Saturday, August 27, 2011

It occurs to me-- maybe some gaps are unbridgeable.

Friday, August 26, 2011

perhaps Andrew O'Hehir should say a little more about Colombia

Andrew O'Hehir is, let's just say, not my favorite movie reviewer. That's no big deal. However, in a review of Colombiana, he responds to Colombians complaining that the film unfairly depicts Colombia by writing
One is that if your whole damn country hadn't been a failed state for 20 years or so, you might not have idiots from France like producer/co-writer Luc Besson and director Olivier Megaton -- yeah, that's a put-on last name -- using it as a cheap pretext for a trashy and ridiculous blend of "La Femme Nikita," "Scarface" and "Fast Five."
Har!

Of course, it's precisely the complaint of the Colombians who are protesting this movie that Colombia is a not a failed state, that surely the whole damn country is not, and that Colombian demonstrates that even educated Americans like O'Hehir don't know any better. He appears to be proving that point. I'm not qualified to make the case for Colombia as an improving nation, but the case is out there for you to evaluate.

But set aside potential improvements in Colombia's condition. Maybe we should consider why the country has been in such dire straights for so long. Perhaps there's some giant rapacious superpower due north that has explicitly proclaimed its ownership of the hemisphere for centuries that has been causing a little chaos. We could talk specifically about Plan Colombia, which has included funding and arming right wing paramilitary organizations, funneling in money that corrupts police departments and empowers cartels, sending military ordnance into a country that doesn't need any more weapons, and spraying thousands of defenseless people with aerial fumigation of unknown medical consequences and sometimes devastating economic consequences. Or we could go beyond just Plan Colombia and look at our general, decades-long history of manipulation in Colombia and the region, undertaken in large part to secure valuable resources and perpetuate a useless and inhumane drug war. Or we could just talk about the fact that this country can't stop doing cocaine but refuses to decriminalize it, and what that means for Colombia.

You know. If you're into that sort of thing.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

a refreshingly honest take on neoliberal "consensus"

I really appreciate Pascal Emmanuel Gobry for just straight laying the neoliberal antipathy for democracy out there.

Gobry claims, with dubious evidence, that the French economy is on a precipice, and that if it fails the world will fail, and so France must reform. His preferred reforms are your standard neoliberal boilerplate, which has the usual dissonant logic going-- the US economy is on a precipice, and the US has pursued the neoliberal agenda for 30 years. Remember, though, that elites have decided that neoliberalism can never fail, and so there is no reason for concern. Three decades of committed deregulation and capture of our government by rapacious plutocrats and our economy being brought to the verge of total destruction have nothing to do with each other. Let's mimic the policies that have destroyed working conditions for the American people, created spiraling inequality, gutted our regulatory infrastructure, and handed more and more power to the richest few.

But this agenda would be deeply unpopular with the French people. Gobry himself acknowledges this. So what to do? Compromise? Do the hard work of advancing a position politically? Or, heaven forbid, accept that not everyone in the world is on board with the neoliberal platform, and stop acting as if the opinion of policy elites should be enough to counteract the will of the people.

Gobry picks a different option: literal fascism. Think I exaggerate? Look and be amazed. He wants Sarkozy to pass new regulatory and tax schemes "by decree" and to use the emergency wartime powers most countries have to enforce them. Yes, he wants to be able to institute martial law in order to force the neoliberal policy platform onto an unwilling populace.

Now, I ask you: can you imagine if some leftist advocated a similar thing? Can you imagine the reaction? The backlash? This isn't somebody noodling on a Blogger blog like me. This is a guy at Business Insider, a mainstream, professional publication. He's calling for military takeover to force the people to adopt the policies he wants. If someone advocated doing this in a professional publication in order to pass a carbon tax or single payer health care, I can't even imagine the reaction. Liberal bloggers would be leaping to distance themselves from such a statement. Every conservative would crawl out of the woodwork to say that this is how all liberals secretly think. It would be pandemonium.

This should be disqualifying for taking Gobry seriously, but I imagine it won't do any damage to his reputation at all.

Think about how the blogosphere creates insiders and punishes those who don't play the game. Look at Glenn Greenwald. Everybody acknowledges his work as prominent and important. But most in the Cool Kid Club talk about Greenwald as if he's some tiring fact of life to be ignored if possible and argued with only as a last resort. I'm hardly a blogging insider but even I know how much most liberal bloggers grumble about him privately. Why? Because he keeps bringing up politically inconvenient realities; because he isn't afraid to talk about morality and character; because he doesn't pretend that politics is a game; because he calls people on their petty hypocrisies. He violates the code. That's enough to earn him a lot of derision.

Well, here we have somebody who is advocating the use of emergency military powers to suppress democracy. Will people react to that? Or does the fact that Gobry is pushing the elite line mean that they won't condemn him at all? Gobry says "We find themselves in the same position today: what is desperately needed is decisive action and a wholesale abandonment of old, discredited ideas, in this case austerity." Actually, in this case, the "discredited idea" is democracy.

This sort of talk should scare you, but it's actually not that far out of the mainstream. Gobry is taking this to an extreme, but it's an extreme derived from the logical progression of neoliberal ideas. One of the things that makes neoliberals so creepy is that they always, always talk as if their ideas are agreed to by everyone when in fact they are and always have been resisted. Consensus and democracy have nothing to do with each other. Dissent is the life blood of democracy. But everywhere, always, neoliberals of all three flavors (called progressives, libertarians, and conservatives here in this country) insist that There Is No Alternative. You can see this attitude play out in the enforcement of the neoliberal agenda in the second and third world, where countries face coercion and violent reprisals from the first world nations if they don't get in line. You can see it in the struggle of indigenous people, like with the Zapatistas, who rose up against globalization and were swiftly branded terrorists. And you can see it in the way a small, elite group of bloggers, totally disconnected from the day to day lives of average Americans, assert the privilege of their access and their affluence and refuse to countenance contrary opinion.

As I am someone who believes that words have meanings and am not afraid to use them, I will say that this post (published at Business Insider!) is Gobry coming out as a totalitarian. But in a deeper sense, he's just taking the neoliberal attitude towards dissent to its logical conclusions.

Update: I sense I'm not being very articulate in the connection I'm trying to make here, so let me be more clear. I'm not the discourse police and my point isn't at all that PEG should, I don't know, get fired from Business Insider or something. I'm just saying that I'm consistently amazed by what does and does not get people put on the blogosphere shit list.

The point about Greenwald is that he's a guy who has undertaken a project I once thought any politically minded person would endorse, protecting civil liberties, and yet gets a lot of flak constantly. Here you have someone arguing for using emergency wartime powers to pass a set of laws and policies that many citizens would resist. That's pretty extreme! Yet I doubt that there will be any fuss about it at all.

Update II: Here's a point a couple commenters have made, as voiced by Anonymous:
Not to be too charitable to PEG, but if you actually RTFC, Article 16 is not about martial law and commandos storming the IRS (or whatever it is in France) - english translation here: http://www.assemblee-nationale.fr/english/8ab.asp
and it ends with

After thirty days of the exercise of such emergency powers, the matter may be referred to the Constitutional Council by the President of the National Assembly, the President of the Senate, sixty Members of the National Assembly or sixty Senators, so as to decide if the conditions laid down in paragraph one still apply....

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

preconditions of respect

I keep getting comments and emails saying that it was mean to go after Zack Beauchamp because he is inexperienced, or because the person writing presumes that he's young. I have no idea on either front.

