The Political Animal

The Revolution with No Name

delalibWhen it seemed to some at the end of the Cold War that we had also reached the end of history, more than ever, every act of rebellion and revolution seemed cause to celebrate an elevated human spirit. After a long winter of merely staving off an enemy’s further success, now freedom was rising with people uprising, and cheer was in the air. We got, relatively peaceful and colored (orange and rose), revolutions and “springs” that sprang of the hope – so richly did the sap of it rise in great municipal squares around the world – that all that is necessary to topple tyranny is for good people to yearn in multitudes together in city centers, suffer only small losses against brutish police while their uplifting cause is broadcast to the world via iPhone and tweeted the encouragement of the well-fed and meaning.

Hold, now, candles up to the night, under music, for the next inspiring Apple or Nike commercial.

Nothing could stop universal liberation now.

Except as it turned out, lots of the colors faded, and the springs were either false or soon broken, which many people, it seemed, failed to notice. More begin to now.

The course of revolutions was never swift and sure, glorious or quickly final. There were counter revolutions, restorations, and failed republics, great dictators along the way before decades might cast a shadow of the original dream. The promise of the French Revolution was not soon borne out: eighty one years passed between the storming of the Bastille and the final establishment of republican government never again to depart.  Three quarters of a century after the Russian Revolution waited the collapse of Soviet barbarity and then Yeltsin on a tank  just to deliver, so far, ninety-three years later, Vladimir Putin on horseback.

The American Revolution stands more and more exceptional, especially for those who make Exceptionalism the currency of their daily political barter and harangue, though not so exceptional that many of the same won’t pretend that all it requires is a freedom agenda and a perpetual footing for war to spring the world’s restive and aspiring masses, properly watered, into the same colorful bloom.

For many, after Iraq and Afghanistan and those departed springs, it could be Syria that has taken so much the bloom off that rose, though there was Iran in 2009 before it. The right’s interventionists predictably made the failure of that revolution Barack Obama’s failure, though never a credible case was made by never a soul that a president’s greater public encouragement of the “Green” revolution would have led to anything other than the same dismal end with many more dead in the street.

Somewhere now in the consciences of some, not in those of others, arises amidst the inspired freedom calls also the moderating memory – the recollection, in the moral vision of King, that while, he hopefully told us, the arc of history bends toward justice, it is in the first place long. What is it that we provoke with our policies and acts, our encouraging words and cheers, and how, most importantly of all, have we prepared not others, but only ourselves to face what it is that we invoke in the world?

What do we invoke in the world? American troops still in Iraq and not to leave Afghanistan even after thirteen years if some would have their way. The same people would have led the U.S. to enter – oh, let us not argue for the moment over just how – the Syrian civil war. They wanted us, too, to be “all Georgians now” in 2008, when Russia sent troops into South Ossetia and Abkhazia. And now there is Ukraine, hotter by the day, with Venezuela just a little on the back burner. North Korea, too, there is always the threat of North Korea, and if, likely, no negotiated settlement is reached with Iran over its nuclear program – just how many air campaigns, missile strikes, policing actions, proxy wars, full-fledged attacks, and all out wars do the impassioned eminences of American imperial militarism believe the United States can conduct at once or in just a decade or two, after a decade or two, without inflaming the world and putting the torch to America’s own democracy?

What is neither reasonably nor honorably, which is not to say  uncontested about Ukraine:

  • that Victor Yanukovych was the most corrupt of oligarchs and a malleable instrument of Russian imperial policy
  • that Russia’s invasion of Crimea is both illegal and unjustifiable.

Still, it is so that not many conclusions necessarily follow from these truths.

From the start there have been divisions over the identity and nature of those behind the anti- Yanukovych protests, with Timothy Snyder in The New York Review of Books and Steven Cohen in The Nation prominent opponents pitting freedom-loving liberals against the right wing nationalists the Russians want to cast as fascists. Snyder does not have to be wrong for Cohen to be partly right. Not all American revolutionaries were Tom Paine and Alexander Hamilton. Some retained their monarchical tastes. And do we not receive our very terminology of political right and left from the French Revolution? And did not the Bolsheviks out maneuver a host of competing and more moderate parties during the Russian Revolution? A revolution is never one thing.

Going back to the 2004 Orange Revolution, the evidence of Ukrainian liberal leaning toward the West is clear enough, particularly in the western Ukraine. The problem of Ukraine 2014, whatever the Russians say, is not who is behind the uprising, but what the West thought it was doing in Ukraine and what thought it gave to what the Russians would do when the West did it. The evidence is that what the Europeans and the U.S. thought they were doing was far too simple minded, and that barely a competent thought was given to what the Russians would do.

One does not have to be Henry Kissinger, characteristically unmindful of moral considerations, not to be James Kirchik, treating geopolitical fault lines as cause for a modern crusade on a high horse to the New Jerusalem. One need not be Kirchik to know which side acts more, in King’s words, to uplift human personality, or Kissinger to know when acts are better guided by the possible. The world is not remediated by zealotry.

The most telling words of anyone, by far, in these events were uttered by Vladimir Putin himself when he finally spoke to the public.

I think they sit there across the pond in the U.S., sometimes it seems … they feel like they’re in a lab and they’re running all sorts of experiments on the rats without understanding consequences of what they’re doing.

This striking observation reveals much. First, for the man who in the past year has emerged as the American right’s latest master strategist, the personal resentment – what should not guide the policy of master strategists – is palpable. Second, the words nonetheless confirm what many on the right have already charged – that Putin holds Obama in contempt. Third, Putin is right. The conclusion of amateurish fooling around in Ukraine, without “understanding consequences of what they’re doing,” is escaped only through partisan rationalization.

But a greater understanding of the mistakes here escapes both Putin and Obama’s home front critics. When all those EU diplo-  and technocrats were luring Ukraine toward membership, and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland, declaring the EU could get fucked, was picking and choosing who should govern Ukraine after a successful rebellion, it was not, clearly, just the Americans who were wearing lab coats. And it was not the Obama administration, but many of its current critics, before this administration, who have publicly desired all these years to bring the “defensive” lines of NATO right to the borders of Russia, about which the Russians were expected to think what – “Oh, we know, you’re the good guys, we shouldn’t worry”?

Steven Cohen has been infuriated by his own critics calling him a Putin apologist – and why should anyone so intimately connected to The Nation ever be considered tainted by anti-American apologetics – yet it is true that one can, without Cohen’s soft sell of Putin’s autocracy, understand matters from a Russian perspective. It is what fundamentally competent strategists do, and what is required to be done if one wants actually to accomplish a strategic goal and not simply posture about it before the alter of world-historical righteousness.

What stretch of imagination is required to recognize that Putin would not perceive Nuland’s and all the others’ lab set ups benignly? Nuland et al. may envision themselves as no more than traveling preachers tending to their flock’s greater yearning for nearness to democracy, but how much empathetic projection is needed to intuit that Putin, or any Russian leader, would likely see them as outside agitators firing up the flock, stirring up trouble in his own neighboring parish, about which, it just so happens, he cares a little and has an interest? How much geography and history must one know to recognize the significance of Ukraine to Russia? Or that Crimea, once, in 1954, in very different times, literally given to Ukraine for Soviet administrative and political purposes, would not now, seemingly pick-pocketed from Russia’s geopolitical hip, be simply given up with a shrug and a smile? “Oh, well, you win this time. Come back at ya with Mexico when I get a chance.”

Unsurprisingly, entreaties to true believers that they try reversing roles have been facilely dismissed. The U.S., they insist would hardly, in contrary circumstances, invade and annex part of Canada. The easy reply to that easy claim is that, no, obviously, the United States is not Russia. To whom other than rankest of crank extremists on either end of the political spectrum does that case need to be made? Less facile is to wonder just how obvious it is that the United States would not act similarly. American interventions in behalf of national interests are a twentieth century historical marker. Had the Canadian or Mexican governments been toppled during the Cold War by Marxist leaning street protests, how hard is it to conjure the frenzied calls, particularly from the right, for American action? In fact, the United States has maintained possession of Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba, occupied by treaty signed under the duress of colonial domination, even as the internationally recognized government of Cuba has for more than fifty years protested that continued foreign occupation. Once the American Civil War was over, the U.S. began covertly to supply arms to Juarez in Mexico, in opposition to the French-installed Emperor Maximilian. The 1823 Monroe Doctrine declared that European interference, not in a neighboring country, but anywhere in the Western Hemisphere would be considered “manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States.”

None of this is to argue an equivalence between the United States and Russia. These commonalities alone create none such. Rather it is to hold out Russian interest in Ukraine as obvious and its response to events easy to have anticipated. That Putin would seek to regain Crimea, which had long been part of Russia. That he might opportunistically lie in wait for eastern Ukraine. That no election in May will invalidate the license Putin feels now even more strongly, as has the West all along as well, to work clandestinely to shape the future of whatever Ukraine will remain. Still, unprepared for the response so far, Western voices rail against it as a behavioral outlier.

When freedom agenda crusaders, particularly, rail so obviously about how good we are, and how bad is the autocrat of the day, they despoil statecraft with a simplistic Manichaeism. In this mode of thinking, Putin knows he is bad – chooses to be bad, like Satan in rebellion against God. He mentally spurns and is rejected by the goodness he recognizes and that in a better world would have been his. His opposition to “us” is thus a kind of private wound, a closely nurtured insufficiency that justifies itself in devilishness, while all the while he actually knows just how bad he is.

This is a misunderstanding of personality at its core.

While it is standard operating procedure to identify all of Putin’s lies, which, of course, are many, identifying Putin particularly with lying exhibits just that core misunderstanding. The autocrat is not fundamentally a liar, but a bullshitter.

Telling a lie is an act with a sharp focus. It is designed to insert a particular falsehood at a specific point in a set or system of beliefs, in order to avoid the consequences of having that point occupied by the truth. This requires a degree of craftsmanship, in which the teller of the lie submits to objective constraints imposed by what he takes to be the truth. The liar is inescapably concerned with truth-values. In order to invent a lie at all, he must think he knows what is true. And in order to invent an effective lie, he must design his falsehood under the guidance of that truth. On the other hand, a person who undertakes to bullshit his way through has much more freedom. His focus is panoramic rather than particular. He does not limit himself to inserting a certain falsehood at a specific point, and thus he is not constrained by the truths surrounding that point or intersecting it. He is prepared to fake the context as well, so far as need requires.

Regarding Ukraine, we see that Putin does more than simply lie, in the claim, for instance, that uniformed troops in Crimea without insignia are not Russian, which no one believes: greater, he fakes the context of Ukraine entirely. The authentic individual lie is meant to deceive, to be mistaken in the greater context for the truth. Bullshit, however, is intended to confuse, so that the truth disappears. This is what all autocrats intend, the vanishing of the truth beneath the panorama that is their vision of the world – the extension of their own egos. The truth that is manifest in history is that autocrats believe in what they are doing.

To strategize against the likes of Putin, then, one must work with that understanding, along with historical and geopolitical fundamentals. From that perspective, there is no question of the autocrat’s commitment to negotiations as a matter of preferred principle, some shared belief that talking together,  regardless of conflicting interests, is always preferable to conflict. The autocrat will employ – as Assad has done – Mao’s policy of fight, fight, talk, talk until one way or the other he gains as much as possible of what he wants. (And, yes, the date on that linked article about Iran is 2005, under the Bush administration, not 2014.)

Effective negotiations against the autocrat will have two characteristics. They will offer the autocrat a less costly, limited win more easily achieved than through other means, and they will deliver to democrats their own limited win that blocks any near-term further success by the autocrat through continued conflict or subterfuge. Absent that second characteristic, democrats will have been outmaneuvered, as the U.S. thus far has been outmaneuvered on Syria, where a failure even to come close to meeting the February 6 deadline for the removal of all chemical weapons has been allowed to pass with barely comment from the Obama administration, let alone action of any kind. At the same time, the administration had a vision of Syrian peace talks, but, astonishingly, apparently believing that Assad actually wanted to talk, rather than use the talks to delay, had no strategy for the talks whatever beyond the idea of them. And now there is the distraction of Ukraine.

Contrary to the belligerent harangues of American militarists, however, the West and the Obama administration have not been outmaneuvered because they – really, the U.S. – are not prepared to shake a militant fist at every trouble spot and throw punches often. They are adrift because they had no coherent strategy either to accomplish the kind of end they sought in Ukraine. Obama has a proper global vision for the twenty-first century – a U.S. that resorts to military action only rarely, in vital or self-defense, and no longer multiple times a decade in vestigial Cold War defense of imperial interests, no longer in bearing the burden of ill-conceived humanitarian interventions on behalf of everyone else,. There is, too, the belief that in time, centers of power and concern will shift to Asia. All this is good, but it is a partial geo-strategic position, not a plan for getting there. Not a plan, most of all, for how to act in long term consonance with a part of the nation’s vital self-definition: a great democracy standing unselfishly, yet with a mature understanding of historical development, in support of democracy for all nations.

One senses that Obama embraces such a national self-definition with very great, truly conservative reserve. Thus he has no regional and global strategy for playing this role, and was as unprepared as were the Europeans for the entirely foreseeable response of Putin, who quite reasonably, by his lights, took developments in Ukraine as aggressive meddling in his interests. The militarists will assert that they are advocating the aggressive resolve that won the Cold War. But for all the necessary military preparedness, Western success in the Cold War was ultimately a holding action in which one side outlasted the inner contradictions of the other. On a contrasting track, with the exception of Korea, nearly every coup, proxy war, or semi-proxy war the U.S. fought during the Cold War was just as ultimately a disaster, for the U.S., the third nation involved, or both.

It is probable that a long end game in Ukraine would have been no different with planning than it may be now: re-absorption of Crimea into Russia, with some or all of the remainder of Ukraine, amid continuing contention with Russia, aligned now toward the West. Adequately prepared, with continuing contention thus perhaps moderated, and with all the pro forma legal and diplomatic objections to the Russian annexation of Crimea, Ukraine might have been successfully framed as a win for democracy – because it would have been, as it still may be – rather than as a crisis.

To avoid careening from one crisis to another, however, a clearer vision of future roles is required. The militarist American right will prefer a long continuation of the United States’ Cold War imperial leadership. That self-destructive vision needs to be dimmed. However, inadequately, Obama’s presidency came at the right time finally to begin to turn those lights out. More, though, is needed. Some clearer articulation of a more sharply defined strategy is required by a center-left neither committed to defining the American role via military action nor allergic to the legitimacy of it. A coherent expression of the international role of democracies in the twenty-first century must be formulated. An evangelizing freedom agenda is simply cold warriorism without the defensive rationale. It is a formula for endemic and destructive global conflict, which is an occurrence in nature sufficient to need no assist from the laboratory coats. Still, democratic nations cannot be expected in their intercourse with other nations not, by their very nature as democracies, to give expression to the character and promise of political freedom. They cannot be expected not to share their knowledge of this freedom and its rewards with those who seek it. But we must always understand what we are doing when we do so in any given context, with what chances of producing good rather than harm to those we hope to help, and to even more around them. We must consider how it advances a larger project, or retards it. We must consider the conflicting interests of others, and we must do it without the kind of righteous arrogance that produced during the Cold War, in Graham Greene’s words, a self-delusive American innocence of good intentions, in Vietnam, that was “like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.”

