January 5, 2010

It has been fifty years since C.P. Snow delivered his famous and controversial lecture "The Two Cultures." A novelist trained as a physicist, Snow lamented the lack of communication between two "cultures," that of scientists and one he described as "literary" or "traditional;" the inhabitants of the latter were referred to variously as intellectuals, literary intellectuals or, simply, non-scientists. His ostensible aim was to encourage educating each in the knowledge peculiar to the other, but he went on to criticize the traditional culture — which he saw as providing the governing class — for making a mess of the world, and to suggest that we would be better off with scientists in charge.

Snow thought that "[i]ntellectuals, in particular literary intellectuals, are natural Luddites." However, his expectation of the scientific understanding which non-scientists should have was unrealistic. He contended that not being able (as a non-scientist) to recite the second law of thermodynamics was equivalent (for a scientist) to not having read a play by Shakespeare.1

One of his critics, Michael Yudkin, a scientist, pointed out that Snow was not drawing a valid parallel. "To read Dickens, or to hear Mozart, or to see a Titian can be in itself a rewarding activity; but to find out what is meant by acceleration [another of Snow's examples] is to gain a piece of factual information which in itself has no value." 2 Yudkin acknowledged that aspects of scientific training would be useful to one educated in another field: "What would be of value is an understanding of the process and manner of scientific thinking; for it is the nature of scientific judgment, the habit of a peculiar form of critical thought, which makes scientific work a worthwhile intellectual activity, and, incidentally, which would give science some value as a disciplined study for the non-scientist." That certainly is true, and learning how to think and analyze in that fashion would make both communication and good decision-making more likely.

In a later essay,3 Snow admitted that his demand for mastery of the second law of thermodynamics was more laughable than sensible, and proposed molecular biology in its place. That still is daunting, and his discussion did not make it less so, although he referred to DNA, which a literary intellectual might be expected to understand in a very general way.

However, the issue of education — scientific, literary and more — is important beyond the confines of the two sets of elites whom Snow addressed. Bringing the discussion into the present and this country, the American public needs both respect for scientific opinion and method, and some basic level of scientific knowledge, in order to understand important public issues, e.g., global warming, and to have a rational attitude toward education, e.g., as to evolution. Unfortunately, many are ignorant not only about science and the scientific method, but about many other fields, including history, and, worse yet, are hostile to learning of any kind. This goes beyond the typical disdain for pretentious intellectuals. We are developing a different pair of "cultures": knowledge and ignorance.

There are any number of reasons for the growth of ignorance, including the deficiencies in education and a culture — in the broader and more usual sense — which is superficial and crude. Three more specific causes can be identified.

One is religion. Religious belief, being based on faith, always will be, to some degree, resistant to empirical data or theories which challenge those beliefs. That resistance is not total. Christianity has accommodated itself to new information; not many believers still think that the sun revolves around the Earth. However, there is an influential strain of conservative American Christianity which is aggressively resistant to information considered incompatible with doctrine. Rejection of the theory of evolution is the prime example, and the influence of the religious right is such that Republican presidential candidates feel compelled to declare their disdain for it.

With or without a nudge from the religious right, conservative politicians provide another source. Facts are merely tools to use, misuse or abandon, as the need requires; this produces tales of such imaginary evils as death panels and detention camps. That the incoherent Sarah Palin is a leading contender for the 2010* nomination is the perfect summation of the Republican attitude toward knowledge.

The third source is the politicized, right-leaning branch of the news media, again sometimes peddling a benighted form of religious belief. Rush Limbaugh, in his book The Way Things Ought to Be, informed us, in a chapter entitled "Sorry, But the Earth Is Not Fragile," that it is presumptuous to think that man could destroy God's creation; therefore we should ignore the warnings of scientists about the environment. Accordingly, he made light of the problems of automobile-created pollution. He also claimed that the US has more trees now than in 1776, or more acreage of forest land now than in 1787 (on radio 2/18/94) or in 1492 (in his second book See, I Told You So). Assuming that he's comparing the same area, i.e., that covered by the 50 states, he's off a bit.4

Continuing the anti-environmental theme, Glenn Beck claimed that there is no evidence that DDT is harmful to people. Beck's employer, Fox News, is ever ready to spread and to encourage irrational rants, such as those from the tea parties.

A high level of ignorance, a superficial culture and political hostility are not unique, and their convergence may not be, nor perhaps even the combination of those with politicized mass media if we define that term to require only newspapers, radio and movies. However, television and the internet have combined to make possible the spread of misinformation, half-truths, lies and reactionary doctrine to an extent not previously seen.

What would Lord Snow think of this culture?


*  2/23/10 Correction: 2012 of course

1. The essay, "The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution," was published in The Two Cultures and a Second Look (1964). It and the essay referred to in fn. 3 also were published in Public Affairs (1971).
2. Michael Yudkin, "Sir Charles Snow's Rede Lecture," first published in The Cambridge Review, later with a lecture by F.R. Leavis in Two Cultures? (1962)
3. The Two Cultures: a Second Look
4.The actual numbers are approximately: in 1492, 1 billion acres of forest; in 1787, 930 million; in 1992, 737 million; now 747 million. See http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=1305 and http://www.nationalatlas.gov/articles/biology/a_forest.html

January 17, 2010

There's nothing like a humanitarian disaster to bring out the worst in those lacking in humanitarian instincts.

Rush Limbaugh reacted to the earthquake in Haiti — and to the notion that aid might be in order — with a smugly unconcerned remark worthy of Scrooge: "We've already donated to Haiti. It's called the U.S. income tax." Possibly Rush thinks that a generous portion of the tax he pays goes to Haiti and other poor countries. Polls show that most Americans think that 20% of the federal budget goes to foreign aid, and Rush is no better informed than his audience. The actual amount is less than one per cent, of which about one-third is development assistance. Obviously only a relative trifle goes to Haiti, so Rush can't salve his conscience that way.

Another Limbaugh ploy was to claim that the administration's aid plan is nothing but politics. "Everything this president sees is a political opportunity, including Haiti, and he will use it to burnish his credentials with minorities in this country and around the world, and to accuse Republicans of having no compassion." Mr. Obama hasn't made any such accusation, and who is it that makes everything, including disaster relief, political and partisan?

The President pointed out that people wanting to donate could find links to charity web sites on the White House page. In response, Limbaugh led a call-in dittohead into suspecting that the White House plans to steal donations.

Then we have Pat Robertson. Rush is a political hack, but Pat has a direct line to heaven, so his pronouncements have the ring of ultimate authority. Limbaugh could only complain that we have done enough because aid is wasted on such an inefficient, corrupt state. Robertson could tell us that Haitians are evil, not just misgoverned: "Something happened a long time ago in Haiti and people might not want to talk about. They were under the heel of the French, you know, Napoleon the third or whatever." (Actually, it was the original Napoleon; there must have been static on Pat's celestial line). "And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said 'We will serve you if you will get us free from the prince.' True story. And so the devil said, 'Ok it's a deal.' And they kicked the French out. . . . But ever since they have been cursed by one thing after another." 5 Bizarre.

Glenn Beck added a characteristically incoherent assertion: Obama's rapid response to the crisis in Haiti will divide the nation. Why? Because, according to Beck, he didn't react rapidly to the underwear bomber, Fort Hood or "Afghanistan." None of those is comparable; the only sense I can make of his comment — and it's risky to attempt to find any brand of logic, however far submerged, in Beck's rambling — that he's peddling the same line as Limbaugh, that the only reason for the prompt action is that Haitians are black.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs noted, with one of Limbaugh's remarks in mind, that "in times of great crisis, there are always people that say really stupid things." These comments go beyond that.


5. http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-504083_162-12017-504083.html

January 30, 2010

I may owe two political apologies. The first would go to Hillary Clinton for deriding her argument that Obama wasn't ready to be President. Her claim to wide experience was a bit much, but Obama has, indeed, looked uncertain and unprepared.

The other would go to various conservative writers and politicians, for laughing at their insistence, in the face of the 2008 election results, that we are a center-right nation. I still don't think that their comments accurately describe public preferences, at least when people are given a fair statement of the facts, but they do describe the leanings of politicians and the media.

Mr. Obama's first year in office has conformed to both predictions. He has been indecisive and inconsistent, and his leadership on his signature initiative, health care reform, has been inept when not altogether absent. That, at least, was a liberal program. On many other issues, he has perpetuated Bush policies and has surrounded himself with financial insiders and fiscal conservatives.

His State of the Union address was more assertive. His rhetoric always has been bolder than his actions, but there were a few specifics which gave the appearance of new resolve, such as the criticism of the Supreme Court's decision on political spending, and of the Senate Republicans for their obstructionism. However, on substance, there still were echoes of Reagan and Bush: tax cuts and a spending freeze which exempts "national security."

It's true that he is attempting to lead a Democratic Party which not only is in disarray — hence his admonition to them not to "run for the hills" — but is increasingly conservative. Several Senators have made comments recently which makes one wonder why they don't just switch parties and have done with the charade. In an op-ed in The New York Times on Tuesday, Senator Schumer joined Senator Hatch in proposing a suspension of payroll taxes to encourage hiring. This is not as reactionary as some proposals by Democrats, but it's playing into the Republicans' hands. Cutting the payroll, i.e. Social Security, tax will further impair its trust fund.6 Their article told us that "The Social Security trust fund will then be made whole with spending cuts elsewhere in the budget between now and 2015." In the unlikely event that the cuts actually were made, how would that make the fund whole? The entire Social Security surplus is borrowed every year to cover deficits in the government's operating budget. Spending cuts in that budget would make the trust fund whole only if the savings were used to repay the Social Security loans, which isn't going to happen in 2015 or at any other time at the rate we are going.
Chuck and Orrin didn't mention anything about the employees' share of the tax; apparently that would continue. If so, the good news is that the hole in the trust fund would be only half as large. The bad news is that the tax system would become even more regressive.

On top of that, the tax cut isn't likely to work. The theory behind this proposal is pure Republicanism: all that stands in the way of a roaring recovery and full employment is the government, here in the form of the tax collector. If it were so simple. There was a very timely interview on NBC news Thursday night. The owner of a business was asked what such a tax cut would mean to his hiring; I'd be happy to have the cut, he said, but I'll hire when I have the work.

Now the President has floated a similar plan, one which would reimburse "small" businesses for additional Social Security taxes caused by increases in their payrolls, either through hiring or wage increases; in addition, there would be a $5,000 tax credit for each net new employee. Increasing wages won't create jobs, so maybe that part of the plan is supposed to boost consumer spending. However, again, there was no mention of the employee's share of the tax, which would increase with the bump in wages, partially offsetting the gain. It's difficult to see much logic in this.

What can be seen is another lurch to the right. The Republicans should quit pushing Palin and the rest of their crop of losers, and right-wing pundits should stow the nonsense about socialism. They have the president they want now.

I suppose that's a bit too harsh, but it would be an understatement to say that Mr. Obama has not lived up to his supporters' expectations.

6. Neither this nor the President's proposal below mention any cut in the Medicare portion of the payroll tax.

February 6, 2010

Free-speech decisions and comments often stress the need for maximum expression in a "marketplace of ideas." The Supreme Court, in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, made clear that the business metaphor is to be taken literally. Elections are for sale.

I suppose that this should not come as a shock, as everything else is. Bowl games are named after corporate sponsors. School boards debate whether to sell advertising space on buses. Obama wants to privatize space. Why hold out for untainted elections?

The Court's eagerness to add that scalp to the corporate belt was so great that it couldn't wait for a case that legitimately posed the issue. Instead it decided Citizens United on a ground not raised by the parties and on which no record had been made. As Justice Stevens pointed out in dissent, this means that there was no evidence of the actual effects of the statute. However, the absence of a record did not trouble the Court:7 it simply assumed dire consequences and found them to be unacceptable.

The Court worked its will by holding unconstitutional, as a violation of the First Amendment, a portion of the federal statute regulating electioneering expenditures. Here is the relevant law:
As amended by §203 of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA), federal law prohibits corporations and unions from using their general treasury funds to make independent expenditures for speech that is an "electioneering communication" or for speech that expressly advocates the election or defeat of a candidate. . . . An electioneering communication is "any broadcast, cable, or satellite communication" that "refers to a clearly identified candidate for Federal office" and is made within 30 days of a primary election . . . and that is "publicly distributed," . . . 8
Those limitations may be avoided by forming a PAC: "Corporations and unions may establish a political action committee (PAC) for express advocacy or electioneering communications purposes." Only expenditures from a corporation's general funds are regulated.

The law is codified as 2 U.S.C. §441b. It includes reporting and disclosure requirements, which the Court did not disturb.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Citizens United produced a film ("Hillary: The Movie") critical of Senator Clinton. The film was released in theaters and on DVD, but Citizens United also wanted to make it available through video-on-demand. To promote that venue, it produced ads to be run on broadcast and cable television. It did not operate through a PAC, although it has one. Concerned that the film and the ads would be covered by §441b's prohibition of corporate-funded electioneering within the 30-day window, it sued for declaratory and injunctive relief against the FEC, claiming that the statute was unconstitutional. When the matter came on for hearing on the government's motion for summary judgment, Citizens United abandoned its claim that the statute was unconstitutional "on its face," i.e., void absolutely. It argued only that the statute was unconstitutional as applied to Citizens United because it is a nonprofit corporation "funded overwhelmingly by individuals." The District Court granted summary judgment and dismissed the suit. On appeal, the Supreme Court majority ignored the withdrawal of the broader claim and held the statute unconstitutional on its face.

The Court's rationale is, to put it mildly, elusive. It tossed off unsupported and dubious generalizations, such as: "Speech restrictions based on the identity of the speaker are all too often simply a means to control content." It struck down the time limitation partly on the ground that determining whether it applied would be a bother to the corporation, but upheld the bothersome reporting and disclosure requirements of the statute. It held that the government "may regulate corporate political speech through disclaimer and disclosure requirements, but it may not suppress that speech altogether," even though the law did not suppress speech altogether. It adopted the theory, dear to George Will, that a "prohibition on corporate independent expenditures is . . . a ban on speech." According to that formula, money equals speech. It would be more accurate to say that money acts as an amplifier.

Lacking evidence of any actual problems created by enforcement of the statute, the majority opinion offered a parade of horribles which proceeded from the (limited) statutory ban on corporate expenditures to a(n imaginary) ban on speech by those corporations which are covered by the act to a (hypothetical) ban on speech by all corporations to a (hypothetical) ban on speech by a blog partially funded by a corporation to a (retroactively hypothetical) ban on "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." It referred fourteen times to the statute's allegedly "chilling" effect on free speech, a sure sign that it was reaching.

Reaching beyond the effect of the statute, the Court posed another hypothetical horror: that the news media, including media corporations, would be banned from engaging in political speech. This took imagination, as the law expressly exempts the media and, as Justice Stevens pointed out, they have separate First Amendment status and protection.

The majority used another rhetorical prop: "ban" appeared in one form or another fifty-two times, most notably in this misstatement: "The law before us is an outright ban . . . ." It's a bit of a stretch to so describe a limit on the time frame in which corporate-funded ads referring to candidates for federal office may be run, even leaving aside the fact that a corporation may run ads through its political action committee.

In order to reach its result, the Court had to overrule two decisions, but offered little to justify that action. Justice Stevens summarized the effort as follows: "In the end, the Court's rejection of Austin [v. Federal Election Commission, 1990] and McConnell [v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, 2003] comes down to nothing more than its disagreement with their results. Virtually every one of its arguments was made and rejected in those cases, and the majority opinion is essentially an amalgamation of resuscitated dissents." It is indeed striking how many times the Court's opinion cites earlier non-majority opinions of the present majority: precedent by unsuccessful repetition. It is impossible to avoid Stevens' conclusion: "The only relevant thing that has changed since Austin and McConnell is the composition of this Court."

The Court had to overrule Austin because, according to the majority, it had held that "political speech may be banned based on the speaker's corporate identity." Leaving aside the reference to a ban, and ignoring the limitations hedged around Austin's ruling, it is true that it approved a limitation, under Michigan law, similar to the one at issue in Citizens United. Therefore, it had to go. McConnell upheld the constitutionality of §441b, so it, too, was designated for retirement. The majority opinion attempted to show that Austin and McConnell departed from earlier decisions establishing the speech rights of corporations. In aid of this argument, it repeatedly cited Buckley v. Valeo (1975) and First Nat. Bank of Boston v. Bellotti (1977), and claimed to "return to the principle established in Buckley and Bellotti that the Government may not suppress political speech on the basis of the speaker's corporate identity." However those decisions do not establish such a rule.

In its reliance on Bellotti, the Court began with uncontroversial interpretations of that decision: "The Court has recognized that First Amendment protection extends to corporations"; "political speech does not lose First Amendment protection 'simply because its source is a corporation.' " It then moved on to an alleged principle that no distinction can be drawn between corporations and natural persons as to speech: "Prohibited, too, are restrictions distinguishing among different speakers, allowing speech by some but not others." It claimed that "Bellotti . . . reaffirmed the First Amendment principle that the Government cannot restrict political speech based on the speaker's corporate identity," based on this quote:
"We thus find no support in the First . . . Amendment, or in the decisions of this Court, for the proposition that speech that otherwise would be within the protection of the First Amendment loses that protection simply because its source is a corporation that cannot prove, to the satisfaction of a court, a material effect on its business or property. . . . [That proposition] amounts to an impermissible legislative prohibition of speech based on the identity of the interests that spokesmen may represent in public debate over controversial issues and a requirement that the speaker have a sufficiently great interest in the subject to justify communication.


In the realm of protected speech, the legislature is constitutionally disqualified from dictating the subjects about which persons may speak and the speakers who may address a public issue." [emphasis added]9
Bellotti involved a referendum on a tax issue, not an election. A Massachusetts statute prohibited the corporate plaintiff from making contributions or expenditures "for the purpose of . . . influencing or affecting the vote on any question submitted to the voters, other than one materially affecting any of the property, business or assets of the corporation." As the first two italicized phrases show, the issue in Bellotti was whether speech can be limited based on the speakers interest in a subject, not whether it is incorporated: "The proper question . . . is not whether corporations 'have' First Amendment rights and, if so, whether they are coextensive with those of natural persons. Instead, the question must be whether [the statute] abridges expression that the First Amendment was meant to protect." 10 Although corporate status was discussed, it was not the basis for the decision, as even the majority's chosen quote makes clear. Further, Bellotti stated that its holding was limited to the referendum issue:
The overriding concern behind the enactment of statutes such as the Federal Corrupt Practices Act was the problem of corruption of elected representatives through the creation of political debts. . . .The importance of the governmental interest in preventing this occurrence has never been doubted. The case before us presents no comparable problem, and our consideration of a corporation's right to speak on issues of general public interest implies no comparable right in the quite different context of participation in a political campaign for election to public office. 11
Buckley is even further from the point. It struck down "limitations on campaign expenditures, on independent expenditures by individuals and groups, and on expenditures by a candidate from his personal funds." 12 The question of corporate status did not arise.

Seizing on the third italicized phrase in the Bellotti quote, the Citizens United Court simply invented a principle that the law can make no distinction between corporations and natural persons as to speech rights: "We find no basis for the proposition that, in the context of political speech, the Government may impose restrictions on certain disfavored speakers. Both history and logic lead us to this conclusion." However, as Justice Stevens pointed out, the law limits the speech rights of students, prisoners, members of the Armed Forces, foreigners, and its own employees. The Court has approved such restrictions: "In contrast to the blanket rule that the majority espouses, our cases recognize that the Government's interests may be more or less compelling with respect to different classes of speakers."
The majority cast the critical distinction as between corporations and natural persons. Stevens' examples are of distinctions between natural persons. Does this weaken his argument? Only if we assume that corporations are entitled to more deference than people. That may, indeed, be the conservative view, but virtually no one, faced with that proposition in all its starkness, would agree with the corporate five.

After the decision, Senator McCain, one of the authors of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, said that he was troubled by the "extreme naïveté" that some of the Justices showed about the role of special-interest money. That is putting it kindly. Only willful ignorance or, as is more likely, an ideological commitment to corporate influence could lead to stunners like these: "For the reasons explained above, we now conclude that independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption." "[T]here is only scant evidence that independent expenditures even ingratiate. . . . Ingratiation and access, in any event, are not corruption."

The Court went on at length about "quid-pro-quo" corruption, in an effort to demonstrate that it is the only possible negative influence of money on politics. Apparently if a corporation stops short of handing over a bag of money in exchange for a written promise to vote its way, all is well.


7. The Court's (majority) opinion was written by Justice Kennedy, joined by Roberts, Scalia, Thomas and Alito.8. As summarized in the syllabus of the decision
9. 435 U.S. 765, at 784-85
10. Bellotti, 435 U.S. 765, at 776
11. Bellotti, 435 U.S. 765, 788, fn. 26
12. Buckley, 424 U.S. 1, at 142

February 11, 2010

On Sunday, The Seattle Times carried a column by Caroline Baum of Bloomberg News entitled "Obama's pyramid scheme would make John Maynard Keynes happy." (The title's attempt at a joke is explained below). Her subject was the administration's jobs program, which she derided in a string of reactionary objections:

"Spending dressed up as a jump-starter is still spending by another name." True; is there a point here?

The plan is has an "energy-cleansing, rural-community-assisting, climate-change- mitigating, health-food-promoting blueprint . . . ." How awful!

"The budget increases taxes on the rich, living and dead, by allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire at the end of the year." Ah, yes: allowing an irresponsible tax cut to expire by its own terms is a terrible tax increase. The estate tax, by the way, falls on the living — the dead are beyond the reach even of the liberal state — but nice try.

"It's the part of the budget on automatic pilot — entitlement spending on Medicare and Social Security and interest on the public debt — that has to be addressed if restoring fiscal discipline is the goal." What a coincidence that a conservative writer would advocate gutting programs conservatives always have hated. How about cutting "defense" spending?

"The budget's job-creation initiatives include . . . an extension in unemployment benefits, which is a disincentive for job seekers." I assume that Ms. Baum is in no danger of losing her job, which makes mocking those in need so much easier.

"In bad times, presidents let themselves be seduced by the Keynesian notion that government can tax or borrow from the public and use that money to pay people to perform work of its choosing without sacrificing something. . . . The sacrifice is private-sector investment in human and physical capital." How does that sacrifice come about? We're not told.

"[G]overnment can always put people to work. It can hire teams of men with shovels to labor for weeks doing the work one earth-moving machine and operator can accomplish in one day." It's just barely possible that public-works projects would hire machine operators. "The goal is to create permanent jobs, increase productivity and contribute to the wealth of the nation." Indeed; and getting the economic juices flowing will do that. However, Ms. Baum thinks that a government stimulus program is simply wasteful spending. Seizing on a comment by John Maynard Keynes about building pyramids as a means of job creation, she said, "Pyramids don't cut it. But they're a good place to bury dead theories." Not bad for humor but, as the plan doesn't include pyramids, somewhat beside the point.

Also, Keynesianism is alive and well, so she falls back on claiming that it is untested: "How well do government stimulus programs work? Outside of some econometric model prediction, we don't know. It's impossible to run a real-world control experiment." We've had one. Deficit spending during the Depression boosted the economy. When, in the mid-thirties, Roosevelt succumbed to his worries about deficits and allowed himself to be influenced by conservative advisors, GDP fell and unemployment rose. Resumption of higher spending and larger deficits reversed the pattern again. When the war came, deficit spending reached new heights, and the economy boomed. Because conditions never are the same from one time to another, that's not a perfect predictor, but it is a real-world vindication of the model she scoffs at.

February 14, 2010

The Washington Post's conservatism became still more marked last week. On Sunday, an article by Gerard Alexander, an associate professor of politics at the University of Virginia,13 informed us that liberals are snobs. On Thursday, David Broder's column advised us to take Sarah Palin seriously. The latter effusion was nicely dissected on The Huffington Post,14 so I'll pass on that. The former may have escaped notice, so, having nothing better to do, I'll make a stab at interpreting it.

Professor Alexander accuses liberals of condescension, by which he means that they think that many conservative positions are uninformed and/or bad policy. Here is the indictment in Alexander's words: "American liberals . . . appear committed to the proposition that their views are correct, self-evident, and based on fact and reason, while conservative positions are not just wrong but illegitimate, ideological and unworthy of serious consideration." A succinct response would be well, duh. However, let's be serious and objective. He thinks that conservatives do not match liberals' level of smugness, which requires considerable selectivity in research, but let's ignore that.

He finds intellectual condescension to be "part of a liberal tradition that for generations has impoverished American debates over the economy, society and the functions of government — and threatens to do so again today, when dialogue would be more valuable than ever." That, he says, dates at least to Lionel Trilling's famous dismissal of conservative ideas as "irritable mental gestures." However, Trilling's comment was made in the midst of the McCarthy era, during which conservatives were fond of accusing liberals of communist sympathy, party membership and even treasonous behavior, so his description was apt. That "tradition"— conservative accusations that liberals are not real Americans and probably traitors — has continued to the present. If Alexander really is concerned about the state of political dialogue, he might want to take note.

He describes "four major narratives" of liberal condescension. "The first is the 'vast right-wing conspiracy,' a narrative made famous by Hillary Rodham Clinton but hardly limited to her." Her comment referred to efforts to drive her husband from office, not closely relevant here, but he thinks that the notion of a vast conspiracy persists. Liberals think that "conservatives win elections and policy debates not because they triumph in the open battle of ideas but because they deploy brilliant and sinister campaign tactics. A dense network of professional political strategists such as Karl Rove, think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and industry groups allegedly manipulate information and mislead the public." Well, yes. "This liberal vision emphasizes the dissemination of ideologically driven views from sympathetic media such as the Fox News Channel." True again; what is his point?

Apparently the point is that the "vision" is false despite the accuracy of those observations. He offers three examples; here are the first two: "Evidence of the costs of cap-and-trade carbon rationing is waved away as corporate propaganda; arguments against health-care reform are written off as hype orchestrated by insurance companies." I don't think that anyone "waives away" cost figures, if accurate; the liberal complaint is that carbon caps are derided as part of a global warming hoax. Cap and trade may not be the best way to control carbon emissions, but it has been proposed, in part, because conservatives hate the idea of straightforward regulation.

As to health care, there have been criticisms of the present proposal from the left as well as from the right, and the self-interested position of the insurance companies hardly is a liberal fantasy. Perhaps he's saying that we should not have health-care reform of any kind. If so, I'd be interested in seeing his argument that the present system is fair, efficient and affordable.

