Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Rand Paul's Ferguson article is a compelling critique of private property

Rand Paul, on Ferguson:
In the search for culpability for the tragedy in Ferguson, I mostly blame politicians. Michael Brown’s death and the suffocation of Eric Garner in New York for selling untaxed cigarettes indicate something is wrong with criminal justice in America. The War on Drugs has created a culture of violence and put police in a nearly impossible situation.
In Ferguson, the precipitating crime was not drugs, but theft. But the War on Drugs has created a tension in some communities that too often results in tragedy. One need only witness the baby in Georgia, who had a concussive grenade explode in her face during a late-night, no-knock drug raid (in which no drugs were found) to understand the feelings of many minorities — the feeling that they are being unfairly targeted.
Paul is right that the War on Drugs has contributed to poverty in Ferguson, but the evidence he brings up is pointing to a bigger cause. Michael Brown was killed for violating rules about private property. Eric Garner was killed for violating rules about private property. Georgia's SWAT team used force to break into a private residence (culminating in the use of the grenade) because of rules about state access to private property.

It is profoundly stupid to rely on a handful of anecdotal examples to make a highly controversial policy argument, which Paul knows perfectly well. But as long as we're doing that, we might as well note that what every given instance of police violence has in common is an attempt to observe and enforce the rules of private property. Ergo, the obvious solution is to eliminate private property. Right?

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The right's conception of power is completely upside-down

Some guy named Chip Jones, writing for some blog called Conservative Report:
When management issues arise in large corporations that are due to size, reorganization ensues. Most often, affiliates are created that maintain their own individual CEO’s, yet answer to a common board of directors, who share a common membership. But isn’t this the exact model our Founding Fathers created for this great Republic? A common board with limited powers overseeing affiliates? The Federal government, limited in its powers, over empowered States?
You could, I suppose, compare our government to a common board with limited powers overseeing affiliates - but that's not how corporations operate. The board of a corporation is absolutely sovereign. Corporations are almost always structured like absolute dictatorships, with an extremely vertical hierarchy of power and ambits that only have upper limits. If a corporation operated like American democracy, then (to take one obvious but crucial example) workers would be able to elect their managers. That is the exact opposite of what actually happens in a corporation.

The right makes this sort of error because it has become hyper-sensitive to the problems of government hierarchy - and completely numb to the problems of hierarchy, and power in general, in the private sector.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

I shouldn't have to do this

And yet here we are: a point-by-point rebuttal of H.A. Goodman's ridiculous I'm A Liberal Democrat. I'm Voting For Rand Paul:

1. Rand Paul will be more hawkish in office than Clinton.

To paraphrase the Rep. Barney Frank, Senator Paul has always been able "to luxuriate in the purity of his irrelevance." He has spent most of his political career not facing election and not facing difficult votes. His two nays on defense budgets, for example, were predictably inconsequential protest gestures against bills that were always going to pass with 90+ votes.

When you look at the few times Paul has faced any kind of significant pressure or incentive to change his dovish posture, his response has been telling. Under fire by Republican hawks like Cheney and Guiliani when he sought the Republican nomination, Paul's campaign released statements like "Bottom line, Rand is not in favor of closing down Guantanamo Bay" and "He is not for wholesale withdrawal [from Iraq and Afghanistan]...now that were there we have to win." And as Paul closed in on that primary victory, the National Review noted that he avoided difficult foreign policy questions, since his opponent "Tray Grayson might have been able to paint him out of the GOP mainstream."

Now that Paul needs the GOP mainstream's support again, he is once again adopting a hawkish posture. As Olivia Nuzzi writes, "these days, Paul is publicly entertaining the idea of bombing Iraq, while his advisers have touted him as the second coming of Cold warriors like Dwight Eisenhower...George H.W. Bush....and Ronald Reagan".

The point here is not that Paul is secretly a hawk, and his image as a dove  deceptive ruse. The point is that Paul, like most politicians, is whatever the politics of the moment need him to be. On the many occasions when it's been useful Paul has railed against war and empire, and on the few when it's been useful he's sounded exactly like every other interventionist in Washington.

When we abandon the naive idea that an idealistic politician is going to single-handedly reign in US empire, a different picture of Paul emerges. He would be beholden to the same hawkish constituency and the same network of Republican warmongers that every Republican president is. Like Clinton, many of his allies will be those in Washington who are already calling for war in Iran, Ukraine, and elsewhere. Unlike Clinton, he will have few political allies calling for peace.

2. Rand Paul's position on the NSA is correct - and relatively trivial.

Goodman complains that none of the other candidates for President have made opposition to NSA spying "a top priority in their campaign." Thank god. The NSA surveillance programs may be in direct and obvious opposition to both the rule of law and liberal privacy ideals, but they are also among the least oppressive and least consequential injustices known to man. No liberal who cares about the problems of yawning inequality, increasingly violent racism, pervasive poverty, or any of the other hallmark concerns of the left can look at NSA surveillance and pretend that it hurts Americans more than those more urgent issues. Even if Clinton comes down on the wrong side of this issue, it is largely a first work boutique problem frantically hyped by Libertarians hoping to turn Americans against the government.

3. Rand Paul has teamed up...to reform the criminal justice system.

Again, it's profoundly misleading to take Paul's political maneuvers as an irrelevant Senator as precedent for his potential as president. There is no reason to believe that this kind of legislation would ever reach Paul's desk given the still-overwhelming bipartisan opposition in both chambers of Congress. To accept this as a consideration is to prioritize aspirational pipe dreams over the actual practical consequences of a Paul presidency.

4. Paul is worse than Clinton on Wall Street.

This is one of the most egregious problems with Goodman's argument, and frankly calls into serious question his credibility as any kind of liberal. Paul is a libertarian radical who believes that Wall Street can regulate itself and that problems of economic corruption / injustice are necessarily problems of government intervention. His critique of "the GOP's love affair with corporations" is transparent populist demagoguery built entirely on the right-wing premise that big corporations will spontaneously wither away in the hyper-competitive market of a laissez faire utopia.

Clinton, like Obama, is a liberal state capitalist who will maintain a corporate welfare state and turn a blind eye to financial corruption. But she will also do all of the minimal things that Democrats do to make late capitalism slightly less horrific than it could be - like promote imperfect legislation to patch systematic problems, not destroy the Federal Reserve, and so on.

5. Rand Paul thinks Edward Snowden

lol, see 3

6. Rand Paul publicized the issue of a possible government drone strike, on American soile, against American citizens.

This is if anything a great reason to vote against Rand Paul. As I wrote elsewhere, this is ridiculous for three reasons. First, there is no coherent reason why we should expect a separate legal or ideological disposition for one form of state violence as against all of the others we do accept - simply because it's delivered by a drone. Second, a related point: if we are concerned about state violence against Americans, there are much bigger and more urgent issues than drones, as anyone in Ferguson right now can attest. And third, even if we are specifically concerned about state violence via drone, drone strikes against Americans should still be at the bottom of our priority list, since the overwhelming majority of victims aren't Americans. And Paul, incidentally, is on record supporting drone strikes against them.

