Wednesday, December 30, 2009


Once again I've been inactive for longer than normal. This has been due to a recurrence of my dental health issues that were responsible for my last unintended hiatus. I am pursuing their resolution, but until they are entirely resolved I cannot promise regular updates at the same pace as before this problem began. I apologize for any inconvenience to anyone actually paying attention my need to bloviate and I appreciate the patience of those who haven't dropped the site from their links yet.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Skepticism: The Cornerstone of Democracy

That's right. The fundamental foundation of a successful democracy is an open-minded skepticism. Things like individual liberty and civil rights are not the building blocks of democracy. They exist in a successful democratic society because conditions in a successful democracy allow them to exist, but they are dependent on society continuing to create the necessary conditions.

John Locke, the recognized pioneer of classical liberal thought, was also the first of the British empiricists. Prior to the empiricists, philosophy and science were based on strict logical thought. It was assumed by many that logic was entirely reliable and that logical theory did not have to be challenged. While some of the flaws in the Socratic Method and Aristotleian Dialectic were already obvious and the Rennaissance had led to a flower of scientific experimentation and humanism.

All of this led to intense reaction from conservatives in many quarters. Martin Luther rejected the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church of his day, but he also rejected the humanism of the Renaissance and preached a stricter morality and a philosophy based on faith rather than reason. John Calvin went even further, coming very close to rejecting reason as altogether worthless and leaving a legacy of anti-intellectualism that lingers to this day. The Reformation undid much of the progress of the Renaissance in many of the countries where it took root and the Counter-Reformation that followed entirely repudiated the Catholic humanism of the age of Da Vinci and Galileo. Thus those inclined toward piety tended away from intellectualism regardless of their religion. Those who did embrace intellectualism clung to the dialectics of Aristotle.

Locke, and the empirical thinkers who followed him, rejected the idea that a logical theory was a correct theory. They correctly understood the lesson of Galileo: logic does not equal truth and no theory can be considered sound unless it has been thoroughly tested and the actual results observed in the real world. That's the scientific method, philosophically stated.

There's a reason we call this era 'the Enlightenment.'

Thus, in order to prove that our ideas are true, we must doubt them. Absolute faith in our beliefs is dangerous. By allowing logic or religion to dictate a belief system and failing to test our own beliefs we set ourselves up for grievous intellectual error and the disillusion that accompanies it. It is even worse when we ignore the results of real world testing of our beliefs and insist that the logic behind them makes them true regardless of empiric experience. Skepticism and flexibility of thought, coupled with an ability to observe and accept the actual function of our ideas in the world, thus become the only surety of reliable knowledge.

A recurring theme among conservatives and libertarians is distrust of government. I don't believe that this, of itself, is a bad thing. I believe skepticism of government is very important. Absolute faith in the righteousness of one's government leads to experiences like the Japanese internment, the Red Scare of the '50s, the Vietnam War, and the scandals of the Nixon and Reagan administrations. Forgetting these lessons led to the experiences of 8 years under George W. Bush and a Republican Party whose fundamental line of attack is to present their own blunders, corruption, and incompetence as absolute proof of their theses about government.

Of course we should not place blind, unearned trust in government.

Nor, however, should we be blindly and unthinkingly afraid of government and allow that fear to override the empirical facts. Reflexing, unthinking, and close-minded fear is not skepticism. It is paranoia. One of the fundamental truths of paranoia is that paranoids frequently manufacture their own nightmares so skillfully as to make them real through their attempts to resist or escape them. Like the man said, they find themselves living in lonely worlds they populate with enemies.

Skepticism requires that we able to see the facts as they are rather than as we want or fear them to be. We must accept empirical reality and work with it rather than attempt to reshape the world in the image of our own beliefs no matter how logical we are sure those beliefs may be.

I've noted in the past that I began my political life as a fiscally conservative Republican, slightly more socially conservative than my moderate-to-liberal parents. Time, experience, and observation have drastically changed my views and ideas. I have been noticing that recent events and debates have continued to have an effect on my views and ideas. Changes have occurred at an easily observable pace. No doubt this will moderate as conditions change, but I fully expect my views to continue to change as I continue to experience the world and see them tested.

This may be arrogance or elitism on my part, but I believe this self-awareness and skepticism is key to the democratic process. Empirical testing can be the only test of political theory and ideas that do not survive the test of the real world must change. Laissez faire has repeatedly failed empirical testing. It failed during the Gilded Age, when a handful of men amassed massive amounts of wealth while reducing their fellow man to poverty and economic peonage. It failed in the 1929 and in 2008, when economic disasters were directly caused by the corruption and speculation of investors entirely unfettered (from without or within) by common sense or enlightened self-interest. In 1929 this happened because a monied, capitalist aristocracy could not wrap their brains around the idea that nothing lasts forever. In 2008 it happened because the financial industry believed that credit was equal to infinite, free capital.

It is incumbent upon our society to learn from such mistakes and correct them rather than (as we have for many years now) repeat the same old mistakes in new forms. This requires government intervention in certain areas of the economy, as most of us have already learned and understand. Conservatives are correct to say that eventually we will have to pay the bill. That's the whole point. One always has to pay the bill in the end and forgetting that very fact is the fundamental economic mistake we have seen repeated ad nauseam throughout history. Yes, at some point in the future our taxes will go up. That's how life works. Tax cuts can't last forever either. Conditions change, and policies must change with them.

When we believe in something so absolutely that we do not even consider the alternative, we are writing our own doom on the walls ourselves. Experimentation, experience, and trial and error are the only way to be as sure as possible of our knowledge. Even then conditions may change.

This is only common sense. Unfortunately, in today's political climate, common sense is very radical indeed.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Society, the State, and the Government

'Nature abhors a vacuum.'

-- Francois Rabelais, 1494-1553

One of the most misused words in the English language is 'statism.'

Merriam-Webster defines the word as meaning 'concentration of economic controls and planning in the hands of a highly centralized government often extending to government ownership of industry.' They date the word to 1919 and I am willing to accept their date and definition.

In recent years, much like the words 'Communism' and 'socialism' (which also have very specific dictionary meanings), self-proclaimed libertarians have used the word to mean 'anything the government does that I personally dislike.' It is certainly perfectly acceptable to dislike action taken by the government (something many conservatives forget when it comes to liberals, or when they themselves are in power.) It is simply not correct to use the word 'statism' to describe actions that fall outside its proper definition. Nor is it correct to use 'statism' to describe the belief that government should exist at all or should take effort to solve social problems. There are a lot more words for this, all dependent on context.

If one wishes to follow the correct dictionary definition of 'statism', then I don't believe there are many 'statists' in the United States of America at all. Nor, for that matter, do I believe there are many in most of the Western world. Even the most aggrieved socialists, most critical of capitalism, believe to some degree in capitalism and markets and do not believe the government should control or centrally plan the entire economy. Many of the most aggrieved socialists are philosophical anarchists who see the state and its sponsorship of corporate power as the problem.

I would like to be a philosophical anarchist. The problem is that government isn't going anywhere. It is inevitable and inescapable. If we successfully dismantled the United States government from top to bottom today then the governments of each of the fifty states would successfully Balkanize into fifty little countries. Some of them might combine to form larger associations on the pattern of the very government recently dis-established. If we dismantled the state governments from the ground up as well, we'd still have all that local government. Cities, counties, and townships would govern themselves as separate entities or federate into larger states on their own. The latter is highly likley, as that's the whole point: cities and fuedal counties discovered that they could better manage their affairs and protect their security by combining their interests under a central authority that could respond in emergencies.

I'll even go one further. Let's say we succeeded in completely dismantling local government on top of everything else. Everyone looks after themselves as best they can, gets together in community organizations to look after themselves collectively as best they can, or pays someone to provide them with protection. The former and latter system, which today is called anarcho-capitalism, has been tried before. During the Dark Ages they called it 'feudalism.' Everyone either protected themselves or paid someone else to protect them. Ultimately, the people providing protection became the government. They had the power to do so and there was no one with equal power to stop them. The middle option, community collectives in which freemen combined to defend themselves and each other against the feudal protection racket, is frequently lauded by anarcho-socialists. Ultimately, as the protection racket got bigger and stronger and more united, cities had to all with a bigger mobster, the king, to survive.

So modern government, in its first infantile throes, was born.

Break down everything libertarians and anarchists despise in modern government, dispose of the state entirely, and you simply create an environment for feudalism to make conditions so difficult that government becomes necessary all over again.

