Freedom of thought is always freedom for the thought we hate

Discussion of the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo would, I think, benefit from a focus on Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ 1929 dictum that freedom of thought is necessarily “freedom for the thought we hate.”  It’s only when a good many people hate a thought that private violence or state-sanctioned coercion against the people who insist on expressing it is likely to attract support.

Charlie Hebdo has long specialized in airing thoughts that range from the unpleasant to the disgusting.  Not only Muslims, but decent people of any sort are unlikely to read much of any issue of the paper without a sense of revulsion.  To say, as so many have done in these last 48 hours, Je suis Charlie or Nous sommes tous Charlie is rather a bold act, or would be if 99% of those saying it had ever seen an issue of Charlie Hebdo.

I affirm that freedom for the thought we hate, that is to say, the assurance that one will not suffer violence because one has expressed ideas that someone finds obnoxious, is indispensable to a free society, and that without it no other freedom can long survive.  In that sense I would be tempted to join in saying Je suis Charlie. What, then, do we say about Anwar al-Awlaki?  In 2011, President Barack Obama openly ordered the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki and justified that killing on the grounds that Mr al-Awlaki had spoken in favor of terrorist attacks against Americans and that terrorists had sought him and his words out for comfort.  No evidence was presented that Mr al-Awlaki had been involved in any terrorist act, and there was no judicial process regarding him whatever.  Mr Obama simply ordered a drone strike, and the killing was done.  The following year, Mr Obama was reelected president.  The most prominent candidate to call for a criminal investigation of the killing of Mr al-Awlaki, former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, received 0.03% of the votes cast in that election; Mr Obama’s leading opponent, former Massachusetts governor Willard “Mitt” Romney, enthusiastically supported the president’s deadliest policies, and promised to expand them.

As an American, I would ask my countrymen: If we as a people sincerely believed in protecting the freedom of the thought we hate, where would Mr Obama be today?  How can we say Je suis Charlie if we are not prepared at the same time to say “I am Anwar al-Awlaki”?

If we cannot take that step, then the freedom we actually support is not the freedom of the thought we hate, but the freedom of people of whom we approve to express their contempt for people of whom we disapprove. That is an odd sort of freedom.  Political freedoms as traditionally conceived require the established authorities to renounce parts of their power, to subject themselves to various sorts of accountability, and to recognize that the rights of minorities, even minorities of one, sometimes take precedence over the will of the majority.  The freedom of the approved to scorn the unapproved does none of those things. On the contrary, it gives more power to those authorities who take part in deciding who will and who will not be invited to join the charmed circle of the approved; it prevents the authorities being held to account for anything they might do to those outside that circle; and it elevates the majority to an unchallengable, virtually divine status.  Nothing could be more totally alien to the irreverent spirit that Charlie’s newfound champions claim to cherish than this kind of pseudo-freedom.

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Some points to consider when deciding how to vote

This morning a story went out on the Associated Press wire that appeared in American newspapers under titles like “Undecided voters may sway presidential election.”  These two paragraphs got me thinking:

“I don’t believe in nothing they say,” says Carol Barber of Ashland, Ky., among the 27 percent of the electorate that hasn’t determined whom to back or that doesn’t have a strong preference about a candidate.

Like many uncommitted voters, Barber, 66, isn’t really paying attention to politics these days. She’s largely focused on her husband, who just had a liver transplant, and the fact that she had to refinance her home to pay much of his health bill. “I just can’t concentrate on it now,” she says before adding, “If there were somebody running who knows what it’s like to struggle, that would be different.”

It takes a bit of a imagination to think of ways the U. S. political system might be reformed so that a person could go from Ms Barber’s current position to the presidential nomination of a major party.  While President Obama as a child lived for a time in a household eligible for food stamps, and as recently as 1996 both major parties nominated candidates who had begun their lives in very modest economic circumstances, by the time each of those men entered his thirties he had risen well into the upper middle class.  It isn’t to downplay the challenges that faced the poor children Bill Clinton, Bob Dole, and Barack Obama once were that I point out that none of them ever had to keep a gravely ill spouse alive by taking on substantial debt at a time when he likely believed that his working days were numbered.

I could suggest some reforms that might empower people like Ms Barber.  Among those suggestions would be the devolution of as many legislative powers as possible to neighborhoods and other localities small enough for all citizens to assemble in face-to-face meetings, and of executive powers to boards of citizens chosen by lot.  Such a system worked quite well in ancient Athens, and when systems like it are given a chance they work well in the modern world.   However,  I doubt that such reforms will be adopted any time soon.  So, granted that we are stuck with a system in which politics is conducted on a continental scale and the average citizen can signal her or his policy preferences only by voting in occasional election, what questions should we ask as we decide how to vote?