7. Rand Paul could bring back an era in American politics when conservatives and liberals socialized with one another.

This is crazy, utopian thinking, though it certainly reveals much of the motivation behind Goodman's endorsement. The partisan divide in America is not some superficial controversy imposed by evil or inept politicians; it is the expression of real and substantial disagreements and the collision of powerful socioeconomic interests that we're all invested in. Rand Paul is not going to magically cause racism to disappear or ameliorate class antagonisms - more than likely, in fact, he would make both worse.

8. Rand Paul will not gut the economic safety nets of this country

This is completely false; Goodman is either uninformed or deliberately misleading. For example, Goodman claims that Paul "doesn't want to dismantle Social Security," but Paul is on record calling it a Ponzi scheme, calling for its privatization and implementing other policies (like raising the retirement age) that fall under every definition of "dismantle Social Security" there is. His rhetoric mirrors the rhetoric of every Republican, and if anything he is more ambitious.

9. Neoconservatives hate Rand Paul.

This is only a half truth, since - as mentioned in point one - Paul will still be politically dependent on them. Neoconservatives are a large and influential faction of the Republican coalition, and unlike Clinton, Paul has to bargain with them. Personal rivalries with the Cheneys are mostly irrelevant.

10. Rand Paul could be the answer to our philosophical conundrum as a nation.

It's unclear what Goodman thinks this "conundrum" is, but he does take the opportunity to complain about "a Democratic Party more focused on defending Obamacare than stopping endless wars or protecting civil liberties". It's unclear why he thinks this some kind of self-evident problem. Government threats to our civil liberties are a much less pressing problem than the basic issue of affordable health care; we should be more concerned about preserving Obamacare. Regarding war, the left has clearly made a tactical calculation that its energies are best spent keeping right-wing radical hawks (McCain, Romney) out of office. This is not a great solution, but there's no reason to suppose that Rand Paul provides any kind of alternative.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Friedersdorf disappointed that Obama governs like an American president

For the paradigm example of Conor Friedersdorf's critique of the Obama Presidency, skip down to grievance number five:
Obama took...actions that set extremely dangerous precedents...he waged a war of choice in Libya without permission from Congress.
There is no universe in which this works as an Obama precedent. The military actions that presidents have authorized without Congressional approval have numbered, historically, in the triple digits. Which ones count as "wars" and "wars of choice" will depend on who you ask, but Friedersdorf has a hilariously steep hill to climb if he's going to exclude all of them, while singling out Libya as the camel's nose in the tent. There's an extensive history of critics alleging precisely this point of unconstitutionality against presidents, and if Friedersdorf is unacquainted with this it can only be because he's completely unacquainted with the anti-war left.

None of this absolves Obama, of course, from any kind of moral judgment. But as a simple matter of practical assessment, it does lay down a marker of what we can expect from a modern American president. To support Obama and approve of the job he is doing is not to endorse him as an ideal - it is to compare him to the alternatives on offer. Not in Imaginationland, but in the grim reality of 21st century American politics.

This perspective is worth consulting when critics like Friersdorf characterize Obama's defenders on the left as blinkered Pollyannas failing "to see it all with open eyes". It's precisely because we see history - all of it - that we judge Obama accordingly. When demagogues like Rand Paul float visions of world peace before us, and ask us to judge the sitting president by that standard, we think back just six years ago when another Senator said the same things. We remember.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The federal government would easily destroy Joni Ernst and her family


Republican Senate candidate Joni Ernst has openly admitted that she carries a gun "to defend myself and my family...from the government, should they decide that my rights are no longer important."

Obviously Americans should probably think twice about electing a violent radical who openly admits her contempt for democratic governance, and plenty of people are going to point this out. So instead, it's worth reiterating a point that should be equally obvious but that'll almost certainly get lost in the furor:

There is no way Joni Ernst and her gun could do a thing to stop federal government.

This is a perfect example of the delusion, impotent posturing I've addressed at length. Suppose that government agents came to arrest Joni Ernst for whatever reason, and that Ernst, in defense of whatever "rights" she thinks are being violated, attempts to open fire on them. If this happened in the open, any officers on hand would return fire and immediately subdue her. If she managed to barricade herself in her home or whatever, officers would just call in reinforcements and either pin her in her home until she surrendered or take her out in a standard police raid. The chance that she would successfully evade capture - not just immediate capture, but eventual capture - are less than zero.

If gun nuts learn one lesson from the all-too-familiar scenario of a lone gunman trying to take down the state, they should learn that basic, modest forms of gun control are probably a good idea. But if they don't learn that, they should at least learn that armed attacks on the state basically never work.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Scholars have probably accounted for your obvious point

Earlier this week, a couple of guys criticized Matt Bruenig's standard poverty analysis on the grounds that he failed to account for the dynamic effects of transfer programs.

Their objection is demonstrably incorrect, as Bruenig has already pointed out. Having established that, a second thing worth pointing out about their objection: it's hilariously obvious. It's so obvious that David Henderson didn't even feel the need to articulate it directly, and instead spent his "Spot the Problem" blog post dropping smug hints. It's so obvious that Scott Sumner explicitly asks, "How could Bruenig overlook the obvious?"

Sumner seems to think he is being rhetorical here, but if he had taken his own question seriously he might have noticed a problem. Insofar as his point was obvious, Bruenig almost certainly did not overlook it. If Henderson can merely gesture towards it to a general audience and expect them to know what he's talking about, it's relatively unlikely that a prolific scholar on the topic would be in the dark. Snark about how progressive brains might be wired differently may make for self-indulgent ridicule, but it's hardly a credible defense for this theory that Bruenig missed his point.

I bring up the incident because it reminds me of a similar episode that took place last week:
"How can you have the wobbling of the earth cooling the earth, but it not be included in any projections [of climate change]?" - Rep. Steve Stockman [R-TX]
The answer, of course, is that wobbling has been accounted for in the projections. As they have with cyclical warming, volcanic eruptions, and all of the other obvious and easy to understand factors that climate science deniers like to pretend the scientists haven't noticed. Stockman is relying on the same ploy that Henderson and Sumner rely on: appealing to an objection in all of its obvious self-evidence, while simultaneously suggesting that his critics have somehow missed it.

All of this plays into the psychology of the counter-Enlightenment - which foments contempt for scholarship (to the point of ridiculing reading) while fetishizing the semi-erudition of unearned knowledge. The right cultivates intellectual arrogance, insisting that people who have dedicated much of their lives to particular fields of knowledge are just "ivory tower elites" who don't actually know any more than the rest of us.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Female hysteria is not an actual thing

It's been a long time since anyone considered "female hysteria" an actual medical condition, with actual physical causes and actual pathological symptoms. There's a gross history - equally hilarious and sinister - of pre-modern doctors inventing bizarre theories about women's sex organs doing crazy things to angry up the blood, and if you still buy into any of it you probably also spend a lot of time worrying about the humors, too. For the empiricists among us, the best reason to dismiss the idea of female hysteria is that it turns out to be factually, demonstrably dumb.

That's a great reason - but it's not the only one.

Noam Chomsky, writing about another nineteenth century pseudoscience - racist anthropology - noted that when it comes to this sort of thing,
a rational person will ask two sorts of questions: What is the scientific status of the claims? What social or ideological needs do they serve? The questions are logically independent, but the second type of question naturally comes to the fore as scientific pretensions are undermined.
The answer to the second question seems obvious as well. Operationally, the diagnosis of female hysteria functioned as a way of oppressing women. It provided a medical rationalization for withholding power and responsibility from them: they were morally and intellectually weak. It played into all kinds of horrific reactionary arguments. Women couldn't be trusted with the right to vote. Their sexual behavior needed to be governed by men, because they were depraved and completely malleable. They certainly couldn't be permitted to run their own lives.

