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8/24/14

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:



























8/14/14

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.

8/14/14

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?"

8/12/14

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.

8/10/14

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.

8/4/14

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.

8/1/14

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?

7/28/14

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.