Essential to any new strategy will be a significantly elevated role for Europe and other democracies. Europe particularly has enjoyed a nearly free ride on the American people and their economy for over six decades. One strong expression of American leadership can be leadership to end that state of affairs and to bring mature democracies more fully into actively funding and engaging the defense of freedom. Another will be a recognition that the United Nations has run its course. It is exhausted as an instrument of assertive and effective action in support of the many supreme paper principles it has enunciated over its life. It is used by the worst tyrants in the world, through cynical manipulation of ideal expressions and exercise of institutional powers, to thwart actual amelioration and change in the world, such as what might have been possible in Syria without the veto power of Russia and China. It is time to start on the long course of superseding the United Nations with a new Global Union, in which the extent of a member nation’s institutional role is determined by a measure of its actual adherence to organizationally expressed principles of democratic practice and human and civil rights.

That would be a freedom agenda too, and the beginnings of a plan to help the many future Ukraines the world and history still has to offer.


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The Political Animal

A Second Look: Abraham Lincoln on the “Mud-Sill” Theory of Labor

The movement to increase the minimum wage, and to tie it legislatively to the cost of living, is growing. The obscenity of low-wage employment among adults – full-time employment that does not offer a living wage – is increasingly apparent. As Arindrajit Dube pointed out in The New York Times:

the evidence suggests that around half of the increase in inequality in the bottom half of the wage distribution since 1979 was a result of falling real minimum wages. And unlike inequality that stems from factors like technological change, this growth in inequality was clearly avoidable. All we had to do to prevent it was index the minimum wage to the cost of living.

The other day on FOX News, Megyn Kelly, another rising voice in the chorus of American conservatism that is clueless and callous about the real lives of people, replied dismissively of Wal-Mart workers protesting their low wages: “Get another job.”

The simple moral-economic calculus in that throw away wisdom is this. If you have the ability, the preparation, and, of course, the gumption to raise yourself up in life, you can get that other job. You will be what America enables you to be, and all you can ask of it. If you not have those qualities (established only by your inability to get that other job, but even if – this is crucial – you do not, in fact, have those qualities), well, then, you deserve no more than that job that does not pay a living wage. And do not, too, look to food stamps for help, or nationally provided healthcare.

What that latter scenario amounts to is the “mud-sill” theory of labor. Here is what Abraham Lincoln had to say about it, last offered here on the sad red earth on March 7, 2011.

“Free Labor,” from Abraham Lincoln – in Wisconsin

Abraham Lincoln, in his so far unending prescience and wisdom, actually offered some thoughts on the nature of labor and capital in of all places Wisconsin – at the annual meting of the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society, in Milwaukee, on September 30, 1859. A brief passage from it, bolded below, is quoted often and can be found in the most unexpected places (about which, tomorrow). Lincoln later reused this passage in in his first State of the Union Address, of December 3, 1861, where, as in 1859, he very much had slave labor in mind in contrast to free labor. Relevant to today, nonetheless, is how Lincoln conceived the nature of free labor, in itself and in relation to capital. It impressed Teddy Roosevelt (another “Republican” today’s GOP can only cite in fellowship as an act of desperate grasping for forebears of greatness) that he, too, cited Lincoln on the subject.

The world is agreed that labor is the source from which human wants are mainly supplied. There is no dispute upon this point. From this point, however, men immediately diverge. Much disputation is maintained as to the best way of applying and controlling the labor element. By some it is assumed that labor is available only in connection with capital, that nobody labors, unless somebody else owning capital, somehow, by the use of it, induces him to do it….

But another class of reasoners hold the opinion that there is no such relation between capital and labor, as assumed; and that there is no such thing as a freeman being fatally fixed for life, in the condition of a hired laborer, that both these assumptions are false, and all inferences from them groundless. They hold that labor is prior to, and independent of, capital; that, in fact, capital is the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed — that labor can exist without capital, but that capital could never have existed without labor. Hence they hold that labor is the superior — greatly the superior — of capital.

We know that current Republicans do not believe this, that contemporary conservatives openly consider workers (who, if organized, are maggots) to be “tools” of capital and those who direct their labor. Lincoln goes on to include in his consideration what is perhaps the essential American conservative ideal of the nation – the prospect of individuals freely, from their labors and their own faculties, rising above their station in life.

They do not deny that there is, and probably always will be, a relation between labor and capital. The error, as they hold, is in assuming that the whole labor of the world exists within that relation. A few men own capital; and that few avoid labor themselves, and with their capital, hire, or buy, another few to labor for them….Again, as has already been said, the opponents of the “mud-sill” theory insist that there is not, of necessity, any such thing as the free hired laborer being fixed to that condition for life. There is demonstration for saying this. Many independent men, in this assembly, doubtless a few years ago were hired laborers. And their case is almost if not quite the general rule.

In the “mud-sill” theory, individuals are destined to play an unchanging role, hold a fixed status, in the nation’s economic and social life – no “anyone can join the ranks of the wealthy.” That is not the America ideal, the defining individualism of the country, so, as Lincoln characterized the attitude then, as conservatives will still claim it, the deserving advance in life; those who don’t are not deserving.

The prudent, penniless beginner in the world, labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land, for himself; then labors on his own account another while, and at length hires another new beginner to help him. This, say its advocates, is free labor — the just and generous, and prosperous system, which opens the way for all — gives hope to all, and energy, and progress, and improvement of condition to all. If any continue through life in the condition of the hired laborer, it is not the fault of the system, but because of either a dependent nature which prefers it, or improvidence, folly, or singular misfortune.

That there continues to be opportunity in the United States for some of talent, initiative, hard work, and good fortune to advance far from where they began in life is indisputable. Many people will know of someone who has, and that knowledge, that case, helps maintain the ideal. But is it possible to say of the United States created by Reagan and the Bushes and the conservative and “trickle down” ascendancy of the past thirty years, and in the decline of organized labor, as Lincoln said, that

Many independent men, in this assembly, doubtless a few years ago were hired laborers. And their case is almost if not quite the general rule.

Anyone who knows the economic facts of the the past three decades cannot say so in honesty or without shame. Lincoln framed his observations in detached exposition of the ideas of others, but he found a clever way to make his position known.

I have so far stated the opposite theories of “Mud-Sill” and “Free Labor” without declaring any preference of my own between them. On an occasion like this I ought not to declare any. I suppose, however, I shall not be mistaken, in assuming as a fact, that the people of Wisconsin prefer free labor, with its natural companion, education.

We need to recognize that for Lincoln here, “free labor” is not just in contrast to slave labor – it is labor by which people can express and advance their freedom through labor, and not be trapped and used always as “tools” and “mudsil,” what Republicans today would make of all but the very few who can still overcome the increasing obstacles set before them.

It being Lincoln, he managed to end a prosaic address on a loftier level.

And by the successful, and the unsuccessful, let it be remembered, that while occasions like the present, bring their sober and durable benefits, the exultations and mortifications of them, are but temporary; that the victor shall soon be the vanquished, if he relax in his exertion; and that the vanquished this year, may be victor the next, in spite of all competition.

It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: “And this, too, shall pass away.” How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! — how consoling in the depths of affliction! “And this, too, shall pass away.” And yet let us hope it is not quite true. Let us hope, rather, that by the best cultivation of the physical world, beneath and around us; and the intellectual and moral world within us, we shall secure an individual, social, and political prosperity and happiness, whose course shall be onward and upward, and which, while the earth endures, shall not pass away.


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The Political Animal

A Second Look: James Madison & the Tea Party

The current government shut down over the Affordable Healthcare Act speaks directly to issues found in the nation’s beginnings. Among the many ironies of Tea Party foolishness is that while its adherents are enemies of federalism and shape minor deities of the nation’s founders, the nation’s founders very purposefully opted for federalism. This post from February 2011, about Federalist paper No. 10 considers James Madison’s clear and famous thoughts about political “factions,” the “aggregate interests of the community,” and the “rights of large bodies of citizens.”

James Madison and Madison, Wisconsin

300px-FederalistConservative deification of the Founders regularly overlooks their choice – in a constitutional, federal government over the prior confederation – of stronger, more centralized national government. In argumentative recourse to the Federalist Papers, conservatives neglect, as history does, the Anti-Federalist Papers. The Federalists won the day. It was their constitution, with the addition of a Bill of Rights, that was passed.

James Madison’s Federalist No. 10 is famous for its consideration of factions, or as we call them today, “special interests.”  Of course any interest not universally held is a special (in the sense of having a limited constituency) interest. Any interest one does not like is termed a special interest.

Complaints are everywhere heard from our most considerate and virtuous citizens, equally the friends of public and private faith, and of public and personal liberty, that our governments are too unstable, that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties, and that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority. However anxiously we may wish that these complaints had no foundation, the evidence, of known facts will not permit us to deny that they are in some degree true. (Emphasis added)

When Madison refers to “public…liberty” he is citing a concept traceable to Spinoza and more immediately to Hume. Constant would later distinguish public from personal liberty as “The Liberty of Ancients Compared with that of Moderns.” The latter is what we think of as individual civil liberties, the former as systematic political liberty, in the American case, as Madison saw it, republicanism. The distinction is often overlooked, and the two are not inseparable. A benevolent monarch or philosopher-king could grant personal liberty in the absence of public liberty.

By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community. (Emphasis added)

How can we ensure public liberty if some faction “whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole,” or more clearly “by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority” act “adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community’? Observer that in Madison’s concern for public liberty he includes the “aggregate interests of the community” – a phrase that would elicit from contemporary conservatives and Republicans cries of “socialist” or worse.

As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves. The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government. From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results; and from the influence of these on the sentiments and views of the respective proprietors, ensues a division of the society into different interests and parties. (Emphasis added)

Madison acknowledges natural disparities in the faculties (not innate worth) of men in acquiring property (wealth) and upholds the purpose of government to protect this individuality. He also attributes to these disparities what can be seen as the equally natural “division of the society into different interests and parties.”

The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts. But the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views. The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation, and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of the government. (Emphasis added)

James Madison, Hamilton's major collaborator, ...
James Madison, Hamilton’s major collaborator, later President of the United States and “Father of the Constitution” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Contemporary conservatism hails inequality of outcome. It is the hard dictate of nature. The American dream, sold wholesale, retail, and on street corners is that since anyone may raise himself by his natural faculties and character to a favored position on that scale of inequality, any moderation of it is a limitation placed on his or his offspring’s prospects. If one has not the faculties, well, such is life, and people are encouraged in principle and at the pulpit to be kind. But Madison – that Founding Father, giant of the Federalist Papers –  rather than sanguine about the unequal distribution of wealth, tells us that “[t]he regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation.” That’s legislation that regulates the “interfering interests” that flow from the unequal distribution of wealth.

No man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause, because his interest would certainly bias his judgment, and, not improbably, corrupt his integrity. With equal, nay with greater reason, a body of men are unfit to be both judges and parties at the same time; yet what are many of the most important acts of legislation, but so many judicial determinations, not indeed concerning the rights of single persons, but concerning the rights of large bodies of citizens? And what are the different classes of legislators but advocates and parties to the causes which they determine? Is a law proposed concerning private debts? It is a question to which the creditors are parties on one side and the debtors on the other. Justice ought to hold the balance between them. Yet the parties are, and must be, themselves the judges; and the most numerous party, or, in other words, the most powerful faction must be expected to prevail. (Emphasis added)

Almost all Americans are workers, their labor determined and directed by owners or managers (the latter of whom, too, are mostly workers subject to a comparable subordination in a hierarchy), and their subsistence, employment security, health, pursuit of happiness, and last years subject in quality not only to the gains of their own abilities but the will of employers and the employment market. The rights, the benefits – in personal and economic wellbeing – of these workers represent the “aggregate interests of the community.” The element of public liberty, that mechanism of the republican system, that can regulate the interfering interests produced by inequalities of property, wealth, and economic power in society is the labor union. James Madison could not have anticipated on November 22, 1787 that these inequalities of wealth and power in a nation two hundred years into the future could reach such staggering proportions – that what he conceived as majority factions of number could be replaced by a stupendous majority in dollars.

For they are the economic interests of the nation’s wealthy – with the Koch brothers in the forefront – and their political centurions, like Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, that for three decades have steadily sought the destruction of organized labor and stalled the economic progress of the multitude of Americans, while the inequalities of wealth Madison wrote of have grown. Now these interests set “taxpayers” against “government workers,” but what are the overwhelming number of taxpayers but workers of any kind, and what are government workers but taxpayers? But many worker/taxpayers have been led to see that illusory dichotomy as a critical factional divide: when they should be seeking the advantages of government workers and resenting the greed of the wealthy, they have been lured into fantasizing about wealth and resenting the advantages of fellow workers. Those who do not have pensions and healthcare are divided in enmity from those who do, and those who have almost everything play the two against each other like cocks in a ring. One is left done on the ground while the other gets to peck and claw another day. And the oligarchic power of Wall Street and big business only grows.

It is in vain to say that enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust these clashing interests, and render them all subservient to the public good. Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.


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The Political Animal

The State of Surveillance

God knows your calling patterns. God knows your friends on Facebook, your pages liked, your rants and your dissenting comments. More – and better than the NSA or FBI – God knows what you think.

Or, if there is no personal God,  if that term is just a word made of letters – G-O-D – then what we refer to by the word but that does not exist does not know all these things about us.

The fact is, though, that we do not know which of these states prevails. Are we divinely surveilled by an all-knowing being, all our sins and virtues, our decencies and transgressions known, or do we retain the secrecy of our private, individual, and fallible selves? As long as we do not know, we can pretend what we wish, believe what pleases us, until the day may come, if it ever does, that we have cause, like Job, to say,

My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.

This blind living in the state of surveillance, the surveillance state, provides the story of ultimate import arising from the NSA PRISM and data mining revelations. There are other, related stories deserving of attention, but all of them are iterations of what will further be repeated in our human future whatever the outcome this time around: acts of conscience or betrayal, bad journalism, demagoguery. For too many public voices, however, these subsidiary if genuine subplots have become a distraction from the greater story. They have allowed their perspectives on terrorism or counter-terrorism, on the leaker and the reporters, and on the ideological tendencies these all represent to skew their perception of the significance of technological surveillance in human development.