What's important to note about female hysteria, today, is that the medical details are mostly irrelevant. Even if it had a modicum of scientific legitimacy, it's perfectly clear today that its diagnosis, treatment and politics were entirely animated by its role as a pretext for oppressing women.

The progressive response should have been - and remains - extreme skepticism of any rationale for depriving women of their moral and intellectual agency. Even when such arguments are mobilized in a woman's defense, the idea that she cannot control herself, or meet ordinary standards of decency and rationality, cannot be historically severed from the claim that she must therefore be controlled or segregated. We must certainly never assume that this is necessarily a noble or benevolent thing to say about women, because we know perfectly well how destructive it can be.

Case in point:
Months ago, Twitter personality Sarah Kenzior got some threats on Twitter. Her "non-perfect" response, documented at length, was to aggressively and demonstrably libel multiple people, and to maintain a smear campaign against them that persists to this day. As Matt Bruenig points out, her defenders have a curious explanation for this:
...many of her supporters...ultimately came around to the position that, although she’s clearly lying, the spewing of lies is driven by the trauma she is currently experiencing. The argument was that Jacobin running a post that links to her public tweet about bros sending rape threats was so traumatic an experience that she just could not control herself.
Bruenig adds that "given the fact that she has continued to [lie], now months later...it would seem the 'trauma-responding' theory...doesn't really hold up." This may read like snark, but it's really quite decisive if we take the history of female hysteria at all seriously. "Trauma," as a rationale for relieving Kenzior of moral agency, is not a diagnosis to be thrown around casually by internet psychologists. It should refer to an actual medical condition; and as Chomsky put it, "if the scientific status is slight, then it is particularly interesting to consider the climate of opinion within which the claim is taken seriously."

Here, the climate seems entirely obvious - and extremely sinister. People with no clinical expertise have developed an ad hoc rationalization for Sarah Kendzior's behavior, but are in no position to evaluate whether or not it is actually correct. There is little thought for the monstrous history of using this sort of rhetoric about women, or for its entirely predictable consequences.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Liberals are still buying into Tea Party propaganda

Most of the Tea Party's credibility, such as it is, depends on their posture as a faction of principle running against a decadent establishment.

This of course is complete nonsense. The Tea Party is most accurately described as a Republican brand marketed by some of the most powerful and entrenched interests in the US. The establishment is mostly whoever those interests happen to run against. GOP primaries are better understood as raw power struggles rather than ideological contests. The Kochs would prefer to run the show rather than the Chamber of Commerce. To an unappreciated extent, that's all there is to it.

So it's vexing when otherwise savvy liberals like Brian Beutler post stuff like this:
Most people think of the GOP primary campaign as a contest between conservative hardliners and establishmentarians. But it’s actually more like two different contests: One in which a group of undisciplined hardliners undercut each other’s bids to take on the favorite; and another in which elders rally around the most conservative of the party’s disciplined, accomplished veterans. These lines never cross. Conservatives are far too exacting to accept a conservative who curries favor from the donor class, and the donor class won’t favor a candidate who panders to the far right too much.
Structurally, he's mostly right - power struggles within the GOP are better understood as two parallel struggles within two factions. But that's as far as the analysis goes. The 2012 Republican primaries only lasted as long as they did precisely because the donor class frantically funded any and every Tea Party candidate that posed any kind of threat to Romney, no matter how transient. Romney, meanwhile, spent the entire primary campaign pandering to the right as a "severe conservative," and only tacked to the center once the nomination guaranteed him a monopoly on funding.

The "establishment" is really only the "establishment" insofar as they are typically incumbents with significant experience campaigning and governing. Sure, spending a lot of time in office is associated with all kinds of disagreeable tendencies, for instance the tendency to sell out the interests of your constituents to big business. But how does that distinguish the establishmentarian from the Tea Partier who deliberately sets out to do the exact same thing?

Jennifer Rubin does not understand how elections work

In the United States, candidates typically win the presidency by earning a plurality of votes in the electoral college. This, in turn, generally depends on winning the popular vote in strategically crucial states. And for decades, political scientists and laymen alike have understood that winning at the state level depends on the good graces and open wallets of our campaign financiers.

None of this is even remotely controversial, or even particularly difficult to understand. So it's baffling that the Washington Post employs a chronically wrong columnist who even manages to prove herself chronically wrong about obvious things like how elections are won. Jennifer Rubin thinks that Sen. Jim Webb can win the presidency because of multiple dumb reasons that have nothing to do with the basic factors that allow one to win the Presidency, like "funding" and "polling". It is a testament to the absolute intellectual poverty of our pundits that any analysis ignoring these basic considerations could ever see the light of day.

Even on their own terms Rubin's points are almost unanimously wrong. She thinks Webb can win because:

1. He has no ties to a floundering administration. Rubin directly contradicts this in point nine, but that's beside the point. Any Democratic candidate will be tied to his Obama in the 2016 campaign whether the ties exist or not. And that is not, as Rubin assumes because she is a partisan hack rather than an actual analyst, necessarily a bad thing.

2. He is candid about the faults of the president. Every candidate running for President has voiced and will voice criticism about the President. To the extent that this is a coherent litmus test, it's one that every candidate will pass.

3. Dems love a veteran who turns dove. Rubin then goes on to list two veterans-turned-dove, Kerry and Hagel, who 1) lost and 2) was always presumed unelectable at the presidential level. There is no reason to take this as a compelling reason for Webb to run, since it has not in recent history proven an asset at the national level.

4. He is not overexposed. It's unclear what Rubin means by "overexposed" or why she thinks this is an asset. Are there candidates in recent history who lost because they were overexposed? Rubin would likely say Clinton, but Clinton lost to Obama because she was tactically outmaneuvered by people who, among other things, understood how primaries work. It's easy enough to argue that Clinton's exposure is also an asset insofar as it contributes to her name recognition and make her a familiar choice to voters. There's no reason to assume that Webb's relative obscurity will help him overcome that.

5. He is from a swing state he won before. This is as close as Rubin gets to a relevant point, but she's still incorrect. It is indeed important for any Democratic candidate to win Virginia, but there's no reason to suspect that Clinton is likely to lose it. Virginia is only purple insofar as its district-level representation fails to reflect the popular vote. At the state level, Virginia passed that threshold in 2006 and is now decisively blue, thanks to the growing Democratic stronghold of Northern Virginia. There is no reason to suspect that a home-state advantage for Webb is likely to spell the difference between victory and defeat.

6. ...he can play the "maverick" and "outsider" role. Electoral history, in the US, is for the most part a long and glorious history of outsiders and mavericks challenging the establishment - and losing. Rubin and the Tea Party's anti-establishment fetish may have blinded them to the historical realities of that role, but there is no reason to simply assume that this is an asset.