I agree with Ms Barber that we need people in politics who can see the world from some point of view other than that of the moneyed elite among whom presidential candidates typically move.  I’d add that people like Bill Clinton, Bob Dole, and Barack Obama may be the last people we should expect to adopt such a point of view.  A man who rose from a childhood of poverty and obscurity to wealth and power is likely to have learned two lessons from the experience: first, that it’s no fun to be poor; second, that the way out of poverty is to make oneself useful to the rich.  Such politicians may be able to empathize with the non-rich, especially the very young among them, but they are the very last people we would expect to go out on a limb for the sake of people who are not in a position to advance their careers. And people who have been anything other than rich as adults are simply not going to have the resume that people expect of presidential candidates, let alone have the connections to organize a viable national campaign.

So, if the candidate’s personal experience of economic or other hardship is not a major criterion to use in deciding how to vote, what is?  I brought up the 1996 presidential campaign, not only because Ms Barber’s remark reminds me of the Clinton-Dole pairing, but also because I read a magazine article during it that has helped to clarify my political thinking ever since.  Written by David Samuels, it was titled “Presidential Shrimp: Bob Dole Caters the Political Hors d’Oeuvres” and appeared on pages 45 through 52 of the March 1996 issue of Harper’s Magazine (volume 292, number 1750.)  Subscribers to Harper’s can access the article online here; I stopped subscribing to it years ago, and of course I don’t keep 16 year old magazines around the house, so when I read Ms Barber’s remark this morning I had to take a trip to the library to track the article down.

One night in December, 1995, Mr Samuels’ press credentials gained him admittance to a fundraising dinner for the Dole campaign.  The dinner, held at the Sheraton Hotel in Boston, was organized by a group of Massachusetts businessmen, among them “Mitt Romney, the Mormon banker who nearly knocked off Ted Kennedy in the Senate race here in 1994.”  It’s a bit misleading to say that Mr Romney “nearly knocked off Ted Kennedy” in that race; though an early poll or two had given Mr Romney a narrow lead, at the end of the day Mr Kennedy was reelected by a margin of 58% to 41%, hardly a squeaker.  Nor is it accurate to call Mr Romney a banker; as a private equity operator, he borrowed a great deal of money, though he neither lent money nor held it in trust in the way banks do.   Be that as it may, it was a bit of an uncanny moment to see his name in an article from so many years ago that I was looking up for insight into an election in which he is one of the leading candidates.  What they call an “Eldritch moment,” I suppose.

Mr Samuels used vignettes from that dinner to illustrate several points about how U. S. political campaigns operated in those days.  After listing many of the major donors in attendance, Mr Samuels writes: “If Bill Clinton is the candidate of high-wage, capital intensive business- investment banking, high tech, and entertainment- Dole looks increasingly like the candidate of low-wage, labor-intensive retail, manufacturing, and small business” (pages 49-50.)  Nowadays, a candidate with a donor profile dominated by retail, manufacturing, small business, and agribusiness concerns would be unlikely to advance as far as Mr Dole did; as Tom Frank demonstrates in his recent book Pity the Billionaire, it is precisely these groups that have funded the “Tea Party.”  Despite the headlines that tendency generated, it certainly did not represent much of an inconvenience for Mr Romney’s finance capital-backed march to this year’s Republican presidential nomination.

Mr Samuels describes Mr Dole’s public persona in a way that rings true to me: “[T]here is something appealingly adult about Dole’s performance.  As he smirks and blinks, and tramples on his applause lines, it is not hard to imagine some kind of fundamental honesty that prevents him from pulling out all the stops and putting on the expected show.  Dole’s best lines, his best moments in the Senate, have in common a weary and knowing respect for his audience.  The very depth of Dole’s cynicism can even translate as charm: ‘I’m not going to lie to you’ is one of the few lines that the senator delivers with any conviction in public, not because Dole doesn’t lie but because, unlike so many politicians, he is at least aware that he is lying” (page 51.)  As a connoisseur of world-weary cynicism, my favorite moment of the 1996 campaign came when Mr Dole, expected to repeat his campaign slogan “Bob Dole. A Better Man.  For a Better America,” said “Bob Dole.  Better man with a better plan.  Or whatever.”  The man had such contempt for the process that he couldn’t be bothered to memorize his own slogan.  That almost made me want to vote for him.

This image of Bob Dole as a man who “is at least aware that he is lying” inspires Mr Samuels to a flight of political science fiction: “In a rational political system, of course, geared to show off the strengths of the two opposing candidates for the highest office in the land, Bob Dole would be allowed to go on television and explain to the voters who is supporting him (and why,) who is supporting Bill Clinton (and why,) and encourage the voters to choose between them based on this practical knowledge.”  Mr Dole’s “weary and knowing respect for his audience” made it possible to imagine him operating under those conditions.  I can almost hear his voice saying “I represent a consortium of investors drawn from private equity, agribusiness, trucking, manufacturing, and retail.  They want a capital gains tax cut, managed trade deals like NAFTA, subsidies for exports, a rollback of workplace safety standards, and lax enforcement of securities regulations.”

