Sunday, July 26, 2009

The History of the Corporate-Commercialist State, Pt1: The Trusts

The mess our country has meandered into did not simply happen all at once. Nor are many elements of it new. Politically speaking, the rather disingenuous conflict that the right wing of American politics has been waging against the middle class and the educated 'elite' goes back to Thomas Jefferson (a wealthy aristocrat whose first memory was being carried by a slave on a pillow) appointing himself the champion of the 'common man' and squaring off against the pragmatic realism of Alexander Hamilton (the illegitimate son of an impoverished drunk) in the name of democratic utopia. Jefferson painted the self-made, largely self-educated Hamilton as an 'aristocrat' and himself as a 'yeoman' and thereby set the stage for conservatives to continue to bash liberals as 'elitists' in defense of the property rights of the privileged class ever since.

Of course, Hamilton was far from either a socialist attempting to destroy aristocratic privilege or a laissez faire capitalist attempting to insure that the new moneyed aristocracy replaced the old landed aristocracy. Nor did the lack of faith Hamilton felt in democracy (believing, with some legitimacy, that demagogues could transform majority rule into mob rule very easily) reflect a lack of belief in natural rights. For much of the first century of American history, then, the fundamental conflict in American politics was between an agrarian, democratic utopia (which never really existed except in the minds of the large scale commerical farmers who either did not really understand or did not really care about the realities of life for their family farmer neighbors) and a practical, realistic capitalist republic. This is an important distinction, because the primary commodity of the agrarian economy is land and land is static. The rich are always rich the poor are nearly always poor and society is very stable as long as the rich are able to keep the poor content. The social order is firmly established and rooted.

Capitalism, in its pure state, however, is fundamentally progressive. I mean this word not in the manner meant by today's American political liberals, who call themselves 'progressive' out of fear of getting 'liberal' all over their nice suits, but rather that the workings of a proper capitalist economy force change. Money is spread through society on a slightly wider scale and replaces lands as the fundamental commodity, entrepreneurs can become wealthy by making more money far faster than a family farmer can acquire more land and do the same. Thus, for the landed aristocracy of the 13 Colonies (who became the democratic utopians of the United States of America), capitalism posed a challenge to what was (in not only what we now think of as 'the South' but also in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania) a vested social and political power believed to be a natural and deserved privilege.

For obvious reasons, then, the economy could not remain in a state of flux for long. In the years leading up to the civil war this became baldly obvious, as the economy in the South became ever more specialized and dependent on huge-scale commerical farming dependent on the inefficient-but-free labor provided by slavery to make a profit. The conflict over slavery, real moral debate that it was, was also a necessary front in the conflict between agrarianism and capitalism. The Civil War was the final confrontation between the agrarian democratic utopia of Jefferson and Madison and the practical, capitalist republic of Hamilton. Clearly, in the final contest, Hamilton won.

Precisely because capitalism is progressive, however, this victory laid the seeds for new socio-economic conflicts. At first these were fairly small scale. Class warfare is neither new nor unique to the United States, and the poor found it as easy (or easier, thanks to the prejudices inculcated by the utopian tradition in American political dogma) to resent successful entrepreneurs as it was to resent landed gentry. The poor coveted the property of the rich and the rich sought the state's protection against the superior numbers of the poor. Worse, the rich capitalists increasingly sought to protect themselves from capitalism itself. What is more dangerous to an established business interest than competition which may lower prices and cut into profits?

This was also a period of massive imbalance in American politics. The Republican Party, allied as it was to the capitalist economy and increased social mobility, had a virtual monoply on the presidency (broken only by the two non-consecutive terms of Grover Cleveland) from the election of U.S. Grant until the election of Woodrow Wilson. This was directly a result of the Civil War, in which the Republicans had been the leaders of the winning side. This all-but-unchallenged power, however, lead to the usual result of a lack of competition... corruption and internal factional disputes. The great political issue of the end of the 1870s and the first half of the next decade was not a dispute between Democrats and Republicans, but the conflict in the GOP itself between advocates of greater bureaucratization of government offices (as a defense against political corruption) and their opponents (who wished to keep government offices entirely political on the basis of the old 'spoils' system, as much for genuine political considerations as in defense of corruption) on the issue.

The bureaucratization of government offices was an attempt to professionalize and depoliticize the business of government. However, the main argument against it had a ring of truth. It has led to the rise of a governing class with some (but far from all) the elements of an aristocracy. Though the real aristrocratic presence in American society is still economic and political, primarily centered in the business world and the political parties, the bureaucrats and low-level appointees who make up a large percentage of the members of 'the Beltway' have a significant influence on the way policymaking is viewed in this country. I'll talk a little more about the government's role in the corporate-commericialist overthrow of capitalism in future articles, but it is during the era of civil service reform that the modern 'Beltway mentality' was born.

Bureaucratization of government was matched by the bureaucratization of business, which was growing as it had never grown before. The most successful entrepreneurs of the relatively young capitalist economy had achieved succes and wealth on a scale unprecedented in history since the fabled 'Riches of Inde' that had attracted adventurers from Marco Polo to Christopher Columbus or the Aztec and Incan treasures that made Spanish conquistadors drool. Indeed, the Carnegies, Vanderbilts, and Rockefellers of history were probably richer than Montezuma in terms of real wealth and property. Like most success stories, they immediately set about making it harder for anyone else to succeed and cut into their action. They bought up the competition, on as large a scale as possible, to build up monopoly or near-monopoly power in their line of business. Not satisfied with this, they then bought up the support systems for their business, so that they were not doing business with any outside entrepreneurs or companies. They did everything for themselves. This was the true beginning of what would later be called 'The Gilded Age', during which America's richest citizens were the richest men in the world and the bulk of America was poorer (relative to the wealthiest) than it had been at any point before.