Of course, there is one notable difference between the Dark Ages and today. We have corporations with entrenched money and power. We complain about the government being in corporate pockets, with some degree of justification in many cases, but with no government at all we'd have the pleasure of watching corporations build the kind of government and society they wanted all around us with no recourse at all. Their government would be a lot less democratic and participatory than the one we have now, and a lot less responsive to the needs of society. It would be a 'one dollar, one vote' democracy. As bad as things are now, that would be much worse.

What society needs to do is take control of government. Government needs to cease to be a means of state control over society and become a means of societal control over the state. The state came into being in order to serve specific societal needs. These include (but are not limited to) public safety, general welfare, and (whether conservatives like it or not) the redistribution of wealth through the various strata of society in order to attempt to secure a basic standard for the quality of life. The only way this will happen is if people act. Responsible and informed voters must make responsible and informed decisions for the genuine public good, rather than base their decisions on personal prejudices against their neighbors or their desire to pay lower taxes. Democratic society must be an educated society. This does not mean everyone needs reams of paper proving their formal education. It means that everyone needs to be willing to take responsibility for educating themselves for their entire life regardless of their level of formal education.

It also means that society needs to reject ignorance as a badge of honor and embrace the fact that there are things we do not know... and seek to learn what we do not know. We should be proud of what we learn, not huddle in the dark and fear the sounds from outside. The only way this will happen is if we take control of our political environment. Government must become society's servant.

This is all very radical and extremely difficult.

Unfortunately, we've already gone through far too many years of the alternative.

Who's happy with what we've got now?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

There Really IS An Explanation For Everything

Dr. Ron Chusid has speculated a lot, on his own blog, about the real beliefs of outspoken and controversial right wing 'pundits' like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck.

It appears that there may be more to Beck's particular apocalyptic visions than just the attention it gets him or the ratings.

He may so stridently predict the total economic and social implosion of the United States because he being paid to do so.

Brett Michael Dykes, writing for Yahoo! News, notes:

Yet another controversy appears to be brewing around Fox News host Glenn Beck. Some are accusing him of a blatant conflict of interest concerning his frequent on-air promotion of an investment sold by one of his main advertisers: Gold.

What are the accusations?

(If you'd like to see for yourself: and are the links in the above quoted text)

For a start, Beck is a compensated endorser for precious metals broker Goldline International. They sponsor his radio and tv shows, he frequently endorses them during live segments, he has had their CEO on his radio show as a guest in what amounts to free advertising, and their ads are all over his website. Now that's fine. Celebrity endorsement is nothing new and hardly a scandal.

Here comes the really big but...

When Glenn Beck tells his television audience to pull all their money out of the stock market and buy gold, he does not disclose that he is paid to endorse people who make money when the price of gold rises. This would be a violation of journalistic ethics if Beck were a journalist. It is a violation of Fox News's own policy about their hosts providing on air endorsements during their tv shows.

Even if Beck were not specifically telling his viewers to go out and buy gold, there is still a serious issue of conflicting interest. Beck has been talking the economy down hard since President Obama was elected. He has been predicting economic collapse and apocalyptic chaos. When people are afraid for their livelihood and personal safety, the price of gold goes up. They invest in portable assets they can take with them in an emergency. This means Beck is serving Goldline International's interests every time he forecasts that we'll be eating our neighbors in a few years. He creates a climate of insecurity that profits his sponsor. It raises fundamental questions about the integrity of Beck's show and its content.

Beck's response to criticism?

"So I shouldn't make money?"

The complete lack of compunction in this question is less disturbing than the fact that Glenn Beck doesn't even see the point the critics are making.

It's not about the money, Glenn. Every American has a right to earn their livelihood, as best they can, by means of their pursuit of happiness. We actually put that in writing somewhere.

It's about integrity. Like it or not, there are people in the country who trust Glenn Beck. When he panders to a narrow corporate interest because it profits him, he betrays the people who watch his show and take stock in his word. Personal integrity has value.

Glenn Beck's personal integrity is easy to put a price on.

Just check the price of gold.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Differing Views of Government

One of the reverberating themes on the right wing of the blogosphere these days is the notion that 'Liberals can't complain about Stupak-Pitts because they wanted the government in health care and that means giving the government the power to screw it up.'

In the words conservative feminist blogger Jenn Q Public:

Proponents of liberal health care reform deliberately lured a bloodthirsty vampire over their thresholds, and now they’re shocked – SHOCKED – to find they have fangs buried deep in their necks. I’m not one to blame the victim, but it sounds like they might be getting exactly what they were asking for.

This sums up the entire conservative response to liberal complaints about Stupak-Pitts in a nutshell. 'Stupid liberals wanted fascism and now they are complaining about it.'

This, of course, is not an argument at all. It's an ad hominem attack that allows the actual points of debate to be entirely ignored. I'm not entirely sure, however, whether this is premeditated or whether it is intended as a genuine argument.

The left and the right, after all, have fundamentally differing views of the proper definition of 'government.'

The conservative view of government is that it is an inherent entity of its own, with specific coercive and authoritarian traits that define it. Government cannot exist without those traits, goes the right wing argument, and is something else entirely without those traits. Hence the need for a small government with specific and strictly defined areas of authority.

The liberal view of government is that government is representative of the people who elect it and that it has an obligation to pursue, protect, and ensure their interests, opportunities, and rights. They believe that government should be able to do what needs doing, in the best interests of the people, as long as the rights of the people are protected.

The emphasis is important. Liberals do not believe in the 'unlimited' government that conservatives often claim they advocate nor in 'fascism' (not even the terribly misdefined 'fascism' of conservatives) or 'socialism.' Liberals believe in responsible, effective government as a necessary component of civil society.

There needs to be a balance between the power of the government to do what needs doing and the protections in place to prevent it from ignoring all responsibility and simply using coercive force to do its will. The irony is that it is conservatives who have continually advocated the use of coercive force by the government to do their own will both at home and overseas. Corporate conservatives want the US military to enforce their business interests. Neoconservatives want American empire. Religious conservatives wish their religious mores enforced as law. All of these require the expansion of government power, not its contraction, and all are far more dangerous to the rights of individual Americans than health care reform. Yet they crow over Stupak-Pitts as some sort of self-fulfilling prophecy of government run amok. They rarely acknowledge the far greater danger of irresponsible demagogues advocating for real fascism from several directions at once.

While not precisely a 'liberal' myself (if anything, I am well to the left of most American liberals), I certainly support health care reform. Like liberals, I believe in responsible government rather than the unfettered government alternately feared and worshiped by conservatives. I certainly don't care for Stupak-Pitts and think it a horrible mistake, both politically and morally.

From the quoted article:

'When you invite the government to become more deeply involved in health care, you’re also inviting greater government interference in personal choice. Medical decisions become political decisions. That’s how it works, and it’s why philosophical opposition to the growth of government isn’t the crazy-eyed wingnuttery progressives make it out to be.'

Once again, rather than discuss the real issues at hand, we see an evasion of the topic with a statement about those stupid liberals who keep inviting the monster into the closet. The automatic assumption that responsible decision making and rational thought go out the window once one decides to create health care policy means that liberals have no right to complain about the policies that result from reform.

I can't speak for 'liberals', but I don't consider 'philosophical opposition to the growth of government' to be all that terrible. The government is one of several potential threats to individual freedoms. There are real risks to government expansion that must always be weighed carefully. I am no statist, I am a philosophical anarcho-socialist. What I consider 'wild-eyed wing-nuttery' is the belief that the private sector can take care of all of society's needs if civil society abdicates its own responsibility for its own needs. To reference a favorite phrase of the Anonymous Liberal, one cannot rely on the underpants gnomes to take care of the poor, elderly, and sick if we do not do so as a society. When one puts 'philosophical objection to the growth of government' over the economic and physical well-being of Americans, one has crossed the 'wing-nut' line. When one's personal concern for having to wait longer in the office for service prevents one from wanting others to have that same access to medical care then one has crossed an even darker line: one is no longer merely a wing-nut.

This brings us to the ultimate issue regarding Stupak-Pitts and health care reform at large. The government works for us. As conservatives are so fond of saying, American tax-payers pay a great deal of money to the government every year. If an automobile mechanic you were paying to provide proper maintenance and upkeep on your car deliberately used substandard parts and you were injured in an auto accident as a result, the depraved indifference law means that the auto mechanic is guilty of a felony.

Stupak-Pitts is a deliberate act of depraved indifference on the part of a bipartisan conservative coalition.

Everyone should complain about that.

Friday, December 4, 2009

American Children At Risk... from America?

The United States is a terribly dangerous country in which to be a child.