I don’t disagree that our evaluation of the opposing candidates should begin with consideration of their sponsors and of what those sponsors expect in return for their investment.  But it mustn’t end there.  In a two-party system, we not only elect one party to fill an office, we also elect the other party to serve as the opposition.  So we should not only consider each party by the potential office-holders it offers us, but also by its likely effectiveness as an opposition party.  The first presidential election in which I voted was 1988.  I remember one afternoon that autumn when I read literature from the campaigns of George H. W. Bush and Michael Dukakis.  The more I read, the less appealing either of them looked.  The next day, I was walking to a class when it occurred to me that whichever of them was elected, Congress would rewrite any proposals he sent them.  That struck me like a thunderbolt.  Suddenly it was obvious to me that a President Dukakis would be in no position to enact the parts of his platform I disliked, while the President Bush we actually ended up with would have a relatively easy time enacting his very worst ideas.  So it was easy for me to vote for Mr Dukakis.

Moreover, while it is undoubtedly true that the people who provide the money for a campaign set the boundaries to the policies the candidate can espouse, that campaign must also enlist the support of groups that provide little money but many votes.  So, our parallel universe Bob Dole would tell us not only what his sponsors expected in return for their money, but also what they had authorized him to offer to constituency groups whose support he needed.  For example, none of his principal backers had a financial stake in the abortion-rights debate, yet Mr Dole adopted a rigidly anti-abortion line in preparation for the 1996 campaign.  A Republican candidate who failed to do so at that time would have lost his hold over voters without whose support he would have had no chance at all in the Midwestern states where presidential elections are usually decided.  A pro-choice Bob Dole would have been a certain loser and therefore an extremely poor investment.

So, when we elect a president, we elect three things: we elect a consortium of investors to serve as the president’s de facto Executive Council; we elect the other party as the official opposition; and we elect the most volatile constituency groups within the president’s coalition to a position in which they have a veto over executive action.  Notice, it is not the largest groups backing the president that hold this veto; it is the groups whose support the president cannot take for granted and must earn.  Therefore, when we choose a presidential candidate, we should do so because we see a way in which the economic interests of that candidates’ backers will promote the national interest as we understand it; because the other party, as the opposition party, is able to block the worst aspects of our candidate’s agenda and unable to block some of its best aspects; and because our votes, coming from us as members of particular constituencies,  are unlikely to send a signal that the candidate’s party can take our support for granted.

Mr Samuels, writing more than 16 years ago, noted that wealth was rapidly becoming more concentrated in the USA: “That the economic program of the new Democratic financiers may also imply the continuing hemorrhage of American jobs abroad is of little concern to those who pay the party’s bills today: with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer at unprecedented speed, the first term of the Clinton presidency bears an alarming resemblance, in its effects if not in its tone, to that of Ronald Reagan” (page 48.)  In the years since, this process of concentration has reached fantastic levels, as the financial sector’s elite has pulled away from every other group.  Mr Samuels describes scenes in which manufacturing bosses join the likes of Mr Romney and other financiers as the senior-most figures at the top table.  Today presidential candidates treat the heads of manufacturing businesses the way they treat disabled children,  seating them at the dais when they plan to introduce the as inspiring examples of what is still possible in America.  “And they are going to keep that factory and those jobs right here in the USA!,” applause, applause.

As the number of people who qualify as truly rich and the range of fields in which their fortunes are amassed shrinks, the universe of moneymen who can finance national campaigns shrinks even more rapidly.  It shrinks not only in number, but also in the variety of interests it represents.  This shrinking variety has three major consequences.  First, the differences between the major parties fade into irrelevance as they come to depend not only on consortia of investors who are equally rich, but on consortia that are drawn from the same sectors and that massively overlap in membership.  Second, the likelihood grows that the moneyed elite, small as it is and detached as it is from any but a tiny handful of concerns, will become bizarre, absorbed in ideas that may come naturally to its members for some economic or other reason, but which have no relevance to the public at large.  Third, the less rapport there is between an elite and the public it governs, the more repressive its government is likely to be.

These three processes are all well advanced in the USA.  For evidence that the differences between the parties are fading into irrelevance, consider the unprecedented level of legislative and executive activity in Washington in the last twenty years.  Contrary to the weirdly fashionable complaint that national politics is mired in gridlock, the Congress has in these last decades appropriated money by the trillion, cut taxes by the trillion, and condoned the printing of dollars by the trillion, deregulated entire industries,  required citizens to pay taxes directly to corporations in favored industries, established massive new agencies, started several wars of aggression, and granted the president unrestricted power to monitor, detain, torture, and kill whomever he pleases.   Granted, politicians running for reelection rarely point to any of this activity as an achievement of which they are proud, and not one item of it enjoys the support of even a plurality of voters, let alone a majority.  But it certainly constitutes extreme productivity, and every part of it was enacted with broad bipartisan support.  The unpopularity of this formidably efficient bipartisan cooperation attests to the detachment of the moneyed elite that sponsors both parties from the life of the country more generally.  The legislation that Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have signed granting their office the powers of a police state show that the donors behind both men see the nonrich public as a source of danger to their position and want to give their political agents the means to intimidate it into silence.