This was the age of the trusts, massive corporate interests that did not just monopolize one industry but also controlled as much of every supporting industry related to their area of monopoly as possible. This control of the support system served, naturally, to stengthen their monopoly power. They always had more money and influence on hand than potential competitors. New entrepreneurs found it more and more difficult to enter the market. Capitalism had become its own worst enemy and it had only just begun.

More troubling still was the manner in which the 'captains of industry' set out to make themselves the new artistocracy in the mold of the landed gentry of the previous era. They began to meddle in nearly every aspect of government policy and American life, because they could. In many cases this was genuinely benign, it every case it was putatively benign... but utopian visions are never, ultimately, benign in practice. It was during the era of the trust that utopian visions of education (which still do massive amounts of damage in our schools, public and private), technology, industry, and the free market began to take shape in ways that have been influencing our thoughts and policies ever since. It is the era that birthed the notion that business was superior to government, morally and functionally, and the era that first proposed that human life could be 'managed.' Many of our theories of management today stem directly from the utopian aspirations of this era.

The utopian design of the great industrialists was both in conflict with, and aided by, a numerous subset of causes and reforms advocated by many social activists, writers, and politicians. This movement, 'progressivism', is the direct ancestor of both modern American political liberalism and the modern neoconservative and fundamentalist religious reform movements. The Progressive Era is defined by the presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt, who adopted a 'progressive' label and advocated many reform policies seen as liberal by today's lights... but who was essentially pragmatic rather than utopian... and William Howard Taft, whose adoption of a conservative persona belied his active opposition to the concentration of economic power in only a few hands. Taft was so active in fighting the trusts, in fact, that 'Teddy the Trust Buster' came to feel that his hand-picked successor was too aggressive in his reform efforts and ran against him for president.

The breaking up of the trusts under Roosevelt and Taft, and Democrat Woodrow Wilson, carried the ironic lesson that the most effective guarantee of a free market was the government regulation of the excesses of business while absolute laissez faire capitalism was the most genuine threat the free market faced. At first, we learned these lessons very well and very clearly. Over time, however, we have forgotten them. Neoclassical economists, and their heirs of the Austrian and Monetarist schools of economic thought, have sought to undermine them in search of a utopia in which a self-regulating market provides for all of man's needs. Very slowly, they have increased to make their voices heard in the halls of power. The 'free market' has been racing to the detriment of capitalism at a breakneck pace from the Reagan Era onward, and had been crawling slowly to the startling line since the Eisenhower Era. Reagan, Clinton, and Bush have successively presided over deregulatory endeavors which have put more and more public influence and responsibility into the hands of corporations rather than society.

Business is a necessary part of capitalism. Entrepreneurial endeavour requires management and so business must exist. Even the corporation itself, for all the damage corporate power has done, is not inherently evil. However, the economy exists to serve society. Society cannot and should not exist to serve business, and this is where the danger of the utopian vision of our modern corporate aristocracy lies. They believe that they know what is best for society, and that what is best for society is what is best for them. They justify this by their contribution to the economy, but frequently they serve to distort the economy in their own favor. Today's discussions of the 'free market' are not about more 'freedom' for business, which is already far too independent of social or government influence, but rather more power for business.

The old saw says that 'power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.'

The current neoconservative advocacy of the 'free market' does not mean the competitive capitalism of Classical economics, but absolute power (in the form of absolute freedom from outside authority) for the most powerful corporate entities.

Can you think of a corporation you trust that much?

Saturday, July 25, 2009

A New Addition to Required Reading...

Over on the left side of the page, in the 'required reading' list, you'll see a new link. This is 'Parsley's Pics', the relatively new blog of Leslie Parsley. I'm not just giving her mention because she's a fellow resident of Tennessee. Her blog has a perspective of experience and personality that merit the attention of the national reader along with a firm grasp of local issues that should demand the attention of a Tennessee resident... and most liberals in other red states as well. Her focus is less on my own brand of rambling introspection mingled with zany attempts to think outside the box and more on common sense and sly wit... both of which she is much better at than I. Nor does she have the issues with the inability to use one word when it might serve better than fifteen, from which I myself have been known to suffer.

Give her a read.

Well worth your time,

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Poison Pill: Just how toxic is the litmus test for abortion?

I rarely write at length about abortion. It is not that I don't have opinions on the subject, as I do, nor that I do not think the issue is of real importance, I do. Clearly, the debate regarding the right to life of the unborn vs a woman's right to make her own life and medical choices is of real import. The reason I don't write on the topic is because my views have very little to do with the highly polarized consensus reality existing on the topic and I feel that the political debate regarding abortion has very little to do with the genuine issues at the root of the argument. Regardless of their outrage over the possible loss of life of the unborn, the anti-abortion side of the argument is clearly less than sincere in their 'pro-life' agenda. While certain religious groups communicate that agenda quite ably, consistently, and forcefully (as the Catholic Church has done), most political debates on the issue do not.

The Catholic Church's Pro-Life position (and it is the label communicated by the Catholic Church under Pope John Paul II that has been expropriated by American anti-abortion activists) is anti-abortion, certainly... but it is also anti-death-penalty, anti-euthanasia, and anti-war. The American political anti-abortion position (though usually accompanied by anti-euthanasia sentiments as well) is most often communicated by conservatives who advocate an aggressive, militant foreign policy and a law and order position that puts great value of the deterrent value of capital punishment. A truly 'pro-life' stance on issues of human life and dignity is rarely offered in US politics and the defense of individual choice advocated by those who do believe in abortion rights is generally presented (dishonestly) as a support for abortion itself. Furthermore, American 'pro-life' groups frequently dismiss the value of life after birth nearly entirely. They frequently oppose welfare, medical programs for children, education spending, health care, or any other programs that effect the quality of life of the human beings in question after they are born. Worse, by opposing medical exceptions, they advocate a 'pro-life' position so stark that a high risk childbirth in which a critically damaged fetus becomes a stillbirth and the mother is left comatose for life as an outcome of the birthing process is preferable to an abortion allowing the mother to live a healthy life.