Even if his examples were persuasive, they would only nibble at the edges of the "narrative." Karl Rove is not, by these examples, transformed into a public servant. Fox News remains what it is: a conservative propaganda source run by a former Republican political operative.

The third example concerns Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. I set forth my criticism of that decision on February 6 and won't repeat it. I assume that Alexander supports the decision, as he describes liberal criticism of it as merely part of the narrative. He doesn't offer any support for the decision other than an obscure comment about "the complexities of free speech in politics," exactly what the Court's simplistic opinion ignored. He dismisses the complaint that it will allow money to have even greater influence, as if that were a doubtful conclusion.

His second liberal "narrative" is that voters, since they fall for conservative propaganda, "must be manipulated at best, or stupid at worst." According to Professor Alexander, this narrative is exemplified by Thomas Frank's book, What's the Matter With Kansas? However, the message of the book is not that voters are stupid but that they have been induced to vote for conservatives by promises which are not kept, and probably not intended to be kept. If anyone assumes that voters are stupid, it's the conservative manipulators.

Alexander's other examples of the second narrative deal with actual liberal attitudes, but he's not very successful in finding fault with them. Liberals, he thinks, believe that "we should pay attention to conservative voters' underlying problems but disregard the policy demands they voice; these are illusory, devoid of reason or evidence. . . ." In other words, liberals are trying to determine what really bothers people, what lies behind their complaints, which seems like a good idea. What are the "policy demands" which are being ignored? "This form of liberal condescension implies that conservative masses are in the grip of false consciousness. When they express their views at town hall meetings or 'tea party' gatherings, it might be politically prudent for liberals to hear them out, but there is no reason to actually listen." I assume that is a way of saying that the views expressed at those meetings are worth taking seriously. Does he recall what has been said? The tea party gatherings and the town hall meetings on health care were characterized by hostility, ignorance and wild accusations with which Alexander cannot possibly agree.

The third narrative "points to something more sinister." Some writers have claimed that "Nixon and Reagan talked up crime control, low taxes and welfare reform to cloak racial animus and help make it mainstream." He more or less admits that this is true: "Race doubtless played a significant role in the shift of Deep South whites to the Republican Party during and after the 1960s." However, he thinks that race prejudice no longer is a significant problem and appears to reject the notion that it plays any part in hostility toward President Obama, which certainly would be naïve. "Moreover, the candidates and agendas of both parties demonstrate an unfortunate willingness to play on prejudices, whether based on race, region, class, income, or other factors." Ah, yes: liberals foment class warfare by talking about income. This is conservative philosophy at its core: income is a category as worthy of civil-rights protection as race.

"Finally [narrative four], liberals condescend to the rest of us when they say conservatives are driven purely by emotion and anxiety — including fear of change — whereas liberals have the harder task of appealing to evidence and logic." This isn't much of a criticism. Isn't it true that liberals are more oriented toward logic than conservatives? He offers no argument to the contrary, except to say that we could find "strange, ill-informed and paranoid beliefs among average Democrats." No doubt, but we are, presumably, discussing tendencies and strategies, not isolated instances.

Prof. Alexander ended with the predictable tilt away from public and toward private control. "Perhaps the most important conservative insight being depreciated is the durable warning from free-marketeers that government programs often fail to yield what their architects intend." Government programs sometimes fail, but private enterprise is at least equally inept (think of Toyota) and self-interested to boot. The implied argument that unregulated business will be a force for good is too ludicrous, in the aftermath of the financial meltdown, to refute. "Democrats have been busy expanding, enacting or proposing major state interventions in financial markets, energy and health care." Democrats have not been busy expanding (but have timidly discussed reviving) proven regulations abandoned during the ascendancy of conservatism.

"Supporters of such efforts want to ensure that key decisions will be made in the public interest and be informed, for example, by sound science, the best new medical research or prudent standards of private-sector competition." Of course key decisions should be made on the basis of sound science, and the record of liberals in this area is better, to say the least. "But public-choice economists have long warned that when decisions are made in large, centralized government programs, political priorities almost always trump other goals." What evidence is there that decisions made by public agencies are "almost always" corrupted by politics? "Even liberals should think twice about the prospect of decisions on innovative surgeries, light bulbs and carbon quotas being directed by legislators grandstanding for the cameras." Who has proposed that decisions on innovative surgeries be made by legislators (or even the more familiar conservative demon, the faceless bureaucrat)? That comes close to Palinism.

If I've been condescending toward conservative ideas, nothing in Professor Alexander's article will prompt me to repent.


13. Professor Alexander also is a visiting scholar at The American Enterprise Institute.
14. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/02/11/david-broder-is-really-in_n_457582.html. The critique is a little difficult to follow, as the format doesn't make clear which paragraphs are Broder's and which are the reviewer's.

February 17, 2010

Last week, apparently, was the appointed time for conservatives to complain about liberal "narratives." On February 7, Gerard Alexander told us how four such narratives display liberal condescension toward conservative ideas; see my post of February 14. Today I'll attempt to make sense of a more ambitious essay from The Weekly Standard of February 8. The author is Jeffrey Bergner who, the article reveals, "has served as staff director of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, assistant secretary of state, and professor of government." 15

A systematic appraisal is difficult because, although Dr. Bergner sets out a detailed proposal for change, that comes only at the end and is preceded by a meandering discussion of the characteristics and implications of a theme, "The Narrative," which allegedly dominates political discourse.
What is The Narrative? The Narrative is the official story about America. It is a story composed by the political left, which entered American public life with the progressive movement in the early 20th century and was elaborated in the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s and '40s.
The reference to the New Deal years reveals part of the author's concern: the size and reach of government. His explanation continues:
The story runs like this. America was founded on the ideal of equality, though that ideal at first was barely put into practice. The story of America is one of progress toward the fulfillment of the ideal of equality. The end of slavery and the achievement of women's suffrage are landmarks in this story. All fair enough. . . .
To this point, he doesn't have serious problems with equality, but modern times are another matter:
. . . So is — less plausibly — the federal income tax, originally established to fund the government but later used to redistribute wealth and tax advantages among Americans. Then came the many programs of direct payments to individuals, the so-called entitlements, beginning with Social Security and extending to Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, aid to dependent children, farm subsidies, and myriad others. . . .
His attitude toward the income tax is priceless. Yes, the income tax should be funding government operations. However, under the second President Bush, it was cut even though, as he never tired of telling us, he was a wartime president. Therefore it was inadequate to cover government expenses. Bergner says that it is used to redistribute wealth, and I assume that he has in mind redistribution downward. In fact the tax system under Bush Jr. was used in exactly the opposite way. The income tax cuts favored the rich. Deficits in the operating budget were covered, in part, by borrowing the Social Security surplus, the product of regressive payroll taxes on workers. The tax burden therefore was shifted downward — or, to put it in his terms, wealth and tax advantages were redistributed upward — but our author ignores that.

It isn't clear whether he means to imply that the programs he mentions are funded by income tax. It is not true of Social Security (OASI and DI) and barely true of the hospital insurance (HI) portion of Medicare (.3% from general revenue). Including farm subsidies is a bit odd, as they are not all "payments to individuals," and they passed from the liberal "narrative" to straight bipartisan politics long ago. When we reach his specific proposals, we will see the fate in store for the "myriad" programs.
He completes his statement of disapproval with a contemporary reference:
. . . And today the health care reform bill before Congress takes its place in America's advance toward equality. Each and every policy that aims to level distinctions between Americans has found its place within The Narrative.
At this point Bergner is channeling Russell Kirk, who despised "levelling" and yearned to return to an age when everyone knew his place.

There follows a detour into nineteenth-century German philosophy:
At times the progression is described as more or less inevitable. It is dressed up in rhetorical finery (befitting the progressives' debt to Hegel) as the 'march of history.' At other times its proponents stress the role of will, exalting the labors of progressive heroes to bring about change. But always they are certain of the single direction in which progress moves.
I don't know where he finds such flights of rhetoric. The reference to Hegel is dated; any such influence occurred the better part of a century ago. (Dewey apparently was influenced by Hegel.) I don't recall seeing any significant references to Hegel in recent political discussion, except by Francis Fukuyama in his book The End of History and the Last Man; he was, at least at the time, a neoconservative.
Pointing to Hegel serves his notion that liberals believe in "the march of history" and the inevitability of progress, but today's liberals — timid, divided, irresolute, influenced by a conservative "narrative" about the market — are so far from believing in their inevitable triumph as to make his suggestion ludicrous. It may be that he had Marx in mind; conservatives often seem to have difficulty distinguishing liberals from communists.

The notion that "will" is a distinctive liberal characteristic is equally silly. Perhaps, having embarked on a journey into German philosophy, he felt compelled to invoke the shades of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche.16

"The Narrative . . . permits the easy assignment of virtue and vice. Virtue belongs to those who advocate the fulfillment of equality. . . . In opposition are those who seek to take the country 'backward,' often identified as 'special interests' who favor their own well-being over the equality of all." The first part of that has some validity: there is a liberal tendency to push for equality of result as well as of opportunity, and to demand equality for to too long a list of categories. However, that has little to with the concept of special interests, which primarily are economic in nature, and some opponents of liberal programs — including, as we shall see, Dr. Bergner — certainly want to take the country backward.

In The Narrative, the "federal government is the instrument for achieving the promise of equality. If, along the way, this government and its agents of progress should evolve into a separate political class, this is understandable; indeed, it is the more or less inevitable result of the progressives' role as the vanguard of virtue." The federal government necessarily is the principal agent of change and of enforcement of basic rights. The reference to a separate class is mere hype.

There follows an especially baffling claim:
The Narrative has an international dimension. With its emphasis on the fundamental flaws in American institutions, The Narrative opposes anything that smacks of American exceptionalism. To exalt the founding would suggest that there was no compelling need to twist our institutions far beyond their original purposes in order to use them to impose equality. Besides, American exceptionalism implies the inferiority of the institutions and cultures of other nations. Only by focusing on American flaws and imperfections can we find sure and stable commonality with other peoples.
In other words, we are exceptional, but liberals want to pretend we are not in order to pander to other cultures. His criticism is barely this side of an unthinking belief that we are always right. We aren't, and too little attention is paid to that. The notion of American exceptionalism is an impediment to seeing things clearly.

Why would criticizing the notion of American exceptionalism require "twisting our institutions"? What does that phrase mean? He doesn't explain. He refers to "exalting the founding," which I suppose means, given the context, treating the founders and their ideas and beliefs as flawless. That is a bit naïve. In any case, exceptionalism is more a matter of bragging about our present status than about the wisdom of the founders. For example, opponents of health care reform claim that our system is the best in the world.

Part of his comment is reminiscent of Robert Bork's jeremiad Slouching towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and America's Decline. Judge Bork also was dismayed by the attention paid to equality. Dr. Bergner thinks that liberals have misrepresented the founding ideas, but Bork was more accurate, if no less elitist; he traced the idea of equality back to the Declaration of Independence:
The proposition that all men are created equal said what the colonists already believed, and so, as Gordon Wood put it, equality became "the single most powerful and radical ideological force in all of American history." That is true and, though it verges on heresy to say so, it is also profoundly unfortunate.
Bergner also would have to find a way around the commitment to equality in the post-Civil War amendments. The notion of equality can be taken too far, but that doesn't support an argument that it is a liberal plot having no legitimate basis in our history and principles.

Dr. Bergner turns to a discussion of the dilemma for conservatives who have accepted The Narrative. He correctly defines conservative politics, but thinks that it is an aberration:
Even when [Republicans] doubt the wisdom of 'moving too fast' on a given policy initiative, they remain captive in a larger sense to The Narrative. Even as they argue that 'the time is not right' to endorse the latest progressive project, they concede the substance. . . . For them, the very definition of a successful administration or Congress is one that doesn't lose too much ground too fast.
This is a description of conservative political strategy at its core. Conservatives are destined to be — defined as — those who advocate changing more slowly than progressives would like. It is an entirely legitimate position, and a beneficial one when not reduced to blind obstructionism. However, Bergner clearly doesn't like it. As we'll see below, what he is proposing is a program equally as ambitious, and involving as great an upheaval, as anything advocated by liberals.

Before taking up his program, he feels compelled to tell us just how hard it is to be a conservative in America:
From time to time individuals break out of The Narrative. Leading radio talk show hosts do this, rhetorically, and are subjected to vicious personal attacks for their trouble. This is because The Narrative denies any legitimacy to a genuinely different point of view; any such view has been predefined as backward, regressive, self-interested, and evil.
Nonsense. Let's concede that some liberal commentators and comics are a bit hard on Rush and friends. However, it takes some imagination to see them as defenseless and abused. Most of the criticism directed toward them takes the form of demonstrating how reactionary their ideas are. That's political argument. Telling people they are wrong is part of it. That's what Dr. Bergner is attempting to do.

He refers to the travails of Ronald Reagan, as if Mr. Reagan hadn't been accorded remarkable deference. He also brings Sarah Palin into this fantasy of liberal abuse: "Judging by its rhetoric, the left seems singularly threatened by Sarah Palin, but they can't explain why." Could it be that she knows virtually nothing? No: "That a wife and mother is successful in public life and is also a conservative, populist reformer should not be possible. A political reformer opposed to the expansion of the federal government should be a contradiction in terms. Sarah Palin can undo by her simple existence every stereotype of the left's Narrative." And so on. I refer Dr. Bergner to Leonard Pitts' recent column, in which he yearns for a Palin nomination, not for the usual reason — that she would lose — but to have a contest between thinking and not.

This morning's paper brought another story about tea-partiers groping for answers to their complaints, searching for someone to blame, finding nefarious plots against their freedom. Alleging the existence of The Narrative is simply another conspiracy story.

Bergner passes on to Bush, and at this point his program begins to emerge: "A more limited threat to The Narrative arose in the form of President George W. Bush's short-lived effort to 'privatize Social Security.' Here was a far-reaching and bold proposal." It was indeed. It was defeated, not because this "attack on The Narrative could not be allowed to stand," but because it was a bad idea, a radical alteration of the existing system and a fraud on present and future Social Security recipients.

This has become a much longer comment than I intended, so I'll skip the remaining generalizations with which Dr. Bergner introduces his program; they simply repeat his disdain for liberalism in overheated terms. Here are his proposals:

"(1) Entitlements. Direct payments to Americans are bankrupting the country.  Worse, they are creating massive and unhealthy dependence and ever-expanding state power." They are doing neither. The Social Security trust fund will be depleted in the future if nothing is done, but the solution is not complex. Eliminating the cap on the portion of the payroll tax allocated to OASI and DI would be the proper first step, and it would not be unprecedented: there already is no income cap on the HI portion of the tax, and there is an income-related surcharge on Part B premiums. Medicare is in worse shape, but conservative opposition to health-care reform impedes efforts to bring costs under control.

"- On health care, we should do no (more) harm. Republicans have rightly opposed creation of a massive new government-run entitlement." Be frank: they opposed Social Security and Medicare also, even though they now pose as saviors. Paradoxically, they enacted the Part D benefit, but structured it as a windfall for drug companies.

"Republicans should support cost containment by fostering insurance competition across state lines, the expansion of health savings accounts, sensible tort reform, and insurance portability." Except for tort "reform," a special-interest notion if there ever were one, those suggestions may be worth exploring. "These and similar steps will solidify the private sector foundation of the American health care system and obviate any need for yet another Democratic effort at nationalization." Our private care system has failed, as any table of health-care rankings by country will demonstrate. The system undoubtedly will remain largely private, but only greater government involvement will bring improvement.

"- Many direct payment programs, such as agricultural commodity support programs, aim to ameliorate systemic risk. They should be replaced with risk insurance, priced to reflect best estimates of true risk. . . ." I don't know what he has in mind. If it's private insurance, that isn't likely to emerge, at least in a form adequate to the purpose. If he's thinking of government insurance — which seems unlikely — it might be worth exploring in some areas.

"- The hardest entitlements to reform are the most popular and expensive — Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. . . . Republicans should support reforms that adjust age levels, means-test benefits, and wherever possible move Americans toward private insurance and retirement plans." Social Security is means-tested indirectly insofar as receipts are taxed beyond a certain level of income. Age adjustments already have been made. Moving people toward private plans is Bush's program redux. "Social Security and Medicare have both traded on the now false notion that they are social insurance programs, when they are in fact generational welfare schemes." Apart from a pejorative implication, I don't see the distinction between "social insurance" and welfare. The latter term is a popular whipping boy, but Bergner ought to take note of its existence in the constitution.

"(2) Free speech. Freedom of speech is vital to a free people, but is everywhere under assault by the left." Come, now. The only example given, and it's a stretch, is the second item below.

"- We need new laws protecting the constitutional right to the free expression of religious views." I don't know what this refers to. If the idea is that religion should play a greater part in political campaigns, I disagree.

"- The regulation of campaign speech should end, a project the Supreme Court happily advanced in a recent decision. . . ." I expressed my views on the recent Supreme Court decision on February 6. It is enough here to point out that the issue is the power of money, not the right to speak.

"- Public financing of presidential campaigns should end." We should seriously consider enlarging it and extending it to Congress. As to this and the previous item, I'd be interested to see his argument that money is a beneficial, or even benign, influence on politics.

"- Taxpayer-financed speech such as National Public Radio should end." Only about 15% of the NPR and PBS budgets comes from the federal government. (One libertarian opponent lamented that the "real pity is that government funding represents a small percentage of NPR/PBS funding. Thus all the controversy occurs over small amounts of money.") Leaving that aside, an alternative to corporate speech is needed, the more so after Citizens United. The remarkable fact is that we have turned the rest of the airwaves over to private business, lately with virtually no regulation.

"- Federal assistance should not flow to colleges or universities that adopt 'speech codes.' Here he wants the dead hand of the government. Some campus speech codes may be ridiculous, but let's keep that in perspective.

"(3) The federal government. The federal government, with its 2.8 million civilian employees, has become a self-perpetuating machine, insulated from the problems of ordinary Americans . . . ." Elsewhere, he argues that the government is too intimately involved in people's affairs. Federal employees are overpaid, he says; that looks like a diversionary tactic to protect absurd private compensation.

"- Federal government employee unions have become venal 'special interests,' providing campaign contributions and other election support directly to the officials who set their salaries and benefits. This should end, if necessary by banning federal employee unions . . . ." This is a little hard to follow, as he mixes unions and individual employees. It's interesting that he opposes contributions by unions, even though they were sanctioned by Citizens United v. FEC, of which he approves. Apparently he only supports the corporate part of the decision. Opposition to unions is a predictable part of this playbook.

"- To make it clear that elected officials are not expected to make permanent careers in Washington, even opponents of term limits (like me) could agree to abolish retirement benefits for elected and presidentially appointed officials." We'd be governed by independently wealthy dilettantes. Is inexperience a virtue? Oh, yes; I forgot Sarah Palin.

"(4) American exceptionalism. Let's aim to be respected abroad, not loved." Let's aim for respect by burying the idea of our exceptional virtue.

"- America was built on the strength of immigrants. A more open and generous provision for legal immigration would welcome people who want to share in the American dream and are prepared to follow our laws. This can make us stronger. But let's also defend our borders and end illegal immigration." Nothing very controversial here.

"- America has a special role in helping people in other lands who share our values and who wish to be free. We should champion people who seek to free themselves from oppressive governments. We should give them moral support and, where prudent, material aid." Perhaps, but this sort of flag-waving leads to Iraqs. I note that Dr. Bergner was a signer of the PNAC letter to President Clinton advocating action against Iraq.17 We know where that led.

"- We should reorient our public diplomacy away from selling American consumerism and popular music and otherwise currying favor with foreign populations." Are we doing that? "Instead, we should remind the world that we are a nation of free people, who cherish free speech and individual conscience and oppose religious fanaticism and political violence." We have been too slow to reverse the Bush policies which told the world that our commitment to freedom, justice and peace was merely a slogan.

"- We should be staunch supporters of free trade and investment. . . ." Globalization needs to be rethought from the ground up. A system which exports jobs obviously needs another look. That is not of concern in the Bergner program, however. In his essay, Dr. Bergner does not use the words "jobs," or "employment." Unemployment is mentioned once, as an excuse for defeating the health care bill.
He does not even mention the economy, perhaps because that might open the question of planning. All, apparently, will be well if the government steps aside. After the crash, few people could believe that, but Dr. Bergner seems to be one of them.

Along the way, he refers to "unsustainable deficits," and blames "the left's policies over the past 60 years [for] . . . financial bankruptcy." Leaving aside the illogic of the latter charge, it is noteworthy that there is no mention of "defense" spending. Anyone concerned about deficits should take a hard look at expenditures exceeding $600 billion per year.

Dr. Bergner's proposal is a scattershot collection of peeves, not a plan. It is an odd, but not unique, melding of a largely libertarian domestic philosophy and a smug international stance. The former rests on a familiar fantasy, a counter-narrative, of rugged individualism and small government, a longing for an imagined Jeffersonian eighteenth century. In practice, the program would produce a plutocratic society and an assertive foreign policy, more nearly resembling the late nineteenth. Certainly it has little relevance to the twenty-first.


15. Bergner has a Ph.D in politics and philosophy. He is — or has been; I can't pin down his present status — a principal in a lobbying firm which has domestic and foreign clients.
16. Dr. Bergner is at work on a book on "the role of German idealist philosophy in shaping the modern idea of a human being."
17. Among the other signers were John Bolton, Francis Fukuyama, William Kristol, Richard Perle, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz.

February 23, 2010

I'm not keeping up. I was unaware until a few days ago that a) there is a person known as Marc Thiessen, b) he has emerged as the leading defender of the Bush administration's interrogation methods, and c) he has been hired by The Washington Post, where he will write a weekly column. Given b), c) is no surprise; the march to the right of the Post's editorial and op-ed pages is something to behold.

Thiessen already had written for that paper, and for Foreign Policy, a Post publication, so the recent move merely formalizes the Post's sponsorship of his views.

His signature claim is that enhanced interrogation techniques, aka torture, prevented attacks in the U.S., but his arguments are unsubstantiated. He refers most often to an alleged plot to fly an airplane into the Library Tower (now US Bank Tower) in Los Angeles, alleging that torture-induced disclosures led to the foiling of the plot. However, his account is convoluted and conflicts with information given out by the White House in 2005 and 2006. On February 8, he criticized the Obama administration for killing too many terrorists, leaving none to interrogate. At least it's a novel form of the Obama-does-everything-wrong line.

Thiessen was a speechwriter for Defense Secretary Rumsfeld from 2001 to 2004, and then for President Bush until the blessed end of that regime. He capitalized on the latter role in forming a group known as "Oval Office Writers, LLC," which asks on its web site, "Let us write for you." You know: "Have pen, will travel." His expertise, if producing what George W. Bush said can be so considered, is in writing speeches for other people to deliver. It isn't in national security, counter-espionage or interrogation.

The decline of the Post's opinion section is a well-told story, and the miserable condition of the news media as a whole is as well, but that makes the situation no less depressing. The country is beset with serious problems, about which most of its citizens and politicians are uninformed, unenlightened or disinterested, but the media obsess with the Olympic Games, as if a good medal count for the U.S. would solve those problems, and with the sexual escapades of a golfer. And it's not just us. I had been under the illusion that the BBC represented a higher level of journalism than the American networks.
Then came last Friday, when the majority of its evening newscast was devoted to the Tiger Woods apology. Who cares what he said or meant or felt or intended or did or is or was or will be?

The Huffington Post, which began as a liberal alternative to the mainstream media, and still fills that role to some extent, now devotes a considerable part of its main page to celebrity junk and other trashy material. Local TV news remains a joke.

And we wonder how Tea Partiers can be so misinformed.

March 1, 2010

Toyota has recalled 2.3 million vehicles because they are subject to sudden, unintended acceleration. Such a flaw seems to be a serious defect, one which demonstrates a failure by Toyota. However, in The Washington Post on Friday (and in The Seattle Times on Sunday), Charles Krauthammer advised us that the dangerous condition of Toyotas is just a price we pay for the technological advances on which we rely. Referring to the congressional hearings and specifically to the testimony of Rhonda Smith, whose Lexus ran away with her, he offered sympathy but caution: "Such wrenching and compelling stories might impel you to want to string up the first Toyota executive you find. But the issue here is larger and highly complex." There is nothing complex about the fact that Toyota has built and marketed lots of dangerous cars. It there is a "larger issue," it is that apologists for business like Krauthammer want to excuse Toyota's incompetence and venality and divert attention from the need for effective regulation.

We tend to forget, he said, the wondrousness of modern products. "Even the lowliest wage earner has an automobile that conveys him with more luxury, more freedom, more comfort than any traveling king ever experienced in all the centuries before the 20th." There is a downside: "these wonders can be lethal." Dr. Krauthammer attempted, unsuccessfully, to make that complacent generalization the rule of interpretation for the facts about Toyota vehicles.
[S]orting out the endless complaints about these products is maddeningly difficult — though sort you must, otherwise every complaint would require shutting down the factories, and we'd have no industrial society at all. How do you distinguish the idiosyncratic failure from the systemic — for example, the single lemon that came off the auto assembly line vs. an intrinsic problem inherent in that model's engineering? How do you separate one patient's physiology producing a drug side effect vs. an intrinsic problem with a drug that makes it unacceptably dangerous?
Leaving aside the notion that complaints are endless and the task maddening, those would be generally valid questions if one were talking about tort litigation; "sorting out" is appropriate to product liability or medical malpractice cases, where the focus is on determining cause and assigning blame. They don't relate to the creation of safety standards and the conduct of tests and inspections, where the focus is on "the systemic" and the aim is to create rules and processes which will prevent problems. They don't relate to the Toyota situation, in which no one is claiming that there are merely a few lemons or that some drivers have idiosyncratic reactions to their vehicles.

He then turned to another irrelevant issue. He had included medicine in the category of modern wonders which may be dangerous, and pursuing that theme, he asked "how many sudden deaths does it take until we say: 'Enough,' and pull [a] drug off the market? It's not an easy calculation." He referred to Vioxx, which was withdrawn "because it was found to increase the risk of heart attack and stroke from 0.75 percent per year to 1.5 percent." Perhaps such situations pose difficult calculations, but the present case does not: Toyota has recalled millions of vehicles and no one has suggested banning those models.

