clinton signed, formally turning Lyndon Johnson's 'War on Poverty' to a properly Reaganite War on the Poor. Even more frightening, some of them are moderates by our standards today.

The conservative leaders of the 'Culture Wars' will tell you that they are defending 'Traditional America' and 'Traditional Values', which liberals have attacked at every turn and wish to destroy. They argue that the forces of 'Secularism' are led by atheists and agnostics who wish to actually destroy religion in America and that they are defending Christianity from these attacks. It is true that the Counter-Culture assaulted many traditional American values, but it is equally true that the basis of the Counter-Culture (even as many of its leaders rejected religion) was the message of love, peace, human brotherhood, and mutual kindness taught by Jesus. More importantly, while many of the ideas of the Counter-Culture have been adopted and developed by the political left, the idea of a complete transformation of American society into a new form is not one in the minds of most liberals. The goal of the left is to broaden society's base, so that more people are accepted into the embrace of traditional American society and to improve what needs improving while safeguarding what must never be lost.

If there is a Culture War, the Religious Right has declared it. Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, John Adams, George Washington, and others among the Founding Fathers were Deists. The First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion to all citizens and was deliberately intended to prevent the atrocities (albeit on a small scale, but still atrocities) carried out in the name of theocratic local and state governments in New England from being expanded or repeated. Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee has said that he wishes to bring the Constitution into line with the Bible, because it is easier to change the Constitution than the Scriptures. This sounds a lot more like Cotton Mather (who hanged witches in Salem) than Thomas Jefferson or John Adams. Even the most palatable Republican hopeful, Senator John McCain, is on record as opposed to abortion and gay rights. Whatever one's stance on these issues, it is important to remember that the judges likely to reverse Roe vs. Wade are also the judges likely to trample all over other 'implied rights' not listed in the Bill of Rights because no one ever thought anyone would think to question them.

For those skeptical, it has not been 'secular' liberals who have attempted to force school districts to ban long lists of books. Last night I watched the movie version of 'A Bridge To Terabithia' for the first time. I didn't like the book much when I was made to read it in school,. but the movie was excellent and has me thinking I should give it another chance now. I certainly agree with its message of the importance of imagination, friendship, and family in the face of life's harsh trials. It is a classic of American culture and teaches traditional values of perseverance, friendship, and family. Yet this is one of the books that conservatives would have liked to see banned in the 1980s.

In my opinion, the Religious Right would not like to defend American culture so much as they would like to edit it into their vision of what it should have been in the first place. Then they would like to exclude everyone who doesn't share that vision from their rightful place in a free society.

Do we really want our nation to become a gigantic version of the Massachusetts Bay Colony? I'm not a Quaker, but I was raised Mennonite and as a fellow pacifist I might be mistaken for a Quaker. I'd like to keep my ears.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

A Republican On Social Security

"Should any political party attempt to abolish Social Security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are H.L. Hunt (you possibly know his background), a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or businessman from other areas.
Their number is negligible and they are stupid."

- Dwight D. Eisenhower, private correspondence to Edgar Eisenhower (November 8, 1954)

Now you like Ike too, don't you?

He wasn't alone. Republicans to his left, like Nelson Rockefeller and George Romney, and to his right, Richard Nixon and William Scranton, all agreed on the inviolability of Social Security. They also believed in the importance of labor laws governing wages, working conditions, and job safety every bit as much as they did in farm subsidies. The 'conservatism' of Nixon and Scranton (genuine right-wingers in their day, liberal Republicans by modern definition) was largely in the area of wanting to see such programs run as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible, not in cutting or abolishing them, and in such regulations to be levied and enforced on a fair and efficient basis. Even Barry Goldwater (the leader of the Lunatic Right Wing Fringe in his own day, a moderate by today's Republican standards), while he argued and theorized about the dangerous encroachment of such programs on principle American freedoms, did not actively and consistently argue for the complete abolition of Social Security (though some of his supporters in his presidential bid did, to be fair); the farthest he went (far enough, it's true) in his actual platform was to advocate making Social Security voluntary.

