Aug 082013

The House recently voted down an amendment by Justin Amash (R-MI and a former classmate of mine at the University of Michigan) to defund mass NSA surveillance. The breakdown of the vote is interesting. It was thoroughly nonpartisan, as it roughly split the Democratic and Republican caucuses in half. It also neatly split the House leadership from the rank-and-file, as Nancy Pelosi joined with John Boehner and virtually the entire House leadership in voting against the measure.  Democratic party booster and serial email spammer Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-FL) voted on the same side as the right-wing warmonger Peter T. King (R-NY). The opposing camps on this issue can’t be neatly described by the shorthand political terms we commonly use.

I suppose that because Justin Amash himself is a self-styled libertarian, we might be tempted to say that the vote on his amendment revealed a previously undiscovered groundswell of libertarian sentiment in the Congress. That’s true, but only in the sense of “if opposition to unchecked secret surveillance is libertarian, then we are all libertarians” — which isn’t very accurate or helpful.

A digression: I am fond of making fun of libertarians. I like to find examples of others (from Alain deBotton to China Mieville) who skewer libertarianism in witty ways. I think libertarianism as commonly described by its proponents is a thoroughly junior-high-school, adolescent political philosophy that is only marginally more helpful for navigating in the real world than anarchism or communism [and I will admit that I was explicitly an anarchist… when I was in the 8th grade]. Although some of my most intelligent friends call themselves libertarian, I take that about as seriously as they take me when I self-identify as an ancient elf from Gondolin.

But back to the subject: the Amash vote shows that there’s an important political split on one of the most vital issues of the day that isn’t captured by our common shorthand terms. So we tend to mis-label the sides, or worse, fail to notice often enough that it exists. So let’s think more about what the disagreement is really about. What else do the defenders of current NSA practices have in common? What beliefs does Barack Obama share with Peter King and Eric Cantor? Allow me to speculate.

One thing might be a belief in the seriousness of the threat of terrorism. If you really do think that your own life or even your entire country is in imminent danger from terrorists, you’re more likely to forgive secretive methods (almost any kind of methods) to respond to the threat.

Another might be a belief in the vastly superior effectiveness of blanket surveillance to defeat the threat. This might mean that you’re OK with keeping secrets and violating laws for purely utilitarian reasons — the other alternatives simply won’t work. If anyone out there seriously believes this, I wish they’d be more explicit about it.

You might instead be someone who simply trusts authority figures, i.e., you might be an authoritarian. I don’t mean to use this word in a pejorative sense. I simply mean that you might, contra Amash and his supporters, feel comfortable with a world in which government authority figures are given carte blanche to do whatever they feel is best for the country, and you aren’t troubled by the risks that those people might make grave mistakes, or be corrupted by power, or use their power to advance ends that they haven’t told you about and that you haven’t consented to. All of us, after all, believe this to some extent, or there wouldn’t be any such thing as “consent of the governed”, no “representative government.” Trust in authority falls on a spectrum, and the more authoritarian and credulous end of that spectrum is more likely to be untroubled by secret government surveillance, secret law, and unchecked executive branch power.

I think that some combination of these beliefs are shared by most of the people who aren’t outraged by  the NSAs surveillance regime. There are certainly other reasons not to be outraged,* but I’m betting that these three together capture most of what motivated people to oppose the Amash amendment and to prefer to focus on Snowden himself rather than on what he revealed about the government’s activities.

And what about the other side? Certainly a belief in “libertarianism” as freedom from surveillance motivates many of Amash’s supporters, but what else? There’s got to be something, since the Congress did not suddenly become one-half libertarian when Amash’s amendment came up for a vote.

Apart from blanket surveillance itself, the secrecy surrounding this surveillance is troubling. The lack of Congressional oversight (see James Clapper’s lying to Ron Wyden) and the classification of the FISA court’s decisions regarding the NSA’s programs will worry anyone who believes that inter-branch checks and balances are necessary to prevent abuses of power. The less authoritarian, less trusting, and less credulous you are, the more you’re going to oppose the NSA’s unilateral implementation of blanket surveillance, even if ultimately you don’t object to the surveillance itself.

There is a third reason why the NSA revelations are so odious to so many — the apparent disregard for the rule of law. It takes a lot of hoop-jumping to avoid the conclusion that vacuuming up everyone’s email and phone records regardless of individualized suspicion falls under the powers authorized by Congress when it passed the AUMF against AlQaeda, or that it fails to violate the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures. Coming on the heels of the Addington/Yoo era at the OLC, where corrupt lawyers contorted themselves to whatever degree was necessary to condone torture, and following the Obama administration’s absurd redefinition of the word “imminent” to mean whatever it had to mean to justify its targeted killing programs, many of us are far less likely to trust in lawyerly machinations when it comes to the legality of mass surveillance by the NSA.