Krauthammer also was determined to minimize Toyota's culpability, noting only that it "underplayed the reports of sticking accelerators." However, Congress has obtained internal Toyota documents from July 2009 in which Toyota officials boasted that the company saved $100 million by negotiating with the government, in 2007, a limited recall of Toyota and Lexus vehicles which developed sudden acceleration problems. Additional millions were saved by delaying safety regulations and avoiding investigations. These outcomes were described as "wins for Toyota." 18 (Another July 2009 document noted with regret that the company faced a "more challenging" regulatory environment under the Obama administration, which is not "industry friendly." 19) Toyota also withheld records that it was required to produce in response to discovery orders in litigation. 20

Reports of acceleration hazards in Toyota vehicles, including some crashes, go back to 2002. The first injuries were reported in 2003. In 2005, Toyota recalled 3,657 cars due to floor-mat interference. The first fatality occurred in 2007. A recall of floor mats followed, involving 55,000 Lexus and Camry vehicles. In January, 2009 26,501 Sienna minivans were recalled, but Toyota didn't concede there was any defect. A crash resulting in four deaths occurred in August 2009. Another recall followed, in October, involving 3.8 million (also reported as 4.2 million) vehicles of various models due to floor mat problems. Toyota again claimed there was no defect. On November 4, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) stated that removing floor mats is only a temporary fix. On November 25, 2009 Toyota announced that it will reconfigure the accelerator pedal. On January 22, 2010 Toyota recalled 2.3 million vehicles, later raised by 1.1 million more, due to sticky pedals; some of these vehicles also are covered by the October recall. In general, the pattern is one of repeated complaints, evasions by Toyota and, in the early years, mild responses by NHTSA.21

Toyota has known of the problem, and in one of the July 2009 internal documents sudden acceleration is identified as a "key safety issue."22

While vehicles from other manufacturers have experienced acceleration problems, Toyota stands out. A study of 2008 model-year cars by Consumer Reports found that 41% of the complaints involved Toyota products, although its market share was 16%.23

In closing, Krauthammer urged us "to simply admit that even the highest technology produced by the world's finest companies can be fallible and fatal, and that the intelligent response is not rage and retribution but sober remediation and recognition of the very high price we pay — willingly pay — for modernity with all its wondrous, dangerous bounty." He didn't explain what his notion of sober remediation is, but pretty clearly it isn't anything drastic.

The moral to the Toyota story isn't that dangerous cars are the price we pay for modernity. Automobiles are not, after all, new, experimental products; by this time, there should be no trick to producing cars that don't run wild. The moral is that we can't trust businesses, without oversight and regulation, to take sufficient care that their products are safe.


18. http://www.boston.com/cars/news/articles/2010/02/22/toyota_documents_hail_100m_in_recall_savings/ ;
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/23/business/global/23toyota.html?partner=rss&emc=rss ;
19. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/23/business/global/23toyota.html?partner=rss&emc=rss
20. http://oversight.house.gov/images/stories/Correspondence/02-26-10-Yoshimi_Inaba.pdf
21. http://www.safetyresearch.net/toyota-sudden-unintended-acceleration/toyota-sudden-acceleration-timeline/;
22. http://www.businessweek.com/news/2010-02-22/toyota-saved-100-million-on-recall-document-shows-update3-.html
23. http://blogs.consumerreports.org/cars/2009/12/sudden-unintended-acceleration-sua-analysis-2008-toyota-lexus-ford-gm.html

March 5, 2010

Senator Bunning of Kentucky recently blocked the extension of unemployment benefits and other pressing matters in a display which comes close to fitting Hobbes' definition of life in a state of nature: solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. The Senator, acting alone, put a "hold" on the bill which, under the Senate's strange way of doing business, prevents action. Poverty, in this case, refers to the quality of his arguments. Nasty describes his behavior, including crude language and gestures, and brutish isn't much too strong a term for his disregard for those, including some of his constituents, harmed by his obstruction. (He, on the other hand, whined about the effect on him: he missed a basketball game on TV due to being on the Senate floor). Happily, his holdout was short, although other such acts of obstruction have lasted for absurdly long periods. Not only was his hold a solitary action, but his objection to the legislation almost was as well; after he relented, it passed 78-19.

On Tuesday, Senator Orrin Hatch published an op-ed piece in The Washington Post which attempted to justify the policy of obstruction exemplified by Bunning's performance. His column is an all-too-common bit of Republican argumentation: so hypocritical as to suggest that the author thinks no one knows or will check the facts. It has been dissected elsewhere, even in the Post, 24 so I'll point out only a few of its faults.

The Senator from Utah believes that, while "the House is designed for action, the Senate is designed for deliberation. That is why Senate rules and procedures give a minority of senators the power to slow or even stop legislation." The Senate obviously wasn't designed for deliberation alone; at some point the discussion needs to result in action. In any case it's difficult to find any deliberation in the recent performance of Senate Republicans; slowing and eventually stopping legislation have become their entire strategy.

Senate rules, he said, "temper majority power and generate strong incentives to develop mainstream legislation that commands broad, bipartisan support." They have done no such thing. Even though Democrats, aware of the threat to filibuster everything, compromise to the point of gutting their own bills, Republicans continue to say no.

Democrats now propose to use "reconciliation" as a means of resolving differences between the House and Senate versions of the health care bill. Senator Hatch objected, describing that as "an arcane budget procedure," as if it had not been used often. As the critics have documented, he has voted for it many times.

In criticizing reconciliation, he complained that "it sharply limits debate and amendments to a mere 20 hours and would allow passage with only 51 votes (as opposed to the 60 needed to overcome a procedural hurdle). But the Constitution intends the opposite process . . . ." The "procedural hurdle" he hesitates to name is the filibuster, which requires 60 votes to overcome. Contrary to Hatch's implication, the requirement of a three-fifths vote to take action is not a Constitutional requirement, but a procedural rule of the Senate; the Constitution says nothing on this issue, and it is difficult to read into its language the notion that the people's business should be held hostage by an obstructive minority.
Senator Hatch gave away his real agenda by arguing that the health care bill is too expensive and that it is unpopular. His claim that passing the legislation would be "against the will of the American people," and that "polls show a growing majority of the American people oppose" it comes the closest in his essay to a fair statement. Most polls taken over the past two or three months show more people against the proposal than in favor, and a majority of the polls show a slight trend toward disapproval.25

However, at least some of the opposition results from misunderstanding — fed by intentional misrepresentation — of the plan's provisions. That was demonstrated by a poll done for Newsweek last month. Respondents were told "Barack Obama has proposed a plan to change this country's health care system," and asked whether they favored or opposed it. The result was 40% pro and 49% con. The respondents then were read several specific proposals and asked for an expression of support or opposition to each; they supported most of them. Finally, they were told that all of those specifics were part of the "Obama" plan, and asked again for an overall response, which came out 48% for and 43% against. People don't like being shown that they are wrong or misinformed, so the switch, it seems to me, is more significant than the numbers show. In addition, the change might have been greater if the pollsters had disclosed that myths such as "death panels" are false.

However, one can't quarrel with success. The Party of No will get its way to a considerable extent: in the absence of a debating partner, the Democrats are continuing to negotiate against themselves.


24. In E. J. Dionne's column: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/03/03/AR2010030303097.html
Other comments are here: http://wonkroom.thinkprogress.org/2010/03/02/orrin-hatch-reconciliation/  and http://mediamattersaction.org/factcheck/201003020001  .
A video of Rachel Maddow's critique is at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/03/03/maddow-slams-orrin-hatch_n_483509.html .
25. Recent health-care polls are here: http://www.pollingreport.com/health.htm  .
Sen. Hatch's growing majorities" exaggerates a bit; the "against" response often is short of a majority.

March 14, 2010

The incoherence of Glenn Beck's accusations probably hasn't bothered his audience up to now because he's played to their prejudices. However, he may have gone too far in his latest outburst.

March 2 on radio, Beck told his listeners to leave any church which uses the words "social justice" or "economic justice." They should do so because those are code words for — what? He didn't say, at least in the parts of his broadcast that have appeared on the internet. His advice came as part of a confused ramble in which he warned that something — again, what? — would happen to or in some churches:
I'm begging you, your right to religion and freedom to exercise religion and read all of the passages of the Bible as you want to read them and as your church wants to preach them . . . are going to come under the ropes in the next year. If it lasts that long it will be the next year. I beg you, look for the words 'social justice' or 'economic justice' on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words. . . . 26
On his TV show that night, Beck offered a hint as to the code.27 He held up two cards, one showing a hammer and sickle and other a swastika. "Communists are on the left, and the Nazis are on the right. That's what people say. But they both subscribe to one philosophy, and they flew one banner. . . ." How, if they had different symbols, could they fly one banner? Is that only a metaphor? Who knows? At that point, Beck gestured toward a monitor which showed the words "social justice" as if to reveal a banner, although there wasn't one. Never mind; according to Beck, "on each banner read the words, here in America: 'social justice.' " So the Nazis and the Communists had or have special banners for the U.S. which contain the words "social justice?" Why has no one seen them? If it's a metaphor, where does Beck find evidence of this phenomenon?

He didn't tell us when these banners were flown, literally or metaphorically. Perhaps it was in 1939. During his radio broadcast, Beck referred to a gathering of "Nazis" at Madison Square Garden. He appeared to be describing a meeting of the German-American Bund which took place on February 20, 1939. On his TV show that night, he confirmed the date, although he still referred to the group simply as "Nazis." What does any of this have to do with the current use of "social justice" and the fate of churches? The da Vinci Code was easier to follow.

On March 11, Beck asserted that social justice would be a perversion of the Gospel. 28 The next day, also on radio,29 he backtracked a little, conceding that it would be OK for churches to mention social justice if it only meant that individual church members should do good works. However, any interpretation which implied support for big-government programs would convert the church into an arm of government. Beck claimed that he's merely insisting on separation of church and state.

This rant finally gave us a definition of the code words; "social justice" means (or may mean) "big government." Where does he get that? Apparently Beck's basis for that equation is found in references to social justice in publications or slogans used by fascists and communists in the Thirties. So the syllogism is: fascists and communists attempted to sell their programs by referring the social justice; those were totalitarian political movements; ergo "social justice" necessarily is a code for authoritarian, oppressive government. Alternatively, "social justice" may mean Marxism. "There's a lot of people that will say 'social justice,' and some people don't mean Marxism, but others do."

On December 15, 2009, his argument was even more confused, but it disclosed what this is all about. "If you see the words -- what is -- social justice, and what was the other one? Economic justice. You see these -- these are code words. These are the Marxist code words for the new global order." He can't remember the phrases, but he's sure they're in code. "You see those words, if you see things that are now being preached about from the pulpit in many churches, about health care." Ah, now we know why he's in such a snit. What has this to do with a Marxist world order? Forget it: analysis is not his thing; hysteria is. "Warning. Warning. Many churches have been infiltrated with this line of thinking that is absolutely against the freedoms that our Founding Fathers designed." Remind me: does the Bill of Rights protect us from decent health care? "And they're not hard to find. Look for them and wake your fellow parishioners and your fellow congregants up to what is going on, because there are hidden messages that are there. And they're not hidden. I mean, it's not a conspiracy. It's all out in the open."

The variations in the code really don't matter. Fascism, Nazism, communism, Marxism (and, probably, socialism) are all the same to Beck. They aren't terms referring to theories, beliefs and movements; they're simply swear words, like progressivism and big government.

On his TV show of March 2, his argument was that fascism and communism are not at opposite — right and left — poles, but are at the same end of the political spectrum. 30 Not, I suspect, by coincidence, he put them on his famous chalkboard at the extreme left. At the right he placed anarchy. From there we move leftward to republicanism, then, passing the midpoint, to progressivism, then to the totalitarian twins. Progressivism, he has told us, is a cancer, apparently because it is one step away from totalitarianism. Republicans as well as Democrats have been guilty of progressivism; with the former that leads to fascism, with the latter to communism.

Beck included that bipartisan critique in his speech to CPAC. 31 He began by denouncing Woodrow Wilson. In fact he opened his remarks with this bizarre statement: "Hello. Please. Thank you. Please be seated. I have to tell you, I hate Woodrow Wilson with everything in me. God bless you." However, before proceeding to his critique of Wilson, Beck mocked Theodore Roosevelt. "Teddy Roosevelt had his progressive party - hah ho ho, I've got big plans - and Woodrow Wilson said, well he's a crazy man, I'm not going to be quite as progressive as that." What was Roosevelt's madness? "Teddy Roosevelt was the first one to say, we should have universal health care." Scandalous. "So, uh, Woodrow Wilson gets in and he gives us the Fed. How's that working out for us, huh? . . . Then he gives us the - let's remember this, America - progressive income tax." Yes, the first modern income tax law was passed under Wilson, but the Sixteenth Amendment, allowing an income tax, was passed by Congress, and ratified, under Taft. Was he another progressive?

Returning to Beck's March 2 broadcast, and to his chalkboard, where should we be on the spectrum? He placed the Articles of Confederation a bit inside anarchy and the republicanism of the Constitution a bit to the left of that. We should have stayed there, he said (well to the right of his centerline), back before progressivism, before progress, which is bad because, you see, progressives want to "progress" past the Constitution.

He peddles his uninformed and distorted view of history as evidence of progressive perfidy. His technique is to present an event from the past, such as the Bund rally, and imply that it has some connection to present-day progressivism. One of his critics aptly pointed out that he uses the technique mastered by George Bush in selling the invasion of Iraq: put two references (e.g., 9-11 and Saddam) in the same sentence and count on people to make the connection.

"Social justice" is not a new term, nor is it sinister, nor is it a perversion of religion, nor is any of that true of "progressive." "Since about 1900, social justice had been a common, graceful label for the broad changes progressives of all faiths favored." 32 Like any term, it can be redefined, distorted and misused, but the notion that it is part of a secret code used by people who seek to drag us into a totalitarian state exists only in Beck's imagination, if there.

However, "social justice" could be a frightening concept to anyone who opposes efforts by governments to aid people. Phyllis Schlafly revealed her fear in an attempt to redefine the term. Commenting on the, to her, puzzling fact that "18-to-29-year- old evangelicals vote[d] for Barack Obama," she said, "Many of these young people identify 'social justice' as the reason . . . . But the term 'social justice' does not define a moral cause; it is leftwing jargon to overturn those who have economic and political power.33 It does define a moral cause, just not one on her agenda. It doesn't require overturning those in political power; indeed the fear is that they might do something. I doesn't require "overturning" those with economic power, although it might require that they pay taxes.

Beck's theories are analytically confused, but in general outline they're a combination of familiar themes: reactionary fantasy and demonization. As to the latter, Beck is recycling Irving Kristol's notion of a "crisis that liberalism is provoking in our society," which in turn recycled McCarthyism.
[W] what began to concern me more and more were the clear signs of rot and decadence germinating within American society—a rot and decadence that was no longer the consequence of liberalism but was the actual agenda of contemporary liberalism. . . .


. . . There is no "after the Cold War" for me. So far from having ended, my cold war has increased in intensity, as sector after sector of American life has been ruthlessly corrupted by the liberal ethos. . . . 34
The overheated language was uncharacteristic of Kristol but is, of course, Beck's stock in trade. Demonization of the left — as liberal treason, liberal decadence or, for Beck, progressive totalitarianism — has been the core of conservative political theory since World War II, which demonstrates the poverty of that theory.

To return to the beginning after this long detour: what reaction will Beck's church-going audience have to his views on social justice? Now that the targets are their churches, perhaps the incoherence will become apparent. Already there have been negative responses from religious leaders, including those in Beck's adopted denomination. "[S]cholars in Mr. Beck's own church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said in interviews that Mr. Beck seemed ignorant of just how central social justice teaching was to Mormonism." 35 What a surprise.


26. Audio clip: http://patrolmag.com/mp3/beck.mp3
27. Video clip: http://mediamatters.org/mmtv/201003020048
28. Audio clip: http://mediamatters.org/mmtv/201003110017
29. Audio clip: http://mediamatters.org/mmtv/201003120015
30. You can find the entire program, in four segments, here:
31. Transcript: http://politics.gather.com/viewArticle.action?articleId=281474978060978
32. Kazin, The Populist Persuasion (1995), pp. 116-118
33." 'Social Justice': Code Word for Anti-Americanism"
34. Kristol, "My Cold War," (1993) reprinted in Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea, p. 486
35. http://thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/03/11/christians-urged-to-boycott-glenn-beck/?scp=3&sq=laurie%20goodstein&st=cse

March 23, 2010

Republicans are playing a devious and politically dangerous game. Having no meaningful program, they are voting No when they cannot prevent votes. Their message for November appears to be: government is broken, so vote for the party that broke it. To advance that confused program, they have flirted with the Tea Party movement, stoking its hostility to President Obama and his supposed connections to socialism, fascism and tyranny, hoping that its supporters will assign all of the blame to him. That might work; Tea Partiers who have been quoted or have carried signs have demonstrated more anger than clear thinking.

Now and again, when the protesters have gone off the deep end, the GOP has attempted to distance itself, but the reality is that it encourages and uses those unhappy people. Look just at recent events.
More than a week before the House vote on health-care reform, Tea Partiers assembled in Washington, D.C. to rally against it. At their press conference on March 12, signs and political buttons were on display. The signs, which read “Listen to Me!” had a notice at the bottom: “Paid for by the Republican National Committee.” 36

At some point within the next few days, someone thought better of advertising the GOP involvement — the protesters had got the message, no doubt — so tape was applied over the revealing words.37 However, at a rally on March 16, seven House Republicans spoke to the crowd, encouraging the protest. Among those present were Rep. Mike Pence, Chairman of the House Republican Conference, and Republican Study Committee Chairman Tom Price.38

On March 20, protesters shouted at Democratic Reps. John Lewis and at Rep. Barney Frank, calling them "nigger," and "faggot" respectively. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, like Lewis an African-American, was spat upon. Rep. Pence denounced that behavior, but maintained that the GOP wasn't responsible for inciting the obviously suggestible anti-government crowd. Instead, he said, all of the rancor reflects the true, uninfluenced opinion of all America: "I think we've reached a tipping point here. I think the American people are rising up with one voice and saying, 'Enough is enough.' " 39 On the same day, Pence appeared at another TP rally, telling the troops to "be confident, stay firm, stay in the fight, let your voice be heard." 40

On Sunday March 21, the day of the vote, protesters on the lawn of the Capitol shouted "Kill the bill!" and "Nancy, you will burn in hell for this!" (The Republican Party web site features a large headline "Fire Pelosi" with flames in the background; no doubt an unfortunate coincidence.41) During the proceedings, Six Republican members, in two groups of three, went out to the balcony off the House floor to whip up the crowd, holding up "Kill The Bill" signs and waving a "Don't Tread on Me" flag.42

The "debate" was notable for the inflammatory remarks by Republicans: The issue is individual liberty versus government tyranny. The bill will destroy freedom, will mean the death of freedom. Passing it isn't democracy. The debate isn't about the uninsured, it's about socialized medicine. For most of the twentieth century, we've fled the ghosts of communist dictators; now we're bringing them back and they will haunt us for generations. We're laying the cornerstone of a socialist utopia on the backs of the American people. Minority Leader John Boehner virtually came unhinged, shouting "shame on you!" to the majority.43 But the Republicans aren't trying to feed irrational fears and stoke hysterical opposition.

The less volatile Tea Partiers may not fall for the GOP line, or enough other voters may keep their senses, but I'm not optimistic. Many people are easily led, and all of the rhetorical leading to date has been by the socialism-tyranny-death panels faction.


36. http://washingtonindependent.com/79194/tea-party-signs-sponsored-by-the-rnc
37. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/03/16/tea-party-protest-signs-r_n_500803.html
38. http://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/news/87013-house-republicans-rally-tea-partiers-on-capitol?page=2
39. http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/joan_walsh/politics/2010/03/20/tea_party_racism
40. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/03/21/AR2010032102172.html?hpid=topnews
41. http://www.gop.com/firepelosi/  or
42. See note 5.
43. Video at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/03/22/health-care-10-minutes-video_n_508189.html

April 5, 2010

Governors across the country received letters a few days ago directing them to resign within three days or be removed. The exact language hasn't turned up in any articles I've seen, but apparently it doesn't specify the means of removal and isn't directly threatening. Security has been stepped up in some capitals, but due less to any anticipated danger from the source of the letters than to possible action from nuts who might take the hint. The organization behind the letters, Guardians of the Free Republics, seems more confused than menacing, although there are some worrisome comments, associations and implications.

On their web page,44 the Guardians set out a Restore America Plan, a "strategy for behind-the-scenes peaceful reconstruction of the de jure institutions of government without controversy, violence or civil war." De jure is only one of several words or phrases that the author or authors misinterpret; they define it as "original." The Plan would "Restore and reinhabit [sic] the de jure institutions of lawful government." That isn't explained on the main page, but elsewhere it is revealed that we must undo changes made since 1933; other comments indicate that we must return to 1865. In other words, no government intervention in the economy and no civil rights laws. At yet another point, the Guardians opt for "restoring, in principle, the Constitutional institutions through December 19, 1860," which seems to relate to the December 20 declaration by South Carolina to secede. One might infer an extreme states-rights position, but the Guardians don't seem to think very highly of state government either. On this, as on all points, there is much confusion; there also is a reference to 1861, noted below.

The Guardians are under the odd impression that the United States — or it may be the US government — has become a corporation. (That notion is based on a misreading of a federal statute governing debt collection procedure which defines "United States" to include, along with other agencies and instrumentalities, a federal corporation). The imaginary corporation is illegitimate and so, therefore, are its laws and actions.

The Guardians want to ethe use of "covert contracts such as Form 1040, car registrations, birth certificate applications, and bank signature cards" because those documents imply that the person involved is a "subject" of the United States Federal Corporation.

They oppose tax evasion prosecutions because the IRS is a foreign banking cartel, formerly the Puerto Rico Bureau of Taxation. (There's no clue as to where that one comes from). Actually, the real identity of the IRS or any taxing authority is beside the point: another demand is to "end all non-consensual and unlawful taxation including all taxes on the sacred rights of labor and privacy." I'll bet there won't be any consensual taxes either.

In an unusually muddled accusation, even for this source, the Guardians demand an end to "admiralty prosecutions for kidnapping and other heinous crimes against mankind as 'commercial crimes' against the corporate State under a contrived corporate color-of-law venue." The quoted phrase is lifted from a section of the Code of Federal Regulations which deals with the disposition of property seized by the ATF and defines, for that purpose, certain crimes as commercial crimes. Somehow the Guardians think that converts all crimes into commercial ones and, even though the regulation dates only to 1978, it somehow relates to the Civil War: "U.S. Inc. defines all crime as commercial as a result of the fall of the republic when the South walked out of congress in 1861 and the de jure congress, unable to raise a quorum, was replaced by Lincoln with the de facto corporate Congress; and the de jure district court of the United States was replaced by the de facto corporate UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT." Since the corporate government apparently came into being in 1861, why is 1865 used as the crucial date? Never mind; none of this makes sense. The reference to admiralty is based on another misinterpretation; whenever the Guardians get near a legal concept, weird conclusions follow.

Although the ostensible target is the hypothetical US Corporation, the Guardians object to laws which have nothing to do with it, such as the "use of deeds which classify the People as 'tenants' on their own land, thereby transferring control to incorporated County registrars and tax assessors"; the conversion of marriage into "a commercial system of state-issued privileges through the so-called 'marriage license' whereby incorporated 'courts' presume the 'right' to trespass on families and kidnap children;" and interference with automobile ownership "through DMV registrations which covertly exchange the divine rights of travel and ownership for the state-issued 'privileges' of 'driving' and 'title.' ” In short, they don't like laws.

The revolution is to be accomplished "peacefully, discreetly, quietly and honorably," which is reassuring. However, the Guardians claim at one point that the Plan was created after consultation with high-ranking members of the United States armed forces, and at others that it is a "war college restoration strategy" proposed by such officers, "who are tired of taking orders from a corporate CEO. . . ." That certainly is all bluff, and so is the claim that the military has agreed to follow the orders of the Guardians' new government. More troubling, the Guardians think that law enforcement is illegitimate because it proceeds from the dread corporation. The disdain for the courts leads to including among immediate goals "Arrest and shackling of the District Court of the District of Columbia." That is more bluster, but the incitements to violence begin to add up.

There is a religious overtone — restoring Biblical law, a covenant with the Creator, salvaging the souls of mankind, "the satanic institutions and rituals of 1933 and 1865" — which is another dangerous element. There are references to Rothschilds and Warbugs which convey a whiff of anti-Semitism.

A posting on Mother Jones claimed that there is only one person behind the Guardians. An article in The Christian Science Monitor named four, three of them "elders." A comment to the Mother Jones report claimed that there are 2,000 members. One of the Guardians' web pages claims that "thousands upon thousands" have expressed support for the Plan. My impression is that there are only a few people directly involved, and that the web material may well be written by only one; two of the subsidiary pages are written in the first person singular, and they all share a pretentious, semi-educated style.
One of the pages is signed "Sam Kennedy" who, it develops, has a radio show on the Republic Broadcasting Network which is based, not to my surprise, in Texas. His bio on its page states that he is "a retired physician who treats pain disorders" and that he "served as a journalist and professional writer for many years." That's difficult to believe. After reading the web site, listening to one of his broadcasts and part of another, and reading descriptions of others, I can't believe that he has much education, analytic ability or real-world experience or that he ever made a living as a writer.

His program is entitled "Take No Prisoners." which rather detracts from the promise of peaceful change, and it's not encouraging that one of the other talkers on Republic Broadcasting is Michael Collins Piper, who writes for the right-wing paper The American Free Press. Several others in the lineup profess concern about the New World Order or the UN. One promises to teach you how to protect your family from terrorism and another describes himself as a tactical firearms trainer who instructs in the defensive use of handguns, shotguns, rifles and sub-machine guns. One claims to be articulating the popular rage. This sort of lineup will encourage the irrationally angry to do something, very possibly not peacefully and quietly.

The Kennedy broadcast I listened to in full, from March 3, was rambling and at times incoherent. As on the web site, he seemed ambivalent about his own program. At times he counsels patience and even tells the faithful that they need not do anything because the great transformation will somehow just happen. (The web site still states that the great transformation will occur by March 31, 2010.) At other times, there are ominous hints, one of which promises action if directives from the military are ignored by civilians.

Part of the broadcast was devoted to goofy advice on how to bypass normal legal procedure, which he described as "devil worship;" that apparently ties in to the demand on the web site for an end to the blasphemous and perverse act of "requiring the People to pray to 'courts' as is now required." The only sense I can make of this is that, in complaints and other documents asking for favorable action from a court, the petitioner "prays" for that result. The word, of course, is simply a legal archaism, but Kennedy takes it literally.

