Saturday, April 30, 2005

Let’s Be Blunt

Let me start out by saying that I am not being completely fair, here. But fairness is not my point—warning is. The danger, I believe, is quite real, details notwithstanding.

What do we call a system of political belief whose adherent, among other things:

• “believes neither in the possibility nor the utility of perpetual peace. It thus repudiates the doctrine of Pacifism -- born of a renunciation of the struggle and an act of cowardice in the face of sacrifice. War alone brings up to its highest tension all human energy and puts the stamp of nobility upon the peoples who have courage to meet it”
• “accepts life and loves it”
• “believes in holiness and in heroism; that is to say, in actions influenced by no economic motive, direct or indirect”
• believes that “the growth of empire, that is to say the expansion of the nation, is an essential manifestation of vitality, and its opposite a sign of decadence"


Or who accepts the truth of the following quotes:

• “We are trying to make up for that which you, in your criminal stupidity, have failed to carry out. By your parliamentarian jobbing you have helped to drag the nation into ruin. But we, by our aggressive policy, are setting up a new philosophy of life which we shall defend with indomitable devotion. Thus we are building the steps on which our nation once again may ascend to the temple of freedom.”
• “The first preventive measure was to lay down a programme which of itself would tend towards developing a certain moral greatness that would scare away all the petty and weakling spirits who make up the bulk of our present party politicians.”
• “By helping to lift the human being above the level of mere animal existence, Faith really contributes to consolidate and safeguard its own existence. Taking humanity as it exists today and taking into consideration the fact that the religious beliefs which it generally holds and which have been consolidated through our education, so that they serve as moral standards in practical life, if we should now abolish religious teaching and not replace it by anything of equal value the result would be that the foundations of human existence would be seriously shaken. We may safely say that man does not live merely to serve higher ideals, but that these ideals, in their turn, furnish the necessary conditions of his existence as a human being. And thus the circle is closed.”
• “Without a clearly defined belief, the religious feeling would not only be worthless for the purposes of human existence but even might contribute towards a general disorganization, on account of its vague and multifarious tendencies. “

Try these out on members of today’s American right—I doubt you will get much disagreement.

Yet these very same rightists get upset, start yelling about smear campaigns, when their opponents point out that much of what they believe veers towards fascism.

Well, if the shoe fits….

The first set of quotes is from the entry on fascism by Benito Mussolini with Giovanni Gentile in the Italian Encyclopedia of 1932. The second are from the second volume of Adoply Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

My father visited Germany in 1937 as a 13-year-old boy. He loved the country and the people, but was confused and shaken by what he saw. Here’s a picture he took. On the back, he wrote “’Heil Hitler’” 1937:

 Posted by Hello

The clothes may be long out of fashion, but these people are no different from the average American. We, too, can be fooled into support of the most nefarious, unprincipled, and destructive regimes.

Monday, April 25, 2005

The Tyranny of the Majority

Bill Frist argues that democracy is voting, and that the filibuster is then inherently anti-democratic.

He should know better. After all, as a Princeton graduate he should have at least a passing familiarity with John Stuart Mill’s essay “On Liberty”. In his introduction, Mill writes:

The aim… of patriots was to set limits to the power… and this limitation was what they meant by liberty. It was attempted in two ways. First, by obtaining a recognition of… political liberties or rights, which it was to be regarded as a breach of duty in the ruler to infringe…. A second… was the establishment of constitutional checks, by which the consent of the community, or of a body of some sort, supposed to represent its interests, was made a necessary condition to some of the more important acts of the governing power.

Hear that? The aim of the patriots. What Frist and the rest of the cabal in power now is trying to do will take away any guarantees of liberty we have in this country and negate the effectiveness of the dissent on which our nation relies. Not only are they betraying the beliefs of their base (a neat bit of legerdemain, there—taking liberty away in the guise of protecting the libertarian right), but their actions are inherently unpatriotic. (I’m sick of them calling us unpatriotic: it’s time to turn the tables). They are tearing down the protections of the minorities (50% minus 1) that we have spent over two centuries building. They are on the verge of destroying the most successful system of human governance yet built by people—by calling their actions the will of the majority (50% plus 1).

Part of the way they fool people is by pretending they are “of” the people. Even so, as Mill points out, they represent a danger just by being other than the one’s ruled:

The "people" who exercise the power are not always the same people with those over whom it is exercised; and the "self-government" spoken of is not the government of each by himself, but of each by all the rest. The will of the people, moreover, practically means the will of the most numerous or the most active part of the people; the majority, or those who succeed in making themselves accepted as the majority; the people, consequently, may desire to oppress a part of their number; and precautions are as much needed against this as against any other abuse of power.

The most numerous might not always have the good of the rest in mind. The rest need protecting from that will. Pure democracy does not provide that. Checks and balances (and the filibuster) does. Mill continues:

Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough: there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence: and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs, as protection against political despotism.

“A social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression.” That’s where we are heading right now.

Unless Frist can be stopped in his battle against the filibuster.

Unless DeLay can be stopped in his battle against the judiciary.

Unless the right can be stopped from hobbling us—all for our own good.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

NASCAR AFter Forty Years

Last night, I surprised myself by watching Kurt Busch win the Subway Fresh 500, a NASCAR race in Phoenix.

It’s not that I’m some sort of “eastern liberal elite” who looks down on stock-car racing. No. In fact, I have a great pedigree for it. But I hadn’t watched a NASCAR race since 1964, when my boyhood racing hero, Fireball Roberts, crashed at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, receiving the burns that eventually killed him.