Eisenhower and other leading Republicans of the pre-Reagan era were not political philosophers or ideologues. They were responsible statesmen interested first and foremost in responsible governing. Goldwater, it is true, was an ideologue; he was the John the Baptist of the new Conservative Religion, with his presidential bid substituting for his beheading. That's why he lost. It's why Eisenhower and Nixon won. Adlai Stephenson, Hubert Humphrey, and George McGovern were political philosophers of liberalism rather than mechanics of the engine of government. The successful Democratic presidential candidates of the post-WWII years have been a practical Missouri farmer, a shrewd and entirely realistic New England aristocrat, the consummate artist of the Capitol Hill back room, a populist Southern peanut farmer, and a Machiavellian opportunist and consummate realist with a brilliant gift for oratory.

Yet, in the face of this parade of center left moderates, we are told that bedrock institutions of our modern society are 'failed liberal policies' that must be discarded for the good of the country. Some, labor laws (not all of them, but many... the words 'Right to Work' are so very insidious) come to mind, have already been discarded. Farm subsidies still stagger on because they have been adopted by the hard right to protect their hold on their Southern and Midwestern base, but now they come under attack from the very left that brought them into being. Because attacking the poor and the elderly directly is bad form even for many hard conservatives theses days, Medicare and Medicaid are more carefully blasted under the code-name 'entitlements.'

Which brings us to Social Security. The attack on Social Security by President George W. Bush, coincidentally one of Eisenhower's 'oil millionaires', failed in the tangible sense. He was prevented from gutting the program. In a more subtle and insidious sense, it has succeeded to a dangerous degree. Many Americans, especially Baby Boomers and their children, fear that the social safety net into which they have paid will not be there for them. This climate of fear makes them vulnerable to manipulative politics from all sides.

Social Security is in trouble, but the most serious threat to the program is not economic. Social Security's financial viability has been in danger in the past and the government, because responsible leaders on both sides of the aisle have believed in the rightness and necessity of the program, has always acted to put it back on sure footing.

No, the threat to Social Security today is a political threat. Ideology has become the bedrock of the Republican Party. Conservative political philosophers set the tone and those who would responsibly tend the mechanisms of government are condemned as 'liberal.' In his syndicated column, conservative pundit George Will blasted Senator John McCain as a closet Democrat. Why? Senator McCain wishes to protect Social Security and believes in fiscal responsibility as opposed to the trickle down, Welfare for the Rich policies of neoconservatives or the complete deregulatory chaos of the Austrian School.

Senator McCain isn't the issue. Nor is this defense of his person an endorsement of his candidacy. My endorsement is still split between Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel. The issue is Social Security. It's based on a simple concept: every generation has a debt and responsibility to its progenitors. We owe our parents. Our children will owe us. The conservative political fantasy in vogue among the leaders of the Republican Party today would make every man an island responsible only for himself and that means that Social Security must go.

Consider that. The alternative is that we fulfill our debt to the preceding generation by putting Mom and Pop in a home or moving them in with us. Is that really what you want for them, or what they deserve?

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Now He Tells Us

Once upon a time, in what now feels like a galaxy far, far away (to borrow the words of a more famous writer than myself), Larry Elder told a talk show host in an interview that the thing he hated to be called more than anything else was 'Republican' and loudly proclaimed himself a 'Libertarian' instead. Now, in answer to a question advanced by a correspondent (whom I assume to be one of Mr. Elder's fans) he would appear to be changing his mind on that score, just a touch.

"A Democrat or a Republican?"

As one sees upon reading this answer, it is rather one sided. Rather than attempt to address the real differences in political thought between conservatives and liberals it brands all Republicans as conservatives and all Democrats as liberals while wrapping conservatism in a shroud of righteousness and casting liberalism in the most derisive possible light. The fact is that there are conservative and moderate Republicans and, once upon a time, there were even liberal Republicans (to paraphrase Art Garfunkel, Mitt Romney won't you please come home?), though these are mostly mythical in this era. There are conservative, moderate, and liberal Democrats. Witness, if you will, the differences between Senator Zell Miller of Georgia and Congressman Dennis Kucinich of Ohio. Then compare both of them to Senator Hillary Clinton. There are a wide range of views in both parties. Republican Senator John McCain and Democrat-turned-independent Senator Joe Lieberman share more common thoughts on foreign policy than do the aforementioned Mr. Kucinich and Ms. Clinton. Mr Kucinich's ideal foreign policy is more in line with that of Republican Congressman Ron Paul.