7. He is smart and knowledgeable enough to challenge Hillary and has nothing to lose politically (he would never be her VP) by going full-throttle. This describes almost every candidate currently mulling a run against Clinton, from Biden to Warren to Sanders. If at this point you are so opposed to a Clinton presidency that you would be willing to run against her, and ambitious / credible enough to stand a chance in hell of winning, you are probably not likely to serve as her VP. More to the point, there is basically no reason to assume that being knowledgeable enough to challenge Clinton and ambitious enough to do so would actually make it more likely for anyone to win, since she will just outspend you and outpoll you in the end.

8. He opposed the Iraq war in 2002, a litmus test for the left. This is not a litmus test for the left. Democrats continue to vote for and support politicians who supported the Iraq war. For example John Kerry, who Rubin just finished praising as a credible candidate. Moreover, if Dems "love a veteran who turns dove," why would they hate an Iraq war supporter who regrets that vote? Finally, it's unclear if this is even as significant an issue as it was in 2008, when it arguably was (but probably wasn't) a decisive liability for Clinton.

9. Webb was there for liberals 87 percent of the time and always when it really mattered. Rubin then goes on to list several initiatives that Webb supported. Did Clinton oppose any of these? Are there any likely Democratic candidates who opposed any of them?

10. He is not a clueless millionaire. Why exactly does Rubin think this is an asset rather than a liability? Being a clueless millionaire typically means that you will have the kind of access and resources that are absolutely necessary for a credible national campaign. Most of our sitting politicians are clueless millionaires. It may make for an inspiring story when a 99%-er wins public office, but this is hardly a campaign model for success.

11. He is a prolific fiction author. ...

12. His vote on [issues] check the boxes on liberals' social issues. This is just a rephrase of 9, and dumb for the exact same reasons.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Capitalism means militarization

  • Capitalist ideology authorizes government violence in ways that other ideologies do not. Specifically, it uniquely maintains that the "only proper functions of a government," as Ayn Rand put it, include protecting "your property and contracts". These are obviously not permissible occasions for violence in governments that do not police private property or private contracts.
  • We should understand private property and private contracts as opportunities for state violence. Every piece of property and every contract represents a state of affairs which Capitalism may require the government to police through violence. I repeat: this requirement comes from Capitalism.
  • Crucially, the requirement that the government police crimes against Capitalism is a requirement that the government must maintain the capacity to police potential crimes against Capitalism. The government cannot wait until a robbery has started to hire, train and arm police. It must try to stop the robbery in progress - Capitalism demands this in order to minimize disruptions of the economy.
  • The incentive Capitalism provides to build and maintain the government's capacity for violence will be in direct proportion to the growth of the economy and the potential for disruption. The more private property and contracts there are to police, the greater a capacity for violence the government must develop. And as economic conditions grow more precarious - in particular, as markets become more vulnerable to anything that could trigger recessions etc. - the demand for absolute stability, and the corollary demand for a more powerful, responsive police force - can only increase.
  • The government may also attempt to protect private property and contracts, and stabilize the economy, through pre-emptive measures, such as education programs, business regulations, monetary policy, and so on. To the extent that these fall outside of the "only proper functions of government," however, the political right will resist them and rely exclusively on reactive policing.
The implications here are straightforward. Blame whatever you like on big government, but it's clear that because of Capitalism even the most minimalistic Randian state must build an extraordinary capacity for violence in direct proportion to the growth of the economy. And while liberal social measures may try to pre-empt the need for militarization under Capitalism, nothing within Capitalism can stop it.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Conservatives, the state, and the presumption of innocence

The American government owes every citizen the presumption of innocence. The logic here is straightforward, particularly for conservatives: since the state maintains a monopoly on the use of force, we should be skeptical of the justifications that it provides for doing so, and it should affirmatively satisfy our scrutiny. In cases of ambiguity or uncertainty, individual liberty must prevail over government exercises of power.

This situation is complicated when police officers are on trial - but again, for conservatives, the logic should be straightforward. Legally they must retain the presumption of innocence, since the police will be prosecuted in their capacity as American citizens. But politically, conservatives have no business taking at face value the state's judgments of its own actions against citizens. They should assume that these rulings are at least unreliable and often corrupt and self-interested, for all of the exact same reasons conservatives assume that other government actions are corrupt and self-interested.

So it's extremely telling when, outside of the jury, an endless parade of "conservatives" demand we give armed agents of the state a benefit of the doubt against (black) citizens:



























Capitalism needs your malice to survive

Capitalism digs its own grave. One way it does this is by encouraging increasingly stupid positions in its defense. More and more, its apologists become untethered from economic reality and public opinion. They sell this as intellectual independence and elite insight - but hilariously, that posture becomes a license for every contrarian crank in the universe. Thus, Daniel Payne:
Ah, “stigma:” one of the last great impediments to full-blown government dependency... Keeping welfare firmly in the stigmatized realm is not merely a conservative crusade; it’s good policy, too.
This is clearly supposed to be some kind of outrageously provocative argument, but as is so often the case with this genre of writing it isn't even offensive so much as catastrophically dumb.

Explicitly, Payne argues that Capitalism depends in the final analysis on a mass government social engineering project to micromanage our sentiments about poverty. And to the limited extent that his ideal policy outcome is even coherent, it is by his own description completely counterintuitive to ordinary human sentiment.

This is not an argument that Capitalism as a workable or even particularly desirable economic program; it's an argument that Capitalism is completely untenable and not worth saving.

lol sympathy

Notably, Payne's entire premise places Capitalism under what was supposed to be one of the strongest indictments of Socialism: both, we are now told, rely on popular attitudes that don't exist.

Supposedly, one of Capitalism's greatest assets is the way that it harnesses "natural" human selfishness. Communism, on the other hand, relied on massive government programs designed to impose on the population necessary attitudes about altruism and the common good. This was not only morally suspect for the partisans of intellectual autonomy; it was as a practical matter simply impossible to implement and maintain. You simply cannot create an indoctrination program thorough and effective enough to overcome attitudes so deeply rooted in human nature.

But that, of course, is exactly what Payne is calling for. This "Federalist" even wants it imposed by the federal government: he applauds Rep. Paul Ryan's plan, which "would essentially mandate that states opting for the Opportunity Grant implement work requirements." This tyrannical Big Government requirement, Payne hopes, would aid in "inculcating" attitudes amenable to his plan for the economy. Freed from this benevolent guidance from the nanny state, who knows what subversive ideas Americans might come up with?

A modest proposal

Payne describes his plan as a "policy" and the National Review calls it a "mandate" - but of course, neither actually want you to understand it as a government action.

Rather, hatred of the poor is some kind of natural "stigma" that would exist by default - but for the Left's sinister efforts to "make it [welfare] a no-big-deal kind of thing". So Paul Ryan's attempts to tack a social engineering project onto welfare grants is really just a way of offsetting the destructive culture of dependency fostered by those very programs.

Of course, there's a simpler way to eliminate that effect, a truly Federalist approach that takes Big Government out of the equation completely: end all welfare.

Get rid of school lunches for hungry children, and instantly there is zero danger of government dependency. Within a matter of weeks we will have our truly "independent citizenry that can provide for itself without the Left's benevolent help," because by then all of the justly reviled third-grade parasites will (hopefully!) have starved to death.

Not to tread too heavily on too many sensitive progressive ideals, but as Capitalists have long noted - correctly - the very existence of welfare programs destigmatizes them. Regardless of the rhetoric we surround them with, welfare sends a clear message to its recipients: "These are entitlements that we as a society have decided you have a legal right to."