Even when there is a functioning avenue of communication between the elite and the rest of us, minor parties are essential to a two party system.  Voters who decide that the party they usually support has become too different from the other party can signal their displeasure by crossing over to support the other party.  But in the absence of minor parties, voters who decide that their party has become too much like the other party have no effective way to signal their opinion.  Abstaining can send that message, but may not give the party a clear incentive to alter its behavior.  Given a choice between continuing to do what they have been doing and holding on to whatever success they have already gained or changing their approach in hopes of bringing nonvoters back to the polls, surely it would be a rare leadership cadre that would take the path of high risk.

When the ruling elite has drifted as far from the voting public as they have in the USA, the role of minor parties is crucial.  The only party that will resist the excesses of the elite, let alone embrace a program that may reverse the centralization of power in ever fewer hands, is one that faces certain defeat otherwise.  The Republican Party draws its base of support from voters who are comfortable with hierarchy ; it is therefore unlikely to become the vehicle for such resistance.  The Democratic Party absorbs the votes of people who want to create a more open political system; if that is the goal, it is therefore necessary either to wrest control of the Democratic Party from its current sponsors, or to destroy it and make way for a new party that will rise to that challenge.  Therefore, I will cast my ballot for Rocky Anderson for president.

Jail to the chief?

In the current issue of The Nation, Alexander Cockburn reminisces about the day he became a citizen of the United States of America.  On that day he and his fellows swore to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States, a document which they had all been required to study, and which speaks of limits to state power and protection for the rights of the individual:

But it turns out it was all a fraud. The Uzbek down the row from me who had fled Karimov’s regime probably had no need to anticipate being boiled alive—a spécialité de la maison in Tashkent. But being roasted alive by Hellfire missile, doomed by executive order of President Obama, without due process in any court of law, for reasons of state forever secret, could theoretically lie in his future. If presidential death warrants beyond the reach of scrutiny and review by courts or juries are the mark of a banana republic, then we were all waving the flag of just such an entity.

What moves Mr Cockburn to this bitter declaration is of course the killing of Anwar al Awlaki, a killing for which the president of the United States proudly claimed responsibility.  al Awlaki may have been acquainted with some men who committed or attempted to commit acts of terrorism, and he certainly made unpleasant comments in public forums.  But the Obama administration has yet to do so much as accuse him of complicity in any violent act, much less provide evidence that he was the commander of an enemy force engaged in war on the United States, and as such a legitimate military target.  As it stands, the al Awlaki killing can be classified only as an act of murder.  Mr O’s boast that he ordered the strike is of a piece with his predecessor’s casual public admission that he ordered the torture of terrorism suspects.  Each man is serene in his belief that there is no crime he can commit that will stir the legal authorities to prosecute him.

Ought Americans who stand to Mr O’s left support a candidate to challenge him for the Democratic presidential nomination next year?  If being on the left means that one prefers the rule of law to a regime in which the president may kill and torture with impunity, one might  think the answer would be obvious.  For John Nichols, it’s more complicated.  Some might say that the best thing the president could do is resign, stand trial, and go to prison, accompanied if possible by his predecessors.  For Mr Nichols, not only is it clear that Mr O should continue in office, but it is apparently desirable that he should be reelected.  He wonders whether a primary challenger could help Mr O improve his chances of winning a second term, and seems to wish that one were on the horizon.  He doesn’t claim to know that it would work out that way:

The dramatically sped-up and concentrated primary calendar leaves little time for slow-to-develop challenges. It is already very late in the 2012 process, and no well-known Democratic official or progressive activist seems to be entertaining a run.

“We don’t even have a Pat Buchanan,” jokes Jeff Cohen, the veteran media critic and adviser to progressive candidates who is convinced that a credible primary challenger could win 30 to 40 percent of the vote in some states. Cohen argues that a primary challenger would not have to win to make a meaningful impact; a strong competitor could force Obama to sharpen his message and give progressives a significant role in defining the party. But for every progressive who argues that Obama’s re-election prospects would be improved by primary prodding from the left, there are cautionary voices like that of James Fallows, who asserts: “As for the primary challenges, what similarity do we notice between Jimmy Carter (challenged by Edward Kennedy in 1980) and George H.W. Bush (challenged by Pat Buchanan in 1992)? What we notice is: they held onto the nomination and went on to lose the general election.”

Obama is not likely to be defeated by a primary challenger. Despite the dip in his national approval ratings, polling suggests he retains relatively solid numbers with Democrats in key states—and among critical voting blocs. African-American voters, 86 percent of whom give the president favorable ratings (58 percent strongly favorable), are definitional players in Southern and a number of Great Lakes states. A ham-handed primary challenge could energize African-American voters—who, as Nation columnist Melissa Harris-Perry notes, may be inclined to ask why the equally disappointing Bill Clinton did not face a primary challenge in 1996. Such a challenge could also antagonize young people and many white liberals inclined to defend the nation’s first African-American president against what they perceive to be an unfair assault.