For some, the prime role of the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald in reporting the story and cooperating with leaker Edward Snowden has determined their view. If Greenwald helped break the story and if any elements of his work and conduct are questionable, then the story itself is first suspect, then readily dismissible. If the story arises from Greenwald’s anti-American animus and programmatic terrorist apologia, then a story, calling into question the sweep and nature of the U.S. counter-terrorism surveillance is fatally tainted.

Greenwald justly produces a level of antagonism among his foes equal to the moral shoddiness and intellectual dishonesty of his work. But the import of the story is independent of his motivation and any mistakes he may have made in reporting it. Greenwald remains an ongoing story in his own right, but the animus toward him should not distract us from greater concerns.

Then there is Edward Snowden and however much the surveillance story can be tainted by tainting him. The Greenwald, Wikileaks, and hactivist elements and sympathizers have crowed about how defenders of secrecy would try to destroy the messenger, for displeasure with the message and the messenger’s allies, and they were right. The effort was immediate and has been relentless.

Snowden did not help himself, certainly. Whatever convenient educational and social deficiencies he offered for the better educated and more established to sneer at and belittle, Snowden might have stood tall and dignified above all his critics had he done only one thing – had he revealed himself at a press conference in Washington D.C. with a lawyer at his side and declared himself righteously prepared to make the case for his actions, in defense of the democratic and constitutional system before which in good faith he would now submit himself. We have, in our civilizational memory the example of Socrates as first precedent. In our national memory, so recently, we have Martin Luther King, Jr.: the enactment of conscientious civil disobedience. Yet it is striking how few of those styling themselves as Snowden’s more cultivated betters even raise this single determinant of a person’s conscience. But we live in a time of so much preening conscience and much less redeeming conscientiousness – conscience without conscientiousness – that so few think how they might place themselves preemptively above assaults on their character, whatever the attacks on their choices.

So Snowden did not behave as the exemplar from whom we should take too serious instruction, and now, over the weekend, there is news via Snowden from the South China Morning Post of NSA spying on Hong Kong and Mainland China and again via Snowden from the Guardian unremarkable but embarrassing news about spying on then Russian President Medvedev while he was in England. Snowden has now unequivocally passed from any claim to protector of American civil liberties to, like his Guardian sponsor, active opponent of the U.S.’s legitimate national security activities.

This now is Edward Snowden’s story, and it, too, will unfold wrapped in folds of sub-plots and counter narratives. But he also is not the greater interest we should have.

Another distracting vein has been the assertion by some that there is, in fact, nothing new in these so-called revelations. These ho-humers dig up a news account from here or there, from six or eight years ago, and say, see – we knew all along, or should have. If we had read the USA Patriot Act, we would have known what was going on.

Nothing to see here. Move along.

These are, at the same time, oddly defensive and retaliatory arguments. At once they seem aimed at defending the government from charges of extraordinary or improper activity – even as government officials are daily claiming that national security has been harmed by revelation of what was not previously known – just as they seem aimed at discrediting the reporting as hype. Neither suggests a clear and proper focus on the deeper issue. It little diminishes the implications of such pervasive surveillance to argue that the citizenry should have gotten it before.

What’s the matter with you? Weren’t you paying attention? Too late. No makeup exams.

Let those who wish argue about the meaning of a phrase in five-year-old news articles or on an NSA power point. Let them bicker about a technical protocol and whether it was previously known. Part of the danger of technology is the confusion of its expertise for deeper knowledge or even wisdom. There is a bigger picture here, and to that picture too we received a contribution this weekend, from the AP: Secret to Prism Program: Even Bigger Data Seizure. What is a major source of this bigger seizure? The undersea cables that carry so much internet and teledata and that the NSA requires no FISA permission to tap.

The government has said it minimizes all conversations and emails involving Americans. Exactly what that means remains classified. But former U.S. officials familiar with the process say it allows the government to keep the information as long as it is labeled as belonging to an American and stored in a special, restricted part of a computer.

That means Americans’ personal emails can live in government computers, but analysts can’t access, read or listen to them unless the emails become relevant to a national security investigation.

The government doesn’t automatically delete the data, officials said, because an email or phone conversation that seems innocuous today might be significant a year from now.

What’s unclear to the public is how long the government keeps the data. That is significant because the U.S. someday will have a new enemy. Two decades from now, the government could have a trove of American emails and phone records it can tap to investigative whatever Congress declares a threat to national security.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has compared this to a vast library of books and, redefining the word “collect,” has argued, in defense of the charge that he has already lied to congress when denying that the NSA “collects” data on Americans:

To me collection of U.S. persons’ data would mean taking the book off the shelf and opening it up and reading it.

Consider some parallels. With or without a warrant, government or law enforcement representatives enter your home and collect, that is, gather up and take away items from your life and store it. They do not, they claim, look at it. Would you not consider the government to have pried into your life and collected information on you? The government might not then view and process the information, but it has, of course, collected it by every normal meaning of the word, unless you are a government official engaged in the kind of dissimulation government officials engage in to cover up lies. More – most vitally – this information is now in the government’s possession. Officials may claim that there are rules they would have to follow to access that information – to take that book off the shelf – but two options of personal autonomy are now foreclosed to you: any real meaning to your grant of assent to view the information (they already have it) or, in extremis, even to resist the “collection” of it (they already have it).

Imagine this scenario, analogous to the telephony metadata collection. Via multiple legal means, including the basic security camera that is beginning to record us everywhere no less than NSA intercepts, government agencies record the activity to and from, in and out of, every physical address in the United States, both of physical mail and of people. No attached record is maintained of who lives or works at these addresses, but for untold years, the interconnecting movements between these addresses are simply recorded.

The records go on a “shelf.”

Good people, otherwise smart people are assuring the public of the safeguards built into these processes, as if history, including recent and very contemporary history in the U.S. itself, is not replete with violations and abuse of the public trust in security matters. The Church Committee was only short of forty years ago. Just six years ago there were revelations of massive FBI abuse of the post 9/11 National Security Letter process.

One can believe ardently in, and argue with great coherence for, the necessity and moral legitimacy of counter-terrorist espionage and surveillance activities and still recognize the magnitude of the moment and the deep consideration necessary as we face it. Some slopes are actually slippery: what is required in the warning is some evidence of the accumulating ice.

The worst responses to the civilizational transformation that awaits us are the stupid-blasé and the conventional-cynical. Of the former, we have this example from Chez Pazienza.

It isn’t because you never know who’s watching you. It’s because everyone is watching you. You’re always under surveillance. Everyone is connected to the social media hive mind. Whether you’re jacked in yourself, by yourself, putting your own information out there for all to see, or the person next to you is commenting on what’s going on in his or her general vicinity and you just happen to be a part of the action, you have no expectation of privacy anymore.

You can let this paralyze you. You can let it make you crazy. Or you can let go.

You have no idea where the guards of this prison are or how many of them there are at any one time. But you always know they’re there. You have no idea exactly who’s watching you. But you know you’re being watched. That’s the Panopticon.

But if you don’t know who’s watching, whether it’s the NSA or the guy sitting across the street from you on a date, is it really that big a deal? Remember: distance and ignorance. Widen the scope big enough and far enough — make the eyes invisible — and who really has time to care?

Let go. Let it wash over you. Enjoy it. The matrix is fun. Who needs bodies? Who needs reality? (And hey, man, what’s reality anyway? Know what I mean?) If everyone is watching you, it’s like no one is –get it? While their eyes were watching God, God snoozed.

Until he wakes up.

Somehow, under much more low-tech surveillance, the minions behind the Iron Curtain did not discover such a bearable lightness of being. Pazienza, it appears, is ready to love Colossus.

Of conventional thinking, always ready to dismiss the extraordinary development or solution, outside of any equivalents of the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, you will find no greater repository than government officials and their establishment political journalist compeers, who are often prone to consort with conventional thinking’s evil twin, cynicism. Those who do not are prone to think as if the dysfunctional, striving liberal topia that is the United States of America is the end of history, and other than the GOP trying to roll back abortion rights in state legislatures and reconfigure Jim Crow, nothing calamitously degenerative can ever happen to American democracy until, one presumes, the Sun burns out.

It would do well to remind, then, that in the aftermath of 9/11, when government security professionals felt challenged by the demand to imagine the threats we might face, they turned, of all places, to Hollywood. Or look back at the record of diplomats and science fiction writers and check who has had the better record of anticipating what the future would deliver, especially through technology.

We have been called on the plane to look out the window, and even it was by some guy from a Twilight Zone episode, there is frost on the wing. It’s time for deicing.


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A Second Look: What About Chas Freeman?


Whenever they become topically relevant, I am going to offer a scond look at some older pieces still worth reading. Yesterday, the anti-semitic Mondoweiss blog reposted a recent speech by Chas Freeman at A National Interest discussion about “Israel’s fraying image.” I do not link to Mondoweiss, but you can find Freeman’s comments at his own site, here. My interest is less in these particular comments of Freeman, of a piece with longstanding attitudes toward Israel, than in his decision to permit them to be published on Mondoweiss. The fact that Mondoweiss has an inexcusable respectability in some left quarters diminishes not at all its true and readily apparent nature or the disgrace of affording it that respectability. No doubt, however, it is that cover that comforts Freeman in emerging that much further out of the dark recesses, in the manner of “The Uncanny John Mearsheimer.” In this context, I think it worth revisiting how Chas Freeman, long a foreign policy establishment hand, first came brightly into the public view, and how, and the many ways, he revealed himself, not just on Israel, but in the context of the Arab world and, very significantly, China. This post first appeared on May 16, 2009.

What About Chas Freeman?

Maybe the most bitter inside Washington fight of the year was little known to the general public because it received scant attention from the mainstream media. However, while newspapers and television news nearly ignored ex ambassador to Saudi Arabia and China hand Charles Freeman – put forward by Dennis Blair, Director of National Intelligence as President Obama’s choice for Director of the National Intelligence Council – Washington insiders and the blogosphere fought another Mid-East war over him.

Supporters were many, in government and also in the  journalistic ranks, including The Atlantic’s James Fallows, Time Magazine’s Joe Klein (Jewish, as were some other supporters) freeman-chas-saudi-arabiaand top blogger Andrew Sullivan. The primary argument in favor of Freeman was that he is a “contrarian” – an outspoken proponent of ideas that challenge those of the foreign policy establishment, including, most prominently, wouldn’t you know, those of the “Jewish lobby” and its supporters. It is crucial, the argument went, in moving past the Bush years, that the U.S. break free of its “lock-step support” of Israeli policy and “return” to a position of “even handedness” that it is purported the U.S. held prior to the Bush years and the ascension of the neo-conservatives.

Opponents were many, too, perhaps most prominently Senator Charles Schumer of New York, but also Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and a range of human rights supporters – supporters of Israel and the NGO Human Rights Watch as well. Supporters of Israel pointed to Freeman’s cozy relationship with Arab despots, his one-sided view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and his suggestions – against all evidence – that 9/11 had been a response to U.S. support of Israel. Pelosi, Human Rights Watch and others focused on comments about the Tiananmen Square massacre that were critical of the protesters and strikingly sympathetic to China’s rulers.

However, many supporters – Sullivan for instance – were determined to make the issue the always subterranean influence of the “Jewish lobby,” and they scoffed at any argument against Freeman that, in their view, pretended that the “campaign” against Freeman was anything other than an attempt to maintain Jewish influence over American foreign policy judgments. Sullivan, who won this past year’s Weblog award as the Web’s top blogger – and previously generally sympathetic to Israel – has chosen, post Gaza, to beat his drum of pernicious Jewish influence over U.S. foreign policy like a new toy, and would see nothing but that influence in the Freeman controversy.


Ultimately, Freeman withdrew from consideration for the post, but not without releasing a broadside demonstrating the kind of reckless extremity of view that worried his opponents from the start. “The tactics of the Israel Lobby,” he charged, “plumb the depths of dishonor and indecency and include character assassination, selective misquotation, the willful distortion of the record, the fabrication of falsehoods, and an utter disregard for the truth.” He went on to further lambaste “a Lobby intent on enforcing the will and interests of a foreign government” rather than those of the United States, raising the specter of a Fifth Column.

wrote briefly about the imbroglio at the time and was spurred to some further comment yesterday by the surprising news of former Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang’s smuggled memoir of Tiananmen and his fall from power. Zhao’s perspective offered such a striking contrast to that of Freeman. A reader replied (see the comments section at right) suggesting I didn’t know what I was talking about: “You might want to be a little more inquisitive about the quotes attributed to Charles Freeman about Tiananmen.” He also offered the standard defense of all those who explore their mouths with their feet (but never of those whose words have been praised) that they are the victim of misquotation and “inaccuracies.”

This is all part of the divergent post-mortems of the affair competing with each other to survive and evolve into history. Some points, then, about Freeman are worth making. First, if a major part of the opposition to Freeman came from supporters of Israel, nothing about his exit from the scene gave the lie to their concerns. It is one thing to disagree with Israeli policies, as I have always opposed Israel’s settlement policy; it is another to evince obvious hostility of the kind that those who rail against the “Jewish Lobby” almost always do. It is another, also, to express sentiments so peculiarly deranged that the radar of anyone about whose people the words were spoken is bound to blare “Danger, Will Robinson!” while supporters of the vocalist are compelled to contort themselves in order to achieve a position of defense.

In my April 6 post I cited Freeman’s Jewish Daily Forward phone interview of March 25, 2009 in which he said of Israel:

It’s a foreign country, and while maybe 40 years ago many of its values were convergent with ours, I think there’s been a divergence of values.

How very bizarre. I mean – aren’t they all foreign countries? Why apply this adjective particularly to Israel? Yet here “foreign” does seem to suggest something more fundamentally “gut” in nature for Freeman, as in something “alien,” something to which one uncomfortably cannot relate. More foreign than Saudi Arabia? Than China? Than Iran? Israel, whatever its flaws, is a democracy, a nation governed by the constitutional rule of law, with universal suffrage, equal rights for women and, like the U.S., expanding gay rights. It is fully a product – politically, culturally, and socially – of Western civilization, just as is the United States. But somehow in contrast to those nations just mentioned, and score of others, it is from Israel that we have experienced a “divergence of values”? Asked in the clearest and most direct way possible – What the fuck is Charles Freeman talking about?

A careful reader can’t help but wonder – what or who over the history of Western civilization has been so much of that civilization, yet cast repeatedly as somehow antithetically alien to it, “foreign” in it, divergent in values? Really. Again.


Nonetheless, and despite the desire of Freeman supporters to make the matter all about Israel, the other criticisms of Freeman – and an essential one fundamentally ignored – are just as cogent.