I think this sort of thing illustrates the great distance between some of my ideas about what argument is, how democracy works, and what real intellectual respect entails. I have a whole host of complaints about how discussion goes down on blogs, but I'll be brief and just say: when you are overly protective of a writer on the Internet, you inevitably create the impression that the writer needs protecting. So is Zack Beauchamp someone who needs protecting? I'll extend him the preconditional respect of saying that he is not.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

doin' it up right

  • William Brafford convincingly swats PEG. He's always been a sharp one.
  • Charles Davis tools Radley Balko. When Balko is right (read: writing about drugs), he is so, so right. When wrong-- oof.
  • Come September, the supple hair and fashionable glasses of Will Wilkinson will reside at a new venue, where he will doubtless continue to hate liberals far out of proportion with his disagreements with them. Note: the man's a fine, fine illustrator, and I wouldn't give out such praise lightly. Check him out at his new digs starting September 12th.
  • Erik Kain, who has paid his fair share of dues and then some in the blogging game, is also not so hot on Zack Beauchamp.
  • Karl Smith is one of those lonely voices speaking out against those who keep telling us dissenters that we don't exist.
  • Ezra Klein demonstrates what it means to be a contemporary American liberal. He shows that welfare reform was just straight class warfare against the poor, but has to keep that "if" in there. Otherwise, what would the community think?
  • Ta-Nehisi Coates again makes a great point and then drowns it in the bathtub of semantics and petty actor sorting. But his commenters loved it!
  • IOZ.

stop digging, Zack

Beauchamp rebuts.

Now, if Zack is merely sore because I was being a bit of a jerk, okay. I apologize for being a bit of a jerk. I didn't, actually, mean to suggest that he is actually related to Tina Brown. (In certain technical circles, that is referred to as a "joke.") But if that was a bit too mean, fair enough. And, you know, the True Blood thing was just because he's got kind of a Cajun thing going there. I didn't even really mean it as an insult, and I do think this is more worthwhile an endeavor if you can have a little fun doing it. But names are touchy, I get that.


I have to defend myself: beyond those two things, I don't think I was engaging in name calling. I think I was forcefully replying to someone who was, to my mind, articulating bad arguments and doing so in a way that was dismissive of two bloggers who have invested considerable thought into articulating complex analyses of the Libyan situation.

For substance:
Now it should be clear from that excerpt that Matt's endorsing the Guardian article's argument that "bombing alone" will not end the Libya conflict as evidence for one of his own claim about air power. And the Guardian authors don't mean by that "bombing won't be able to produce a just post-war order" - they mean NATO will not be able to produce a military solution.
But this is precisely the point. What does "providing a military solution" even mean? Surely the military goals of ousting Qaddafi and taking Tripoli are important. But, first-- it is not clear that this has been accomplished. Does Beauchamp not think that this is a time for modesty in our descriptions of what is happening? Does he see no need for prudence in assessing a shifting and incredibly complex military situation? Events on the ground are still unfolding. What virtue is there in declaring a "win" now? I understand that politics are made of childish stuff, but there is no need for us to pretend as if the short term political consequences for Barack Obama are the most important thing, or even an important thing. And surely the kind of blogocentric axe grinding he is participating in is ultimately of little importance. If he were to stop feeling aggrieved for a moment and actually think it over he'd likely see that.

Second: what does Beauchamp think the purpose of the Libyan intervention has been? Is it merely to remove Qaddafi? Of course not. If your goal is to help Barack Obama's electoral chances, then sure, recent events in Libya are looking great. But that's not why we intervened, and it's not the reason people gave, when reading opponents of intervention like me the riot act. The reason was for the good of the Libyan people, for their safety and their freedom. So I ask Mr. Beauchamp: have the safety and freedom of the Libyan people been secured? If they haven't, then what profit is there in responding with such glee towards a temporary and conditional military victory? Beauchamp accused me of merely calling names when I said that he was unconcerned with the plight of the Libyans. But he is proving that point again today; he cares entirely about whether he can use Libya as a cudgel against people he disagrees with and seemingly not at all about whether this will result in a Libya that is safer and freer for most Libyan people. My point is simply that a true concern for Libya just has to compel someone to refrain from declaring victory, as recent history has shown time and again that short term military success and long term humanitarian success are very different things.
Today he's unleashed a rather more disappointing argument. See:
Will everyone who said that liberal interventionists "lost all credibility" after the Iraq War, and hence should never be listened to again, renounce their own credibility after predicting Qaddafi would fall? I'm not holding my breath, but I really hope pundits will think twice about essentially calling for other writers to be shunned by all right-thinking people based on one data point. Let's judge ideas on their merit, not the identity of the person propounding them. 
I hope Zack is aware that all the terrible shit went down in Iraq after Bagdhad fell. I mean goodness gracious. This thoroughly misses the point. The large majority of critics of intervention weren't criticizing out of a conviction that the rebels had no chance to win. (I'd appreciate links if he thinks they were!) Rather, they were pointing out that military superiority can lead to lots of destruction but is often entirely incapable of reaching satisfying conclusions for peace and democracy. You can check my own record if you want: the concern has always been equally about what happens after the fall of Qaddafi. Beauchamp seems supremely confident that he has identified the good guys and the bad guys in the Libyan. But actual human life does not operate that way. Witness Kosovo:
But Kouchner quickly discovered that victims could be very bad. There was an extraordinary range of ethnic groups in Kosovo.

There were:
Muslim Albanians
Orthodox Serbs
Roman Catholic Serbs
Serbian-speaking Muslim Egyptians
Albanian-speaking Muslim Gypsies - Ashkalis
Albanian-speaking Christian Gypsies - Goranis
And even - Pro-Serbian Turkish-speaking Turks

They all had vendettas with each other - which meant that they were both victims and horrible victimizers at the same time.

It began to be obvious that getting rid of evil didn't always lead to the simple triumph of goodness.
I have a distinct lack of regard for Muamar Qaddafi and a serious moral and political investment in the idea of revolution. But I can't pretend that this revolution will not devolve into civil war, or lead to a new repressive regime, or collapse the state, or whatever else.
What is so disturbing and so disappointing about Beauchamp's posts today is that he seems to have missed the important point of all of us: if the goal is not to reach short-term military victories, which as any gloss of recent history will show do not always lead to humanitarian gains, but rather to achieve lasting improvements in the well-being and freedom of the Libyan people, then there is nothing yet to celebrate. History is riddled with new orders which ended up just as bad as the first. What makes me deeply uncomfortable with Beauchamp's commentary is that he doesn't even seem to realize that military victory doesn't lead inevitably to humanitarian benefit; or that short term successes can become long term failures; or that oppressed people can turn very quickly into oppressors; or that at the most basic and elementary level, the Libyan conflict is not resolved at all.

I have advice. Here is a response from Daniel Larison that should serve as a model for Beauchamp. It is, typical of Larison, measured and supported by evidence. Again, Beauchamp was mocking Yglesias and Larison for predictions that they themselves weren't making. They were reporting on and responding to the predictions of NATO officials, and the frequently confused positions of the Libyan rebels themselves. As Larison says in his own defense, he was merely echoing Admiral Mike Mullen. Does Beauchamp think that he was in better position to speak on the matter than Admiral Mullen at the time Larison made the original comments? I said that Beauchamp was being dishonest by acting as if Larison and Yglesias were making these predictions in a vaccuum, rather than responding to the statements of senior military officials and political figures. I firmly stand by that opinion.