Kennedy's Plan is a muddled quasi-anarchic program. He doesn't seem to be anything but a babbler, and much of what he says is so silly that it should be impossible to take it seriously. However, I watched a clip on You Tube in which an unidentified woman expresses her excitement over his notion that we could ignore taxes and mortgages. She said she wants to invite him to appear on Freedomizer Radio, which, according to its web page, is committed to "REAL Patriot News." Another web site called Patriot Radio Review gives Kennedy high marks for legal knowledge, which makes his radio show a valuable asset for the Patriot/Truth movement.

I'm afraid that the Kennedy-Guardian claims about the illegitimacy of the government, ignorant as they are, could appeal not only to other babblers but to any number of nut groups, and could provide them with theories on which to hang their resentments.

Increased security for the governors isn't a bad idea.


44. The main page is at http://guardiansofthefreerepublics.com/front-page.html
Some of the material I refer to is on subsidiary pages listed under "About."

April 7, 2010

Since writing Monday's note concerning the Guardians of a Free Republic, I've located, thanks to another admiring You Tube clip,

The unanimous Declaration of the sovereign People of the united States of America

                                    to restore and reinhabit the free American republics.

The varying type size may reveal that states are really more important than the people, although later we see that evil corporate states must be converted into republics. Don't look for consistency.

The Declaration runs to thirty pages, all in Old English script, and includes a "warrant" to all fifty governors (presumably the document which has generated the news reports), orders to the governors, declarations of principle, and "general orders" directed to, among other people, the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
This self-important effusion is signed by four people, including Samuel Kennedy.

The Declaration is similar in tone and, for the most part, in ideology, to the Guardians' web pages but is even more pompous and confused. It is a parody of a serious political document and almost a parody of the Guardians' beliefs. In places it reads like something produced by the Postmodernism Generator. For example, a goal is to restore to every American "their in-law, dry land divine rights of birth. . . ."

The Warrant carries this imposing caption:

of the De jure Grand Juries

of the People of the united States of America

assembled under God as

Guardians of the Free Republics

and sole lawful authority on the land

The four signers claim to speak for "the sovereign People" and invoke their "sacred dominion over all the earth." The Governors are listed by name and state, each identified as a person "occupying the office of Governor, incorporated state of ____." Each is advised of the "reinhabitation [by the people, presumably] of the legitimate de jure un-incorporated republican government institutions pursuant to the constitutions of the free American republics and the United States of America republic, c. 1787." 45 How the states became incorporated is not revealed; perhaps the conversion of the federal government into a corporation46 carries them along. The Warrant declares "the conclusion, termination, voiding and de-funding of the de facto office of 'Governor' of each of the aforesaid fifty (50) political subdivisions of the United States Federal Corporation."

It goes on to "arrest, redeem and recall" the Governors' bonds, insurance, "surety and de facto escrow," thereby "rendering them null, void and non-negotiable and the public wanting for indemnification." The last phrase, assuming that it means something, expresses a concern inconsistent with cancelling indemnification instruments.

The Warrant then recites that the de facto office of Governor is "resorbed" into a de jure office, which will be, e.g., Governor of the New York republic, not Governor of the State of New York.

Failure to comply with the orders would result in "immediate removal from office by order of the De Jure Grand Juries." Those bodies, if they existed, would be something on the order of revolutionary councils.

The Warrant is restrained in tone, but the oath of office required of a governor under the new regime is a "sacred actionable blood-oath contract with the People. . . ." A later document, General Order Seven, orders someone to "arrest, detain and bring before these De Jure Grand Juries" anyone who refuses both to resign and to take the oath, to be tried for "the high crime of treason." This all begins to have a French-revolutionary odor; can the guillotine be far away? It adds, "This order shall not impair the People's right of letter of marque." Are they going to send privateers after ships escaping with the Governors' ill-gotten treasure?

The revolutionary character of this fantasy is partially hidden by references to the Constitution and to restoration of an early form of federal government. However, the invocation of the Constitution is entirely pragmatic. On the Rationale page of their web site, the Guardians explain that they chose to appeal to it because "restoring, in principle, the Constitutional institutions through December 19, 1860 was the approach MOST LIKELY TO SUCCEED. . . ." Despite the Constitution's flaws, the Guardians can accomplish their goals "by agreeing with those who choose to glorify a man-made document." Their preference was to restore Biblical law, but not to worry: "In due time, the higher goal of salvaging the souls of mankind can be addressed."

General Order Six orders someone, again not identified, to "place de facto agencies Fanny Mae, Freddie Mac, the U.S. Small Business Administration, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development under the protective custody of the armed forces . . . to ensure the People’s credit and access thereto." Exactly why that should be necessary is not clear, the only specific reference being to the New Deal limitation on possession of gold, long since repealed. There is a general reference to banks and the monetary system, which are frequent targets. The Guardians have issues with the Federal Reserve, foreign bankers, "fraudulent foreign taxation," "global money predators" and foreign governments, specifically (as shown in the Appendix: Self-evident Expositions of Truth) with the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, Bildeberg [sic] Group, "Crown of England," Bank of England, Bank of France, Vatican Bank and Bank of International Settlements. Somehow we are in thrall to them "by swearing a confession to being an artfully named legal fiction 'U.S. person' on a bank signature card as a condition of transacting our private affairs. . . ."

The Guardians' attitude toward the military is ambivalent. They propose military seizure, and they claim that the Restore America Plan was devised by the military. However, on the first page of the Declaration, they complain that "each of the free American republics and the constitutional republic of the United States of America . . . have been preempted by military power. . . ."

There are any number of additional oddities, some echoing conspiracy stories on the internet, such as reliance on the "lost" Thirteenth Amendment, which, it is argued bars lawyers from public office because they hold a "title of nobility" (Esquire) from a foreign government, i.e., Britain. Or the notion that the Treasury is "repackaging . . . birth registrations as securities."

However, the only reason for looking closely at this comedy is its potential for acceptance by more active or influential groups. I mentioned some fans on the fringe on Monday. A somewhat more mainstream source is The Daily Paul, a site dedicated to "restoring Constitutional government" and to electing Ron Paul President, which ran an admiring post on March 3. The tea partiers also are an obvious target for this nonsense. Ignorance, gullibility, insecurity and resentment are an explosive mix, and adding conspiracy theories about lost freedom, and ideology, in the form of religion or patriotism, can light the fuse.


45. At various points, known dates are made approximate by the use of "circa" or "c." This appears to be another misunderstood term.
46. That transformation is discussed in Monday's note.

April 16, 2010

I sometimes wonder why I scribble these notes. No doubt the same question occurs to those few who occasionally read them.

Michael Innes wrote mystery novels for more than fifty years, and in the later ones his Scotland Yard detective, John Appleby, is retired. In one story, wondering why he was being drawn into an investigation, he told himself that he was merely "a retired person, engaged in moving decently from bedtime to bedtime, from lunch to dinner." In another tale, he had this insight: "Pottering around the old home . . . and listening to his clever children's odd modish persuasions and reading this and that in order to mitigate his immense ignorance in various fields of knowledge: these were the proper employments for an aging man." Perhaps I should follow that advice.

However, Appleby never followed it; there were so many diverting crimes in the supposedly quiet countryside, one needs an activity, and he can read only so many books. Much that we see around us is criminal, if only metaphorically, and I can't resist offering my advice, although unlike Appleby's, it is hardly expert.

A short list: the gun culture, abetted by the Supreme Court; political obstructionism aimed at destroying the administration; accusations that President Obama is a foreigner, a communist, a fascist or the antichrist, many of them masking racial bigotry; a retreat into intentional ignorance, some of it virtually medieval; the inherent weakness of the economy; war; debt; "patriot" groups who want to overthrow the government; news media that are more concerned with a golfer's affairs than anything of importance. Enough to keep me occupied and everyone else bored by my ramblings for a long time.

April 21, 2010

The signs carried at Tea Party protest rallies reflect so much hostility and ignorance that it is difficult to regard the people carrying them as anything but a clutch of uneducated, bewildered, insecure, resentful people goaded by Beck and Republicans into attacking the government and President Obama. A recent New York Times-CBS poll47 described a quite different group but that probably is because the poll did not address itself to the protesters but to a group defined as "people who said they supported the Tea Party movement." Their responses were compared to those of a group which represents the general population. The methodology is, as with most polls, baffling. (The Times supplied an explanation48 for the masochistic). A recent Pew poll49 provides a rough cross-check; two questions in this poll are similar to two in the Pew poll, and the general-population answers are in the same range. The common answers in the list below are marked with an asterisk and the corresponding Pew are percentages shown.
News reports have focused on the demographics, including an article50 in the Times which was headed "Poll Finds Tea Party Backers Wealthier and More Educated." The "wealth" numbers aren't very dramatic, though: those earning over $75,000 are 31% of Tea Partiers, 26% of the general sample.
The spread in education is larger: the "college grad" category includes 23% of TPers, 15% of the broader group. The total of "some college," college grad and post-grad favors the former 70% to 53%.
The education numbers are surprising, but again are explained at least in part by the loose definition of Tea-Party supporter. Not many of those polled wander about with bizarre signs — only 13% of the sample had attended a Tea Party rally or meeting — and they aren't very committed supporters: 2% had donated money and only 31% had even looked at a TP web site.

The more revealing numbers have to do with political views. The Tea Party group was consistently more critical of government, including Congress. The Times took due note of that; the lead paragraph started with demographics, but slipped in one political fact: "Tea Party supporters are wealthier and more well-educated than the general public . . . . The 18 percent of Americans who identify themselves as Tea Party supporters tend to be Republican, white, male, married and older than 45." All of the latter set of characteristics show significant percentage differences, but political orientation shows the largest gap. TPers much more likely to be Republicans or vote Republican and much less likely to be Democrats or vote that way than those in the general sample. They are much more inclined to blame Obama and much less inclined to blame Bush for the deficit and the state of the economy.

The Times stated that the Tea Partiers "hold more conservative views on a range of issues than Republicans generally. They are also more likely to describe themselves as 'very conservative' and President Obama as 'very liberal.' " I don't know where that comes from, as there aren't any "Republican" numbers in this poll. Continuing the comparison, the article states "And while most Republicans say they are 'dissatisfied' with Washington, Tea Party supporters are more likely to classify themselves as 'angry.' " All of that would be accurate if the comparisons were between the Tea Partiers and the general population in this poll.

To add to the confusion, the Times article sought to narrow the latter gap by stating that the TP "responses are like the general public's in many ways." The TPers agree with that conclusion, shown by the fact that 84% of them believe that "the Tea Party movement" reflects the views of most Americans, but only 25% of the general sample think that. (In the Pew poll, 24% "agreed with the Tea Party movement"). In fact, there are more differences than similarities, the differences are more significant, the TP group is consistently to the right, and some of the differences are wide. Here are the major ones, identified by the question number in the poll, with the responses condensed into statements:
                                                                                     General pop. %   Tea Party %
1. Approve Obama's performance as President.................... 50...................... 7
4. The country is going in the right direction........................ 34....................... 6
6. Approve Obama's handling of the economy....................... 43...................... 6
7. Approve Obama's handling of health care.......................... 41...................... 6
8. Approve Obama's handling of the deficit.......................... 29...................... 5
12. Favorable opinion of Obama............................................ 43...................... 7
21. Trust the federal government *Pew 87........................... 94...................... 6
22. Want smaller government with fewer services............... 50.................... 92
24. Angry at how things are in Washington *Pew 21............ 19..................... 53
27. The gov't should spend money to create jobs.................. 50..................... 17
32. Favorable view of the Republican Party.......................... 38.................... 54
33. Favorable view of the Democratic Party........................... 42...................... 6
36. Favorable view of George W. Bush................................... 27.................... 57
37. Favorable view of Ron Paul............................................... 11.................... 28
38. Favorable view of Glenn Beck.......................................... 18.................... 59
39. Favorable view of Sarah Palin.......................................... 30.................... 66
43. Obama has expanded government too much.................. 37.................... 89
46. Obama understands problems of those like me.............. 58.................... 24
47. Obama shares values of most Americans........................ 57.................... 20
48. Obama is very liberal........................................................ 31..................... 77
49. Obama's policies are moving us toward socialism.......... 52..................... 92
50. Obama was born in the United States............................. 58..................... 41
52. Obama's policies favor blacks over whites....................... 11..................... 25
53. Obama has increased taxes for most of us...................... 34.................... 64
55. The gov't should require that all have health ins............ 49..................... 12
56. Raise taxes on income over $250,000 to fund h. care.... 54..................... 17
62. Government aid encourages poor to remain poor.......... 38.................... 73
66. Global warming isn't a serious problem.......................... 29.................... 66
69. Gun control laws should be more strict.......................... 40..................... 13
72. Too much attention paid to problems of black people.... 28..................... 52
94a. Always or usually vote Republican................................ 28..................... 66
94b. Always or usually vote Democratic................................ 30...................... 5
95. Of the TV networks, watch Fox most for news................ 23.................... 63
108. Consider myself a Republican....................................... 28.................... 54
108. Consider myself a Democrat.......................................... 31...................... 5
108. Consider myself conservative........................................ 34..................... 73

(Answers 94a and 94b are taken from optional responses to question 94. There are several unnumbered questions following 108).

These Tea Party supporters are conservatives who "support" the Tea Parties in the sense that they share anti-government, anti-Obama views. The poll tells us nothing about committed members, those who show up at protests, but it tells us a good deal about the opinions of rigid conservatives, essentially that they will oppose any progressive policy because they are trapped in a negative ideology.

Forty percent of the Tea Party group think that the country needs a third political party, which might mean that the GOP won't garner more than the 66% shown in answer to question 94a. The likelihood that a third party will draw 40% in 2010 or 2012 is nil, but any third-party votes from this group certainly would hurt the Republicans more than the Democrats, given the answer to question 94b. The anger factor may work the other way, though, as it may prompt more conservatives than liberals to vote.

47. http://documents.nytimes.com/new-york-timescbs-news-poll-national-survey-of-tea-party-supporters
48. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/15/us/politics/15mbox.html?ref=politics
49. http://people-press.org/reports/pdf/606.pdf
50. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/15/us/politics/15poll.html

May 14, 2010

What is the Tea Party Movement? Who are its members? What does it believe or advocate? Is there a Tea Party organization as opposed to a Tea Party mentality? Is "Tea Party" merely an organizing slogan? News reports tell us that Senator Bennett of Utah was denied renomination by Tea Partiers and that Maine Republicans adopted a Tea Party-sponsored platform. However, the identity or affiliation of those people was not otherwise described. The recent NYTimes-CBS poll sheds little light unless one simply equates Tea Partiers with rigid conservatives. In an attempt to answer the questions, I looked at several web sites that have connections to the "movement."

Before turning to the Tea Party sites identified as such, let's look at some sources of "Tea Party" philosophy.American Liberty Alliance51 ("a place of collaboration for free market movements") was an early supporter and organizer of TP protests. (It links to Tea Party Patriots and Tax Day Tea Party; see below). Freedom Works 5, Dick Armey's libertarian web site ("Lower Taxes, Less Government, More Freedom") is another supporter, as is Americans for Prosperity53 ("entrepreneurship and fiscal and regulatory restraint"). Although the Bennett defeat has been described as a Tea Party victory, the Club for Growth54 ("Prosperity and Opportunity through Economic Freedom") has claimed credit. The agenda of these apologists for business is reflected in the platforms of Tea Party organizations (those that have one).

I looked at several web sites that purport to express Tea Party views. On their main page ("Official Home of the American Tea Party Movement"), the Tea Party Patriots5 are remarkably shy: in order to read blog posts or access "groups," one must be registered and have a password. The only stand taken openly is advocating repeal of the health care bill. There is a "Mission Statement" which sets forth their philosophy: "Fiscal Responsibility, Constitutionally Limited government and Free Markets." Freely translated, the program is low taxes and minimal regulation, certainly more of a business platform than one designed to benefit the grass roots. A second Tea Party Patriots page 56, ("Official Grassroots American Movement") declared support for Arizona's new immigration law, but that dropped off the page on May 12 or 13. There are links to news articles, and to member blogs which denounce immigration, taxes and the health care bill.

Another site is Tea Party Nation57. It is even more secretive than Tea Party Patriots, requiring that one sign in to read blogs, "Events" or the Forum page, to look at its videos or even at its cartoons. It does state that it is for "Limited Government, Free Speech, the 2nd Amendment, our Military, Secure Borders and our Country!" Tea Party Express 58 is unhappy about "bailouts, out-of-control deficit spending, government takeovers of sectors of the economy, Cap and Trade, government-run health care, and higher taxes!"

At 1776 Tea Party59, they just seem mad. At Tea Party Revolution60 (its web page is headed "Tea Party and Revolution"), the platform is "being refined." At Nationwide Tea Party Coalition 61, the action calendar is "coming soon." On Nationwide Tax Day Tea Party62, there are recent posts, but the only issue is "dump Harry Reid." At Re Tea Party63 , clicking on the "Principles" link brings up a "not found" message.  To say that there isn't a lot of populist philosophy here might be considered an understatement.

The number of active Tea Partiers isn't impressive. Tea Party Patriots (the "official home") lists chapters of affiliated groups by state. Washington is shown as having 47 groups, but one actually is in Virginia and two are dead links. The net of 44 averages just over one per county. The chapters list members by webby pseudonyms. After subtracting numerous duplicated names within groups, the total is 437, an average of just under 10 per group, but that is deceptively high, as there are numerous duplications between groups. Even ignoring that, 437 out of a population of 6,664,195 (.0066%), is not much of a movement.

"Tea Party" really is a slogan, a banner under which ordinary - if rigid - conservatives can gather and pretend that they are defending basic American principles against the onslaught of godless socialism. They are supported, nudged along and used by business interests.

A recent column on Frum Forum questioned whether there would be a falling out between the Club for Growth and Tea Partiers, more broadly whether advocates for business are incompatible with social conservatives and anti-Wall Street populists, the latter two making up the Tea Party. However, the populist tendency among Tea Partiers is selective, and, as the column points out, not all Tea Partiers are strongly committed to social conservatism; there also is the potential for a split within the Tea Party. In any case, the compatibility question has been prominent since the advent of modern conservatism, and conservatives have hung together rather well so far, social conservatives swallowing the free-market line and libertarians hiding their disdain for regulation of personal behavior.

Although Dick Armey has been criticized for trying to take over the "movement," that appears to be a organizational quarrel, not a philosophical dispute. There's no sign of a breach yet.

Possibly the more pertinent question is whether the GOP will co-opt or be controlled by the self-proclaimed heirs of the Revolution. Quarrels with the GOP about Michael Steele's attempts to capitalize on the popularity of Tea Parties led to the creation of a web site containing a Tea Party Declaration of Independence64. Although the sponsorship of the site isn't revealed, its mission statement is virtually identical to that on Tea Party Patriots, including the "core principles" of fiscal responsibility, limited government and free markets. It declares that a vastly reduced government would provide the foundation for a thriving capitalism. The Declaration denounces the Democrats' socialist agenda and the myriad agencies which drown free enterprise.

The Declaration pointedly tells the GOP to keep hands off and rejects "the idea that the electoral goals of the Republican Party are identical to the goals of the Tea Party Movement or that the Movement is an adjunct of the Republican Party." A leader of the Tea Party Patriots reenforced the message, in the process once more adopting business philosophy: "One hundred percent of our local coordinators are committed to our core values of fiscal responsibility, constitutionally limited government, and free markets over any particular political party."65 However, that assertion of independence of the GOP isn't to be taken at face value. The Declaration really is stating that the "movement" represents true Republicanism. It declares that it will not allow the GOP to "force Republicans in Name Only (RINO)" on them and rejects "false RINO profession of conservative views and . . . RINO's statist subversion of the principles of small government for which the Republican Party is supposed to stand." It claims that Republicans win when aligned with their conservative base and lose when they ignore the will of the base; clearly it believes the Tea Partiers to be that base. It warns that they can make the GOP lose if it is disdainful of Movement goals.

We're looking at a scorched-earth battle for control of the Republican Party. The Tea Party will dominate it or destroy it. The situation bears more resemblance to 1964 than to 1773.


51. http://americanlibertyalliance.com/
52. http://www.freedomworks.org/
53. http://www.americansforprosperity.org/about
54. http://www.clubforgrowth.org/
55. http://teapartypatriots.ning.com/
56. http://www.teapartypatriots.org/Default.aspx
57. http://www.teapartynation.com/
58. http://www.teapartyexpress.org/
59. http://www.teaparty.org/
60. http://www.teapartyrevolution.com/
61. http://www.nationwidechicagoteaparty.com/
62. http://taxdayteaparty.com/
63. http://www.reteaparty.com/
64. http://countyroots.com/policynotparty/
65. http://tpmmuckraker.talkingpointsmemo.com/2010/02/tea_party_leader_on_steele_meeting_we_will_not_all.php

May 19, 2010

Former Vice President Cheney became famous, to put it charitably, for the One Per Cent Doctrine, a hair-trigger theory of military action. As he put it, "If there's a one percent chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response. It's not about our analysis, or finding a preponderance of evidence. It's about our response."66 In other words, the potential danger is so great that we must act without weighing either the probability of its materializing or the costs. The Doctrine is crazy, as it guarantees that we will start unnecessary wars, killing lots of people and driving us further into debt. Obviously it wasn't followed in the case he cited, perhaps for that reason. It probably doesn't make sense in most contexts.

However, the Doctrine might be applied to another project associated with the former VP, the drilling of offshore oil wells, in which his former employer Hallibuton is prominent. What are the odds of another BP disaster? Who knows? Probably much more than one per cent, but let's assume that is the correct number. Given the consequences, the risk is unacceptable so, even if those are the odds, no further deepwater offshore drilling should be allowed. Comment, Mr. Cheney?


66. Suskind, The One Per Cent Doctrine, p. 62

May 28, 2010

This is another comment on The Guardians of the Free Republics (see notes of 4/5 and 4/7). It's a bit extended, and the goofy ideas discussed may seem to make further attention superfluous, but there is a point, I think.

The date for the revolution, March 31, is long past, and nothing has happened, so the Guardians and their supporters have returned to talking to one another.

The chatter
Part of the talk concerns a falling out between Sam Kennedy and the other "Elders," notably one Tim Turner (James Timothy Turner on the signature page of their Declaration). What it's all about is anyone's guess, as is much of the Guardians' discourse, but Kennedy has been pushed out, if one can be expelled from a non-entity.

The original Guardians' web site hasn't been updated for months. It still shows March 31 as the date for the great transformation. The "Media Events" page lists only one item, dated February 7. There is a new, breakaway, site copied from the original and captioned Restore America Plan,67 listing only three Guardian Elders, not including Kennedy. Part of it is "under construction" and part can be accessed only by signing in. However, the new leader, Tim Turner, still is pushing the revolution on radio.
Other web sites indicate that there are a number of people who take the Guardians' theories seriously.

RAP Restore America Plan & NESARA News 68 is one source. The title is redundant: RAP stands for Restore America Plan. NESARA stands for National Economic Security and Reformation Act, imaginary legislation which would, among other things, remove all federal officials and members of Congress from office due to unconstitutional actions. It was aimed at the Bush administration, and the NESARA web page apparently has not been updated since 2007. Its partisans now are backing the Guardians, and much of the chatter is taking place on their pages.

Turner and some supporters think that the mere delivery of their demands has accomplished the revolution. Where they have been delivered, other than to governors, is unclear; "the military" and the Supreme Court are included in some versions. Why delivering those quaint documents should have changed anything is mysterious. Perhaps because of that, other supporters are skeptical that anything meaningful has happened.

Some of the postings, in addition to disclosing muddled thinking and bad grammar, are a mess as to format, so that often it is difficult to tell whether a given statement is by the blogger or is a quotation. One such item seems to have Sam Kennedy saying that "the sovereign People of America will hereby, this very night (Sunday, April 11), restore the law of the land under God . . . ." 69 Whether or not that was Kennedy's notion, another terminal date has passed.

Someone named John MacHaffie is the moving force behind the RAP-NESARA web site. (On his Blogger profile page, he makes a point of telling us that "John MacHaffie" is his true name, but his picture is actually John Wayne.) As to lack of change, his theory, true to the conspiratorial mode, is that the absence of any further news about the demand to the governors means that much is going on behind the scenes and the "government controlled media" are imposing a news blackout.

None of the postings reflects a plan to do anything but talk, most of the talk is nonsensical — often based on absurd misreadings of history and legal concepts — and some of the folk are well around the bend, referring to aliens, the Galactic Federation and channelling.

Nevertheless, there are a number of web sites which link to one of the Guardians' pages or discuss their plan. One is Waking Up in America,70 which is captioned "Talk Radio for an Intelligent World." Its host, Valerie Anne Kirkgaard, is described as a PhD 71 who has been on talk radio since 1987. Her program has featured Tim Turner: of the twenty shows this year, he has appeared on seven, most recently on May 5.

I listened to that broadcast;72 Dr. Kirkgaard sounded intelligent and, at times, sensible, but either she believes Turner's claptrap or she's remarkably talented at subtle sarcasm. Here are the claims he made: The Restore America Plan has the support of 70-80 million Americans; the "Christian underground" has 10 million members, and 99% of them are supporters. The aim is to restore the country to its condition prior to 1868 or to 1871. (He was confused as to which date is crucial and what happened when). In 1868, he said, the United States became a municipal corporation, which has jurisdiction only in the District of Columbia, none within the states. (This is based on a characteristic misreading, in this case of a statute establishing government for the District, which was enacted in 1871). However, jurisdiction extended to the territories (he thinks that the Philippines still fall into that category). A new constitution was (written? adopted?) in 1868 or maybe 1871, supplanting the original. Seventy per cent of our income goes to support the government. We get nothing in return; most of the money goes to international bankers. The World Court decided that all of our debts are illegal, including mortgages and credit cards. The pre-1860 government has been reinstated; the "republic" has been established. There will be no more property taxes. "Automatically" and "right off the bat" we will get a 30% pay increase because "illegal taxes" will not be taken out. However, it will take ten years for all of the effects to be felt, so there may not be mortgage relief right away.

There's more, but you get the drift. He offered no clue as to where we find the false corporate constitution. I don't know what he means by the Christian underground or where his numbers come from, but there is a web site called The Christian Underground, 73 which shares some of the Guardian-style mindset, including belief in a New World Order conspiracy.