Lack of a proper welfare system or a genuine health care policy means that children or poor rural or inner city parents are frequently trapped in a world of poverty and crime from which there often appears to be no escape. The people who appear to get the most respect in the world in which these kids live are often drug dealers, pimps, and bookies. Crime appears to offer an easy escape from poverty and there are plenty of role models available. Speaking of his life in early 20th Century America, jazz clarinetist Artie Shaw once said:

"Coming from where I did, it was inevitable. I was going to pick up either a machine gun or an instrument. Fortunately for me, I found an instrument."

Though there have been ethnic changes among the youngest victims of urban poverty, the details are much the same now as they were in 1920. Drug Prohibition has neatly taken the place of the Volstead Act. The ethnic make-up of gangs and 'the mob' is no longer the same, but they still appear to be the quickest way to respect and economic freedom. There is one more temptation working against them, one their younger forebears never had to face.

I'm going to knock the media, but I'm not going to condemn violence on tv or the fictional glamorization of crime. These offer their own problems, but they are not new. Children's fiction has been tremendously violent since Cinderella's step-sisters cut off pieces of their feet to make the glass slipper fit. In many ways, kids were exposed to far more fictional violence in the past than they are today.

Rather, the media sends kids (and adults, but it is kids on whom I am focused now) a massive amount of information about how important it is to have money and buy things. What is more, American culture is extremely tolerant of criminal behavior from the wealthy and powerful. Every day corporations engage in activity that would be felonious if committed by an indidivual. The wealthy abuse drugs every bit as much as the poor, but where the poor go to prison the wealthy do not. Star athletes avoid serious prison time for killing other human beings. Political figures engage in corruption and repression of civil liberties and their political opponents are accused of 'vindictiveness' and corrupt motives for wishing to prosecute them for their crimes. Thus we send messages every day that in America, you can get away with anything.

Unfortunately, you can't if you are a kid. The United States processes more children through its criminal justice system (per capita, not just gross) than any other Western nation. Until 2005, the United States was the only country in the Western world to sentence children to death for crimes committed as children. The United States is still the only Western nation to sentence children to life in prisone, without the possibility of parole, for crimes committed as children.

It doesn't help that there are people who want more kids in prison, longer, just so they can make a buck.

Two cases currently before the Supreme Court seek to prevent the government from sending kids to prison for life and making it impossible for them to get out. The first arguments were heard early in November, and there are reasons to believe that both cases will be victories for the defense. Human rights advocates hope that this will lead to a complete ban on such sentences. Congressmen with their own law to ban such sentencing are waiting to see if the Supreme Court does it first, preferring not to pursue a legislative solution unless necessary.

The trouble is the very strong likelihood that, even if both defendants have their sentences overturned, no such declaration will be forthcoming.

The Supreme Court specifically chose to hear both cases separately because of very thinly, but distinctly, separate legal issues raised by each case. Chief Justice John Roberts has suggested that he believes juvenile offenders sentenced so harshly should be able to use their age when the crime was committed as grounds for appeal of sentence in individual cases, but that he does not support a complete ban.

So there is a chance that the Supreme Court will decide that some children can be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole but others shouldn't be, and the best way to answer the question of who should or should not be is after the fact.

The trouble with such individual distinctions in an issue like this one should be pretty clear: in a criminal justice system rife with economic, ethnic, and social inequity we wish to decide which children need to be protected from such a system after the fact. Does anyone else see the grave weakness in this statement?

If childhood and emotional/intellectual maturity are to be criteria for the voiding of even one sentence, it is much safer for the rights of Americans to make certain that those criteria are applied across the board. It may cost 'American taxpayers' more to send an adult offender to prison for life without parole after a life of juvenile crime, but 'American taxpayers' have children too.

Let us suppose that the argument of judicial independence is made: suppose we believe the judge should have discretion to sentence each individual according to the particulars of the individual case. What then?

I happen to believe that, myself, very strongly. I believe judicial discretion is a component part of the criminal justice system, coupled with judicial review. If we truly intend to argue for judicial discretion, however, then arguing against a ban on the sentencing of minors is the wrong argument. Instead we should be arguing against mandatory minimum sentences that force a judge to deliver sentences harsher than he believes appropriate to the case. If we banned mandatory minimums, it would be easier to truly judge each case on its own merits.

In the absence of such a ban, the rights of individual citizens demand equal attention to the maximum sentences handled down and the circumstances of such sentencing. A ban on sentencing children to life in prison without parole is the least we can do in that area.

The very least, at the risk of sounding radical, there is a lot more reform necessary.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Civil Rights Do Not Come in Separate Boxes

I don't really refer to myself as a 'liberal' anymore, though I certainly believe in core values that can be described as liberal in today's political metrics. This is not because the word is no longer 'cool' in American politics, but rather because I have drifted further to the left than the mainstream of American political liberalism. I would say they have drifted to my right, but I have to recognize that my political maturation has been a step by step journey further to the left.

I certainly refuse to call myself a 'progressive', both because I reject the utopian underpinnings of the original meaning of the word and because I reject the more modern notion that 'liberalism' and 'progress' are automatically synonymous. Not all change is automatically good, and quite a bit of human progress has been counterproductive. One can't turn back the clock or hold back the future, but we need to try to make better decisions.

Never the less, it really made me happy to see someone else make sense on the key left wing issue of civil rights.

Writing in The American Prospect, Ann Friedman writes:

In the wake of the passage of the House health-reform bill and its attached anti-choice Stupak-Pitts Amendment, the conversation happening among progressive women was viscerally angry and palpably fearful. The broader liberal conversation was very different -- one in which the amendment was regrettable but unavoidable in the interest of the greater good. It is moments like this, with Democrats in control of Congress and a nominally progressive president in the White House, when it becomes painfully clear that in reality we do not all take on the same level of responsibility for securing the rights in which we claim to believe.

We rely on gay-rights groups to battle it out alone for marriage rights in Maine. We expect feminists to secure abortion rights in health-care reform legislation. We look to the NAACP to effectively respond to racist statements about Obama. And yes, those groups will work hard for those goals. But when they fall short, they are not the only ones to blame. It's fair to look at the entire progressive coalition and ask the hard questions about our movement: What's the use of having a community, a coalition, if you aren't going to fight for each other? Are we amplifying the voices of those whom we hope to empower or silencing them? Whose "greater good" are we really pursuing?

Shout it a little louder. Please. I don't think most people on the left right now are really listening closely. At least, not the ones in actual positions of power.

In the specific case of Stupak-Pitts, the problem is relatively simple: health care is such a massively important issue that it is easy for a pragmatic policy-maker to say 'I am going to do whatever it takes to pass health care reform, because health care reform is better than no health care reform.' This is laregly a correct moral and intellectual position. The problem is that the purpose of health care reform is to serve society as a whole and the rights of the individuals within society. So when one makes a compromise that undermines the very purpose behind health care reform by undermining the individual rights of the Americans the policy is supposed to help, one is not really serving the interests of health care reform at all. One is undermining it. As a very smart fellow said before me: these kinds of violations of individual rights are exactly what conservatives foretell with gloom and doom when they predict the dangers of government intervention. The irony that conservatives oppose health care reform because of the danger of restrictions on patient-doctor decisions about care and that it was conservatives who colluded to actually place them there should be voiced more clearly and more often.

Instead of a fundamentally united civil rights lobby, we have a badly divided set of individual lobbies for the rights of specific groups. Instead of adopting a comprehensive civil rights platform for all Americans, the Democratic Party (and the liberal coalition within it) have instead established 'women's rights' platforms, 'minority rights' platforms, and 'gay rights' platforms that all work at cross purposes. I understand the political circumstances that have brought this about, but it is immensely counterproductive. We need a simple, basic, comprehensive platform supporting human rights: equal recognition of the natural rights of all Americans.

I am reminded of something from one of the last HBO specials of the late George Carlin:

"Rights are an idea. They are a cute idea, but that's all they are. Let's say you do have rights; where do they come from? Oh, you say, they come from God, they're God given rights... Personally, folks, I believe that if your rights came from God he would have given you the right to some food, he'd have given you the right to a roof over your head; God would've been lookin' out for ya!"

I both disagree and disagree with the philosopher Carlin. Rights are an idea. They are an idea borne of human intellect and human imagination. Yet I believe that human intellect and human imagination are God given, and that the notion of natural rights is entirely valid. It is better to agree to accept a 'cute idea', in this case, then to accept the far too obvious alternative:

"If you still think you do have rights, one last assignment for you. Get on the computer. Go to Wikipedia. When you get to Wikipedia, in the search field, I want you to type in 'Japanese Americans 1942' and you'll find out all about your precious fuckin' rights, okay?"

Since Blogger does not allow one to include a link in a quote block, I include this for the edification of my readers.