Incidentally:


I know that the point here is that he didn't, actually, feel bad about my criticism. Fair enough. For what it's worth, I am sorry if Beauchamp felt personally affronted. The point was not that "I don't like him very much," as I hope is clear. I would remind him that he is writing on one of the most popular, influential, and powerful blogs on the Internet. Criticism should and will come.

Monday, August 22, 2011

so which of Tina Brown's relatives is Zack Beauchamp?

I don't have time right today to go over the Libya magnum opus of one Zack Beauchamp (which is not, to my surprise, the name of a character on True Blood), but I will try to get to it soon. Spoilers: Beauchamp is one of those quiet Americans who thinks that if you wave vaguely in the direction of that oh-so-democratic-and-corruption-free UN you can essentially make a PowerPoint of every column Bill Kristol's written since 1998 and not get called a neocon. The whole thing deserves a real looksee-- this is, I assure, uncommonly terrible Internet commentary-- but given time constraints I just want to defend a couple bloggers.

One of the many reasons to be skeptical of the Dish's awards is that they encourage the kind of distorting category-ticking, context and argument-free "opinion through aggregation" that can make even the most thoughtful blog stupid and churlish. So see Beauchamp's two "Van Hoffman Award" winners for today, which celebrate bad predictions.

First, Matt Yglesias:

"Strategic air power still doesn't really work. Will airpower advocates ever learn?"

Well, OK, actually, no. When I copy and paste Matt's quote, it shows up like this:

Strategic Air Power Still Doesn’t Really Work

Will air power advocates ever learn?


That's because what is being quoted here is actually the title of a post and the first line of a post. You wouldn't know that from reading Beauchamp's "award," but then that is of course the point of having this whole awards construction in the first place: it hides all that lame "intellectual honesty" business. Now, if one of my students cited something this way, I'd mark it wrong and make them fix it before I graded the paper. But perhaps such pedantry is really only appropriate when I'm actually being employed as a pedant.

No, the really galling thing here is that this bad prediction supposedly made by Matt is in fact from a 65-word post, more than half of which is a quote. That quote, meanwhile, is itself from the Guardian referring to anonymous military sources in the British military and NATO apparatus. In other words, the people actually making this asserted (but not remotely proven) bad prediction aren't Matt Yglesias, as would be clear to absolutely anyone who bothered to click through to the link. It's like a "Von Hoffman by convoluted proxy" award winner. Of course, Beauchamp is counting on most of Andrew's readers to not click the link, and he's right to assume that most won't.

Now, far be it from me to make Yglesias's argument for him. In fact, I don't have to, as he's written on strategic air power on several occasions. Not in short, off-the-cuff quotes of news reports like what is linked to here, but in substantive posts-- the kind with actual arguments that you actually have to rebut, rather than hide behind a fatuous and tired awards gimmick and the considerable institutional authority of a blog whose reputation you've done nothing to build. Here's a briefer one regarding Iraq and the fact that the media-ready good appearances of lower US casualties meant little for achieving the strategic aims of the Iraq campaign. If I would put my own gloss on it, I would say that Matt consistently argues that strategic air power is fine for blowing shit up but very limited in achieving the large host of strategic and diplomatic goals we tend to have in foreign affairs. That attitude has not been remotely challenged by recent events. Blowing the shit out of Qaddafi's military is the easy part. Building a democratic society, a humanitarian success, and a functioning post-Qaddafi civic infrastructure is what actually matters. This argument has the nontrivial benefits of being accurate, demonstrable through historical evidence (Dear Zack: Vietnam was a real thing!) and intellectually and ethically modest. But like I said. Argument=hard, played out Internet award meme=easy.

I'm afraid Beauchamp gave a second award, this one to Daniel Larison.

"We are no closer to finding a means by which Gaddafi would be forced to 'go' than we were four months ago."

First, tell Zack Beaucamp with my love and a kiss that if he is ever in possession of a tenth of the understanding of foreign policy and military affairs that Daniel Larison enjoys, he'll have reason for pride. This one at least meets the minimal standard of quoting someone who was not himself quoting someone else. It also seems to represent an actual prediction! Unfortunately for Beauchamp, it also contains some significant historical context and consideration of complex and nuanced recent events, which Beauchamp has not deigned to access today.
The rebels now say that the offer for Gaddafi to remain in Libya after stepping down has “expired,” which raises the question why it was ever made at all. It’s an odd bit of timing for them to extend the offer, wait until both Britain and France have endorsed the idea, and then withdraw it after Britain and France exposed themselves to no end of ridicule for having entertained the idea.
 In case it isn't clear, Larison is here reacting to an actual overture made by the actual Libyan rebels, which seemed then and seems now like a curious and out of character move that suggested conflicting principles within that organization. This post (which is about a month old) is trying to make some sense of a rebel movement which has at times operated in the peculiar way that large, shaggy, and complex military groups do when they lack clear leadership, unanimity of principles, and clearly articulated political goals. Now, I wouldn't put this particular maneuver on equal footing with their history of assassinating one of their own generals or targeting sub-Saharan Africans as Qaddafi's mercenaries without evidence (little bits of nuance that escape the commentary of Mr. Beauchamp), but I think Daniel had a right to read about this information and question their capacity to take Tripoli, or even their will to.

Or here's this from Daniel:
As a matter of protecting the civilian population, the Libyan war was already lost shortly after it went from being a defensive operation to protect rebel-held areas to a campaign to topple Gaddafi, so it’s not clear what “finishing the job” could mean under the circumstances.
The operative distinction here being that Daniel Larison has long demonstrated that he actually cares about the material conditions of the lives of actual Libyans, and that he is possessed of a discriminating refusal to quickly describe actors or events as good or bad out of the sensible logic that these events take time to unspool. I don't doubt that in some vague undergraduate sense Zack Beauchamp wants nothing but the best for the Libyan people, but I have to tell you that it is likely just this simplistic: he probably imagines that there is some such thing as "nothing but the best," that it can be achieved here on earth by us fragile mortals without trampling the autonomy or rights of Qaddafi loyalists, and that he is in possession of such wisdom that he can know it when he sees it and bestow that vision upon the Libyan people. I have said it before and I will say it again: the surest, quickest test of whether someone genuinely cares for the well-being of innocent Libyan people lies in whether he or she is willing to wait beyond the news cycle and the election cycle to see what the long-term prognosis is. I don't begrudge the right of American people to view Libyan events through an American lens, but the Dish's focus on Libya's consequences for Barack Obama has been a little ugly.

Incidentally-- some might take from my post title that I am arguing that Beauchamp is unworthy of working at the Dish. Well, worthiness doesn't mean what it once did in blogging, but in any event, rest assured: I'm sure Beauchamp has a fine resume and a very shiny degree. He's likely a young guy and will have lots of opportunities. But he's compounded the sin of his adherence to what is in my view a very reductive view of the world with a flatly distorting attack on two bloggers who deserved better. He should reconsider.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

nothing straight, but perfectly square

It's funny. John Holbo posts a link on Crooked Timber to a forum where comic book fans fake a passionate discussion about comic books that don't exist. I can't help but see in that forum thread a critique of the very blog linking to it. I suppose it's just a reaction to a bunch of lefties who would ostensibly support dissent in form as well as dissent in content while practicing only a bloodless academicism. Most of the bloggers at Crooked Timber write about politics the same way: like it's a exercise in form. What good is dissent if it is discussed as dispassionately as a fake comic book?