So what to call the two sides in the split over NSA surveillance? Tyrants vs constitutionalists? Terroristarians vs Rule-of-law-itarians? I don’t know. Just don’t mention fascism, because that could never happen here.


*Tawdry reasons such as a congressman accepting campaign donations from military/industrial interests, etc.



Feb 082013

As the latest apologist for Barack Obama’s policy of targeted killing in secrecy and without oversight, Michael Gerson once again illustrates the price we pay for the political myth that  “we are at war.”

This, of course, is the essence of the matter. If America is in an ongoing war against al-Qaeda and associated groups, then the rules of war apply, Yemen and the Afghanistan/Pakistan border are battlefields, and al-Qaeda operatives are lawful targets. This is the position taken by both the Bush and Obama administrations, consistent with America’s inherent right of self-defense and the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force. If this war were a myth or a metaphor, then the pursuit of al-Qaeda would be a criminal matter, requiring extradition, arrests and due process.

Of course Gerson is right.  If we are really at war, then the idea that we would restrain our commander-in-chief from waging that war is self-evidently absurd.  But if this war were a myth or metaphor, then not only would the pursuit of al-Qaeda be a criminal matter, the current policy of secret kill-lists drawn up by Obama administration officials would itself be criminal.

Gerson presumes that we agree with his assumption that this war we are supposedly fighting is not mere myth or metaphor.  But the stakes are too high for mere presumptions.  In wartime, the ordinary constitutional restraints upon the government no longer apply.  This is why Gerson, and all defenders of unchecked executive authority, must at every point be challenged to demonstrate — not merely assert — that this war is not a metaphor.

My guess is that if challenged, Gerson would cite the AUMF, which presumes to authorize the President to “use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.”

Since September 11, 2001, is now more than ten years in the past, it might be prudent to ask whether the extraordinary powers granted to the President under the AUMF still apply.  If they do still apply, we might ask when we might expect to see them expire.  When will the war against the perpetrators of the 9-11 attacks end?

Unfortunately, apologists for unconstrained governmental killing like Gerson never seem to provide much guidance on these issues.  For them, so long as there is even one cave-dweller somewhere in Pakistan who might harbor thoughts about committing a terrorist act against the United States, we will be obliged to defer to the President’s own determination that drone strikes, wiretapping, indefinite detention, and other practices that in peacetime would clearly be the practices of a dictator, are consistent with the defense of American freedom.




Jan 202013


Barack Obama is being inaugurated again tomorrow.

We in the USA have now not only elected a black President, we have reelected him.  Despite the ubiquitous paeans to America being the world’s foremost exemplar and defender of human rights and democracy, this is still exhilarating.  In the USA, Jim Crow is still a vivid memory for many of our older citizens, and unequal  treatment because of your race is still a fact of daily life.  It is still true in America that ambitious right-wing politicians can advance their careers with racist dog-whistles (no offense to dogs intended) and where entertainers like Rush Limbaugh can still excite their audiences with explicitly racist rants.  So yes, I’m very happy that Barack Hussein Obama is now our two-term black President.

But I’m also sad.  The thrill of Barack Obama’s reelection has almost nothing to do with the actions of the man himself, Barack Obama.  The exciting thing about his Presidency remains the mere fact of his race and the willingness of the American electorate to vote for a black man for President.  Not a small thing, certainly, but I can’t overlook my continuing profound disappointment in the leadership of President Obama.

I was reminded of my disappointment today while reading a magnificent review of the movie Zero Dark Thirty.  Literature professor David Bromwich points to the similarities between the movie’s gentle treatment of its chief protagonist and our nation’s treatment of Barack Obama:

And the process by which we acquit her runs oddly parallel to the process by which we have spared from blame a young idealistic president who chose to continue many of the same policies that were unconditionally denounced under George W. Bush. It is felt to be different, somehow, when a woman does it, just as it is different when our first black president does it.

I think we overlook the responsibility of Barack Obama for transforming what in 2004 were outrageous abuses of power by the Bush administration, into today’s uncontroversial, institutionalized, status-quo.  Whether this is because Obama is black, I’m not so sure, but I think it’s as likely an explanation as any.