Cowardly incoherence

There's an obvious reason why Capitalists are usually unwilling to carry their argument about welfare to its direct conclusion: it's just way too vile and embarrassing.

That's why, even as he insists that we should "bring back the welfare stigma," Payne repeatedly undercuts his own argument, pleading that welfare is "not an irredeemable sin or an uncorrectable wrong" and maintaining that "Those who have truly fallen on hard times deserve our genuine sympathy, and we should not snarl at them for turning to as easy and accessible a source of relief as government welfare."

This is plainly RINO gibberish.

The problem is that nothing about the way that Payne "moderates" his position actually provides a logical or principled basis for navigating its competing claims. Sympathy and concerns about government dependency allow for welfare - but not the destigmatization of welfare. Why draw the line there?

There isn't any economic or rational basis for Payne's stigmatized welfare program, but there's a transparent political factor: cowardice. Instead of owning his grotesque contempt for the poor, Payne finds it humiliating and realizes that it's a political liability; so he veils it with token overtures towards compassion with no meaningful policy consequences. He comes the closest towards his actual position when he talks about there being "plenty more work to do...to reduce welfare use" - the long game, of course, being the right-wing wet dream of ending the welfare state entirely.

No one actually thinks that's a good idea, and Payne knows it. But the persistence of welfare remains an embarrassing reminder of the failures of Capitalism. If the right can find a pretext for shifting that blame onto the shoulders of children, that may buy their ridiculous beliefs a little more time.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

An odd critique of Chomsky

Erik Loomis scolds Chomsky over his oft-repeated assertion that "In many respects Nixon was the last liberal president." Loomis:
Richard Nixon was a liberal in no way. Richard Nixon was however a very shrewd politician operating in the time of the postwar liberal consensus. Nixon didn’t like signing those bills...if he had his druthers, he would have ruled conservatively. As it was, he wanted to build support for the war by signing relatively liberal legislation. 
...What’s happening today is that even smart progressives are using Nixon as a uncontextualized figure to compare to everything they dislike about today. But this gives the presidency way too much power and essentially fetishizes the power of the presidency at the cost of a meaningful analysis of how political change is made in the United States. Unfortunately, if a law gets passed, the entire credit or demerit for it rests in the popular mind on that president and not on Congress or the millions of Americans who wanted it.
This is all spot-on except for the part where Loomis thinks he's substantially disagreeing with Chomsky. In his own words:
The U.S. presidential race, impassioned almost to the point of hysteria, hardly represents healthy democratic impulses. Americans are encouraged to vote, but not to participate more meaningfully in the political arena. Essentially the election is yet another method a marginalizing the population... 
The urgent task for those who want to shift policy in a progressive direction...is to grow and become strong enough so that they can't be ignored by the centers of power. Forces for change that have come up from the grass roots...[are] cultivated by steady work at all levels, every day, not just once every four years.
Worth noting that this isn't just an obscure passing remark - it's more or less at the center of Chomsky's politics. He is an anarchist who has written prolifically on the ways that hierarchical power, including state power, controls populations. His primary mode of political action has always been at the grassroots, and is on record insisting that progressives should only "spend five or ten minutes" on presidential elections.

This line of thought is explicit in his elaboration on the Nixon-as-liberal-president line:
Nixon was basically the last liberal president, and those liberal measures were in substantial part the result of popular activism, from CIO organizing in the 1930s up to the activism in the '60s and on to their impact in the early '70s. They had an impact on legislation and on public officials. So it's not one or the other; you can do both and recognize what the interaction is like.
This is the exact opposite of claiming that "the entire credit or discredit" for anything lies with the President. As he has multiple times, Chomsky credits the public for placing enormous public pressure on Nixon to enact various liberal initiatives.

To the extent that there is any daylight between Chomsky and Loomis, it may be that Chomsky sees in Nixon's "shrewd" negotiation a prerequisite of pluralistic governance: an ability to recognize opposition and treat with it. This may seem trivial, but it's a completely different ideological universe from modern Republicans who even refuse to negotiate to the point of self-destruction. But what seems clear, in any case, is that Loomis is not exactly contesting Chomsky's ideas about the importance of popular activism. On that, they'll have to disagree to agree.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Capitalists have no coherent critique of militarization

Capitalism usually demands the rhetorical luxury of absolute opposition to the government. Since the market can optimally ameliorate virtually every social ill imaginable, political progress is simply a matter of opposing government intervention. According to this logic, big government is bad, smaller government is better, and no government is best. Insert every Ronald Reagan aphorism ever.

This is at least internally consistent until you concede some kind of role for the government. And that's the problem militarization presents to the right. 

Capitalism implies no upper limit to the police power we invest in the state, but it demands a minimum: at the very least, the state must maintain a capacity for violence superior to the general population. That, after all, is what it takes to enforce contracts, to protect private property, and to deter criminals.

But having conceded this, Capitalists cannot, as they usually do, simply delegate the task of optimization to the market - that responsibility falls squarely in the lap of the government, which must retain its monopoly on violence. And this, of course, is the basic task of liberal governance: exercising the power of the state as responsibly and rationally as possible.

Functionally, Libertarians are using "militarized policing" in the exact same way that liberals use the word "tyranny" - to make a pragmatic distinction between irresponsible and responsible uses of force. As any NRA member will gleefully explain to you, distinctions between "military" equipment and "police" equipment are mostly arbitrary, based on the exact same logic that pinko hippies would use to justify singling out "assault rifles" from "hunting rifles" for regulation. We are not dealing with categorically different types of state violence here - just different degrees. Proportion and propriety can only be evaluated through the hard work of liberal democratic governance.

No liberals, the police state is not going to commit suicide

Governor Nixon has called in the National Guard. This was entirely predictable - authorities can't allow the spectacle of resistance to persist for too long, but Ferguson's police force has seemed entirely content to maintain a war of attrition.

The National Guard, it is hoped, will impose some kind of order on the situation through a combination of superior discipline and overwhelming force. In practice this will probably involve implementing some kind of domesticated COIN strategy involving carefully executed information operations and expanding perimeters of control. 

The aim of the former will be to justify the latter. Expect a lot of extremely visible public diplomacy - press conferences, staged peace rallies, town hall meetings - as well as police-supplied footage of various crimes. All disseminated to advance a distinction between "good" protesters who want peace and dialogue and who are worthy of civil rights, and "bad" protesters who just want anarchy and violence, and who are not only unworthy of civil rights but, crucially, who are ruining things for everyone else. Draconian measures like curfews will be spun as unfortunate but necessary measures police have been forced to impose for the protection of the "good" Fergusonites.

This is more or less what has already been happening, but the Ferguson police have proven themselves terrible at it. The new boots on the ground may have slightly better training, though they'll also enter Ferguson as an alien force with even fewer community ties than the crackers who've screwed things up so far. But the real difference maker will be the new regime of command-and-control and their superior media resources. It is only a matter of time before the national news gets bored with covering this story with any rigor and becomes hopelessly ensnared in the narrative the authorities will lay out for them, with maybe the occasional sordid and scandalous expose for ratings when they can find some good material.