I mean, shit, Michael Berube wrote a beautiful capsule on the Habermas-Lyotard argument. It would be nice if people understood that representation has to take the form of asses in seats to really mean anything. Just like you can't serve the principles of racial equality by merely enjoying the pleasant idea of a black guy on your corporation's board, you can't show that you support dissent by nodding vaguely in that direction while you argue with somebody who might one day work for Time magazine.

a reminder

Even if I had a larger readership, it wouldn't much matter to post this-- American triumphalism draws its strength from American amnesia-- but I want to remind you that the game of politically pleasing intervention is short, while humanitarianism is long.

Update: Just to be as clear as I can-- everyone, with the exception of, like, Glenn Greenwald, Daniel Larison, and IOZ-- absolutely everybody will be out and about and crowing and celebrating for the foreseeable future. The political blogosphere is a vehicle for enforcing conformity through the appearance of difference, so it takes special moments like what's to come to see just the kind of corrosive unanimity that's about to come about. Very few will remind you of the brief peace following the fall of Baghdad, and very few will point out that the Libyan rebels are not opposed to assassinating undesirables. The next few days will be awash in an unseemly but profoundly American "party like Osama just got killed" revelry. The truth of life for your average Libyan won't settle for months or years.

You know I think if you wanted to keep a child in a state of permanent immaturity, the best thing to do would be to permanently hide the consequences of his or her actions.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

a stomach punch of a sentence

Check out this sentence from this sweet wedding vows story:
Years later, he felt, sort of, in a way, that he discovered Jacques Beaumont, now 86, when in December 1972 a mutual friend suggested that Mr. Townsend would be just the person to show Mr. Beaumont, visiting from France, around New York City for a perfect night on the town.
Oof.

As usual, the things that annoy us the most are the things that remind us of ourselves. When my prose fails me, as it frequently does, this is the way it most commonly happens: I try to build too grand a house of a sentence on a foundation that just can't support it. The rest of the piece, I should say, is written with a basic but admirable economy.

I recognize that she is echoing one of her subject's sentences herself in the initial construction, but it's there were she gets into trouble: her idea is more elegant than her words. Which happens to all of us, I think. Perfect symmetries in idea become disjointed by the vagaries of syllabification and how loaded sentences can become through meaning. The trick, I've come to believe, is to understand that ideas can be turned into good prose, but ideas about prose almost never can be turned into good prose. It's something I've had to learn only through experience: you can't keep a piggy bank of language. At times I've thought of these discrete phrases and constructions and admired them a little a terrible signand tried to hide them away for later, to put into appropriate arguments once I had found them. It's always a little like buying furniture for the house you haven't bought yet. You've got to let the words be a product of the argument, and you hope that the prose quality comes. Attend to your rhetoric first and the art will follow.

All of this, of course, has almost nothing to do with Anemona Hartocollis, who did write a charming portrait of an old gay couple with a minimum of condescension.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Civil War tragedy, continued

So I've received both criticism both constructive and not regarding my last post. It is well taken that I was too harsh on Coates and let my exasperation color too much of my writing. My exasperation comes in part because when Coates's obvious eloquence is married to a clearer aim and more focused project, he's very effective. Take, for example, his column on Obama and extremism. It remains, in my view, the definitive take on Obama's rhetorical style and its failings. I also take as constructive the point that I am critiquing his posts for a lack of clarity while failing to be clear myself. I hope to fix that below.

Comments that I don't find constructive (and you can consider this a bit of housekeeping) are those that make some sort of psychosocial comment on me by way of that post, or those that attempt to define my criticism for me in a way that contradicts the content of what I actually said.

Here is my critique as plainly as I can state it: I think that Coates is taking a broad, complex, and semantically loaded question ("Was the Civil War tragic?") and reducing it to a consideration of a much narrower set of questions. I would best express some of these as "Given the realities of the Civil War era, was it possible to avoid the war while moving towards the end of the slavery state? Would it have been morally preferable to avoid the war and its attendant bloodshed if doing so required a more gradual dismantling of the slavery state?" But that's my gloss, and I'm sorry to try and define his project for him. My specific complaint is not that he is this focused, but rather that he seems to regard the broad question as synonymous with the narrower ones, and further criticizes (quite harshly) those who respond to different aspects of the broader question, in essence accusing them of taking a position on the narrower questions that they perhaps haven't taken. And I finally think that he makes this conflation more likely and more difficult to navigate with some of his outsize rhetoric.

For example: this latest post crystallizes the way in which Coates is bringing up an enormously rich set of issues and yet balking at the idea that people might approach those issues from a different vantage. He says, "I don't know that the Civil War should, or shouldn't, have been fought." Fair enough! Some of us are interested in that question, and I have found that there's a consistent resistance from Coates, his commenters, and other bloggers to any consideration of different but equally generative criteria when it comes to this issue.

I understand that Coates is looking at these issues from a particular and limited vantage. That's his prerogative. What I object to is the way that he is attempting to police what vantage one can look from. When drive by-commenters said "Coates isn't arguing the point you're arguing," I say, yeah, exactly. He's reacting with a misplaced zeal against those who argue other points as if they are making incorrect arguments about his point, and he's doing it in a way that explicitly and purposefully uses our emotionally and racially charged dialogue about the Civil War as leverage to enforce his point. You can look to Erik Kain's considerations of this issue, and the way he has been consistently and shamefully misrepresented, to see what I mean.

If you merely think that I am wrong in ascribing a kind of myopic attitude towards Coates, fair enough. I would argue that he is so passionate about the issue that it effects his rhetoric in a way that makes his argument scattershot and vaguely targeted. Again, with the zingers-- "I decline all offers to mourn the second American Revolution. No one mourns the first." This has the typical failings of a sentence that is written to be admired: it swipes at a deeper resonance at the expense of meaning. Who is the target of this argument? If you can find someone who calls for mourning of these wars, context wouldn't merely be important; context would be everything.

And what does it mean to "mourn" the first or second American Revolution? Yes, there are ways that such an argument could be written which would be offensive, even racist. But isn't there a valid, humane, and entirely racially sensitive argument to be made that the human lives that were lost in the Civil War are in fact worthy of mourning regardless of the righteousness and importance of the war effort? If Coates was more deliberate in his use of mourning, if he took more care in defining his terms and arguments, there would be less indeterminacy in his judgment

In the specific way that he seems to define the contrasting viewpoint, yes, I find much that is offensive within it. Those who would have traded the bloodshed of the Civil War for a gradualist, compromised end to the American slavery state would be endorsing the continued imposition of one of the most noxious regimes in human history. The problem is that I don't see a lot (or any, really) of this argument. Yes, of course, demonstrating greater concern for white soldiers than for black slaves is cruel and wrong. But I frankly find no one doing that. In fact I find most people commenting on this issue to be falling all over themselves to point out that they aren't doing that. If some are, they deserve criticism, but in looking for his targets I mostly find straw.