Turner peddled much of this nonsense on another radio broadcast, and there is a link on Waking Up in America to a text taken from that broadcast, presented with impressive background music. That text shows the date for the transformation as March 31, 2009, clumsily corrected to 2010. It reveals Turner's confusion about other dates, including a reference to "the Civil War in 1850." It links to Sovereign Americans United,74 which promotes the Restore America Plan and contains much of the same mixture of imaginary history and mangled legal terminology, and to Freedom Yell, discussed below.
Waking Up also links to a site captioned The Truth as I See It, 75 devoted to an elaborate side-by-side comparison of the "original American Governance" and the "corporate" version. It claims that both systems exist. The corporate version began with the Gettysburg Address(!), followed by the Reconstruction Acts and the DC statute of 1871; it is the product of merchants and bankers who forced the South to secede. Part of the long list of contrasting features of the two constitutions is merely an elaboration of the notion that the US is a corporation created during or after the Civil War but, it also is claimed that the limitation of the United States to DC is in the original body of the Constitution (Article I, Section 8, misconstrued as usual). In the "corporate" column, we're told that the Fourteenth and Sixteenth Amendments were not ratified, thus neatly eliminating much of civil rights law and the federal income tax. The site links to "Tea Party Groups" (Tea Party Patriots), and to the original Guardians' site.

All of this theorizing allegedly is in aid of restoring "sovereignty" and "freedom" to the individual American. However, an aspect of sovereignty and freedom which is prominent on the Guardian-style sites is discharging debts without payment, a theme which takes a bit of the patriotic luster from the restore-America project.

Several sites concentrate on that theme. You Have the Right touts Tim Turner's "private coaching calls," which tell us how to become "secured party creditors." Doing that magically will "deal with. . . personal debt, and taxes." 76 Americacanbefree.com sells seminars ($405 plus one pre-1964 silver dollar, or $445 without one) designed to tell us how to eliminate mortgages and other debts. ("Free yourself from the debt prison. Become a Secured Party Creditor. Learn to 'Set Off' all of your debts.") How this is supposed to work is not explained, but it may relate to a convoluted and goofy theory, involving a "straw man," found on The Redemption Service. 77 It too claims that we can use the secured-party provisions of the Uniform Commercial Code to avoid our debts.

The most elaborate expression of that theory is an essay on Freedom Yell, which has "editorials" on various subjects,78 several pushing conspiracy theories. One of the editorials spins a tale that each of us has a government-created "straw man" or alter ego, which was created by putting our names in capital letters on our birth certificates. "When a name is written in all capital letters, IT IS NOT the name of a real person! It is the designation of a legal fiction - that is an entirely separate entity." (Judging from what I see in the family files, not all names of newborns are in caps, but facts rarely matter in these tales). Birth certificates, deposited with the Department of Commerce, become security for foreign loans. Each of us must seize control of his straw man, through the security provisions of the Uniform Commercial Code, which will allow us to ignore authority and escape debts. If all this seems not to make any sense, it's because it doesn't.

The straw man essay or variations appear on other sites: The Freedom Club, Take Back Your Liberty, Copy Right-Name, and Truth Sets You Free.79 The Guardians also believe the birth certificate-security tale. Restore America Now 80 tells you how to locate the bond created by your certificate. It has numerous links, one of which is to a text video which tells us that we are subjects of the UN, or Britain, or the Pope; take your pick. The links go on and on; the nonsense spreads.

The author of the straw-man essay also has written that paying income tax is voluntary, based on the usual misstatement of authorities.81 His anti-tax essay is less patently frivolous than the first, but no less invalid and contrived.

First he "proves" that the income tax doesn't apply to most people, by misdefining terms and by simply neglecting to mention code sections which provide otherwise. Perhaps realizing that this portion of his argument doesn't hold water, he then quotes statements that the tax system depends on voluntary compliance — honesty — and concludes that paying income tax is "voluntary," i.e., that we can pay it or not as we choose. The latter is a common claim; 82 I first heard it in the early 1980s, and probably it has been around much longer. Elsewhere on the net, one can find other anti-tax arguments: the 16th Amendment was never ratified; it conflicts with original articles of the Constitution; the federal government has power only over DC. One of the odder is that the IRS is not a federal agency but is an arm of the Treasury Department of Puerto Rico or a Puerto Rican trust. 83

These attacks on taxes provide another route to the avoidance of obligations, or, as usually put, freedom from government oppression.

The Southern Poverty Law Center recently identified 512 active "Patriot" groups, of which 127 are militias.84 As the Center puts it, many "Patriot groups define themselves as opposed to the 'New World Order,' engage in groundless conspiracy theorizing, or advocate or adhere to extreme antigovernment doctrines." The Guardians are not on the list, but Sam Kennedy's radio home, Republic Broadcasting is. In any case, the Guardians fit all the categories in the quote, and their revolutionary blather may be picked up by people who do more than talk. Most of the patriot groups probably are harmless, but recent events in Michigan show that not all are.

The other possible effect is political.

Extreme and ludicrous views are nearing the mainstream. Tea Partiers have reenforced the anti-tax, anti-government tendency of conservative Republicans, as well as encouraging fears of world government, opposition to climate control and other "liberty" issues. The Guardians and their co-religionists could further encourage the belief that everything government does is illegitimate.

Many Republicans already are near the edge. Consider Michele Bachmann, who associated the census with WWII internment camps and who said, concerning the "energy tax" — i.e., proposals for cap and trade — "I want people in Minnesota armed and dangerous on this issue of the energy tax because we need to fight back. Thomas Jefferson told us, having a revolution every now and then is a good thing, and 'we the people' are going to have to fight back hard if we're not going to lose our country. " Rand Paul thinks that the provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibiting discrimination by businesses represent overreaching by the federal government, envisions "an army of armed EPA agents" enforcing energy legislation, and thinks, referring to oil-spill culprit BP, that Obama "sounds un-American in his criticism of business." Rep. Steve King has called for a Velvet Revolution-style uprising against the federal government, alleging that Washington is like Prague under communist rule: "It is the nationalization of our liberty and the federal government taking our liberty over."

Ron Paul has some very sensible ideas, and his 2008 campaign book, despite its overheated title, The Revolution: A Manifesto, is mild in tone.85 However, some of his views are in the "patriot" reactionary-revolutionary mode. He thinks that the 16th Amendment is not "technically correct" and sympathizes with those who refuse to pay taxes. He wants to abolish the Federal Reserve and return to the gold standard. He wants to abolish the Departments of Education, Energy and Homeland Security, and end Social Security, which has been a "failure." 86 His "personal" web site87 informs us that he is "America's #1 Defender of Liberty" and announces that "The revolution continues." It is full of references to liberty and freedom, implying that we do not have them or that they are in jeopardy.

The Daily Paul may not be an official Ron Paul site, but it reflects the views of his supporters. It features a long video which refers to a treasonous Congress and claims that the people have been reduced to slavery, that states are sovereign (with hints of nullification), and that protecting the environment is merely a grab for power, all this with frequent references to guns and an argument that the 2d Amendment is designed to help the people resist tyranny.

A man named Ron Johnson is running for the Senate from Wisconsin. He may win the Republican nomination and, if George Will is to be believed, the election. Mr. Will was full of praise for Johnson's political philosophy, based on Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. The only significant difference between it and the mumblings of Guardians and Patriots is that Mr. Johnson's favorite book is, formally as well as actually, fiction. If he starts talking about de jure grand juries, we'll know that the merger is complete.


67. http://www.restoreamericaplan.net/
68. http://nesaranews.blogspot.com/2010/04/intel-331-restore-america-plan.html
69. http://nesaranews.blogspot.com/2010/04/restore-american-plan-rap-update-41110.html
70. http://www.wakingupinamerica.com/
71. Her web site notes that the PhD is honorary. http://www.doctorvalerie.com/services.htm
72. http://www.voiceamerica.com/voiceamerica/vepisode.aspx?aid=46132
73. http://www.beaconoftruth.com/
74. http://sovereign.netau.net/
75. http://www.usavsus.info/
76. http://www.youhavetheright.com/
77. http://www.redemptionservice.com/contents/secured_party_creditor.asp
78. http://www.freedomyell.com/freedom-documents/political-editorial
79. http://www.freedomclubusa.com/us_bankruptcy
80. http://letsrestoreamerica.blogspot.com/2010/05/welcome-soverign-we-are-here-to-create.html
81. http://www.truthsetsusfree.com/IncomeTaxVoluntary.pdf
82. See http://home.earthlink.net/~realbadger/vulture.htm  and http://www.voluntarytax.info/
83. http://www.afn.org/~govern/IRSkinny.html ; http://www.the7thfire.com/Politics%20and%20History/IRSisFraud.htm
84. http://www.afn.org/~govern/IRSkinny.html ; http://www.the7thfire.com/Politics%20and%20History/IRSisFraud.htm
85. I have not read it, but have listened to the early chapters online. It's available at http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-8303527704563519452#
86. See http://www.ontheissues.org/Ron_Paul.htm   and
87. http://www.ronpaul.org/

May 30, 2010

Conspiracy theories are not new, but it seems a safe guess that there are more of them now than before. The internet encourages their spread and the current political climate is especially congenial.

So-called patriot groups are fond of those theories, as they reenforce the notion that liberty is in jeopardy. From a somewhat different perspective, libertarians share the fear and resentment, and the weakness for conspiratorial explanations. One of the libertarian conspiracy mongers is Alex Jones, whose base — surprise! — is a Texas radio station. It seems almost a contradiction in terms to refer to a libertarian extremist, but Jones is one, both in doctrine and temperament.

Ron Paul has been a guest on his broadcast a number of times and, although Rep. Paul is more moderate in both senses, he generally shares the notion that conspiracies exist which are close to extinguishing our freedom. Jones, like Paul, has some legitimate, straightforward libertarian concerns, such as the assaults on civil liberties in the Patriot Act, but he concentrates on conspiracies, many of them visions of a sinister New World Order. (George H.W. Bush must regret giving that phrase currency).

In addition to his radio show, Jones has produced numerous conspiracy videos, some available on You Tube, many on his web sites,Prisonplanet.com and Infowars.com , where there are discussions of such topics as Big Brother, Police State, and September 11. The last features his signature issue, that the September 2001 attacks were "an inside job." At he bottom of one of the Infowars pages, 88 there is a running script telling us, "911: The road to tyranny/They knew/They not only let it happen/They made it happen/Now we live in a police state." However, considering the time and energy Jones has devoted to pushing that notion, his videos on 9-11 are remarkably short on specifics. One consisted of his bullying rudeness to a caller who expressed skepticism, and others argued that, because our government has undermined foreign regimes, and because other governments have staged incidents for political gain, 9-11 must be an instance of the latter.

In an apocalyptic 2007 film,89 "Endgame," Jones claimed that there is a blueprint for global enslavement. The elite of the New World Order (Bilderberg; the "world government") have discovered the fountain of youth, which might allow them to live forever. They plan to exterminate 80% of the rest of us. George W. Bush signed an agreement which will end the United States as we know it. (It isn't clear how all of this meshes, but never mind).

Infowars carries an ad and a trailer for another Jones production, "Fall of the Republic: the Presidency of Barack Obama." The description90 of the film includes the following: "an offshore corporate cartel is bankrupting the US economy by design. . . . A scientific dictatorship is in its final stages of completion, and laws protecting basic human rights are being abolished worldwide; an iron curtain of high-tech tyranny is now descending over the planet. A worldwide regime controlled by an unelected corporate elite is implementing a planetary carbon tax system that will dominate all human activity and establish a system of neo-feudal slavery. . . ."

In a video on You Tube,91 Jones lectured about other aspects of the New World Order. It began in San Francisco in 1945. (In other words, it's the UN). The world banking elite own the military-industrial complex. The plan is total enslavement. The NWO orchestrated World War I and, not satisfied, funded and trained Hitler. Economic disasters are intentionally caused by bankers, by the Rothschilds. Our courts are under the control of the UN.

On another92 of Jones' numerous web sites, he passionately urges Ron Paul to run for president in 2012, and urges his tens of millions of listeners to get behind Paul: "we're going to save the republic."

Elsewhere on that page, unnamed supporters state, somewhat inconsistently, that "this network" is an attempt to draft Jones for president or, if he endorses another candidate, to lobby for Jones to be his running mate.

Jones imitates Rush Limbaugh's style on the radio, but is considerably more energetic, not to say wild-eyed, when turned loose outside. In August 2008 an antiwar group staged a demonstration at the mint in Denver. Jones showed up, for reasons not made clear, and discovered that Michelle Malkin was there. Perhaps he knew she would be there and attended specifically to denounce her, which he did. Now, denouncing some of Ms. Malkin's views is an entirely respectable project, but not in the form of an angry confrontation on the street. She ignored Jones, which caused him to become unhinged, following after her and yelling "where is that monster; don't let her leave." One of his even crazier followers shouted "kill Michelle Malkin!" There is a video of the event.93

There are other clips of Jones bellowing through a bullhorn or over a car-mounted sound system. If he runs for anything, it will be a noisy campaign.

Back on the "2012" page, there is a video captioned, "Question your reality," a rant by Jones which must be seen to be believed. He starts out sounding and looking like a parody of himself, so much so that it's tempting to consider this a comedy riff. However, it goes on and on, Jones becoming more agitated — now raging, now almost in tears — as he tells us that fluoride in the water has robbed him of twenty IQ points.

On the same page Jones tells us that there is almost no difference between the major parties, and that, together, they support the NWO system. This is accompanied by a drawing showing the parties as pillars, then merging into the pyramid on the dollar bill, complete with the eye on top, which Jones thinks is the symbol of the NWO. (On another occasion, he called it a sign of Lucifer. 94 In this, as in other matters, he recycles Pat Robertson's fantasies in his 1991 book The New World Order).

Also on that page are audio clips of two interviews of Ron Paul, apparently from late 2008 or early 2009. On one, Jones asks Paul if he feels the dread (of the future Obama administration, presumably), and Paul acknowledges that he does. Paul worries that the new monetary system (this refers to discussions about a new world reserve currency) will end national sovereignty. The dollar will collapse. He frets about world control of natural resources, money and commodities. We don't have private property any more, because of taxes and because of the need for permits; now we'll have to go the Hague for them. On another, Paul, with some prodding by Jones, worries about national youth service (which Jones calls Obama's private army), a renewed military draft, and a massive increase in the size of government. He tries to combat socialistic, totalitarian ideas with the ideas of freedom.

Freed of the necessity of agreeing with Jones' rants, Paul can sound more rational. In the interview, he referred listeners toCampaign for Liberty, a web site which recites the usual libertarian mantra that freedom is in danger and we need more of the free market. However, a video of May 26 on that page shows Paul talking very sensibly about the folly, fiscal and otherwise, of a militaristic foreign policy.

The impression I get of the two is that each has become mesmerized by libertarian catch-phrases, but that their internalization of those slogans produces very different results. Left alone, Paul's response generally is moderate and wistful, a school-masterish disbelief that his pupils could be so dense, but Jones is inspired to be a revolutionary anarchist. Jones helps Paul by giving him exposure. Paul helps Jones by giving him legitimacy; Paul's repeated presence on his broadcasts lends credibility to the entire Jones fantasy.


88. http://www.infowars.com/print/Secret_societies/all-seeing.htm
89. http://www.endgamethemovie.com/
90. http://infowars-shop.stores.yahoo.net/faofreprofba.html
91. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cPy8SnzRsqc
92. http://alexjones2012.com/
93. http://www.zimbio.com/9+11+conspiracy+theories/articles/26/Alex+Jones+Attacks+Michelle+Malkin . The Jones performance begins at 2:39.
94. http://www.infowars.com/print/Secret_societies/all-seeing.htm

June 6, 2010

Two years ago, in one of my periodic rants about the state of the language, I made reference to an annual publication by Lake Superior State College: the List of Words Banished from the Queen's English for Mis-Use, Over-Use and General Uselessness.95 It's been around since the late Seventies, and a cumulative list is available, 96 which I perused recently.

I agreed with banishment of the three I mentioned in 2008, "perfect storm," "blank is the new blank" and "back in the day." Several more of the words or phrases purged over the years make my list also, but in some cases Lake Superior's analysis is odd. "Reach out" is one I too would suppress, but the reason given for banishment is "over-used by politicians who ask us to reach out to all sorts of people or ideas which may not be grasped easily." That hardly is the point. The rationale adds a quote from columnist Mike Royko: "I hope this column serves to reach out to public figures and encourages them to shut up about reaching out. This should not become a nation of groupers.” I assume that the last word actually was "gropers;" Mr. Royko probably wasn't worried that we would become fish. His comment illustrates the silliness of the metaphor, but doesn't quite explain the ban. My objection to the phrase (and perhaps his) is that it is a touchy-feely and inexact synonym for some sort of communication which ought to be described in simple English.

"Closure" is another good choice, but the explanation, strangely, is “What’s wrong with saying ‘finish’ or ‘decide’?” Those aren't the meanings intended. "Closure" is used to refer to some undefined stopping or resting point in a process of grieving. It presumes that, for example, finding the body of a missing child will somehow bring the episode to an emotionally useful conclusion. It's pretentious, pseudo-sensitive journalese.

"Grow," used a verb, is banned; no explanation is necessary. "Gifting" is another obvious sin; lawyers are complicit in the invention of this unnecessary synonym for "giving." "Gaming" is barred as a euphemism for gambling. "All new," referring to television shows, is out: “Of course it’s all new. . . . There are no partially-new episodes." "Giving 110 percent" is designated for extinction. The illogic is obvious, and the explanation adds, "When considering the salaries paid to professional athletes many folks may start to expect that extra 10 percent."

"Home" is banned where it refers to real estate because it is used to mean "house." This appears locally in real estate ads, in which houses are homes, but condos are, well, condos. Sometimes they are condominium homes. Rental apartments never are homes.

In football jargon, there's "false start prior to the snap." As noted in the explanation, a false start necessarily is pre-snap. A related redundancy is the declaration by a referee in a college game that he is about to announce a dead-ball penalty, accompanied by a hand-in-the-air gesture. Neither the statement nor the gesture explain or add to the penalty.

Some phrases are banned due to redundancy, such as "past history," "very unique" and "sworn affidavit." The list includes a few examples of illiterate slang which we'd be better off without.

Those of us who amuse ourselves by fussing about the decline of proper usage need all the allies we can find. However, except for those words and phrases, and a few more, the List of Words Banished from the Queen's English is a disappointment for anyone expecting sensible criticism of current usage. It is, to put it kindly, quirky.

Some of the words or phrases hardly are in common use, so aren't worth the attention. An example is "in der Tat;" ever heard of that one? It was nominated for extinction by someone who claimed that it was the most overused word of the year (1985) and of the century. Obviously we move in different circles; I had to look it up in my German dictionary; it means "indeed" or "in reality." "Quarts watches" has been banned because that bit of illiteracy showed up once, on a sign, in 1989.

Other disapproved words also are mistakes in usage, possibly even just typos, for example, "momento" instead of memento, "ect" for etc, "mute point" for moot point. Many of the listed words are perfectly proper and useful, but are denounced because they are misused or overused. "Myself" in place of "I" or "me" is an example of the former, "classic" of the latter. Banishment is consistent with the title of the project, but hardly logical.

Similarly, "Bipartisanship" is banned because it isn't practiced. "Begs the question" is out because it often isn't used correctly. "Liberal" is gone because it has become a term of derision to conservatives. "Alcoholic" can't be used because it has led to mangled spinoffs such as "chocaholic." (More sensibly, "carjacking" has been banned rather than the root, "hijacking"). The explanation for banning "all except" is rather metaphysical: it is objectionable because "entirety can't have a minus." The apostrophe must go because no one knows how to use it.

Whoever compiles the list rarely gives an explanation for the selections, merely quoting the rationales or complaints of one or two people who have nominated a word. An exception is the banning of "social security," which the editors tell us "is neither social nor secure." The latter part of that at least is a common bit of propaganda; I have no idea what the former refers to.

"Gun control" is out. The nominator thinks that the phrase should mean being able to hit your target, but, inconveniently for his political stance, it has a different meaning, and he's "tired of hearing how this will solve our crime problems, when it won’t.”

"Cold glass of beer" is banned because "who cares about the temperature of the glass?" Well, I do; beer glasses are kept in the freezer so that the beer, when poured, will stay cold. Leaving that aside, the compliant seems overly fussy.

Some phrases were added to the list due to misdirected purism. "Climb down" is banned because "climb is up; down is descend." However, dictionaries include other meanings, as in "climb out of a window" and, contrary to the complaint, "climb down." This complaint possibly could be justified on the ground that we have given in to sloppy usage, but the correspondent proposing the ban didn't acknowledge the definitions, let alone challenge them.

Another example is the ban on "disenfranchised." I can understand the reasoning; that word seems to be a long and awkward way of saying disfranchised. The reason given for the ban is that this form is a relatively recent error which, unfortunately, has become accepted. That may be so; older dictionaries either don't include the longer form or show it as a variant, but newer ones have capitulated. However, there are many words of the same sort, such as disentangle and disinherit, which makes it pointless to ban this one.

Another purity target is "RBIs." It is argued that the initials stand for "runs batted in" so, it is concluded, RBIs is incorrect. "The term, after all, is not ‘runs batted ins.’ " That's not altogether accurate, as the initials also can refer to the singular, but it's true that "run batted ins" wouldn't be good form. However, the singular form of the initials have become, in common usage, a word, which is pluralized in the usual way, by adding an "s."

The rationale for banning "in other words" is this: "Why not say what you mean the first time?" However, the phrase doesn't indicate indecision, but is a statement of a proposition in different terms, for the purpose of emphasis, greater clarity, or other effect.

Some people seem overly resistant to neologisms, leading to banishment of "fax" as a verb.

In a few cases, the listings inadvertently reveal ignorance of correct usage. "Orientating" was banned because it's a "fancy Dan word," not because it's a mangled form of "orienting." "Dead serious" is no longer allowed because “if you are dead you certainly won’t be able to convince people how serious you may be.” Apparently the word "deadly" is unknown to that correspondent.

There are others which are even stranger. The general impression I get is that whoever runs the program has no standards for inclusion and exercises no independent judgment, but merely publishes anyone's crotchet. Making up lists of banned words is easier and more fun, and attracts more attention, than real commentary on misuse or overuse.


96. http://www.lssu.edu/banished/complete_list.php . Not all of the annual lists, which contain the rationales, are available, and some words on the composite list don't appear on the annual pages referenced.

June 18, 2010

On June 8, California adopted the "top-two" primary, the second time it has tried a primary-election system modelled after Washington's. It previously had copied the Washington blanket primary law, which led to a US Supreme Court decision that the California law was unconstitutional, followed inevitably by the same fate for this state's. That may happen to the top-two laws as well. All four were adopted or proposed by popular vote,97/small> which would seem to validate them as exercises in democracy, and lead to a conclusion that the people should be able to decide how to conduct elections. That, however, has no influence on the Supreme Court, which worries, to an extent I find baffling, about the rights of political parties.98

For many years, Washington had a blanket primary, in which anyone could vote for any candidate, regardless of party. California adopted that system in 1996. It was struck down in 2000, in California Democratic Party v. Jones, on the ground that it interfered with political parties' right of association, which includes a right not to associate. The Supreme Court, speaking through Justice Scalia, decided that allowing non-party members to choose party candidates, i.e., vote in partisan primaries, violated that principle. Following that ruling, Washington's law was overturned by the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in 2003.

Washington responded with an initiative, I-872, approved by the voters in November, 2004. It created a variation on the blanket primary which sends to the general election the two candidates with the greatest number of votes, regardless of party. Thus the final may be between, e.g., two Democrats.

The Republican Party was not amused, and sued certain County Auditors in US District Court, asking for an injunction against implementing the new law. The Democratic and Libertarian Parties later joined as plaintiffs. The Washington Grange joined as a defendant, as did the State, the latter being substituted for the Auditors.

In July, 2005, the District Court granted summary judgment for the plaintiffs, concluding that the initiative was "unconstitutional on its face," i.e., unconstitutional in all possible applications. At that point, it had not been employed in any election. The Court held that I-872 violated the First Amendment rights of Washington’s political parties by: 1) allowing any candidate, regardless of party affiliation or relationship to a party, to self-identify "as a member of a political party;" 2) allowing that person to appear on the primary and general election ballots "as a candidate for that party;" and 3) allowing any voter, regardless of party affiliation, to "vote for any political party candidate" in the primary election. The State was enjoined from implementing I-872. The Court of Appeals affirmed the following year.
In 2008, in Washington State Grange v. Washington State Republican Party, the Supreme Court reversed, holding that the law is not unconstitutional on its face.

The majority opinion was written by Justice Thomas, joined by Justices Roberts, Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg, Breyer and Alito. Roberts wrote a concurring opinion, in which Alito joined. Justice Scalia dissented, in an opinion which Justice Kennedy joined.

The majority rejected the District Court's second and third conclusions: "The essence of nomination — the choice of a party representative — does not occur under I-872. The law never refers to the candidates as nominees of any party, nor does it treat them as such." The District Court's first conclusion was overturned as an improper ruling on the face of the law, as ballot language might cure any implication of membership in or endorsement by a party. The case was remanded for further proceedings, in which a challenge can be made to the law as actually applied. The same challenge probably is in store for the California version.

In Jones, Justice Scalia had rejected all of the reasons advanced by the State in favor of the blanket primary — such as increasing voter participation — holding that they were not "compelling state interests" and therefore had to give way to the associational rights of the parties. He attempted to buttress his conclusion by suggesting that the State could have advanced its interests in a manner less intrusive to the parties' rights, by means of what he termed a "nonpartisan blanket primary." By this he meant a primary in which voters, regardless of party affiliation, could vote for any candidate, from which "the top two vote getters (or however many the State prescribes) then move on to the general election." That describes the new Washington and California systems. Scalia may wish that he had quit while ahead. The majority in Grange used his model to uphold the Washington top-two primary although, as usual worrying about associational rights, it added a requirement that this type of primary cannot, in effect, choose the parties' nominees. It found that Washington's did not do so.