Supporters everywhere praised the “contrarian” in Freeman, which, once the range of his views and expression became known, felt a little bit like grasping for the warm milk to help the castor oil of crackpot loose cannon go down. However, when you get past the contrarian veneer and the anti-Israeli bias in almost every sentence that, for many, the “contrarian” garb was meant to dress up (yes, so he credits the remarkable talents of the “European” founders of Israel – and Shaquille O’Neal is very tall), what you find, in truth, is a man temperamentally aligned to the preservation and exercise of state power. It is one thing to possess the practical virtue of being able to see circumstances through the eyes of a contestant or adversary – a quality for which Freeman was much praised; it is another, Stockholm-style, to begin to see things, in fact, as does the adversary.

In Freeman’s much discussed 2006 US-Arab Policymakers Conference speech, the Palestinians are barely mentioned. Israel, alone, for good or ill, always ill, is considered the determining actor in events. Who else, we might ask, sees the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in that way? And in the same speech, Freeman uses, with apparent naturalness and ease, the word “rulers” when referring to the heads of the GCC states rather than “leaders” or “heads of state” or some other, republican or democratic nomenclature that might come more readily to the tongue were these individuals anything other than, in fact, despotic rulers. But this fact does not restrain Freeman’s encomiums or the intimacy of his wise counsel, as the essential democratic nature of Israeli society, in contrast to the nature of the Arab states or the Palestinian parties, shows no influence on his judgment making.

The equally much discussed remarks about the Tiananmen Square massacre reveal the same temperamental affiliation with state control and order. The “unforgiveable mistake” of the Chinese rulers was that they had been too cautious. This phrase is couched in terms of a description of the “dominant view” in China, but it is clear that Freeman agrees with it and he terms it a “very plausible” view. (Read the entire email for yourself here.) However, “For myself, I side on this — if not on numerous other issues — with Gen. Douglas MacArthur. I do not believe it is acceptable for any country to allow the heart of its national capital to be occupied by dissidents intent on disrupting the normal functions of government, however appealing to foreigners their propaganda may be” [emphasis added].

To be clear, it is Freeman’s historical judgment that the Hoover-MacArthur directed attack on the 1932 “Bonus Army” – hardly the U.S. government’s proudest hour – was correct, and a model for future government action by a democratic government toward aggrieved and protesting citizens. The Chinese leadership, he says, had engaged in “dilatory tactics of appeasement” with the protesters. The protesters’ aspiration to liberty he characterizes as “propaganda.” And, to the point, it is not “acceptable for any country to allow the heart of its national capital to be occupied by dissidents intent on disrupting the normal functions of government” – that is, Freeman makes no distinctions as to a government’s inherent right to rule. The United States in 1932, China in 1989, a democracy, monarchy, authoritarian regime – it makes no difference in the consideration of a government’s legitimacy in opposing and crushing the incipient popular will of its people.

“I cannot conceive of any American government behaving with the ill-conceived restraint that the Zhao Ziyang administration did in China.” Note that it is Freemancharacterizing  Ziyang’s restraint as “ill-conceived.”

What Freeman pretends is a “realist’s” descriptive analysis of events is easily detected as a belief in the state’s – any state’s – imperative and right to maintain civil order, i.e. the condition for its continuance in power, regardless of the nature of the state or its rule and without any consideration to the political program of those who might oppose that state. The protesters at Tiananmen are reduced to, and belittled as, “exuberantly rebellious kids,” and Freeman is “aware of no evidence that Chinese currently consider their government less ‘legitimate’ or worthy of support than Americans do ours.” (Read this full email here.) This claim about general popular acquiescence to the rule of the existing government undoubtedly applied at the time of every native rebellion against the British Crown, as well as that by the American colonists, and the uprising against Louis VI. By Freeman’s “realist” and “contrarian” lights there would have been no Magna Carta and no American and French Revolutions.

Given this political alignment to power and “realist” disregard for the apparatus of democracy, it is no wonder that Freeman so easily operates without consideration to the essential difference in political nature between Israel and its enemies. “Even-handedness” that willfully ignores the differences between the adversarial parties has become again a fashion of the day – as in the foolish argumentative cry heard far too often after 9/11 that one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter – and this is a fashion that suits Freeman’s amorality perfectly. But contrarian perspectives are one matter; consistently unsound judgment contrary to the spirit of democracy is another.


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Israel The Political Animal

The Hagelian Dialectic


This commentary first appeared in the Algemeiner on January 4. Today, President Obama announced his nomination of Chuck Hagel to be the next Secretary of Defense.

The Chuck Hagel trial balloon has been aloft for weeks now, not to burst or land – since its lofting was never officially acknowledged – until either he or someone else is officially nominated for Secretary of Defense. What conclusions may be drawn without tendentiousness?

Above all, we see a pattern, oft repeated, of charge and counter charge between supporters of Israel and critics of Israel and American policy toward Israel, using the same language each time, making similar tenuous accusations and identical unsubstantiated claims. It is a fake dialogue – because no genuine interchange is intended – that cannot reach a synthesis because on neither side is the true, greater argument sufficiently the focus of attention.

In detail, first, even if one is both a strong supporter of Israel and of President Obama, even if one is generally admiring of the President’s foreign policy and holds no doubt of his commitment to the security of Israel in even the ultimate circumstances, nonetheless, the weakest part of that foreign policy has regarded Israel. About Israel, the President has demonstrated the tinniest of ears and spoken with the most recurring hiccups. Even if, ultimately, he nominates someone other than Hagel, the very idea that Obama considered him will have served only to foster greater mistrust among the already mistrustful.

Gil Troy, writing at Open Zion, has done the best, most balanced writing on this subject. Perhaps overstating the case in both directions, Troy has nonetheless noted a schism in the President’s foreign policy inclinations, between McGovern and Kissinger.

The question of where Obama stands regarding Israel has often pivoted on this deeper question of which Obama shows up when doing foreign policy. His conjuring up of an American-Muslim heritage in Cairo, his dithering before supporting Iran’s Green Revolution, his historically sloppy comparisons between Palestinians and African-Americans, and his occasional “tough-love” approach to Israel, all expressed his inner McGovern—revealing how a position that appears lovely and idealistic often becomes morally myopic. But supporting Israel militarily, endorsing Israel’s defensive war against Hamas missiles, and backing Israel in the U.N., have all expressed his inner Kissinger—sprinkled with a dash of nobility and idealism worthy of Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

Given Obama’s difficulties with the Jewish community, some unwarranted, others clearly created on his own, and there being no upside to a Hagel trial balloon and even greater downside to his actual nomination, one can only wonder, “What was he thinking?”

Second, there has been excess, as there often is in these cases, in the reaction to Hagel. Once again, the dispute has been unnecessarily and uncertainly personalized and driven by identity politics.

Let us observe, as the evidence seems clearly to suggest, that Israel and even Jews hold no special place in Chuck Hagel’s human sympathies and affections. So? How much does any randomly chosen American, Israeli, or Jew care about Ghanaians? Or the Aymara Indians of Bolivia? Everyone need not care all that much about Jews or Israel. That does not make anyone anti-Israel or even an anti-Semite, even if the occasional politically incorrect, clumsy locution escapes his lips. Yet as is often the case, some Jews and other supporters of Israel have responded to an unsympathetic political actor like Hagel with tenuous charges of animus and even anti-Semitism. This serves only to focus the debate on identity politics and group influence rather than on profound and outstanding principles.

The outstanding instance of this tendency occurred where such misbehaviors can be frequently found, somewhere in the vicinity of Bill Kristol, whether at the Emergency Committee for Israel or The Weekly Standard, which early headlined the threat of an anonymous senate aid,

Send us Hagel and we will make sure every American knows he is an anti-Semite.

The ugliest manifestation of that quote, beside its anonymity, is the charge of anti-Semite brandished as black mail threat: no honest commitment to exposing anti-Semitism just on its virtues, but only as a threat of character assassination to gain the upper hand in political warfare. Proud work, that – work that honestly earns the counter-charge of “smear” otherwise flung so carelessly and ignorantly by Israel’s programmatic Western foes.

However, in any widespread contention, there will be people who behave badly. There is no party discipline in public debate. The greater empirical truth is that such cheap resort to name-calling has been relatively rare, and most of it, if one investigates, from minor figures. Troy in his own searches discovered what I did, that when searching the Internet for “Chuck Hagel” and “anti-Semite” what one finds in overwhelming abundance are links to writing objecting to Hagel being called an anti-Semite rather than the few mostly unknown figures who have actually called him that.

This leads to a third point in detail – the nature of the response, whenever these affairs arise, from those whose program it is to criticize Israel and object to American support of Israel. First, they will decry the influence of the Israeli lobby – influence and support they wish they had themselves. Second, in the manner of the arch smear monger himself, Glenn Greenwald, they will accuse critics of someone like Hagel of smearing him, when they themselves have little understanding of, or concern for, the easy distinction between a smear and a criticism. Third, in the most extraordinary cases, such as that of Charles Freeman over three years ago, and now Hagel, portions of the foreign policy and journalism establishments will rise in defense of their now current standard bearer – this last even when, as now, it produces the incongruity of firm liberals providing very weak evidence in support of a very conservative figure they would otherwise vigorously oppose.

That incongruity, however, points us to that true, greater argument that should always be the focus in these debates, not the question of Jews and who loves them or hates them, or whether “they” have too much influence. Chuck Hagel did not need to be the second Jewish senator from Nebraska. One need be no anglophile to recognize England as a proper ally, or sacrifice one’s peeves with the French to know we would back them, again, against an intolerant aggressor. No less the South Koreans, the Aussies.

In his recent series of posts on Hagel, Steve Clemons of the Atlantic posed the following questions to a collection of experts almost universally supportive of Hagel’s foreign policy views on Israel:

Others argue that Hagel has been supportive of Israel’s interests but in a way that doesn’t make a false choice between Israel and Arab states and doesn’t compromise core US national security interests.  Do you think his views on US-Israel relations are disturbing, unconstructive and disqualifying?  Do you believe that Hagel is an enemy of Israel?  Or do you find his views, if you are familiar with them, constructive and realistic takes on US-Middle East policy?

These are all the reasonable or currently relevant questions to ask.

The suggestion itself that there is a “false choice” between Israel and, generally, the Arab States is the essential reason – and not philo or anti-Semitism – that Hagel is the wrong choice, and the defense of him mistaken. Is there a false choice between democracy and autocracy? Between modern liberalism and, often, medieval religious fanaticism? Is the there a false choice between the Enlightenment and a belief in the personal integrity of the individual – in human and civil rights on the one hand, and on the other, nations whose cultures frequently remain infected by misogyny, homophobia, and the vilest forms of anti-Semitism? The very idea that fundamental alliance with either Israel or the Arab states presents a false choice, and that such are the terms on which defenders of Hagel might offer their defense is reason alone to reject his nomination. Was it a false choice between Western Europe and the Soviet Bloc? Between South and North Korea? Kosovo and Serbia?

There is, indeed, an American foreign policy culture that has long excused the sins of the Arab world and minimized its stark differences from the Israeli state. They have had their economic or cultural reasons, or a commitment to foreign policy “realism.” But there is no reason that supporters, not only of Israel, but of all those Enlightenment and liberal democratic virtues should welcome as Secretary of Defense a man who in his policy stances has not sufficiently recognized the stark differences in this choice, or who garners his defense from others who similarly fail to recognize them.

When we hear spoken the idea that support of Israel might “compromise core US national security interests,” we must ask how it compromises US security interests to align the nation always with liberal democracies against undemocratic and repressive states. When, in the history of the United States, would anyone advocating for a cabinet position have wished to argue that the U.S. had been wrong, and had compromised core security interests by supporting allied democracies against surrounding undemocratic, repressive, and intolerant states that threatened them? Should we not now be supportive of Poland against potential threats from Russia? Australia against a terrorizing China? Which advocates of American foreign policy would deem these “false choices”?

All of these questions culminate in the proposal by Clemons that Hagel’s views might constitute “constructive and realistic takes on US-Middle East policy.” Realistic and constructive to oppose terror designation for Iran’s Revolutionary Guard? To oppose urging the EU to designate Hezbollah a terrorist organization, as the U.S. has done? To oppose economic sanctions on Iran, leaving only the choices of either, ultimately, armed conflict or dangerously naive faith in the possibility of negotiated settlement without coercive influence?

It is easy to argue that Hagel misperceives the nature of contending forces in a crucial geopolitical area. His advocacy of ending sanctions against Cuba is empirically well-founded. His refusal as a senator to acknowledge the Armenian genocide (facing none of the practical exigencies of a president, perhaps, to demur), suggests a similar realism ill-founded in a commitment to historical truth and humane international values, and this curiously aligns him in the current uproar with elements of the left critical of Israel for supposedly inhumane treatment of Palestinians. But then foreign policy realism contradictorily married to an agenda other than self-interest will always produce contradiction. Thus many Israelis and supporters of Israel had no difficulty criticizing the Obama administration for not fully supporting the Mubarak tyranny even in the face of a full popular uprising against it – even as Israel rightly touts its commitment to democratic values. Thus many on the left now run to the Republican Hagel’s defense – even as they oppose nearly everything else for which he has stood.

It is not only easy to argue that Hagel is wrong on Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; a strong and coherent argument can be made, on the historical evidence and the merits, that his misperception of the Middle East has broader implications worldwide. The argument can be made on its merits. To support Israel is to support democracy and liberal values. To support Israel against the repressive, intolerant, and often inhumane regimes that have hatefully and violently sought to destroy it even before its birth is to support all the virtues for which the American and Western democracies are supposed to stand – for which Western and American liberals are supposed to stand. The choice could not be starker, the implications in a post 9/11 world could not be bolder, the failure of vision through the wrong choice could not be greater.

What those committed to a wise and broad American foreign policy vision need care about is that nominees for foreign policy positions share this vision.  That is the ground, the honest and sufficient ground on which the battle should be fought. All the rest is a distraction or a cynical manipulation to other ends.


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The Political Animal

The End of American Democracy


A dissenter will call it hyperbole, an opponent hysterical, some of its targets sensational. We will all or we will not find out – any of us today, I mean, for confirmation may take far longer to receive than the length of our short lives. Rome, you know, word is, was not built in a day, but it did not decline in a day either. Likely, there was no Roman in 290 CE who felt the shift, a start in the earth’s movement or a diminution of the light, and said, “This is the moment,” even though Rome would not be sacked until 410 or Romulus Augustus deposed until 476. The Eastern Roman Empire survived another thousand years, and no doubt its leading lights thought not that a fall had occurred but only the inevitable transformations, in continuity, over time. Which is to say that such a “fall” is really a matter of understanding, not an event – an insight, a recognition, a knowledge acquired that historical developments have left more behind in their occurrence than whatever may have been gained.

