Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Senator Arlen Specter (D - PA)

This one surprised me. I mean, there had been some gossip on HuffPo about the possibility about the time the GOP was bashing Senators Specter, Collins, and Snowe for voting with the administration on the stimulus bill. I would never be surprised by Specter voting with the administration, he has more in common with moderate and conservative Democrats than with reactionary Republicans. Yet I would not have believed he would so willingly give the Democratic caucus a filibuster proof majority.

After all, the election judges have ruled that Al Franken won the Minnesota Senate race and it is unlikely that the state Supreme Court will overturn the election, now that the ballots have been counted. Which means, when Franken is seated, that will make 60 (counting independent Joe Lieberman and Democratic Socialist Bernie Sanders) votes in the Democratic caucus. Though Specter denies that he will be 'an automatic 60th vote for cloture', the pressure he feels in the Democratic caucus will be very different from the kind of pressure he felt in the Republican caucus. Rather than being pushed to obstruct, he will be pushed to help govern.

I have never been a huge Specter fan, but my biggest problem with him has always been the way he beat up Anita Hill during the confirmation hearing of Justice Clarence Thomas. His voting record has shown the kind of attempt to exercise sound and independent judgement that can and should be admired. He has never been either an ideologically rabid conservative nor a knee-jerk liberal. He's been left of most Republicans on abortion and gay rights, though hardly a leader on either issue. I understand that this move is primarily one about political self-protection and that the GOP essentially pushed him into this. I think it a terrible mistake on their part. He does them much more damage as a Democrat than he did them as a moderate Republican, and this only happened because the Republican Party chose to make it happen.

Watch two members of the Democratic caucus, however: Senator Ben Nelson (D - Nebraska) and Joe Lieberman. Either one could decide they have more power in a Senate that is not filibuster proof. Lieberman could jump caucuses and Nelson could drop his Democratic party affiliation and join the Republican caucus as an independent. If either happens, don't be shocked.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Money For Nothing: is the Best Education Policy No Policy at All?

Now stop a moment. Don't let the title scare you. I haven't switched parties, I am not going to write a piece about gutting or disbanding the Department of Education (if we are going to start slashing cabinet departments, Homeland Security is the only genuinely expendable department that immediately occurs), and I am certainly not going to talk about defunding public schools. I believe there needs to be a federal involvement with education and that we should certainly not be spending less money. I'm simply not sure I believe in education 'policy.'

President Obama started outlining his education plan all the way back in March, but I did not write a piece on education then because I wrote two pieces on foreign policy, one on health care, and a couple polemics against GOP attacks on the EFCA. I've continued to be primarily occupied with political polemic throughout April, however, and I feel a pressing need to get back to the kind of meaty policy wonkery that motivated me to start writing in the first place. The most important issues (in my mind at least) may be health care and the economy, but I have written on both those topics quite a bit and I haven't tackled education aggressively yet.

I'll start with some of President Obama's ideas, which include: incentivizing teacher pay based on student performance, ending state limits on charter schools, and lengthening both the school day and the school year.

As it happens, I have reservations about the first two and outright oppose the latter two.

I am all for raising teacher pay across the board, improving the pay scale for experienced teachers, and adding incentives for the best teachers choosing to go to the worst schools. I think all three of these things are good idea. Nor do I have a real problem with ending or modifying teacher tenure, though I do believe this must be looked at carefully. There are benefits to tenure as well as negatives and a more judicious granting of tenure and a more aggressive willingness to weed out bad apples before they are tenured might be far more appropriate than simply ending tenure. Still, the question of whether to retain, eliminate, or modify tenure is not the pressing issue to me that it is to either teachers' unions, top-to-bottom reformers, or hard-line conservatives opposed to spending money on education.

My biggest reservation is the idea of incentivizing teacher pay based on 'student performance.' Now if you are one of today's current crop of gung ho back-to-basics school reformers, this may offend your sensibilities on a vast scale, but it needs to be said: None of the currently en vogue methods of measuring 'student performance' has anything to do with actual education. Neither classroom grades nor test scores measure what a kid has actually learned. The former measures the child's ability to go through required motions to pleasure authority and the latter measures the child's ability to negotiate modern standardized tests. What is more, in the case of the latter, there is the very real and valid concern that teachers are teaching the test rather than educating students. This is already a concern because of No Child Left Behind, and it was a serious concern among many teachers and parents even before that.

Standardized tests do not measure students' level of education, they measure a student's ability to take a test. As a great example, former New Jersey Senator and basketball star Bill Bradley had a miserably average SAT score... and yet he was a Rhodes scholar. Take a moment to think about that: if standardized tests were really an accurate measure of education then such a thing would not be possible. Yet our educational culture relies more on standardized tests than ever, not less.

As for grades, many elementary, middle school, and high school grades are based on completing and returning homework more than any other factor. Much of the homework is tedious and redundant to students who are actually learning in class and the brightest, most successful classroom students are the least likely to feel a pressing need to wade through pages and pages of the same books they covered all day at school. They blow off the homework and their grades suffer. Yet they have actually learned more than anyone in the classroom, which is precisely why the homework is so tedious for them.

Consider as well that many of the quasi-literate, dumbed down, historically ignorant high school graduates of whom we all complain have successfully navigated their time in school without failing. They all got decent grades and decent test scores and managed not to learn anything despite it all. Not so easy to track 'student performance' as it first appeared, is it?

Charter schools are a more difficult issue still. The conservative knock on charter schools is that they are expensive, while the liberal knock on charter schools is that they drain money and talent from 'regular' schools. Many charter schools are highly successful and I understand why the urge to eliminate limits on such schools is so appealing. But the final word on the issue is this: if charter schools are really so great, why the bloody hell aren't all schools charter schools?

If charter schools work, which they appear to, why is it a question of simply building more? Why are we not converting all of the schools in the country to the charter school model? If such a thing were done, then the liberal knock on charter schools would vanish. They would not drain money and talent from 'regular schools' because there would be no 'regular schools.'

The dirty secret is that charter schools are primarily so successful because the deck is stacked in their favor. The admission process is extremely selective, students who are not considered likely prospects for academic success are not allowed through the door. Students who do not meet the performance standards are not kept in charter school programs but instead dumped back into 'regular' schools. Thus much of the success of charter schools is manufactured.

This not to say that transforming the school model from the traditional system in place today to the charter school model is not worth doing. It can be argued that the working model of the charter school is far more versatile and fosters a far better atmosphere than the standard school model. It is simply important to understand that not every student is going to get straight As, regardless of the school model. Regardless of grades, however, every student can learn. This is the real issue, and the obsession with grades and test scores has obscured this. Many of the reasons public education fails so many of our students can be found in traditional public schools, particularly in poor communities. Changing the model has always shown great promise. The problem is that no one has ever changed the model, they have simply built schools using a different model and allowed the same old problems to continue with the rest of the system.

So you see, more charter schools is not genuinely meaningful until we are willing and able to convert the entire public school system into the freer model.

Which brings us to the two portions of the White House education plan which strike me as the most counter-productive: lengthening the school day and the school year.

We are warehousing our students as it is. Parents get less time with their kids, kids get less genuinely free social time (instead having their socialization experience replaced with regimented, formalized experiences which can affect their entire social outlook for the rest of their lives), and a great deal of non-productive time in which kids are simply sitting in school being bored by minutiae already serves to beat our kids down. I went to public school and can heartily attest to the effects of institutionalized bullying (and let no one tell you differently, the school system create an environment that encourages bullying and punishes the victims rather than the bullies, because it is the victims disturbing the faculty and administration routine), teacher apathy (and the powerlessness of non-apathetic teachers to to act on their better judgement), and administrative group-think. Subjecting our kids to more of all that is not going to improve the situation. It is going to aggravate it. School violence will increase significantly.

The biggest problem with the American school system is not in the schools, though it colors nearly every aspect of the schools. The biggest problem with the American school system is the idea that children can be standardized. Every child is a unique individual with unique needs. While huge class sizes, overworked or burnt out teachers, standardized tests, and reams of homework may be real problems that aggravate the attempt to treat kids like interchangeable spare parts, they are the symptom and not the disease. The disease is the belief that education can be systematized, that one magic system can apply to every kid, that individual effort and attention are not necessary, and that the student has no part in the education process. This is an institutional, cultural problem embedded deep in school administration. In the mind of the workers in the average school district office, they are the education system and the school and students are an afterthought. My mother tells a story in which, during tough economic times, a school district made the decision to cut teachers' salaries... and then outfit the district offices with the newest and most expensive copy machines. This kind of thinking, the notion that kids and teachers are supernumaries, is at the root of the problem.

