Thursday, March 31, 2005
I have spent some time scanning the conservative blogs, and the bulk of what they pay attention to is foreign policy. I'm almost tempted to offer them a swap: you have your foreign policy, but give liberals control over domestic policy. It might almost be worth it.
Apparently there is only one domestic policy issue the wingers care anything about: the liberal university. They are harping
on Howie Kurtz's discussion of a study on the liberality of most professors. David Horowitz is pushing a "student's bill of rights", which is making some progress in Florida
. The bill would allow students to sue professors who are not "respecting their beliefs."
Yeah, I can hear it now: "Give me an A or I'm suing you!" "In my religion two plus two equals five!" Talk about your silly ideas.
The right wing is really barking (and I mean barking) up the wrong tree here. They have identified the fact that most college professors are liberals, and leapt to the conclusion that there must be discrimination against conservatives. They also assume that professors both try to convert their students and are able to do so.
Where do I start? First, I really doubt if professors care much about persuading their students to their political way of thinking. We're too busy trying to get them to read the book and show up to class to digress away from our subjects onto politics. If we are teaching politics, we spend all of our time on process, not substance. Second, teachers have a hard time convincing their classes of even self-evident material (like facts), so I really doubt their capacity to effectively propagandize their students. Honestly people, the academy has been left-wing for generations, and I don't see any fewer conservatives out there in the electorate! College graduates are in fact the most Republican
constituency. So get off it!
So at worst we are dealing with a situation without real social consequences. This still leaves the possibility that conservatives are discriminated against in hiring and promotions, which would affect people looking for jobs in the university. If it were true. Which it isn't.
The first problem with the Horowitz argument is that he ignores the supply problem: the sorts of people who want to spend their lives teaching others are not the sorts of people who tend to be conservative. It would be like saying that liberals are being discriminated against in the corporate world because 99% of business executives are Republicans. Certain fields just attract certain sorts of people.
A second problem is in regards to hiring and promotions. Your ability to get a job in academia is dependent on two things: your ability to teach and your ability to publish. That's it. Now publishing has simply nothing to do with political credentials. They don't ask you what party you voted for when you're writing an article on number theory or the Battle of Shiloh. And if students really felt to aggrieved at authoritarian teachers, then the teaching evalutions would be bad and the professor might not get tenure (depending on the kind of school we are talking about). In this situation, professors actually have to curry favor
All of this is besides the point, of course. Demolishing the premisses of the right wing critique of academia, as fun as it is, ignores the fundamental mistakes that Horowitz and his band of loonies are really making. On the one hand the right is fundamentally misunderstanding the role of the academy and university of education. On the other hand, they are just avoiding the real problem, which is the intellectual worth of conservatism itself.
The sad fact of it is, students don't know anything. The only "beliefs" they ever present are usually just parroted back from somewhere else. Professors are trying to give them the evidence and analytical tools to make up their own minds, to come up with informed beliefs rather than simply prejudices. So if we aren't allowed to challenge their opinions, then you have effectively abolished the academy. The whole point of the university is to make people uncomfortable with their too-casually held beliefs.
Which gets to the real problem that conservatives have with the Academy. The right thinks that because their kind has so scarce a presence in the halls of the educated, it must mean that the Academy is an institutionally biased group keeping out smart, hard-working, conservative academics. What they cannot accept, and what is in fact going on, is that modern conservatism is not an intellectually respectable position
. You can't publish an article (or even get a PhD) if you are prone to sloppy reasoning, weak arguments, or misrepresenting facts. The contemporary right is just a ridiculous combination of ideas without logical support or consistency. So no person who has to learn how to think
is going to subscribe to it.
All the training that graduate students go through teaches them how to collect evidence and weigh it in an even-handed fashion, to avoid dogmas, and to stick to logic and cool reason. What conservatives can't face is the reality that no person who undergoes that kind of rigor is going to end up a conservative, because today's conservatism is intellectually bankrupt. Sorry, but there it is.
People who support conservatism are just asserting their "beliefs" rather than employing rational arguments. If that sounds kind of postmodern to you, you're right.
(By the way, I've always hated postmodernism, so the fact that it has migrated from the left to the right just makes my life easier.)
What is really frightening to the right is that if students are really educated, if they learn how to grasp facts and use them in a sound way, they will realize all of this. Which means that, at its core, today's right has to be hostile to education. Which if you look at what the christian right is up to in the K-12 system and Horowitz wants for the colleges, is precisely what you see. Once again, the right is after the death of reason. They don't dare let today's youth become truly educated, because then they would be "corrupted" into growing brains and rejecting conservatism.
So am I saying that the problem conservatism has in academia is that it is just stupid? Well....yes. Sorry.
The Right Wing Attack on Starbucks
Wednesday, March 30, 2005
Look, I'm happy that Starbucks is putting liberal propaganda on its coffee cups
, but how about putting better tasting coffee in
the cups? The stuff just tastes burnt. Ick.
Tuesday, March 29, 2005
I've never been a big fan of protesting, although I've done my share. I've not entirely sure what it accomplishes. Recent articles in the Washington Monthly
and the American Prospect
say very much the same thing. Christina Larson at the Monthly and Kevin Mattson at the Prospect suggest that while they make the participants feel good, marching usually has either a minor or even a negative impact on the polity at large. The Civil Rights analogy is, ultimately, an inappropriate one, because that was an exceptional case. The majority of Americans already agreed with the principle of equal rights for blacks. King was just preventing them from ignoring the issue. The modern protest movements are ones where there is widespread ambivalence or positive disagreement. I really doubt whether the Vietnam protests saved a single life. Sorry, but there it is.
Now I don't think protesting is always a waste of time. I thought the protests against the Iraq war were pointless until I went overseas and realized that the demonstrations had gotten substantial international coverage. People overseas understood that support for the war was not monolithic, and so didn't hate all
Americans. In that instance, the protesters did an invaluable service.
I also believe that the attempts to marginalize protesting by the media and police forces is a major violation of people's rights. Marching in support of your favorite cause is a fundamental right of political expression, and smothering that right is disturbingly undemocratic. Thuggish tactics to humiliate or imprison protesters is a rape of liberty.