Despite the 'personal responsibility' mantra of conservatives, they also generally oppose exceptions for rape, incest, and child abuse. 'Personal responsibility' is a poor excuse to force a victim of sexual violence to carry the living reminder of that violence to term just to give the child up for adoption, as valid an alternative as adoption may be. A rape victim did not ask to be pregnant, 'personal responsibility' does not apply. The argument that the unborn is innocent does have some merit, but claiming that society has the right to force the victim of sexual violence to carry a child to term undermines many core conservative principles. Many opponents of abortion, when pressed, admit that they would give their own child a choice were they the victim of violent crime or pregnant with a seriously damaged fetus. There is a dishonesty in this approach. They believe abortion is wrong, but they are less opposed to abortion than they are opposed to sanction its removal from the unpleasant closet of family life in which it has always belonged throughout history.

On the flip-side of the issue, however, many advocates of abortion rights do not give proper weight to the view that life really might begin at conception and certainly does begin at some point in the womb. In their desire to bring it out of the closet and protect the lives, health, and respectability of women and their exercise of the same freedom of life choices as men, they deny the possible humanity of the fetus entirely. While this attitude has lessened over time, and more and more focus has turned to the medical and individualist reasons behind legalized abortion, it is not entirely gone.

Now, this is a biological fact: in order to enjoy the same freedom of life choice as men, women must have access to birth control and this ultimately includes legal abortion. Men do not have to deal with the consequences of their sexual actions in the way that women do, and this affects their sexual choices. Nor has male promiscuity ever been stigmatized in the way female promiscuity has been throughout history. A successful lecher is often admired in his male social circle, and is certainly forgiven minor peccadilloes, while the sexually active woman is branded a 'slut.' This is a clear case of culture prejudice, regardless of what pretty paper one chooses to wrap it in. We can debate the ins and outs of sexual morality for eternity, but the fact that birth control and abortion are necessary for a woman to enjoy the personal, professional, and social freedom enjoyed by men is not really open to argument. One can argue that sex is not treated with its proper seriousness in modern culture, one can argue that women should not have the same personal, political, professional, and social prerogatives as men, or one can stand on a picket line and throw blood on pregnant women trying to make a difficult choice... but one can't deny the biological necessity of birth control or abortion in an egalitarian world. The only possible response is to argue against the value of an egalitarian world.

No one on the mainstream of either side of the abortion debate is willing to face this core fact, though there are extremists on the right who do argue against the position that a society practicing gender-equality is desirable. On the left, however, the extreme response (publicly at least) is not to bear the burden of egalitarian society but to deny that a fetus is life. This is another way of avoiding the issue.

Naturally (to anyone who reads my stuff, at least), I support an egalitarian society in which women enjoy full private and public social and civil rights. This means that I am a strong advocate of birth control and recognize the necessity, for reasons of public health and freedom of individual choice, of abortion.

This brings us to a second important argument. There are those who recognize the necessity of legal abortion, for reasons of public health and individual choice, but do not want the federal government to pay for it in any way. Many pro-choice Republicans (those left, at any rate) advocate such positions. This was John McCain's argument in the past, as well as that of George H.W. Bush. It is, to them, an individual right in which the government has no right to interfere but also an issue of personal responsibility which the government should not support. Of course, McCain has since backed down on his advocacy of this position and achieved a more common Republican anti-abortion position. George H.W. Bush did the same in his bid for re-election.

The problem with this position is that it is based, as many conservative positions are, in the theory that other rights derive from property rights. One has the right to own and acquire property and to do with it what one pleases, but one's freedoms are dependent on one's means... in other words, one's freedoms are incumbent on one's wealth. The rich have more freedoms, the poor have fewer freedoms, and this legal inequity is not antithetical to conservative views of natural rights.

Which brings us to the question of just how the abortion debate and various positions taken by the participants poison nearly every other issue in American politics. No one has forgotten how the question of abortion and birth control invited right wing criticism of the health care programs in President Obama's economic bill. Now the question of abortion is proving equally toxic to the question of health care reform.

This is serious for a couple of reasons. First and most obvious, of course, is the barrier it poses to the passing of comprehensive health care reform legislation. Democrats opposed to abortion rights are threatening not to support the reform bill unless it explicitly forbids providers participating in the national exchange proposed by the administration from providing abortions. Should self-styled 'progressive' Democrats refuse to compromise on this issue, then the health care reform bill would implode as 'pro-life' Democrats defected to vote with the Republicans in opposition to the bill. In the House, this might not make a significant difference. In the Senate, it could.

Second and more importantly, we all know that there will be compromise on this issue. Senate Democrats, wishing to find a consensus policy and seeing themselves as the last line of defense against the 'radicalism' of House liberals, will find a compromise position that will make the anti-abortion Democrats happy with the Senate bill. Even liberals in the House (such as the genuinely admirable Henry Waxman) are talking compromise in the interest of preserving party unity to save health care. The current compromise being thrown back and forth (which I am sure will be accepted in some form) is allowing the participants in the national exchange from providing abortion... but forbidding them from spending federal funds on same.

This is almost certainly going to happen, and one can make a pragmatic argument that it is necessary to save health care. House leadership will need at least some conservative Democratic support to pass a bill. Democratic conservatives in the Senate will have the power to champion the interests of House conservatives and force a compromise that makes them happy. Based on the priniciple (the very true principle) that health care reform is desperately needed and the abortion debate is of less political import (which it is, as a debate solely about abortion in the manner it is seen in Washington) there will be compromise. We will get some kind of health care reform bill and it will improve the situation.