Much of this is rooted in the idea of 'education policy.' Education policy is all too often geared to the idea that systems can be applied to all children and produce immediate, miraculous results. Fads, conceptual gimmicks, and just plain silly ideas have been espoused with rabid devotion, all without understanding that in a free society we are mentally and spiritually whipping the capacity to operate in a free society out of our kids. We have corporate schools to fit the corporate economy, and frequently it becomes difficult to tell the place of work in adulthood from the school in childhood.

The federal government should set academic standards, set teacher standards, police school district programs to make sure that children learn real science, real history, real math, and real literacy rather than broad conceptual images of these things, and above all else it should make sure the public school system can afford to operate. But setting policy from the top down has proven increasingly ridiculous.

The best people to decide education policy may be the teachers in each indvidual classroom, and in a free society the best thing we can do may be to give them the freedom to do it and get out of their way. Maybe, then, we can blame the teachers' unions if we don't like what we get. As it stands now, we have only ourselves to blame.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Define Irony: Applauding the arrest of protesters...

... and then championing free speech in the next sentence.

This amusing tidbit of counter-intuitive thinking from someone calling themselves 'Confederate Yankee' challenges even the inane reasoning of Robert Stacy McCain:

"6 people, presumably students, have been arrested protesting Virgil Goode's speech against illegal immigration at UNC-Chapel Hill. They seem to be every bit as tolerant as the Carolina blue fascists that violently ended Tom Tancredo's attempted speech last week.

The Daily Tarheel covered the speech via Twitter, and described juvenile protesters that simply don't understand that the freedom of speech hinges on the free exchange of ideas, not drowning out those that oppose your own.

It's a sad commentary on the state of education and intellectual discourse at Chapel Hill, but sadly a kind of intellectual bullying that has become a favored tactic on the political left.

A protestor at the Tancredo event sums up the thuggish behavior with daring honesty when she admitted, "I don't believe a lot of change in this country have come through debating and being happy and talking to people."

Presumably one day in the future this protestor or another one like her will brag about having the university with the cleanest-burning ovens."

See, the opposition to free speech is expressed by the protesters exercising their right to dispute the views with which they disagree and not by the arrest of said protesters. The writer comes to the dubious conclusion that exercising free speech is anathema to free speech, while arresting protesters practicing their constitutional rights to free speech and free assembly is defending free speech. Think about that for a long moment. The best way to defend our constitutional rights, according to Confederate Yankee, is to lock up people who exercise their constitutional rights. He then goes so far as to compare the exercise of one's rights of free expression to the Holocaust.

We should all have a serious problem with this kind of Orwellian thinking regardless of our political views about illegal immigration. True free speech means that the speaker has the right to speak his mind and those who disagree with him have the right to express their disagreement. All views have the equal right to be heard, protesters and speakers alike. To pretend that anything less than this is free speech is either genuine ignorance or egregious intellectual dishonesty. In this specific case I will not speculate which of the two it may be.

I will say that it is a core conservative trait to defend the rights of protesters they like (the Minutemen, pro-life groups, and gay bashers) even when those protesters explicitly break the law, while condemning law abiding protesters exercising their natural rights as 'fascists' when they disagree with said protesters. The double standard is hardly subtle.

Personally, I believe that free expression is something to be enjoyed on the left and the right. That even means Confederate Yankee is entirely free to blog as he chooses.

The problem is, this time, it kind of makes him look silly. At best.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Political Problem of Prosecution: Why President Obama is Thinking About Whitewater and Paula Jones

The Bush administration memos detailing the dirty secrets of the GWOT continue to make an impact on the blogosphere. On Liberal Values, Ron Chusid has written several posts on the topic of torture over the past week, and over on The Anonymous Liberal, the eponymous author has made it his chief topic. Ron has made note of the fact that President Obama did leave the door open for prosecution of those officials responsible for setting policy on torture, despite his rather broad promise of immunity to the interrogators who actually committed the human rights abuses. He has also made strong posts about the moral failure and specific motives involved in torture. It is the latter that I find particularly cogent: torture's true effectiveness is not in eliciting unknown information from unwilling informants, but rather coercing specific, desired responses from unwilling victims. The classic purpose of torture throughout history has been to force a confession, real or spurious. The actual value of torture as an interrogation tool is marginal at best.

The Anonymous Liberal, as befits a lawyer, spends more time on the legal ramifications of the torture disclosures. Indeed, the discussion of whether or not President Obama was 'right' to promise broad immunity to the torturers under the idea that they acted in 'good faith' was the point of his original post (he claims that it was) and has dominated the discussion of both the original post and subsequent posts. Before going on to my real point, I feel I have to stop and share my views on the 'good faith' question.

The argument, as the AL advances it, is that if the statements of the OLC that the techniques being used in interrogations were not torture and therefore legal than it follows that the interrogators did not break the law because they believed, in good faith, that they were not breaking the law. Naturally, this is a somewhat controversial argument among liberals. Some accept it while others disagree and some of them have done so quite aggressively. The precedent advanced most often is the Nuremburg tribunals, where subordinate Nazis who were 'just following orders' were convicted and executed... sometimes while the higher ranking Nazis who gave the orders being followed went free. Because of the political aspects of Nuremburg, I do not agree with its use in this scenario. We are not talking about a defeated enemy being prosecuted for war crimes for the purpose of a political point. We are talking about policing our own ranks and making sure that our own people live up to our own values.

I reject the 'good faith' argument all the same. The OLC is a branch of the DOJ, certainly, and its job is to provide legal counsel to the agencies of the executive branch of the government. However, expert opinion that a specific action is legal is not a shield from criminal prosecution. If the opinion is incorrect or if the counsel is guilty of malpractice, the suspect is still vulnerable to prosecution and is still guilty if the evidence prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The fact that government lawyers may be guilty of a slough of criminal charges for politicizing their legal opinions, authorizing torture, and covering the backs of agencies engaged in criminal activities or that they may be liable for malpractice as a result of said counsel does not and should not provide the torturers immunity from prosecution. The only thing that can provide such immunity is sworn testimony against the superiors who ordered the torture. Anything less than that is an unacceptable reason for such immunity.

As he is an intelligent man and, as far as I can tell, a moral man, I am inclined to think that President Barack Obama knows this. I do not believe 'good faith' is the genuine reason for the current administration's reluctance to pursue a slough of criminal charges against government agents and Bush administration officials. Rather, I believe that President Obama is thinking about the Clinton Presidency.

During the Clinton administration, the GOP pursued a bevy of politically motivated investigations and charges into the conduct of President Bill Clinton. These ranged from a real estate scam of which the Clintons were victims (Whitewater), to the kind of foolish but genuine mistakes any new administration unfamiliar with Washington bureaucracy might make (the so called 'Travelgate' scandal), to the more genuinely questionable record of President Clinton's personal life before and during his presidency. The Republicans threw everything they had up against the wall to see what would stick, leading up to a legally questionable political waiver of sovereign immunity to allow a sitting president to be forced to give sworn testimony in a civil suit filed against him. Amusingly, this entirely uncomfortable precedent is being completely ignored by Republicans now touting the power of executive privelege to protect Bush administration officials.

The Republicans suffered a political cost for politically motivated investigations and prosecutions of Clinton administration officials. As the momentum to impeachment gained ground, it completely sucked the life out of the remainder of the Republican agenda. After the impeachment failed so completely, President Clinton was the clear winner and enjoyed a clear advantage over the GOP for the remainder of his administration.

Investigations and prosecutions of Bush officials would have the same effect on the Obama administration, and President Obama has too heavy a policy agenda on the table to want to see anything derail it. To his pragmatic mind it is clear that economic recovery, health care, and education must all take priority over justice that would be perceived by many on the right as political payback by liberal Democrats against an administration they despised. Regardless of the reality of the corruption, cronyism, and civil rights violations of the Bush administration, the fact remains that many Republicans still believe the civil rights violations to be justified and the corruption and cronyism to be fair politics. Prosecution would be viewed as persecution by these Republicans and their voting base. Considering President Obama's efforts to undermine the GOP base with appeals to both social and fiscal conservatives on several levels, he cannot want to risk alienating them on such a massive scale.