Having said that, I still find protesting (and protesters) very frustrating. The problem is that they see the march as an end rather than a means. If the demonstration were the first step in a broader effort, I would be all for them. If it was a consciousness-raising effort that was the beginning of a broader campaign, if they were signing up the participants and using the march as a mobilizing tool, then protesting would be of some real value. Instead, all I hear about is the next protest. Marches rarely change any minds or votes. I'm much rather all those people were spending their time knocking on doors that holding signs. Activism is great, but it needs to be sustained activism, not spasmodic episodes of popular angst.
So keep marching. Just be sure that's not all that you do.
Bye Bye Civil Service
Monday, March 28, 2005
Don't say you weren't warned.
When the Homeland Security Bill came up stripping its workers of civil service protections, some of us on the left sat up in alarm. Combined with the ongoing "contract" revolution in the federal bureaucracy - where agencies contract out and manage public services rather than run them - the basic structure of the civil service system is being eroded. Now we have new signs that this effort is gaining momentum, both at the federal level
and in the states
Wow, that's pretty boring. Why do we care?
You should care. You should care a lot. Because there were good reasons we wrote the Pendleton Act and established autonomous civil services at all levels of government. It wasn't just the fact that James Garfield got shot by a frustrated officeholder. It was because of men like this
. Before the civil service, public employees were hired and fired on the basis of political affiliation and expediency. Professionals were put under enormous pressure to manufacture the results that pleased those in power. And the patronage system allowed the worst elements in our politics to use public employees as a milch cow. The result was rampant corruption and amazing incompetence.
Which is pretty much the Republicans' ideal of how government should be run.
Civil service "reform," despite its limited media coverage, is in fact on the of the most vital political issues of our time. It doesn't help matters when the Washington Post mentions patronage and corruption as minor objections to civil service reform, even while advancing the right-wing stereotype as public employees as lazy and self-interested "risk adverse" people. (Have the words "public service" entirely left the lexicon?).
I haven't figured out exactly what we can DO about this issue. But our first task is to start paying attention. Or we shall surely regret it.
Brooks Does It Again!
Saturday, March 26, 2005
I can always trust David to give me something to write about.
In today's NYT, Mr. Brooks opines on the ethical dimensions of the Schiavo case
. Now of course we can predict that Mr. Brooks will give what appears to be a somewhat critical analysis of conservative arguments and give a sympathetic hearing the liberal ones. Until you slap your forehead an hour later and realize that the fix is in. Again.
Brooks' depiction of the right-left divide on the issue is that while the former believes that physical existence alone provides the essential key in determining life, the latter believes that the quality of that life must be considered when defining life, i.e. the worth of the thing can effect the value of its mere being. Brooks suggests that while the right can fall prey to a certain literal-mindedness, the left's position lacks moral depth.
Wow, that sounds fair, doesn't it? The right can take life too seriously, while the left sometimes doesn't take life seriously enough. Now ask yourself, who comes off worse in this exchange? Conservatives are too passionate about valuing life while liberals don't think life is all that important. And by the way, they are immoral. Golly gee that sounds like a favorable desciption of liberalism!
Brooks gets it wrong of course. There is an important moral argument that liberals other than the vapid Brooksian straw man can deploy. Namely that we should value autonomy. When a person is utterly deprived of it, life can be no longer worth living. More importantly, we should leave it to a person to make this decision, not condition that choice on the views of interested others. Terry Schiavo said that she never wanted to live this way. The right has decided that what she thinks about the matter simply doesn't count, because they know better. From the perspective of the right, the judgment of the theocrats always trumps any individual decisions. Tell me again how moral it is if you deprive others of their ability to choose? Have they forgotten that without free will there is no sin, and no redemption? That there is, in fact, no morality?
Matt Yglesias' comments on this issue
, to the extent that I understand them, are very much in line with my own take. Brooks fails to realize that the key distinction is not morality or the lack of it, but the conflict between two very different moralities. The conservative morality believes that the dictates of society (rather through utility or divine fiat) always trumps the will of the individual person. The liberal morality says that it is the obligation of the community not to displace individual choice but enable it, in order to maximize the meaningful exercise of the capacity for choice. We on the left think that we should respect Terry Schiavo's decision. We are her only real defenders.
The Democratic Theme
Friday, March 25, 2005
This is an email I sent to Digby at Hullabaloo that I thought was worth posting.
While I couldn't agree more with the essentials of your "New Front"
post, I think there is one element you might have wrong. One of the ways that Democrats have bought into the Republican frame of issues is that we keep defending "government" in the abstract. Voters hear "government" and think "pointy-headed bureaucrats and corrupt politicians in Washington telling me what to do. Government is a "them." We may not like it, but there it is. What we need is an "us."
Democrats, I believe, need to step back and discuss public responsibilities,and civic obligation. We need to directly engage "we" language. The problem with "government" solutions is that liberals tend to default to the bureaucratic solution, which is pretty demobilizing. It also feeds into the current right-wing model of citizens as passive consumers of public services, rather than engaged members in the project of self-government.
FDR and Kennedy didn't say "government should do this" but "we should do this" or "America should do this." One of the great things of about the Dean campaign is that it used this participatory language. We need to get that back. This doesn't mean that we need to start bashing government, it just means we need to change the tone with which we discuss public action to stop making it sound like it's something someone else should be doing. It is our responsibility, both individually and as a country, to tackle these issues of public concern. Only after we have set the table in this fashion should we start getting into the specifics of how we do so.
Wednesday, March 23, 2005
So this issue is pretty much over. The specially appointed judge refused to reopen the case
, and so did the appeals court
. As might be expected, the federal judiciary ruled in precisely the same fashion the state courts did (19 times, I think it was). End of story.
The outrageousness of this episode makes the head spin. The Republicans violated their own states rights principles, which we should forevermore prevent them from invoking. I think this might even provide an opening for Democrats to steal the language of small government and federalism from Republicans. DeLay and company made a mockery of the separation of powers by intervening in a judicial proceeding that was already completed. They also moved one step closer to ending the rule of law in this country, as John Lewis so eloquently argued on the House floor. Political action should be for general purposes, not targeted to specific personalities. And rules, once established, should never be ignored. That way leads to absolute rule by decree rather than by constitutional deliberation. Go read your Aristotle. Those people are in no way conservatives. This display by so-called conservatives would make Edmund Burke vomit into his whig.
What makes this all worse was that the Republicans did this all not out of some compelling moral reason but out of political calculation. A bad calculation, it appears, given the public opinion polls.