The prospect that the Democratic Party could divide against itself in an ugly debate gleefully amplified by right-wing media has little appeal even to Democrats who disdain Obama’s policy drift. But there is almost as much concern that a nuanced challenge from a candidate who appeals to African-American voters, such as Cornel West, would weaken the incumbent the way Ted Kennedy’s 1980 challenge to Carter and Buchanan’s 1992 run against George H.W. Bush are perceived to have undermined those presidents’ re-election.

In fact, the theory that primary challenges invariably lead to November defeats is wrong. In the past fifty years, two of the biggest presidential wins were secured by incumbents who faced meaningful primary competition. In 1964 President Johnson and his “favorite son” stand-ins had to fend off a determined challenge from Alabama Governor George Wallace, who won roughly 30 percent of the vote in two Midwestern primaries and 44 percent in Maryland. In 1972 President Nixon was challenged from the right and the left by Republican Congressmen (Ohio conservative John Ashbrook and California liberal Pete McCloskey) who attracted a combined 30 percent of the vote in New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary. Both Johnson and Nixon would go on to win more than 60 percent of the fall vote.

On The Nation‘s website, Dave Zirin denounces singer Hank Williams, Junior, who recently lost a gig after comparing Mr O to the late Adolf Hitler.  It is not entirely clear what it is about Mr O that reminds Mr Williams of Germany’s late tyrant.  Perhaps the fact that each head of state boasted publicly of the murders he had orchestrated, that each dispatched his air force to bomb into submission countries that posed no threat to his own, that each used his office to accelerate the dismantling of the democratic constitution under which he had come to power, and that each claimed the right to detain any number of people for any length of time without judicial process may have prompted Mr Williams to think that they bore some resemblance to one another.  Of course, since Mr Zirin is a faithful supporter of the Democratic Party, one might expect him to find ways in which Mr O is less advanced in his murderous ways than was Adolf Hitler, as faithful Republicans spent the years 2001-2009 counting the degrees that separated Mr O’s predecessor from the same benchmark of wickedness.  Strangely, Mr Zirin says nothing about Mr O other than to describe him as the “first African-American president.”  This description precedes Mr Zirin’s pronouncement of his anathema upon Mr Williams, that anathema taking the form of the label “racist.”  Such a pronouncement is a sort of ritual; to complete it, the officiant needs nothing from Mr O but his skin color.  Once this ritual element is provided, no further information about Mr O could have any possible relevance to the proceeding.

Of course, there are sound reasons why one ought not to compare active politicians to Adolf Hitler.  For one thing, using him as the all-purpose symbol of an unjust ruler gives him a satanic glamour of just the sort that the Nazis used so effectively in their seduction of the more desperate members of Germany’s middle classes in the late Weimar period.  If Hitler must be remembered, it is far better to view him with contempt, perhaps tinged with the sort of pity one feels towards people who have psychological problems that one finds uninteresting.  Besides, the history of humankind is bursting with tyrants and killers; it is dismaying indeed that we share so little knowledge of history that Hitler is virtually the only one of the evil rulers of the past whose name we can be confident will be recognized almost anywhere.  For my part, I think an apt analogy could be made between Mr O and Critias, a fifth-century Athenian who is remembered today as the uncle of the philosopher Plato and the namesake of one of his nephew’s uncompleted dialogues, but in his own day he was rather more widely known as the leader of the “Thirty Tyrants,” a group who seized power in Athens after the Peloponnesian Wars and claimed the right to govern by means of assassination.

Mr O’s “anti-nuclear imperialism”

Let me tell you about a better way, a way that protects the purity of our precious bodily fluids.

The late September issue of Counterpunch (available to subscribers here; the newsletter’s website is here) includes a fine article by Darwin Bond-Graham titled “The Obama Administration’s Nuclear Weapons Surge.”  While Mr O has made many remarks declaring that nuclear weapons are bad and the world would be better off without them, he has in fact “worked vigorously to commit the nation to a multi-hundred-billion-dollar reinvestment in nuclear weapons, mapped out over the next three decades.”  Bond-Graham analyzes the New START agreement between the USA and Russia.  Though the publicity surrounding New START presented it as an arms-reduction treaty, Bond-Graham contends that it is nothing of the kind.  “On balance, the nominal reductions in nuclear weapons required by New START are insignificant when compared to the multibillion-dollar nuclear (and strategic non-nuclear) weapons programs committed to in the treaty’s text.”  Indeed, Bond-Graham classifies New START as an “arms-affirmation treaty.”  Mr O and his allies in the upper echelons of the congressional Democratic leadership were able to market New START as a disarmament agreement and to enlist the support of Americans who usually oppose nuclear weapons, even though “the treaty does not actually require the destruction of a single nuclear warhead.”  Bond-Graham also goes into depth on various other programs through which Mr O has managed to increase spending on nuclear weapons, to reorient the USA’s nuclear weapons programs towards potential use in conflict, and to strip away inhibitions against nuclear first strikes by the USA.