There are, however, real differences between conservatives and liberals. Rather than answer Mr. Elder's invective with my own, I will attempt to illustrate those differences in a more even handed manner.

Conservatives believe that taxes should be kept to the absolute minimum possible level and that they should be leveled, when necessary, on an absolutely equal level across the board. Their vision of equality before the law argues that greater taxation is punishing the wealthy for their success. Liberals believe that taxes are a necessary part of governing and that taxation should be progressive: those with the least should pay as little as possible and those with the most should pay more. Their vision of social and economic justice argues that the successful have a moral obligation to the society in which they live.

Conservatives believe that society should be truly color-blind in its laws and practices and that true equality before the law means that the law should ignore race and gender. Liberals believe that as long as racial and gender-based inequities exist, true equality before the law requires that the law take those inequities into account.

Conservatives believe that the best thing that government can do to guarantee individual liberty and support individual success is to do the least amount of governing and regulating of society. They believe that any law restrains individual liberty and that the benefits of government activism are always outweighed by the damage done by regulation and taxation. Liberals believe that the government can and should take an active role in changing society for the better and that people should be brought into the process of government by programs that touch their daily life in a meaningful way. They believe that responsible legislation is necessary to guarantee liberty to all members of society as equally as possible.

Conservatives believe that an individual is strengthened both socially and morally by persevering to succeed as best as possible with whatever cards dealt them by life or society and that acting to help them can retard their social and moral growth by giving them an unearned advantage. Liberals believe that such assistance in overcoming life's tribulations can not only improve the lives of the individuals being helped, but can also give those facing different circumstances a better understanding of other facets of the society in which they live.

Conservatives believe that individuals have the right to decide whether or not to help their fellow citizens. They believe that natural human compassion should encourage the successful to help the unfortunate, but that no one should be required to do so and that such requirement restrains individual liberty. Liberals believe in social responsibility, that through government everyone should share in reducing the burdens of the less successful and less fortunate and that doing so strengthens society as a whole.

Conservatives believe in a foreign policy based on military strength and national interest. Whether isolationists or proactive neo-conservatives, they believe in a strong national defense and in putting the interests and sovereignty of their country above international and moral concerns. Liberals, whether pacifists or proactive humanitarians, believe that a nation is part of a larger global community and that it has a responsibility to that community just as individuals have a responsibility to their own national community.

Conservatives believe in a strict, fundamentalist interpretation of the Constitution. They believe the rights of the people and the powers of the government described in the Constitution are the only rights and powers possessed by the people and the government. They believe that the Founding Fathers intended this strict observance. Liberals believe that the people possess natural rights from which the rights made explicit in the Constitution derive and which are implied by those specifically and explicitly stated rights. They believe that the 'necessary and proper' clause of the Constitution allows the government powers not explicitly stated in order to fulfill the obligations and protect the rights enumerated in the document. They believe the Founding Fathers thought many basic individual liberties (such as privacy) so naturally explicit that there was no need to write them down.

Conservatives believe that the market is self-regulating and self-governing and that regulation of commerce and industry is therefore counter-productive. They believe that the health of the economy depends on the health of business. Liberals believe that the health of the economy depends on the individual ability of consumers and workers to play their role and support the larger system in which they exist. They believe that regulation of commerce and industry is sometimes necessary to guarantee that the consumers whose spending drives profits and supports business remain able to fulfill their economic role.

Conservatives believe that the 2nd Amendment guarantees complete and unregulated access to firearms and that an armed populace is necessary to freedom. Liberals believe that the 2nd Amendment refers specifically to community militias which no longer exist in the modern society and that it is not a blanket argument in favor of universal gun ownership.

My own liberal bias is likely more clear than intended in some of the above descriptions, but they are fundamentally correct and as even-handed as possible. The driving force of conservatism is the individual's personal independence and freedom of choice, which is undeniably a valid moral goal. The driving force of liberalism is society's responsibility to the individual and the individual's responsibility to society, which an equally valid moral goal.

Stan Lee, in the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man, put the following words in the mouth of Uncle Ben Parker: "With great power comes great responsibility."