I say the election of Mitt Romney to the Presidency, if it occurs, will be that moment for the United States, when the shift could be felt if one cocked one’s head to attune for the vibration. I say it for two reasons. One reason is the programmatic effect on the American nation that Romney’s policies will have, both in representing the values and policies of the contemporary GOP and in extending the “Reagan Revolution.” The other reason, more emblematic, is what it would mean that such a man as Mitt Romney could be elected to the Presidency and that he could be elected in the manner by which Romney will have gained the office.

Of course, there are those to the left and right, different from those who would belittle what they think my excess, who will snort their contempt at so late a recognition. For them, the neoliberal corruption, and the plutocratic charade – the fundamental capitalist crime – were committed long ago, or the opposing loss of our liberty to the unchristian alien socialist hordes suffered just as far back in time under a conspiratorial eye of providence. These contradictory contentions are the curse of unruly democracy – the perpetual confusion of claims with conclusions, of intricate phantasms with arguments. The speaker’s corner of the public square is the think tank for loopy autodidacts and distempered experts. In a healthy system, the vocalizing of these crackpots and agitant spirits demonstrates the breadth and depth of our liberalism. But what Mitt Romney will lead, should he come to lead it, will be no healthy system.

What a Romney presidency will finish, especially were it to extend to two terms, as most presidencies do, is the comprehensive reversal of the liberal American polity that has its roots in the presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, and that was firmly established by Franklyn Roosevelt. By the time Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society seemed to cement that liberalism into the bedrock of the nation, the reaction against it that has ruled the country since was already mounting toward the Reagan presidency.

As I wrote in “From the People Who Brought You Richard Nixon & George W. Bush,” when considering the historic significance of the Richard Nixon win over Hubert Humphrey in 1968, from 1968 until Barack Obama’s election in 2008, Republicans held the presidency for 28 out of 40 years. Were Romney to defeat Obama and serve two terms, those numbers would extend to 36 of 52, an overwhelming preponderance and duration of Republican presidential power lasting more than half a century. The only domination in the history of the country exceeding it is the 72 year period from 1860 until 1932 – from the election of Abraham Lincoln to that of FDR – when Republicans held the presidency for 56 years against the Democrats’ 16 years (counting Andrew Johnson’s term as a continuation of Lincoln’s). This was the period that made the New Deal necessary.

For this era of GOP domination the numbers are everywhere available – I do not need to repeat them. The three decades of mushrooming income inequality, of wealth inequality. The stagnant wages for the middle class. The dismissal from pragmatic political calculation of any discussion of poverty. The sweeping assault on, and decimation of, organized labor. The increasing political rule, via unchecked lobbying power, judicial decision, and massive wealth expenditure of corporations. The bureaucratic government rollback of legislated environmental protections. The present open concentration – even as liberal America is pleased by the rapid advance in Gay rights – on undoing four decades of progress in women’s and reproductive rights. The conservative transformation of the Supreme Court that will extend this conservative reaction for decades past any end to its domination of the presidency.

Internationally, the United States has remained strategically unreoriented to the end of the Cold War. Over two decades after communism’s demise, the U.S. has retained the worldwide bulwark erected against it transformed into an uncritical and arrogant assumption of imperial right. Finally, President Obama has made the first genuine moves to alter this course in response to world currents. But Romney’s GOP would reassert the claims of unchecked American prerogative – confirming the claims of many of the nation’s critics – even in the absence, into another century, of a Cold War enemy.

After George W. Bush and with only a four-year Obama interregnum, a Romney presidency, at home and abroad, will produce a nation many of its inhabitants will neither recognize nor embrace as theirs. A hard truth is that in its moral pride the United States has been living off only a few very great accomplishments, beginning with its founding ideals and documents, for a very long time. The last of them, the American lead in winning the Second World War and in rebuilding Europe is now over six decades old. What followed, the resistance to the world communist movement was a moral, was a necessary struggle to engage, but in its countless lesser and greater particulars, was not remotely ennobling.

Any continuing claim to American Exceptionalism, residing not in nature or God, but in the enactment of national ideals, rests in the liberal social progress of the American twentieth century – a progress more than equaled by many liberal democracies. And this is precisely what the Republican Party, since Ronald Reagan and through the election of Mitt Romney, seeks completely to undo.

There is more, however.

Wise critics of democratic charades, with their dog and pony shows of free elections never again repeated – in Venezuela or Gaza or Russia, and of which, in fact, there is a horrific history – properly instruct us that democracy is not a single event, a performance of a script – but a spirit and a process, of repeated performance institutionalized and revered over time. To believe that, in the end, how one pursues and gains political power is separable from how one exercises it is a fool’s self-deception. It is a fool’s self-deception to believe that our democratic nature is untouched by a corruption of the republican spirit meant to adhere to a democratic process and the liberating enactment of free and genuine debate.

Against all this, Mitt Romney is the Orwellian candidate of Newspeak, of RomneySpeak. In RomneySpeak, Anti-Obama is pro-Obama. Opposition to unfettered reproductive rights is support for women’s rights. Advocating letting the auto industry fail was advocacy for saving it. Championing universal health coverage is demonizing it. Pro big business is pro middle class. Moderate is “severely conservative” is moderate again. War is peace. “Etch-a-sketch.”

Beyond the lies, however, and the complete absence of any authentic public identity and character (it matters not to the culture of the polis how much Mitt Romney loves his family and gives to his church), the willingness to say anything and alter his identity the way a snake shucks off skins, is the astounding reality that Mitt Romney has told us and shown us on every day of his pursuit of power exactly who he is. He has run for the Presidency of the United States like a wolf with a chicken feather sticking out of his mouth – and the farm hands all the families have relied on to protect the livestock – our self-important and self-satisfied political media – have thought it their meaningful work to marvel at his speed, analyze his stealth, and consider the odds of his making it into the main house without getting caught.

The sad truth is that while politicians as a class are cynical opportunists in the pursuit of power, the journalists who cover them make the same short sale of democracy for the modest reward of a little recognition and inclusion in the game. They have acquiesced to the cynical rules of the game, and beyond the casual obligatory nod to the game’s essential lie, they proceed to analyze policies they know are fake and dress political lies in the cover of acceptable tactics and strategy. When they should be blowing the lid off Romney’s whole, stinking long con of the electorate, they review it, instead, like legitimate theater.

It’s all a show, and everybody’s an actor, don’t you know. Grow up.

Mitt Romney did not invent political opportunism and evasion. The history of the political lie told in a handshake to gain a vote is the history of politics. But the merger of politics with lobbying and billion-dollar, third-party advertising and polling and consultancy and spinmeisters from Dick Morris to Frank Luntz, and all of those with journalists who cover them and consider their hands around the tables they now share has degraded the process and the outcome beyond all worthwhile democratic recognition.

The truth is captured in the final scene of the Mike Nichols film version of Primary Colors. In it, the Bill Clinton character offers the essential argument in defense of his career and of the fundamental dishonesty of the campaign process. It is all the “price you pay to lead,” he tells his young aid, who is still susceptible to conscience. “You don’t think that Abraham Lincoln was a whore before he was a President,” he argues. But once you’re President, he claims, ah, but once you’re President, “that’s where the bullshit stops.”

Then you can do good, because you are better than the others who would not stop bullshitting and would not do good, and you know you are different from those who would lie their way to power and then not do good because, well, you are you, and you know you would never bullshit the people, not when it really counted, not like when looking them in the eye at a news conference and shaking your finger, or on a witness stand contextualizing the presentness of the present tense – or when running for President of the United States in lying theft of every vote you gain.

Mitt Romney did not invent what he is, and, in part, it does not matter what his policies are. If he wins the presidency, he will have been what he is better than anyone who ever came before him. He will have gained the leadership of the greatest democracy the world has ever known on the basis of a complete fraud, by lying without restraint about not only his opponent and the nation, but about himself, who he is, and what he believes. He will have corrupted the very meaning of democratic debate and contest and rendered the process that gained him office a meaningless pretense from which the nation will likely never recover.




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The Political Animal

Blasphemy Is not Bigotry


The President has spoken (at the United Nations). People are praising what they think he got right and what he got not so right. (We ignore here today the people who think he gets most everything wrong. They get too much attention anyway.) On the issue of free speech stemming from the “Innocence of Muslims” video and the paroxysms of (I use the word mindfully ) mindless violence that have followed from it, some people – when they think that President Obama got it right – are, along with the President, wrong. Oh, the basic message about freedom of expression is rightfully stated in the usual way, but a crucial point is mangled and will remain the source of misunderstanding.

It all begins with a categorical misunderstanding. Most problems begin with categorical misunderstandings. (You heard it here.) It is the point I make in my most recent commentary at the Algemeiner, “‘Innocence of Muslims’ and the Faith Fallacy.” Faith doctrines are owed no special respect, and the continuing obeisance to the notion that they are deserving of special regard is, in reality, a source of ongoing conflict over them. This is not a claim derived from atheistic thought. It is an intellectual argument, which is the whole point: faith doctrines are intellectual claims, no matter the desire of adherents to sanctify them. They are due no greater respect than any other intellectual claim, and they are due respect only on their merits.

David Frum, no Obama partisan, cited in complement this passage from the President’s speech to the U.N.

The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam. Yet to be credible, those who condemn that slander must also condemn the hate we see when the image of Jesus Christ is desecrated, churches are destroyed, or the Holocaust is denied. Let us condemn incitement against Sufi Muslims, and Shiite pilgrims. It is time to heed the words of Gandhi: “Intolerance is itself a form of violence and an obstacle to the growth of a true democratic spirit.” Together, we must work towards a world where we are strengthened by our differences, and not defined by them. That is what America embodies, and that is the vision we will support.

Here is the President’s categorical error:

Yet to be credible, those who condemn that slander must also condemn the hate we see when the image of Jesus Christ is desecrated, churches are destroyed, or the Holocaust is denied.

Criticizing – even ridiculing – a religion, in argument or symbolically (desecrating an image of Jesus Christ) is not the same as denying the Holocaust. I am not privileging anything Jewish here. The Holocaust was an historical occurrence: it is a historical fact. Religious doctrines (and the symbols and figures that represent those doctrines) are not facts. They are sets of ideas. Disagreeing with, and even disdaining, an idea is not the same as denying a historical fact. This is simply a fundamental intellectual error, a categorical confusion, that President Obama has perpetuated in the desire to represent himself and the U.S. in a balanced, ecumenical manner. It would actually have been very easy to achieve coherently the balance the President sought, merely by choosing a symbolic representation (a Jewish Star?) of the Jewish faith rather than a historic calamity that befell the Jewish people.

Of course, the contextual incoherence of that intellectual coherence would have been the reality that unpleasant attacks against Jews are not made on the basis of their faith, but their being, as Jews. Holocaust denial is not a manifestation of intellectual dispute – it is a product of racial prejudice. Christianity and Islam and all the rest of the religions are doctrines and traditions, but not ethnic identities. Disagreement with or even dislike of Christianity, Hinduism, or Islam, however intellectually sound or unsound, is an adverse judgment against someone’s beliefs, not a bigotry against someone’s person.

Jeffrey Goldberg also responded to the President’s speech with some praise and some reservation. I know he fully agrees with me on the absoluteness of the principle. He even cites Hussien Ibish, who is very much to the point:

Blasphemy is an indispensable human right. Without the right to engage in blasphemy, there can be no freedom of inquiry, expression, conscience or religion.

You see the point? Blasphemy is not the blemish on free speech with which we must live. (You want that face? The pimples come with it.) It is the very essence of free speech. Goldberg demurred in a merely personal way:

Blasphemy, as Hussein Ibish argues, is an indispensable human right. I’m not much into blasphemy myself — I generally find it offensive. But as Americans, we are compelled to defend the right of any blasphemer to be an asshole.

This only half gets the point. The blasphemer may be an asshole. Manifestly, many non-blasphemers are assholes. But the blasphemer is not an asshole because a blasphemer. Blaspheming is the very root of disagreement. It is the original “no”: “no” spoken, no shouted, no painted on one’s forehead, no as even the way one lives one’s life. Every great mind is a blaspheming mind.   In the notion of blasphemy, the authoritarian dressed in priestly garb attempts to sanctify the secular (the idea become a faith), close the mind and crush the personality. Every dissenting mind, presuming to disagree, first, before the argument is even articulated, says, “No.” And freedom flourishes.

Blasphemy is not the bastard, the black sheep, the bad seed of freedom. Blasphemy is freedom.



The Palestinian Failure


Munib al-Masri

Some nations are lucky in their leaders. For decades now, academic historians have downplayed the significance of the leader – the “great man” – in the understanding of historical epochs and focused their attention elsewhere. Still, you cannot study the early American republic without renewed appreciation for the role of George Washington. How lucky was the U.S. again for Lincoln in his time, FDR in his, England for Churchill at the same time, Israel for David Ben Gurion. The French were not so lucky at the time of their revolution. The Palestinian Arabs, too, have had no Ben Gurion. They had Yassar Arafat.

A couple of weeks ago, Munib R. al-Masri, a storied figure among Palestinians and considered to be the wealthiest of them all, published an Op-Edin The New York Times. al-Masri is quite a moderate Palestinian, who is currently seeking a third way, beside the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, and trying to construct avenues toward peace with Israeli counterparts. Still, he must operate in the Palestinian environment created over the past sixty-plus years, and there are party lines he chooses to follow. He claimed, for instance, as the title of his Op-Ed read, in response to the well-publicized comment by Mitt Romney, that “Occupation, Not Culture, Is Holding Palestinians Back.” My point is not to comment on Romney’s observation, but al-Masri’s – that it is any Israeli “occupation” or other activity that has held Palestinians back. In fact, I don’t need to make that case. Seven years ago, in David Samuels’  lengthy “In a Ruined Country,” for the Atlantic, al-Masri made the case himself.

The money [Arafat] spent to buy the loyalty of his court, al-Masri gently suggests, could easily have paid for a functioning Palestinian state instead.

“With three hundred, four hundred million dollars we could have built Palestine in ten years. Waste, waste, waste. I flew over the West Bank in a helicopter with Arafat at the beginning of Oslo, and I told him how easy we could make five, six, seven towns here; we could absorb a lot of people here; and have the right of return for the refugees. If you have good intentions and you say you want to reach a solution, we could do it. I said, if you have money and water, it could be comparable to Israel, this piece of land.”

Samuels expanded.