Scalia's dissent in Grange, although it is devoted almost entirely to a losing argument on the facial-constitutionality issue, may be the best source for clues to the outcome of an as-applied appeal. Scalia was the author of the majority opinion in Jones, which is the current benchmark, and was joined there by Thomas, Breyer and Kennedy. Stevens, one of the dissenters in Jones, has retired. Roberts' concurring opinion in Grange, joined by Alito, expresses concern about ballot language. Scalia holds uncompromising views on forced association For these reasons, the dissent deserves some attention.
Scalia could not accept the new Washington law even though it followed his model. Its fault, in his mind, is that it allows a candidate to state a party allegiance, even though no formal connection is claimed. Under the law, a candidate cannot claim party membership, but is allowed to state "Prefers ____ Party." Scalia contended that allowing anyone so inclined to mention a party, even as a personal preference, implies an official connection, thereby forcing on that party a person it might not approve.
This invokes the negative association right asserted in Jones. To me, it is a right which is difficult to take seriously given the ephemeral nature of political parties in the primary-election context. As Scalia acknowledged in Jones, party membership may consist of nothing more than going through the formality of registering on the day of the primary. However, the watering down doesn't stop there. As noted in the Jones dissent, in some primaries becoming a party member consists merely in selecting a party ballot when arriving at a polling place for a primary, and one might select a different party in each successive election. A crossover raider, one attempting to influence the opposite party's nomination, becomes a member of that party under this definition.

Scalia never addresses this point and simply assumes that there is something out there which has associational rights which are damaged by the expressed preference of an unblessed candidate. As he never defines a party, of course he never reveals who it is that would do the blessing.

His view also runs up against the fact that, in any partisan primary, each candidate selects a party label, and the party has no control over such self-identification. Only in a fully closed primary, in which only previously registered party members may vote, would there be the opportunity for the party to reject a candidate, and even there only if one defines the primary voters, acting separately, as "the party."
However, Supreme Court decisions prior to Jones established the right of the parties not to associate and, at least impliedly, found that the parties were substantial enough entities to own such a right.

In its brief, the Libertarian Party argued that stating a party preference without permission is an infringement of the party trademark, but the Court ruled that was not an issue included in the appeal. It may be on a subsequent round. Scalia indicated his approval of such a theory, at least as a metaphor: "Washington's electoral system permits individuals to appropriate the parties' trademarks, so to speak . . . ." That theory fits his position better than one of negative associational rights, and is less esoteric. Whether it is a valid basis for overturning the primary law is another matter.

Whatever the theory, the bottom line for Scalia is that a state may not limit the power of political parties in the conduct of elections. At the beginning of his dissent, he complained that Washington's motive was "to reduce the effectiveness of political parties." At the end of his opinion, he returned to that position: "We have here a system which, like the one it replaced, does not merely refuse to assist, but positively impairs, the legitimate role of political parties."

He did not provide any basis for this doctrine of inherent election rights, and the Grange majority might not go quite so far in that direction. A footnote to the majority opinion stated that the First Amendment does not give political parties a right to have their nominees designated as such on the ballot, nor a right to use the ballot to indicate the nature of its support for a candidate. "Ballots serve primarily to elect candidates, not as forums for political expression." However Jones, with some support from earlier decisions, envisions for parties a special and protected role in elections, and the Grange majority, although adopting Scalia's alternative model, recited and reaffirmed the restrictive holding of Jones.

All of that might be regarded as by the way, as the question of facial constitutionality has been decided. However, there is no bright line between arguments made on that issue and on the question of constitutionality as applied. It is unlikely that evidence of actual effects will be the measure. It is probable that there simply will be argument over presumed effects of ballot language. According to Scalia, "it is not incumbent on the political parties to adduce 'evidence' . . . that forced association affects their ability to advocate for their candidates and their causes." The Court would "accept their own assessments of the matter." Or substitute its own. The Chief Justice made a similar comment.

The majority acknowledged that associations might be inferred from the stated party preferences, and therefore asked itself whether the ballot could be worded in such a way as to "eliminate the possibility of widespread voter confusion and with it the perceived threat to the First Amendment." Accordingly, it speculated about language which might solve the forced-association problem: the ballot "could include prominent disclaimers explaining that party preference reflects only the self- designation of the candidate and not an official endorsement by the party." The State has done that: the Washington ballot contains this caution: "Each candidate for partisan office may state a political party that he or she prefers. A candidate's preference does not imply that the candidate is nominated or endorsed by the party, or that the party approves of or associates with that candidate." 99 Similar language is included in the Washington Voters' Pamphlet and in answers to FAQs on the Secretary of State's web site.100

The Court also suggested that the party preference could emphasize that it is purely a personal choice, suggesting "my party preference is the _________ Party." The State has not gone quite that far.
Scalia demanded more. Even if the law had not been, in his view, void on its face, the State would have had to ensure minimal intrusion upon the parties' associational rights, but he saw no attempt to do that. "Washington could, for example, have permitted parties to disclaim on the general-election ballot the asserted association or to designate on the ballot their true nominees." Roberts' concurring opinion also deals with possible ballot language designed to preclude any inference that "prefers" implies an official connection. His discussion is so general that it's impossible to know what language he would approve or require but, like Scalia, he doubted the State's good faith: "the history of the challenged law suggests the State is not particularly interested in devising ballots that meet these constitutional requirements."
If party disavowals or endorsements become the test, Washington will have a problem as it has made no provision for either and doesn't intend to. Including them seems bizarre but, if Scalia has his way, that will become a constitutional requirement.


Meanwhile the Washington case continues in District Court.101 The Court has dismissed claims of impaired access to the ballot and of trademark infringement. The forced-association issue remains to be ruled upon. The parties were allowed to amend their complaints to add allegations based on the forms and procedures now in use under the new law, and its relationship to other laws, such as those governing campaign disclosures, which require statements of party affiliation.
The amended complaints apparently are of the kitchen-sink variety, which led the State and the Grange to move to strike large portions as irrelevant. The Court declined, but not without a wry comment about the artfulness of pleading, and a reference to "opposing counsel's irritation at having to parse through a half-dead complaint." Trial is set for November 15, 2010. Perhaps by then the issues will have been clarified.


97. In Washington, the blanket primary law began as an initiative to the legislature; the top-two law was adopted as an initiative to the people. In California, the blanket primary came from an initiative to the people; top-two was approved in a referendum.
98. My previous comments on this and other issues in the continuing battle over the primary election are in my notes of April 19 2002, August 31 2004, September 28 2004 (last part), and October 26 2008.
99. WAC 434-230-015 (4)(a)
100. http://www.sos.wa.gov/elections/Top2PrimaryFAQ.aspx  and http://www.sos.wa.gov/elections/faqcandidates.aspx
101. The Secretary of State's office has posted all of the pleadings in the various phases of the case. http://www.sos.wa.gov/elections/toptwo.aspx

July 4, 2010

For Michael Steele, one for two is not bad. That was his score in his recent remarks about the war in Afghanistan. At a fundraiser in Connecticut, he alleged that it is "a war of Obama's choosing." Even standing alone, that would be misleading at best; during the 2008 campaign Obama did favor concentrating on Afghanistan rather than Iraq, but hardly can be said to have started the war. However, that is more or less what Steele contended: "Keep in mind, . . this was a war of Obama's choosing. This was not something that the United States had actively prosecuted or wanted to engage in." Apparently he was napping during seven years of that war under Bush.

However, he was, however accidently, right about one thing: fighting a land war in Afghanistan "is the one thing you don't want to do" because "everyone who has tried, over a thousand years of history, has failed, and there are reasons for that."

Ironically, but entirely in keeping with the right-wing mindset, Steele has been criticized for the latter comment, the one that is on target. William Kristol posted an open letter on the Weekly Standard web site asking Steele to resign: "There are, of course, those who think we should pull out of Afghanistan, and they’re certainly entitled to make their case. But one of them shouldn't be the chairman of the Republican party." That neatly reaffirmed that the GOP is the party of pointless war, or would have if the Democrats had stayed quiet. Instead a spokesman for the National Committee jumped on Steele with a Bush-like response: criticizing the war "would undermine the morale of our troops."

Though denounced by most Republicans, Steele is OK with the libertarian branch. Ron Paul congratulated him on both points. He didn't echo Steele's implication that the war is unwinnable, but said that "The American people are sick and tired spending hundreds of billions of dollars a year, draining our economy and straining our military." As to ownership of the war, he began accurately enough: "Afghanistan is now Obama's war. During the 2008 campaign, Obama was out in front in insisting that more troops be sent to Afghanistan." But he couldn't resist a swipe at both parties: "I have to ask myself, what is the agenda of the harsh critics demanding [Steele's] resignation? Why do they support Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama's war?" The reference to Pelosi was a cheap shot. Unusually for a Speaker, she recently joined a floor vote, in this case in favor of an amendment to the Pentagon spending bill which would have required the President to provide a plan and timetable for drawing down forces in Afghanistan.102


102. See, e.g., http://www.commondreams.org/headline/2010/04/14-8 .

July 6, 2010

Our dog, a large Lab mix, is for the most part mellow. He becomes aggressive and hostile only when squirrels are in the bird feeders. He chases futilely, but with an inspiring, real-American bellow.

Recently the neighbors to the north added two small cats to their menage. Duncan reacted in the only way that a real-American dog could react: he bellowed. The cats, true to the liberal pattern, did not engage, but merely stayed safely behind their fence and smirked.

My dear wife, about whom I had no worries, patriotism-wise, told him to cool it and to "get a life." I was shocked. I had no idea that she harbored leftist, unAmerican views. After all, she voted for Eisenhower in 1956. There was no indication that she might be soft on kitties.

I recommended that she read Treason or another of Ann Coulter's uplifting books, but she reminded me that she had read Atlas Shrugged and had scoffed, so clearly she was beyond hope. This is what happens when an innocent, 100% American girl from Colorado moves to Seattle and is exposed to the liberal indoctrination of its so-called school system.

July 14, 2010

Two years ago, in District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court overturned the D.C. gun-control ordinance, holding that it violated a right guaranteed by the Second Amendment. That right — enforced by the Court though not mentioned in the Amendment or suggested by its language — is possession of a handgun, in the home, for self-protection. Late last month, the Court, in McDonald v. Chicago, extended the effect of that decision to the states.

There is nothing surprising about the result in McDonald nor, in a sense, anything controversial. No one doubted the desire of the Heller majority to extend gun rights further, and the method employed to strike down the Chicago and Oak Park ordinances follows well-established precedent in applying the Bill of Rights to state law by way of the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. However, this is the first time the Second Amendment has been applied to the states and, in a way, McDonald is payback to liberals on the Court who have successfully advocated extension or creation of other rights by that dubious method.

Partly because of the logical weakness of the due process argument, the McDonald decision is far longer than the inevitability of its outcome would seem to suggest. Parts of the lead opinion drew only four votes, from Justices Alito, Roberts, Scalia and Kennedy. The fifth conservative, Justice Thomas, concurred in part of that opinion and in the result, but wrote a long separate opinion challenging the due process theory and arguing that extension of the Bill of Rights to the states should be based on the privileges and immunities clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, even though there is old precedent against that. (The plaintiffs' principal argument was under that clause). The plurality opinion, written by Justice Alito, rejected that argument and spent many pages defending the due process approach. Justices Stevens and Breyer wrote dissenting opinions which disagreed with the Court's conclusion but did not challenge the due process theory. Justice Scalia wrote a concurring opinion devoted almost entirely to a smug, sarcastic, gratuitous attack on Justice Stevens' dissent, no doubt his notion of a retirement gift to Stevens, who tacked a response onto his opinion.

Here is the portion of the Fourteenth Amendment in dispute:
No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; . . .
Over a period of years the Court has held that various of the rights referred to in the first eight Amendments, which ostensibly limit only the federal government, apply to the states. By now, most of those rights have been so extended. The vehicle has been the due process clause italicized above. Holding that that clause incorporates much of the Bill of Rights requires conceptual flexibility, as some of the rights incorporated have nothing to do with process. That is the case here; the Chicago plaintiffs didn't allege that the City had taken away their guns without a fair hearing. They alleged a right which was denied only in the sense that there was a law against what they wanted to do. Conversely, the Court has declined to extend the requirements of grand jury indictment (Fifth Amendment) or the right to a jury trial in common law civil cases (Seventh Amendment), although they are procedural matters.103

For over a century — a century and a half if one includes Dred Scott — non-procedural rights have been enforced by the Court via the due process clause. In theory such rights, being in some sense inherent, go back much further. A judicial gloss on the clause, "substantive due process," was used to enforce liberty in the form of freedom of contract, leading to the demise of labor laws. That no longer is fashionable, but now laws restricting personal liberty come under that rubric. Justice Scalia admitted that he disdains the notion of substantive due process, but accepted its use here. He claimed to be respecting precedent, something he is unwilling to do when it is a bother, for example in Heller. Justice Stevens agreed that substantive due process is a valid theory in that it serves to define "liberty," but argued that it doesn't apply here. Justice Breyer noted that the plurality did not expressly rely on substantive due process, but instead merely referred to the string of incorporation decisions, so he responded along the same lines. Expressly or not, that theory lies at the base of the decision: the right at issue is a substantive one, which the plurality opinion acknowledged. However, "substantive due process," whether expressed or merely employed, is a contradiction in terms, a label to disguise the misuse of the term or concept "process," a way of forcing non-procedural rights into the due process clause and from there onto state law.

According to the Court, the rights to be imposed on the states exist independently of the Bill of Rights, which merely refers to them. Thus McDonald does not literally impose the Second Amendment on the states; instead it finds that a concept embodied in that Amendment is a free-floating right which is subsumed in the notion of due process of law. Not all alleged rights will be enforced, but the criteria for inclusion in the select class are anything but clear. The plurality opinion cited various formulations: "those rights that are the very essence of a scheme of ordered liberty" or, more vaguely, rights "implicit in the concept of ordered liberty"; or rights "essential to a fair and enlightened system of justice". Eventually, it decided that, in order to impose gun rights on the states, it must
decide whether the right to keep and bear arms is fundamental to our scheme of ordered liberty, . . or as we have said in a related context, whether this right is "deeply rooted in this Nation's history and tradition. . . ."
(The italicized word is intended to dismiss the argument that more enlightened nations limit gun possession). What does "fundamental" mean? The only definition given is: "so rooted in the traditions and conscience of our people as to be ranked as fundamental," which simply merges the two tests stated in the quote above .

In the end the opinion added a twist: "the Framers and ratifiers of the Fourteenth Amendment counted the right to keep and bear arms among those fundamental rights necessary to our system of ordered liberty." (emphasis added) The added word undercuts the decision: it is one thing to claim that gun possession is "fundamental," whatever that might mean, or deeply rooted, another to claim that it is necessary. It's notable that the first half of the phrase "ordered liberty" received no attention, though banning guns might have something to do with maintaining order.

The dissents did not suggest any better test, at least under the circumstances here. Justice Stevens argued that "substantive due process is fundamentally a matter of personal liberty." Whether the alleged right is referred to in one of the first eight Amendments is not controlling, indeed not very important: "Inclusion in the Bill of Rights is neither necessary nor sufficient for an interest to be judicially enforceable under the Fourteenth Amendment." That sweeping vision hardly is a promising base for an argument that gun rights aren't included, especially as possession could be described as a liberty interest, so it's not surprising that Justice Stevens didn't convince anyone.

His best argument, made at length in Heller, and made more cogently here by Justice Breyer, was that the Second Amendment had a limited purpose, support of militias, which is admittedly of little consequence now, and that it did not enshrine a general right to possession. Unfortunately, that was decided otherwise in Heller.

The right in question — possession of a gun, in the home, for self-defense — is not mentioned in the Second Amendment, and it is unclear where this "right" existed before the Court declared it in Heller. Justice Scalia, in that decision, discovered it in the English Bill of Rights of 1689. In his dissent in the present case, Justice Breyer, relying on historians, claimed that Scalia had the history wrong, thus destroying the basis for the right, in the process pointing out the fallacy in using a judge's notion of history as a basis for reading rights into the Constitution. Unfortunately, the plurality here followed the same path.

Another problem with the due process theory is this: what do those who rely on it for extension to the states do with the identical provision of the Fifth Amendment: "No person shall . . . be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law"? If the due process clause in the Fourteenth Amendment incorporates (most of) the rights (allegedly) found in the first eight Amendments, including some in the Fifth, aren't they superfluous? The Fifth Amendment due process clause, by the Court's reasoning, would absorb all of them. Apparently the Founders didn't understand that, and rambled on redundantly.

Alternatively, the drafters of the Fourteenth Amendment meant something vastly different by due process from the meaning in the Fifth, although they copied its language. Whatever the theory, in state-law cases the first eight Amendments now serve merely as a list of rights to be extended or not as the Court decides from time to time. One doesn't have to be a strict originalist to find something wrong there.

Declaring that the Constitution contains a right which is not stated or implied is an exercise in creation, not of discovery, still less of mere application or extension. Creating rights judicially is unavoidable, and is an inherent feature of the common law, but inventing a right should be based on arguments from policy, not a metaphysical intuition of free-floating principles or a tendentious reading of history. The dissents pointed that out, but the plurality wanted no part of it, and Justice Thomas was on another path.

His counter-proposal may have merit. The privileges and immunities clause is the beginning of the first quote above: No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States. That seems a more legitimate means to the end of incorporation. Using it would require overturning United States v. Cruikshank, 92 U. S. 542 (1876), but the continuing force of that decision is puzzling. Cruikshank held that the privileges and immunities clause did not incorporate many of the rights referred to in the first eight Amendments because they pre-existed the Constitution and therefore were inherent rights, not rights of a citizen of the United States. In other words, only rights invented by the federal government out of whole cloth are protected by that clause. That doesn't make much sense, but rather than overruling Cruikshank, the Court has bypassed it by using the due process clause and holding that it reaches those pre-existing rights.

Utilizing the privileges and immunities clause would face the same problem, at least in theory, as the due process approach: which rights are to be protected? Justice Thomas ducked the question of whether the rights to be protected are only those referred to in the Constitution. If so, some limits would be set, even allowing for liberal interpretation. If not, we would be back to the unsettled condition of due process jurisprudence, except that the arguments would be over the rights of a citizen rather than liberty or justice, which ought to narrow the field somewhat.


103. Justice Alito suggested in a footnote that those rights might be extended some time.

July 16, 2010

Polls indicate that a majority of Americans think that the country is moving in the wrong direction. That is an ambiguous finding; some might believe, for example, that we are wrongly moving to the left, some to the right, and some that we're messed up in a non- or bi-partisan way. However, dissatisfaction with, and opposition to, government are strong factors. This leads many people to the notion that, even though some of our present troubles are the result of lax regulation, we should have less of it.

Rather than focus on solutions, some resort to conspiracy theories: the cause of our troubles can't be the inherent complexity and perversity of life; it must be the result of a plot, probably involving the government. If part of the blame can be placed on a person or group which can be made to look like an alien Other, so much the better.

Those on the right have a tendency toward such reactions, perhaps because they fear change, perhaps because of their long association with what Richard Hofstadter called the paranoid style of politics, perhaps because they lack ideas. In any case, for decades their political arguments have featured accusations of insufficient patriotism and identification of liberalism with foreign doctrines.

Four years ago,104 I noted the accusatory themes in the titles of books by "conservatives," such as Deliver Us from Evil: Defeating Terrorism, Despotism and Liberalism, and that was when the country was safely in the hands of George Bush.  In an ongoing effort to maintain currency in describing the daffiness of that end of the political spectrum, I again surveyed the Current Events shelves at Barnes and Noble and found:
Walter Williams, Liberty versus the Tyranny of Socialism;
Newt Gingrich, To Save America: Stopping Obama's Secular-Socialist Machine;
Jonah Goldberg, Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning;
Jason Mattera (no, I've never heard of him either), Obama's Zombies: How the Liberal Machine Brainwashed My Generation;
Sean Hannity, Conservative Victory: Defeating Obama's Radical Agenda.
The "intellectuals" of the right apparently have adopted the communist practice of ennobling the beliefs of the proletariat; how else to explain that their titles resemble Tea Party signs, including the bewildered fear of Obama's radical fascist socialism?

On a different note, there is David Griffin's series of books and articles contending that the 9-11 disasters were in reality the result of a government plot. One of them, Debunking 9-11 Debunking, opens with "The evidence that 9-11 was an inside job is overwhelming." Well, no, it it's nothing of the sort, although he asks some valid questions. Whatever the merits of Griffin's books, they demonstrate that the conspiratorial mindset is not limited to the right. Although Griffin is relatively sensible and responsible — in tone if not in conclusions — and limits his government-conspiracy theory to one set of events, others see plots, past and present, by the government or the UN or international bankers or the New World Order all around us. For example, why hasn't the Gulf oil eruption been contained? It's a government plot. Why did the disaster happen in the first instance? A government plot.

Some, and not just those on the fringes, talk of armed resistance. The Supreme Court, in two decisions allegedly interpreting the Second Amendment, has encouraged that sentiment.


104. February 1, 2006

July 28, 2010

My computer was causing me to lose my customary sang-froid (I was yelling a lot), mostly by being agonizingly slow. So, simple soul that I am, I solved the problem by purchasing a new, faster machine. The computer is fine: it's quieter, its buttons and ports are more convenient, and it doesn't panic when I try to open a graphics-heavy page. The software is something else again.

The new box operates on Windows 7. It is a 64-bit system which, I understand, means it can transfer larger chunks of data than a 32-bit system. I'm sure that has some utility, but its primary effect is to render several of my application programs worthless, as they are not compatible, and the ones which will run on Windows 7 are crash-prone. The completely incompatible programs must be replaced, a nice bonus for upgrading, and the partially-compatible may follow.

I don't like changing programs, not merely because I'm old and inflexible, but because new programs often are more cumbersome and more difficult to use than their predecessors; among other faults, they are more mouse-dependant, useful features are dropped, terminology and organization are changed, accessing a given feature takes more steps, and menus become more opaque. And, of course, they come without manuals.

Only program designers and Republicans think that undoing things that work and are logical is progress.

August 4, 2010

No doubt every generation has thought that the world is going to hell, and that the cure is a return to a remembered or imagined past. Perhaps it is sacrilegious to say it, but the Eden story in Genesis seems to reflect that feeling: there once was an innocent, natural state which was ruined by trying to understand or control it.

However, the present nostalgia in this country, some of it genuine, most of it faux, is remarkable. I doubt that ever before have so many people, by number or percentage, yearned for an imagined past with such ignorance of history and of the way the world works, with such violence of attitude and language, and with such a foolish belief in the virtue and possibility of extreme individualism. Such sentiments are not limited to the fringe groups; their language and their contempt for government have migrated into the Republican mainstream.105 An example of the effect is the defeat of Rep. Bob Inglis (R-SC) in this year's primary. As reported by Mother Jones, 106 he described a meeting with former donors:
"About 90 minutes into the meeting, as he remembers it, "They say, 'Bob, what don't you get? Barack Obama is a socialist, communist Marxist who wants to destroy the American economy so he can take over as dictator. Health care is part of that. And he wants to open up the Mexican border and turn [the US] into a Muslim nation.' "
On another occasion, he met with about a dozen tea party activists. They told him that, on the back of his Social Security card, there is a number which identifies the bank that bought him when he was born. "We are all collateral for the banks," they said. This is a variation on the birth-certificate fantasy on Freedom Yell and other "patriot" sites. The tale then moved on to the machinations of the Federal Reserve and Bilderberg, favorite targets of the Guardians and others. Inglis detected the whiff of anti-Semitism which runs through some of the fringe fantasies.

Inglis has moved from being a self-described Clinton-hater and supporter of impeachment to a more moderate position. His party has moved the opposite way, toward blind, unvarying hostility, and is looking more like another fringe group than a major party qualified to lead the country.

Another recent example is the Iowa Republican platform. Iowa Republicans think that the "republic" somehow has been destroyed and they dream of restoring it. Their restored republic will be a primitive one, "limited in both scope and reach." They demand the abolition of several federal departments, the Federal Reserve and Social Security. In their view, the Constitution restricted the federal government to "foreign affairs and protecting the rights, freedom, lives and property of its citizens."

The rights to be protected are as limited as the powers; the first ten Amendments are all right, but the Iowans are cautious about anything later, and reject the notion that the Constitution must be interpreted in the light of present facts. They are ambivalent, or just confused, about the Fourteenth Amendment, at one point seeming to say that it was never ratified, at another looking to it for protection of the unborn, at another denying that it bestows citizenship on the children of illegal immigrants. Throughout the platform there is an emphasis on, almost an obsession with, immigration.

Some Republicans in Congress agree that citizenship should not extend to everyone born here, and have advocated "repealing," presumably through a new Amendment, the citizenship clause of the Fourteenth. Leaving aside the merits of such a change, it is a dangerous course; before the journey down that road is far along, arguments will come from the right for doing away with other sections, especially those which have had a liberal interpretation.

The platform toys with the notion of restoring the "lost" Thirteenth Amendment, another fringe project designed, in one of its iterations, to render Barack Obama ineligible to be president because he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize.

The Iowa GOP thinks that treason lurks within; they employ a quotation from Cicero to make the point:
"… [T]he traitor moves amongst those within the gate freely, his sly whispers … heard in the very halls of government itself. … He rots the soul of a nation, he works secretly and unknown in the night to undermine the pillars of the city, he infects the body politic so that it can no longer resist.…"
This is a longer version of the slanders of Obama on Tea Party signs. At another point, the platform declares that, in restoring the republic, "Progressivism, Collectivism, Socialism, Fascism, Communism and or any other form of ideology contrary to our founding fathers' concept of a republic should be resisted, rejected and considered as an enemy."

There is much talk of the people (the republic "was established on the principles of "People's Law"; "power is granted, by consent, to the government by the people" etc.), but apparently this refers only to certain people: "Our founding fathers were very clear in their writings that the United States of America was to be a Republic and not a Democracy (a government of the law and not of the masses)." For the chosen ones, the program is libertarianism. This is reflected in the platform's assertion that law and the state function primarily to protect property; the Declaration of Independence was restated to support this: "The function of law is to protect the free exercise of a person's God given rights. Life, Liberty, and the right to property (pursuit of happiness)." Individualism run rampant is shown by the planks on guns, which advocate allowing "law-abiding citizens" to carry firearms, "open or concealed, without a permit." To Iowa Republicans, the Second Amendment reference to militias means "the armed citizenry" ready, no doubt, to resist the oppressive federal government.

Interpretation of the founding documents as protections for property, a belief that the federal government is an oppressor, suspicions about treason, and everyone armed and resentful add up to revolution; it would be interesting to know whether the good people of Iowa are ready for that or merely are letting off steam. In either case, they encourage the nuts.