For Bond-Graham, Mr O’s anti-nuclear public statements not only represent a rhetorical device to “neutralize”  the “anti-nuclear and antiwar groups that so effectively exposed [George W.] Bush’s plans” to pursue policies similar to those of the current administration, but also constitute the foundation of a strategic orientation that Bond-Graham dubs “anti-nuclear imperialism.”  This orientation, ostensibly based on abhorrence of nuclear weapons, in fact promotes the development, maintenance, and deployment of such weapons.  Remember the claims that the Bush-Cheney administration made about Saddam Hussein’s alleged “Weapons of Mass Destruction” programs in 2002-2003, and the meaning of the phrase “anti-nuclear imperialism” becomes all too clear.

Who is on whose side?

The latest issue of Counterpunch (the newsletter that “Tells the Facts and Names the Names,” according to its masthead) includes some interesting bits.

Andrew Levine’s article about the ongoing disagreements between the governor and the public employee unions in the state of Wisconsin includes this description of Barack Obama:

a Nobel Peace laureate who wages multiple self-defeating wars of choice, a Constitutional Law professor who continues Bush era attacks on the rule of law (while protecting Bush era war criminals from being brought to justice), a community organizer who stifles efforts to relieve poverty (disingenuously, in the name of cutting budget deficits)

I can’t think of a more trenchant summary of the paradoxical Mr O that could be expressed in so few words.

Esam al-Amin’s article about the recent uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and other Arab countries quotes some authors not usually cited in leftist periodicals, among them Alexis de Tocqueville (“In a revolution, as in a novel, the most difficult part to invent is the end”), Joseph de Maistre (“The counterrevolution will not be a reverse revolution, but the reverse of a revolution”,) and Andrew Jackson (“In his farewell address in 1837, President Andrew Jackson said it best
when he reminded his people that ‘eternal vigilance by the people is the price of
liberty,’ and that one ‘must pay the price’ in order ‘to secure the blessing.'”)

I would never have voted for Jackson for any office, not only because my wife is a Cherokee but also because I am at heart a Whig who leaves a place open at the table in case Henry Clay should return to earth.  I would happily have voted for the liberal Tocqueville, though I’ve never succeeded in reading more than two pages of any of his writings at a time before drowsiness forced me to stop.  As for Joseph de Maistre, as an adherent of the republican tradition I disagree with his views on every level.   Still, I find it as difficult to put his books down as it is to wade through Tocqueville’s, so I’m glad I’m not the only person who both wants to see government by the people and to read books by Joseph de Maistre.

Forward, together

Several years ago, I heard Dick Cavett on TV reminiscing about a dancing class he took in the early 1950s.  He said that the teacher had told them that “There is a man in public life whom I would call a ‘motor moron.’  That man is Senator Nixon of California.”  Cavett went on to talk about how widely Richard Nixon’s physical awkwardness was remarked on during his career. I can’t find that clip anywhere online, but here’s a blog post of Cavett’s about Nixon.  Here’s a clip of him telling a shorter version of the story from that post.

What brings this to mind are this morning’s newspapers, several of which feature a quote from the State of the Union Address  President Obama delivered to Congress last night.  Evidently Mr O said “We will move forward together or not at all.”  Another video clip I wish I could find would be one of Richard Nixon intoning his 1968 campaign slogan, “Let us move forward together.”  When Nixon begins, his arms are outstretched in front of him, his hands together.  As he says “Let us move forward,” he jerks his arms backward.   As he says, “together,” he flings his arms wide.   Nixon also famously said in his fourth debate with John Kennedy in 1960 that “This country cannot stand pat.”  Considering that Nixon’s wife was named Pat, this was an unfortunate choice of words.  I’ve heard it said that he once used this expression while gesturing in the direction of Pat Nixon;  I don’t know if that”s true, though it isn’t hard to imagine him doing it.

Mr O and the facts

Nation magazine columnist Gary Younge supports Barack Obama; his latest column ends with the line “Obama needs to get out there and fight.”  Fight for what?  For a connection with reality.  As Younge says:

The sad truth is that even when presented with concrete and irrefutable evidence, some people still prefer the reality they want over the one they actually live in. Herein lies one of the central problems of engaging with those on the American right. Cocooned in their own mediated ecosystem, many of them are almost unreachable through debate; the air is so fetid, reasonable discussion cannot breathe. You can’t win an argument without facts, and we live in a moment when whether you’re talking about climate change or WMD, facts seem to matter less and less.

So far, so good.  But I simply do not see the evidence that Mr O is inclined to fight the Right.  On most issues, the president stands well to the right of public opinion, and benefits from the fact that the only effective opposition he faces comes from a party that is even further to the right than he is.

What are political parties for?

Click on the image below to see Keith Knight’s latest K Chronicles in readable form.