I spoke briefly the other day about how I thought this was a political mistake on the part of Republicans and an opportunity for Democrats. I think the fact that half of the Democrats who showed up to vote supported the measure makes it more difficult to use this opportunity, which is more than a little frustrating. Why did they do so? I think some of them didn't take full enough accounting of the procedural and constitutional questions at hand. All they could see was that they were voting on whether to take away someone's life or not. But this position, however morally respectable, fails to appreciate the function of each member of Congress as a guardian of the Constitution. They take an oath to uphold that document when they are sworn into office. And they should oppose any measure, no matter how compelling, that violates the spirit of that document. Which this act surely does.
The other element of this disgraceful affair I find intriguing is the limited impact of the Republican Noise Machine. It was working in full gear. The media was on board as usual, and the coverage was incredibly slanted. But it didn't seem to move the numbers much. Americans hate what Congress did in overwhelming numbers. Like the Social Security issue, the right wing propaganda machine just can't seem to get any traction. Maybe Lincoln is right, and there are limits to how many people you can fool all of the time.
Social Security and the Schiavo case tell us two things. The first, that the moral degredation of the Republican party is pretty well complete. They really are fanatics who must be stopped. But the second, more hopeful lesson is that there is still room for liberals in this country. When the issues are put starkly, in basic and elemental terms, the citizenry can still make a reasonable choice. It's up to liberals to give them that opportunity.
Tuesday, March 22, 2005
In today's op-ed, David Brooks
says some shocking things: that the Republicans of the Congress have become exceptionally corrupt. His basic argument is that in 1995 conservatives attempted to use (corporate) interest groups to the purposes of the right, and were instead captured by them. In this, Brooks asserts, they accelerated a similar process by which the old Democratic majority had become corrupted.
On the surface there is much here that a liberal can agree with. When a conservative says that Republicans are a bunch of corporate shills, someone on the left is probably going to be so impressed by this confession that they will be eager to agree with everything else Brooks has to say. This is Brooks' usual tactic, which I have made it my job to point out (over and over and over again).
In reality, there are three insidious moves in this piece. First, Brooks breezily asserts that yesterday's Democrats were as corrupt as today's Republicans. This is patently false. Yes, there were the occasional crooked leaders, but the "arrogance of power" that Republicans complained about was less about being on the take than it was abusing (or just ignoring) the minority. Oh, and by the way, the DeLay majority has been far more dismissive of minority rights than the Foley majority would have dreamed of being. When did George Mitchell ever try to get rid of the filibuster?
Brooks' second move is to claim that the Republicans were originally idealistic young revolutionaries, only to have those ideas perverted by the political process. Now there may have been a few members of Congress, or journalists, who were this starry-eyed. But I was there when Gingrich was in the full flush of his power, and the interest groups were writing the legislation then too. Maybe Gingrich and his flunkies weren't taking home suitcases of cash, but they were still beholden to corporate lobbyists.
Which brings me to Brooks' third move, which is to conflate all lobbyists. All interest groups are not created equal. When the Democrats were in the majority, they were pulled between the left-wing groups, with whom they were in ideological sympathy, and business groups, who fronted the money to get re-elected. This created a kind of balance in policy-making that we lack today. Now the left has been entirely silenced, and business interests are running amok. The Republicans are thoroughly dominated by corporate America, and they always have been
. There was no "corruption" because there was nothing left to corrupt.
Brooks has apparently recognized that the corruption of the Republican Majority has reached such a point that there will be a political backlash. So he is trying to insulate the broader conservative movement from the fallout by generating the following narrative: the conservatives of 1994 were true idealists, dedicated to cleaning out the filth of Washington, but alas they have succumbed to its temptations. This narrative both advances the basic conservative argument that government is inherently
bad, as well as suggesting that the modern conservative movement itself is not inherently
corrupt. Which of course it is.
This is a very plausible story that Brooks is advancing, which if it becomes conventional wisdom will mute the political impact of DeLay's coming fall. Don't let him get away with it.
The Looney Bin
Sunday, March 20, 2005
I haven't really been following the Schiavo case, but it does seem to me that the Republicans are behaving like lunatics. Are they really in favor of politicians in Washington getting in the way of private decisions between a family and its doctors? Is our ability to make our own choices in life going to be dependent of the whims of government? And are the Democrats in Congress going to have the guts to make the right pay and pay and pay because of this travesty? Because I don't think the American people, left or right, are going to see this situation as anything other than a carnival, as a disgusting freak show.
The Centrism Puzzle
Saturday, March 19, 2005
There are still a lot of liberals angry at "centrists." Ian Welsh
at BOP has criticized the idea that we need to reach out to the middle and focus instead on expanding liberalism. This approach has been very popular among many on the left, MyDD and others among them. I think there is something to this idea - the basic DLC strategy seems to be to compromise on all outstanding issues, which reduces Democrats to an indistinct mush that no one will vote for. And I think that the DLC attack on Kerry etc. is largely misguided, given that Kerry essentially adopted their script in the last election by focusing on the mishandling of Iraq (rather than attacking the war itself) and avoiding a sharp populist critique on economics. Kerry essentially ran on competence, which the DLC seems to have been suggesting, and it didn't work. The DLC "purge the left" idea is ludicrous, and it seems far too eager to feed the (slanderous) Republican attack on liberalism.
At the same time, just working on mobilizing the left is probably not going to work either. The DLC and its supporters are right when they note that that simpleminded populism or straightforward liberal appeals to the electorate are insufficient to build a political majority. Democrats have to come to grips with foreign policy and "values" if we are to get back into the game.
So let's stop shooting spitballs at eachother and find some way to take the valuable insights of both. Robert Kuttner
, for example, makes an excellent point in the Prospect:
...the cultural conservatism of many moderate-income Americans attracts
them to Republicans who don't serve their economic interests. But cultural
moderation will not save the souls of Democrats unless they start delivering the
Centrism doesn't work without a hard-edged policy to differentiate the left from the right. And liberalism doesn't work without an understanding of what is driving working class voters away. In short, we need to craft a rhetorical strategy that wins over voters who are moderate culturally but economically populist. We can't just be centrists or liberals. We need to be both.
A Great Man
Friday, March 18, 2005
All should pay respects at the passing of George Keenan
, the man who really won the Cold War.
I'll write more later - right now I have to go teach about Hobbes (and I don't mean Calvin &).