We can approve or disapprove of this political judgement. I, for one, very much wish it were possible to pursue aggressive justice without compromising the agenda I believe to be the most liberal since LBJ, for all its flaws and basic fiscal conservatism. The best chance, in my opinion, was when the Democratic Congress first took office after the 2006 mid-terms. Most of the new Democrats were elected on promises of impeachment, and their decision to 'work with the White House' once taking office was a terrible betrayal of their campaign promises on par with Bush's 2000 statement that he had no faith at all in the concept of nation-building.

Approve or disapprove of the pragmatism inherent in the decision, we must recognize that it is pragmatic and it is valid. If we support the agenda being advanced by the White House, we must understand that we must pay the price of not being able to prosecute Bush officials unless a broad bipartisan demand to do so exists. Otherwise it will be the latest volley in a political war that has always hijacked governance when indulged. If we believe that justice must be done at all costs, we must be willing to pay that cost in the loss of a policy agenda that is desperately needed even if it is not as radical as it should perhaps be.

It should also be kept in mind, by all of us as liberals, that we chose President Obama. Liberals voted for Senators Obama and Clinton, the most conservative presidential aspirants in the Democratic Party, to the detriment of genuinely liberal candidates. The candidates who actually promised what most of the people now berating President Obama for not delivering really want, Congressman Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and former Senator Mike Gravel of Alaska, were given ridiculously small portions of the vote. I do not say this to undercut the presidency of President Obama, whom I believe to have the potential to be a great president, but rather to illustrate the inherent flaws in many of the expectations placed on President Obama by the left.

I share the desire to see justice done, but it is just not pragmatic. We elected a pragmatist, this is what comes of it. Pragmatists are rarely radical.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Tearing Up the Social Contract: if a contract binds one party and not the other, is it still a contract?

Anyone who has been reading this blog knows how I feel about the 'at will' employment agreement and, even more fundamentally, about the huge imbalance in rights and responsibilities in any dealings between individuals and corporations. So many of the agreements we enter into today are effectively one sided contracts: the individual signing is bound by a tight web of regulation, while the corporation or institution with whom the individual is entering into an agreement is provided with enough loopholes that they can safely match the rate of fire of the Prussian Army through their side of the agreement. This is entirely anti-capitalist, as capitalism is based on the market freedoms of all parties to enter into fair bargains, and also entirely anti-democratic, as democracy is based on equal rights under the law for all citizens.

A week ago now, on his blog Boztopia, Martin Bosworth wrote on just this topic, though he did so in reference to leases, credit cards, mortgages, etc rather than employment agreements. Still, it was very cheering to see someone else thinking the way I do on this issue. Bosworth writes:

"The problem here is this. We go into any deal expecting that the person (or people) on the other side will operate fairly, or at least not try to screw us. We provide whatever we’re providing–a good, a service, a usage of time–and the other person provides something in kind. Everyone gets what they want, so everyone adheres to the deal.

But when one side has all the power and the other does not, the deal is inherently unfair. As I’ve written before, we’ve eroded the social contract between us that presumes both sides play fair. Now, every agreement you sign, from your credit card to a Web site service to a home loan, contains terms in it that are specifically designed to favor one side over the other–and that side isn’t yours.

When you can see your credit card interest rate jump from 8 percent to 29 percent for no fault of your own, when a social networking service can take your content and make money off it without your permission, and when a landlord can raise your rent by 100 percent or more, who can honestly say that there is fairness in the transaction?

Business doesn’t have to be about screwing the other guy. You can make a profit without legally mauling the person you’re contracted to, for, or with. A moral person has the obligation to uphold their end of a bargain, but when the other agent in the transaction goes out of their way to fuck said person, I have a hard time justifying why they should not do the same in return."

Mr. Bosworth is precisely correct. Business agreements (whether they are leases/rental agreements, loans, contracts, or employment agreements) are fundamentally based on the theory that both sides will clearly communicate their expectations of the other and agree to uphold their own responsibilities. The modern interaction between corporate institution and individual employee, debtor, or customer is no longer based on this concept at all. Instead, corporate lawyers include a slough of exceptions by which the institution with which me make our agreement is bound to nothing and we, as individuals, are bound by tight legal chains. Corporations have rights and freedoms far beyond those allotted to individual American citizens, and citizens often have very little resource against corporate power. Even when legal resources exist, economic realities very frequently prevent us, as individuals, from seeing redress. How many of us, in this day and age, can afford to sit out a lawsuit for years while a corporation's legal department runs us in circles?

Contracts are one of the oldest legal mechanisms in history. The ancient Sumerians had contracts before they had real 'government' in the modern sense. The ancient Babylonian government was, for all intents and purposes, created with the express purpose of backing the contracts made by Babylonian merchants with military force if necessary. Ditto the Carthaginian and Roman governments. Yet we have allowed our contract law to devolve to the point where agreements with corporate institutions bear much more resemblance to feudal serfdom than to equitable agreements between equal parties.

The irony is that many of these 'loose agreements' were made deliberately looser under the guise of benefitting the individual signatory. Flexible rate mortgage agreements were designed to allegedly benefit less affluent home-buyers, while the 'at will' employment agreement allegedly exists to benefit the supposed desire for easy mobility among today's younger workforce. In both cases the benefit to the individual that allegedly justified the creation of the looser agreement is almost non-existent when weighed against the increased freedom of a corporate entity to do as it pleases.

American corporations have the power to enforce agreements by which they themselves are bound to nothing. What does this say about American government and American society?

Keep in mind that both political parties are equally guilty in these matters. Neoconservative Republicans and 'pro-business' New Democrats have both strengthened the feudal prerogatives of the American corporation at the expense of the American worker, borrower, and consumer. At the same time, they have removed legal restriction on the behavior of corporations in an irresponsible manner that makes Wall Street today the equivalent of Tombstone, Arizona in the days of Doc Holiday and Ike Clanton. Corporations stalk the streets like gunfighters, doing as they please, while honest townsfolk huddle behind closed doors.

I close with a quote by John Maynard Keynes:

“Capitalism is the astounding belief that the most wickedest of men will do the most wickedest of things for the greatest good of everyone.”

While I believe free-enterprise and free markets are necessary, that is certainly the definition of capitalism advanced by today's fiscal conservatives. Can we really afford that any longer?

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Conservative Coalition vs. the Liberal Coalition: Is the Former REALLY Falling Apart and How Cohesive is the Latter?

Yesterday in the Huffington Post, Drew Westen wrote a well-reasoned analysis of what he identified as five key elements in the conservative coalition that has controlled the Republican Party to a growing degree since the Barry Goldwater presidential candidacy in 1964. Rather than recap his long description of each, I will summarize them briefly.

1.) Libertarian conservatives - Those opposed to strong central government in defense of personal freedom and personal responsibility.

2.) Social conservatives - Traditionalists opposed to social change, primarily composed of Christian evangelicals, fundamentalists, and Dominionists.

3.) Fiscal conservatives - Good old-fashioned Herbert Hoover progressives in the Robert Taft/Bob Dole tradition who acknowledge government's legitimate role in public life but who advocate 'fiscal discipline' and 'pro-business' policies.

4.) Defense hawks - The empire builders who support a strong military, interventionist foreign policy, American triumphalism, and exporting American values.

5.) 'Know-nothings' - American exclusivists who share attitudes frequently defined as racist code words and phrases and who advocate a definition of equality that protects the status quo and promotes bringing the right kinds of minorities into the established order rather than allowing minority groups to strongly influence the cultural, economic, or political status quo in a different direction. These people advance a generally white, European cultural ideal and are accepting of minorities who meet its standards and dismissive of those who do not, though they frequently do not consider themselves racist. They frequently curry to genuinely racist voting blocs, however.

Dr. Westen lists them as exclusive groups, though he notes overlap between some of these groups in some areas. He claims there is a large degree of incompatibility in this coalition, particularly between the first three categories, and that the alliance is fundamentally unstable and is falling apart. This is a popular view in liberal circles, but I am not certain it is an accurate view at all.