This is precisely the alternative to the cute idea of rights and is a point that should escape no one on the left. The internment of Japanese Americans happened precisely because the majority of American citzens were so focused on the 'big picture' and the 'necessary compromises' to achieve their greater goals that they pissed all over the basic premise of America itself. Health care should not become the same kind of clusterfuck.

Health care is not the point, however. It is merely one example that illustrates the point. The Japanese American internment is another. So is the somewhat soft commitment of many liberals to genuinely equal rights for gay Americans. The difference between a 'civil union' and a 'civil marriage' is such a tenuous fiction that it becomes useless to maintain it; unless one really intends to deny gay couples the full rights of interpersonal partnership.

One can go on. The willingness of 'liberals' to pander to nativist policies regarding illegal immigration deserve some attention, perhaps. The unwillingness of liberals to put real effort into passing laws to protect workers' rights to bargain fairly with their employers also come to mind.

As Ann Friedman writes:

"After all, "special interest" issues do not exist in separate silos. Labor rights are tied to gay rights are tied to women's rights are tied to immigrants' rights. If what binds us together as progressives is our vision for a more just society, it is our commitment to all of these issues that will define us."

Forgetting this is a fundamental betrayal of basic principles. One can even call it a fundamental betrayal of basic American principles and leave the word 'progressive' out entirely. I'd far prefer that she had done just that.

Ultimately, however, even Ms. Friedman loses her way:

"We can't work from sweeping visions of liberalism on down. We have to work from concrete rights and opportunities on up. Think of it this way: White men are the least likely Americans to identify as progressives. The people most likely to identify with the liberal worldview -- women, people of color, LGBT people, disenfranchised workers -- are those who have experienced a lack of freedom and opportunity themselves. They are then motivated to broaden their scope and see how injustice also affects other Americans. It is the progressive movement's commitment to these people -- its base, its core -- that will ensure its long-term survival. If we continue to compromise on the concerns of those people, or dismiss them as "special interests" working against an imaginary greater good, we will ultimately render our shared concept of liberalism totally meaningless. After all, if each group within the coalition is actually just in it alone, what's the point of subscribing to a common ideology at all?"

Most of this is dead on the money, but it fails to make the most important point. What is not needed is a renewal of the commitment to protect the rights of each member of the 'liberal coalition.' What is needed is a new and genuine commitment from all members of the coalition to protect the basic, common rights of individuals within society. True social justice requires us all to shed our labels. Even those of us 'priveleged' to be 'white men.'

Real social justice requires we all be willing to share the label 'human' without claiming our own precedence. Even if we really want to get Blue Dog votes for health care reform or badly want blue collar whites in the Rust Belt to vote for us.

A Brief Explanation

So everyone knows...

A couple of weeks ago, I came down sick. This recent Monday I went to actually see the doctor and I have been in an antibiotic haze all week. This is why I haven't done any more than respond to comments here and why my comment volume on other blogs is down somewhat.

I'm sorry for the unintended posting gap and I'm not planning to join the hiatus club just yet.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The New Old New Criticism

That's quite a mouthful, isn't it?

'The New Criticism' is a form of literary criticism, developed during the 1920s and 1930s, and very much en vogue during the early post-WWII years. While Wikipedia is not always the number one source I would prefer to cite, their description of New Criticism is fairly accurate and good enough for someone who is not a pedantic intellectual snob to understand the general meaning of the term.

The really important facet of the New Criticism was the idea that text itself has a unique and self-contained meaning that can be understood by a close, strict reading of the text itself. Nothing outside the specific text itself contributes anything of value to understanding the meaning of the text itself. This is most important, for the purposes of our discussion, because it means that the actual meaning that the author is deliberately intending to convey is irrelevant. The text means what it means, regardless of what the author meant when he wrote it. This is very convenient device for those critics who want to read their own prejudices into the text. Here we have the fundamental flaw of the New Criticism: a text ultimately means what the critic says it means. If the critic is judged to be following the rules of close reading of the text itself in a vacuum, then the critic's interpretation of the text's true meaning even trumps that of the author.

Wow. I thought I was an elitist.

T.S. Eliot expressed his view of this problem extremely clearly:

"When I wrote a poem called The Waste Land some of the more approving critics said that I had expressed the ‘disillusionment of a generation,’ which is nonsense. I may have expressed for them their own illusion of being disillusioned, but that did not form part of my intention."

The irony, of course, is that Eliot was himself (in some areas) a pioneer of the New Criticism. Ultimately, however, he decided the author's intention came first.

So why have I made you sit through a dissertation on a form of literary criticism I obviously have little use for and that has fallen into disrepute in many literary circles?

Well, it's because of the political renaissance of the New Criticism as it might pertain to political speeches, policy, and debate. Now, representing the other side's comments in the worst light is not entirely new to politics. In some ways it is very old. Even the political lie is hardly a new thing.

However, the right wing has increasingly taken the position that they know the meaning of the things said, written, or proposed by their political opponents better than the people actually speaking, writing, or proposing. It is ironic that a literary tool accused of too universally assuming a natural state of 'liberal humanism' has become the political tool of conservative anti-humanists. Whether one is watching Fox News, listening to talk radio, or reading conservative blogs and opinion columns makes little difference. One can see a twisted and deconstructive variant of the New Criticism being applied to everything the left and center say, write, or propose. There is one constant and universal truth being communicated: the 'critics' of the right know what it all really means far better than the actual originators of the material they 'criticize.' Even their lies are true because they understand the meaning so much better than anyone else.

'Death panels', 'government takeover of health care', and 'cutting Medicare' are the slogans of the new, political incarnation of the New Criticism. None of these catchy and frightening phrases resemble the actual intention of the authors of health care reform policy. Yet they are trumpeted by conservative critics who claim they know better than those actually taking a hand in making the policy. One can find a similar tack taken on nearly every political issue one might mention. Cap and trade? It's 'a punitive and economically dangerous tax on business' despite the fact that cap and trade policies are pursued by countries who are far more successful in the manufacturing market than the United States. The New Criticism, you see, does not allow one to consider anything outside the immediate words being dissected. So the fact that cap and trade policies or health care reforms are successful elsewhere has nothing to do with the specific policies being attacked by the right.

I've gone on the record as saying I have certain reservations and objections to the direction health care reform is currently taking. I've also been equally critical of the green left and the oil-loving right. I don't believe cap and trade is a solution to environmental risks, though I do think it is a sensible and moderate policy. I am somewhat apart from many on the left in that I believe the maintenance of a modern, civilized society and the extension of the benefits of that society to as many people as possible takes precedence over environmental issues. I believe we should find ways to maintain and extend civilized society in ways as environmentally friendly as possible, but I believe human life and human advancement is of prime importance.

Yet I believe it is tremendously important to speak the truth in these matters. The American political right is not doing so. On the subject of the environment, many on the European and international right are also lying. Worse, they are representing their own views as a more clear understanding of the actual meaning of their opponents' ideas than the authors of those ideas. They mischaracterize their opponents' intent or disregard it entirely.

The New Criticism is arrogant and elitist in literature.

It's deadly in politics.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

'Corporate Efficiency', 'Emergency Rationing', and the Irony Deficit

This piece serves two purposes; I want to make a real (if snarky and highly ironic) comparison between the 'greater efficiency' of the private sector that conservatives love to rattle on about and how the real world actually works. I also wish to make a misanthropic and cynical observation about people, regardless of their politics.

Opponents of substantive health care reform always talk about the superior quality and efficiency of service offered by the 'free market.' Indeed, many individuals on both sides of the political fence are in love with the 'efficiency' of the corporate model. They believe that corporate administration is less bureaucratic than government administration (it's not), that the private sector is more accountable for its failures than government (ha!), and that the corporate management model is streamlined to produce more immediate results. They fail to understand that today's corporate model is top heavy with a bloated management structure that exists to guarantee its own success and always cuts the product end of operations in the name of 'efficiency' while management acts as if nothing has changed at all within their own corner of the company.

A case in point:

Kellogg Co. says there will be a nationwide shortage of its popular Eggo frozen waffles until next summer because of interruptions in production at two of the four plants that make them.

The company's Atlanta plant was shut down for an undisclosed period by a September storm that dumped historic amounts of rain in the area. Meanwhile, several production lines at its largest bakery in Rossville, Tenn., are closed indefinitely for repairs, company spokeswoman Kris Charles said in an e-mail.