Some Signs for Optimism
Thursday, March 17, 2005
Thursday, March 17, 2005
Lots of people bash on the Democrats for having an ineffective legislative or rhetorical strategy, myself included. But over the last week or so I have seen the Democrats exercise remarkable discipline, present some good ideas, and force the Republicans to make some votes that will cause them trouble in '06.
Let me give you a few examples:
1) The Democrats, led by the unlikely Ben Nelson, forced the Republicans to vote against a resolution on Social Security
which prohibited big benefit cuts or debt. Tee-hee. I can't wait to run against people who are in favor of burdening our children with trillions and want to starve grandma.
2) The Republicans narrowly defeated the re-imposition of Paygo rules
. Now this is a hard issue to describe to the casual voter, but I think we can do it. Just label it the "only buy what you pay for" rule, which Democrats favor, as opposed to the "borrow it from your kid's college fund rule" which the GOP prefers. Again, this vote feeds into a theme that the Republicans are irresponsibly mortgaging the future.
3) The Republicans are close to drilling in ANWR
. Now substantively this is a disaster, but it's the job of the opposition to try and make lemonade. Democrats can now effectively label the enemy as anti-environmental and in hock to corporate America, providing we explain the issue properly. The environmental issue got off the radar in 2004, to our detriment, but this way we can bring it back.
4. The Democrats are finally doing what they should have done ages ago - shut down the Senate
if the Republicans don't stop trying to abuse the minority. As long as they hang tough, they can actually restore the "advice" part of "advice & consent" when it comes to judicial nominations. The Democrats are making a big issue out of the packing of the federal bench with loonies, and they need to keep it up. Some of these guys Bush is putting up are really wackos, and we should make them poster children for the Republican party.
5. Finally, the Center for American Progress has put forward an excellent way
to steal the tax reform issue from the right. They suggest doing what I've also been proposing, namely to de-couple "tax flatness" with "tax simplicity." What people really like is the simplicity, but the Republicans have tried to smuggle a flat tax into that idea. It's your typical bait and switch. This way the Democrats have a concrete counter-proposal and can rail against Republicans as anti-middle class and pro-corporate. By the way, I don't think the Republicans will EVER get a flat tax bill, because they would have to give up too many subsidies to corporate America, from where they draw the vast majority of their campaign funding.
6. Everyone is moaning about the bankruptcy bill, which is surely a terrible piece of legislation. What I figure is that the consequences of this bill are going to be pretty unpopular, particularly when interest rates rise (as they must) in response to the falling dollar and ballooning deficits. Now it is true we had a lot of defectors, but I really don't see why we can't make it an issue anyway. Just run against the Republicans who voted for it and pretend the Democrats who did so don't exist. We should define the cloture vote as the essential one (which is was). We might also try and convince the Democrats to propose a sense of the Senate resolution aiming to correct the abuses of the bill.
7. Lastly, Democrats have been forced by the Social Security debate into enunciating first principles: we are in favor of a plan of social insurance, that we are all in this together, and that we cannot leave the least of us behind. If we can build on this, Democrats will finally be able to enunciate the "big picture" of what we're for and stop all this nonsense of Democrats not standing for anything. And guess what? We're winning that debate. If we finish the job, Bush won't have enough political power left to fill a thimble.
So don't worry, be happy. Things are looking up.
Libertarians Are Really Not Nice.
Wednesday, March 16, 2005
I had two run-ins with right-wingers last night. The first was when I went to go see a debate on Social Security between Paul Krugman and Michael Tanner (of the CATO institute) at the Society for Ethical Culture. The second was on the train home. Both were instructive.
The SEC event was fun - it was to a packed house. It was a pretty liberal audience and a hostile moderator, so I have to give Tanner credit for bravery. Josh Marshall was there too, but he didn't get the chance to speak much. I spoke to him briefly after the debate though, and he was very gracious about all the people mobbing him.
Tanner's performance confirmed a great deal of what I suspected about privatization in particular and libertarianism in general. They aren't too strong on rational argument. For example, Tanner claimed that he wasn't going to use the "crisis" argument for promoting privatization, and then proceeded to do so. He claimed that he was going to argue the philosophical merits of the plan, but his only argument, that beneficiaries feel demeaned by Social Security, is patently false. (I used to handle SSI claims, and let me tell you, those people do NOT feel dependent. Indignant is more like it. They deserve
those benefits, and God help you if they don't get them.) Tanner's arguments were so weak and riddled with fallacies and bad numbers that Paul Krugman looked pained.
What Tanner did do was preach a lot. He spoke a great deal about choice, appealing to emotions using buzzwords. Maybe because libertarian theories are so intellectually bankrupt (a subject I have spoken to many times before), they have to resort to such demagogic methods. But it certainly doesn't inspire much confidence in their positions.
The second right-winger I met last night might have been a libertarian, but I'm not sure. The train was packed and there was this dude taking up three seats, which is one of the major no-no's in NY subway travel. I squeezed in next to him anyway, and he scowled at me and started reading the Weekly Standard. "Figures" I thought. Then when he got up from his seat he left a bunch of magazine trash all over the seat, demonstrating for all to see the problem of the tragedy of the commons, which libertarians are always at such pains to deny. The parallels between Tanner's "if they're old and poor let them starve" laissez-faire paradise and the selfish jerk on the train were too obvious to ignore.
One more thing - in the Social Security debate both sides did something which drives me crazy. They used "philosophy" as a synonym for "belief" or "faith." The participants in the debate suggested that the chasm between "opportunity society" advocates and liberals was probably unbridgeable because of differences in philosophy. This assumes that philosophies are deeply held moral convictions not amenable to rational argument. Which is just wrong. The essence of philosophy is reasoned debate on issues of moral concern. Stating that we have two rival philosophies should not be the proverbial hands thrown into the air. It should be an invitation to further discussion.
What is particularly frustrating about this phenomenon is that liberals always fall for this "philosophy as faith" argument in the name of tolerance. You have to tolerate a private belief, but not a bad philosophy. Bad philosophies should be thrown into the thrown in the wastebasket. The fact is that you can have a meaningful debate between proponents of rival philosophies, and you can reach a conclusion. Nobody argues for divine right of kings anymore, because John Locke dismantled the theory. If liberals actually engaged these issues, they would win, because the various conservative ideologies have very little philosophical grounding. Which by the way is why there are so few conservatives in the Academy - right wing ideas are just bad ones.