I would paraphrase that statement. With freedom comes responsibility. Conservatism focuses on the freedom and liberalism on the responsibility, but Americans can and should have the one while accepting the other.

Both sides might find that idea radical.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Flaw in the Crystal of Capitalism

"We live at the end of two centuries of evidence for the triumph of capitalism. From the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in England, to the rise of the "Asian Tigers," to the impact of global capitalism in India and China--everywhere capitalism has spread, human life has been radically transformed for the better."

-Robert Tracinski (GOP 'Fusionism' Becomes Unfused, Real Clear Politics, 1/11/2008)

Adam Smith's 'Invisible Hand' doesn't exist, and American economic history since the Reagan era is the proof. Under Reagan, despite the 'turn-around' of American economics as a whole, the rich got richer while the poor became increasingly disenfranchised. Worse, the 'upswing' of the American economy during the Reagan years was not genuine economic growth. Instead it was the product of cost-cutting strategies designed to increase profit margins and raise stock prices in the short term. During a period of then-record economic 'growth' (truly growth in stock prices, with actual shrinkage in the world of labor and trade we call 'the economy'), unemployment and homelessness skyrocketed. The long-term effect, unfortunately, was to eliminate infrastructure and labor force in American corporations and make them less competitive around the world. The recession of the early 1990s, which ended the first Bush presidency, was simply the inevitable result of such short-term, easy-money-in-the-bank policies. Unfortunately, the United States has not learned from this pattern and has repeated the cycle under President Clinton and President Bush II. President Clinton's 'record job growth' consisted primarily of minimum wage jobs in the service industries and also counted the second jobs of people already active members of the workforce. President Bush's record makes Clinton look like Leon Trotsky.

The problem is that capitalism is a philosophical ideal; just like any other philosophical creation it depends on metaphysical speculation that cannot be either disproven or proven scientifically. The cornerstones of capitalism are vague terms like 'Market Forces', 'the Market', and 'the Invisible Hand.' These are labels given to tendencies and assigned the force of law because those tendencies appear to recur consistently. The problem is that these 'laws' of capitalism are dependent on something else: rational self-interest.

The key word in that simple phrase is 'rational.' The market tendencies of capitalism are only present to self-regulate the market when the self-interest of capitalists remains rational. When businessmen, entrepreneurs, and corporate raiders succumb to amoral greed on a massive scale then those tendencies are vastly weakened. While 'market forces' will eventually reward such destructive policies with the harvest of debt and failure currently being reaped by the American automotive industry, what do those 'market forces' matter if government subsidies allow failed companies to continue to pad the pocketbooks of executives?

The sad fact is that people often do not know what is best for themselves. A philosophy dependent on rational self-interest cannot sustain itself in a world where self-interest is rarely rational. The idea that competing spheres of self-interest will work to regulate the economy in the best interests of all has been repeatedly disproven. During the first great industrial successes of the earliest mass-producers, women and children were destroyed by harsh labor and dangerous machinery while able-bodied and skilled men lost their jobs and were forced to sit helplessly by while their wives and children died to put food on their table. Even then, the apostles of the religion of capitalism were outspoken against any interference in the machine of wealth-building. Economist Thomas Malthus argued that to regulate industry to make the condition of laborers he admitted were terribly abused would be to destroy the system and to make conditions worse for all.

This is the ultimate law of capitalism: for there to be great prosperity there must be exploitation. This is why economies are booming in India and China. American corporations are exploiting cheap labor markets to become competitive again, while local capitalists are realizing they can exploit their own people to crack in world markets. Thus conditions do improve, in the short term. In the long-term, when the entire world has become industrialized and intelligent, rational societies have regulated industry? Where will we ship our factories then? Who will we exploit?

Pure socialism is not the answer. Like capitalism, socialism is a philosophical construct based on metaphysical ideas not subject to scientific method. However, there is truth in socialism just as there is truth in capitalism. Hugh Miller, discussing religion, said 'A faith that destroys or weakens society cannot be true; a faith that strengthens or invigorates society may be true (emphasis mine).' Now the key word becomes 'society.' Not the wealthy or the privileged, but the people as a whole. It is necessary to take what may be true, what strengthens society, from both capitalism and socialism while rejecting that which is clearly untrue, what weakens society.

This is a radical solution, but then the problem is radical as well.