To get to where we are now vis-a-vis our unaccountable national security state and all its excesses of domestic violations of civil liberties and international violations of human rights required the two-step of both George W. Bush and Barack Obama.  It required that George W. Bush use 9-11 as an excuse for unconstitutional executive branch behavior.  He did that well, and he has been appropriately blamed for it by those who profess to value the rule of law.  But it also required the endorsement of those policies by Barack Obama to transform what used to be controversial into the daily mundane features of national life that they are today.  Zero Dark Thirty, as Bromwich points out, could not have been made without both the outrageousness of Bush and the placid acceptance of that outrageousness by Obama.

Obama should have been made to pay a political price when he reneged on his original campaign promises and ratified the lawlessness and lack of accountability of the national security state.  And this is even more true, perhaps, when it comes to the banks and the financial crisis they and their lackeys in government created.  At least Obama has nominally rejected torture.  He hasn’t done much of anything to reject the right-wing program of financial deregulation and to solve the too-big-to-fail problem.  Dodd-Frank is not a counterexample.

In his second term so far, Obama shows no sign that his performance will be any better.  John Brennan at CIA and Jack Lew at Treasury will be keepers of the status quo, just as Barack Obama, sadly, seems to like it.

So yes, cheers to us for reelecting a black man.  We continue to make progress against racism, and we should take the credit for that.  But in the spirit of rejecting racism, let’s try to hold Barack Obama to the same standards we professed to hold George W. Bush.

Dec 102012

Andrew Bacevich has a post up at Front Porch Republic that made me giddy with the old familiar feeling of “Yes!  Someone on the internet is absolutely correct!”   I’m sure you know the feeling.

I’ll try to explain why this essay did it for me, by commenting on Bacevich line-by-line:

As an independent, I am not especially interested in the fortunes of either party.

Yes!  The preoccupation with party fortunes, Republican or Democratic, has superseded a concern with actual policy.  “War on terror” policies that were anathema to Democrats when pursued by the George W. Bush administration, have become something to defend, now that Obama is pursuing the same policies.  The party cart has been placed before the policy horse.

I am interested in seeing an authentic conservatism have a place in our politics.  Otherwise, liberalism in various guises dominates.   

Yes!  We don’t want either liberalism or conservatism to dominate unchecked by any opposition.  An “authentic” conservatism (as opposed to the dominant pseudo-conservatisms pursued by the Republican party) is indispensable.  That said, the only overwhelming domination by any ideology that I’ve had the experience of living through is that of a particular thread of right-wingism that Bacevich describes a few lines later.

I don’t view liberalism as inherently evil.  It’s liberals rather than conservatives who have advanced the cause of racial and gender equality – a genuine accomplishment. When it comes to social justice, again, it’s liberals not conservatives who have made a difference. That said, liberalism needs a counterweight.  Its excesses need to be checked.

Yes! Don’t let any self-professed conservative tell you otherwise — racial and gender equality has been the exclusive project of the left, period.  Every liberal should proudly take credit for this, and every self-identified conservative who appreciates these things should admit that in this, they too are liberals.  Racism and sexism have been the errors exclusively of the right.  But are there liberal excesses?  Compared with liberal successes, they are hard to notice, but I would identify politically-correct speech codes on college campuses as one of them.  On average, though, the threat of liberal excess is dwarfed by the benefits of liberal success.

What passes for conservatism these days in mainstream American politics is not authentic.  When it comes to essentials, it’s not actually all that much different from or better than what passes for liberalism. 

Yes!  I won’t comment on the “authenticity” of mainstream American conservatism, but I agree that the available strains of mainstream liberalism and conservatism aren’t that different from each other.  It’s a sign of the continuing weakness of the left in this country that this disturbing similarity almost always leads to a discussion of what is wrong with conservatism and with the right.  I, however, prefer to blame the left.  The left hasn’t yet articulated what is wrong with Clintonism, let alone made any serious efforts to reject the corporatist/laissez-faire/Robert-Rubinesque philosophy that has dominated the Democratic Party since at least the Carter administration, but which found its greatest success under Clinton.

In recent decades, the Republican Party’s version of conservatism has emphasized three major themes: 

First, in the realm of political economy, Republicans favor small government and unbridled capitalism, looking to the market to solve our domestic problems. 

Second, in the realm of foreign policy, Republicans favor big government and unbridled activism, looking to the military to prolong the American Century.

Third, in the realm of culture, Republicans have spoken in defense of so-called traditional values, making much of their putative opposition to abortion and the defense of traditional marriage.  

Yes!  That just about sums up the “conservative” approach of the Republican Party.  Note, however, that the Democratic Party hasn’t really offered up any strong opposition to these themes, with the possible exception of some of the cultural issues like marriage and abortion.