So the next time a libertarian you have backed into a corner tries to escape by stating that "it's just my philosophy," smile and apply the logical thumbscrews. Because he's asked for it.
Is Race Real?
Tuesday, March 15, 2005
Here is a post by Wife of Publius (suggestions for a nickname are welcome) about Armand Marie Leroi's
op-ed in the New York Times. The gist of his article is that while the conventional wisdom among biologists is that race is just a social construct, Leroi believes that race is a real, concrete thing.
I expected to be upset by this article, but scientifically it's fairly sound. I do take exception to his use of the word "race", when really what he is talking about is not what is usually defined as race. This is a horribly loaded word, and I would not like to see it used. What he's talking about is that you can trace someone's genetic ancestry to Europe, East Asia, Africa, Australasia, and America. This should come as no surprise, as these are CONTINENTS and were isolated for thousands of years, so of course the gene pools can be identified.
But: overall these populations are more alike than different. Yes, there are traits that spread throughout each population. Yes, some populations are more susceptible to some diseases than others. But when looking at the overall genome, humans are more alike than different. The traditional use of the word "race" was often meant to refer to subspecies, or distinct populations within a species. Attempts were made in the 18th and 19th centuries to classify the different "races" as different species of humans. I do not want to see this practice revived, and even though Dr. Armand Marie Leroi probably has good intentions (enabling people to get the correct healthcare, for example), it is naive to think that some people won't take this information/opinion and twist it to their own racist aims.
I would like to register one huge objection:
He says: "When we glance at a stranger's face we use those associations to infer what continent, or even what country, he or his ancestors came from - and we usually get it right."
For anyone who thinks that's true, try this quiz
Then tell me you agree with him.
I Know We Voted For Bush, But Are We Really That Crazy?
Apparently Americans are insane. No really, go check it out
. Now I think that there is one very big problem with this study. Have you seen television lately? It is blanketed with ads telling us that every time we feel a little down, it is mental illness. Drug companies have re-labelled every element of what we used to call personality into psychoses. The key to this study is the term "clinically diagnosed." We live in a society obsessed with mental health. But just because someone diagnoses you with anxiety disorder doesn't mean you're nuts. I bet a lot of people in the third world are pretty stressed out too.
In other news...China & Germany
James Pinkerton has an excellent article in Newsday
about contemporary China and its comparisons to 20th century Germany. I think he is right on target, which should creep out all of us, given that if China tries to expand, they'll be a lot more dangerous than Germany ever was. The example of Germany should also give pause to those who have a simplistic "capitalism = democracy" equation. Germany was one of the world's greatest industrial powers, and under Wilhelm II and Hitler could scarcely be described as democratic.Good Citizens?Oliver Willis
thinks the citizenship test for immigrants is a bad idea. Why? Because our own citizens would probably flunk it. This is not the most encouraging argument. The fact that our citizenry lacks basic knowledge about the country and its political institutions should send all of us running into the schools (or library) to demand this problem be fixed. Having an educated citizenry is one of the essential building blocks of a democracy, because educated people are harder for tyrants, demagogues and lunatics to manipulate.
Oh, and why do we know so little? In part because we don't get taught much in schools. Today's article in the NYT indicates that education schools are disgraceful
. Having taught for a few years, I can tell you that consistently the worst students I had every semester were education majors. Followed by journalists. Scary stuff.The Senate Gerrymander
Turning to another subject, Paul von Hippel
writes in the Gadflyer that the Senate, because of it represents each state equally, is at present effectively a Republican gerrymander. Precisely. This situation is a big part of what makes the Electoral College such a mess as well, since the number of Electoral College votes each state has is equal to the number of House and Senate members from that state. But whining about the gerrymander isn't going to fix it. Do we really think we are going to successfully amend the Constitution to abolish or reform the Senate? Keep dreaming. A more constructive approach would be to realize that because the Senate overrepresents rural areas, it is imperative for us to figure out how to appeal to small town America. We need to craft a small-town liberalism.
Speaking of liberalism, I suggest you all read Digby's
excellent suggestion that liberals work to expand the notion of "liberty." We have been caught up with the neo-libertarian, conservative definition, which is dominated by private property rights. We can make a lot of political hay by pointing out the freedom to make personal choices
is the really vital thing about liberty. It might do something to get us out of this intellectual box we appear to be in.Naughty, naughty David Brooks
Okay, this will be a quick one. David Brooks
in his op-ed argues that the failure of Social Security reform demonstrates everything that is wrong with both parties and the political system. If only the two sides would compromise! Of course, there is the hidden assumption that we need to do anything major about Social Security. Which there isn't. Oh, and who do you think Brooks wants to do the compromising? Hmmm.
Brooks is just advancing the basic Republican theme that the system is in crisis and the Democrats need to compromise. A theme the stupid Mainstream Media is buying hook line and sinker. Look, the only thing wrong with Social Security is that the Republicans insist on running up big deficits by way of tax cuts. That's it. Period. No Bush tax cuts, no Social Security problem. So try and sell me another one, David.
Intelligent Design? Dumb Argument.
Monday, March 14, 2005
The Washington Post has an embarassingly revealing article
about effort by creationists to propagate "intelligent design" theory. I'm not going to get bogged down into the specifics of the "intelligent design" position, because frankly I don't have to. There has been a century and a half of work on evolution, and all the evidence continues to support the theory. Meanwhile, no reputable scientists views intelligent design as anything more than quackery. Also, I wrote about this with my wife before
Which is really the point, isn't it? The creationists are pushing intelligent design not because it explains things any better (my God, that would be science!) but because they are grinding an axe. They really don't want an honest critical analysis comparing evolution and intelligent design, because the the results of this debate are pre-determined. But they don't know this (or don't care) because creationists simply don't understand critical thinking. As I've written before, the entire thrust of fundamentalism is hostile to the notion of analytical thought or reasoned debate. To do so is evidence of doubt. Now for a scientist (or philosopher) doubt is an invaluable tool. All opinions should be provisional. But for a creationist, doubt is a sign of damnation. It shouldn't be any surprise that intelligent design is such a silly theory, because the people enunciating it aren't really scientists.