As for the question of whether there would have been any way to simultaneously end American slavery while preventing the Civil War, well, yes, it would be very unlikely. It would not be impossible, and there's no greater virtue in denying the possibility of that in the pursuit of some blinkered notion of maturity through the insistence of the inevitability of violence. This is one of my consistent problems with the blogosphere, and particularly the liberal blogosphere: the constant desire to find examples of righteous violence. I can be persuaded that violence is sometimes necessary but I am disturbed by the longing for necessary violence. It's particularly a problem with liberal bloggers who are used to arguing against wars. They seem to be looking for their turn to celebrate bloodshed.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

the Civil War was exactly tragic, or not, depending

I'm never quite sure what to take from Ta-Nehisi Coates's series on whether the Civil War was tragic. It has the classic Coates trademark of at once wrestling with contentious issues while scolding anyone else engaged by them for doing similar wrestling. I never find a similar combination of interest in a showy search for truth and aggrieved huffing at others who are searching. We're talking about thousands of words written in pursuit of an interesting and fertile question, undertaken by someone with a deep knowledge and abiding passion for the subject matter, unspooled in a long and complicated progression of analysis, which ends, I'm sorry to say, with the insistence that anyone who considers the opposite conclusion is engaged in an act of terribly amoral privilege This might even be the path to truth, but Christ, it's cruel.

Look, the truth is that this is an argument in search of someone to be argued at; it's the kind of stance you take when you're most interested in sorting actors rather than defining correct action. There's no answer to whether the Civil War was tragic because the question is embedded in shifting definitions. It is a semantic argument that pays too little attention to semantics. I'm consistently disappointed that he doesn't spend more time considering the classic definition of tragedy, that the tragic is the downfall that springs from character, that tragedy occurs because there is some failing within the tragic character (here the United States) which makes that tragedy inevitable. In this sense I would say that the Civil War is precisely tragic: given the character of the early United States, it was both inevitable and necessary. That equality was codified in so many of our foundational texts while simultaneously denied to many millions of the country's people isn't merely an ugly contradiction but one which made violent correction inevitable. And it is the same elementary truth that constantly plays out in our conduct today: the United States pays lip service to a set of righteous values while acting in a way totally contrary to those values, and expects the world to judge it by the values and not the action. Killing innocent children with drones while we claim to hold values that renders that conduct unspeakable is how we operate. The Civil War killed 600,000 people because of the hypocrisy that is the living definition of the American heart; that same hypocrisy kills today. You could call that tragic. I don't know if I'd go along with you but I'm damn sure I wouldn't peer down from the mountain and declare monstrosity.

As I said, given the United States's character, the Civil War was inevitable, and given the alternatives, the war was preferable to the continuation of the violent apartheid state that existed. But the United States didn't have to have that character; that history unfolded in the way it did could itself be regarded as tragic.This is the problem with the way the blogosphere conditions Internet liberals to seek favor from one another: they're constantly looking for crosses to die on, boundaries of the acceptable that they can define and place themselves on the correct side of. In doing so, they dramatically shrink the bounds of the possible. So when Adam Serwer insists the moral equivalence of pacifism and barbarism, he does so by denying that there is an actual path of peace within the possible. But most of the evil in the world isn't done by people who know that they're committing evil. Most is done by people who think that they are the ones protecting the innocent from barbarism. It's practically tautological the way critics of pacifism insist violence is inevitable and thus must be opposed with same. Keep looking for it and you will always find it.

Perhaps whether the slaves could have been freed without bloodshed is just fodder for the dorm room. That the slavery state must have been ended is obvious, and given the past we've got, I much prefer the war to the continuation of slavery. But once you ask the question you invite the counterfactual, and any action undertaken by humans could have been replaced by better action.

I mean, Coates drops this.

"Slavery was an actual thing. All else is garnish."

If your primary interest in writing is to come up with zingers, this is satisfying. If not, less. If all of that is garnish, why are we here? Didn't I just read some of that garnish? What's the buzz? If this is all garnish, what's the point? Why is he writing it and not out enjoying life? Or has it only been rendered garnish by his declaration that the conflict is solved and the issue decided? I can't find a coherent reading of that other than "I, Ta-Nehisi Coates, have taken the tasty and filling lettuce that was this argument and rendered it shameful parsley through the benevolent powers of my mind." If you're just in the garage working out truth, without letting the rest of us see the moving parts, keep it to yourself. There's no value in it. Garnish is garnish on anyone's plate. Take it from a bullshitter: that line is bullshit. It mocks those who take the argument of which it is a part seriously. It congratulates its author for his position while it mocks those who are following along.

Coates has always struck me as a man who accesses nuance out of a desire to be given credit for it. But the trick isn't to wade through nuance like it's a swamp but to reside there, to rest in the discomfort of negative capability and accept a certain indeterminacy as the sad reality of the life of the mind. But you've got to be cool with wading alongside everybody else, and if there's one thing that Coates's corpus suggests to me, it's that he's unwilling to accept standing on the same morally queasy level as anybody else. He's self-critical, and to his credit, but he's not willing to be covered in the same grime of dirty argument that the people he's criticizing are.
It is a privilege to view the Civil War merely as four violent years, as opposed to the final liberating act in a two and half century-long saga of horrific violence, a privilege that black people have never enjoyed, and truthfully that no one in this country should indulge.
It's also a privilege to be able to reduce those for four violent years to the phrase "four violent years" rather than to lie dead in the mud during them. If one person dies in the commission of good, that is evil. That it happened to end another evil, that we often have to chose one evil over another, that calling two seemingly opposing actions both evil is so unsatisfying-- this is what we call the human dilemma. If you want to define terms so that the Civil War isn't tragic, go right ahead; it's your dime.

I just see no service, public or private, in regarding a question as vexing and vexed but insisting on arriving at an untroubled answer, and worse, for casting the cheap currency of privilege onto those who aren't similarly self-assured. I'm sure it's fun to abide above the fray like a Buddha but frankly I always found the idea unpalatable. The process of edifying oneself is important. To set it against edifying those who are reading you is a cynical, cynical thing to do. Maybe I just expect too much in thinking that putting something in a public forum means that you're willing to give a little of yourself and to accept the equal humanity of equivalent questions. The thing about real, profound, intractable problems is that there is no percentage in merely being right about them. But if your preference is to occupy wisdom rather than merely working with others to spread it, cool. Just don't expect everyone to watch you play by yourself. There's a lot of living to do out here.

today in inevitability

I didn't notice until it got picked up by the Daily Dish but Even the Liberal Matt Zeitlin writing for Even the Liberal New Republic is just too perfect for words.

Thursday, August 11, 2011


from CAP, via MoveOn.

Those are the numbers, folks. Every civilization makes choices. This is the one we've made.

missing the point on spoilers

So this study that suggests that people like spoilers is getting a lot of play today. Unfortunately, there seems to be an error going on with a lot of the commentary. The whole point of spoilers is that they're unchosen; nobody really thinks that there's something wrong with people accessing secrets and endings about art they haven't yet consumed. What they object to is when spoilers are presented in a way that an unsuspecting person might unwittingly read them. The study suggests that people have a preference for knowing the ending, but preference involves choice. You can't deliberately act on a preference for foreknowledge of plot if you are presented the information without choosing to access it. So I don't see what the point is, exactly. Whether people prefer to know the ending or not is irrelevant to our conduct when it comes to the decision to include spoilers; even if most everybody prefers to know the ending, the point is that some people don't and spoilers should be presented in such a way that people can choose whether to access them.

quote for the day

"It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard." - Martin Luther King

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

revolution is the name you give the riots you like



It's become an instant cliche-- if the protests in London were happening in Iran, everybody's blog would be covered in green ribbons. The question is, why the difference?