105. See my note of May 28 for a summary of the anti-statist talk on the fringe and some mainstream parallels.
106. http://motherjones.com/politics/2010/08/bob-inglis-tea-party-casualty

August 9, 2010

One of the annoyances of learning a new computer program is that it’s necessary to imagine how the designer thinks in order to find which menu contains the function one is looking for. To make matters worse, that function may not be visible on any of the menus because the programmer has decided that it’s a subcategory of some other, not necessarily obvious, topic. At the least, this means going down another level to find the function. This inefficiency is the result of what one might call an obsession with conceptual neatness: everything should be organized according to (what the designer thinks is ) logic, never mind whether it is useful.

That neatness mindset infects political theory. Libertarianism is a good example: every policy should serve (what libertarians think is) freedom, never mind whether it works.

People who fantasize about conspiracies also are driven by the need to impose order. Disasters cannot be the result of ignorance, incompetence or happenstance; they must be the result of (what clearly is, to such people,) an overarching plot.

When I was in college, I met another student who had a sign in his room declaring that “neatness is the crutch of the incompetent.” He used it to justify the condition of his room. As a philosophical proposition, it may be a bit too sweeping, but conceptual neatness does seem to encourage misdirected thinking.

August 13, 2010

Primary season is upon us. Washington again will employ its “top-two” system, conditionally blessed by the U.S. Supreme Court. Because of the format, unhappiness with incumbents or an upsurge in narcissism, there is a large crop of candidates for the U.S. Senate. Their statements in the voters’ pamphlet are interesting.

On the Democratic side (oops, I mean among those who “prefer Democratic Party”), in addition to incumbent Patty Murray we have Bob Burr and Charles Allen, neither of whom has held political office. Burr wants us to channel our frustration and anger at the ballot box. Hint: throw the rascals out. He thinks that the system is corrupt, which seems to imply that Murray is or otherwise it wouldn’t be a reason to vote for him. He opposes earmarks, which Murray defends as “saving and creating [local] private sector jobs.” Allen wants to cut spending dramatically and reduce the debt, somewhat at odds with his concern about lack of jobs and “shrinking budgets for education, law enforcement, and communities.” Both criticize the war in Afghanistan, but neither quite advocates ending it; Murray is silent on that subject, in the voters’ pamphlet and on her campaign web site. He senatorial site mentions the war, but not ending it.

For comic relief, the Democratic-Party peferrers include Mike the Mover and Goodspaceguy. The former, once Michael Patrick Shanks, legally changed his name and has run as M the M whenever the opportunity has arisen. Under “elected experience” he put “I have run for 17 Candidacies [sic].” Goodspaceguy is really one Michael Nelson, who apparently has merely adopted that tag as an alias or, in some references, a middle name, but campaigns under it. His elected experience is “Ten times, voters rejected Goodspaceguy’s economic program!” At least he retains a sense of humor.

On the prefer-Republican side, we have the favorite, Dino Rossi, veteran of a few terms in the state legislature and two unsuccessful attempts to be governor. He would pass a balanced-budget amendment, fix the tax code to reward the rich (my translation), and repeal the health care bill. Although it isn’t recorded in his statement, he wants to repeal financial the reform bill.

Rossi is joined by two other serious candidates, Paul Akers and Clint Didier, the latter a Palin endorsee, neither of whom has run for office previously. Akers describes himself as a “bold leader” in business. He will cut taxes and spending across the board by 10% for three consecutive years; that might qualify as bold but hardly as sophisticated. He’s big on freedom, as is Didier, who thinks that we should vote for him because he’s lived the American Dream by playing football. We should pick him, not the “establishment insider,” presumably Rossi.

Finally, for Republicans, there are Norma Gruber, who did not submit any information, Mike Latimer, who thinks that we must turn to God, and William Edward Chovil, who describes himself as a “Caregiver & defender of our Republic.” His concise platform: “I am pro-life, pro-liberty, pro-gun, pro-audacity, pro-Sarah Palin, and John Gault [sic], Pro-charter schools and home schools. I am against cap-and-trade, against Obama Care, and against the new-world-order.” If the Great Rebellion and Tea Party supposedly brewing (sorry!) is a reality, here’s the ideal candidate.

Then there are those who prefer minor parties. Will Baker opts for the Reform Party, which is nearly invisible. Its web page states “Website: TBD,” which I assume means “to be developed;” the existing page merely identifies the acting state contact. Perhaps due to the lack of a party platform, Baker is confused. He identifies two matters as “the number one issue in the 2010 U.S. Senate election”: the “unethical election practices used by President Barack Obama” (which relates to Obama’s Senate campaign in 1996) and “illegal and unethical election practices: employed by Secretary of State Sam Reed and several County Auditors,” which has something to do with voters’ pamphlets. What either has to do with election as a U.S. Senator from this state is not explained.

Mohammed H. Said prefers the Centrist Party. Its web site is a model of blandness; every policy should be centrist, but don’t expect details. Dr. Said seems not altogether fluent in English, leaving his statement muddled in places. However, his self-regard comes through clearly: “eighty percent of President Obama’s speeches to Muslim world in Cairo and to the Turkish Parliament came from my two letters to him.”

There are two who state no party preference, Schalk Leonard, whose meandering statement is almost content-free, and James (Skip) Monroe, who thinks that the way to cure the economy’s woes is to reduce the reach of the federal government, cut taxes, and allow the free market to work. Novel.
Happily, one can cut through all this easily: re-elect Senator Murray, but write to her about the waste, financial and otherwise, of persisting in whatever it is that we are doing in Afghanistan and Iraq.

August 18, 2010

Is it fair to call the occupation of Afghanistan Obama’s war? Not if one uses the absurd formula employed by Michael Steele, which ignores the commencement and aimless prolongation by President Bush. However, the war has continued for another year and a half, and has escalated. American fatalities under Obama now are greater than those under Bush, and are occurring at a higher rate: in Bush’s last and worst year, deaths averaged under 13 per month, during Obama’s tenure, over 30.107

The administration has postponed any thought of withdrawal until mid-2011. At that point, the plan calls for beginning a reduction in force, but even that hardly is cast in stone. General Petraeus has cautioned that the timetable is “conditions-based” and that he may recommend delay if he’s not satisfied with progress.108 Secretary Gates was reported to have disagreed but, while saying that there is "no question" troops would begin to withdraw next summer, he also fudged: “I think that by next year I'll be in a position where - you know, we're going to know whether the strategy is working in Afghanistan."109 The strategy, according to Petraeus, amounts to this: "pushing the security bubble out,” meaning expanding the perimeters of a few relatively safe areas, and presumably increasing the number of such areas, which will lead in some unspecified way to ensure “that there are not sanctuaries in this country once again from which transnational extremists can launch attacks.” Even assuming that the strategy ever could lead to the desired result, he offers no reason to think that there will be adequate progress by next year: "I think this is going require a substantial significant commitment and that it is going to have to be enduring to some degree." Or, more colloquially, "I didn't come out here to carry out a graceful exit or something like that."

This not only is Obama’s war now, but will be his war for the foreseeable future.

After nine years, we haven’t eradicated al Qaeda, the Afghan government is ineffectual and corrupt, and economic progress is still a distant goal. The direct financial cost to date is over $300 billion. A recent poll shows that 37% of Americans back the war and 62% oppose it. 110 Perhaps coincidentally, a new rationale for the war found its way into the mainstream media recently.

Time Magazine put a picture of a mutilated young woman on its cover with the caption "What Happens if We Leave Afghanistan": we must stay the course because otherwise young brides will be mutilated. Leaving aside whether that ugly, barbaric fate would justify billions of dollars and hundreds of lives, the caption and the implied war rationale are phony. The accompanying article stated that this was perpetrated by the Taliban, which may not be true.111 It implied that our presence will prevent such tragedies, but admitted: “This didn't happen 10 years ago, when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan. It happened last year.” Therefore, either we have made no difference or have made matters worse, hardly an argument for staying the course.

Two days later, The New York Times ran a front-page article, reprinted in The Seattle Times, which claimed that “women fear the peace they long for may come at the price of rights that have improved since the Taliban government was overthrown in 2001.” That may be true, but the article noted that, “[f]or women, instability, as much as the Taliban, is the enemy.” 112

These stories suggest that someone wants to persuade us to persevere in a pointless war. It is difficult to avoid the inference that the Obama administration, in its search for a justification for staying the course, emulated Bush’s by dropping a hint.


107. http://icasualties.org/OEF/index.aspx  (See table: Coalition Military Fatalities by Year and Month/US)
108. See http://www.commondreams.org/view/2010/08/17-9  ; http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2010-08-15/petraeus-says-u-s-july-2011-afghanistan-troop-pullout-deadline-may-change.html  ; http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/08/20/petraeus-us-aiming-for-go_n_688666.html  .
109. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/afghanistan/7948312/Robert-Gates-dismisses-Gen-Petraeus-suggestion-that-withdrawal-from-Afghanistan-can-be-postponed.html
110. http://www.commondreams.org/view/2010/08/17-9
111. http://www.thenation.com/article/154020/afghan-women-have-already-been-abandoned
112. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/31/world/asia/31women.html?_r=1&scp=2&sq=afghan%20women&st=cse  

August 27, 2010

Many of the web sites which talk about freedom, liberty, independence and sovereignty, and the loss thereof at the hands of an oppressive federal government, the UN, the Pope or Britain, advance a program which is less patriotic than self-interested. One feature is a desire to avoid paying debts. The connection between oppression by the feds or foreigners and avoiding private debts which, as good libertarians they should honor, is elusive, but never mind.

The schemes usually are based on the security provisions of the Uniform Commercial Code, and never make sense, but are especially goofy when applied to real property. Undaunted, two local citizens, who operate a mortgage audit (i.e., mortgage avoidance) business have moved beyond merely telling people how to avoid debt, and have attempted to seize vacant houses.

Beginning around June 7, a vacant house in Kirkland was occupied by one of them, as a squatter. When challenged, she displayed a Uniform Commercial Code financing statement, claiming that it transferred title to a non-profit corporation she had created on May 25. Perhaps aware that her claim is nonsense, she also offered to purchase the property, but proposed to pay with a "bonded promissory note," another internet fantasy. Not surprisingly, the bank which owns the property declined.

The squatter was evicted, but she and her colleague in the mortgage-elimination business planned to claim ten other houses in the Seattle area; he tacked notices onto the doors of three, one listed at $2.2 million. As described by The Seattle Times, the notices ordered anyone claiming ownership to surrender possession within three days and threatened judicial proceedings against those who didn't comply.113 This required the same sort of chutzpah or delusion demonstrated by the Guardians in ordering governors to step aside.

In addition to their attempts to seize property, the pair sell their scheme to others so that the latter, too, can claim vacant houses. The target properties are owned by banks through foreclosure. Apparently the peg on which the scheme is hung is the supposition that the bank claiming ownership won’t be able to produce the original note, and therefore won’t be able to justify foreclosure and title. This would be an interesting defense for the mortgagor, but how it could benefit a stranger to the contract is a mystery.
However, as with all of these liberation plans, inconvenient details are ignored.


113. By Danny Westneat, in the Seattle Times of August 21. He has written a series of articles about these events.

September 30, 2010

At a book sale this summer I picked up a volume of essays by Gore Vidal. Titled United States, it is a massive tome, 1271 pages of text. Any collection covering a long period of time, in this case from 1952 to 1992, is bound to contain some repetition, but it is unusually noticeable here. Vidal has several hobby horses which he rides through essay after essay: sex, especially homosexual behavior; the evils of religion; the poor quality of others’ writing; the miserable state of the teaching of English in American universities; the decline and impending disappearance of the novel; a cynical view of politics, politicians and government; his career; his elite background and the famous people he knows well.
The collection is divided into three sections, roughly by subject: literature, politics, and memoir or, as he puts it, the state of the art, the state of the union, and the state of being. He links them and explains the title of the book: “So, herewith, my three states, united.”

The first section contains a good deal of commentary on literature, and commentary on other commentary, most of it negative. This could be described, somewhat loosely, as literary criticism. However, Vidal was unimpressed, rightly so, by a French school of that art. His target was a form current in the late forties and early fifties, which makes his comments seem dated, but they apply equally well to later emanations from France and their American clones.

An example of his dismissive attitude toward lesser talents is a comment on a book review by Irving Howe, in the course of which he said “Howe has always had an agreeable gift for literary demolition, and his mind, although hardly of the first quality, is certainly good enough by American academic standards,” thereby getting in a slap at academia as well.

Anyone who criticizes another’s writing is opening himself to retaliation (I know, I’m doing it too, and with no credentials), but taking shots at Vidal is irresistible. I have read four of his novels, but long enough ago that I don’t have a vivid impression of his writing. In this book there is a wide range of technique and quality. Some of his writing is good, as to substance as well as style. Some of it is bad, as to both. Many of the bad patches feature a style which apparently is intended to be clever, but instead often is obscure, silly or both. Also, he has a fondness for odd syntax. “Once I get into this aria, I throw out of kilter the next section.” “[Robert] Moses was able to slander as ‘Pinkos’ and ‘Commies’ his many enemies.” “Humanly, the Russians are praised for their ability to withstand without complaint the terrible heat.”

All of this is by the way. There is no doubt that Vidal is a leading literary figure of the recent period; he is what now would be called a public intellectual. Vidal has applied his talent to a number of projects: novels, plays, movies, television, journalism, political commentary. The most interesting aspect of the book, to me, falls into the last category. Surprisingly, his attitude toward American politics and culture at times closely resembles that of Tea Partiers, the Patriots and others on the right fringe.

The Guardians of the Free Republics and Patriot web sites such as The Truth as I See It argue that a new Constitution somehow was adopted around the time of the Civil War. Vidal agrees. Actually, he posits three “constitutions.” The first is obvious, but his second is vaguely defined and the third is an argumentative recasting of Amendments, in the style of the Patriots. Here is his description of the series, in an essay of 1981:
[T]he Boston Tea Party . . . set in train those events that led to the separation of England’s thirteen American colonies from the crown, and the creation, in 1787, of the First Constitution. And in 1793 (after the addition of the Bill of Rights) of the Second Constitution. And in 1865 of the third Constitution, the result of those radical alterations made by the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. Thus far we have had three Constitutions for three quite different republics. . . .114
The nature of the second is elusive because, although he dates it from the Bill of Rights, his complaint appears to be that the Supreme Court asserted its power in the post-1793 period, a development he deplores.

Even before the Third appeared, after the Civil War, the Second (First? both?) had been abolished. “Firmly he [Lincoln] put to one side the Constitution.” He did this by assuming dictatorial powers, something Vidal thinks recent presidents have done also, if more subtly.

At first blush, it seems odd to find someone who places himself firmly on the left to be espousing ideas now popular on the right. However, much of the rightist clamor is libertarian, a sentiment which can appear as easily on the left, and Vidal is a libertarian with a vengance, questioning laws against bigamy and the requirement that children go to school. On some issues, he hardly could be further from the right: “although we are not allowed, under law, . . . to take drugs that the good folk think might be bad for us, we are allowed to buy a handgun and shoot as many people as we can get away with.”

He resembles the Patriots in his cynicism about government and a belief that it has become tyrannical, and in a conviction that politics and government are wholly under the control of the monied interests. Vidal is more consistent on this theme than the Patriots, many of whom end up being shills for business interests, which use libertarianism merely as an excuse for doing what they want. He toys with the notion of refusing to pay taxes and argues that we get nothing in return, another theme popular currently. Vidal’s cynicism includes the notion that the annual State of the Union address is given “by that loyal retainer of the Chase Manhattan Bank, the American president . . . .” He frets about world government which, along with the contemporary right, he sees lurking behind efforts to control environmental degradation. (An aside: Either fear of the tyrannical rule of the world’s financial elite is spreading beyond our borders or our paranoid folk are traveling to relatively remote places. In Malta a few days ago I saw a t-shirt reading “I went to Bilderberg 2010 and all I got was this lousy New World Order.”)

Vidal makes many valid arguments; one is about militarism, in which, however, he again sounds a theme coming from the right: like Pat Buchanan, he thinks we have ceased to be a republic and have become an empire. Although that is somewhat at odds with his three-republics notion, the transformation occurred, in his view, in 1898; blame T. Roosevelt, who “arranged a war for his president, William McKinley, who did not particularly want one.”

The occasion for the 1981 essay was the passage of Proposition 13 in California, which limited property taxes. He likened that to the Boston Tea Party, a familiar symbol today. One result of Prop. 13 and its echoes in other states was a call for a constitutional convention. Vidal had an agenda for it: limit the power of the executive (including banning executive orders), choose the Cabinet from the House of Representatives, limit the power of the Supreme Court (including abolishing the power to declare acts of Congress unconstitutional), relegate the Senate to “a home for wise old men,” and use national referenda “on important subjects.” This would be the Second American Revolution and would produce the Fourth Constitution or, as he puts it, would create the Fourth Republic. (If France can have five, surely we rate four). Actually, we may already be in the Fourth, although the story gets a little muddled here; “in 1950, . . . our original [?] Constitution was secretly replaced with the apparatus of [a] national security state . . . .”

Our society and politics need lots of work, and although some of the necessary changes, such as abandoning militarism, controlling the power of money and protecting the environment, may require actions which seem radical to some, the solutions must come, philosophically, from the liberal tradition and, practically, from the messy process of revision, amendment and modification. Revolution isn’t an option. There is no substitute for good faith debate and compromise, which the purists, libertarian or otherwise, disdain and hinder.


114. Elsewhere, he describes the first republic as the period under the Articles of Confederation and the second as running from the Constitution to the Civil War.

October 13, 2010

Dino Rossi is running for office again, and he has attracted a good deal of attention and money. This is not because he is a dynamic candidate, or a proven winner (having lost the last two times out), nor because the incumbent senator, Patty Murray, would be considered vulnerable in a normal year. However, this year is not normal, or at least is regarded as abnormal by many, including hopeful Republicans. Rossi is so confidant that he “Prefers Republican Party” in the Voters’ Pamphlet, rather than the “Prefers G.O.P. Party” dodge of two years ago.

Having little to criticize in Sen. Murray’s record, Rossi’s supporters have tried to blame her for the national debt, in two strange ways. The first, in a TV ad, is to accuse her of voting for the “Wall Street Bailout” and the stimulus package, and of attaching earmarks to spending. Tying her to the bailout and stimulus is good politics, as those programs are unpopular, whatever their merits. However, note that the principal “bailout” measure, H.R. 1424, adopted under President Bush, was supported by 34 Republicans, including Minority Leader McConnell; see the table below. The oddest part is this claim: “She says she works for Washington. The question is: which one?” As to the first two, that makes no sense, as those funds haven’t been spent in D.C. and, as to earmarks, it is simply daffy, those funds having come home to this Washington.

The other claim, in a mailer, is that “ballooning debt and spending” are her fault because she has voted for increases in the federal debt limit. However, the flier advocates passage of Senate Bill 3773, which would extend the Bush tax cuts: in other words, reduce the debt by choking off revenue.

The mailer cites, in somewhat garbled form,115 six votes Murray cast for raising the debt limit. However, Murray’s Republican colleagues in the Senate have not always opposed increasing the debt limit, nor has Murray always voted for it. Here is the recent history: 116

              Bill                              GOP yes votes              Murray vote

        105-H.R.2015 (1997)            55117 of 55                    yes
        107-S.2578 (2002)                31 of 49                        yes
        108-H.J.Res.51 (2003)          50 of 51                        no
        108-S.2986 (2004)                50 of 51                        no
        109-H.J.Res.47 (2006)          52 of 55                        no
        110-H.J.Res.43 (2007)          27 of 49                        yes
        110-H.R.1424 (2008)            34 of 49                        yes
        110-H.R.3221 (2008)            27 of 49                       d.n.v. (see fn. 115)
        111-H.R.1 (2009)                    3 of 41                        yes
        111-H.R.4314 (2009)              1 of 40                        yes
        111-H.J.Res.45 (2010)            0 of 40                        yes

Not surprisingly, support by Republicans plummeted after Obama took office and the GOP became the party of No.

The flier was mailed and paid for by Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, a group founded by Karl Rove; its offices are in Washington, D.C. Also, Mr .Rossi has benefitted from numerous fund-raisers there, so one might ask which Washington he is allied with.


115. It identifies two measures in 2009 as H.R. 1; actually one was H.R. 4314. It states that she voted for H.R. 3221 in 2008, which is only partly true. Four votes were taken during consideration of the bill. On the first two occasions, Sen. Murray voted yea. She did not vote on the third pass, nor on the fourth, when it was given final approval. She was joined by 36 Republicans on the first vote, 32 on the second.
116. The list of bills is taken from http://www.opencongress.org/articles/view/1500-The-Republicans-Haven-t-Always-Been-Against-Raising-the-Debt-Ceiling  .
The Murray votes and the GOP votes and membership are from http://thomas.loc.gov/home/LegislativeData.php?n=Browse
117. Passed by unanimous consent.

October 23, 2010

Election day is upon us, so the stream of political mailers has become a flood. Today’s crop included two from the Republican National Committee attacking Obama and Pelosi for running up the national debt. Apart from the distortions and the convenient loss of memory, the ads are notable for attacks on, not coincidentally, the first African-American President and the first female Speaker. The opposition’s dumping on an incumbent President isn’t new, but the nature and intensity of the attacks are. Singling out the Speaker of the House is, if not unique, unusual, and again the criticism has been vitriolic. It is impossible not to detect racism and sexism in this.

October 25, 2010

An urge to return to a libertarian past is not confined to Tea Partiers. The Supreme Court has the same desire and it, sadly, it is able to bring that about, and with only five votes.

Many of those who indulge in that fantasy imagine a state of independent bliss, but given their love of guns and the Court’s decision that everyone should have them, it is likely to be more along the lines of a Hobbesean war of all against all. At least that is more or less egalitarian but, assuming that the state survives, its politics will be a war of the rich against everyone else through unlimited spending. Both visions represent the triumph of ideology over intelligence, over common sense at the most basic level.
Representative De Fazio has talked of impeaching Chief Justice Roberts, which is a non-starter, but he has a point:
. . . [T]he Supreme Court has . . . done more to undermine our democracy with their Citizens United decision than all of the Republican operatives in the world in this campaign. They've opened the floodgates, and personally, I'm investigating articles of impeachment against Justice Roberts for perjuring during his Senate hearings, where he said he wouldn't be a judicial activist, and he wouldn't overturn precedents. 118
I doubt that Rep. DeFazio could establish perjury, even if his colleagues supported his motion, but it’s undeniable that Roberts and his cohort have been every bit as activist as any liberal judge. They make a mockery of the term “conservative;” conservatism consists, in part, of preserving beneficial restraints.


118. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/10/22/peter-defazio-impeachment-chief-justice-john-roberts_n_771431.html

October 28, 2010

The editorials of The Seattle Times have meandered a bit over the years. If memory serves, in general they have reflected the views of the editorial-page editor: conservative under Herb Robinson (1977-1989), liberal under Mindy Cameron (1990-2001), conservative again under James Vesely (2001-2009) and more liberal under Ryan Blethen (2009-). The last shift is reflected in the endorsements this year: Patty Murray for Senate, Jay Inslee for Congress 1st District, Rick Larsen 3rd District, and Suzan DelBene 8th District, all Democrats.

The one constant over the years has been the self-interest of the Blethen family, reflected primarily in the paper’s opinions about taxes. This year it opposes Initiative 1098, which would create an income tax. The tax would apply to income over $200,000 for individuals filing separately, $400,000 for marrieds filing jointly. The odds are against the measure, Washingtonians having demonstrated an aversion to income taxes. The Times , however, is leaving nothing to chance so, in addition to running house editorials against the measure, it has recruited several people, including two of its staff columnists, to point out the extreme danger to the American Way posed by I-1098.

Danny Westneat denounced the initiative for singling out the rich, but acknowledged that “some argue” that our other taxes “are highly regressive.” So they are, which means that the rich aren’t being singled out, but rather are being asked to pay their fair share via a different tax. To be sure, it would be better to have a comprehensive income tax, combined with abolition of the B&O tax and major reductions in sales and property taxes, but that isn’t on the ballot.

Bruce Ramsey seemed a bit confused as to the evil in the measure. He complained that it is unfair because it applies only to the rich, but also worried that the tax will be extended to the middle class. More on the latter below.

Arthur Laffer, of the aptly-named curve, contributed a column telling us that 1098 would bring ruin. We should of course believe someone who thinks that increasing taxes reduces revenue.

Two local opponents collaborated in warning that — wait for this; it’s original — “small business” will be hurt. The authors claimed that “[a]lmost 70 percent of those earning $200,000 [and above?] are small business owners.”

The Times was more candid about the impact in an editorial last summer: “the people in the bull's eye” of the initiative are “venture investors, business owners and corporate managers.” In its view the effect would be less investment and fewer jobs. Even assuming that to be true — and ignoring the implication that the rich should pay no taxes because they would invest even more — the tax falls only on individuals, so corporate profits, other than those of S corporations, are unaffected and available for reinvestment. The initiative includes an increased exemption to the Business and Occupation tax, which is a levy on business revenue. In the Voters’ Pamphlet, the state estimates that an additional 118,000 B&O taxpayers would be exempted and another 39,000 would have their B&O taxes reduced, offsetting the small-business impact of the income tax. There also is a modest reduction in property tax. The income tax, unlike the sales tax this year, probably would be deductible on the federal return, although by labeling it an excise tax, the initiative clouded the issue.

Dan Evans also worried about a loss of jobs; he claimed that “[o]ver two-thirds of the people who'll be hurt by this tax are business owners” [undefined]. Like Bruce Ramsey, he was unsure what is wrong with the plan: he complained that the tax is unfair because it a) divides the people into us (the taxers) and them (the taxed), b) it singles out those who make charitable contributions (presumably the affluent) and c) it is dangerous because it might be extended to others.