Stock-car racing fascinated me from my earliest days. Perhaps that’s partly because my grandfather grew up in Wilkes County, North Carolina—where, he once told me, you didn’t dare pull off the road, for people spread broken glass and nails to destroy the tires of the revenuers seeking the hidden stills that dotted the county. Junior Johnson and the Pettys came from Wilkes County and got their introductions to racing hauling moonshine down to Charlotte.

My mother grew up in nearby Lenoir. I remember that, once, in a barbeque place near there, someone showed me a photo of a group of early drivers—one of whom had exposed himself before the camera. Racing was a rollicking, wild game in those days—and I loved it. Not simply for the speed, but for its outlaw nature.

My parents weren’t interested in racing, though, so I never got to see a race live. Television, in Atlanta in the early 1960s, was what brought auto racing to me.

Though I admired many of the drivers, there was only one I really loved: an ex-minor league pitcher called “Fireball.” “Glenn Roberts” was what he was preferred (Glenn was his middle name—Edward his first), but he could not shake the nickname. He drove Pontiacs when I first started following him, but switched to a Ford in the early 1960s.

I didn’t see the World 600 in 1964, but photographs of the crash were all over the papers in the days that followed. Roberts was badly burned. He hung on in agony for over a month before he finally died.

My interest in auto racing died with him.

So I surprised myself by not clicking the remote after it rested on the race last night. But I was fascinated. It took me a while to adjust to the presentation: to me, stock-car racing on television was seen through stationary cameras, in black and white, and with a minimum of commentary.

At first, all of the extras distracted me: I wanted to see the race, not the scroll of leaders, shots from the cars themselves, and all of the other bells and whistles that 40 years of technological development have provided. But I kept watching, and soon began to understand the rhythm of the presentation.

What fascinated me most, however, was the difference in the cars—especially in terms of safety. Sure, it’s still a dangerous sport, as the presence of Junior Earnhardt reminded anyone viewing (the ghost of his father will always be with him). But I saw cars taking damage and shrugging it off, damage that would have destroyed them in the races I remember.

This, I suddenly realized, has changed racing absolutely. No longer is the viewer watching with the fascination of impending doom for the drivers. I don’t know when this change became so evident and important (perhaps the death of Dale Earnhardt was the impetus for the final flurry of this long-developing change), but it allowed me to watch a race for the first time in 40 years and enjoy it. I got to concentrate on the skill without wondering if I weren’t watching from some morbid curiosity about death and destruction.

It was, once again, fun.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Don’t Gloat About DeLay; Get Scared

As most of us know, House Majority Whip Tom DeLay is trying to avoid facing his own ethical lapses by attacking others, including the judiciary. This might simply seem humorous (an exterminator with a degree in biology suddenly acting as an expert on the judiciary) if it weren’t for the fact that similar strategies were part of what led to many of the horrors of the last century.

In trouble? Find someone else to blame. Direct attention away from yourself.

On the face of it, Delay’s current round of charges seem particularly laughable. He’s after Associate Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy (himself a conservative) for conducting research on the Internet and for considering international law in his decision making. Oh, my! Using the Internet to find things out! My goodness! Kennedy might even come across a blog with links to other information, perhaps even to books and scholarly journals! And international law? How nefarious can you get? Them foreigners, they ain’t never up to no good.

What particularly bothers DeLay about consideration of international law is that the justices used examination of it as part of their Supreme Court determination that executing children is unconstitutional. To DeLay, discovering what others believe is “judicial activism.” On The Tony Snow Show, Delay said:

We've got Justice Kennedy writing decisions based upon international law, not the Constitution of the United States? That's just outrageous. And not only that, but he said in session that he does his own research on the Internet? That is just incredibly outrageous.

What’s much more outrageous is the idea that DeLay can even argue that our Constitution exists outside of and separate from international law and the international community. We are part of this world, not above it—and our actions, even our laws, should recognize that—and our Supreme Court rightly agrees. This is not “judicial activism” but bowing to the reality of our place in the world. And complaining that Kennedy does his own research on the Internet? Today, that’s as silly as complaining that Kennedy uses a microwave to heat his oatmeal.

But then, as we all know, what Kennedy does (or doesn’t do) isn’t the point.

DeLay’s the point. Power’s the point.

In his quest for power, DeLay isn’t really after Kennedy, but after the federal courts as a whole. Somehow, he got hold of Article III of the Constitution:

The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish. The Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour, and shall, at stated Times, receive for their Services, a Compensation, which shall not be diminished during their Continuance in Office.

And this is what is really scary: On the Snow show, DeLay said:

We want to define what 'good behavior' means.

In other words, he wants Congress to have the power to review court decisions—for he clearly isn’t talking about good personal behavior.

If DeLay has any success at all in this--any at all--our entire system of government is doomed. No longer will there be separation of power. No longer will there be checks and balances.

By deflecting attention from his own bad behavior, DeLay is attempting to further his own quest for power. Nothing, not even calls for investigations into his behavior, will deflect him from that path.

As Frank Rich wrote in last Sundays The New York Times:

The values alleged so far in this scandal - greed, hypocrisy, favor-selling, dissembling - belong to no creed except the ruthless pursuit of power.

Anything else is beside the point.