Republicans have made the first two themes the actual basis for policy.  On the third theme, they have offered little more than symbolism and sanctimonious posturing.  So the real guts of GOP conservatism in recent decades have focused on unleashing the market and the military – less state regulation of the economy, more state resources funneled to the Pentagon.

Yes!  The two most tired political cliches of my lifetime are that we need to free up the market so it can magically solve whatever social problem is under discussion at the moment, and that we need to involve ourselves around the world to defend various good things that we Americans hold dear, and that would disappear without a vigorous (and often military) defense by the USA.  Note that these wouldn’t be such tired cliches if they’d been uttered exclusively by the Republican party.  They’re cliches because the Democrats use them just as indiscriminately as the Republicans.

I submit that neither of these qualifies as a genuinely conservative position.  To the extent that I have accurately characterized the Romney campaign’s position, I am glad Romney lost.

Yes!  I’m glad Romney lost, too.

The essence of conservatism should be to conserve, showing respect for what is good in our inheritance.  I refer both to our human inheritance and our inheritance in the natural world. 

Yes!  This is the reason I love Wendell Berry and don’t have an allergic reaction to the word “Paleoconservative” so long as the racism often associated with self-professed paleos is denounced.  This kind of conservatism is absolutely essential, given that humans are impetuous, greedy, and forgetful, not to mention prone to self-aggrandizement and error.

The market does not conserve.  Capitalism is good for one thing:  creating wealth.  As an arena in which the pursuit of profit takes precedence over all other considerations, the market destroys much of what conservatives should value. 

Yes!  This is the central insight of the whole essay and the single most important reason why there’s a debate at all about whether any particular streak of conservatism is “authentic” or not.  We’ve become so used to thinking of “the market” as a magical talisman that produces nothing but good.  We’ve chosen to forget about or to deny that it can produce bad outcomes and human misery.  While there are always some (ineffectual) liberal critiques of the market focusing on its failure to distribute wealth fairly, there has been a complete absence in my lifetime of an effective conservative critique of the free-market uber alles ideology of the modern Republican party.  Historically, this can possibly be blamed in part on the aftereffects of the conservative battle against state communism during the cold war, but the cold war is over.  Has been for some time.  The choice was never between Ayn Rand and Stalin, however much Ayn Rand (or Stalin) would have wanted us to believe that it was.  Did I mention that humans were prone to be forgetful and prone to error?  This is example #1 of that.  We should stop allowing Hayek to scare us away from Wendell Berry.

Except when used prudently to defend what is truly dear to us, the military does not conserve.  It consumes and wastes.

Yes!  Andrew Bacevich has been perhaps the most effective person working to keep us from forgetting this.

Since the end of the Cold War and especially since 9/11, Republicans and Democrats have collaborated in concealing and ignoring just how much has been wasted through needless and poorly managed wars.  The immediate result has been to victimize the very soldiers whom Americans claim to love and support.

Yes!  One simply has to ask who has been the beneficiary of this collaboration, concealment, and ignoring.  I won’t hazard a guess here; I’ll only say that I don’t believe it has been the vast majority of the American citizenry.  They’ve been screwed for the sake of . . . (not hazarding a guess).

I’m not a politician and have no desire to involve myself in politics in any way.

Hmmm….  Andrew Bacevich not involved in politics in any way?  His many perceptive and well-written books about politics testify otherwise.

That said, my own view is that salvation for the Republican party lies in becoming serious about that third theme rather than merely giving it lip service.

Yes!  Because if one were serious about conservatism, one wouldn’t emphasize the first two themes, of course.

If the Republican Party wishes to represent a conservative perspective, it should advance a serious critique of American culture and then derive authentically conservative economic and foreign policies from that critique.

But that would mean the Republican Party would cease to be the party of the corporate elites and the obscenely rich.  Not likely to happen.

What might that mean?  Several things:

First, conservatives should claim the environmental movement as their own.  Preserving the natural world should be a cause that all conservatives embrace with gusto.  And, yes, that includes the issue of climate change.

Yes!  But that can’t happen so long as conservatives remain in thrall to the idea that the unregulated market produces magic dust that makes everything better.  That can’t happen until conservatives stop being afraid of Stalin under their beds.  Because environmentalism of any kind will require that big corporations be brought to heel, and any thoughts of doing that without the help of the state are delusional.