Because, dear reader, many of the self-same people who have such considerable solidarity for the Iranians don't see Persians as fully human. The condescension inherent in blogger head-patting of protesting Iranians was apparent from the jump. The source of that condescension was, in part, explained by the simple fact that most first world people find any populist expression of discontent threatening; it gives the lie to our own constant self-aggrandizing narratives of being a free people. Truly free people take to the streets. Those who find succor in playing pretend organize a committee. (And the criticism is apt of me too: I am not in the streets.) In the face of this discomfort, the actual on the ground disagreements between protesters and government are stripped away and reduced to a simplistic struggle between good and evil. Because we live without tyranny, casting the Iranian (or Syrian, etc.) conflict as a mere matter of good people vs. bad tyranny removes the unthinkable implied judgment.

This is simply true: there was more than a little violence involved in the Green Revolution, despite the desperate need among American politicos to argue the contrary. There are socialist elements within the Green Revolution. There is a comfort with religious governance that is quite at odds with American "classical liberal" sentiment. The Green Revolution is not and has never been the perfectly lily-white expression of Enlightenment values that it has been made out to be.

No, guilt ridden white first-world bloggers (of whom, generally speaking, I am a member) love protests in Syria and Iran and elsewhere because they can cast those people, members of an alien culture, race, and religion, as the perfect representations of resistance while totally stripping them of the actual thorny reality of political rage. Theocratic preferences are stripped away; violent behavior (and there was much in the Green Revolution, if you looked beyond the headlines) is ignored; the re-instantiation of sexist Islamic doctrine within the structures of protest movements are conveniently elided. This is the way of all patronizing attitudes from the overclass towards resistance: in order to preserve its romanticized view, it has to occlude the particular grievances and goals that make the protest meaningful in the first place. So the American civil rights movement becomes not a matter of black people undertaking both nonviolent and violent protest against a hideously racist system, animated at times by straightfoward ethnic nationalism, but a whitewashed, toothless prayer meeting where a rainbow coalition destroyed evil with protest songs. So India's righteous rejection of British domination is stripped of the violent religious conflict that attended its entire history.

Support for the Iranian resistance, with some exceptions, was one of those rare moments where people across ideologies came together in the blogosphere. Who could fail to stand with a people rejecting a thuggish and corrupt theocracy? I couldn't. But the realist in me insists that it was a moment of unity precisely because the protests had been stripped of all content. There was no disagreement about the movement because the movement was so taken out of context by condescension and guilt that there was nothing there to disagree about. That writers constantly sought out the elements of the resistance who expressed opinions that were palatable to liberal western audiences was as inevitable as it was distorting.

Does any of this mean that I now don't support the Iranian resistance? Of course not. It means that my support is founded ultimately on the principles of resistance themselves. It means that the beliefs and consequences of that resistance are, on balance, beyond my capacity to fairly judge. And it means that there is always a substantial risk of righteous resistance to oppressive governments becoming itself a vehicle of oppression. We have a very bad habit in this country of supporting the autonomy of oppressed peoples only when geopolitically convenien; that's the classic critique of realism, after all, and a powerful one. Yet I find something similar in the opinions of decent American liberals as they chew over the propriety of various resistance movements; in elevating or denouncing their interpretation of the values of various foreign protest movements, they confer precisely the moral authority of the West that so many of these movements reject. When I have argued about the Libyan revolution, I have tried to argue against American intervention by pointing out all that could go wrong, while not judging the actual content of the Libyan rebels themselves. I'm sure I've failed. And I'm equally sure that my criticisms here aren't lacking in incoherence, condescension, and white guilt.

(I read about that Zapatista movement and I support it. I think harder and think that they don't care about my support. It is a tension I am willing to own.)

Oh, and-- never underestimate the simple fear of angry people, particularly angry black and brown people, in the first world mind. "They're smashing windows and stealing DVD players" is about as direct of a dog whistle as I can imagine. And while Tehran seems a million miles away in the American mind, London might as well be main street. (That's where we took our honeymoon, Francine!) Violent protest in the streets of a major Anglophone city scares people who live in major Anglophone cities. (For contest, you might consider the historical narrative about black American riots in the 1960s, and how they were an unpleasant but inevitable result of a violently racist system, to attitudes towards the London riots.)

In that vein, the typical forces will insist "but Freddie! You can't possibly support this horror!" And I will say to you the same thing I will say to you regarding the Green Revolution: the idea that I am morally equipped to judge the consequences of all of that rage is exactly the paternalism that any protest movement rejects. Do I, in some distant sense, condone smashing windows and burning cars? I do not. Do I think that my moral judgment in that instance has any real valence when it comes to judging the larger motives of the riots in London? I do not. The brutal rape of Lara Logan opened a fissure in the standard, pleasing Western vision of made-for-TV Egyptian resistance. It reminded us that there is no such thing as moral coordination in combat, that there is no such thing as safe upheaval, and that the search for righteousness in violence is a game of willful blindness. That Logan's rape was an inexcusable crime seems obvious to me. What moral lessons about Egyptian revolution I could meaningfully draw from that act, I couldn't tell you.

For that reason, for the reason of the utter collapsing of my own capacity for meaningful judgment within the confines of protests that don't ask for or care for my blessing, I am sympathetic to those who think that they can perfectly judge. The only thing that bothers me is the pretense, here. The pretense that, were this exact behavior to happen in a regime that the United States is unfriendly with, there would be an equally pedantic focus on which windows get smashed and who gets robbed and whether it's fair game to throw at rock at cops-- that's what bothers me. Because it involves a holistic view of both Middle Eastern protests and first world riots that is vastly distorting of both. Because it assumes that financially secure bloggers sitting at computer screens thousands of miles away (like me) can fairly and neutrally judge the anger of distant people enraged by the status quo. Because it suggests that our discrimination is greater than our prejudice. Because it flatters us with its assurance that our opinions are formed by principle and not by signalling.

I don't know what the lesson here is, except to say that when we become enraptured by our own goodness, funneled through the conduit of expressing support for revolution in foreign countries, we should pause, and remind ourselves that this little piece of reflected glory comes with a price.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

♫welcome back♪

As an atheist I say there is no god, but I do not deny that God is real.  He and his swishy kid are the most potent of historical forces; they are central to the whole history of Europe and the North American colonies; God is very real, even though he does not exist.  When, as an anarchist, I say that there is no America, there is no government, there is no state, I mean it in almost precisely the same way.  Its nonexistence has no bearing on its actuality.
-IOZ, for he is risen.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

defining the fundamental character of Israel

News out of Israel that, I imagine, will be seen as scary or mundane depending on your larger perspective on Israel and the occupation:
Forty lawmakers from both the coalition and opposition Wednesday submitted a proposal to the Knesset for a new Basic Law that would change the accepted definition of Israel as a "Jewish and democratic state."

The bill, initiated by MKs Avi Dichter (Kadima ), Zeev Elkin (Likud ) and David Rotem (Yisrael Beiteinu ), and supported by 20 of the 28 Kadima MKs, would make democratic rule subservient to the state's definition as "the national home for the Jewish people."

The legislation, a private member's bill, won support from Labor, Atzamaut, Yisrael Beiteinu and National Union lawmakers.

Sources at the Knesset say the law currently has broad support, and they believe it will be passed during the Knesset's winter session.