We should be scared. We should be very scared.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Monetary Value and Third-World “Development”

Yesterday, I tried to fill out a survey for work, on the economic impact of my employment. I was going along fine—until the survey asked for the number of hours I “volunteer” per month, and the estimated dollar value of those hours.

I threw away the survey.

If that’s how they measure, I don’t want any part of it.

In much of our society, we long ago reached the point where we judge everything based on monetary value—though some of us (including me) hate it. Not only is this a debasement of other aspects of our lives (especially our spiritual lives), but it leads to actual, physical debasement of the lives of millions, especially in the “developing” world.

Consider the farmers I was “assisting” when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Togo, West Africa a couple of decades ago. My project was “Animal Traction”--that is, teaching farmers to use oxen for plowing. The program entailed helping farmers acquire oxen and equipment, building stables, teaching them to care for the oxen, and teaching them to use and maintain the equipment. To join the program, the farmers had to take out loans of about $1000.00 from the government.

This seemed like such a great idea. Anyone who has seen (let alone done it themselves) African farmers tilling the hard laterite soil with a “daba” (a hatchet-sized hoe) knows a bit about how back-breaking that work is. Anything that can ease the burden of that labor, the thinking went, would be advantageous to the farmers. Anything freeing time so spent could only be seen as “development.”


Well, not quite.

Let’s step back for a moment and look at just what a “subsistence” economy, like the one of northern Togo, really is.

Things are changing, and there are few villages left that really exist on the old “subsistence” model, but it ran something like this:

Each family in a village had certain fields they could plant, fields enough to provide food for the family throughout the year, when supplemented by a small vegetable garden by the house, and the livestock (chickens, pigs, goats, and sheep) that lived in the compound. Someone in the family generally had another task that produced value for trade within the community. Perhaps there was a healer or a carpenter. As time went on and manufactured goods began to appear in the village, someone might take on the role of bicycle mechanic, say, or repairer of radios.

Even at that level, when goods were beginning to appear in the village (something that actually began hundreds of years ago—but I’m not writing history, just trying to explain something), annual income, measure by money, was quite low. It would come from sale of excess crops of livestock to traders from the outside and probably would not exceed several hundred dollars a year.

That sounds shockingly low by our American standards, but the people living in such a village would not have thought of themselves as impoverished. For a thousand years, their ancestors had lived in just this way, and had lived full lives (check out Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, perhaps the most popular book in West Africa over the past half century, for a look at these lives at the time of the coming of the European colonialists). Not rich, they would have admitted. But poor? No. They had houses, food (most of the time—though there were years of famine), and family.

Sure, this is an idealized view. But I am talking about two things: self-perception and self-reliance. The people in such villages did not see themselves as poor—and they could rely on themselves and their fellow villagers when problems arose. Yes, life was hard, often brutal, and too often short. But it was a life that allowed for self-respect and community.

Let’s go back, now, to the oxen: When a farmer is seduced by a government agent into the oxen program, that farmer, as I have said, incurs a debt. As a result, that farmer is no longer able to be self-sufficient in the manner of old times.

To pay the debt, the farmer has to start planting cash crops—that is, crops for sale, not just for home use. In this case, the cash crop is cotton.

This has several different effects. First, the reduction in food-crop production requires the farmer to actually plant even more cotton—for he (and it is a “he,” generally) now has to buy grain to supplement the reduced amount grown. In Africa, as in many areas of subsistence farming these days, unused farm land does not exist, so it is impossible for the farmer to expand the acreage under cultivation. In fact, the strain on the land is already over-burdening it. Few farmers have the “luxury” of letting their fields lie fallow every seventh year, as should be done, if the land is to sustain its productivity.

So, the farmer has to earn more money from the cotton than simply that needed to repay the loan. The farmer has become ensnared in the monetary economy, has moved “up” from a simple subsistence existence.

Now, cotton is particularly difficult on the soil. It can only be planted in any one field every third year—and one of the crops in the other years should be nitrogen-fixing (such as peanuts). It also requires pesticides and herbicides and (not surprisingly) fertilizer—all of which need to be bought, adding to the new commitment to the monetary economy.

In order to keep the soil productive, then, only one-third of arable land can safely be used for cotton in any one year—and the total should really be less (allowing for seventh-year fallow).

A farmer’s expenses, not that he has entered the monetary economy, however, may quickly prove to be greater than what cotton on one-third can bring. So, either the farmer defaults on debt (debt he took on without a real understanding of the consequences—how could he know, coming from a subsistence background?) and loses the farm or over-burdens his land—and loses the farm through reduced productivity.

In either case, the likely result is real poverty, something much worse than the subsistence life of his ancestors.

Of course, those are the worst possible outcomes. The farmer may be able to squeak by, producing enough cotton to off-set the new expenses. But cotton prices may fall, through no fault of the farmer’s (see Frank Norris’s story “A Deal in Wheat” for the danger to a farmer within a monetary economy), again forcing him into real poverty.

All in all, the farmer was probably better off before, when the village was responsible for its own economy and the rest of the world pitied its “abject” poverty.

Some people, when I try to explain this to them, are appalled, thinking me heartless, feeling I am condemning millions to lives of poverty, that I am simply refusing to “help” them.

What they don’t understand is that these farmers really don’t need our help anyway (they are competent enough to get on without us)—but I’ll leave that for another day.

My point today is that, when we judge solely by money, we err. We err, whether it’s a judgment of volunteer activity or even the wealth of peoples around the world.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Tempest in a Pie Pan

Anyone familiar with the 1939 Cary Grant film Gunga Din knows that our word “thug” comes from “thuggee,” word for members of a Hindu fundamentalist movement dedicated to sneak attack and murder.