This suggests a different view of US politics than did one of his recent (th)ink comics:

The whole premise of the first comic that the Republicans and Democrats in official Washington might be expected to “solve America’s problems.”  I see no evidence that either party is interested in doing anything that could meet this description.  On a whole range of issues, the two parties are much closer to each other than either is to the mainstream of US public opinion.  In regard to trade policy, tax policy, health care, foreign policy, labor law, immigration, etc, the two parties represent a coordinated program to subsidize capital ownership and penalize wage labor.

The premise of the second comic is that the Republicans’ main goal is to attack the Democrats and that there is no point in the Democrats’ attempts to work with them.   If this is true, and if it is also true that the Democrats represent something good, then a Democratic leader who said that his or her party’s chief goal was to rid Washington of Republicans  would not be neglecting “America’s problems,” but tackling one of America’s biggest problems.   I don’t doubt that Knight sincerely believes that that Republicans are hopelessly bad, and that the Democrats are far better.  I am surprised that he doesn’t accept that Senator McConnell and his supporters are equally sincere in the contrary belief.

The Political Stupidity Index; or, What separates the USA from the world to its south

Some US presidents not powered by petroleum

The July issue of Counterpunch just showed up in my mailbox; I suppose I could have read it weeks ago if I subscribed to the email version rather than the paper-and-ink one.  If I did that, however, I wouldn’t be able to leave old copies in laundromats and doctor’s offices and wonder who is getting a shock from them. 

There are three pieces remembering the late and much lamented Ben Sonnenberg, founder of the (alas, equally late and much lamented) literary quarterly Grand Street and a longtime eminence of the American Left.  I want Alexander Cockburn and Jo Ann Wypijewski to write my obituary.  As they went on about Sonnenberg’s historical greatness, profound learning, unfailing humility, inexhaustible compassion, and cheerful lovable-ness, I started to wonder why he hadn’t risen from the tomb on the third day.  Still, they do show that Sonnenberg devoted his life to celebrating and advancing the achievements of the human intellect, and that he was fearless in bringing reason to bear when entrenched interests intimidated others into accepting the official story.  

Two muckraking pieces tackle official stories which claim that the US government protects its citizens from menaces approaching the country from the south.  Jeffrey Saint Clair’s “How BP and the Obama Administration Have Been Joined at the Hip” tells how Mr O has overseen “a profound bureaucratic lethargy that ceded almost almost absolute control over the response to the spill to BP.”  While he might have invoked powers under the 1968 National Contingency plan and “seized control of both the well and the cleanup operations,” leaving BP’s officers with nothing to do but “sign checks for billions of dollars,” Mr O in fact sidelined all advisors who showed any sign of independence from the oil giant, instead relying on former lobbyists for and executives of BP.  The administration did little to nothing to contain the damage the leak would do to the Gulf coast, its wildlife and fisheries, but a great deal to help BP contain the damage to its public relations.  Most of Saint Clair’s facts are also reported in this Rolling Stone piece.   

Frank Bardacke’s “Why the Border Can Never Be ‘Secured'” introduces the phrase “the Political Stupidity Index,” which Bardacke defines as “the difference between the words politicians say and the way we actually live.”  Bardacke argues that the national debate about immigration registers a remarkably high level of this sort of stupidity, taking it to a level where “the words at the top have nothing to do with life at the bottom.”  “Despite what may be said in the public debate, people know there is no way to stop Mexicans coming to the USA, as long as Mexico remains poor and the USA relatively rich,” writes Bardacke.  More enforcement at the border only means more corruption among border patrol agents and more power for criminal enterprises that have set out “to make border crossing a big, corporate business.”  Amnesty for undocumented workers, whether marketed under the label “a path to citizenship” or under some other brand name, will only increase the rate of illegal immigration, as the upsurge in immigration after 1986 legalization definitively proved.  Guest-worker programs are “a bad idea all around,” as the experience of the Bracero Program showed.  By the mid 1960s, the poor working conditions to which braceros were subjected had raised the ire of liberals who objected to the program because it was a form of indentured servitude, while conservatives were alarmed by number of braceros who left their places of indenture to blend into the general population of the USA. 

I’m not at all sure Bardacke is right that the border cannot be “secured.”  Israel has certainly shown that walls can keep highly motivated people from crossing borders, and enforcement of citizenship requirements at points of employment need not be any more difficult than enforcement of laws  that require employees to be at least a particular age or paid at least a particular wage.  In order to implement those measures, the US government would have to confront the people who profit from the current system.  Considering the absurd timidity our current government has shown in its dealings with BP, it is rather difficult to imagine a future government that would be prepared to take on all the interests that benefit from keeping US wages from rising too far above the Mexican average.  Difficult though it may be, it is hardly impossible that such a thing might happen, and therefore unjustified to say that “the border can never be ‘secured’.” 