On the last point, several anti-1098 columns, including a Times house editorial, have asserted that the legislature could extend the tax to other income brackets by a simple majority vote. The statement against 1098 in the Voters’ Pamphlet also makes that claim. Section 1004 of the initiative attempts to preclude modification: “The excise tax rates in section 501 of this act may not be increased for any income level without a majority vote of the legislature and submission of the changes to the people for approval. Presumably based on that section — I don’t know of any other such provision — the statement for 1098 asserts that “By law, the legislature is prevented from extending the tax on the rich to others or increasing it — any attempt would face a statewide vote. The people will have the final say.” That may be naïve. Under the state Constitution, the legislature may, after two years, amend or repeal an initiative. Presumably it could repeal Section 1004. Such a move arguably would pervert the scheme, but probably that wouldn’t matter; six years ago, the governor, by partial veto, completely changed the intent of a bill regarding primary elections, and the Supreme Court allowed it. The legislature might not have the nerve to repeal § 1004 and extend the tax, but that’s another matter.
The Times considers it to be a certainty that the legislature would be that bold, and in the process of making that point, lost its cool yesterday:
"LIE" is a word used sparingly in these columns. To call a statement a lie is to say it is false and the person saying it knows it to be false. It is a fitting word for one of the current ads for Initiative 1098, the proposed state income tax.

The ad falsely starts with a green road sign saying, "TRUTH about Initiative 1098." A woman's voice - a calm, reasonable voice — says that "1098 can't be touched without a vote of the people."119

That is a lie.

If the ad claimed, "Our initiative says it can't be touched without a vote of the people," that would be true. The initiative does say that, but the language is there just for looks. The Washington Constitution trumps all other state law, and the constitution says that two years after an initiative is passed it can be altered by a majority vote of the Legislature. . . .

The people who wrote I-1098 know this. For them to say, "1098 can't be touched without a vote of the people," is a lie.

It can. It will.
At that point, the editorial lost focus. It seemed to be leading up to a warning that the tax would be extended to the middle class, but that never came, at least not explicitly. Instead the column, after fuming at the duplicity of the proponents and the legislature, ended with a warning that twenty years from now, “kids” will pay. “They will pay in economic opportunities lost, and they will pay in cash.” I suppose that means that the rich won’t create jobs for them and eventually they will pay income tax.

How draconian is the new penalty on doing well or, to use Laffer’s phrase, how severely would we punish the rich for their success? For single filers, income from $200,000 to $500,000 is taxed at 5%, income above $500,000 at 9%. The corresponding income levels for married filers are $400,000 and $1,000,000; the percentages are the same. Leaving aside the effect of tax cuts included in the initiative, and the possible deductibility against federal income tax, here’s the bite:
                Taxable income 120                      Tax                             Effective %
                Unmarried individual 121
                    200,000                                    0                                       0
                    250,000                             2,500                                  1.00
                    300,000                             5,000                                  1.67
                    350,000                             7,500                                  2.14
                    400,000                           10,000                                  2.50
                    500,000                           15,000                                  3.00
                    600,000                           24,000                                  4.00
                    800,000                           42,000                                  5.25
                 1,000,000                           60,000                                  6.00
                 2,000,000                         150,000                                  7.50
                 5,000,000                         420,000                                  8.40

                    200,000                                    0                                       0
                    300,000                                    0                                       0
                    400,000                                    0                                       0
                    500,000                             5,000                                  1.00
                    600,000                           10,000                                  1.67
                    800,000                           20,000                                  2.50
                 1,000,000                           30,000                                  3.00
                 2,000,000                         120,000                                  6.00
                 5,000,000                         390,000                                  7.20

These are not confiscatory rates. Investment would not be crushed.


119. Actually, the narrator says “can’t be changed without a vote of the people.”
120. Adjusted gross income, as defined for federal income tax purposes
121. Or married, filing separately

November 1, 2010

Wednesday, blessed Wednesday, is coming. The election will be past and the assault of political ads will cease for a time. They have been worse than ever this year: negative, strident, accusatory, misleading when not simply false, and an insult to the intelligence.

Democratic and other liberal ads deserve low marks for candor and for tone, as well as those for Republicans and conservative causes. However, the ugliness flows in no small part from the hysterical ignorance which has become the signature of the right wing, whether deviously populist or candidly Republican. As David Sirota put it in a column carried in today’s Seattle Times, “paranoids and royalists of the world have united, seizing the means of propaganda production in these waning days of this year's election campaign.”

When content and honesty are abandoned, buzz words prevail. On the right, “free market,” “small business” and “liberty” are mom-and-apple-pie terms, while “socialism,” “bailout,” government takeover” and “tax” define evil. Locally, “politician” is a term of derision, partly as a result of Tim Eyman’s endless steam of initiatives, all sold as undoing the damage done by politicians, i.e. elected members of the legislature. A radio pitch for Dino Rossi’s candidacy for the Senate, in addition to declaring his devotion to small business, claims that, while in the legislature, he defeated the politicians. Some time he should explain how, as a fellow partisan elected official, and more recently as a perennial candidate, he has managed not to be a politician.

November 4, 2010

“It could have been worse” is not an inspiring phrase, whether as a description of a performance or as an analysis of a result. As to the economy, the prime issue in the recent campaign, the Democrats were stuck with arguing that conditions would have been worse but for their efforts. True or not, that doesn’t win votes. Now they are left to console themselves with the same observation as to the election: the House was lost in a landslide, but the Senate, for the little it may be worth, was held.

The result wasn’t as disappointing as 2004; any election which doesn’t put W and Cheney in power isn’t all bad. Voters acted largely against self-interest yesterday, but at least there is logic of a sort in reacting to bad conditions by voting against the party in power. Rewarding Bush & Co. for four years of dishonesty and ineptness didn’t rise even to that level.

However, this election put to rest Jefferson’s notion that an active, unrestrained news media would be the best friend of democracy: not in the age of Fox News.

November 12, 2010

I referred a few days ago to Jefferson’s belief in the importance of newspapers to an informed electorate. He was not unaware that they could print falsehood and slander; no one in politics at the turn of the nineteenth century could have been. However, he believed that citizens would be intelligent enough to separate the truth from partisan fiction. The American Experiment, he said, sought to establish “that man may be governed by reason and truth.” And to that end we should “leave open to him all the avenues to truth.”
The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press. . . . The firmness with which the people have withstood the late abuses of the press, the discernment they have manifested between truth and falsehood, show that they may safely be trusted to hear everything true and false, and to form a correct judgment between them.122
For us, Fox “News” exemplifies the abuses Jefferson referred to (and those on his own side). While understanding that some newspapers might be partisan, Jefferson apparently assumed that others would present facts objectively and would have as much influence. If only it were so. He seems not to have contemplated the breakdown of newspapers (and, for us, radio and television) as a source of information with which the citizens might make intelligent decisions. Of course he could not anticipate the effect of the internet, which functions in no small part as a distribution vehicle for misinformation.

Part of the problem is that there is much more wealth to contend with now, and its influence is not benign. A foreign-born billionaire, Rupert Murdoch, through his tame babblers, tells a large fraction of the country how to think. The Supreme Court has opened the floodgates to corporate political advertising. Even an electorate as intelligent as that imagined by Jefferson would have difficultly finding the truth, and our voters hardly satisfy his model. As a result, this month’s election was driven more by anger, much of it misdirected, than by understanding of issues.

Historian David Kennedy, in a recent op-ed,123 downplayed the significance of the recent vote by comparing the present to the Gilded Age, when voters threw out the majority party in the House six times in fifteen elections. He saw such “wave” elections as a “necessary stage of indecision, shuffling, avoidance and confusion” prior to taking action. Kennedy pointed out that, eventually, leaders such as Theodore Roosevelt and Wilson “breathed vitality into the wheezing political system and effectively initiated the tortuous process of building institutions and writing laws commensurate with the scope and complexity of the society over which they presided.” Maybe another TR. will come along soon — if so, certainly not as a Republican — but I wouldn’t bet on it. In the face of intractable problems, the erratic pattern of the late nineteenth century may be emerging now, but I don’t see it as a prelude to anything useful.

Conservative commentators interpreted the result as a rejection of liberal politics. To Kathleen Parker, the explanation of the election result is obvious: “At the risk of oversimplifying, the midterm bloodbath was a fight over capitalism.”124 How? Bailing out banks, the core of contemporary capitalism, doesn’t quite fit, nor does saving General Motors. Perhaps she had in mind the Tea Party signs accusing Obama of being a socialist. Channeling Peggy Noonan, she disparaged the notion of a right-wing “narrative,” as if the noise on the right didn’t add up to exactly that: a fairy tale about an imaginary America threatened by a socialist alien. Finally, she referred to the Obama administration as a “rogue government.” To the barricades! Wave those signs!

Charles Krauthammer thinks that oscillations such as those described by Professor Kennedy are the usual pattern. He also thinks that the lesson of the recent election is that a “center-right country restore[d] the normal congressional map.” The Democrats were repudiated, he said,125 for “taking an unwilling country through a two-year experiment in hyper-liberalism.” His political compass is a bit off, a fact he reemphasized: “The lesson of Tuesday is that the American game is played between the 40-yard lines. So long as Democrats don't repeat Obama's drive for the red zone, Democrats will cyclically prevail, just as Republicans do.” The football metaphor is mangled: does no one score in politics? Leaving that aside, his notion that the contemporary right is no farther toward the edge than the 40 is ludicrous. The result of the election, especially the capture of the House by the GOP, was the result of an impulse from the far right, albeit in a different form than has been prominent in recent years: more interested in economics than morals or the military, more an ad hoc combination, more reactive than programmatic.

George Will opined 126 that “This election was a nationwide recoil against Barack Obama's idea of unlimited government.” He didn’t provide any reasoned argument for his assertion that, under Obama, government became unlimited, but along the way he took shots at the stimulus and “Obamacare.” His political philosophy now better suits Glenn Beck than the perceptive conservative Will was before 1992:
. . .If the people do not resent and resist what is being done on their behalf, what is being done is not properly ambitious. If it is comprehensible to its intended beneficiaries, it is the work of insufficiently advanced thinkers. . . .

Of course the progressive agenda must make infinitely elastic the restraints imposed by the Founders' Constitution and its principles of limited government. Moving up from them - from the Founders and their anachronistic principles - is the definition of progress.
. . .Is political power - are government commands and controls - superseding and suffocating the creativity of a market society's spontaneous order? On Tuesday, a rational and alarmed American majority said "yes."
Apart from the more elegant language, this is straight from Glenn’s blackboard. Never mind that Obama — and Bush — saved the all-too-creative market by progressive intervention. FDR wasn’t loved by the right for that achievement either.

Others think that the problem was a lack of bipartisanship. David Broder began 127 as if he realized that Obama had failed to make his case and support his own agenda, but soon succumbed to the fantasy that the President could have gained co-operation from the Republicans: “[Obama] should return to his original design for governing, which emphasized outreach to Republicans and subordination of party-oriented strategies.” Whether that was his original plan or not, it had no chance of success with the Party of No.

I don’t believe those explanations, but the Democrats, anxious as always to capitulate, act as if they do. The White House reportedly is ready to leave the Bush tax cuts in place and abandon cap-and-trade. Many in Congress are demanding that Nancy Pelosi step aside, a typical reward for being one of the few with any notion of what being a Democrat ought to mean.


122. Letter to Judge John Tyler, June 28, 1804
123. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/07/opinion/07kennedy.html
125. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/11/04/AR2010110406581.html
126. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/11/03/AR2010110303844.html
127. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/11/03/AR2010110303626.html

November 21, 2010

News articles and columns continue to refer to the Tea Party as if it were an entity, or to the “movement” as if it were a coherent and distinctive political impulse, or to Tea Partiers as if they were something other than political conservatives. That continues to mystify me, so in an attempt at definition, I looked at three reports of the Tea Party Nation convention in February. A gathering of self-proclaimed Tea Partiers sponsored by a self-described Tea Party organization ought to provide a clue.

Jonathan Kay, writing for Newsweek, found populism: “Like all populists, tea partiers are suspicious of power and influence, and anyone who wields them.”128 He prefaced that by saying that “the movement is dominated by people whose vision of the government is conspiratorial and dangerously detached from reality.” Kay described several of the perceived conspiracies: environmentalism as a cover for world government; selling out Israel; destroying the currency and replacing it with the “Amero.”

Some of the speakers seemed detached from reality, but the people in the audience, at least as described in these three articles, were more sensible. They are misguided as to priorities, blame and solutions, but that is true of conservatives of any coloration. As to populism, another of the reporters, Jonathan Raban, noted that the conventioneers were “a shade too prosperous, too amiably chatty and mild-mannered, to pass as the voice of the enraged grassroots.”

Two of the reports emphasized the disparity of opinions and beliefs among the attendees. Ed Pilkington of The Guardian described those views as a “ragbag of phobias, paranoia and principles.129 Raban, in The New York Review of Books, 130 referred to “a loose congeries of unlike minds” and “fundamental differences of belief and mindset between people who, before Nashville, had appeared as interchangeable members of a single angry crowd.” Differences emerged among the attendees as to religion, immigration and Obama’s nationality. In other words, the movement is made up of people who are united primarily in the degree and the targets of their resentment. In that, they mirror the alliance in the GOP between social conservatives and business libertarians.

Only the appearance of Sarah Palin united them. Raban thought that, in listening to her, the congeries of unlike minds “found unity in its contempt for Barack Obama, its loathing of the growing deficit as ‘generational theft,’ its demands for ‘fiscal responsibility’, lower taxes, smaller government, states' rights, and a vastly more aggressive national security policy.” That describes themes in Palin’s clumsily delivered speech,131 but I wouldn’t take the applause — the most enthusiastic being for generalities — as approval of all of that, especially the last. Palin’s role seems to be that of Ross Perot in 1992: a blank screen onto which people can project whatever they wish, a vehicle for expressing resentment, confusion and fear.

Her speech was distinctly Republican, not merely conservative, so the response, including the chant of “Run, Sarah, Run” at the end, reenforces my impression that most Tea Partiers are agitated Republicans.


128. http://www.newsweek.com/id/233331
129. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/feb/05/tea-party-united-states
130. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/mar/25/at-the-tea-party/
131. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E7gVp3diPbI

December 3, 2010

The news media have discovered the notion of “American exceptionalism.” Although it has been a staple of the national mentality and of conservative politics for a long time, to a Washington Post writer, it is “a phrase that, until recently, was rarely heard outside the confines of think tanks, opinion journals and university history departments.”132 The Post< /i> article was reproduced or linked by several other news outlets and has been the subject of a good deal of comment.

Perhaps it is the beginning of the 2012 election campaign which has focused attention on this self-satisfied expression. The article and a Post opinion column 133 point out that Republicans are accusing President Obama of not believing in American exceptionalism which, the writers say, is a way of arguing that “Obama is not really one of us." This indeed may be a current theme in Republican politicking, but it isn’t new, and I don’t think that we’ve seen the last of more candid accusations, perhaps by Tea Party surrogates, that he’s a foreigner, a Muslim, a fascist, a communist, or whatever.
The claim that he does not believe in our exceptional virtue is based on comments he made in April, 2009 while in Strasbourg for a NATO meeting. Asked by a reporter whether he subscribed to “the school of American exceptionalism that sees America as uniquely qualified to lead the world,” he said 134
. . . I'm enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world. If you think about the site of this summit and what it means, I don't think America should be embarrassed to see evidence of the sacrifices of our troops, the enormous amount of resources that were put into Europe postwar, and our leadership in crafting an Alliance that ultimately led to the unification of Europe. We should take great pride in that. . . . And I think that we have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional.
That’s sufficiently orthodox. A contemporaneous article in Time acknowledged that Mr. Obama believed in exceptionalism, but of a nuanced sort. Here’s some of that nuance:
Now, the fact that I am very proud of my country and I think that we've got a whole lot to offer the world does not lessen my interest in recognizing the value and wonderful qualities of other countries, or recognizing that we're not always going to be right, or that other people may have good ideas, or that in order for us to work collectively, all parties have to compromise and that includes us. And so I see no contradiction between believing that America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity and recognizing that that leadership is incumbent, depends on, our ability to create partnerships because we create partnerships because we can't solve these problems alone.
President Bush admitted (bragged?) that he didn’t do nuance, his fellow Republicans are no different, and they believe that voters think that nuance means deviousness, so any variation from the catechism automatically would be under attack. However, it’s difficult find fault in the substance of his comments.

A long essay in the National Review concluded that Obama is a foe of and a danger to American exceptionalism, but agreed with him that we’re not perfect. 135 Therefore its criticism, ignoring nearly all of the President’s statement, zeroed in on the sentence with which he began his answer: “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” See? He thinks we’re no better than Brits or Greeks.

Others, including Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich and Jonah Goldberg, followed suit in quoting only that line, ignoring his pro-exceptionalism remarks.136 Qualified patriotism won’t satisfy the right.
Neither will insufficient religious hubris. Gingrich, in a speech 137 last month on “Defeating The Two Front Attack Against American Civilization By Emphasizing American Exceptionalism” laid down the doctrine: “This is a term which relates directly to our unique assertion of an unprecedented set of rights granted by God. It could not be parallel to British, Greek or any other ‘exceptionalism’ because their citizens do not claim to have rights which come directly from their Creator.” Don’t they? What if they did?

Many sources state that the notion of American exceptionalism originated in Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. The more cautious infer that from his general statements about the American situation or character. At the other extreme, some138 believe that the term “American exceptionalism” comes from that work. However, Tocqueville never used that phrase and used “exceptional” only four times, three of them having nothing to do with national character. The intermediate position is to cite part of the passage quoted below,139 or just the italicized sentence, 140 or just the word “exceptional,” 141 all of them weak reeds:
. . . I consider the people of the United States as that portion of the English people which is commissioned to explore the wilds of the New World; whilst the rest of the nation, enjoying more leisure and less harassed by the drudgery of life, may devote its energies to thought, and enlarge in all directions the empire of the mind.
The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one. Their strictly Puritanical origin--their exclusively commercial habits--even the country they inhabit, which seems to divert their minds from the pursuit of science, literature, and the arts--the proximity of Europe, which allows them to neglect these pursuits without relapsing into barbarism--a thousand special causes, of wich I have only been able to point out the most important--have singularly concurred to fix the mind of the American upon purely practical objects. . . .[Emphasis added]142
In other words, Americans, assigned to colonize a continent, were able to leave activities of the mind to the old country, and did so. This appears in a chapter entitled “The Example of The Americans Does Not Prove That A Democratic People Can Have No Aptitude And No Taste for Science, Literature, Or Art.” Critics had claimed that such a failing is inherent in democracy, but to Tocqueville, that “is to mingle, unintentionally, what is democratic with what is only American.” “It must be acknowledged,” he said, “that amongst few of the civilized nations of our time have the higher sciences made less progress than in the United States; and in few have great artists, fine poets, or celebrated writers been more rare.” If this is exceptionalism, it isn’t a form to brag about.

Is our exceptionalism based on our carrying out a specific assignment from God, as Gingrich would have it? Not according to Tocqueville; immediately following the passage quoted above, he said: “His passions, his wants, his education, and everything about him seem to unite in drawing the native of the United States earthward: his religion alone bids him turn, from time to time, a transient and distracted glance to heaven.” [Emphasis added]

Clearly, Tocqueville’s use of “exceptional” does not validate the notion of American exceptionalism in the modern patriotic sense. Moreover, he didn’t think much of the tendency of Americans, even in the 1830s, to boast about their country:
The Anglo-Americans are not only united together by these common opinions, but they are separated from all other nations by a common feeling of pride. For the last fifty years no pains have been spared to convince the inhabitants of the United States that they constitute the only religious, enlightened, and free people. They perceive that, for the present, their own democratic institutions succeed, whilst those of other countries fail; hence they conceive an overweening opinion of their superiority, and they are not very remote from believing themselves to belong to a distinct race of mankind. 143
All free nations are vainglorious, but national pride is not displayed by all in the same manner. The Americans in their intercourse with strangers appear impatient of the smallest censure and insatiable of praise. The most slender eulogium is acceptable to them; the most exalted seldom contents them; they unceasingly harass you to extort praise, and if you resist their entreaties they fall to praising themselves. It would seem as if, doubting their own merit, they wished to have it constantly exhibited before their eyes. Their vanity is not only greedy, but restless and jealous; it will grant nothing, whilst it demands everything, but is ready to beg and to quarrel at the same time. . . . [Emphasis added]144
It is time for conservatives to abandon the pathetic and juvenile boast that we are unique, God’s chosen and invincible, and to quit searching for validation of that notion. We would do better to strive to be exceptional rather than to pretend that we always have been. Clear thinking probably would increase the chance of right action.

In addition, a seemly modesty might produce better results in dealing with the rest of the world. George W. Bush said, during the 2000 campaign, but unfortunately later forgot, that “If we're an arrogant nation, they'll resent us; if we're a humble nation, but strong, they'll welcome us.” As religion has been brought in, one might even put it in terms of Christian humility.


132. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/11/28/AR2010112804139.html
133. http://voices.washingtonpost.com/plum-line/2010/11/what_the_rights_american_excep.html
134. http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2009/04/obamas_press_conference_in_str.html
135. http://nrd.nationalreview.com/article/?q=M2FhMTg4Njk0NTQwMmFlMmYzZDg2YzgyYjdm YjhhMzU=
136. Palin: http://mediamatters.org/blog/201011230017 ;
Gingrich: see fn. 7;
Goldberg: http://www.saratogian.com/articles/2010/11/16/opinion/doc4ce1ffdc43a1e391950325.txt?viewmode=fullstory ;
Other examples were cited by Andrew Sullivan: http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/ 2010/11/the-rights-accuracy-problem.html

137. http://www.torenewamerica.com/newt-gingrich-at-liberty-university
138. http://biggovernment.com/oftheeising/2010/07/06/three-cheers-for-american-exceptionalismpass-it-on/#more-140714;
http://truth-it.net/american_exceptionalism_and_the_war_on_terrorism.html ;
http://www.worldlingo.com/ma/enwiki/en/American_exceptionalism ;
139. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_exceptionalism
140. Goldberg, fn. 6; http://www.aei.org/article/102359 ;
141. http://www.americanforeignrelations.com/E-N/Exceptionalism.html
142. I have used the text of The Gutenberg Project (translation by Henry Reeve), http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/815/pg815.txt  and http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/816/pg816.txt . The italicized “exceptional” quote is essentially the same in the translation by Harvey Mansfield and Delba Winthrop (Univ. Chicago 2000/The Folio Society 2002).
143. Chapter XVIII: “Future Condition Of Three Races--Part VII.” In the Chicago-Folio edition, Vol. I, Part Two, Ch. 10.
144. Chapter XVI: “Why The National Vanity Of The Americans Is More Restless And Captious Than That Of The English.” In the Folio edition, Vol. II, Part Three, Ch. 16.

December 5, 2010

Washington escaped the full force of the Republican tide. Senator Murray was reelected. Only one seat in the House changed hands, leaving the Democrats with a five-to-four advantage rather than six-three, and that switch was of an open seat in a swing district. Both houses of the State Legislature remained under Democratic control, although with reduced majorities. Given the size of the state’s budget deficit, the Republicans may be content not to be in charge.

The vote on statewide ballot measures reflected a definite anti-tax sentiment, but not necessarily anti-government. An income tax and bonds for energy-related improvements to schools were rejected; taxes on candy and other frivolities were repealed; and the requirement of a two-thirds vote in the legislature to raise taxes was restored. (King County voters also turned down an increase in the sales tax to fund the Sheriff’s Department). However, proposals to privatize workers’ compensation and liquor sales were defeated.

The turnout was high: 71.24% of registered voters, the highest for a midterm election since 1970. The turnout by county didn’t reflect any difference in enthusiasm between conservatives and liberals.

December 13, 2010

I have been interested to learn that I am a member of the professional left. I suppose that, to a strong conservative, I might appear so, but my views were tossed into that bin by the President’s press secretary. Actually, Mr. Gibbs gave me an out, by distinguishing between the professional left and “progressives.” Until now, the latter term, except in the hands of Glen Beck, has been a euphemism applied by liberals to themselves when too intimidated to use the L-word. To Gibbs, though, there is a distinction between pundits, and perhaps politicians, on the one hand and real people on the other: “progressives” live outside of Washington “in America.” Thanks for the offer, but if that means I can’t criticize Mr. Obama and note that he often isn’t much of a liberal, or progressive, I’ll pass. Being placed in a group which the White House appears to regard as irrationally leftist is a little strange to a selectively liberal old geezer like your obedient servant, but I can deal with that.

I think that Gibbs’ labeling says less about the views of unhappy liberals than it does about the Obama White House and more generally about the condition of the Democratic Party. American politics has resolved into a battle between the far right and the near right or, to be more optimistic or more charitable, between the right and the center.

The rightward movement of government policy and national discourse seems to be the result, more or less equally, of a true shift in political belief and liberal weakness before the attacks of conservatives. President Obama has personified both tendencies. As to the former we have, for example, the baffling prolongation of the war in Afghanistan.

As to the latter, he has complained that liberals won’t admit how progressive some of his accomplishments have been. That complaint has merit, but it doesn’t resonate because of the President’s tendency to start with a compromise position and negotiate downward. That could be defended as realism: some Democrats in Congress are DINOs, leadership in the Senate is weak, and that body’s rules have delivered it into the hands of a resolute minority. However, resolution is part of the problem. Resolute Republicans have called the tune, even though some of their policies, notably cutting taxes on the rich while demanding a reduction in the deficit, don’t pass the giggle test.

Whenever a negotiator decides that one goal must be reached at all costs, he has lost. The other side simply refuses to concede that point until it has what it wants. This is the dilemma faced in dealing with a hostage-taker. Because decency and humanity demand that the hostages be released alive, the good guys are in an impossible position. Recognizing that, many governments adopt a no-concession policy because giving in simply encourages more hostage-taking. President Obama was in that position. He had decided that middle-class tax cuts and the renewal of extended unemployment benefits were the equivalent of innocent lives, and the Republicans therefore held them hostage, to be ransomed by those high-bracket tax cuts.

Mr. Obama was under no illusions about the Republican strategy. Several times prior to the recent crisis he referred to their practice of holding legislation hostage. However, resolution escaped him. It is sad that his most assertive moment came in his recent press conference, when he defended the recent capitulation and criticized those who opposed his abandonment of the health-care public option.

December 31, 2010

Ideals and principles are dangerous things. They lead us to believe that only our way is correct and virtuous, and to be disappointed when events refuse to follow our preferred course. I don’t consider myself to be ideological — although my constant ranting about the sins of the right might lead one to believe otherwise — but I have been put out by the compromises made by President Obama to secure legislation, such as reauthorization of unemployment benefits, which ought to be — here comes the ideology — free of controversy in a civilized society enduring a long recession. However, let’s be realistic: there have been accomplishments, especially during the lame-duck session, but also throughout the last two years. So, at least for today. I’ll trade in “it could have been worse” for thanks, to the left and to the right, for what has been accomplished.