What I find most interesting about this article is how it lays bare the Orwellianism of the right. They want to critically analyze evolution, but haven't bothered to look at the serious flaws in intelligent design. They say that they just want a "pluralist" environment in which all ideas are on the table, but they also say they want to "kill liberalism." They say they want an open dialogue, but admit that any compromises are just temporary as they continue on their long march of instituting a theocracy. They use postmodern arguments to defend their position while essentially trying to undermine the process of rational deliberation and impose their theological position on unbelievers. Once again, the right is trying to shift their own vices onto the opposition, using liberal language to defend illiberal positions.
It really is just disgusting.
The Constitution as Nuclear Weapon
Saturday, March 12, 2005
Many of you may have heard that the Senate is considering exercising what has been called the "nuclear option." This is the idea that either the Vice President (by fiat) or a majority of the Senate could change the Senate rules and eliminate the filibuster. I hadn't paid much attention until now, but it seems that some conservative bloggers (such as Powerline
) are hopping on this bandwagon. They have asserted that it is perfectly consistent with the Constitution to change the rules on the filibuster, and in fact it has been done several times in the past. So the right is dubbing this the "Constitutional option" with typical conservative doublespeak.
Now I will concede this point: it is in fact constitutional to change the rules of the Senate. I think the VP idea is on shakier ground, but it is certainly plausible to think that a Senate majority could alter the rules of that chamber. But for me the question is not can
we do something, but should
we. I could cheat on my wife - it is technically feasible - but it would be stupid, self-destructive and cruel to do so.
So let's look for a moments on the substantive rather than merely formal elements of this question. The filibuster exists to prevent an oppressive majority from dominating a minority. It also guarantees full deliberation of issues in the Senate, and requires that public policy is the product of consensus rather than narrow (and frequently short-term) political advantages. In sum, it is a very conservative device to force political opponents to come to a meeting of the minds. As Alan Simpson (former Senator from Wyoming) has argued, the existence of the filibuster has prevented the Senate from degenerating as an institution like the House has. There really is no argument on the merits to dump the filibuster. No matter who is in the majority.
The right has gotten very literal-minded over the last generation. If you look at libertarianism, strict interpretation of the constitution, religious fundamentalism, their defenses of torture, etc., you can see that they have gotten very legalistic and simple-minded in their approach to questions. What they have forgotten is that can does not, in fact, imply should. They have gone even further, deciding that if they can get away with something, they should do it. Just look at their election shenanigans in the last couple of cycles. They have, in fact, stopped being "conservatives" at all, so obsessed are they with their quest for domination. I mean really, what is conservative about wanting to re-write a long-standing political tradition like the filibuster? What in the world is Burkean about willy-nilly altering constitutional procedure for the sake of short-term gain?
I have not mentioned that fact that the Republicans were all in favor of the filibuster when they were in the minority, using it to frustrate Clinton and the Democatic majority (which was much larger than the R's have today). I could go on and on attacking them for trying to have it both ways, and doing anything and everything in the name of expediency. But mocking them for their hypocrisy would be too easy. It'd be beneath me. Really.
Thursday, March 10, 2005
I know, I know, I give Bull Moose a hard time. I usually pick fights with him where we disagree, but in reality we agree on many other issues. I just don't usually right about those. So let me point to two recent posts
that I absolutely agree with. First, that the Democrats should make a bigger deal out of the unsustainable Bush deficits, in part by tying them to a broader picture of Republicans as elitist snobs.
Secondly, Democrats should recognize that the Social Security debate is part of broader agenda. The strongest argument I have heard that we should propose alternatives to privatization is that we don't want to be painted as reactionaries. I'm not sure if Social Security in particular is a good example of this problem (since I'm not sure there really is a problem to fix), but the basic argument is a good one. Furthermore, we don't need to obsess about Bush. The focus on him reminds me very much of Democrats who in 1995 wanted to target and destroy Newt Gingrich. By response was "What next? So you get rid of him and they're be someone just as bad if not worse to replace him. You need to break up the political coalition which gives him power, not destroy just one man." And you know what? I was right - after Newt, we got DeLay, and the Republicans are as strong as ever.
So let's all put our thinking caps on in devising new proposals and strategies, and remember that our aim is bigger than ruining any one Texan. As fun as that is.
Missing the Point. Again.
Wednesday, March 09, 2005
The Washington Post
has told us not to worry. You see, Bush & Co. have abandoned further tax cuts in favor of tax reform. So the deficit at least won't get any bigger.
These people are just tools. First, they neglect to mention that the old tax cuts that Bush intends to remain in place are the primary cause for the deficit (and, by the way, are also the chief threat to Social Security revenues). What we have now is a structural deficit, where expenditures permanently exceed revenues. The Republicans have already demonstrated that they don't have the political will to cut spending enough to balance the budget, so we will continue to pile up trillions of debt. It would be helpful if the Post mentioned why were are in this fix in the first place, and that only by undoing the Bush tax cuts can we start to make any headway in repairing the damage.
Secondly, the move to "tax reform" is far less innocuous that it sounds. The entire agenda of the right is to shift income from the bottom to the top, and to shift the tax burden from the top to the bottom. What we have is a reverse Robin Hood tax policy. A national consumption tax or flat tax (either of the straightforward or underhanded variety) will dramatically increase taxes on the middle and working classes and cut them for the very rich. This is what Republicans mean by tax "reform." It is in fact what they mean by any kind of reform. In the Republican Dictionary, the entry for "reform" should be: and policy change that screws working people for the benefit of the wealthy.
So when the Post suggests that the Republicans are turning the corner on fiscal discipline, or not to worry about tax reform, do what I do whenever Dick Cheney comes on TV: change the channel.
Here We Go Again
Tuesday, March 08, 2005
This is the last time I am going to talk about this. Promise.
Yesterday Bull Moose
, following David Beinart, argued that Democrats are intolerant. That's right, you heard me. He distinguishes the way that Republicans have reached out to ethnic minorities over the last few years, while the Democrats have failed to do so with religiously inclined or military voters. Along similar lines, Beinart
thinks that liberals are being, well, illiberal - just look at how they treated Bob Casey in 1992! Apparently liberals hold the evangelicals in contempt, and are fighting back for room for their way of life in America. Wow, I had no idea Christians in this country were so persecuted. How did that happen? How long will we have to wait for an evangelical to be elected President! Ah, the humanity!