Corporate efficiency, that's the ticket. Kellogg, a tremendously successful company that could serve as a working model for corporate success, is is unable to adapt to unforeseen difficulties any better than the government might. Just as one plant is seeing production lines shut down 'indefinitely' for repairs, a storm shuts down another for an 'undetermined' period. Now the storm is truly a freak act of nature which cannot be completely predicted and about which very little can be done. However, regular maintenance schedules should avoid the need for 'indefinite' shut-downs for repairs. More importantly, there are very few conceivable reasons for a repair shut-down to be 'indefinite.' Estimates for repair time and costs are not difficult to obtain... unless one is looking to cut corners by taking too much time to shop the price in the interests of the 'bottom line.' Ultimately, a shortage of one of their most popular products could damage the brand in the long run... unless, of course, the joy of full availability leads to a massive buying spree as soon as Eggo returns to the market. If this happens, they could end up making a significant profit from the shortage.

I want to be clear that I am not suggesting a conspiracy to create a deliberate shortage of a popular product during economic difficulty in order to generate increased demand. I am simply noting that a corporation could end up profiting from the results of a shortage caused by poor planning and a lack of alternative plans.

This is a point that bears consideration. When a mistake of this magnitude is potentially without consequence because of the increase in sales created by the increase in demand during the shortage, it offers no incentive to take precautions to avoid such a mistake. So much for the superiority of 'corporate efficiency' trumped by conservatives. This is precisely why the government needs to be involved in the social sector and why regulation is necessary for that range of corporate activity more serious than a waffle shortage. This circumstance illustrates just how far from perfect the 'free market' is and just how dangerous it is to assume its automatic superiority.

I want to add a hat-tip to stay-at-home mom and blogger Joey Rescinti. Though the Associated Press noted her comments about the 'waffle shortage' and even interviewed her, they failed to include a link to her blog or even its name. This is a good example of the kind of sloppy journalism we must deal with today.

I also want to note the deficiency of humor/irony in the world today and the generally judgmental and nasty turn of mind many people find the internet allows them to over-indulge. Mrs. Rescinti made a nicely turned barb about 'rationing' her child's waffles and found herself attacked in cyberspace by random jack-asses. I don't know anything about Mrs. Rescinti's politics and they are entirely her business. Regardless of politics (and considering the nasty 'health food' tone of some of the attacks I am sure that the snots in question were liberal snots), this is just disgusting.

I can understand why tempers get heated when discussing serious political issues or controversial social topics. I have been very upset with people on occasions myself and can be very harsh with people I believe show a lack of intellectual capacity, a failure of common sense, a deficit of honesty, or simply strike me as mean-spirited and callous. I plead guilty. Likewise, I am sure I come off as snotty and superior to many people who disagree with me because of my own confidence in my own moral structure and view of religion and philosophy.

All of that is very different from taking time out of one's busy day to be unnecessarily vicious to a random blogger because you don't like that she feeds her child Eggo waffles or believe an ironic barb about 'rationing' during the 'shortage' is anything but a very clever joke.

Such people are fools.

Monday, November 16, 2009

How the Army Supports the Troops...

"Well, you're just going to have to put your child in foster care."

This is what Spc. Alexis Hutchinson claims one of her superiors told her when she was unable to find a family member to care for her infant son for the duration of her deployment to Afghanistan.

Kevin Larson, a spokesman for Hunter Army Airfield, denies this. While he admits that he personally does not know what Spc. Hutchinson was told by her superiors, he claims the Army would never require a single parent with no one else to support their child to deploy overseas and force the child into the foster care system.

Army regulations do require a single parent-soldier to submit an official plan for child care before deployment to a combat zone. So the law-on-paper backs Mr. Larson's statements.

The trouble is, actual events appear to contradict the actual Army regulations on the issue... as well as Larson's statement.

Knowing that she had to deploy on Nov 5th, Spc. Hutchinson had made arrangements for her mother to care for her infant son. Citing other responsibilities (caring for an ailing mother and sister, a daughter with special needs, and running a 14 child daycare center), the specialist's mother returned the child to his mother just days before she was to deploy. Spc. Hutchinson contacted her superiors and simply requested more time to make alternate arrangements... a highly reasonable request. Unfortunately, it does not appear that her commanders were feeling reasonable.

According to the AP:

Her civilian attorney, Rai Sue Sussman, said Monday that one of Hutchinson's superiors told her she would have to deploy anyway and place the child in foster care.

This is in violation of Army regulations and policy as described by the base's own spokesman, Mr. Larson. Someone dropped the ball, badly, and Spc. Hutchinson is now paying the price.

Unwilling to place her child in foster care with the attendant risk of not seeing the child again (putting a child into the system is vastly easier than taking them out), Spc. Hutchinson felt that she had no choice but to refuse deployment. She was arrested and briefly jailed. Currently, she is facing charges.

There is no doubt that Spc. Hutchinson is guilty of being absent without leave and disobeying an order. A court martial trying the case solely on the facts has no choice but to convict her. So now Spc. Hutchinson is not only a single mother, but a felon to boot.

Obviously, I believe deliberate clemency is required in this case. I think a plea agreement allowing Spc. Hutchinson to receive a general, rather than dishonourable, discharge and avoid criminal prosecution entirely is more than fair. While I understand why the military cannot ignore her offense entirely for important reasons of military discipline, she was forced into a necessary and legitimate act of civil disobedience by an order that was in contravention of Army policy and may have actually been illegal.

My reason for writing, however, is to present a challenge. The champions of family values should all take a moment to stop crusading against the individual civil liberties of gay Americans and stand up for the integrity of this actual family. If Spc. Hutchinson goes to the stockade it will be because she believed her family values to be the most important values in her life. Stand up for her family values. The champions of 'saving the children' should all take a moment to stop crusading against abortion to stand up for an actual living child whose mother did not have an abortion and has put her own freedom on the line to guarantee he remains with a loving family. Save that child.

Friday, November 13, 2009

"... And now the news."

As strange as this may sound, this piece is not about Fox News. I imagine that anyone reading my work either already knows how Fox News operates (being directed here from a liberal blog, nearly all of which have something to say about Fox) without need for me to write yet another piece dissecting the process. I will briefly recap how Fox operates, however, on the off chance:

Fox's base journalism coverage carries a story and the initial broadcast is pretty much straight journalism. They report what happened. Often, this initial coverage will not be shaded at all... though it will usually lead to a few 'unanswered questions' which the news staff will note but not attempt to answer. The story will then carry over to Fox's opinion programming, where these 'unanswered questions' will be the topic de jour for much of the programming schedule. The hosts will feature 'expert guests' (who may or may not have some claim to actual expertise, but are frequently conservative bloggers or radio hosts rather than real 'experts') who will engage in answering those questions with the help of the stars of the opinion shows. It can also happen the other way, of course, with the opinion host expounding his own theory to the enthusiastic support of the 'expert guests.' Either way, when the next round of news coverage comes around, the theories communicated on the opinion shows are then presented in addition to the original news coverage. They are presented as expert opinion about the 'unanaswered questions' in the original reporting and many of the opinion personalities are frequently asked on as guests in the news coverage to discuss the issues.

That out of the way, let's get to the real point of the column.

Southern Beale wrote this about CNN's coverage of the Fort Hood shootings. The article is highly critical of CNN and journalist Ed Lavandera for writing gossipy speculation about the motives of shooting suspect Nidal Hassan.

What is notable is that this line of speculation was featured front and center on Sean Hannity's Fox show. (The link is not ABOUT the shooting, but the video excerpt from Hannity is all nearly all about the Ft. Hood attacks and Hassan.)

Wait, you cry, you said this isn't about Fox!

It's not, the Fox reference is merely to lead into my point: journalistic standards have changed beyond what the pioneers of modern journalism would consider 'legitimate news' and moved back into the 'yellow journalism' of the pre-New York Times Hearst-Pullitzer era.

The motto of the New York Times at the turn of the 20th century was 'All the News that's fit to print!' This was because the Times' founder, Adolph S. Ochs, was one of the pioneers of what we would call 'modern journalism' despite being a capitalist and not a reporter at all. Ochs believed that as interesting as speculation and narrative were, the public would be that much happier to pay to know what was actually happening in the world around them. Ochs developed the idea that news reporters should write about what actually happened according to verifiable sources and facts, rather than speculate on what may have happened in the interest of providing a narrative to events.

The leading papers of the country (the variuous papers of the Hearst-Pulltizer publishing empires, primarily) were focused so aggressively on competition for the reader that they considered a narrative that would keep the customer buying the paper more important than factual writing. The most notorious example of this was the Dr. H.H. Holmes affair... when the Hearst and Pullitzer papers created lurid murder scenarios out of whole cloth in order to keep readers hooked on the developing story and top each other's sensational coverage. Henry Mudgett (aka Dr. H.H. Holmes) really was the first documented serial killer in US history, but his actual body count was far below that speculated by the newspapers. Mudgett was actually convicted of one murder, and his confession to another 27 has more in common with Henry Lee Lucas than with Ted Bundy... several of the people he claimed to have murdered were found to still be alive after his execution. Yet the Hearst and Pullitzer papers gleefully reported it all. One Hearst paper, the Philadeplpha Enquirer, may even have added names to the list! Even Holmes' wikipedia article seems to have been taken in by the sensationalism of the original coverage, though the footnotes do make reference to some of the inaccuracies.