For those at the top of the heap the rewards were much larger and more systematic. The amounts of money stolen from the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian people through the corrupt practices of Arafat’s inner circle are so staggeringly large that they may exceed one half of the total of $7 billion in foreign aid contributed to the Palestinian Authority. The biggest thief was Arafat himself. The International Monetary Fund has conservatively estimated that from 1995 to 2000 Arafat diverted $900 million from Palestinian Authority coffers, an amount that did not include the money that he and his family siphoned off through such secondary means as no-bid contracts, kickbacks, and rake-offs. A secret report prepared by an official Palestinian Authority committee headed by Arafat’s cousin concluded that in 1996 alone, $326 million, or 43 percent of the state budget, had been embezzled, and that another $94 million, or 12.5 percent of the budget, went to the president’s office, where it was spent at Arafat’s personal discretion. An additional 35 percent of the budget went to pay for the security services, leaving a total of $73 million, or 9.5 percent of the budget, to be spent on the needs of the population of the West Bank and Gaza. The financial resources of the PLO, which may have amounted to somewhere between one and two billion dollars, were never included in the PA budget. Arafat hid his personal stash, estimated at $1 billion to $3 billion, in more than 200 separate bank accounts around the world, the majority of which have been uncovered since his death.

Contrary to the comic-book habits of some Third World leaders, such as President Mobutu Sese Seko, of Zaire, and Saddam Hussein, Arafat eschewed lurid displays of wealth. His corruption was of a more sober-minded type. He was a connoisseur of power, who used the money that he stole to buy influence, to provoke or defuse conspiracies, to pay gunmen, and to collect hangers-on the way other men collect stamps or butterflies. Arafat had several advisers who oversaw the system of patronage and theft, which was convincingly outlined in a series of investigative articles by Ronen Bergman that appeared during the late 1990s in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz. The PLO treasurer, Nizar Abu Ghazaleh, ran the company al-Bahr (“the Sea”) for a small number of wealthy shareholders, including Arafat’s wife, Suha. Al-Bahr set the price of a ton of cement in Gaza at $74, of which $17 went into Arafat’s private bank account. One of Arafat’s favorite bagmen, Harbi Sarsour, ran the General Petroleum Company, which established a monopoly over all the gasoline and fuel-oil products sold in the West Bank and Gaza. A company called al-Sakhra (“the Rock”), run by Fuad Shubaki on behalf of Fatah, profited hugely from an exclusive contract to provide all uniforms and other supplies to the Palestinian security forces. Official monopolies on basic goods and services had exclusive suppliers on the Israeli side. These profitable contracts were made available by Arafat to companies associated with former high-ranking members of the Israeli civil administration and the security services in the West Bank and Gaza.

The genius behind this system was Muhammad Rachid, who became Arafat’s closest economic adviser. A onetime protégé of Abu Jihad, Rachid was a former magazine editor who became involved in the diamond business. He came to Arafat’s attention because of his keen talent as a businessman, and because he was an ethnic Kurd—which meant that he was safely removed from the family- and clan-based politics that always threatened to disrupt the division of the spoils.

In their cities and villages Palestinians were subject to the extortion and violence of Arafat’s overlapping security services, which competed among themselves for payoffs, arbitrarily arrested people and seized their land, and forced citizens to pay double or triple the price for everything from flour and gasoline to cigarettes, razor blades, and sheep feed. The fact that nearly everyone in Palestinian political life had taken something directly from Arafat’s hand made it hard to criticize him; it was easier to go along. In 1991, at the low point of Fatah’s finances, Ali Shahin, one of Arafat’s earliest allies, wrote a secret report lambasting Fatah’s “inconceivable moral degradation,” for which he blamed the excesses of a leader whose true interests were “the red carpet, the private plane of the President, free rein to spend money.” Shahin became the minister of supplies in Arafat’s government and was notorious for selling spoiled flour and making truckloads of chocolates sit at the Erez checkpoint in the heat in order to help out a friend who owned the only candy factory in Gaza. The economy of the Palestinian territories, which had enjoyed startlingly high growth rates after 1967, when it passed from Jordanian and Egyptian control into the hands of the Israelis, stagnated and then went backward. In less than a decade Yasir Arafat and his clique managed to squander not only the economic well-being but also the considerable moral capital amassed by the Palestinian people during two and a half decades of Israeli military rule.

Samuels later gives us Gazan human-rights activist Iyad Sarraj.

“Palestinians have lost the battle because of their lack of organization and because they have been captives of rhetoric and sloganeering rather than actual work,” he says. “I believe that the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians in one way or the other is between development and underdevelopment, civilization and backwardness. Israel was established on the rule of law, on democratization, and certain principles that would advance Israel, while the Arabs and the Palestinians were waiting always for the prophet, for the rescuer, for the savior, the mahdi. Arafat came, and everyone hung their hats on him without realizing that there is a big gap between the rescuer and the actual work that needs to be done. This is where the Palestinians lost again the battle. They lost it in ’48 because of their backwardness, ignorance, and lack of organization in how to confront the Zionist enemy. They lost it when they had the chance to build a state, because the PA was absolutely corrupt and disorganized.”

There probably has never been a people more ill-served by a greater lack of leadership, a greater financial and moral corruption of leadership, than the Palestinian people. And there is a lot of competition.

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Anti-Labor, Anti-Free Press, Anti-Gay, Anti-Israel


Some people never get the point. Some people once got the point, or claimed to, claimed to see it – there it is, over there – and then they got their hands on the point and stretched the point, to make a point, turned it inside out, inverted and perverted the point, developed a string theory of the point, and later conceived an alternate universe of the point.

From Eric Lee, examining the role of the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre on the contemporary history of left anti-Semitism:

This may be news to some, but what is today commonplace was once quite rare. I’m referring to anti-Semitism on the far Left — and am reminded of what some of us saw as a turning point back in 1972.

For a quarter of a century following the defeat of Nazi Germany, anti-Semites everywhere were laying low — especially in the West. The Soviet leadership was growing increasingly anti-Jewish and anti-Israel, and anti-Semitism was rife in the Arab world, but in countries like the USA, it was quite rare for Jew-hatred to be expressed openly. And certainly not on the Left.


Accusations of Jew-hatred are today greeted with a shrug.

What was so shocking 40 years ago — that a socialist organisation would identify somehow with a brutal terrorist attack on innocent people if those people happen to be Jewish — is commonplace now.

From the The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), a global union federation of over 600.000 journalists in 134 countries, on August 2:

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) today accused Hamas security forces of harassing elected officials of the Palestinian Journalists’ Syndicate (PJS) in Gaza. In a letter to Ismael Haniyeh, Prime Minister in the Hamas government, the IFJ President said that journalists’ leaders in Gaza have been subjected to a campaign of intimidation and threats designed to force them to stop their union work. Some of them are now facing charges of illegal activities and a travel ban after they refused to give in to pressure.

“We consider the accusations against our colleagues of illegal activity and theft of the union identity a malicious accusation which should be dropped immediately,” said IFJ President Jim Boumelha in his letter. “They should be allowed to work without restrictions and the travel ban imposed on them must be lifted.”

The IFJ says that the campaign against the PJS board members in the Gaza strip started in March, after their election. It included the raid organised by supporters of Hamas who took over the PJS offices in Gaza with the help of security forces and evicted the staff and elected officials.

The harassment has recently escalated in targeting of individual members who were bullied into stopping union work. According to PJS, its Vice President Tahseen Al Astal and a colleague are being investigated by Hamas Attorney General and have been banned from travelling. The investigation was launched shortly after the two officials defied the order to cease their activities in the union, the PJS says.

Said TULIP (Trade Unions Linking Israel and Palestine):

The contrast could not be clearer: in Israel, independent trade unions that sometimes cooperate with, sometimes confront the government. In areas controlled by the pro-Iranian Hamas, unions under the thumb of an authoritarian regime.

And then there is the Death Star of of the lost point point, the inverted point, what’s the point pointlessness of “pinkwashing,” which combines the subversion of every pillar of human dignity: personal and political liberty and human and civil rights. From Jonathan Miller:

Israel’s commendable gay rights record should be a cause for the American Left to celebrate.  But in the Orwellian dystopia that is our political discourse today, the Israel-is-always-wrong crowd has used Israeli publicity of its proud LGBT culture as yet another reason to criticize the Jewish State.

Borrowing a term coined by the breast cancer prevention community to describe companies that claim to care about the disease but at the same time sell carcinogenic products, the anti-Israel crowd has redefined “pinkwashing” as Israeli propaganda designed to hypnotize American liberals into ignoring Israel’s transgressions in the disputed territories.

The most quotable advocate of this terminology is CUNY English Professor Sarah Schulman, who  described her objective as trying to frame the Palestinian cause with simpler language, “like in the kinds of magazines you read in the laundromat.”  (Perhaps “pinkwashing” is supposed to remind laundromat users of the infuriating consequences of leaving a red shirt in a white washload?)

Schulman’s proof of Israel’s nefarious, designs?  She quotes a Tel Aviv law professor who claims that “conservative and especially religious politicians remain fiercely homophobic.”  A comment that’s about as probative and relevant as a “Yo Mama” joke.

Indeed, the explanation is so simple, it’s hard to imagine any alternative reasoning.  It’s called capitalism, or more precisely, tourism promotion: Israel brags about its extraordinary LGBT culture in order to encourage gay and lesbian people from all over the world to visit the Jewish State and bring their tourist dollars. Considering the subject matter, it’s a remarkable and heartening development:  I can only dream of a time when my home state of Kentucky would launch advertisement campaigns to encourage gay and lesbian people to visit our beautiful state parks.

And what’s the alternative?  Should Israel hide its vibrant LGBT culture so as not to offend the senses of radical anti-Zionists?  Doesn’t this call to the closet run precisely counter to the extraordinarily effective strategy launched by gay-rights martyr Harvey Milk, who presciently argued that when people learned that their family, friends, and neighbors were gay — that gay people too can do “heroic things” — they’d understand that homosexuality was not “abnormal sexual behavior”?

Some of the “pinkwashing” logic has been so stained by the BDS spin cycle that that it verges on parody.  Professor Jasbir Puar, who teaches women’s and gender studies at Rutgers University, argued at an April 2012 New York forum that the Israeli occupation “is one of the most contentious issues in queer organizing today.”  When questioned about the Gaza government’s treatment of gay and lesbian people, she retorted that “it doesn’t take away from the fact that there is an occupation.  We can’t judge a country by its attitudes towards homosexuals.”

Get the point?

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The Political Animal

Mourning In America


A nation doesn’t lose its freedoms in foreign lands. It loses them at home. Atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki did not diminish American democracy. Neither will drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan. The GOP is doing that under our noses every day, right now, in cities and the states, in the congress of the United States. We know, symbolically, what the 2008 presidential election brought us. We need to remember, too, what the 2010 midterm elections produced. 2012 will determine which prevails in setting the nation’s course for decades to come.

From the Guttmacher Institute:

By almost any measure, 2011 saw unprecedented attention to issues related to reproductive health and rights at the state level. In all 50 states, legislators introduced more than 1,100 reproductive health and rights-related provisions, a sharp increase from the 950 introduced in 2010. By year’s end, 135 of these provisions had been enacted in 36 states, again an increase from the 89 enacted in 2010 and the 77 enacted in 2009.

Fully 68% of these new provisions, 92 provisions in 24 states, restrict access to abortion services, a striking increase from last year, when 26% of new provisions restricted abortion. The 92 new abortion restrictions shattered the previous record of 34 abortion restrictions adopted in 2005.

In another realm, of worker rights, as soon after the 2010 midterms as March 2011,

The National Conference of State Legislatures is tracking an explosion of 744 bills that largely target public-sector unions, introduced in virtually every state.


Nearly half of the states are considering legislation to limit public employees’ collective bargaining rights. In New Hampshire, the House last week approved a measure that one union leader assailed as “Wisconsin on steroids.”


A number of states are considering bills that would limit unions’ ability to collect dues from public employees. The Florida House approved a bill to ban dues deductions from government paychecks and require unions to obtain members’ permission before using dues for political activity. Similar legislation is under consideration in Kansas. Other bills would eliminate a requirement that workers covered by union contracts pay union dues or fees.

Much like the Orwellian inversion of language I characterized in a different context, these bills deceive in their titles:

Workforce Democracy and Fairness Act, Protecting Jobs from Government Interference Act, Employee Rights Act, Jobs Protection Act, Employee Workplace Freedom Act, Secret Ballot Protection Act, National Right to Work Act, Truth in Employment Act, National Labor Relations Reorganization Act, and others.

What is the purpose of the Employee Workplace Freedom Act?

To repeal the rule requiring employers to post notices relating to the National Labor Relations Act.

Wouldn’t that make you feel freer?

Gordon Lafer has written an overview of this “coordinated assault on labour standards“:

One of the most striking aspects of the past year is not only the extent to which these legislative initiatives appeared simultaneously in so many states, but also the extent to which such a disparate array of proposals were promoted as components of a coherent policy agenda.

Striking, but not surprising when one considers the role of the American Legislative Exchange Council, as Lafer and others do. What is just some of the purpose?

While policy debates have been largely framed around the need for fiscal austerity, the year also saw widespread attacks on the legal rights and economic standards of private- sector workers. Eighteen states introduced so-called ‘right to work’ laws, aimed at undermining private-sector unions. This Orwellian named policy does not guarantee anyone a job. Rather, it makes it illegal for a union to require that employees who benefit from a collective contract contribute their fair share of the costs of administering that contract. By weakening unions’ ability to sustain themselves financially, such laws aim to weaken the bargaining power of organized workers, and ultimately to drive private-sector unions out of existence.

So, too, a dozen states introduced bills restricting the ability of both public- and private-sector unions to participate in the political process, by requiring unions to obtain annual written authorization from each member in order to spend dues money on politics. Since both federal and state law already allow anyone covered by a union contract to withhold dues from political uses, such laws provide no new rights to employees, but consume considerable union resources in the bureaucratic activity of collecting annual notifications, and aim to muzzle the political voice of organized workers.14 Similarly, thirteen states introduced bills banning public employees from having union dues deducted through the state payroll system – even for employees who voluntarily choose to pay dues. Since there is virtually no cost to states for electronic payroll deductions, the sole purpose of such legislation is to cripple unions financially and limit the ability of organized labour to participate in electoral politics.

The assault on wage standards extends to non-union as well as unionized employees. Most states uphold ‘prevailing wage’ laws, for instance, which ensure that publicly funded construction doesn’t serve to undercut local wage standards. Such laws benefit union and non-union employees alike, but have long been opposed by non-union contractors who believe they could make higher profits with lower wage standards. This year they saw their chance to advance this agenda. Legislation weakening or eliminating prevailing wage standards was introduced in fourteen states and passed in five, severely eroding construction pay scales.

Similarly, minimum wage and overtime laws were scaled back in multiple states, undermining the most important wage protections available to non-union workers.

As Gregory M. Saltzman tells us,

Anti-union changes in labor law are most likely in jurisdictions where simultaneous control of both legislative branches and the executive shifts to the Republicans.

This happened in ten states in 2010.

Most Republicans had not campaigned in 2010 on a platform of restricting publicemployees’ bargaining rights. But the change in the political climate, especially the shift in ten states to unified Republican control of the legislature and the governorship, created an opportunity to weaken public-employee unions.