My God this is just ridiculous. Why is it so hard for these "centrists" to understand that liberals don't have any problem with people of faith practicing that faith any way they please. We could care less if someone wants to live a sort of life we might not choose. You want to go to church 3 times a week, great! Have fun! Let a thousand flowers bloom! But there is a big difference between allowing a group space to practice their preferred lifestyle and foisting your value system of the rest of us
The "issues" that drive the religious right are 1) prayer in schools, 2) displays of christianity in public places, 3) evolution, 4) gays, 5) the role of women, 6) abortion. Those issues have very little to do with defending your way of life and a great deal to do with imposing your "good life" on everyone else. The problem with cultural traditionalism is that it is other-regarding, and hence illiberal. What makes liberals mad is not that traditionalists believe what they do (many of us believe the same things), it is that some traditionalists are only happy when everyone else believes the same way they do. Because of course, anyone who doesn't recognize the truth of their claims is either evil, willful, or whatever. Arguing that that there is room for many ways of life is a repudiation of their divinely granted insights. They really don't accept the possibility
that there is any other acceptable way to live. Now who's being intolerant?
Really, Bull Moose should know better. The claims of the religious right to cultural persecution are little more than Orwellian doublespeak. What he have is a group avoiding charges of intolerance by shifting this accusation on its opponents. And some on the left have actually accepted this specious argument! Hey man, you have a hook in your mouth!
Nothing New Under the Sun
Monday, March 07, 2005
by Digby really got me thinking, because his political development closely tracks my own. In the early 1990's I was an enthusiastic supporter of DLC ideas, because I thought they had the potential to both improve Democratic electoral prospects and were creative solutions to a new era. And like Digby, I eventually realized that that both these benefits had been substantially oversold.
People like Jeff Klein
, on the other hand, are dazzled by the economic successes and political victories of Bill Clinton and still can't seem grasp the limits of Clintonism. Bill had aimed to fundamentally re-balance the political equation in American politics, to restore liberalism electoral and policy initiative. He patently failed to do so. While he did narrow the gap in Presidential elections, he lost Congress and allowed the debate to continue to shift to the right.
There are a lot of reasons for this failure, which I and others have talked about a great deal. But I think the major problems with incremental Clintonism (the post-1994 variety, not the 1993 version) are that, politically, it does not comes to grips with the reactionary and ruthless right, and in policy, it fails to grapple with the real fundamental challenges facing the U.S. polity.
Let me say something controversial: we are not living in a new, unprecedented era. Oh, there are technological differences between now and the past, but I believe that many people are falling prey to the fallacy "Appeal to Novelty." They think that just because an idea seems new it is a good idea. This is a fallacy that liberals (including myself) have a tempremental weakness for, in the same way that conservatives are prone to committing the Appeal to Tradition fallacy.
In reality, all we are living in is the next logical phase of the industrial revolution. Before the industrial revolution, economic activity was localized, small proprietors were able to compete with any other organization, and local government were able effectively manage their own destinies. With the advent of improved communications and transportations technology, independent economic agents and governments(the keystone of the middle class, and hence democracy itself), came under enormous pressure. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, this economic transformation became regional in scope. The response by the left was to shift the locus of economic management upward to the national level, and to craft institutions to protect small proprietors and labor from the race-to-the-bottom tendencies and abusive corporate practices. They supported re-distribution, regulation, the social safety net, and labor unions. All of this worked. For the time being.
What the New Dealers failed to recognize was that 1) the momentum of industrialization made their solutions temporary, and 2) that a large constituency had never accepted these reforms. As technology has continued to improve, economics has now gone global, and the old arrangements have broken down just as they have come under new attack from their old right-wing opponents. So our new situation isn't new at old. It is just old problems on a larger scale.
In order to respond to these developments, the left doesn't need to abandon
the New Deal but extend
it. We need to go global too. This means that we need international economic institutions than can check the worst effects of globalization. The DLC strategy was to ape the changes in corporations and to individualize public services, turning citizens into customers. All this does is accelerate a downward shift, because what is needed is to strengthen collective institutions and create new ones that stretch across national lines. The DLC's contempt for unions is a key indicator of its fundamental misguidedness.
Incremental changes won't work. We need to Think Big, and Act Big. Late Clintonism simply adapted to the contemporary political environment rather than re-shaping it, which is why its accomplishments were so ephemeral. We need create a global New Deal, reformed of its old technocratic biases, because it is the only way were are going to save the American middle class, or our democracy.
Getting Liberal Federalism straight
Saturday, March 05, 2005
There is a fascinating article
in the NYT Sunday Book Review on what essayist Franklin Foer describes as liberal federalism. Now my long-time readers will know that I have used this phrase for one of my pet ideas, namely developing a new model of government policy-making that makes the states part of the process. Foer's piece has a very interesting background on the history of the left and federalism. He traces left-wing defenders of states rights from Jefferson through Brandeis and Wilson to the 1960's communitarians and Bill Clinton. The basic idea of liberal federalists is that state governments are more open to popular participation and hence are more democratic than centralized D.C.-based bureaucracies, and that the government should defend small businesses and small towns rather than just selling out to big corporations and focusing exclusively on cities.
Foer also describes the liberal nationalist vision (I'm really not that crazy about his label!) founded by Herbert Croly, who Foer describes as a complete elitist in favor of essentially emasculating state governments. This perspective (according to Foer) was embraced by FDR and the New Frontier/Great Society liberals.
The implication of Foer's piece is that Democrats would be well-advised to concentrate their efforts on state governments rather than the nation. Now while I agree with the essential thrust of the article, Foer suggestion is far too simplistic. Of course Democrats should use federalism on social issues, because it takes them off the national table. And of course we need to make the states more of "laboratories of democracy" again. But Foer is missing the real nature of a new liberal federalism.
What Foer fails to understand is that an exclusive state-centered focus would be just as disastrous, and accomplish less substantively, than the Washington-centered obsession. This is so for two reasons: first, the national government can still easily pre-empt state policy, so if we concede Washington to the Republicans they will just neuter everything we do. Second, Foer's version of liberal federalism fails to address the key problem with decentralization, namely the "race to the bottom." States have a strong incentive to cut social services in an effort to attract business. Any state-centered liberalism has got to find a way to grapple with this phenomenon. Just saying "let's shift power to the states" is really just a way of cutting social programs. Which is why Republicans are always for it.