In the face of this kind of 'yellow journalism', Ochs' notion of reporting the actual news based on verifiable facts was tremendously radical. It was not something that had been done before and was a huge commercial risk.

It paid off, however, and for generations the standard of verifiable fact had been the decisive factor in determining whether or not news should be reported in the mainstream media. There were other media outlets of course: 'yellow journalism' still found a market for those more interested in narrative than fact in tabloids, television 'newsmagazines' featuring tabloid content, and a variety of other sources. Many political magazines, programs, and blogs have become outlets for this kind of 'yellow journalism' as well.

Unfortunately, as the media has changed, the ethics of journalism have changed as well. The past journalistic standard was 'objectivity', which meant that reporters covered objective fact regardless of whom it benefitted or harmed. In an increasingly supercharged political atmosphere the media has been attacked as 'liberal' as a result of an era (most notably the Nixon and Reagan administrations) during which objective reporting of the factual news was very damaging to conservative political interests. In the interest of avoiding such attacks (in my opinion a cowardly decision) the media has changed its policy from 'objectivity' to 'neutrality.'

This changes the standard of news, as well. Instead of the standard being the objective facts verifying the story, the standard is that someone really said it. The media then reports what someone says, often with no commentary on whether it is accurate or inaccurate, because someone said it. This can give the most ridiculous claims (such as Sarah Palin's 'death panels') the appearance of legitimacy because the story is reported seriously and there is no commentary on the factual basis of the claims. The fact that the claim was made justifies reporting the claim as news.

This is a very serious flaw in modern news-media reporting and is a definite step-back from Adolph S. Ochs. The 'legitimate' media, as it was before the 2oth Century, is once again reduced to 'yellow journalism.'

Keep it in mind: when it comes to the news, today, we live in an age where the buyer must beware.

Monday, November 9, 2009

'What have here is a failure to communicate..." (Or: Why Moderates Are Stupid About Abortion)

When I wrote my first piece on abortion, I had intended for that to be the end of it... at least for the year. A great many people of all political stripes throw wood into that particular oven every day all over the internet and it's not my intention to simply talk about what everyone else is talking about. I try to stay on track with economic, social, and political philosophy and commentary and a heavy dose of social and political criticism. The abortion debate in America, as driven by the right wing (aided and abetted by the unthinking center), has very little to do with the facts or realities of abortion. I had meant to say so, communicate the facts, and be done for at least the foreseeable future. While I had mentioned abortion in a recent criticism of moderates and 'fiscal conservatives', it was in tandem with other personal rights issues.

Unfortunately, Michigan Congressman Bart Stupak (D) and Pennsylvania Congressman Joe Pitts (R) made it an issue again with an amendment that would bar even indirect federal funding of abortion by denying private insurers in the national insurance exchange the commercial freedom to offer abortion to their customers if those customers are receiving federal subsidies to help them purchase health insurance. It's worth nothing that this is an issue of commercial freedom as much it is an issue of abortion rights. Barring private health insurers from offering a legal medical service to paying customers is restraint of trade. This is also a medical issue, as it is precisely the sort of intervention by government in the patient-physician decision making process that Republicans claim to oppose. Dr. Ron Chusid makes precisely this point on the excellent Liberal Values. Southern Beale mentions this as well, and also offers the more traditional feminist criticism of the bill. I agree with both of them.

Now some of you who read me closely may accuse me of being inconsistent and waffling on this issue, because when I proposed my own health care plan I included elective abortion on a list of procedures not to be covered by a national health care plan. First, that was just that: a national health care plan, not a program of health insurance reform such as Congress is currently considering. Second, I specifically noted that only truly elective abortions should not be funded and that medically necessary abortions were not elective at all and should be covered. Period. If one is going to undertake a massive program to fund necessary healthcare costs (as I believe we inevitably must) then one is going to need to exclude a range of genuinely elective medicine in order to reasonably control costs. Several of the items I included on that list are male-specific medical services or procedures that currently are covered by most insurance. As a note, I think birth control medication should be covered by such a plan.

Private insurance is not a national health care plan, however. While I am no supporter of the lawless state of volia advocated by today's conservatives, I believe in the free market. If we are to keep health care, for the time being, primarily in the preserve of the market than we have no business restricting the supplier's right to sell the consumer what they want or the consumer's right to buy it. Even if the consumer is buying, partially, on the government's dime it is still the consumer and the supplier who must make the decision in question. The government's role is to ensure that supplier offers a quality product. Not to restrict the supplier from offering legal products to paying customers. As the public option is intended to compete in the free market with private health insurance, it must be empowered to offer its paying customers a full choice of legal products as well. Offering abortion coverage with the public option is not 'federal funding of abortion.' It is offering a paying customer a legal product.

I want to be clear that anyone saying otherwise is grossly in error or guilty of deliberate intellectual dishonesty.

I worry that it breaks the thread of my narrative and somewhat undermines my point, but most private insurance already does not cover abortion. Southern Beale has rather firmly and thoroughly described the real inequities in health insurance costs for men and women. One of the goals of health insurance reform, if we cannot yet get real health care reform, should be to establish a regulatory framework to eliminate such inequities rather than to legally reenforce them.

I am on record supporting insurance reform efforts in the short term because it would improve the current system and establish a precedent for future reform. In the most basic examination, any improvement over our broken system is radical improvement. However, it must be real improvement and the Stupak-Pitts amendment is reenforcement of much that is wrong with the current private health insurance picture. It is also a reenforcement of much of what is wrong with the current political debate on the issues of both abortion and health care.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Do you? Do you really?

My father's favorite line, when talking politics, is, 'I'm a fiscal conservative, but a social liberal.'

My father voted for Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon. He may have even voted for Ronald Reagan in 1980.

Starting in 1984, however, my father has not ever voted Republican in a presidential election. Starting in 1994 (he voted for Pete Wilson for governor of California in 1990, something he tremendously regretted after he saw what kind of governor Wilson was), I don't believe he's voted Republican at all. Despite having never changed his party registration.

My father, like many people of his generation, does his best to say what he actually means and to actually mean what he says. Not everyone is so straight-forward in their thinking or communication.

From Bob La Follette (both of them), to Thomas Dewey, to Nelson Rockefeller, to John Anderson there has historically been representation for this view within the Republican Party. At some times, such as during the Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy years, it has been the professed platform of the Republican Party.

This is no longer the case. The Republican Party has done its best to purge them. Arlen Specter, who once slapped Anita Hill around (figuratively) on behalf of the religious right, was driven out of the GOP earlier this year for compromising with Democrats on economic policy.

More recently, in the New York 23rd Congressional District, Dede Scozzafava became the figurative punching bag for the national conservative establishment... despite being the candidate endorsed by Newt Gingrich. Once again, the big issues on which she was attacked were economic... along with a ridiculous character attack with only a loose basis in 'fact.'

The economy is, naturally, an issue which concerns all of us quite a lot these days. We are in a major recession and may have only just missed (or still be teetering on the precipice of) a genuine depression. Does that make it the most important issue on the American table?

Barry Goldwater once said that American freedoms were far more important than security or life itself. He said that Americans would rather die than sacrifice their own freedoms. This turned out to be somewhat naive. It might be more accurate to say that some Americans would rather sacrifice the freedom and equality of others in order to save a few bucks on their taxes.

Or rather, some Americans would rather deprive others of their individual personal liberties than pass health care reform.

The problem is this: if you claim to be a 'social liberal' or to support equal respect for the personal freedoms of all Americans, what are you doing about it?

I don't like litmus tests and I am personally uncomfortable with abortion. However, I've written the frank truth on the matter. The only rebuttal as frank is the Phyllis Schlafly-esque argument that equality between the sexes is undesirable and the status quo is better for women. I can certainly appreciate the mathematics of that argument from a utilitarian perspective, but I believe this to be an issue of principle rather than utility. If one believes in gender equality then abortion (along with a slough of rights to which some feminists object, which are a topic for another post in the future if I don't just decide that Wendy McElroy explains it much better than I do) is a necessary part of equality of opportunity and choice in a free society.