I would argue that the last two categories of 'conservative' do not truly exist as intrinsically 'conservative', nor are they separate categories within the conservative coalition that defines movement conservatism within the Republican Party. Instead, they are a set of tendencies shared by conservatives, moderates, and liberals which tend to be particularly prevalent within the conservative coalition because of the natural cultural chauvinism of social conservatives and the natural economic elitism of fiscal conservatives and some libertarian conservatives. There are plenty of Defense Hawks and Know Nothings in the Democratic Party as well, just look at Hillary Clinton's message and demographic in the 2008 election and John Edwards' message and demographic in 2004.

So then, let's reduce that number of categories to:

1.) Libertarian conservatives

2.) Social conservatives

3.) Fiscal conservatives

We can also assume that most of the members of the conservative coalition, allowing for exceptions, have tendencies toward being Defense Hawks, Know Nothings, or both. Libertarian and Fiscal conservatives are often, but not always, Defense Hawks. Fiscal conservatives are often, but not always, Know Nothings. Social conservatives are very frequently both Defense Hawks and Know Nothings. Libertarian conservatives are usually not Know Nothings, but there are exceptions.

If one breaks things down this way, one discovers there is a much smaller division within the conservative coalition than originally appeared to exist. What is more, some of the assumptions that Dr. Westen makes in his article are too driven by subjective thought to correctly describe conservative thinking processes. For instance,

"The fundamentalist politics practiced by the likes of Falwell, Robertson, and Dobson over the last 30 years should have been anathema to genuine libertarians, because they run against everything libertarian conservatives believe in vis-à-vis intrusive government. However, the two groups lived happily together as long as libertarians got to keep their taxes low and their rifles loaded and fundamentalists got to keep their kids from learning anything about birth control (leading the Bible Belt to have the highest rates of teen pregnancy and abortion anywhere in the country, although Sarah Palin seems to be leading a one-family crusade to recapture for Alaska the title of Miss Teen Pregnancy)."

The problem is that this is not merely an ability to live happily together, but a general (if mistaken) belief many Social conservatives hold: they think they are Libertarian conservatives! They believe themselves to be apostles of freedom, much better than those self-proclaimed libertarians who are stupid enough to believe in silly things like personal liberty! This is really important to understand, it really defines a mode of thought that sounds silly to those who do not share it... one can be absolutely opposed to full civil rights for all citizens and still call one's self a libertarian if one accepts that liberty and Christianity are the same thing! Social conservatives of this stripe share the same economic ideas as Libertarian and Fiscal conservatives, and tend to accept the 'government is evil' mantra of Libertarian conservatives in all aspects of their lives except for their right to persecute those who believe differently from themeselves. Frequently, they believe themselves to be the persecuted minority, the evil secular world is punishing them for their righteousness!

There are Libertarian and Fiscal conservatives who are put off by this behavior, notably Barry Goldwater in the former category and (for a very long time) George H.W. Bush in the latter. The problem is that they are in the minority. Most conservatives in the Republican party are unwilling or unable to buck the political power of fundamentalist Christian voters in the party organization. Conservative tv and radio pundits like Bill O'Riley, Rush Limbaugh, and Sean Hannity are primarily Social conservatives masked in Libertarian or Fiscal sheep's clothing. So the unity of the right wing is much sturdier than Dr. Westen and many of our fellow liberals would like to believe. Thinking otherwise is dangerous. Yes, Libertarian conservatives like Christopher Hitchens and Fiscal conservatives like Andrew Sullivan and Gov. Charlie Crist (R FL) are hitching to the moderate-to-liberal bandwagon in these difficult times, but they are in the extreme minority. Even moderates like Senator Arlen Spector (R PA) are being intimidated to fall into the conservative line.

The real danger, however, that this overconfident belief in the destruction of movement conservatism poses to liberals, is successfully captured by Dr. Westen despite his failure to understand what he is really saying:

"They're short on ideas, but they're long on selling ideas, however vapid. Second, Democrats are exactly the opposite: They're long on ideas but short on the ability to bundle them into coherent, emotionally compelling narratives that make people want to buy them..."

This is the most dangerous flaw in predictions of the destruction of movement conservatism and the triumph of 'progressivism.' Particularly when one notes that the Democratic Party has to face Fiscal conservatives, Defense Hawks, and Know Nothings within its own ranks. Senator Blanche Lincoln (D - Wal-Mart) defected from the EFCA, after having been one of its original Senate supporters, due to political pressure from Fiscal conservatives within the Democratic Party. Senator Ben Nelson (D - NE) was the leader of the Senate slashing of the White House stimulus bill.

Fiscal conservatives in both parties may be the future of the Republican Party, or even of the Democratic Party, if self-proclaimed 'progressives' do not work hard to support liberal Democratic candidates instead of rushing to support the most neoconservative candidates available.

The division between liberal Democrats, Fiscal conservatives, Blue Dog Fiscal/Social/Defense Hawks, and moderates may be far more dangerous to the Democratic Party than any of the internal divisions in movement conservatism. Liberals, if they wish to hold their own and expand their influence, must find a way to bring the most pragmatic members of the Green, Peace and Freedom, and Natural Law parties back into the Democratic ranks. Liberal pragmatists more invested in radical reform than the success of the Democratic Party must strive to do the same if they wish to save liberalism.

The liberal coalition of ethnocentric civil rights groups, feminist groups, and GLBT rights groups (all of which desperately need to pool their forces into cohesive human rights groups) with labor, civil libertarians, peace activists, and environmentalists might be far more unstable than the other side. Environmentalist liberals and Labor liberals have much deeper divides than Social and Libertarian conservatives. Ignoring those divides is asking for trouble... it's one of the reasons we have a surfeit of liberal third parties with no cohesion amongst themselves, let alone with liberal Democrats.

I believe that Fiscal conservatism will self-destruct if aggressive radical reforms are adopted to help those most harmed by the bad economy and get the economy back on track. Even if President Obama's rather conservative agenda succeeds, it will at least prove that conservatism must be pragmatic rather than dogmatic. Social conservatism will continue to shrink as the younger generation continues to challenge the older... but there will always be backsliding as well. How many of today's conservative Republicans were counterculture liberals in the 1960s?

Before liberals can gloat about the destruction of movement conservatism, we have to actually sort out just what movement liberalism is and get it back on track.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Disgusting Gutter Politics is Disgusting Gutter Politics: Excuse me a Sister Souljah speech

Oscar nominated filmmaker Kirby Dick is making a new documentary, "Outrage," on the subject of closeted gay conservative Republican politicians who have joined with the kind of religious right wingers I have taken long moments to mock and berate in my posts here. The movie is still in post-production, but it has already been the subject of pieces by GayPatriot and Jenn Q Public. I don't plan to get into the habit of quoting Republicans approvingly, but it's hard to argue with some of the points made here. First and foremost, as Jenn Q Public writes,

"The pretense is that outing is the great equalizer. It is held up as a bold and noble act in defense of gays and lesbians. In reality, it is petty, vindictive, and yes, often catty."

This is, of course, one hundred percent true. Of course it leaves out another word... 'repugnant.' To deliberately hold the personal lives of your enemies up to ridicule and abuse, and to invite bigotry against them (particularly when you yourself face that bigotry) is repugnant. I understand the anger of gay Americans against gay-bashers who are really closeted homosexuals. Who would not? I can't help but disagree with both the bloggers quoted and say that a gay man supporting gay bashing likely is possessed of a heaping helping of self-loathing whether conservatives want to admit it or not.

The problem is that their self-loathing doesn't justify this kind of deliberately hurtful sleaze. It is one thing to expose scandal, corruption, or crime in office. It is something else to deliberately hold someone up for abuse, bigotry, and contempt for no other reason but to hurt them. It is the natural reaction of anger, but it is just not right. I don't have any regard for Larry Craig, Ted Haggard, or Mark Foley or for anyone else of that ilk... but sinking to their level and getting the same crud on us will not prove that we are any better, and in order to achieve a just society weon the left must prove that we can be just and moral. I understand the pragmatic need for partisan politics and tough fighting, but there is a big difference between being tough and being cheap, and ladies and gentlemen this is cheap.

I don't agree with everything in either piece. Most importantly this not about the 'liberal agenda', even if we assumed there were on all consuming liberal agenda. This is about equal rights under the law for all American citizens. I don't believe any gay rights activist or liberal Democrat truly hates someone for disagreeing with them on taxes, the economy, or defense policy. Everyone understands that there will be differing views on a wide range of policy issues and the point of politics is for those views to compete until they are ironed out into a coherent policy addressing all the possible concerns of any question.