In Michigan, now effectively a one-party state tyranny, Governor Rick Snyder’s emergency manager powers enable him to deprive American citizens in selected Michigan cities and towns of their rights of self-governance, invalidating their most recent electoral choices and appointing managers who govern without democratic legitimacy or the right of redress.

At the state level in Michigan, the one-party tyranny now produces the scene below, in which a GOP speaker ignores the calls of Democratic legislators for a roll call vote to test the two-thirds super-majority requirement for the legislature’s “immediate effect” provision on new legislation.

Michigan House votes on SB 754 from The Rachel Maddow Show on Vimeo.

In particular, the legislation makes it harder to run a voter-registration drive.

Immediate effect for this legislation is designed to put it into effect in time for the November election, where a diminished Democratic vote might swing the state for Romney.

This as “Voter Suppression Bills Sweep the Country,” not just in Florida.

As we see “Senate Republicans Now Blockading Every Single Appeals Court Nominee.”

And we witness the product of a conservative U.S. Supreme Court – the consequence of GOP Presidential dominance in 28 out of 40 years from 1968-2008 and the elections of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush – having effectively sold American democracy to the super rich, led by Sheldon Adelson.

All this is the meaning of this election. The rest is foolishness.


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The Political Animal

Glenn Greenwald’s Mitt Romney Surrogacy


I might just as well have titled this Glenn Greenwald’s Collateral Damage, The Politics of Animus, or the Politics of National Destruction or the Puritopian’s Dilemma – the list goes on. Here’s a list that goes on longer, among Glenn Greenwald’s last eighteen blog posts:

Probing Obama’s secrecy games; U.S. again bombs mourners; Tough Guy Leaking: Iran edition; How extremism is normalized; Obama the Warrior; “Militants”: media propaganda; The Authoritarian Mind; The Imperial Mind; WH leaks for propaganda film; John Brennan’s new power.

The last twelve posts are all attacks on the Obama administration or President Obama himself. Of the six before that, four are directly critical. Even a post entitled “Egyptian wisdom,” ostensibly intended to praise emerging “democratic accountability” (a subject on which Greenwald regularly displays a penetrating lack of discernment) is merely a short set-up, using an Egyptian “man-on-the-street” quote, for a closing link intended to criticize Obama for not pursuing Bush era criminal prosecutions.

Of course, these topics should all be open to consideration and criticism. But it should take little of that discernment Greenwald lacks – absent ideological blinders or that politics of animus – to recognize that context matters, and consequence, and that we do not rail against the demigods, or what passes for them, on an island. Glenn Greenwald does not care. He is angry, he is right, and he will destroy what doth of late preoccupy him to target – sort of like a drone – even if the collateral damage is the American nation.

We are in an election year. The alternative to Barack Obama is Mitt Romney and a reactionary GOP, the goal of which is to undue not just the accomplishments of the Great Society, but of the New Deal, to reverse the gains in Black civil and women’s rights, in labor and working people’s rights, in voting rights, and to stop in its current advance the progress of gay rights. As I wrote at greater length in “From the People Who Brought You Richard Nixon and George W. Bush,” the effects of these monomaniacal Puritiopian visions – “There is no difference between the Democrats and the Republicans” – is felt for generations, in people’s financial and job security, their health care (and thus their lives and deaths), their loving and familial relationships, in the developing governance of the nation, and in the very rights of individuals as citizens.

For all of Greenwald’s calculated and small “c”/big “C” constitutional hysteria over the Threats to Democracy perceivable in post 9/11 anti-terror policy, for all of GOP hysteria post the election of the first Black Democratic president of the threat to democracy of “big” federal government, the truth of American history is something other: the most consistent source of threat to American freedom – electoral and other tyrannies of the majority, restrictions on civil rights, abuse of minority rights – has occurred neither in the federal government per se or from its national security powers, but has taken place at the state level. That is what we have seen on a massive scale just since the GOP electoral victories of 2010. This is what a GOP win in November promises, with a solidification of a reactionary Supreme Court that, just as in consequence of GOP presidential dominance over the 1970s and 80s, offers reactionary conservatism the opportunity to shape American culture for a generation or two.

Many who read and fulminate over Greenwald would not vote for the Democrats in November anyway. But like all public voices, Greenwald has influence – he, unfortunately, more than most. He may offer whatever high-minded rationales he likes. The first truth is that he is not high minded. He is as disingenuous, hypocritical, and vitriolic a smear-monger (“smear” serving as one of his favorite projected insults) as may be found on either side (you decide) of Rush Limbaugh, though with none of the low entertainment value. I have documented and analyzed his techniques multiple times at this site, but an easy sum of his argumentative character can be found in Brad DeLongs words about Noam Chomsky.

What I object to is that Chomsky tears up all the trail markers that might lead to conclusions different from his, and makes it next to impossible for people unversed in the issues to even understand what the live and much-debated points of contention are.

To campaign so constantly against the Obama administration at this point in an election year has consequences. Greenwald may claim to feel whatever disregard he might toward Mitt Romney. His efforts to diminish Obama can only have the effect of diminishing, in return, among some segment of the electorate, the enthusiasm for Obama’s reelection and the ultimate turnout on Election Day for Obama. This will only help elect Mitt Romney. Then everyone to the left of Scott Walker and Rick Scott can decide how they like that America.

And Glenn Greenwald will need to face his own accountability. Accountability he will reject. And accuse someone of smearing him.


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The Political Animal

Threats to Democracy


The New York Times editorialized the other day, in “Too Much Power for a President,”

It has been clear for years that the Obama administration believes the shadow war on terrorism gives it the power to choose targets for assassination, including Americans, without any oversight.

The Times argued,

No one in that position should be able to unilaterally order the killing of American citizens or foreigners located far from a battlefield — depriving Americans of their due-process rights — without the consent of someone outside his political inner circle.

This is a discussion always worth having, but it can never be productively engaged if one does not honestly acknowledge some of the essential terms of the debate. Proponents and defenders of drone attacks against Al Qaeda and affiliated groups have long maintained that the declared hostility and the campaign of terror waged by those organizations constitute a new paradigm of war, by non-state actors. Drone killings are not “assassinations” but military actions. Opponents and critics who, like the Times, simply continue to use terminology like “assassination” and “far from a battlefield,” state thereby a position, but ignore by this reiteration the opposing view and evade, plain and simple, the actual argument. If one argues that the President is acting as Commander in Chief in a condition of war, then it is not, as the Times said,

too easy to say that this is a natural power of a commander in chief.

It is, instead, a coherent position. In contrast, the the Times takes the position that

[a] unilateral campaign of death is untenable. To provide real assurance, President Obamashould publish clear guidelines for targeting to be carried out by nonpoliticians, making assassination truly a last resort, and allow an outside court to review the evidence before placing Americans on a kill list. And it should release the legal briefs upon which the targeted killing was based.

That last recommendation is appropriate, as would be some Presidential characterization of what conditions might represent an “end” to this particular non-state war. The legal justifications for government acts should never be secret or war be pursued without a conceivable close. But the “campaign of death,” i.e. war, is not “unilateral.” It is founded in the Joint Resolution Authorization for the Use of Military Force of September 18, 2001. In war, the President makes these ultimate decisions. Harry Truman, and not an unelected panel of judges, made the decision to drop atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That is, in fact, our constitutional system.

Many of those who regularly inveigh against the drone program do so with dire threats about the loss of American liberty inherent in the whole war on terror, including its accompanying intelligence and detention regimes. There is probably no more frequent vocalizer of shrill and hysterical threat than Glenn Greenwald, whose stock self-identification is as former Constitutional and civil rights attorney. Let it be noted, then, that in contrast to the current President and his party, we have in the United States a political party in the current Republican Party that has become, functionally, the most undemocratic force the nation has seen outside of the old apparatus of Jim Crow in the South.

While all politicians stretch the truth, evade, and double talk, and can be caricatured by their political opposites as ideological threats to liberty and the “American way of life,” examining the substance of claims can help us determine the truth. Already there has probably not been, since Richard Nixon, a more baldfaced liar and awkwardly grinning and dishonest prevaricator in pursuit of the presidency than Mitt Romney. Even more to the documentable truth, while the GOP for nearly four years has made those wild general arguments against the Obama administration, that it, through the Affordable Care Act, for instance, would be robbing Americans through expanded federal power of their liberty, the GOP itself, at the state level – the level at which, historically, Americans have actually most often been deprived of their rights – has been since 2010 aggressively attacking and limiting,  in a manner unprecedented, the democratic rights of varied groups of Americans.

Google Glenn Greenwald and “drones” or “terror” and its variations and you will get pages of hits. Try, instead, Googling Greenwald and “reproductive rights” or “war on women.” Google Greenwald and “labor.”  Google Greenwald and “Wisconsin” or “Scott Walker. Google him on Michigan and its emergency manager law – the single most tyrannical act in American governance. Google him on the Michigan GOP’s abuse of the “immediate effect” practice in passing legislation.

Google Greenwald and “voter suppression,” in Florida or anywhere else.

While Greenwald and his minions have relentlessly attacked the Obama administration as a threat to liberty and, literally, American life, as they drone on monomaniacally about how there is no difference between the Democrats and Republicans, the Republicans have been already, for two years, without yet having won the Presidency and potentially both Houses of Congress, depriving Americans of their rights in ways that have real effects ever day, on workers and women, gays, and whole towns and cities.

The eye, for these people, is forever on the drone. They need to put it back on the ball.


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The Political Animal

Is Chris Hayes Too Thoughtful for the Mediated Public Square?


You don’t have to think of Chris Hayes as the anti-Limbaugh. (That’s most of us.) Consider him the anti Chris Matthews, his stable mate at MSNBC. Matthews drew a lot of attention the other day for his interview of Newt Gingrich, during which he did play, yes, a form of hardball, asking tough questions and scoffing at nonsensical answers, but he also played Tip O’Neill to the Newt’s Reagan. “Mr. Speakaah,” Matthews intoned in verbal backslappery in introducing his guest. For Matthews, as everyone knows, loves the game, and Gingrich as full of shit as he is, and vile when he needs to be, is a player in the game, and you gotta – that is, Matthews has gotta – love his moves.

Chris Hayes only analyzes the game. He neither plays it nor fanaticizes it, memorializing scraps or seeking entrance to the backroom bar after play has ended. He is a thinker, not a thinking man’s pol or pol handicapper, and if you watch the entire segment of his Sunday show, in which he and his guests discussed the meaning of military heroism, what you see is not a jingoist or a simple-minded despoiler of patriotism, but a thoughtful, serious man discussing ideas with genuine sensitivity to the meaning of his words and his own relation to his words. If that sounds, already, a little too refined for the mental horseplay of our cable, our internet, and our social mediated public discourse, that is the point. Even Hayes’s unnecessary apology, rather than pro forma evasion and cant, was genuine, extended, and thoughtful.

Against the locker room ridicule of Hayes’s critics has come some good defense, but even so, like Page Six actually arguing with the Editorial Board on an issue of substance, another televised pretence of thoughtful commentary, on the Today show, offered us Star Jones and Donny Deutsch, swine squealing with incomprehension at the pearls, defecating on the oyster. Deutsch thought the discussion essentially over in declaring that Hayes looks like “a weenie.”

They are heroes: beginning, middle, end of story. I don’t know what the other side of this argument is.

Of course not. That would require the swine, type boar, to think.

By far the best, most comprehensive defense of Hayes has come tellingly from conservative Conor Friedersdorf.

Of course, Hayes wasnt actually expressing discomfort with granting the bravery or achievements or noble qualities of American troops. His fear was that in addition to its strict definition, hero had an unavoidable connotation attached to it — that for some people, hearing that a warrior is a hero carries with it the implication that the war in which he bravely partook was a just one.

This is the kind of linguistic, intellectual and moral discrimination that a Deutsch and the general Roman circus of political punditry are incapable, and against which Hayes’s discussion was an argument. While Hayes and his guests considered, within the very limiting confines of even a twelve-minute television segment, the distinctions among “hero,” “sacrifice,” “valor,” and “courage,” the effort was two-fold: to contend against the automatic, thus indiscriminate, valorization of war just by virtue of the vocabulary we use, and to resist the chauvinistic gravity exhibited by normalizing all displays of patriotism. Rather, now, for displays of a flag, or a flag lapel pin, demonstrating an exceptional experience of national pride and solidarity, they are a conformist requirement. For a presidential candidate not to wear a lapel pin, as Obama, for a time did not, in 2008, is leveled an unpatriotic display. If all soldiers are the valorized hero (rather than, say, “merely” brave, for going to war), then what word do we use for the act of exceptional courage and valor? These critical lovers of heartland values have obviously never visited Lake Woebegone, where “all the children are above average.” Its ironic charms would escape them even if they did stop by for a spell.

In instructive contrast, a bad liberal defense of Hayes came from Peter Beinart, who repeated the momentary misstep of only one of Hayes’s guests, in using the discussion to inveigh against the Iraq and Afghan wars and, in Beinart’s case, the “9/11 fearmongers” too. This is precisely what Hayes did not do. He did not use his discussion of language and the politicizing pull on it that public discourse exerts, as merely a pretext to for specific policy criticism. The usual gang of political locker room dunderheads cannot grasp this and neither, apparently, can Beinart. Hayes was self-conscious and self-critical enough even while he explored his ideational instincts, to question the inclinations of the, in his phrase, “liberal caricature” that he might be seen to represent. This reflexivity is leagues beyond his critics, and some of his defenders. Beinart wrote,

 I don’t share Hayes’s queasiness about the using the word “hero” to describe those Americans who died in Afghanistan and Iraq. In America today, where self-gratification is practically a national religion, there is something heroic about voluntarily placing your fate at your country’s service. But Hayes’s larger point—that in honoring the dead we should not surrender our critical faculties about war—is not only correct, it’s crucial. For more than 10 years now, the Coulters and Dick Cheneys of American politics have used the pain and pride of a nation at war to cow those who might have questioned our post-9/11 wars.

Beinart actually has it exactly backwards. The larger point is in the challenge to language, not in the specific challenges to policy, because it is only in the questioning of language and the greater ideas it even implicitly conveys that one can develop the critical tools with which to question policy and all the other rudiments of life. This is what Hayes was doing. Most of the other media performers are still splashing around in the mud.

Friedersdorf closed his very fine defense of Hayes by offering five extended sets of questions all on the subject of “heroism” and what it might mean to use language the way we habitually do or may feel compelled to do by the force of public censure and common stupidity. In these questions, devoid of politics, we see the necessary critical thinking mind at work, representative of the minds we want a truly democratic and (mentally) free citizenry to possess – the very opposite of “They are heroes: beginning, middle, end of story.”