If any of this seems familiar, it's because some variation on this happens every single time. Capitalism usually relies on pacifying and atomizing the population in order to maintain order, but faced with actual resistance it must rely, in the final analysis, on the overwhelming brute force of the police state. That's the context in which calls for demilitarization by the Rand Paul right need to be understood. He is not calling for a less militarized society, but simply a less militarized state - one which has abdicated its police powers and turned them over to the private sector.

The left, of course, is calling for something different: for a society with less militarization, period.

But that means a different society altogether. And that means even more conflict than what we have seen in Ferguson, not less. You can see the introduction of the National Guard as the first step in a return to the oppressive but superficially peaceful status quo, or you can see it as the unfortunate end of a nascent revolution that should get a lot more violent and destructive before all is said and done. But it is crazy to imagine that we can fix these problems without violence, as if Capital was ever not going to call in the National Guard when things got bad enough. 

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Rand Paul's facile spin on Ferguson

Not surprisingly, big government has been at the heart of the problem [in Ferguson]. Washington has incentivized the militarization of local police precincts by using federal dollars to help municipal governments build what are essentially small armies—where police departments compete to acquire military gear that goes far beyond what most of Americans think of as law enforcement. - Rand Paul, Time.com
Police militarization is definitely part of the problem here, but it doesn't follow that police militarization is necessarily an outcome of a powerful democratic government, or that it can only be addressed by the massive abolition of democratic governance that Paul has in mind. These are the unargued, non sequitur leaps of an opportunist transparently attempting to hijack a tragedy as a vehicle for an unrelated political agenda.

Rand Paul unwittingly draws attention to this a few paragraphs later when he notes - quoting The Heritage Foundation's Evan Bernick - that "federal agencies...as well as local police departments...come equipped with SWAT teams and heavy artillery."

To elaborate: big government may have militarized the Ferguson police, but it has also militarized government authorities that can serve as a check on the Ferguson police. At any given moment, President Obama and Governor Nixon can mobilize the National Guard or even active military to intervene on behalf of Ferguson's citizens. They are perfectly capable of doing this, not in spite of the power of the government but because of it. In fact, it is precisely because the President and the Governor are so powerful that it likely won't come to that at all. When the Ferguson police stand down, it will be because the massive, armed hierarchy of the state and federal government have given them no other choice.

The reason this hasn't already happened is obvious: Republicans won't let it. They are already decrying the President's call for an investigation by the FBI and the DOJ, and spinning further intervention as an egregious imposition on the local sovereignty. A deployment of troops - the reasonable and proportional solution - would have ignited all kinds of outrage about federal tyranny.

Who will police the police? Liberals have a pragmatic answer for this: a careful system of checks and balances, regulatory, enforcement and military agencies, all ultimately subject to popular control through democratic elections. Demilitarization can ameliorate some of the system's worst abuses, but as a final solution it's just incoherent: the whole point of a police force is that we militarize some people more than others in order to enforce the law.

Remember Al Sharpton

For all of his squishiness in recent years, Al Sharpton is doing the Lord's work in Ferguson right now, and it's the exact same thing he has been doing for decades: rallying the black community against an obvious injustice.

Anyone who has paid any attention to Sharpton's career knows that there is nothing at all unusual about this, and indeed, at this point the unusual thing would be if he didn't show up given the magnitude of the events in Missouri.

But what is unusual, once you notice it, is the almost absolute radio silence among his critics in the Republican party. Just do a quick Google search and you'll find an endless parade of grievance among GOP crackers about Sharpton's "race-hustling" during the Jena Six or Trayvon Martin controversies - just to name two. Look at his actual involvement in those cases, however, and you'll see him doing exactly what he's doing right now.

The point is worth making because the silence isn't gonna last. It's just too embarrassing to come after Sharpton while he's standing shoulder to shoulder with grieving parents against Ferguson's hyper-militarized goon squad; it's obvious that Sharpton's on the right side of history on this one, and no one in their right mind is going to take him on while everyone's paying attention.

But give it a few weeks, and the GOP will weave this one back into a vague narrative of Sharpton as an opportunity who allies himself with shady criminals and radicals. Republicans won't explain what exactly changed between now and then - they'll just appeal to some common-sensical perception of Sharpton as some sinister guy whose ideas about race should never be taken seriously.

So watch what Al Sharpton's doing right now. Remember it when Republicans change the story. And ask yourself, "Just how much of the history of black activism in the United States even remotely resembles the story that Republicans tell us today?"

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The lesson of the Obama years

"The Obama years have taught us the sometimes frightening lesson that our Constitution and legal structure alone don't secure the Republic. We also depend on norms - or an implied understanding of what behavior is acceptable."

This is true enough, but Chait then proceeds to exactly the wrong conclusion. We have only become aware of our dependence on "norms" during the Obama years to the extent that they have utterly failed to constrain political power. Republicans have departed from precedent by enforcing the supermajority rule, politicizing the debt ceiling, obstructing routine appointments, and filing suit against the President through the House. From these infamous and unambiguous violations of institutional convention, Chait concludes that Obama needs to maintain another convention, if only to constrain future Republicans?

This is not to say that these conventions are irrelevant - simply that they aren't decisive. It turns out that a Republican president could decide to stop collecting the estate tax whether or not Obama pursues his immigration plans, and that he could decide not to even if Obama does pursue his immigration plan. Historic precedents may play a role here, but if the Obama years have taught us anything, they've taught us that things like partisanship and immediate incentives and a whole host of other dynamics may be even more relevant.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Libertarians do not get credit for social liberalism

Robert Draper in the New York Times Magazine:
Today, for perhaps the first time, the libertarian movement appears to have genuine political momentum on its side. An estimated 54 percent of Americans now favor extending marriage rights to gay couples. Decriminalizing marijuana has become a mainstream position...[libertarians support] the drive to reduce sentences for minor drug offenders...The appetite for foreign intervention is at low ebb...deep concern over government surveillance looms as one of the few bipartisan sentiments in Washington...
It's gratifying to see so many Americans take up these causes, but that doesn't change history. All of these are liberal positions advocated by liberals for decades and decades. Crucially, liberals have fought for these positions when libertarians have been unwilling to, and often in the face of fierce opposition by libertarians. Liberals often maintained these positions at their own political expense, and it has largely been through their sacrifice and dedication that these causes even became viable.

Draper's reference to foreign intervention is just the most obvious case in point.

Consider the most significant instance of foreign intervention in modern history: the invasion of Iraq. Liberals didn't merely oppose this - they led the opposition, and it was the central rallying point of their politics throughout the GWB presidency. The Democratic party was a major vehicle of their opposition, though a glance at contemporary protests show the heavy involvement of organizations even further to the left: the A.N.S.W.E.R. coalition, United for Peace and Justice, the Green Party, and so on. Accordingly, opponents of foreign intervention were overwhelmingly associated with the left, and defended and criticized on those terms. Opponents of the Iraq War were routinely attacked as Communists, Socialists, Big-Government liberals, and even sympathizers with the notion of a totalitarian Islam Caliphate. Rather than disavow their acceptance of liberal governance, critics of the war routinely maintained that government funds being wasted in Iraq would have been much better spent on welfare programs and maintenance.