Here in the US, it is now being applied to secular, openly-active pie throwers.

Do a Google search on “Horowitz,” “Coulter” (two ‘victims’), “pie” and “thug.” You will find dozens of hits for right-wing sites decrying the pie-throwers as ‘thugs.’

This is one of them:

Leftist Hatred Behind Pie-Throwing Thugs
Pie-throwing thugs attacking conservative speakers on college campuses are motivated by left-wing hatred, says free-speech advocate David Horowitz, who warns that the incidents could escalate to serious injury.
It all began last October, when two young men threw pies at conservative pundit and author Ann Coulter.
On Wednesday, March 30, William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, was attacked with a pie during his speech on U.S. foreign policy at Earlham College. A week later, Horowitz had a pie thrown in his face at Butler University.
Most recently, Pat Buchanan was attacked by a whacked-out college student while giving a speech. The young thug covered Buchanan's face with salad dressing. He screamed, "Stop the bigotry!" and almost hit him with the bottle. And last February a protester threw his shoe at former Pentagon adviser Richard Perle.

Here is another one:
Student Thugs at Butler University
…throwing a pie at someone is assault. And those students should be expelled by Butler and arrested by the Indianapolis Police Department.

In response to my last post on this issue, someone emailed me:
Its absurdly naive to think that people WHO WEAR MASKS to throw pies wouldnt do something violent.

Oh, my!

Reactions from two of the victims have been particularly interesting.

In his “From the Desk of David Horowitz” column, Horowitz recounted in the first paragraph that:

On Wednesday evening, April 6, at Butler University I was physically assaulted by a group of leftists.

Only six or seven paragraphs later does Horowitz, in what is essentially a fund-raising piece, mention that the attack was with a pie.

Ann Coulter weighs in with this description of the aftermath of her pie-ing:

Unfortunately for them [the pie-ers], Republican men don't react favorably to two "Deliverance" boys trying to sucker-punch a 110-pound female in a skirt and heels. The geniuses ended up with bloody noses and broken bones.

Ah, yes! Respond to attempts at humor (no matter how misguided) with violence! That’s becoming the American way.

Which brings me to my real point:

There are American thugs now, yes. But they aren’t the pie throwers. And the real thugs are being continually excused by these very same people who are so “upset” by a few kids with chocolate cream and lemon meringue.

Remember Rush Limbaugh’s May 4, 2004 reaction to the stacked bodies at Aub Ghraib? Let me refresh your memory:

CALLER: It was like a college fraternity prank that stacked up naked men --
LIMBAUGH: Exactly. Exactly my point! This is no different than what happens at the Skull and Bones initiation and we're going to ruin people's lives over it and we're going to hamper our military effort, and then we are going to really hammer them because they had a good time. You know, these people are being fired at every day. I'm talking about people having a good time, these people, you ever heard of emotional release? You ever heard of need to blow some steam off?

And then there’s Eric Rudolph:
Abortion clinics around the US are "bracing for attacks" after convicted murderer and Olympic bomber Eric Rudolph issued a "manifesto" justifying attacks against such clinics and their workers. Associated Press reports that federal officials from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are calling US clinics to make sure their security is up to date.
'When one of these extremists puts out a call to action, oftentimes others do try to follow in their footsteps,' said Vicki Saporta, head of the National Abortion Federation, which represents 400 US clinics. 'He clearly is speaking to the extremists who believe in justifiable homicide.'
Reuters reported Thursday that Mr. Rudolph pleaded guilty to the bombing of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, as well as to attacks on abortion clinics and a gay nightclub. Rudolph said "abortion, gay rights and the federal government" motivated him to attack the targets listed above.

In his statement to the court, Rudolph said:
After the disaster at Centennial Park [where he set of a bomb during the Atlanta Olympics in 1996], I resolved to improve my devices and focus the blasts upon a very narrow target. Towards this end I acquired a quantity of high explosives (dynamite).

Now those are the real thugs.

[Cross-posted at dKos.]

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Politics and the Classroom: An Attempted Clarification

Though I have long suspected that the clash between the right and (mostly liberal) academia comes from a conflation of issues and expectations, I have not been able to verbalize the problem to my own satisfaction. Yet I have continued to try, and have engaged people on the right, to try to come to my own understanding of the problem.

The other day, I emailed a man—I’ll call him “Larry”—whom I’d been going back and forth with in a comments section of Michael Berube’s blog. He seemed like a nice fellow (and he is), not a wingnut, though his views are certainly on right of the spectrum and he does see academia as a cloistered world divorced from reality.

Unfortunately, our email exchange quickly frustrated “Larry.” After only a few back-and-forths, he emailed me, “I don't know, but you seem like one of those Define Your Terms and Cite Your Authority types with whom conversation is impossible without getting pissed off.”

He’s right (though I am always leery of refuge in authority): I do want those involved in discussion to define their terms. I hate it when people throw out statements and then refuse to explain what they are saying, and why.

And that, of course, is at the core of the problem. He gets pissed off because I am approaching the discussion from an academic point of view while he wants to keep it in the political, where the ground-rules are quite different.