The problem is that the Democratic Party will be validating a key Republican argument... that all other rights are inherently based on one's ability to make use of them as determined by one's property. The wealthy will enjoy access to the exercise of natural rights that those less affluent will enjoy under the law but cannot afford to use. We will go from one health care system in which one's choices are determined by one's ability to pay to another, and we will have reaffirmed the principle that it is legitimate to limit the complete exercise of one's natural rights based on questions of property.

The real problem, of course, is that the Democratic Party does not really question this either. Rather than adopt a bold position of opposition to the conservative position that property rights determine the share of all other rights an individual possesses, liberals waffle on it and centrists unequivocally share it. 'Equality before the law' becomes a patriotic phrase much as 'freedom of choice' and loses its heft as a real idea.

There will always be economic divisions. They are not going to go away. Economic principles of scarcity mean that there will always be more and less affluent and that those more affluent will have priveleges the less affluent do not. This is why the social safety net is so important, and why health care reform is so desperately necessary.

The problem is, you can bet your bottom dollar that Blue Dogs in the House will refuse to consider a 'medical exception.' Which will put the decision squarely in the court of the administration and conservatives in the Senate.

Do you trust Ben Nelson with the life of your aunt, daughter, girlfriend, grandaughter, mother, niece, or wife?

That's what Blue Dogs in the House are asking you to do.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Pope, Cop, Nanny, or None of the Above: A left-libertarian critique of the American political landscape.

Conservative Republicans all along the spectrum, from socially liberal fiscal conservatives to the most frightening religious demagogues and neoconservative economic and social Darwinists, expound on the threat posed by the 'liberal nanny state' (as advocated by moderate Democrats and some moderate Republi) that would deprive individual Americans of the right to manage their own risks in return for exonerating them of responsibility for their own lives and success or failure. The popular movement among libertarians, at least for the most part, has been roughly parallel to conservative Republicans: the nanny state is a dangerous threat to individual freedom and responsibility. Indeed, the Libertarian Party has nominated two different 'rogue' conservative Republicans (Congressman Ron Paul of Texas and former Congressman Bob Barr of Florida) as its presidential candidate in recent memory. Though both join with libertarians in opposing the nanny state and strong central government (and Paul, at least, shares many libertarian economic principles), neither is a great advocate of individual personal freedoms in areas where conservative Republicans would restrict them in the social sphere. Barr is an outright right wing culture warrior, while Paul shares many of their tendencies and can be linked (either through direct authorship or allowing his name to be used as endorsement) to questionable racial views.

Liberals (and some centrists and some few conservatives), on the other hand, tend to express strong opposition to the 'police state' advocated by neoconservatives and many of their allies within the Republican Party. They view many law enforcement and national security measures advocated by the right as violations of individual civil liberties and violating constiutional republican protections of individual freedoms and privacy and unconstitutional extensions of government power without writ or warrant. They see habeas corpus, right to fair trial in the legal system, protections from cruel and unusual punishment, and proper procedure by law enforcement and national security personelle as inviolable and suspensions of these rights or extensions of government power that supersede these rights as extremely dangerous.

Liberals (and many centrists) also oppose what they see as the extension of religious doctrine into civil law and the establishment of a state church (or at least a state governed on principles of religious and cultural chauvinism as dictated by a specific group of churches) to the exclusion of believers of all other stripes and non-believers from full participation in the American system and full rights under the American constitution. They see such reform as fundamentally opposed to their view of the American spirit of freedom of conscience and antithetical to the freedom of religion granted by the First Amendment. They see the threat of Dominionism and greater restriction of American freedoms in the name of religious belief inevitable if such reform is established on a national level.

All of these arguments have some validity. Certainly, the nanny state imposes constraints on choices Americans should be free to make. Seatbelt laws and motorcycle helmet laws for adults able to make their own decisions, smoking restrictions that remove elements of choice from the owners of bars or restaurants and their patrons, auto insurance mandates (which are always unfunded and provide no assistance for those forced to buy auto insurance to avoid criminalization), certain gun control laws (I favor handgun licenses for self-defense, as long as criminal codes against gun violence are enforced, but support assault weapons bans) and other similar 'nanny state' laws do restrict personal freedom in return for questionable or negligible protection of society at large... and unfunded mandates forcing everyone to comply regardless of financial ability, without providing necessary assistance for those without the financial freedom to comply do not really do anything to protect society because those who cannot afford to comply with the law simply violate it. Society is no safer and the working poor are criminalized.

Since it is the advocates of the nanny state who claim to be the defenders of the 'have nots', this makes a great deal of nanny state legislation (such as auto insurance mandates) particularly offensive. Of course, much of this 'nanny state' style legislation is actually supported as much by centrists of both parties and even some conservatives as liberals when it comes time to actually vote for or against it. Conservatives are as likely to support mandates that support corporate industries as liberals, and campaign donations are often more important than political ideology in developing and supporting these mandates. The government mandate forcing the entire country to switch to digital television transmission enjoyed broad bipartisan support.

However, many elements of the 'nanny state' (such as child protection laws and agencies to enforce them) serve an important purpose. The welfare state, health care reform, food stamps, social security, unemployment, and other key elements of any society's economic safety net are frequently decried as being part of the nanny state as well. In many of these instances, the conservative defense of 'personal responsibility' is really a defense of economic and social Darwinism. No one is 'personally responsible' for a recession, for corporate layoffs, for corporate outsourcing, or for catastrophic illness in such a manner that they are undeserving of society's support and assistance. Indeed, such a social safety net ultimately strengthens society. Nor does it threaten individual liberty if properly administered, and those alleging it is improperly administered do not wish to administer it properly. They allege it is improperly administered as part of a campaign to scrap it.