It's become a political truism that Libertarian opponents of intervention were missing-in-action during the Bush years - but really, that's far too polite. In reality Libertarians supported foreign intervention, as they often have. Not just passively, though they did that too - as when CATO repeatedly maintained radio silence on the issue to the point that even allies started criticizing them. And not just from the top down, though they did that too - as when CATO fired anti-interventionalist Charles Pena. Nope, they did it actively, and at the level of individual voters: for instance, supporting Bush against Kerry by an overwhelming 59-38 margin in 2008.

Does any of this mean that Libertarians aspire or intend intervene abroad?

Libertarians typically respond to these points by insisting that they were making pragmatic trade-offs to advance things they cared more about - supporting the Iraq War because Bush also promised tax cuts, for example. But that's not a counterpoint. Politics are about what positions you support in theory - they're about what trade-offs you actually make. You do not get to call yourself an anti-interventionist if every time the issue comes up you are willing, for whatever reason, to support intervention and oppose the people who oppose it.

This line of criticism holds across the board. There's an old joke on the left that Libertarians are just Republicans who want to smoke pot - but it's worth noting that they haven't been doing this by actually advocating legalization. For the most part, Libertarians have spent the last fifty years voting for the party that regularly uses "pot-smoking hippies" as a way to insult liberals. When they want to smoke up, they just do it, because they're privileged and they can get away with it. Sometimes, as Draper reports, they even brag about it in contests!

Ironically, the emergence of the modern Libertarian movement has mostly been an outcome of widespread acceptance of the liberal agenda. Left-wing opposition to war, discrimination and the war on drugs have been so successful that right-wing capitalists have had to accommodate to these realities. Far from representing a "purer" or "more-principled" version of Republicans, Libertarians are mostly Republicans who have capitulated to pressure from their left.

Predictably, the losers in this contest are now trying to re-write history and insist that they were the winners all along. Its the exact same revisionary move we see today among opportunistic Republicans trying to claim the legacy of the Civil Rights; their strategy may seem implausible now, but the Libertarian rebrand seemed implausible too - at first. When writers like Draper invoke these talking points without criticism, they quickly move from implausible to truism pretty fast.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Marxism and economic protest

A favorite game on the right is to point out how Capitalism's critics are often themselves implicated in the Capitalist economy. This almost always involves crediting Capitalism with modern technology - so the leftist who tweets from his iPhone, for example, is allegedly profiting from the exploitation of labor even as he decries it.

This is a popular line of attack since it's always at least tangentially relevant. Unless the critic is maintaining some kind of absolute Luddite existence in a shack built with a homemade handsaw, he'll be tangled in some way in the tentacles of the modern economy. The alleged hypocrisy is so sordid in its immediacy that it can derail absolutely any line of critique.

The Marxist, here, has a distinct advantage over the Liberal. Contrast their positions.

The Liberal argues that the evils of Capitalism can be mitigated through some combination of self-and-state regulation. Managers can practice ethical management; consumers can be conscientious consumers; and if all else fails, we can pass rules and regulations to impose some degree of order and humanity onto the system. Writ large, all of this is accomplished through the accumulation of individual decisions - in the board room, at the cash register, and at the polls.

In other words, the right-wing critic has a point. The Liberal can agitate for change and decry the evils of Capitalism all he likes - but to the extent that he is not fully exercising his franchise as a manager, consumer and voter, he is not playing by the rules of his own game.

The Marxist is in a different situation. He denies those rules from the very start and refuses to play by them. 

The economy is not dictated by the managerial discretion, consumer choice and democratic will of individual actors - not according to the Marxist. The situation is more complicated than that. And we can elaborate on those details if one likes, but here it's enough to simply point out that the Marxist does not believe that his personal decision to buy or not buy an iPod is what makes Capitalism work. Nor does he necessarily believe that Capitalism was even necessary for his iPhone to exist in the first place.

The Marxist may be mistaken in all of this, but as I wrote about last time, hypocrisy doesn't exist where the premise is in dispute. Unless the Marxist actually agrees with you that his personal consumer decisions matter, he is not acting in bad faith by proceeding as if they do not - he is merely, at the worst, incorrect.

Which is all to say that legitimacy of the Marxist's position has nothing to do with whether he owns consumer electronics or whatever, and everything to do with the substantive merits of his economic critique. The apologist for Capitalism can't escape that question with the Marxist as he can, to Liberalism's shame, with the Liberal.

Monday, August 4, 2014

How hypocrisy works

Jesse Myerson got robbed yesterday. Right wing bozos have taken this misfortune as their opportunity to make two points:
  1. JM is a hypocrite for criticizing private property rights and theft
  2. JM's beliefs, which allow him to consistently criticize both property rights and theft, are BS
Both accusations are dumb for reasons spelled out ad nauseum elsewhere, but here it's enough to point out that they happen to be completely at odds.

JM believes that the collectivization of private property is not a form of theft. Insofar as he believes this, we should expect him to criticize private property while simultaneously condemning theft. That is the logically and morally consistent expression of his belief.

There is nothing hypocritical about any of this, as maintained in point one. It may be a naive or illogical or incoherent or dumb position, as maintained in point two, but that is different from the allegation of hypocrisy. One can obviously act in perfect consistency with a flawed belief.

This is pure kettle logic. It's what happens when you oppose a position first, and then come up with reasons to oppose it.

Friday, August 1, 2014

What Orwell would actually say about "political correctness run amok"

If George Orwell taught us one thing, it's to be wary of "political correctness". That's one of the few aspects of his legacy that liberals and conservatives invariably agree upon, even if they disagree over who he was criticizing. (See: West, Krugman)

It seems to me, however, that we might have cause for suspicion when the two ruling ideologies of our age both try to vilify the same phrase to make it mean the exact opposite of what it actually says.

The point of calling something "politically correct," of course, is to declare that it is actually politically incorrect. Conservatives object if I use the word "actor" to refer to a woman, because I am incorrectly neutering a gendered noun for the sake of an incorrect feminist agenda. Liberals object if I refer to their agenda as "class warfare," because it is correctly understood as egalitarian benevolence towards all classes.

All of this makes sense if we understand the phrase "politically correct" as sarcasm. But does anyone ever call something "politically correct" in earnest? Does the phrase still have any literal meaning? Can we still argue that something is in fact politically correct? I'm not so sure. Consider today's Washington Post:
The Flaggers group was formed a few years ago after the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond removed Confederate flags from the Confederate memorial chapel on its grounds, and the city of Lexington banned the standards from city light poles. Group members are frustrated by what they see as political correctness run amok, and they frequently bring their banners to protest at sites where flags have been removed.
Note the phrasing. The author, Susan Svrluga, could also worry about "too much political correctness", or "over-the-top political correctness", or "political correctness on a rampage", and so on. But that's not the phrase, is it? We refer to "political correctness run amok" instead of "out-of-control political correctness" for the same reason that we refer to "out-of-control spending" instead of "spending run amok" - because these are canned phrases, and one is supposed to use them certain ways, but not others.

Another possible variation: "Group members maintain that is is politically incorrect to ban the Confederate flag." This phrasing is both literally true and extremely unlikely for the same reason that other versions were unlikely: one simply doesn't write it that way. No one alleges that something is politically incorrect by calling it politically incorrect. In fact, if Svrluga phrased it that way, the reader might conclude that the Flaggers support banning the Confederate flag. Bans are so politically incorrect! What a righteous defiance of groupthink and political convention, to ban the Confederate flag!