Simply put (and you all know this, but it does bear repeating), in our political system, no one has to explain their beliefs, or even defend them. Anyone’s belief, no matter how cockeyed, has to be respected. We must trust to the individual to come to his or her own decision, by whatever method they choose. And that, as we all recognize, is extremely important—it safe-guards us from those amongst us (either Leninist, neo-con, or of any other belief) who think they know what’s best for us, and want to force that on us “for our own good.”

In an academic setting, however, the needs and goals are different. There, the fact of a belief is not sufficient. For it to be respected in a university, a belief has to be defended. By its very nature, academia is not democratic, nor should it be: at its best, it is a meritocracy, place where the best expressed and defended ideas rise to the top, and rise through a process of revision and refinement based on rigorous discussion and on experiment via the scientific method.

If we try to apply “democracy” unilaterally to the university, we destroy it. All beliefs are not created equal; ideas achieve respect only by surviving a process of debate and even attack. Their places have to be earned, not assumed. Otherwise, there can be no growth, no moving forward, and intellectual life is stifled.

On the other hand, I (for one) don’t want to live in a meritocracy (working in what often seems like a parody of one is enough, thank you). It tends to develop an elite (just as our universities do), a group believing that its own judgments are superior to those of the masses—be they students or the general populace. And it does not provide the basic respect for the integrity of the individual and the individual’s beliefs that allows for the freedom and experimentation that are so important to our lives. I have problem enough with the “peer review” system we have within our universities. The last thing I want is for that to migrate to the rest of my life.

What we have in America, then, and have had for generations, is an uneasy (and necessary) truce between the two, of democracy and meritocracy. This has worked well for us, has been part of our success as a country, though it has not been comfortable.

If, as those attacking the universities from the right want, we start to insist that political beliefs be respected in the same way in the classroom that they must be respected in regard to the voting booth, we will simply end up destroying the universities—and tearing down one of the bases of our success. Unlike in the political system, it is not the person who should be respected in the academy, but the idea expressed. And its respect should not be based on the fact of its existence, but on its defense. This is a necessary part of any attempt to build academic excellence.

Somehow, we need to re-learn that an attack on an idea in a classroom is not an attack on that idea within the political arena. Nor is it an attack on the person holding that belief. It is simply a demand that the idea be defended if it is to be seriously considered.

So, yes, “Larry,” I do insist that terms be defined and I don’t respect ideas that are provided without definition or defense. But that doesn’t mean I don’t respect the holder of that idea or that I want to limit their ability to participate in the political discourse of our nation. I simply want them to recognize that academic discourse is a different thing, with different ends and means.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Social Security: Hijacking the Conversation

Recently I've been thinking that the right has once again hijacked the conversation without our realizing it. This time, it’s on Social Security.

The right assumes a libertarian stance and we don’t argue against it. The assumption they base their argument on is that, yes, each of us creates our own wealth. Each generation, in this view, pulls itself up by its own bootstraps, only to have to share the wealth it has created with an earlier one (that has, by implication, squandered its own wealth).

We forget how much each generation gets from the prior ones—on both individual and societal bases. We like to think of ourselves as “self made”—but none of us is. Donald Trump inherited one of the richest real-estate empires in New York, and Ted Turner’s father owned a vast network of roadside billboards, yet both are commonly believed to be entrepreneurs who “did it on their own.” Yet all we talk about is the “burden” we baby-boomers will soon be placing on our own children as they start to pay for our retirement.

Why have we let the conversation lie there?

Why haven’t we talked about the obligations that each of us has to those who went before, to those who created the world we inherit, this world (here in the US, at least) of unbelievable riches and comforts? More and more, we of the baby-boom generation are spending time and money taking care of our parents—why should we believe that our children shouldn’t do the same for us?

Because there are more of us? Because we had smaller families? But smaller families have led to more wealth, within the family, for our children. Because of their parents and grandparents and ancestors going back through the generations, our children have the greatest possibilities for achieving their potential than any generation ever.

We demean them when we assume that they are so crabbed and grubby that they will not share the wealth that they become responsible for, that they will not help their parents' generation, the generation that becomes exemplar of all they have inherited.

Our children are better than that. They are getting fortunes from the past—and they know it, and will gladly give a part of it back.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Debates with Wingnut Horowitz

David Horowitz and his Front Page Magazine have been taking on left-wing academics in a series of online debates. The first was Michael Berube of Penn State. The third will be with Timothy Burke of Swarthmore College. Today, Front Page published a “debate” with Robert Jensen of the University of Texas at Austin.

What was notable to me about the exchange was Horowitz’s aggressive assertions about what Jensen “doesn’t want” or “doesn’t like”—as though he could get into Jensen’s head. A former leftist himself, Horowitz (here and elsewhere) seems to take the position that he can know what leftists think or intend. This is an extremely difficult stance to counter without resorting to the same sort of device, but Jensen does acquit himself well (even on the page of Horowitz’s own website).

Here is a sampling of the exchange:

[Q: W]hat’s your view of DiscoverTheNetwork [this is the Horowitz Moonbat Central: Hunting the Radical Snark site that aggressively attacks the left]?

[Jensen:] Because the site is literally incoherent, I assume it was constructed for propaganda purposes. It’s worth noting that if you asked people with even minimal political knowledge and experience in any other part of the world to evaluate the site, you would have to wait quite some time for the laughter to subside -- they would assume the site is a joke….
Let’s take the category of “anti-American radicals.” This is simply a rejection of any meaningful conception of democracy. I’ve made the point before, as have many others: To accuse someone who criticizes U.S. policy of being “anti-American” is to reject any meaningful role for citizens in a democracy….