Whether it should be secured is of course another question.  If a government ever does come to power in the USA that has the backbone to stand up to the low-wage lobby, that government would likely be the result of a profound change in the country’s whole political culture.  If that change ever does come about, it might reveal more attractive possibilities for the US-Mexican economic relationship than fortifying the border and adding a new layer of policing in employment.  Maybe if working people get hold of real political power they will find ways to work together to develop the US and Mexico in tandem, rather than submitting to policies that exacerbate economic inequality and hollow out industry on both sides of the border.

Barack Obama, Secret Agent Man

Yesterday, beloved public figure Steve Sailer posted some circumstantial evidence suggesting that Barack Obama’s parents might have been connected to the Central Intelligence Agency, and that their connections might have been of value to Mr O himself at various points in his career.  The evidence is scattered over three continents and several decades, and as such can hardly be called conclusive.  Sailer mentions that Stanley Ann Dunham’s employment at the US embassy in Jakarta in the late 1960s, when that embassy was regarded throughout the region as the hub for the agency’s activities in Southeast Asia; and that Barack Obama, Senior was a close associate of Tom Mboya, a strongly pro-American political leader in Kenya in the same period.  As for Mr O, after graduating from Columbia in the 80s he took a job at a company called Business International, a newsletter firm which the New York Times in 1977 identified as a CIA front organization.  None of this information is new; Sailer himself has been publicizing it for years.  But it is handy to have it in one place.    

Sailer’s post opens with these sentences:

The more I think about it, the more likely it seems to me that Barack Obama had a little bit of help along the way from the CIA. Yet, the more I think about it, the less important that seems.
If you conceive of the CIA not as an omnipotent puppet-master, but as a player in an international version of the municipal Favor Bank familiar from The Wire and The Bonfire of the Vanities in which various players scratch each others’ backs, then the idea that Obama might have had a little help along the way (e.g., perhaps a recommendation that helped him transfer from Occidental to Columbia’s International Relations program despite spending most of his time at Oxy getting high), the more likely and less significant it seems. 

The concept of the “Favor Bank” is one Sailer has developed at some length.  Among his interests are the traditional strategies various non-Muslim minority communities in Southwest Asia have used to get by in the centuries since the rise of Islam, and the ways offshoots of these communities in the Americas have adapted those traditional strategies to their new social environments.  So he’s always writing about Armenians, Jews, and others.  Sailer’s citations of a TV show and an 80s airport novel show that he isn’t particularly concerned with the scholarly literature on this subject.  He doesn’t have to give citations; he’s a blogger, not an academic.  Still, it would be nice if he occasionally pointed his readers toward some of already-published anthropological and sociological research.  

I want to make two points.  First, rather than the “Favor Bank,” I would invoke C. Wright Mills’ concept of the “Power Elite.”  In his 1956 book of that title, Mills argued that national policy in the USA is formulated by a “Power Elite” consisting of senior figures in business, the military, and politics.  This elite did not spring into existence overnight, but grew up gradually as American capitalism and military power grew.  Thinking of this elite, I would agree with Sailer that the CIA is not an “omnipotent puppet-master,” and not an alien mechanism foisted on the old Republic, but that it is of a piece with the rest of the American establishment. 

I should think it would be rather interesting if Mr O in fact owed part of his rise to cozy relations with an institution so close to the heart of the Power Elite.  That would show that his left-of-center admirers and his right-of-center detractors are equally foolish in their shared belief that he might bring radical change to the USA.  That Sailer does not see this story as interesting tells us, I think, something about his view of the president.  Sailer wrote a book-length analysis of Mr O’s memoir Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance.  The subtitle “A Story of Race and Inheritance” is clearly music to Sailer’s ears; he occasionally ridicules authors whom he believes to be understating the importance of race in the president’s life story, and race and inheritance are the two lodestars of Sailer’s own writing.  If the idea of Mr O’s CIA connections is getting steadily less interesting to Sailer, therefore, perhaps the reason might be that he wants to reduce the president’s biography to a “Story of Race and Inheritance,” and as Sailer learns more about those connections he finds it ever harder to do that. 

Sailer calls himself a “race realist,” arguing that race, which he defines as “a partly inbred extended biological family,” is by itself capable of explaining many social phenomena, including mean IQ scores among various population groups, crime rates, etc.  If Sailer is right and Mr O did inherit connections to the CIA, then his “Story of Race and Inheritance” suddenly drifts outside the scope of that sort of thinking.  He would have inherited those ties through a bureaucratic organization, not through a network of kinsmen.  While the fact that most of the people he has met would classify the president as African American might have given a particular shape to those connections, we cannot know what that shape might be unless we know a great deal about the institutional culture of the CIA in the later decades of the Cold War and something about the personal interactions among the young Mr O and the CIA men concerned with him. 

So, Sailer, despite his eagerness to identify circumstances in which race stands alone as an explanation of social phenomena, seems to have come upon a story which could serve as a perfect illustration of what social scientists mean when they argue that race and inheritance are not things that stand on their own, but that they exist only as features characterizing particular social encounters.  Ideas about race and customs relating to inheritance may shape a social encounter.  What is real, though, are particular social encounters and people who share them, not the ideas and customs that shape those encounters.