This is about some Americans believing that other Americans should be denied full participation in American civil society as equal citizens. When some of the people joining this chorus are some of the very people their allies wish to exclude from the system, and they join with their allies in advocating this bigoted policy, that is every bit as repugnant as outing them for it. Two wrongs do not make a right, but allying one's self with bigots is still wrong. If the issue were truly only that not all gays were fully part of the progressive movement, that would be one thing... but the real issue here is collaboration with bigotry in the name of either self-preservation, self-advancement, or (and I will say it) a certain lack of self-respect. There is no excuse for bigotry, and less excuse for becoming an apologist for bigotry when you are one of the objects of that bigotry.

Yet, I have to say it again: outing gay Republicans, no matter how closely in bed they are with the religious right, just to embarass and humiliate them and their allies and to cause people pain is not any kind of social justice. It is petty, repugnant personal vengeance. It's every bit as hypocritical as what they are doing. There's just no excuse for that kind of viciousness.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Crime, Corruption, and Fascism: The War on Some Drugs

While it is old news now, most people are aware that President Obama laughed off a question about marijuana legalization with a joke and a dismissal. At the time, Norm Stamper (a retired Seattle police chief and an advocate of drug policy reform, particularly medical marijuana) wrote a firm and direct article on Huffington Post, chiding the president for the joke. Mr. Stamper is a firm advocate of legalization, having seen the failure of the drug war from the front lines during his career in urban law enforcement. It is worth commenting that he has some street cred on the topic. He is motivated not merely by his views on the pragmatic failures of drug policy, but also by ideological advocacy of legalization through his involvement with the medical marijuana lobby.

I read his article at the time and strongly agreed with his position, though I thought he waved the bloody shirt a little bit. The anecdotal story about John or Jane Q. Public and their tragedy has never been my favorite political tactic, even before Joe the Plumber made it a sick joke. On the issue, however, Stamper is dead on.

Stamper's reaction was not the only reaction on HuffPo, nor was reaction limited to HuffPo. That same week, Ron Chusid wrote (quoting the SanFrancisco chronicle) about the DEA raiding a medical marijuana dispensary in San Francisco and on the topic (quoting Daniel Larison and Andrew Sullivan) of whether it is helpful or counter-productive for advocates of legalization to preface their comments with 'I don't smoke pot, but...', both pieces sparking their share of discussion. The second, particularly, sparked reaction from Jeremy Pober about the issue of pragmatic support for legalization vs philosophical support for legalization and whether or not the debate between the two points of view was counter-productive for the legalization campaign. Norm Stamper wrote about the reaction to his original piece and laid out the debtate between those who felt it was wrong for the president to shrug off the question of legalization and those who felt it was politically wise. The most recent piece by Stamper rekindled my thoughts about the previous pieces mentioned above.

Before I go any further, I will note that both sides of the debate Stamper mentions have factual grounding. It is true that the legalization of marijuana (and the larger issue of the Sitzkrieg that is the 'War on Drugs') is a very important issue that deserves serious consideration and not jokes. Dismissal of the pro-legalization side of the argument as a bunch of pot-heads not worthy of serious consideration is a big part of the strategy of the drug warriors. Even if this was not President Obama's intent, his joke mirrors those used by the drug warriors.

President Obama won several red states where voters take a hard law and order line, and he may believe it is politically inexpedient to advocate drug reform too aggressively because of the risk it may pose to those gains. He may very well be right.

Nevertheless, drug reform is too important an issue not to push, regardless of its political expedience. I will say that again, so that my clarity of meaning cannot be mistaken: drug reform is too important an issue not to push.

The so-called 'Drug War' is better characterized as 'The War on Drugs We Don't Like on Behalf of Corporations We Do Like.' That's awfully long to type, so I will just call it the 'War on Some Drugs', though I can't take credit for that phrase. Drug reform, real drug reform, is about a lot more than legalizing medical marijuana at the federal level or even entirely repealing federal marijuana laws. Real drug reform is about improved regulation of prescription drugs, improved enforcement of that regulation, ending the 'War on Some Drugs' entirely (by legalizing presently illegal drugs and legally regulating those in need of such regulation on a case by case basis), and applying a tax and duty policy to drugs (both those presently legal and those presently illegal) across the board. Medical marijuana is a tiny tip of a huge iceberg, and the entire iceberg must be successfully circumnavigated.

The 'War on Some Drugs' was sold to the public as an agressive campaign of law and order against gangsters and thugs who sold drugs to innocents. It has become, instead, a selective war against the poor and minorities justifying massive violations of civil liberties. The people in the actual business of selling drugs are doing better than ever, while their 'victims' (whom the policy was allegedly enacted to defend) are treated as the enemy.

At the turn of the century, it should be noted, cocaine, opiates, and marijuana were all legal. Marijuana was grown throughout rural America, particularly the South. Cocaine was in soft drinks. Morphine and codeine were sold over the counter, and heroin was in toothache pills, throat lozenges, and cough drops. Drug related violence was impossibly low, by today's standards. These drugs were outlawed roughly at the same time as Prohibition was imposed on alcoholic beverages, as part of the same Progressive Era moral reform movement. Prohibition ended, but the restrictions on illegal drugs were not lifted. Initially, as the big business in organized crime was still gambling and prostitution (which had naturally accompanied bootlegging), things went on as normal... until organized crime realized the money that could be tapped in the market for illegal drugs. Then the drug business bloomed as never before.

The public health argument for prohibition of drugs is laughable. Nicotine and alcohol, both legal, are extremely dangerous drugs when used irresponsibly and nicotine may be impossible to use responsibly. Yet neither are illegal. By comparison to nicotine, marijuana and LSD are as safe as aspirin and both are far less addictive. Even addictive and dangerous drugs like heroin and cocaine cannot compete with nicotine for addiction rates and death rates, and the overdose rates for both drugs may be artificially high because prohibition completely removes any possibility of regulation or quality control. Methadone, the preferred method of treatment for opiate addiction, is far MORE addictive than any of the opiates it replaces and far more dangerous to the health of the user. Yet it is used to treat addiction to heroin without a second thought. Most chemical treatment patients end up addicted to methadone for life and risk deadly withdrawal if they try to quit. Legal prescription drugs frequently have addiction potential and harmful side effects on par with heroin and cocaine as well. The 'public health' rationale for the 'War on Some Drugs' is completely incoherent.

The 'law enforcement' argument is worse. If drugs were not illegal, drug related crime would drop. Drug related crime is so high because drug prohibition relegates otherwise law abiding drug users to criminal status and puts the business entirely in the hands of criminals. Pragmatically speaking, the 'War on Some Drugs' creates far more crime than it stops and the majority of the 'criminals' persecuted under the policy are the victims of the drug cartels rather than their leaders.

On a purely philosophical level, the moral hypocrisy of the WoSD is simply impossible to completely communicate. Recreational users of dangerous drugs are persecuted as criminals... unless they are recreational users of alcohol or nicotine. Mandatory minimums for drug offenders frequently carry heavy racial undertones, such as differences in sentencing for possession of powder cocaine and possession of free-base cocaine. Laws against other drugs, such as heroin and methamphetamine, primarily target the poor. Well-to-do abusers of illegal drugs or prescription drugs frequently end up in treatment programs without facing criminal charges.

The pragmatic benefits of taxation and regulation have been argued by others, and I am not going to repeat them here. My fundamental objection to the WoSD is philosophical, though I agree entirely with all the pragmatic arguments.

One of the greatest flaws in the WsOD, however, is the treatment of prescription drugs. Just as recreational drugs, medical drugs are big business. Dangerous, experimental drugs are marketed before they have been fully verified as safe and effective. Multiple drugs are frequently marketed for the same conditions with no other purpose than to sell another product. Corporate advertisements tell us to solve our problems with drugs every day, and some medical conditions (ADD and ADHD come to mind, but are not the end of the story) have arguably been invented in order to justify selling dangerous drugs to 'treat' them. Once upon a time the purpose of drugs was to cure disease and treat pain, but now the purpose of drugs is frequently to manage chronic symptoms without affecting the underyling condition responsible. This is simply corporate drug dealing, no different than selling heroin on the street. Scores of hugely dangerous products are sold legally to people who may or may not benefit from their use every day.