According to Elkin, the law is intended to give the courts reasoning that supports "the state as the Jewish nation state in ruling in situations in which the Jewish character of the state clashes with its democratic character."
For as long as I've debated the larger issue of Israel's occupation of Palestine, the degree to which Israel's stance as a Jewish state and a democratic state are in conflict has been a sore point, and I've clashed with people for being too hard on Israel and for being too easy on Israel. Some claim that there is no more conflict between Israel's Jewish character and its democratic nature than there is between an American ethos and democracy. I find this far too pat, and I think a tremendous amount of the anger and confusion regarding Israel stem from fundamental tensions between the classical liberal values of egalitarianism under nation states and Israel's Jewish religious and ethnic character. I personally believe, due to a rather ordinary conviction that nation states must recognize all people within their borders with perfect equity, that many of Israel's policies are unjust.

On the other side, I have long disagreed with people who think that Israel cannot exist as Israel and be a righteous state. There are some who find the very formulation of a homeland for Jews racist in its character. But I believe, perhaps incoherently, that there can exist a prosperous and free state of Israel that recognizes no differences between its citizens based on religion or ethnicity or race but that nevertheless stands as a homeland where Jews can always come and be safe. I understand that immigration procedure becomes quite sticky, and I don't pretend that there isn't considerable tension there. Then again, I believe in totally open immigration as a matter of ideal theory, so perhaps that isn't my issue.

In any event, Israeli politicians seem set on making this discussion moot. For while Americans might find room for debate in whether there is a conflict between Israeli democracy and Israeli Jewishness, these politicians seem to think that the conflict is quite clear. And they are hoping to enshrine in law a clear and unmistakeable preference: that Israel is Jewish first and democratic second.

That this will have profound consequences for non-Jewish residents and citizens of Israel seems clear enough to me. Less clear is how the American political machine or the international community will react to an Israel that seems ready to throw off its long-celebrated position as the Middle East's premiere democracy. The Knesset appears to be on the verge of making a bold statement. I wonder who will listen.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

the contempt gap

Will Wilkinson does as he does and mocks the American left for thinking that we should try to advance our moral and ideological interests politically. He points out that our positions aren't super popular. Meanwhile, his cosmopolitan globalist liberaltarianism platform is sure to take off in the heartland. I expect it any day now.

It may be that the media's tendency to take any conservative populist movement seriously and to treat any liberal populist movement as a gang of crazies is too much to overcome now. I hear it constantly: "well, what liberals need to do is to start a tea party of the left." But the left wouldn't receive the fawning, credulous media coverage that the tea parties did. Look, from 2002 to 2005, I organized in the antiwar movement constantly. I knocked on doors and went to Departments of Licensing and Inspection and spoke to alternative media and attended meeting after pointless meeting. I still have the permits. You'd be surprised, if you live in the bubble of mainstream cable and Internet media, at how receptive and friendly most of the people I'd meet-- the mythical "average Americans"-- were to a dedicated and avowedly left-wing antiwar movement.

But that sympathy could never survive an incredibly hostile media environment, and both cable news and the establishment blogosphere-- even the liberal blogosphere-- took pains to paint the antiwar movement as a batch of Stalinist crazies. That this was perpetrated by corporate media is no surprise, but that progressive bloggers never learn that the extremes define the center is baffling. The Tea Parties don't get exactly what they want, usually. But they steadily and consistently push the conservative movement to the right, and in doing so drag the center with them. That's the salient lesson of the last several years: extremes define the center. Yet liberal bloggers delight in kneecapping the man to their left, while conservatives race to be the man to the right. How could anyone wonder why this results in a steady march rightward? What bothers me is never that liberal bloggers fail to adopt the ideas of the left but always that they don't understand that true left wing voices give them cover and help to establish a middle ground that is conducive to their interests.

Wilkinson's corpus is very odd to me, but it's odd in a way that's keeping with many other bohemian, culturally liberal libertarian writers. They have profound policy and political disagreements with American liberals and leftists, but on fundamental cultural and philosophical levels, they are far closer to the average American liberal than the average American conservative. The fundamental architecture of American cosmopolitanism-- the assumption of equal dignity across difference, the celebration of individuality over social constructs of religion or rank, the preeminence of the right to be yourself, the things that many of us truly value in the commission of personal freedom-- these have been built by the left. If you are more interested in specific legislative victories, I would remind you of who was the vanguard of civil rights for black Americans, women, and gay and lesbian men and women. But ultimately my concern here is social and  cultural, and I don't know how anyone can fail to give pride of place to the left for advancing the right to be your own weird self. We've always been the home of freaks and weirdos and out theres, and I couldn't be prouder.

Cosmopolitan libertarians live in liberal urban enclaves, surrounded by liberals, taking advantage of the kind of governmental cultural and transportation infrastructure that liberals created. They consume movies, novels, music, and theater crafted in overwhelming majorities by leftists. They operate in environments where the liberal spirit of tolerance and freedom from conformity underpins everything, yet they will identify again and again the liberal hand as the one of villainy. 

As is the case always on blogs, people will mistake the political for the personal. The point is not about the social ugliness of libertarian hatred for liberals. (Well, liberals they don't know personally.) The point is that rhetoric influences politics and politics defines policy. I don't understand why these people believe that they can express such disdain for cultural liberalism while maintaining the benefits of it. There's a bizarre faith among this country's rarefied political class that they can cede every major political battle to the the reactionary fringe and yet maintain their arty bohemian privileged lifestyles. I assure you: the average libertarian who disagrees with both sides but saves his invective for only the left does not want to live in Tea Party America. When ground has been given completely to the people who are bringing you this debt deal, they will find the consequences of their contempt gap to be quite non-theoretical.

I don't know what to take from the insistence like that of Wilkinson or the liberals he quotes that the public is not with us. Shall we give up? When I graduated high school the notion of gay marriage was a joke. We worked. History tells us that crazy commitments become less crazy. The Goldwater campaign happened. The idea that libertarianism would ever be as influential as it is was once a pipe dream. You are compelled by conscience, and so you work. Why that deserves mockery, whatever your ideological persuasion, will forever be a mystery to me.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

do you really want what you say you want and are you really getting it

There are quite a few things one could say to Andrew Sullivan for his dogged support of Obama; "of no party or clique" is of little use if your commitment to an individual person replicates the typical failings of party (or clique) loyalty. But the main thing, from my outsider's perspective, is that he seems to think that the deal is satisfying many of his commitments when in fact it does the opposite.

Now, me, my resistance to this deal is that I support Medicare and Social Security, which are absolutely threatened by the bizarre Super Committee contrivance, I support public education, I support healthy transportation infrastructure, I support subsidies for college and graduate school education, I support research and development funding for essential medical and scientific needs, I support a robust safety net for poor people and the elderly, I support the protection of the environment, and I support the enforcement of basic workplace health and safety requirements. I also understand that the United States enjoys a fiat currency, an unprecedented international dependence on that currency and our economic strength, and the printing press, vastly mitigating the danger of budget deficits and making the logic of countercyclical economics even more clear. But I'm crazy like that.

But Sullivan, according to his own posts yesterday and today, supports (to a rather crazy degree) his President appearing "reasonable," reducing the deficit, opposing the Tea Party, and the reelection of Barack Obama. The first is a matter of debate. There is nothing reasonable, in my mind, about supporting bad policy. There's also nothing reasonable about conceding to immensely unreasonable people. (People Andrew has been calling unreasonable for years!) I'll concede, though, that what is reasonable is in the eye of the beholder. The rest of these commitments are all hurt, not helped, by this deal.