The fact is that Croly (and the nationalists) had a point on the real problems with allowing states to control domestic social policy. He was too tough on the competence of state government - they were incompetent and corrupt at the time, but he had the typical and misguided Progressive response of destroying an institution rather than reforming it (like they did with political parties). But Croly was right about the poor incentives and limited capacity that states have to tackle the big issues. I mean really, could Kansas have dealt with the Great Depression all on its own?
The plain fact is that state governments don't really have the resources on political muscle to push through major change. Which is where my version of liberal federalism comes in. It is in fact a synthesis of the nationalist and federalist visions, in which the national government uses its power to establish broad policy positions and supplies resources, leaving the states and local governments to work out the details. This gives to each level of government a responsibility for which it is capable. The D.C. govt is bad at detail, and the states are bad at priorities and money, so we can combine the two. It calls not for a myopic focus on one's own back yard or the destiny of the whole country, but cooperation
horizontally across state lines and vertically between national, state, and local political institutions. It is, to turn Croly on his head, to use Jeffersonian means to Hamiltonian ends.
To Risk Offending People...
Thursday, March 03, 2005
I'm going to say something controversial this morning. Is it worth it to liberals to fight to remove religious references from the public square? This may be a surprising comment given my past statements, in particular where I spoke to the inappropriateness of invocating religious doctrine when making a political argument. But what I am speaking to today is something different, namely is it really worth it to get bogged down in an extended debate over whether the word "God" is in the Pledge of Allegiance or on a quarter? Does it really hurt us to have the 10 commandments in a courthouse
This is not to say that I believe it is a good idea to have such references. If we were going to add one now, I would oppose it. But when they've been there for forty years, is it really worth the heartburn to get rid of it? Does their existence really cause the kind of psychic damage to people requiring a major political effort to rectify?
I'm not unpersaudable on this issue. I just think that we are probably unnecessarily pissing people off and dwelling on issues that really are rather trivial. Liberals have bigger fish to fry. Poste
Wednesday, March 02, 2005
I want to direct you to a few articles in the last few days that are worthy of attention.
First, Ed Kilgore of New Donkey has yet more evidence
that the Republican party wants to corrupt the re-districting process. This time they're at it in Georgia. Given what appears to be a plan to end the norm of once-a-decade re-districting, can we please drop all this stuff about "working" with them to reform the process? The only thing they understand is power. We won't get them to pay attention and cut it out until we stick it to their incumbents in some place like Illinois.
Second, please go read this post
from a few days ago on Daily Kos by "mcjoan." She encapsulates what I have been trying to say about the abortion issue in a very direct and eloquent fashion. The gist is that we are in danger of losing sight of the women in our present focus on the foetus. To do so is to concede the debate to the anti-choice advocates before it even gets started.
Which brings me to Bull Moose
, who is still yammering about Democrats and "cultural elitism." Apparently some liberal groups are mad that Chuck Schumer is supporting some anti-choice candidates for Senate races (in Rhode Island and Pennsylvania). Now I agree with the main thrust of the article, namely that Democrats shouldn't read anti-choice candidates out of the party. If those candidates are good on the other issues and are our best chance of winning, then so be it. I'm all for the big tent. And it is certainly absurd for pro-choice advocates to call Schumer "conservative." For the love of God, he's a Democrat from New York City! How conservative could he be? But what I want to criticize is Bull Moose's suggestion that the pro-choice position is "elitist." The fact that he is using the phrase "cultural elitism" really tips his hand and makes me very suspicious of his argument.
Simply because affluent Americans tend to be more pro-choice does NOT make the pro-choice persuasion elitist. It just means that even rich people can be right about some things. What is at stake is whether one group can impose its moral (and essentially religious) perspective on another group. Abortion really has very little to do with class.
Third, David Brooks is back in my cross-hairs. Today the issue is the decline in commitment to marriage. Brooks' proof? Separate checking accounts
! Now I certainly agree that marriage is about sharing things, and has something to do with mutual dependence. Too much separation can undermine a marriage. But autonomy needs a place as well. Keeping some financial independence is scarcely an example of the market mechanism invading the household. It has more to do with convenience, and with preserving some sphere of autonomy in one's relationship. How different are separate checking accounts from giving each other an "allowance" from joint income? Not at all. And frankly I am a little insulted by Mr. Brooks' implication that my wife and I are not committed to our marriage just because we have separate accounts. What really undermines a marriage is having sex in different beds, not using different banks.
Now of course Brooks has a hidden agenda here. No surprise, since he usually does. It occurs to me that joint checking accounts "issue" could be a vehicle for the subordination of women. Take away her separate account and she would have to consult with her husband before making even the most trivial purchases. Brooks might even be going further with his "markets out of marriage" theme. Couldn't his next step be to say that women who don't take their husband's last name, or who work, are not committed to their marriage? I smell a rat.
Finally, there is an op-ed in the New York Times today about the appointment of judges
. I am frankly conflicted on this issue. On balance, I think that the election of judges is a mistake. Popular opinion really shouldn't be a criteria when making judicial decisions, since the underlying purpose of the courts is to protect minority rights. Having elections for judges inevitably corrupts that function by making them subject to direct popular will. But I am not nearly so sanguine about the system of executive appointment as Mr. Olin is. He glosses over what he describes as "old" problems of political patronage, without paying any attention to the role that patronage plays in judicial selection today! Even more incomprehensible, he never mentions the contemporary effort of the radical right to stack the courts with their ideological allies. You'd think it would at least merit a mention. So I don't think that judicial election is a panacea, but I have far less confidence in the federal system than he does.
Eye of Newt
Tuesday, March 01, 2005
Thanks to my wife for spotting this little gem...
Newt Gingrich wants to abolish tenure
. This proposal is part and parcel of the conservative strategy to destroy every American institution that does not swear fealty to the Republican party. Newt blithely asserts that freedom of speech is not a problem from one of his faces and then argues that professors who are "Anti-American" should be fired with the other.
Substantively Newt has no case (as usual). The purpose of tenure is to guarantee the intellectual independence of academics. Without it, they will be under constant economic pressure to bow down to the gods of popularity. Sorry, the Academy isn't there to make people money or to appeal to our prejudices. It is there to challenge us where we live, to make us question everything we thought we knew. We have tenure because otherwise free thinkers are forced to drink hemlock.
Oh, and by the way, one of the reasons Newt doesn't like tenure is because when he was a professor at my alma mater he couldn't get it
. His intellectual mediocrity was apparent even then.
So maybe academics do