Gay marriage in and of itself is arguably of little consequence. There are gay rights advocates who agree with me on this one. The greater issue of equal rights under law for all Americans, however, is a very serious issue indeed. Regardless of what you think about gay marriage, if you believe in equality before the law then you cannot legitimately argue against legal civil marriage for any consenting adults who wish to marry and understand the commitment. The popular moderate compromise of 'civil unions' might be unconsitutional, if one were to understand the basic premise of Brown v. Board of Education to strike down any discriminatory law that relies on the premise of 'separate but equal.' This is not to say that I don't believe civil unions are a valid option if this is what gets a consensus on the issue, but the difference between 'civil union' and 'civil marriage' is such a minor semantic that one has to ask one's self why a distinction would be necessary. The answer doesn't say good things about us as people.

Homophobes love slippery slope arguments. Here's one for them, and I really want to hear their answer because I think they have plans for the future: if we amend a state's constitution to deprive one portion of society of its personal freedoms, who is next?

There are Republicans (even conservatives) who say they support gay rights. There are Republicans (even conservatives) who claim to want to see abortion rights protected and even accuse the left of being the chauvinists and misogynists.

The problem with this claim is my earlier question: Well then, what are you doing about it?

If the answer is voting for strictly conservative primary candidates who virulently oppose such rights, then people are going to question your sincerity. If you advocate for reactionaries over moderates who share your expressed views, people are going to question your sincerity. If you express support for candidates or pundits who are entirely opposed to your expresed views, people are going to question your sincerity. If you subscribe to every right wing political and media trope and conspiracy theory, people will question your sincerity... and they will have a very strong basis for doing so.

The justification for laisezz faire economic policies expressed by its advocates is 'freedom.' Economic freedom, however, is not an obvious no-brainer. Freedom for business can mean restrictions on the freedom of both consumers and employees, while the protection of consumer and employee rights requires a framework of law within which corporations must operate. Much as we have laws against robbery and rape, we have (or should have) laws against larcenous or rapacious behavior in the business sphere. While the most hardcore anarchists and libertarians would say that laws against robbery and rape go too far (and that we should all just have the right to shoot anyone who tries to steal from us or assault us), most mainstream conservatives advocate a law and order stance based on the classical liberal notion that government should protect the property rights of private citizens. A law and order mentality of this sort is not any more restrictive of freedom because it protects private property from corporate criminals the same as private criminals.

Yet it is support for laisezz faire and the 'freedom' engendered by same that motivates these self-proclaimed conservative supporters in individual freedoms to vote and advocate for candidates and organizations totally opposed to their professed social beliefs. It is difficult not to interperet this as a mistake in priorities. One's mileage may vary to a certain degree, but at some point one believes in something or one does not. There are far more moderates who support laisezz faire and individual freedoms than there are conservatives who support individual freedoms with full-throated gusto. Indeed, most conservatives oppose them quite forcefully in practice.

If you've managed to bear with my rather disjointed rambling (which I hopes manages to convey a message which appeared rather coherent to me when I started writing) then I have a question I don't consider radical at all:

If you say you support a woman's right to choose, gay marriage, equality before the law, or any of a dozen more real issues of personal liberty in the face of intrusive government control and you don't ever vote for or support candidates who share that position I just want to know...

Do you? Do you really?

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Defending the Indefensible: When Partisan Politics Trumps Professed Principle

Approximately a week and half ago, I posted about an amendment in a defense appropriations bill. The amendment, offered by Senator Al Franken (D-MN), would bar defense contractors from using their employment agreements to shield themselves from liability in claims made against them by employees. The specific example that spurred the amendment was a case in which defense contractor KBR is claiming that its employment agreement (which requires all disputes between management and employees and liability by employees to be settled by an internal corporate arbitration process) protects it from any and all liability in a case where one employee was allegedly gang-raped by her fellow employees in Iraq.

I've written about the nature of agreements between employees and corporate employers before as well, particularly when attacking the conservative position (held by too many in both parties) of the sadly shelved Employee Fair Choice Act. I've also mentioned them in passing or in some detail in multiple other postings.

I'll recap here again: an agreement which grants a corporation ambiguously limited power over its employees while allowing the corporation to define the means by which its employees can negotiate on their own behalf is not an honest contract. It should not be a legal agreement at all, but that is another topic for another post.

I can understand some of economic arguments on the other side, though I tend to believe many of them are specious. That is not the point, however. A line needs to be drawn and we should all be able to agree that the alleged victim of a violent crime has a legitimate expectation to a certain degree of assistance from their employer (on whose watch the alleged crime occurred) in seeing justice done, specifically if the alleged incident involved fellow employees. When the employer fails to provide the proper assistance it should not then be able to use an employment agreement to shield it from its responsibilities.

30 Republican senators did not agree. I discusses this in the original posting on this topic.

Now, some are going even further: they are accusing those who would defend the notion that an employment agreement cannot shield a corporation from its share of culpability in an atrocity of politicizing rape.

Jenn Q Public writes:

This current smear campaign began when Sen. Al Franken (D-SNL) proposed S. Amdt. 2588, a measure ostensibly inspired by the horrific gang rape reported by Jamie Leigh Jones while she worked in Baghdad for defense contractor KBR, then a subsidiary of Halliburton. Franken contended that “her KBR contract banned her from taking her case to court, instead forcing her into an ‘arbitration’ process.”

It was a lie.

No employment contract can be used to force criminal complaints into arbitration. Not in America. But that didn’t stop the disingenuous left from immediately seizing upon the talking point that Republican opponents of the amendment want to deny rape survivors their day in court. Commentators pretended to be mystified as to how any rational human being could vote against rape victims.

Of course, it wasn't a lie and this kind of intellectual dishonesty attempts to ignore the actual issue of whether or not a corporation can shield itself from liability by forcing its employees to sign away their rights to sue it in return for their jobs. Franken did not ever claim the company somehow blocked criminal prosecution or that the agreement prevented the victim from filing charges. The alleged victim's lawsuit does accuse them of failing to properly and impartially investigate the incident. If this accusation is true then the corporation would be culpable if the case proved impossible to prosecute and might be guilty of obstruction of justice; but it's not the point of the amendment.

The point of the amendment is that corporations who believe their immunity from lawsuit trumps a thorough investigation into the truth of rape allegations should not be doing business with the US government. It's a damned good point. It's a damned good amendment. The 30 Republicans who opposed it were not only wrong, they were expressing implicit approval of such an attitude. Writing in their defense and attempting to spin the issue into a left-wing politicization of rape is also an implicit approval of such an attitude.

A principled government would not do business with such people. A principled political party would understand that. Principled activists and writers would call the party out when it made such a horribly wrong-headed decision en masse. Particularly those writers who accuse the opposition of being misogynists and claim to be champions of 'real' feminism.

Jenn Q Public continues:

It is the foot dragging of the United States Department of Justice that is keeping Jamie Leigh Jones from facing her attackers in court, not her KBR employment contract and not Republican legislators.

Well, this is not what the alleged victim claims in her lawsuit.

(As a note, the above link is the same link in the quoted text.)

KBR specifically contends that Jamie Leigh Jones was not raped:

KBR is disputing Jones' claims. They said she was a willing participant in the sex act, and they said the incident only involved only one man.

When the employer who ran the only investigation into the matter possible under the existing circumstances claims that no rape occurred, this could be seen as a barrier to effective prosecution. The facts of time and geography make an investigation difficult as well. KBR could cooperate to make such an investigation easier. Instead it is defending its procedures in order to protect itself from a lawsuit it claims is not valid anyway.

This may not be the 'KBR contract' to blame, but it certainly suggests the possibility that KBR could in fact be obstructing justice in this matter. KBR's 'investigation' essentially involved accepting the claims of the suspect as totally truthful and dismissing Jones' accusation. So it is not surprising that Jones would feel the need to sue, nor should anyone believe that KBR could possibly be trusted to properly adjudicate the internal abritration process the contract dictates.

Jones also claims in her lawsuit that KBR submitted a rape kit that may have been improperly handled during the testing process. KBR denies it. Once again, not something that they can be trusted to effectively adjudicate internally as their employment agreement dicates.

The idea that, under all these circumstances, KBR should be immune from actual civil liability in this matter is ridiculous. The argument that corporations should be able to maintain the kind of control over accusations made against their own conduct of such matters that Jenn Q Public defends is also ridiculous. The truth of these matters is best determined in actual court, not through corporate arbitration procedures.

A woman says she was raped and the corporation says she was not. They don't say they feel terrible but are not liable. They say she was not raped. They are saying her claims have no validity and should not be given credence.

Yes. They are clearly the innocent victims of persecution that the author seeks to portray them as being:

Franken’s primary objective was not to ensure justice for rape victims, but to strike a blow at the company that sits at the top of every rank and file liberal’s hit list: Halliburton. The legislation is an overly broad political sledgehammer designed to ban the disbursement of federal funds to Halliburton when narrow wording addressing arbitration in assault cases would have received bipartisan support.