This deal will not secure the long term fiscal future of the United States. Only robust growth will finally make the United States government fiscally solvent, and this deal will hurt growth, as averred by not just liberals like Paul Krugman but business journalists at Bloomberg and the Economist and analysts at Merrill Lynch and many many more. The deal doesn't put us in the black; it doesn't come close. Slowing the economy through austerity measures is going to lower tax revenue and make things worse.

This deal hands victory to the Tea Party and emboldens them. It both gives them what they want substantively and it demonstrates that thuggish tactics work. I will repeat: when you reward bad behavior, you ensure that you get more bad behavior. We don't negotiate with terrorists and hostage takers not to show how big our dicks are but because if you give hostage takers what they want then people will never stop taking hostages. What on earth will prevent this kind of behavior again? The President and Congressional Democrats just sent an unmistakeable message to the Tea Party Representatives and their constituents: if you are dangerously intransigent, we will fold.

Making Obama supporters zeal for this deal most inexplicable is the fact that this deal hurts his chances in 2012. There is a vast literature demonstrating that American presidential elections are determined primarily by economics. People vote for incumbent parties when the economy is doing well and against them when the economy is doing poorly. This bill does nothing to help the 14 million unemployed Americans. It does nothing to address the double dip recession we appear to be marching towards. And, again, in the eyes of many very smart people, it actually hurts. If this deal, which will slash thousands of jobs from the federal rolls and do nothing to stimulate the private economy, sends unemployment back to double digits, Obama is a one term president. (And lest anyone try to turn that into some grand narrative about Obama bravely doing the right thing and sacrificing his political future for the good of the country, I'll remind you that there are always other options. If you have no other options in a scenario so fluid and complex, it is a result of incompetence, not principle.)

I plum don't get it.

Monday, August 1, 2011

first principles

Let's suppose that, contrary to what some of my detractors say, I am actually someone who is inclined to give Obama the benefit of the doubt. You don't have to believe that I do. Let's just work from that assumption as a thought experiment.

I'd like to lay out some of my broad stances on contemporary American politics, and for the sake of fairness, I'll try to restrict myself to what I think is at least plausible within our system and leave out my crazy socialist preferences. Now, you read this list, and tell me where I'm supposed to draw comfort from the Obama administration. (And I'll insist that you do it based on the Obama administration that actually exists, rather than the wishful thinking Obama that I read about all the time or the eleventh dimensional chess playing Obama that is supposedly working all of these crazy angles.)

1. I believe that both the practical and moral interests of the United States are served by providing for the least well off and through building a robust social safety net which ameliorates the negative effects of chance, providing all Americans with a minimal level of material security and opportunity. I further think that Social Security and Medicare are two of the most vital parts of that safety net, and that any liberal or Democrat should take defending these institutions as an absolute non-negotiable duty.

2. I believe that civil liberties are at the core of democracy, and that we must protect them forcefully against incursion by government. This includes keeping rights of the accused sacrosanct, trying suspected criminals in an open and fair court system, not permitting a national domestic surveillance state, and maintaining a principled objection to cruel and unusual punishments or interrogation techniques such as torture. I also believe that, human nature being what it is, democratic structures require internal watchdogs and whistle blowers who can shed light on abuses or illegalities in powerful bureaucracies, and that any society interested in the rule of law will protect such people when they come forward.

3. I believe that it is not in the best interest of our country or the world to engage in armed conflict except when absolutely necessary for the immediate protection of our country or allies that we are obliged to protect through treaty. I believe that expansive military operations damage our democratic credibility, drain our resources, undermine our legitimacy in the eyes of the world, and threaten our ability to engage in truly necessary conflict, such as in times of self-defense. I believe that armed conflict, whether called a war or not, should require the approval of both the legislative and executive branches of the government, and that the ability to continue to wage these conflicts must continually pass review from autonomous parts of government. I believe that playing policeman to the world is neither within self-interest nor the moral authority of the United States.

4. I believe that a counter-cyclical, Keynesian macroeconomic philosophy is in the best interests of the United States. I believe that governments can and should spend more than their current revenues when faced with economic downturns in order to stimulate the economy, especially when those governments enjoy a powerful fiat currency and access to the printing press. I believe that the best economic evidence demonstrates that austerity measures slow the growth that is the only reliable engine of fiscal security and is thus counterproductive. I believe that surpluses can be generated in economic boom times which can pay down national debt and provide for the fiscal solvency of the nation when times are lean again. I believe the federal government is nothing at all like a typical household and that making major economic decisions based on faulty analogies comparing the two is demonstrably bad policy.

5. I believe that widespread employment in healthy and safe conditions for decent wages is an absolutely elementary part of the basic American social compact, and that in times of high unemployment the federal government should make every available effort to create jobs, up to and including directly hiring more government employees. I believe that providing opportunity for all Americans is a far more important priority for the country than protecting the ability of the already rich to grow richer.

6. I believe that efforts to maintain fiscal responsibility must be pursued first through fair and progressive taxation. I believe that there is no injustice in those who already enjoy great material wealth having some higher portion of that wealth taxed away. I believe that it has been amply demonstrated that this country enjoys top-end incomes that are so robust that high marginal tax rates can be levied against those incomes without demonstrably hurting those at the top. I believe that it is absolutely just, practical, and sensible to expect those who have enjoyed the great fruits of our democracy to contribute a disproportionate share of the money that ensures our democracy remain solvent.

7. I finally believe, on a purely tactical level, that rewarding bad behavior inevitably reinforces that behavior and ensures that it will continue. I don't open the door when my dog whines to come in; I wouldn't give a child throwing a tantrum the toy he is asking for. Capitulation to terrible behavior sends the unmistakable message that terrible behavior is rewarded and should be repeated.

Look, I get it: I'm a crazy socialist asshole who no one likes. Cool. I've just described what I have to think is a perfectly anodyne, totally conventional and essentially moderate liberal vision for the presidency. Can anyone claim that the Obama administration has done anything whatsoever to advance my interests? Not a day goes by where I argue politics online without some Obama supporter hurling invective at me and insisting that I have no choice, that if I refuse to vote for Obama I am in essence voting for Michelle Bachmann, that it's a two party system and I should just take it and like it, or, most absurdly, that he secretly is pursuing my agenda and I'm just too stupid to read the tea leaves and SEE. (Andrew Sullivan's "meep meep" thing has become the rallying cry of daydream believin' Kool-Aid drinkers everywhere.)


I am a citizen in a democracy. It's my duty to support politicians that advance my interests and that I believe work for the betterment of our country. I am asking sincerely and openly: given that I have the commitments I've laid out above, how can I possibly support Barack Obama? He bragged-- bragged-- yesterday that this deal would be lowering non-defense discretionary spending to its lowest levels since the Eisenhower administration. That is, he bragged about his role in ending essential government programs that defend our environment, educate our children, provide crucial scientific and medical research, and in a myriad of ways contribute to the flourishing of our country and our people. At some point, the charade can't continue. This is not merely a person who doesn't deserve my support. This is a person who is unequivocally and demonstrably not an American liberal, and someone who has no interest in defending the historical constituencies or commitments of the Democratic party.


Oh, and during the election next year, will they still call him a crazy Kenyan Marxist socialist, and will it still work? You betcha.