This situation is too insane to be allowed to continue, the only reason it continues is money. People make money off drugs, legal and illegal, and that money would be threatened by the major overhaul our drug policy needs. Thus political expediency crushes real reform at every turn.

It is easy to understand why the president feels it politically inexpedient to challenge the current drug policy, even in as small a step as to respond to a question about the legalization of marijuana, but it is important that agitation on the issue continue. Our current drug policy, medical and criminal, divides America into two: a nation of addicts and a nationed of criminals.

Clearly, rectifying a crisis on that scale justified radical action.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Business, the Individual, and Society: A Radical Ideology of Government

The issues of the economy and the culture wars have occupied a great deal of my writing lately, as I have been busier with political polemic and anti-corporate invective than either meaningful philosophy or practical policy. I am going to attempt to essay the former tonight, so bear with me if my thoughts tend to wander a little bit more than is usual even for me.

'Big government' versus 'small government' is a popular theme of the moderate and the conservative in today's political arena. 'Effective government' is the popular mantra of today's self-proclaimed 'progressives.' The coercive power of the government has always been a great concern of libertarians, whether they are left-leaning or right-leaning in their thinking. Yet none of them really address the issue of just what government is and what government should be. This is a question that is frequently danced around, taken for granted, or dismissed entirely depending on the political leanings of the people having the discussion. Liberals believe that government should be in the business of defining and solving problems, while conservatives believe that government's only real role is maintaining order in a chaos of 'capitalist' 'freedom'. I've written about 'freedom' before, and addressed the conflicting notions of volia and svoboda as they apply to the debate over the free market and capitalism. To recap, very briefly, 'volia' is the concept of absolute license to do as one pleases without any obligation to outside authority, while 'svoboda' is analogous to what the classical liberal thinkers called 'the Social Contract', the idea of individual freedom intermingled with one's responsibility to society and society's responsiblility to itself and its members.

Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary defines government thusly:

1. The act of governing; the exercise of authority; the administration of laws; control; direction; regulation; as, civil, church, or family government.

2. The mode of governing; the system of polity in a state; the established form of law.

3. The right or power of governing; authority.

4. The person or persons authorized to administer the laws; the ruling power; the administration.

5. The body politic governed by one authority; a state; as, the governments of Europe.

6. Management of the limbs or body.

7. (Gram.) The influence of a word in regard to construction, requiring that another word should be in a particular case.

Obviously, we can dismiss the anatomical and grammatical definitions of the word for the purposes of this discussion. We can safely assume no one in politics means either of them. My personal thought is that when conservatives, moderates, and libertarians talk about 'government' they usually mean definition three, four, or five or some combination of the two. Liberals frequently mean the first or second definition, or a combination of them both, and think of government less as an established authority than as a means by which society excercises authority over itself. The classic word for this advanced by the Founding Fathers and many other since is 'self-government.' As Abraham Lincoln said it, government 'of the people, by the people, for the people.' This is a significant gap of thought, even if it appears relatively minor.

Let me put this more simply. When a conservative says, 'government doesn't solve problems,' what he means is 'solutions cannot be forced from a position of authority.' Conversely, when a liberal says, 'the government must become involved,' what he really means to say is, 'we, as a people, must take concerted action to solve this problem through our political and social institutions.' This is a much more significant difference in philosophy than it appeared in the first place. It's not merely about differing philosophies of government, it is about totally different ideas about what government even is. To a conservative, government is an outside authority to maintain order. To a liberal, government is consensus action by the people themselves.

Either of these philosophies can be dangerous. The former is how the kings of France got their heads cut off, what laid the foundations for Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, and got the tsar shot. The latter is the source of the historical abbatoirs of the French and Bolshevik revolutions.

In my view, 'good government' is a complex interaction between the members of a society to define and regulate themselves as a society. If the complex interaction of 'good government' does not exist, then there is a vacuum left that will be filled by someone or something else. In the absence of viable democracy, for instance, someone will take over and establish despotism. Many of use the word 'government' to describe those most heavily involved in this interaction, but anyone who votes, protests, or speaks their mind is part of it. This interaction, or some poor subsititute for it, will always exist. Anarchy is not a sustainable state of being. Either society will order itself, or someone will order society. My apologies to all the hard-core libertarians out there, but these are the simple facts of human nature.

For a broad sweep of reasons, economics is one of the chief social occupations of mankind. We have physical, emotional, and spiritual needs and we must meet those needs. This leads to another complex interaction between the members of society, to meet those needs, that can be varying called 'the economy' or 'the market.' This interaction will, like government, always exist in some form. It is a necessity of human existence. The problem is that it, like government, is a venue of human interaction. There is no way of doing way with the interaction of the market, people will always have needs and they will never meet those needs 'for free', so Marxism is as unsustainable a fantasy as anarchy. Socialist utopia and libertarian utopia are equally unviable, because society will always seek to somehow order itself and the market cannot provide that order. The market is merely part of the social interaction. So rather than use the term 'the market', which is heavy with false images of concrete meaning, I will use the term 'business.'

At the core of society is the individual. It is the individual's interactions with his fellow individuals (including government and business) which make society happen. Society cannot exist without individuals to interact, but no two individuals are identical. Everyone wants something different from that interaction. Because utopia is not possible, there will always be individuals who do not get what they want or need from society. Because society is made up of individuals, however, it is reponsible to its members... even when they are not having their needs met... coupled with a duty to meet those needs as best as it can. When it cannot, society suffers as a whole because of the lost contribution of those individuals. More importantly, the individuals who are having their needs met by society have a greater responsibility to that society in return. This is simple capitalism, no one gets anything for free.

If this sounds socialist in conception, it certainly is. However, all due apologies to John Galt, there really isn't an alternative. If society does not function in a healthy fashion, then it will function in an unhealthy fashion and everyone will suffer. If everyone were to become non-participatory, society would break down, anarchy would follow, and totalitarian order would be imposed by someone to end the anarchy. That is simply the inevitable reaction of nature, to fill a vaccuum.

So we have three choices: the healthiest society possible, a willfully unhealthy society, or social disintegration followed by a society in which none of us wish to live.

People will never stop being individuals, as history has shown. Even in purported collectivist utopias, individual needs cause some to seek greater individualism. Even in absolutist utopias, individuals desire independence of mind and feeling.

I believe in natural rights, free will, empirical thought, and an ordered universe. Though my spiritual awareness flickers between Christianity and quasi-Deism as I attempt to apply an empirical standard to existence, I believe in the divine ordination of both natural rights and free will. We are individuals because we are meant to be individuals with independent thoughts, desires, ambitions, and fears. We are meant to make our own choices based on those individual drives. I also believe in central moral principles: our freedom to act stops when another is deprived of their freedom to act by our action.

How does all this apply to business, government, and society?

Society exists because one of the needs we all share is the need for human contact and because people can help one another meet their individual needs more effectively than people can meet their needs alone. If mankind truly desired absolute self-reliance, there would be no community or society. Individuals are independent beings sharing an interdependent world. This is simply the way it is. We can preach self-reliance and responsibility all we want, and true responsibility is certainly a virtue and irresponsibility certainly a dangerous vice, but we need each other. The community needs its members to exist and its members need the community to satisfy their needs. If this were not so, they would not have created the community in the first place.

Societies exist because of individuals and have a responsbility to protect their members and cooperatively administer to societal needs while allowing/empowering individuals to do their best to administer to individual desires. This is where business and government come into play.

Business is the mechanism by which society meets its needs and enables its members to meet their individual desires. Because the essential nature of this activity is selfish, self-interest will drive business more often than altruism. Because self-interest can be dangerous when not enlightened, and human nature does not always live up to its own better angels, business cannot be left in a vaccuum.

Government is the mechanism by which society defines its values, establishes and maintains social order, and acts to defend the rights of its members. These rights are best defined as defined in the Declaration of Independence: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Government can also be a threat to the very rights it is intended to establish, however, and the rights it defends are not granted by the government. They are natural to individuals, part and parcel with free will. The government cannot give rights to anyone, it can only take them away. This is the fundamental reason for the massive concern for human rights around the world and in the US, the fact that society has been all too lax in its responsibility to guarantee the rights of all its members. Because humans are imperfect and not always enlightened, government requires mechanisms of control to guarantee individual freedoms.