One can clearly, then, oppose real restrictions on personal freedom and personal choice without choosing to abandon those genuinely in need of assistance. It is also clear that while there is a real encroachment on personal freedoms by well-meaning laws written 'for everyone's good', this danger is being heavily exaggerated in many areas. If one is worried about the nanny state, one can oppose stupid measures with intelligent fact rather than railing against the dystopian future in which the government changes all our diapers.

On the flip side, the threat of the police state has proven very real at more than one point in our nation's history. The internment of Japanese and German Americans (not aliens, but American citizens, and in the former case frequently many American citizens who had never seen Japan or spoken Japanese) during WWII showed the damage a paranoid government can do to its own. Indeed, there is evidence that the post-war growth of the American Nazi Party was in part due to young German-American internees in camps like Crystal City feeling that the only people standing up on their behalf were the Nazis who led protests against camp administration. During the 1950s, the Cold War led to the Red Scare and the era of McCarthyism, HUAC, and the black list. Americans were prosecuted, lost their jobs, or were placed under government surveillance because of suspect political beliefs. The number of Americans actually involved in subversive activities was relatively tiny, and even some of the guilty verdicts are suspect in the eyes of objective history. The government's more recent domestic security programs undertaken as part of the So Called War on Terror, or earlier (and ongoing) violations of civil liberties as part of the ridiculous Sitzkrieg on Drugs, show that this danger has not at all receded.

On levels closer to home, law enforcement strategies undertaken by Mayor Rudy Giuliani of New York City and Police Chief William Bratton of Los Angeles (who served as Giuliani's police commisioner before mocing to LA) have shown dramatic results that have justified violations of proper police procedure and civil liberties in the eyes of many Americans. Making the trains run on time justifies quasi-fascism for those whose only concern is getting to work on time. Aggressive, intimidating police tactics in low income neighborhoods are praised by the middle class if it makes them feel safer.

California's Proposition 8 stands out as the most jarring example of the attempt to establish the religious state. That it occurred in the midst of seeming positive reform in the direction of gay rights only magnifies the dangers inherent in fundamentalist demagogues seeking to outflank legislatures and courts by appealing directly to the population by the means of misleading and disingenuous ad campaigns. It is an excellent example of why republican government is often superior to direct democracy... the ballot initiative allows the majority to force its will on the minority regardless of moral perogative. Liberals advocating term limits and greater legislation by direct democracy should be aware of the warning implicit in Proposition 8.

It is not the only example, however. Though the religious right appeared to lose power across much of the nation during the recent presidential election, it appears to be establishing a greater stranglehold on control of the Republican Party. Local and state governments have seen bitter fights to establish anti-educational measures undermining the school system by seeking to force the teaching of junk science embraced by idealogues in the areas of biology and climatology.

I think it is fair to say that the forces behind the police state and the state church are much more powerful than those behind the nanny state. While the nanny state should be repudiated by civil libertarians, priority should be given to the real and long-term dangers to freedom posed by the human urge for security and the very human desire not to have one's misconceptions challenged by facts.

Food for thought.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Proof, once again, that the Dems really are the misogynistic party...


That was sarcasm.

In my recent downturn in activity during May and June, I took the time to write about health care. Since my return to a slightly higher level of activity this month, I've waxed philosophical, explained why I'm not wasting my time piling on Sarah Palin until 2011, and re-posted a comment I made about religion on another blog. While I have naturally been free with my views of the health care plans being kicked around Congress, I have not really let go with full vitriol on any subject just yet.

For those of you who read me for angry polemical rants, this is your lucky day.

It is popular in many circles on the right, especially since Hillary Clinton's defeat in the most recent Democratic Party and the rallying of many socially liberal-to-moderate feminists (both among Democrats and 'Tammy Bruce Republicans') to the McCain-Palin ticket in response, to argue that the Democrats are the racist and misogynistic party and the Republicans are truly the most palatable to genuine feminists. Geraldine Ferraro, the most notable example, spent the election venting a great deal of personal rage and hurt against Obama and the Democratic Party on Fox News in what must have been Rush Limbaugh's dream come true. I certainly understand the disappointment of feminists in one of their most revered public figures failing to win the nomination of 'their' party, but I can't help but disagree with their final conclusions. As someone who voted for Carol Mosley Braun in the 2004 Democratic primary and the son of parents who voted for Shirley Chisholm on the ERA Party ticket in 1976, I did not vote for Hillary Clinton in the most recent Democratic primary. Senator Clinton, iconic standing among many feminists aside, ran as the single most neoconservative candidate for the Democratic nomination and made votes on foreign policy issues, as a Senator, that I personally could not ever approve. I did not vote for someone else because Senator Clinton was a woman and I would not have voted for Senator Clinton had she been a man.

I would have voted for Carol Mosley Braun again. I would have voted for Hilda Solis. Were she younger and in better health, I would have voted for Anne Richards. They are all individuals whom I admire and respect to a great degree and whose politics I find quite acceptable, though naturally very few Democrats meet my ultimate ideal. I did not vote for Senator Clinton for the same reason I did not vote for then-Senator Obama, that I did not vote for John Edwards or Joe Lieberman in 2004, and that I chose Bill Bradley over Al Gore in 2000. Neoconservative foreign and business policy, however 'electable' it may make a Democrat in a general election, is not something that will win my vote in a Democratic Party primary. I am absolutely certain I am not the only Democratic primary voter who felt this way this past election cycle. I have little sympathy for the claim that misogyny defeated Hillary Clinton. Hillary Clinton defeated herself with her record, her positions, and her character and Senator Obama defeated her by being a more skilled political performer, a more skilled political operator, and more impressive ethical, oratorical, and intellectual figure.

Why do I bring up all of this very old news?

As it happens, I knew I wanted to write today but was uncertain what I wished to write about. So I did what I always do when stumped for a topic. I looked for the most offensive Republican blog post I could find this morning and found inspiration.