It is not surprising that canned phrases like "political correctness" should be so difficult to rationally parse - that is in fact precisely what Orwell says we should expect:
[Modern writing] consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else...By using stale metaphors, similes, and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself...You can shirk [scrupulous writing] by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you -- even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent -- and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself. It is at this point that the special connection between politics and the debasement of language becomes clear.
Calling something "politically incorrect" is a way of smuggling in the premise that one's idea is only opposed on the basis of popular orthodoxy, and that the very act of disagreement demonstrates a brave and admirable commitment to the truth. It suggests that political insight is more about resisting public opinion than considering to it; it fetishizes contrarianism and heterodoxy at the expense of sympathy and consensus. None of this needs to be explicitly argued for; simply splicing in the phrase does it all.

"In our time," Orwell writes, "political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible." How better to do this today than to call something politically incorrect?

Not an argument against democracy

Okay, democracy has been suspended. Meh? ...Evil bureaucrats bribed, stole, and swindled Detroit into utter ruin. It seems inhumane to me that anyone could think this result was what city residents deserved as long as some chunk of them cast ballots authorizing it on behalf of everyone else. What about all the people who didn't approve of their city government's criminal dealings?
This is mostly inane except for one curiosity - Soakes clearly thinks he is making some kind of provocative, radical argument against democracy.

In a functional democracy, we would expect the democratic minority to be critical of democratic outcomes. They should think it unfortunate that the majority prevailed, and should maintain that their interests have been compromised against their will. All of this is exactly as it should be. None of this is a critique of democracy - it's a demonstration that democracy is working precisely as it should.

Soakes, of course, would maintain that his assessment happens to be correct. But even if true, how would this demonstrate that "democracy isn't worth saving"? How does this instance function as an indictment of the entire system?

There are venerable and legitimate critiques of democracy to be made, most involving deontological minutia or expansive utilitarianism. There's even a standard Libertarian critique to be made alleging the relative efficacy and minimal coercion of markets.

No one is expecting a decisive treatise from Robby Soaves, but it should be obvious that the case against democracy isn't even minimally or hypothetically made by smugly pointing a finger at Detroit. It's difficult to distinguish this kind of I'm-sure-totally-subversive rhetoric from the general grievance of every democratic loser there will ever be.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Kazembek and fascist "socialism"

Putin's "Russian Spring" politics have roots in the ideas of early-twentieth century fascist Alexander Kazembek, Pavel Pryannikov writes for Tolkovatel. Paul E. Goble provides a gloss in English here.

One thing I find striking about Kazembek is how clearly he illuminates the historical relationship - or rather, the opposition - between fascism and socialism.

On one hand, Kazembek praises the Bolsheviks for overthrowing the "rotten", decadent Romanov regime; he admires the Bolshevik consolidation of power, culminating in the autocratic rule of Stalin; and he traffics in populism and extreme ethnic nationalism, idealizing the Russian people and hoping to (somehow) ground state power in their unanimous will.

On the other hand, Kazembek evidently does not contemplate proletarian control of the means of production. Goble proposes that Kazambek advocated "a combination of Russian autocracy and Bolshevism," but this is not quite what Pryannikov says and the formulation is misleading.

As Nicholas Hayes writes in the Slavic Review, "the strange career of Kazem-Bek is of interest as an overt case study of a Russian chavinist who ascribed the politics of the radical Right to the Stalinist regime". Kazembek's monarchist movement was attracted to Stalin, but only insofar as it could "ascribe its values, including an antipathy to bolshevism, to Stalinism."

Two points to note here. First, Kazembek's politics demonstrate that the Soviets did not exercise a monopoly on the currents of authoritarianism and ethnic nationalism prevalent in early twentieth century Russia. On the contrary, those are the factors that seem to set his movement apart. Kazembek only idealized Stalin insofar as Stalin was a totalitarian ruler; they broke precisely where Stalin aspired (earnestly or otherwise) to place power into the hands of the workers.

In this light, Kazembek is much closer to Hitler than Stalin. As Hayes notes, "Kazem-Bek had praise for Nazism as one of the torches of the national revolutionary movement elevating the military ethos in European civilization, ending Communist anarchy, and upholding the supremecy of the white race." They mostly differed, it appears, on who the standard-bearer of the white race would be: the Germans or the Slavs.

Understood as a kind of Russian Hitler, Kazembek throws the contrast between his German counterpart and Stalin in sharp relief. Kazembek admired both insofar as they exemplified powerful, realpolitik triumph over the impure and decadent establishment. His opposition to Hitler and alliance with Stalin was exclusively a matter of ethnic-national solidarity. He echoed the populist rhetoric of Hitler, but to the very limited extent that Stalin moved beyond rhetoric and allied himself with democratic socialism, the two were openly at odds.

In this regard, the relationship between Kazembek and Hitler mirrors the relationship between Putin and American fascism. You see this in the strange ambivalence of many Republicans towards Putin - beneath the national rivalry, a current of admiration for Putin's power, and a resentful appreciation of its exercise against the international left.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Did the Libertarian magazine Reason publish holocaust denials?

Mark Ames at Pando has uncovered a 1976 issue of Libertarian flagship publication Reason featuring multiple notorious Holocaust deniers and multiple instances of Holocaust denial. Unsurprisingly, Libertarians have labored to dismiss this discovery as somehow not absolutely horrific.

Have they succeeded? Consider the rapid-response piece penned by Reason editor-in-chief Nick Gillespie: Did Reason Really Publish a "Holocaust Denial 'Special Issue'" in 1976? Of Course Not.

The headline telegraphs a basic problem: Gillespie, on his own terms, has failed to address the most damning criticism. The 1976 issue published multiple Holocaust deniers and multiple instances of Holocaust denial.

This is true however we characterize the issue itself - as a "holocaust denial special issue" or whatever. It's true even if we don't think the Libertarian movement is "a hotbed for pro-apartheid Holocaust deniers who slavishly do the bidding of David and Charles Koch" etcetera. Unfortunately for Libertarians, it's true no matter how much Ames sensationalizes it, and no matter how implausibly Gillespie sensationalizes Ames. It turns out that a 1976 issue of Reason featured multiple holocaust deniers and multiple denials of the holocaust.

Does anything Gillespie say impeach this most damning allegation? His counterpoints, in turn:
  • Reason recently celebrated the legalization of marijuana
  • Reason covers instances of police brutality
  • Reason thinks George W. Bush was a socialist
  • Libertarianism is catching on, even with the lefties
  • Ames is a bad journalist
  • Left-wing academics are skeptical of establishment history narratives
  • The 1976 issue also talked about other things
  • The American left is skeptical of the Koch brothers' role in modern politics
  • The Koch brothers have been heavily involved in promoting Libertarianism
  • Reason won some journalism awards
  • Reason promotes a Libertarian agenda, and maybe you won't agree with all of it, but maybe you'll find some of what they write interesting, and also Mark Ames sucks
Suffice to say that none of this actually contests or even diminishes the fact that Reason published multiple Holocaust deniers and multiple instances of Holocaust denial. I have, of course, skipped one crucial sentence:

Ames is correct that some of the contributors to that issue developed an interest in or were fellow travelers with that most pathetic area of study known as Holocaust revisionism or denialism.

This isn't really a counterpoint, either.