Society, made up of its individuals, must have full control of government. As long as government is serving society, it is serving its purpose: 'big' or 'small' government is not an issue. As soon as government fails to serve society, it is not serving its purpose and must be adjusted: once again whether it is 'big' or 'small' is irrevelevent.

Business must be subject to society, through the mechanism of government, because it is too important not to be. This is not a rejection of the capitalist economic system, but it is a rejection of the religion of capitalism in which business is granted absolute power. We know from history that we cannot give government absolute power, that society must regulate its own excesses through democracy, revolutions, etc. Why, then, do we insist we can give business absolute power? We say 'the market' and pretend we are speaking of something concrete, but we are really just talking about the human mechanism of business. As the government must be subject to society and society must be responsible to the individual, so business must be responsible to government.

The individual reponsibility to society, the societal responsibility to the individual, and the responsibility of business to both are all interlinked. Fascism, Communism, anarchy, or any other utopian system is impossible because of this linkage. We can all only do the best we can, there is no perfect system to maintain it all for us and there will always be human failings for which we must compensate when we can, as best we can. Government is the mechanism through which society fulfills that web of interlinked responsibilities.

If that's socialism, then socialism beats any alternative anyone has offered so far.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Liberty, Equality, Society: The Moral Failure of the Religious Right

The culture wars are raging. That is, of course, no secret to anyone. It is no secret to my tiny handful of readers here that I have tended to avoid the grimy distractions of same in an attempt to write about public policy, both to criticize that with which I find fault and to suggest what I believe wise. Recently, however, I began to just get too pissed to ignore the issue. Proposition 8 may have started the process, though my original reaction to it was disgust with all the allies of civil rights who were turning on each other both during the ballot initiative's campaign and in its aftermath. Fortunately, religious reactionaries have been busily showing me just where I should really be focusing my anger.

I had never read the Anonymous Liberal before today, but to say that I read Ron Chusid's Liberal Values every day might actually be an understatement. Ron wrote a post making reference to the Anonymous Liberal that I noticed because it touched upon a theme which I just wrote about not too long ago.

A conservative blogger, Robert Stacy McCain, made an aggressive attack on fellow conservative (but gay) Andrew Sullivan over Sullivan's very apt comparison of the culture warriors to the Western anti-Semitic movements of recent history. Now, I am no great fan of Sullivan's and I certainly do not agree with the bulk of his political ideology. However, I agree entirely with his thesis that the attitudes expressed by the virulent homophobes of the religious right are not at all Christian in any sense of the word I was ever taught by my MDiv mother. I am also forced to agree with his characterization of the religious right at this point in time. McCain, however, felt very differently:

"This is what is so absurd about Sully likening "homophobia" to anti-Semitism. It is he who has succumbed to the paranoid tendency, suspecting that "homophobes," like the Jews of anti-Semitic imagination, are conspiring to deprive him of happiness. Here he is, a successful and famous journalist, with lucrative book contracts and nearly carte blanche to publish in prestigious publications, yet he sits around fretting and fuming over the pathological suspicion that other people don't like him because he's gay."

I will try not to dally here too long, because I have already slammed McCain over this particular statement. I will simply say that you read that right, the bigot is indeed accusing the object of his bigotry of seeking to repress his rights, as a bigot, out of paranoid prejudice and that this passage cannot be quoted enough on liberal blogs to truly illustrate the mindset we are dealing with. Which brings me to the Anonymous Liberal.

Quoting Rod Dreher,

"This morning, I had breakfast with some guys, including a lawyer. We weren't aware of this decision, but we talked about this issue. The lawyer said that as soon as homosexuality receives constitutionally protected status equivalent to race, then "it will be very hard to be a public Christian." By which he meant to voice support, no matter how muted, for traditional Christian teaching on homosexuality and marriage. To do so would be to set yourself up for hostile work environment challenges, including dismissal from your job, and generally all the legal sanctions that now apply to people who openly express racist views.
That world got a little bit closer this morning. And most people don't even see it."

and then responds, quite aptly in my view,

"Yeah, it's pretty rough being a Christian in America. Maybe Dreher should try being a "public homosexual" for a while and compare the experience. If I had a Quantum Leap machine, I'd be tempted to zap Dreher into the life of a gay high school student or maybe a gay man in a small Southern town and see how easy he finds it to publicly be himself. I wonder if Dreyer has any clue how much harder that would be than anything he's ever had to deal with as a straight white christian male."

There is certainly an element of tit for tat in this response, but the point is valid and very clear: It is ridiculous for the bigot to decry bigotry. Many religious conservatives of the stripe of Dreher and McCain will claim boldly that they are not bigots, that they are defending tradition and morality against a dangerous threat. That is exactly what the anti-Semites McCain rejects as a model, and attempts to ascribe as a model to the gay rights movement, said. The very suggestion that a conspiracy exists to destroy Christian values and suborn the church and its believers to secondary status is straight from The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. The tactics of homophobia are the tactics of anti-Semitism. In fact, the tactics that the religious right uses against the left (and center) wholesale are nearly all the same tactics used by the anti-Semites. Their goal is the same as well, and the same as the goal of the Ku Klux Klan in its intimidation of black Americans in its own heyday: the denial of a full share in civil society to a portion of the population deemed dangerously 'other' from the mainstream by political manipulation and intimidation. Looking at the very tactics used by the bloggers in question, it is impossible to accept the thesis McCain advances: that somehow homophobia is a paranoid fantasy of the gay activist that does not exist outside the mind of the gay American.

This is reprehensible enough. However, this is not enough for McCain. He must respond to the Anonymous Liberal as he attacked Andrew Sullivan:

"What is asserted here is that homosexuals are so inherently weak that they cannot survive mere disapproval of their preferences. Anonymous Liberal has witlessly dispelled all the legalistic nonsense about "equal protection" and confessed the real purpose of the crusade for same-sex marriage, which might fairly be summarized thus:
We will compel you hateful small-town troglodytes to approve of homosexuality, and will punish those who persist in displaying an anti-social attitude of disapproval.

Anonymous Liberal is not only contemptuous of the ability of homosexuals to withstand public disapproval, but seems to assume that opponents of same-sex marriage are either too stupid to see through his charade or too cowardly to denounce it as the dishonest humbug it is. And why should he think otherwise, when so many conservatives have been so silent about liberal humbug for years?

The differences between men and women, according to the egalitarian view, are so trivial that the law must forbid any recognition of such differences, so that the sexes are treated as interchangeable. As I argued in January, it is from a careless acquiescence to this egalitarian falsehood that Americans have been steadily -- one might well say "progressively" -- marched to the point where the Iowa Supreme Court mandates gay marriage and anyone who questions that ruling is dismissed as an ignorant, hateful bigot suffering from the mental disorder of "homophobia."

That's from my column that won't be officially published until Monday, but you can go ahead and read the whole thing now. I don't know about anyone else, but I'm tired of having my intelligence insulted by these arrogant bullies. Therefore, thanks to Rod Dreher for smoking them out of their rathole."

The complete article to which this links entirely undermines McCain's claim that he is somehow not a hateful, ignorant bigot. The irony that he can deny his bigotry while spewing forth more bigotry is really quite amazing. Of course, to those who think as he does, he makes perfect sense. To the majority of Americans, even moderates opposed to full marriage equality but inclined toward civil unions, McCain's diatribe is hateful bigotry. I'm sorry if he doesn't like that, but his words, thoughts, and actions are his responsibility and his choice. He is free to be a bigot if he so wishes, he will never lose that freedom... and we are free to call him a bigot, and think less of him for being one, if we so wish.

That is beauty of a free society.

To the Anonymous Liberal, I offer a strong second.

More Recommended Reading

It took a great deal of deliberation to decide whether or not to link a conservative Republican blog. It goes without saying that I disagree with the majority of views of the majority of conservative bloggers the majority of the times. I am, after all, on the liberal fringe of the Democratic Party... probably ideologically closer to Democratic Socialist Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont than to any actual Democrats (except, maybe, for Dennis Kucinich) most of the time.

Yet there she is on my required reading list: Jenn Q Public. No, I don't endorse the majority of her opinions.

So you ask me... if you don't agree with that there person, Mr. Radical sir, why are you putting their blog on your required reading list?