Robert Stacy McCain (along with his co-bloggers and much of his actively commenting readership) is an excellent example of what is wrong with the Republican Party in the United States today and represents the 'real America' to which Republican strategists pitch their election campaigns. In April, when McCain was comparing gay marriage advocates and other gay rights activists to anti-Semites, I wrote about him not once but twice. He is an excellent example of the moral and ethical failure of the rump of today's Republican Party, which is the overlap between the 'Moral Majority' bloc of conservative Christian Dominionists and the social Darwinists of the corporate commercialist bloc of neoconservatives. As a person of faith, the combination of Christianity and social Darwinism is something I find particularly offensive.

In the above linked post, McCain singles out for his particular attention and abuse... a 24 year old girl. His particular reason for making her his target of the moment? Well, apparently, she wants the GOP to be less prejudiced.

""Does it sound campy to say I love gay men?" says Meghan in typical fag-hag fashion, since this is the only way she has of getting affection from men."

An excellent example of the feminism of the GOP, yes?

McCain continues:

"What Meghan does not fully comprehend is the special contempt that exists within gay male culture for such desperate female hangers-on otherwise known as fish."

I'm sure an expert of gay subculture and 'public intellectual' like McCain would know exactly what gay men think of their female friends. Naturally.

He even copies a page from Laura Ingraham's book, showing just how creative original he is.

"And, unlike Meghan, Jamie is attractive."

Wow, not only is she one of those horrible people with that most un-American and immoral of traits, tolerance for her fellow humanity, but she's ugly to boot!

Clinton Democrats and Tammy Bruce Republicans alike should pay closer attention to bloggers like R.S. McCain. They speak for the priveleged men of the Republican Party whose worlds revolve around their country club and their church and who are entirely out of touch with what people in the real world, outside of either, think. They are not content to attack Democrats and liberals (though they are happy to call the reasonably conservative Meghan McCain and the very conservative Andrew Sullivan 'liberals' when turning on their own) but must also seek and destroy those in their own party (that 'big tent' Republicans like to talk about) who show the slightest bit of tolerance for those they hold in contempt. To them, Christian charity is something practiced by and for Christians who meet their own standard of Christianity and freedom is something members of their own religious and economic circles enjoy exclusively. The only natural rights are those they enjoy, which are only available to those that meet their standards.

In his vicious and destructive rant, this 'public intellectual' manages to be both homophobic and misogynist in one snarl while displaying his ignorance and bigotry for everyone to see. This is not unique to R.S. McCain. This has been demonstrated repeatedly by many Republicans during the most recent election, during interviews and talk radio and television shows, during congressional sessions, and in blogs (and the commentary offered by readers of said blogs) all over cyberspace. What is more, movement conservatism considers this the 'mainstream' thought and opinion of the 'real America.'

In the end, that last fact may be the most insulting and bigoted belief of all.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

A Comment Transcribed

An article on Jenn Q Public, certainly worth reading, got me thinking and the commentary by the trolls attached thereto really got me going. The following is my own offering on the thread:

‘They, who in quarrels interpose, often get a bloody nose.’

I am going to ignore Lord Palmerston against my better judgment.

I find comments ‘proving’ Jenn’s point about (A)atheists and the comments proving the (A)atheist point about ‘the Christian right’ equally interesting and alarming. The argument between fundamentalist Christian trolls and angry atheist trolls really illustrates why people on both sides are likely to see one another as the enemy and why those with no interest in taking a bold stance against either the evils of ‘aggressive secularism designed to destroy religion’ or ‘the fundamentalist attempt to force religion upon all Americans’ feel attacked from both sides.

The sad fact is that atheist criticism of the religious right is more accurate than not and the religious right’s criticism of Bill Maher or Richard Dawkins, at least when it comes to feelings of intellectual superiority and contempt for religious belief, is also more accurate than not. There are aggressive bigots on both sides who feel themselves entirely superior to the other side. Each side is equally convinced of the stupidity, insanity, or evil of the other. It would be difficult to tell an atheist troll and a fundamentalist troll apart if the argument wasn’t complete with its own flash cards.

I was raised in the Mennonite Church, which was one of the classical Reformation/Counter-Reformation Protestant movements. Much of my moral and ethical thinking (a belief in free will, a real but pragmatic commitment to non-violence whenever possible, a classical belief in freedom of individual conscience and the separation of Church and State, and my belief in the duty of all men and women to be good neighbors to one another) comes directly from core Mennonite doctrine even if my own personal brand of ‘critical realism’ has altered it in some forms. A reading of the Bible and a study of history has moved me more toward Unitarian Christianity and certain principles of Deism (though I am not a true Deist), but I believe in a creator with a plan for mankind and am a person of faith. So it bothers me greatly when the ideas of faith and God are attacked as childhood fables and dangerous cultural delusions by people who are essentially less ‘atheists’ than they are theological and philosophical materialists. Their religion is pure empirical science coupled with pure abstract logic and they have no room for anything that does not fit their system.

Nor is the attack solely from the left. On the right, self-appointed disciples of Ayn Rand such as Christopher Hitchens hold disdain for any sort of societal morality not based in self-interest and personal profit. This thinking has even infected certain religious groups, such as ‘prosperity doctrine’ charismatics and evangelicals who preach that if we believe then God will make us rich and if we are not rich then we must not be right with God.

On the other hand, when I went to work every day past a church with a big sign saying ‘Can America afford a watered down Christianity?’ I know who was being directly attacked by the question. They mean Christians like me, who believe in classical principles of post-Reformation Protestantism like free will, freedom of conscience, and the separation of Church and State and are rather repelled and frightened by the movement to pass arcane and often contradictory verses of Leviticus into federal law so that everyone’s sins stay safely ‘in the closet’ and do not offend those more moral than the sinners. I am also somewhat bothered by those who believe a nuclear attack on Iran will fulfill the requirements for the Rapture… and that belief is a real and powerful fact in many evangelical churches and to claim otherwise is simply untrue. The fact that it is also a real belief among politicians with some degree of power and influence is more disturbing yet, especially when one combines that with those people of faith who reject all science whatsoever because their attachment to literal truths in a book whose precise authorship is not open to scholarly proof and has been edited more times than the Oxford English Dictionary trumps empirical study and logical thought.