[Horowitz:] I think he reflects what all leftists who have reacted to the site feel. They don’t want a light shined on their activities, agendas, and destructive achievements. They don’t want to be accountable for what they have done and for who they are. That’s why they don’t like

Horowitz is, as usual, telling how we leftists react! And then he expands from what Jensen said to contend that we on the left “don’t want a light shined” on our “destructive achievements” (how’s that for an oxymoron?). My goodness! I guess that’s why we hide on the net. One of the things I like best about the leftist blogs is that they force us to act in the light and with accountability for our words. Our agendas are not hidden. I wonder if Horowitz can honestly say the same about his? Horowitz continues, once again by describing Jensen’s attitudes:

Leftists like Jensen have no trouble in describing conservatives as anti-Arab, or anti-black, or anti-gay. So why should the idea of someone being “anti-American” be so incomprehensible?...
They are not merely critical of an aspect of American policy but of America in its very constitution and structure. They condemn America in its essence. If America defends dictators, America is wrong; if America overthrows dictators it is wrong. Even when America does right, it does right for the wrong reason. This is a viewpoint reasonably described as “anti-American.”…

[Jensen:] If I say, “I think the U.S. attack on Iraq was illegal” or if I point to features of corporate capitalism and state power that I think harm people, I am critiquing a policy, systems, or institutions. I am not condemning America but am trying to help create a more just world. If democracy is a meaningful term, then no one policy, system, or institution is above critique. So, I agree that it is accurate to call me anti-war or anti-capitalist, but not anti-American….

[Horowitz:] In denying that he is anti-American, Professor Jensen is just seeking to avoid the plain meaning of his positions. He has publicly wished for America’s defeat in Iraq. He has described the liberation of Iraq as an imperialist occupation.

Here, Horowitz is purposely conflating actions and beings. What he is doing is like claiming that because someone dislikes what is happening in journalism, that the same person hates journalists. He doesn’t seem to understand that very Christian concept of “hate the sin, love the sinner”—which is how the vast majority of us on the left feel about the United States.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Pie-ing Horowitz

Though I’ve never thought that hitting someone in the face with a pie is particularly effective, I must take note of pie victim David Horowitz’s statement that

There's a wave of violence on college campuses, committed by what I'd call fascists opposing conservatives… It's one step from that to injury.

Never before had I heard of a fascist pie-thrower. Naïve, I just didn’t think they had the sense of humor. Now that I am alerted, though, I will be on my toes.

This warning certainly should be taken seriously. For Horowitz, of course, is president of The Center for the Study of Popular Culture, an organization

dedicated to defending the cultural foundations of a free society, a task made even more pressing by the attack on America of September 11th, the Iraq conflict and the internal opponents of freedom this attack has revealed.

Horowitz probably (and rightly) feels that the recent spate of pie-ings of wingnuts has revealed more of these internal opponents. Somewhere in the depths of Langley (or, maybe, in that bunker FBI building—or over at the NSA), I’m sure, there’s now a growing file. Soon, watch-lists will be released to public-safety organizations. Possible pie-ers will begin to be kept out of auditoriums and town meetings—and from airplanes. Fear of shoe piers, especially, will sweep the nation, when vigilant passengers on Amtrak’s Metroliner to DC spot meringue oozing from a desert boot thrust nonchalantly into the aisle.

After all, “it’s only one step from that to injury.”

Soon, the Patriot Act will have to be amended. The FBI will be directed to access bakery records, and the sale of flour, lemon, sugar, and eggs in supermarkets will be monitored. The president will say that the country must do anything necessary to keep these pie-ers from taking that next step, from growing into fomenters of injury. A “war on pie-ers” will be declared, with the purpose of keeping the wayward from following the inevitable path from laughter to terror. (Both words end in “r”—do you really believe that’s just a coincidence?)

Judges too lenient with pie-ers will be hounded from the bench. New laws will be passed (“David’s laws”), insuring the right to live pie-free. In Florida, new legislation will make it legal to respond to a potential pie-er with the shot from a gun.

Studies will be undertaken, attempting to make a connection between pie-ing and terrorism and fascism of all types. Perhaps Mussolini tossed pizzas sometime in his early career. Stalin probably ate bites off of pies, then passed them on for nefarious purposes. Even today, children are likely being enticed with pies into proto-terrorist pie-ist networks.

So, keep alert. The pie you ignore may become egg on your face

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Circus at the Press Club

Yesterday, I attended a National Press Club “event” in Washington, DC (if you want to see my story on it for ePM, click here) entitled “Who is a Journalist?” It was a panel discussion, including the notorious Jeff Gannon, “wonkette,” Garrett Graff (the first blogger to get a White House day pass), and others. As you can imagine, it was an interesting experience, though not very illuminating.

Right now, I don’t want to talk about the various stupid statements (one of the panelists actually argued that journalists should be encouraged to be “misfits,” whatever that means) or even how much more impressive “wonkette” (Ana Marie Cox) was than I expected (among other things, she was the only panelist who actually tried to hold Gannon’s feet to the fire). No, I want to talk briefly about the very idea of “discussions” of this sort as means of clarifying issues.

Not only is the title question, as Cox said at one point, “stupid” but a panel of this sort leads to nothing but continuation of the media circus atmosphere that has been encompassing our “news gathering” for decades now—and the Press Club knew it. Though Press Club president and moderator Rick Dunham asked for decorum right from the start, the whole point of the panel was performance art—something that would make the event itself “newsworthy.”