Second, conservatives should lead the way in protecting the family from the hostile assault mounted by modernity.  The principal threat to the family is not gay marriage.  The principal threats are illegitimacy, divorce, and absent fathers.  Making matters worse still is a consumer culture that destroys intimate relationships, persuading children that acquiring stuff holds the key to happiness and persuading parents that their job is to give children what the market has persuaded them to want.  

Yes!  The tragedy of “social conservatism” in this country is that it’s been exclusively the realm of theocrats who tell us that the Bible (supposedly) forbids gay marriage, and that of course this means the laws of our nation should, too.  That’s all bullshit, and liberals can take the credit for rejecting it as such.  The fixation on denying rights to gays and women (which is what the social conservatives have been fixated on) has prevented conservatives from arguing against the consumer culture (which after all is a by-product of the free-market idolization we’ve been practicing) and making effective arguments in favor of strong families.  As it stands, the strongest pro-family arguments are being made by the liberals who advocate for a living wage and against the disruptive forces of an unrestrained market.  The liberals, though, will only go so far in defense of families, as they have fallen under the spell of unrestrained individualism as much as the most rabid free-marketeer.  The false choice the liberals see is between unrestrained individualism in social matters on the one hand, and a theocratic racist and sexist regime on the other.  It’s their version of the free-market vs. Stalin false choice that the conservatives have fallen for.

Third, when it comes to economics, conservatives should lead the fight against the grotesque inequality that has become such a hallmark of present-day America.

Yes!  Curse that free-market magic dust.  We need a counter-spell to revive the conservative intellect.

Call me old fashioned, but I believe that having a parent at home holds one of the keys to nurturing young children and creating strong families.  That becomes exceedingly difficult in an economy where both parents must work just to make ends meet.

You can call me old-fashioned, too.  So long as by “a parent” you mean “a mother or a father.”

Flattening the distribution of wealth and ensuring the widest possible the ownership of property can give more parents the choice of raising their own youngsters rather than farming the kids out to care providers.  If you hear hints of the old Catholic notion of distributism there, you are correct.

I think we can advocate for this without ourselves being Catholics.  Thank God.

Finally, when it comes to foreign and national security policies, conservatives should be in the forefront of those who advocate realism and modesty.  Conservatives should abhor the claims of American dominion that have become such a staple of our politics.  Saving humanity is God’s business, not America’s.

I’m willing to sign on to an anti-imperialism like this.  I won’t presume to guess what God’s business is, but I agree that American imperialism is a shit-poor way of saving humanity.

Sure, we need a strong military.  But its purpose should be to defend the country, not to run the world.  And anytime Washington decides it needs to fight a war, then popular support should going beyond cheering.  That means higher taxes to pay for the war and an army drawn from all parts of American society – to include Domers – to fight it.

Yes!  The problem is with that phrase “defend the country.”  If you’re a CEO of Boeing or Verizon, defense of the country looks a bit different than if you’re a dentist in Ohio.  I suspect that for a certain segment of our population (much less than 1% of it), we have in fact been “defending the country” all along.  It’s past time to start questioning whether we need to keep deferring to that <1%.

I don’t seriously expect the Republican Party to show the least interest in any such ideas.  But that’s because the actually-existing Republican Party is anything but conservative.

Yes, it isn’t; it is the chief defender of the obscenely rich, and it has been competing for that honor with the Democratic Party for decades now.  Neither of the two parties as they currently exist offer any kind of support for the ideas Bacevich describes here.  Which leads us, of course, to the question of what to do about it.
Dec 062012

The best thing I’ve read on the internet all week comes from Corey Robin’s evaluation of Thomas Jefferson’s response to slavery and, more importantly, to the emancipation of slaves:

With their orientation to the future and acute sense of victimhood, the southern writers adopted an ethos geared less to liberalism or conservatism—ideologies arising from previous centuries of European conflict—than to fascism, the one ism of the twentieth century that could and would make a legitimate claim to novelty.  They beat the drums of race war. Like the Nazis ca. 1940, they offered deportation and extermination as final solutions to the Negro Question.  If blacks were set free, Jefferson warned, it would “produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of one race or the other.”  The only alternative was an “effort…unknown to history.  When freed, he [the slave] is to be removed beyond the mixture.”  Anticipating the writings of Robert Brassilach, the French fascist who argued that compassion meant that Jewish children should be deported from France with their parents, Dew claimed, “If our slaves are ever to be sent away in any systematic manner, humanity demands that they should be carried in families.”  If the slaves were freed, Harper concluded, “one race must be driven out by the other, or exterminated, or again enslaved.”

via Thomas Jefferson: American Fascist? « Corey Robin.

Please read the whole thing.