I believe in faith and a divine spark, as a writer I feel I have occasionally touched/felt the divine spark and been inspired as a result, and I believe in the value of empirical observation and logical calculation as necessary tools to understand the world even as faith, imagination, and the divine spark are necessary to understand the human condition.

In the end, sadly, I have to side more closely with the materialists than the fundamentalists in this argument. Not because the materialists are correct in their evaluation of religion and faith and God, which I believe they are not and which I find offensive, but because I believe they are ultimately right about the dangers of religious fundamentalism to individual thought and conscience and that those dangers are a much more serious threat to Americans than the petty nastiness of cynics. Faith, in the end, is too basic and true to be completely destroyed by cynicism or materialism. It is human nature to have faith in something greater than our own flawed reality.

Empirical reasoning, on the other hand, is threatened not only by dogmatic devotion to unswerving truth or the incorrect belief that religion and scientific fact are somehow incompatible but by infoglut, by natural human laziness, by the desire of most people to be told where to go and what to do and how to do it. For many people, thinking is too much effort. In an argument between pure faith and pure reason, either of which would be a great tragedy for mankind, pure faith has a serious danger of winning. Pure reason far less.

I have no ideological or moral commitment to absolute secularism. The Ten Commandments in a courthouse does not offend me and I do not believe Americans have an inalienable natural right not to be offended. Indeed, I believe the ‘right not to be offended’ is directly antithetical to principles of free expression. That said, I don’t believe that the religious right not to be offended trumps the rights of Americans to marry the people they love. To claim otherwise is no different than any liberal brand of PC. It’s all the same thing.

I deplore racism, homophobia, nativism, misogyny, and economic classism… but I do not believe you can legislate against bigoted thought or speech. What we can do is all stop giving credence to bigots, whichever side of the aisle those bigots may claim as their constituency.

My biggest concerns about this issue are two-fold. First, increasingly, the right wing fanatics (and that is what they are, I don’t care whom that offends) are increasingly gaining credence among the general population as the majority of Christians and the mainstream of Christian thought… which they are decidedly not. The second is that angry atheists are increasingly gaining credence as the mainstream of liberal thought, which they are also decidedly not. Even the majority of PC secularists are less anti-religion than they are against national displays of Christian piety in a multi-cultural nation, and while I do not agree with their core belief that everyone has a right not to be offended they are hardly evil. It is certainly secondary to the fundamentalist religious view that only THEY have a right not to be offended.

This comment is much the length of posts on my own blog, but this back and forth really got me going.

By The Way, I'm Not Writing About Sarah Palin

At all.

I am not going to speculate about her resignation or her political future because I really don't care. If the Republicans nominate her, they deserve her. If they nominate a thinking candidate like Charlie Crist or Jon Huntsman, with whom I disagree on policy but respect as pragmatic statesmen, they will be the better for it. Don't expect them to nominate Susan Collins or Christie Todd Whitman though. They aren't feminist enough to nominate women who believe women should have rights, regardless of their defense of Palin against liberal 'misogynists.'

If you want to read about Palin from either perspective, pro or con, then Ron Chusid of Liberal Values offers questions into her character here, here, and here while Jenn Q Public defends her heroic courage in fighting chauvinism here. Pick your preferred brand, both writers communicate well and raise their questions or make their defenses with spirited ability and are worthy of your attention.

This is the last time I will mention her in a post until 2011, we'll see what happens when the primary cycle starts.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

A Moment of Radical Reflection

I do not have a great deal of faith, as those who have read my last two postings already know, in the direction that congressional health care reform is headed. Both leading Democrats in both houses of Congress and the White House are refraining from committing to systemic reform of American health care, and systemic reform is what American health care needs. Most Republicans, of course, mean something entirely different by 'health care reform'; they mean the thorough gutting of government health care entitlements for the benefit of private insurers and an essentially unfunded (the tax credit proposed in the one Republican plan I have seen is not going to help anyone who actually needs help to pay for their health care) mandate to require Americans to fork money over to same. The depressing part of the mire into which health care reform is sinking is how close to one another the plan advanced by Teddy Kennedy and the plan advanced by Judd Gregg really are. They are closer to agreement than disagreement and this should make us all worry.

This, however, is not a post about health care. It is a post about thinking and thought. I am sure everyone who follows this blog has noticed my output has shrunk significantly over the last month or two. This is not because of a lack of topics on which to write, but the fear of boring repetition and the desire to clarify thought rather than merely regurgitate it. We live in a nation in which corporate entities with no official standing wield amazing political and economic power. In many ways, these corporate entities are the extended Department of the Economy. They donate massive amounts of money to politicians and claim protection under their right to 'free speech', when the issue is not speech but institutionalized bribery. Anyone claiming that this is not a factor in the health care mire, the labor mire, or the question of economic bailouts is either guilty of intellectual dishonesty or extreme naivete. This not to say that everyone in Washington is corrupt, though it can certainly be argued convincingly that Washington culture is too forgiving of corruption, but rather a critically realistic appraisal of the facts of American political life.

'Critical realism' is a philosophical term coined by and associated with scientists of religious bent who do not consider scientific fact as we know it and divine revelation to be mutually antagonistic, but this does not necessarily give full credit to the words and this certainly not how I mean the term, though I agree with the 'official' critical realists in their argument that God and science are not mutually exclusive. I choose to redefine the term in the same way that political liberalism has been redefined in some ways from classical liberalism.