The Press Club set up the panel to be theater, as can be seen in their choice of panelists. Gannon, of course, has never been involved in serious discussion on any issue (in writing or in speech). He is, at very best, a clown. “Wonkette,” though surprisingly impressive, is a gossip columnist. Graff and Matt Yglesias, one of the other panelists, are merely kids—recent Harvard graduates, at that (not that being so is bad, but it brings them from the same elite), not the representative bloggers they were “meant” to be (it’s not true that bloggers are kids, and they certainly are not usually from the Ivy League). John Stanton, who claimed that journalists are “misfits,” clearly had never thought about the issue carefully, and Julie Herschfeld David seemed to be there only because she is on the credentialing committee for journalists at the Capitol. Not a single one of the panelists has a background that would make their comments on the question under consideration notable.

And so it proved: nothing was said by the panelists that had not been said ad nauseum by bloggers—and that had not been said better by the writers on the web. Because of the panel format, comments were truncated and topics were touched upon just briefly before disappearing completely, like stones in a game of ducks-and-drakes. Quite clearly, the panel was simply a chance to raise the profiles of the panelists and the Press Club—by attracting people like me and organizations like CSPAN, which broadcast the event.

But don’t get me wrong: I had a good time. I like a good performance as much as anyone. And the Press Club set things up so that there certainly would be good impromptu performances.

The best came right at the end, when Michael Rogers of blogactive yelled out to Gannon: “Did you ever sleep with Scott McClellan? Did you ever sleep with anyone at the White House?”

The Press Club was suitable appalled—on the surface. But they were the ones who had created this circus, so must have been secretly pleased.

The question, if there had really been thought in planning this panel, should have been “What is journalism?” “Who is a journalist?” is, as Cox pointed out, a silly question: a journalist is someone who practices journalism.

Oh, I forgot for a second: that wasn’t really the question, was it.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Changing the Mideast; Changing the Media

On March 8, I posted a diary about taking credit for results your actions did not cause. On March 11, Martin Peretz published “The Politics of Churlishness” in The New Republic, making the ridiculous claim that Bush should get credit for recent changes in the Mideast.

Of course, I am merely a blogger while Peretz is editor of an exalted publication. So I couldn’t expect him to pay attention to what I might say (any more than the Bush administration listened to the millions of us who yelled that it was ridiculous to imagine that WMDs and a threat to the US existed in Iraq—an administration now claiming that “everyone” believed as it did). Still, it might have behooved Peretz to have thought a bit before claiming success for the Bush administration in the Mideast—especially before claiming that there has been a “success” in Iraq that others want to emulate.


The received wisdom in the US is that Iraq is now serving as an example for other Mideast countries, leading to increased agitation for democracy elsewhere. Somehow, people here believe that Arabs in other countries are inspired by what they are seeing, are jealous of the achievements in Iraq.

Now, wait just a minute: there may be increased agitation elsewhere, but to claim that what is going on in Iraq is responsible is simply poppycock.

What about the election in Iraq could inspire people elsewhere? The election itself has achieved little, so far. Only today has the new parliament named a Speaker. The election has changed the country not one jot. So, how could the election be seen as inspirational?

It’s not elections that inspire (there are lame elections all over the world), but results. And this election has yet to have any results at all, let alone results that would provide a beacon for others stumbling around in the dark.

Are there other things about the US invasion of Iraq that could inspire Arabs in other countries? Well, I doubt that the doubling of malnutrition of children under five since the invasion is such a sterling example. Nor is the civilian death toll, estimated at 100,00 since the start of the war—much higher than the number likely to have died, had the US not invaded. Nor is the economic success of the Iraqi people likely to inspire: labor unions continue to be banned and foreigners have swooped in, making fortunes while Iraqis languished.

Peretz, and all of you lauding the Bush “success”: it’s really not so difficult to look behind the easy assumptions. It simply takes a little care and willingness to question. You are a professional, Peretz, with a staff behind you. That you could jump so easily to such facile conclusions, ones that those of us here in the blogosphere (and elsewhere) know are untenable, makes us wonder if you deserve the position you have.

You won’t have it long. You don’t know it yet, but you are being pushed aside by the blogs where—though we rant and rave at times, though we are a rabble, though we do make many mistakes—we actually have to take a certain amount of responsibility for our words. In five years, you will be forgotten, while we, the collective bloggers, will dominate (if you haven’t looked into ePluribus Media please do so—you will see the change, the new, online research community beginning to flex its muscles).

Peretz, though you claim to be a liberal, you are now being accepted with open arms by a new, Republican friend. So, “go to him now, he calls you, you can’t refuse.”

We don’t care if we lose you. A new day is dawning, and it’s not one Bush created or would even like. For (and finally, after five years in the wilderness), to quote an even earlier Dylan line, “the times they are a-changin.’”

The tide is beginning to turn. And the new momentum is most certainly not Bush inspired or created.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

That Ain't the Half of It!

I’ve been thinking about the group called Students For Academic Freedom whose tagline is “You can’t get a good education if they’re only telling you half the story.” It’s a Horowitz organization (probably arising from him, not students). The group’s mission statement says it is “dedicated to restoring academic freedom and educational values to America’s institutions of higher learning.”

SFAF promotes an “Academic Bill of Rights” that starts of with:

The central purposes of a University are the pursuit of truth, the discovery of new knowledge through scholarship and research, the study and reasoned criticism of intellectual and cultural traditions, the teaching and general development of students to help them become creative individuals and productive citizens of a pluralistic democracy, and the transmission of knowledge and learning to a society at large.