Yes, Halliburton (along with KBR) is specifically mentioned in Senator Franken's amendment. This is because Halliburton owns KBR and KBR's activities in this matter can safely be said to reflect on its parent company in the absence of action by said parent to rectify the problem. It's certainly legitimate to name KBR in the amendment, as KBR is the company that has specifically behaved in the manner the amendment is supposed to address. Of course they would be mentioned in the memo.

Here we have it, the real reason Republicans voted against the amendment and the real reason that a conservative blogger is attacking Franken and the Democrats for 'politicizing rape.' They want to defend a company they have been deep in bed with for years, precisely because they have been so deep in bed with it. This kind of cynically partisan political response by Republicans is not, entirely, unexpected. A cynically partisan attack on those who criticize it, by a blogger who professes to be a 'real' feminist battling left-wing misogynists is more surprising.

It's also even less acceptable. If there is something worse than 'politicizing rape', it is cynically defending a corporate culture that brushes rape under the rug and then claims it can't be sued for doing so... because of one's politics.

There comes a point when one's personal positions on civil liberties mean nothing at all if one consistently cooperates with those who trample all over them.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

One Year Later: Lies Defeat Individual Liberties Coast to Coast

A year ago, in California, those Americans who believe that they have the right to intrude into the personal lives and family choices of their neighbors amended the state constitution to deprive individual Americans of their personal freedoms. They did so based, primarily, on a lie: they claimed that banning gay marriage was necessary to prevent ministers from being legally forced to perform religious marriages for gay couples against the tenets of their faith. This was untrue and the people making the argument knew it. Thanks to their efforts and their lies, California became the first state in American history to amend their constitution to deprive American citizens of their natural rights.

That ugly record has still not been broken, but this morning the results were made official on a Maine ballot measure to repeal a state law explicitly protecting the rights of individuals to marry whom they choose.

As in California, the bigots won.

As in California, they won basing their entire campaign on a lie.

In Maine the issue was not religious freedom, but something even scarier to those with even the smallest touch of homophobia:

In addition to reaching out to young people who flocked to the polls for President Barack Obama a year ago, gay-marriage defenders tried to appeal to Maine voters' pronounced independent streak and live-and-let-live attitude.

The other side based many of its campaign ads on claims — disputed by state officials — that the new law would mean "homosexual marriage" would be taught in public schools.

Yes. That's right. They told voters that if gay marriage was legalized, then schools would start teaching their kids to be gay.

The voters are as much to blame as those advocating the bill, of course. They chose to vote to deny their fellow Americans basic personal freedoms that everyone in a free country should rightfully possess. They did so because they were bigoted enough, regardless of how many 'gay friends' they may have or how much money they've donated to AIDS research, to feel their skin reflexively crawl at the idea that their kid might be 'made gay' by the school system. They were also foolish enough to believe a lie designed to frighten them rather than vote based on principles of individual liberty.

Yet it is impossible for me to ignore the lie. The reason for the lie is simple, of course: there is no legitimate way to argue the legalistic denial of adult Americans free choice in their private lives and there is no legitimate way to argue against the American principle of individual liberty. Since every honest argument from the right would come down to these issues, lies are necessary. Lies are always necessary to support bigotry. Bigots must lie to others, each other, and themselves in order to feel secure and moral in their bigotry. If they had to truly face and understand the truth they would not be able to live with themselves.

This is not merely about bigotry, however, nor is it merely about lies.

The notion that it is acceptable to deny individual Americans their rightful liberties as human beings is not one that should be considered valid at law by Americans, liberal or conservative. The traditional conservative policy of governmental non-intervention in the personal sphere is utterly at odds with such policy. Those of us on the left, who advocate for a more just economic, legal, and social system should be offended.

Unfortunately, individual liberty is too radical for the people of Maine... if it means someone might teach their kids to be gay.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Health Care Reform Debate In Perspective

As everyone paying attention has seen, I've done a lot of writing about health care. A lot of it has been in much the same vein as every other liberal-to-socialist blogger on the blogosphere: criticism and polemic on the debate itself. As I've noted before, there's a lack of excellent writing on the substance of the debate. I've decided to try to address the substance again, partially because new readers who find me 'more liberal than radical' may not have seen my earlier commentary on the substance of the debate and partially because I'm still not terribly satisfied with the final form health care reform is taking despite my pleasure that it looks like some basic problems will be addressed.

First and foremost is the substance of the reform actually being discussed in Congress. The right-wing advocates of market reform and the left-wing advocates of national health care policy have both been excluded from the debate. As I (and others) have said before, what is being debated in Congress now is insurance reform. Insurance reform is better than no reform at all. It certainly addresses the real problems of health care in America better than market reform as advocated by the right.

Those problems, which I have also written about before, are basically three-fold:

1.) High consumer costs generated by the inefficient pooling of costs in multiple payment pools. This means multiple partially funded systems of payment and no single fully-funded pool of shared costs. This is entirely opposite to the principle of shared cost. Whereas other insurance can survive this way because it covers against the unexpected, everyone will need medical care at some point in their lives. Thus the inefficiency of the cost-sharing method has a mushroom effect on consumer costs. When one adds to this the cut the insurance companies must take from the consumer to make a profit it only gets higher. So while medical costs really do rise as technology changes, the consumer costs created by our insurance system are the biggest cost problem.

2.) Access to proper care is restricted in a variety of ways. The uninsured frequently forego all but the most urgent care (which is much more expensive) for financial reasons. Insurance companies frequently make their customers jump through hoops to make full use of their benefits, or deny payment entirely if it suits them to do so. Medicaid is difficult to receive (indeed, many of the people who need it are ineligible because of the family requirements) and offers inferior service. Medicare and the Veterans Administration only serve specialized portions of the economy. Thus many people cannot afford to see a doctor, believe they cannot afford to see a doctor, or choose not to see a doctor because they prioritize other financial needs before medical care. Even when one has coverage, there is no guarantee the insurance company will provide full access to necessary care under the current system.

3.) The current health care system puts a tremendous burden on American business. The majority of people with insurance who are not covered by Medicare or Medicaid receive health insurance benefits through their workplace. This infringes their economic freedoms (because their benefits tie them to their job) and it also shifts much of the cost of health care onto the business sector as a de facto tax burden. This latter aspect is worth taking into account among the many problems with American economic policy. I'm no friend of corporate culture, as anyone who reads my stuff knows, but forcing the corporate sector to underwrite what most of the world considers a national issue and a government responsibility is... of questionable capitalist virtue.

The current health care reform proposals in Congress primarily address problem #2. They would require insurance companies to open access to more care to their customers and restrict them from simply dropping their customers or refusing to pay for a variety of reasons. This is a huge improvement not to be ignored. However, it is key to remember that the first and third problems with our current system are only addressed tangentially if at all.

The focus on costs is on medical costs, not consumer costs. While medical costs are a real issue, they are secondary. A better system for paying consumer costs would lower them dramatically without the need to focus on medical costs that can probably not be cut to the degree believed by the advocates of insurance reform. The creation of a competitive, national insurance exchange will probably lower consumer costs somewhat... but it is difficult to say how much and it is possible it won't have a real impact because of the increased standards of quality may keep consumer costs higher than desired. A competitive, robust public option might help to drive costs down somewhat... but it is again very difficult to say how much this will help the guy who already can't afford to buy private insurance.

The economic problem is ignored entirely. First (and perhaps worst) it is assumed that everyone with employer-paid insurance is happy with their coverage and that there is no need for reform of this market. My partner's experiences following surgery have shown, to me, the facts are very different. Employer-paid insurance is in much the same state as private insurance, whether the premiums are lower or not. The public option, as it stands now, would not be available to anyone receiving employer-paid insurance.

In addition, liberals appear to believe that corporations can and should foot the bill instead of government. They advocate increasing employer's responsibility to provide insurance to their employees and punitively taxing those who do not. This may serve the needs of PayGo, but it is aggravating rather than solving problem #3.

None of this is intended to suggest that the insurance reform being discussed in Congress is not better than our current situation. It is. Nor is it meant to rally opposition to said insurance reform. If nothing else can pass, insurance reform needs to pass.

It is meant to put the problem in its proper context and to instill an understanding that this reform is not the 'end' of health care reform. It is a first, shaky step in the right direction. The issues of consumer costs and economic burden will remain to be addressed, and the left must not forget that. We must continue to raise and address these issues to affect future policy debate as much as possible.

To put it more simply, we need massive reform and even the 'liberals' in Congress are not approaching the problem from a sufficiently radical direction. We should support them, but we should keep pushing in the wake of their success.