The answer is simple. Shameless self-promotion.

See, I am her very own liberal troll.

If you are reading this blog, the odds are that you have some interest in my positions and appreciation for my writing. On Jenn Q Public you can see me arguing with Jenn about health care policy, about crazy old men saying reckless and foolish things about HIV, and about taxes and the economy. If you really must, you can read her stuff as well, to help you better understand what I'm heckling her about. Still, the big reason is that I want you to see me doing the heckling. I am just that impressed with myself.

Jeffrey Ferguson needs to get back on the job, dang it. I'm trying to be funny again. I need to stop that.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Now HERE'S circular logic for you!

Apparently, conservative blogger Robert Stacy McCain believes that gays unhappy at being denied equal justice under the law and angry at those who campaign viciously to prevent them from gaining said equal justice are akin to anti-Semites. This is a fascinating piece of mental yoga, twisting a thought into such an unnatural shape as to be nearly unrecognizable.

McCain takes aim at fellow conservative Andrew Sullivan, who has never been the favorite of the religious right for obvious reasons. He's never been fond of them either, and it's difficult to blame him. In an Atlantic column by Ta-Nahisi Coates, Sullivan is quoted at length. I normally do not agree with Mr. Sullivan on a wide range of topics, but one area in which we are in agreement is this one:

"The reduction of these shared lives and loves to abstract sexual acts is itself a form of bigotry. It is an attempt to reduce the full and complex human being to one aspect of his or her humanness. It is, in my view, anti-Christian to speak of gays the way this Pope does. The Christian calling is not to guard ferociously the ramparts of the 1950s out of fear but to listen to the experiences of gay people - what the Second Vatican Council calls the sensus fidelium - and try to integrate their humanity into the structures from which they have been so cruelly excluded, with such horrible human consequences, for so long."

Sullivan goes on to aptly compare homophobia on the religious right to the anti-Semitism that once sank its oily claws into nearly the entire European polity at one time or another. His comparison is very apt. Both the culture war, today, and the Jewish Codes of the Middle Ages deprive a specified group of their full share in civil society because they do not conform to a subjective definition of morality mandated by another group.

Democratic societies are based upon a cornerstone belief in certain fundamental human rights in which all people share because they are human. Those fundamental human rights must be recognized and respected by society, and the society as a whole must defend its members from bigots who wish to eject the 'other' from civil society. In a free society, we have the right to believe as we choose but we do not have the right to legislate that all should believe as we do.

McCain clearly does not agree. Furthermore, he appears to deny the relevance or perhaps even the reality of bigotry in this area:

"Getting a bit more specific, there is a reason why the accusation of "homophobia" does not intimidate me: I refuse to accept that "homophobia" accounts for most of the problems experienced by gays. Define "homophobia" however you wish, if you are gay, ask yourself this question: What percentage of the daily problems and hassles in your life are the result of this supposedly pervasive phenomenon?"

Some problems and hassles in the life of gay Americans are very clearly traced to homophobia. Homophobes, under the guise of religion, have crusaded to block every attempt by gay Americans to become fully equal and accepted members of civil society. They have opposed protection from discrimination in the workplace. They have opposed the repeal of sodomy laws. They have used religious arguments to interfere in the family in a manner entirely unreconcilable with any real 'family values.' They oppose granting equal marriage rights to loving couples. They even sponsor programs to brainwash gay Americans into becoming 'normal', 'normal' of course meaning just like them... bigots who cannot distinguish between nurturing faith and bloodthirsty cult.

All of these issues are real and quantifiable, they are not figments of the imagination of gay Americans and all of us who support the American ideal of personal liberty and equal justice under the law should fight for the full inclusion of our gay fellow Americans in our civil society. Those who wish to exclude them are fighting against the very concept of America.

McCain, however, appears to believe that 'homophobia' is a paranoid delusion.

"This is what is so absurd about Sully likening "homophobia" to anti-Semitism. It is he who has succumbed to the paranoid tendency, suspecting that "homophobes," like the Jews of anti-Semitic imagination, are conspiring to deprive him of happiness. Here he is, a successful and famous journalist, with lucrative book contracts and nearly carte blanche to publish in prestigious publications, yet he sits around fretting and fuming over the pathological suspicion that other people don't like him because he's gay."

Considering that McCain has made it pretty clear that he doesn't like gays because they are gay, both in the quoted post and others, it's very difficult to call any such suspicion a gay American might have 'pathological.' Railing against Sullivan for attempting to 'diagnose' the psychopathology of the religious right and then attempting diagnose Sullivan's psychopathology in equal measure suggests a narcissism unworthy of a proud 'public intellectual.'

The glaring problem with McCain's thesis is this:

If the religious right is just a figment of our imaginations, how are we possibly waging a culture war to persecute them?

Bad Sports: A Marketing Story

CBS Sports broadcast man Greg Gumbel (brother of the more famous Bryant of NBC, CBS, and HBO fame) alleges that he was tricked into making intros for infomercials under false pretenses. This a rather bold scam, swindling a celebrity into making what he thinks is a series of internet educational videos to cobble into direct marketing advertisements. The alleged culprit, Paul Douglas Scott (owner of 'Encore Television Group Inc'), is innocent until proven guilty, as far as the law is concerned, of course. Please forgive that O'Riley-esque turn of phrase, but I am strongly inclined to believe Gumbel in this case. Gumbel is suing over the alleged fraud, and the main thrust of his suit (though unspecified monetary damages are mentioned as well) is simply getting the offending material out of circulation.

Normally I rail against the kind of fraud and exploitation committed by big corporations, rather than little incidents like this. However, the stones involved in perpetrating a fraud like this takes me by surprise. Nor is this inconsistent with my one of my chief indictments of our modern pseudocapitalism... this kind of behavior is an attempt to use trickery to gain an advantage in manipulating the allegedly 'free' market. Celebrity endorsers are one part of a core component of the corporate-commercialist economy: the huge industry in deliberately manipulating consumers to continue to consume regardless of their genuine best interests. This, in the form of the commercial media, is perhaps the biggest industry in the nation and it produces nothing, creates no wealth. It is perhaps only the natural extension of an industry based on varying degrees of deceit that such frauds should occur. It could even be called inevitable. After all, an endorser will be so much more sincere in his deception of the target audience if he himself is deceived into believing he is doing something 'sincere.'

I hope that Gumbel wins his lawsuit, but it is likely that (despite the apparently obvious elaborate fraud of this incident) Scott has not broken any criminal codes. This may be shocking, as Greg Gumbel was clearly defrauded of his self-respect and his confidence in his integrity, but criminal fraud generally requires a monetary profit from the swindle. Damages in the lawsuit may be very minimal, if a judge decides that the damage done to Mr. Gumbel does not justify significant monetary compensation. So Paul could get off very near 'Scott' free even if Gumbel wins his lawsuit. It is, of course, also possible that the judge could decide the damage to Gumbel's reputation justifies punitive damages... but Scott has already pulled the phone number from his company website and I am betting the company website will disappear too if this continues. Even with a judgement in his favor, Gumbel may not be able to collect anything.

This will serve as one more proof that, in modern American culture, the truth matters very little. Paul Scott's actions may have been unethical, by the standards of the advertising industry, but hardly shocking in an entire industry based on the notion of fungible truth. What is more, in many ways the commercial media (of which Scott represents a distinctly bent cog, small he may be) has been instilling a culture based on fungible truth. Political and business ethics are eroding, journalism is being subverted to just another means of marketing, and conspiratorial fantasy about education, race relations, and poverty (from both the socialist left and the libertarian right) can appear all too plausible set against our corporate commercialist society. One doesn't have to believe John Taylor Gatto's conspiracy theories on education are genuinely based on fact to see how they are frighteningly convincing they can be. Nor does one really have to wonder why some give credence to the 9/11 Truth Movement. The media tries to program us in so many ways every day, to make a buck, that paranoid fantasy becomes so very plausible. The deep, dark conspiracies may not be real... but many of the motives and goals ascribed to those conspiracies can be found without a great deal of difficulty. Schools may not be in horrid shape because of conspiracy, but people clearly benefit from the poor shape American education is in. Dick Cheney may not have orchestrated 9/11, but he clearly used it for maximum advantage.

We need to start putting a value on genuine facts, at every level of our society, or things will only get worse.