It goes on to say that:

academic freedom is most likely to thrive in an environment of intellectual diversity that protects and fosters independence of thought and speech.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? While you ponder it, let me step back a moment and talk about something else, something related:

One of the arguments for Jeff Gannon’s place in the White House gaggle was that a wide array of political beliefs only helps our political discourse. But that, of course, is a red herring. It doesn’t matter at all what the beliefs are amongst the press corps, as long as its members do their job, which is to challenge official statements with the purpose of clarifying what the officials are saying and, yes, revealing what they are not. Their follow-up responsibility, to write honestly and accurately about what they have learned, is just as important. All reporters have their own political agendas, but these are irrelevant as long as the reporters are completing those basic tasks. The reporter may or may not partake in analysis afterwards, but that means nothing if the basic job has not been done. The question relating to who should be there is one of professionalism, not political partisanship.

Adding any sort of political aspect to those two basic duties (leaving questions of research aside) of a White House reporter makes it impossible for the reporter to complete them well—if at all (it really spells the end of a free press—but I’ll go into that another time). That is, if the reporter focuses too much on his or her political stance the nature of the event necessarily changes: rather than a questioning, a debate (or a love-fest) replaces it. It is no more appropriate for Dan Rather to respond to President Nixon, “No, Mr. President, are you?” than it is for Jeff Gannon to say “how are you going to work with people who seem to have divorced themselves from reality?” Both bring the questioner too much into focus, thereby creating that milieu of debate, replacing what should be attempts to elicit and illuminate information. Both remove the press from its role as vehicle for information dispersal to a new role as a player in events (a role that, since Watergate, has appealled way too much to the mainstream media).

Advocates of political diversity in the press corps misunderstand both the role of the press and the place of politics within professional contexts. Many of them, especially on the extremes (and Horowitz has always lived on the extreme, either left or right), think that political stances color everything—a result of a black/white, “with us or against us” views of the world. Those on the right can’t imagine that Ronnie Earle, the Texas district attorney investigating people associated with Tom DeLay, is acting on any but a political basis (though Earle has prosecuted more Democrats than Republicans). Those on the extremes of both left and right were shocked by federal judge Stanley F. Birch, Jr., a rather conservative jurist, did not fall in line with the right-wing political agenda on the Schiavo case. The right certainly can’t imagine that a liberal could honestly report what George Bush is saying, or question their own positions as Martin Peretz is doing. But Earle, Birch, Peretz, and most other reporters (both liberals and conservatives) are professionals. Their duty to their jobs outweighs their political biases. I don’t think Peretz understands the full picture of what is happening in the Mideast, for example, but it is his professional duty to re-examine constantly.

Many on both extremes see a faith in professionalism as naïve. They think that politics colors everything. It does not, however. The demands of a profession come first for the ethical practitioner.

In fact, when we demand that a political element become part of professional practice, we destroy the profession. The free press is no longer free, when any sort of political necessity become a prerequisite. Reporting dies; only the shill survives. Just so, education is effective only when professionalism, not politics, is the prerequisite.

It would be easy to say that this is a core difference between the right and the left, but it is really a distinction between extremists and the rest of us. With its either/or attitude, the new right (like the old left) allows no room for action on a non-political basis, and doesn’t believe such a thing is possible. The new left (and old-fashioned conservatives—who have a great deal, eithically, in common with the new left) has a different set of priorities, including belief that first responsibility for professionals is to the profession, not to politics.

Which brings me back to that SFAF tag line:

You can’t get a good education if they’re only telling you half the story.

Everything, to the new right (like it was to the old left—why do you think Horowitz could so easily shift from one to the other?), comes down to a duality, is either good or bad, one way or another; there is always an opposite side. And, therefore, anything any one person puts forward is only half the story—so politics must be used to force a full picture. After all, one cannot argue both sides. In the press corps and in the university, therefore, you need wide representation.

In a classroom, for example, if a professor of history is covering the holocaust, something is missing—for there’s another side. If a biologist teaches evolution, that’s only half of it. If the predominant ideology amongst the faculty is liberal, then, the students are getting only half the story. So, departments should be forced to hire people believing in all sides—this, it is argued, is what diversity and academic freedom mean.

What it is, actually, is an abridgement of both academic freedom and common sense.

Though many questions are arguable, there aren’t always two sides that have withstood legitimate scrutiny. And, anyhow, at the most basic level, teachers aren’t teaching “facts” but ways of approaching facts and ideas. The most famous of these ways is the scientific method of setting up a hypothesis, developing a test, and examining the results in relation to the hypothesis. Teachers teach students to think, to ask questions and then evaluate answers in light of their previous assumptions. This can be learned from any good teacher, whether that teacher agrees with the student politically or not. Just as any good reporter can elicit important information, whether they agree with the interviewee or not.

There’s lots more to this issue, but I’ve rambled on long enough, for now. Let me end with just one more criticism of the SFAF tagline: it makes the students seem like passive receptacles. Students can only get what they’re told? No, the purpose of education is to give them the tools to explore what they are told, so that they can find out more and come to their own conclusions themselves. It doesn’t matter what they are told as long as they are taught to question it and are given the tools for verification. And questioning ability and research skills are not gained because of any particular political stances—but often in spite of them.

This is as true in journalism as in education.