'Realism', in my parlance, is the refusal to fall into utopian forms of thought but rather to see the world as it is and will most likely remain whether that sight is pleasant or unpleasant. Anarcho-capitalism, libertarianism, neoconservatism, and Jeffersonianism/Jacksonianism paleoconservatism are all utopian forms of thought. So is the Dominionist theocratic conservatism of the contemporary religious right. All of these systems make fundamentally incorrect assumptions about reality and human nature. Democracy does not magically make human beings enlightened superhuman creatures speaking in the voice of God as Rousseau and Jefferson would have us believe. Democracy is a more equitable method of apportioning decision-making, but it does not guarantee the decisions will be better. In the same vein, while capitalism is an excellent way of producing wealth, it does not guarantee the wealth will be fairly distributed nor does a free market guarantee that everyone with the ability who makes the effort will have an equal chance to compete in that market. Many people of superior ability will never become rich or successful (Charles Goodyear never received a cent for his name on the tires and died broke long before anyone got rich off of rubber and Nikola Tesla died in a tenement in New York City) while many people will achieve wealth and fame for dubious merit (Paris Hilton and George W. Bush, anybody?) because that is the reality of life. A free market will not change that, and the complete lack of regulation that 'free marketeers' advocate is not genuine free market capitalism but corporate fascism.

Likewise, communism, syndicalism, anarcho-socialism, and anarcho-communism are also utopian modes of thought. They are dependent on human nature being far better than it is. While I believe socialist thought is necessary in a civil society, it is ludicrous to believe that enforcing a socialist system will change human nature anymore than a capitalist system or a democratic system.

Nor does the Randian justification of the morality of the dark side of human nature and the evils of altruism and socialism inherent in objectivism present a solution. Then we face a dystopia in which up is down, black is white, good is bad, and predatory anti-social impulses are ultimately justified. In a very real sense, we are living in that world now, painting it in objectivist colors won't change it but simply make us all feel good about our greed and hate. Neoconservatives already preach a Randian morality when they rail against the welfare state, and Kenneth Copeland has already drawn Ayn Rand up in frightening Christian colors with the 'prosperity doctrine.' Ultimately, as horrified as she would be to hear the argument, Ayn Rand offers nothing more than John Calvin minus God, plus a happy, smiley face.

So, having rejected utopian forms of thought, where does that leave us? I'm not always sure. Democracy may not be a magic bullet to solve the world's ills, but it is (as Ben Franklin and Winnie Churchill reluctantly conceded) better than all the other choices. Citizens must have an equal voice in society in order for society to be equitable. History has shown that the little people can make a difference, for good or ill, and we Americans must embrace that part of the American dream rather than surrender to the economic fantasy of the house, car, spouse, and two kids. That is not only a dream that not everyone will realize, it is a dream not everyone even shares.

Conservatism, especially, has a proud history of rejecting realism. Both Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush dismissed concerns about the real costs of their philosophy of greed gone mad with platitudes about 'optimism.' Optimism is not simply faith that everything will turn out for the best in ignorance of real problems. That's willful denial of reality, or schizophrenic delusion. Nor is a critical, realistic examination of the real problem America and Americans face (coupled with the concomittant belief that those problems need to be addressed and there must be an effort to solve them) 'pessimism.' Yet liberals (whose fundamental flaw in recent years is their stubborn insistence on seeking a fair compromise with the unreasonable right) are the ones viewed as living in a fantasy world by many Americans. I will agree that they are to a certain point: the point that American liberals believe that an American politician who shares their principles necessarily shares their desire to realize their principles in the field of policy. I have harped on this before, but American 'progressive' Democrats chose overwhelmingly to vote for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in the presidential primary rather than a liberal candidate such as Dennis Kucinich. Both candidates were on the record as being extremely conservative (in the genuine sense of the word, the unwillingness to risk or waste effort or resources but instead to hold them in reserve) on the issues which liberals cared most about, and Senator Clinton especially had a long record of voting with the Bush administration when it really mattered.

So we must see the world as it is, not as we want it to be or wish it were, to be 'realists.'

However, being realist is not enough. We must also be 'critical.'

We must examine the world, address its strengths and its flaws in a forthright and honest manner, and seek to buttress those strengths while repairing the flaws that can be repaired and doing our best to ameliorate those that cannot to the best of our ability. Economics teaches us that, because of scarcity, there will always be an inequity of wealth. Rather than make utopian claims that the free market, a totalitarian government, a democratic form of government, or a communist system can solve those problems we need to admit that those inequities are real and inherent in the finite world in which we live and work to reduce those inequities as much as possible in the name of a stronger, juster society and to ameliorate the conditions of those most deprived. A critic speaks the truth as he sees it, and strives to see the truth and know it as best he can from his perspective.

Capitalism is the best form of economy, just as democracy is the best form of government, but neither will solve America's problems or the world's. Socialism is a fundamental need of any civil society as well, for a society that does not serve its members will not find any loyalty from its members. The Chinese believed imperial dynasties enjoyed the 'mandate of heaven' and that crimes against society would cause an emperor to lose that mandate. Democrats, republicans, and radicals have spoken of the right of revolution for many years. A society must serve its members equitably or it must be reshaped.

American political society requires reshaping. The Republican Party of today does not represent a genuine free market, or civil libertarian ethic anymore than the Democratic Party of today represents a genuinely egalitarian or inclusive ethic. Those of us loyal to such ideals must strive to better both parties for in our current political system we have no alternative, and our current political structure gives those parties control over the political system.

Freedom requires responsibility and judgment and, as much as the hard right wishes to deny it, Orwell was right... in a free society some animals cannot be more equal than others if the society is to remain free. Human nature is stacked against a free society and we must be aware of that fact and strive against it.