1) Are all American war dead heroic because, if nothing else, they had the courage to volunteer for service knowing they might ultimately give their life for their country? That seems heroic to me. But if they’re all heroes, does it follow that everyone in the military is a hero? Why is dying necessary? And if everyone who volunteers is a hero, what about the guys who would go AWOL if sent to fight, or who assault their commanding officer, or who run away in combat? What about the ones who are dishonorably discharged? Was Bradley Manning a hero? Had Lynndie England died in Iraq, would she have been a hero?

2) What about people who volunteer for foreign armed forces? Are they all heroic? Or does it depend upon their country? If an American helping to liberate Libya would’ve been a hero had he died in action, shouldn’t the Germans from NATO engaged in the same conflict be heroes too? What about the Islamic fundamentalists fighting alongside NATO? Heroes?

3) What about the morality of the cause? Does anyone think brave Nazi soldiers during the World War II era were heroes? How about the soldiers in Stalin’s army? Does the nature of the mission matter, so that a Soviet soldier who died liberating a death camp was a hero, whereas another who died while ravaging German civilians he was ordered to take revenge upon isn’t? There’s this reality to confront: if bestowing the title hero has nothing to do with the rightness or wrongness of the cause or mission, we’ll have to grant the honorific to individuals who took part in deeply immoral acts… and yet, if the mission does matter, do we really want to deny the heroism of a GI who jumped on a grenade to save his platoon, even if we think the platoon’s presence in country X was immoral? It’s a confounding choice.

4) Speaking of jumping on grenades, isn’t “hero” often invoked in common parlance as if it means even more than serving and dying? For example, when we hear someone described as “a World War II hero,” don’t we expect that he did more than fall overboard and drown en route to the D-Day invasion? Don’t we assume from that adjective that he undertook some dangerous mission, or distinguished himself in combat, like the younger Bailey brother in It’s a Wonderful Life? Were the average American to watch From Here to Eternity, would he or she call Robert E. Lee Prewitt a hero?

5) And say, for the sake of argument, that all American war dead are heroes, strictly defined, but that the word and its emotional resonance is being manipulated by advocates of an imprudent war. Is it better to give soldiers an honorific they deserve, consequences be damned, or to withhold an honorific they deserve to prevent future soldiers from needlessly dying?


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The Political Animal

Said the Sad Red Earth


I’ve been lying low, collecting evidence…

Brought to mind by recent events for David W. Blight And Allison Scharfstein in their Op-Ed at the New York Times, the little known proposal by Martin Luther King, Jr. to President Kennedy in May 1962 to issue another Emancipation Proclamation, to end segregation. Kennedy took it under advisement and never acted before it was too late. Even Lincoln did not act until the nation was already at war. Marriage equality is not a matter of localized state ordinance governing a mundane civil procedure. It is a human and civil right to be addressed federally and universally. Even the partisan pollsters know what is coming. But the GOP remains, into a second century of shrinking ideas, a party of smallness far different from the kind it professes.

Speaking of shrinking human capital, John Derbyshire, whom National Review employed for quite some time, even after his racism began to leak from him, has chosen, post termination, to come a gusher and write now for the white nationalist VDare – whose Peter Brimelow was at this year’s CPAC – where he observes,

White supremacy, in the sense of a society in which key decisions are made by white Europeans, is one of the better arrangements History has come up with. There have of course been some blots on the record, but I don’t see how it can be denied that net-net, white Europeans have made a better job of running fair and stable societies than has any other group.

Even non-whites acknowledge this in unguarded moments.

Just as dispiriting – all forms of human diminishment in the name God and race are just so – is this crucial account by Jonathan Spyer of “The Rise of Hamas-Gaza.”

The nature of the regime created by Hamas in Gaza, and its strength and durability, has received insufficient attention in the West. This may have a political root: Western governments feel the need to keep alive the fiction of the long-dead peace process between Israelis and Palestinians. One of the necessary components of this is pretending that the historic split between nationalists and Islamists among the Palestinians has not really happened, or that it is a temporary glitch that will soon be reconciled. This fiction is necessary for peace process believers, because it enables them to continue to treat the West Bank Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas as the sole representative of the Palestinians.

But fiction it is. An Islamist one-party quasi-state has been built in Gaza over the last half-decade. The prospects for this enclave and its importance in the period ahead have been immeasurably strengthened by the advances made by Hamas’ fellow Muslim Brotherhood branches in Egypt and elsewhere in the region.


Palestinian nationalism has traditionally favored words and gestures over concrete deeds. This is one of the sources for its historical failure to produce anything much tangible of note. Palestinian Islamism has a different approach: in line with the traditional strategy of the Muslim Brotherhood, it understands the importance of concrete, patient building on the ground.

This does not mean that Hamas in Gaza has lost sight or will lose sight of the maximalist ideological goals of the movement. It does mean, however, that the split in the Palestinian national movement should now finally be internalized as a long-term development. The more formidable, serious element of that movement is in control of Gaza. The Islamist one-party statelet in Gaza, in turn, is allied with the trend that is proving the major beneficiary of the Arab upheavals of 2011 — namely, Sunni Islamism.

Of a piece – the opposite piece – is Fareed Zakaria’s regrettable (piece o’) pie in the sky advancement of the “Arab Spring” fiction, here choosing to side with George W. Bush’s “freedom agenda” against everybody’s favorite BiBi bogeyman. “Demographics, Zakaria argues, won’t permit Arab autocracies to much longer shield themselves from “modernity.” Because of that bright and hopeful Arab Spring (why, just look around and see the buds burstin’ all over), “Arab democracies will have the legitimacy that comes with public participation,” Zakaria simply asserts: witness, as an example, the legitimacy of one person one vote one time in the coercively militaristic theocracy of Gaza, above, he forgot to say. “What in the World,” indeed.

Look at this video. It’s only a minute forty four. Everything about it is stupid, and there are a ton of them on YouTube, but it’s clear. The guy pursuing the conflict gets beat good. The guy who beat him had wanted none of it.  It had to hurt, though he deserved it, and men have taken beatings like it, and worse, since men were stupid. Would the beaten young man have been justified in pulling a gun and shooting the other? He’ll have some cuts and bruises. Even in the dark, with no one else there, would he have been within his rights to shoot and kill the other guy? What is even less defensible than the fixated George Zimmerman, in what he did – I’m sure he was scared once he was in for it – is the more detached yet still angry justification and promotion of his conduct by others.

In its wide-ranging assault on voter rights, labor rights, women’s rights, and straight up democracy itself, in Michigan, the contemporary GOP is the most reactionary and anti-Democratic force the nation has seen since the active hostile forces of pre Civil Rights movement Southern segregationism. Here is a look at what should be a very frightening graph from the Guttmacher Institute.

Has the filibuster, especially as normalized as it now is, producing an almost uniform requirement for super majority to pass any legislation through the Senate, risen to the level of constitutional offense under the GOP? James Fallows has been arguing so, and for some time now against false equivalence between the Democrats and Republicans in congressional dysfunction. Now Common Cause intends to pursue the matter, and the filibuster’s abolition, to the Supreme Court.

At Tablet, Akiva Gottlieb delivers a profile of the always unattractively strident, yet surprisingly uncertain David Horowitz. Among several humanizing passages, there is this rather tender and sad one involving his late daughter Sarah.

Sarah’s passions made her one of David’s most spirited interlocutors, and at times A Cracking of the Heart serves as an object lesson in political empathy—making it a poignant outlier in Horowitz’s oeuvre. In an earlier memoir, he attested to his inability to internalize the monotheistic religious prophets’ agreement that all human beings, no matter their trespasses, are incarnations of the divine spirit: “[I] cannot embrace this radical faith. I feel no kinship with those who can cut short a human life without remorse; or with terrorists who target the innocent; or with adults who torment small children for the sexual thrill.”

Sarah, who respects her father but harbors little patience for his bluster, hand-writes a response that aims to cut him to the quick. “First, have a little humility,” she begins. “You are not smarter than Moses, Jesus and Buddha.” She continues by articulating as eloquent a plea for understanding across ideological lines as I’ve ever heard:

If you see someone in the fullness of their humanity, you see how they are acting out their own confusion and suffering. This does not justify hurtful or evil acts. It doesn’t even always inspire forgiveness. But if you see someone this way, you respond more in sadness than in anger. And that is simply a more excellent state of being. Even if you’ve never had this experience (and more’s the pity), respect the experience of those who have.

She did not send her father these words. “Or if she did,” he writes, “I failed again to understand them.”

A more excellent state of being. She was a loss.

And finally, from the department of some people have all the luck, we have “Finger In Arby’s Sandwich: Michigan Teen Ryan Hart Spat Out ‘Rubbery’ Digit,” while, of course, in contrast, several people have found Jesus in a Cheeto.


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Culture Clash

Diction and Democracy


The Huffington Post/Chronicle of Higher Education offered a well-written and observed overview late last week of the Vendler-Dove conflict regarding Dove’s Penguin anthology of twentieth century poetry. Author Peter Monaghan kindly cited my own “The Politics in Poetry” a couple of times, but he unfortunately covered only the more easily reviewed cultural politics – politics that England’s the Guardian predictably and maximally sensationalized for every last flicker of racial ire (“Poetry anthology sparks race row”). Harder to convey about Vendler’s New York Review of Books attack on Dove’s work, and less sexy to survey, is the actual poetry in the politics of poetry.

I identified the focus of Vendler’s aesthetic complaint as “the demotic,” which Vendler herself associated with “restricted vocabulary,” “accessibility” and vocal flatness. Given that Vendler’s more easily considered criticism of the anthology is for a multicultural inclusiveness seemingly lacking in standards, it is easy to join the two criticisms and find Vendler’s apparently cultural assault even more offensive.

Maybe, maybe not. It is not my intent here to judge that issue.

But as race and class are frequently not easily disambiguated in political matters, here, too, in Vendler’s resistance to the demotic we find class, represented in the matter of diction, mixing with race. I want to consider a little the class issue.

Vendler’s review  repeatedly resorts to the poets of high modernism, and a few somewhat later poets, for her model of what too much contemporary poetry lacks. In Vendler’s consideration of diction, verbal compression and syntactical intricacy reign as ideals. It has always been among the ironies of the modernist era that as aesthetically revolutionary as were the work and manifestos of its exemplars, the culture of the work, and often of the writers, was not infrequently politically conservative. Ironic, too, is that contemporaneous to high modernism was the outburst of  popular forms of modernism – think only, for one instance, of the development of jazz, or of William Carlos Williams laying the groundwork within modernism for the reign of everyday speech in poetry during the century’s second half that Vendler has found so leveling and undistinguished.

Yet for Vendler to rail so nakedly against the demotic seems a puzzling choice. Among the histories of poetry is that of its punctuated movements toward a plainer speech of different eras, including from the Wordsworth of the Lyrical Ballads to Williams himself, and even the early Ezra Pound translating Chinese poetry under the influence Ernest Fenollosa.

From “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter”:

While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead
I played about the front gate, pulling flowers.
You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse,
You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums.
And we went on living in the village of Chokan:
Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.

That a poetry of plain speech can produce, as Vendler believes, much very bad poetry is unarguable: how much easier to believe one can write the stuff if it looks so little different from a causal recitation of the mundane. But so, too, does pretentiously and anachronistically elevated diction, which perhaps we are more often spared these days because it is more obviously, even to its producers, terrible. But to limit one’s conception of what constitutes a rich complexity in language to particular syntactical models seems a kind of aesthetic inbreeding. I don’t know – do not really believe – that this was Vendler’s intent. Still, it is how her review reads.

In “What if We Occupied Language?” Samy Alim observes of the “Occupy” movement that

the movement has not only transformed public space, it has transformed the public discourse as well.


It is now nearly impossible to hear the word and not think of the Occupy movement.

– in contrast to territory that might be the ground of any military conflict.

In “Literature as Seed Bank” at Why Study Literature, we read,

One aspect of liberty is to keep our gene pool of ideas splashy by allowing lots of different languages, words and phrases to co-exist. There isn’t a single Book of Knowledge (no, not even Wikipedia), just as every human genome is a little bit different. It’s certainly true that we each restrict our intake of words and language, and that helps form our identity, but the point about liberty is that we keep control. So we can expect that illiberal forces in society will seek to control the language and ideas we’re exposed to, and for this to be effective it’s better off if we don’t know about it.

To stand oneself in opposition to the demotic is to lower nets over the verbal gene pool – to appear to be that establishment Dove invokes in the introduction to the Penguin anthology and that Vendler, while thus appearing herself to be, is at pains to be mystified in considering. It isn’t a matter of forsaking rich complexity in articulated sound and sight for the dull flatness of common observation, but of conceiving both – more so the former – in multiple manners of expression.

You will know that the demotic has descended into the mere commonplace when it spits at something it calls “elitism” and thus – from both the political left and right – in a form of resentiment, identifies elevated execution and heightened achievement with a clam of social privilege. It is a devolution Vendler fears, but her emphasis was off. The demotic feeds the gene pool; the commonplace drains the water. And while the manifestations of the bad are many, the forms of the good are numerous too. It contains multitudes.


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Israel The Political Animal

Perspective (Oh, Yeah) on Israel and the U.S.


Two days ago, in a column causing some commotion – “bought and paid for by the Israel lobby” – Tom Friedman wrote this:

It confuses [many Jewish American students] to read a Financial Times article from Israel on Monday, that said: “In recent weeks, the country has been consumed by an anguished debate over a series of new laws and proposals that many fear are designed to stifle dissent, weaken minority rights, restrict freedom of speech and emasculate the judiciary. They include a law that in effect allows Israeli communities to exclude Arab families; another that imposes penalties on Israelis advocating a boycott of products made in West Bank Jewish settlements; and proposals that would subject the supreme court to greater political oversight.”

And it confuses them to read Gideon Levy, a powerful liberal voice, writing in Haaretz, the Israeli daily, this week that “anyone who says this is a matter of a few inconsequential laws is leading others astray. … What we are witnessing is w-a-r. This fall a culture war, no less, broke out in Israel, and it is being waged on many more, and deeper, fronts than are apparent. It is not only the government, as important as that is, that hangs in the balance, but also the very character of the state.”

Jeffrey Goldberg well answered the reflexive “Israel Lobby” charge. Walter Russell Mead has done it on multiple occasions at greater length. Sometimes people cannot accept that other people actually disagree with them, that non-Jewish Americans, for instance, support Israel in the face of all for profoundly natural and good reasons. There has to be an explanation external to reason: “bought and paid for.” In fact, I agree with a fair amount of what Friedman otherwise says in his column, and I do dislike the trends in the proposed legislation he cites from the Financial Times article. What I don’t agree with is the hysteria.

Here is a simultaneous development in the United States. Perhaps Israel should be worried about the U.S. From Jonathan Turley on the new defense authorization bill:

Americans will now be subject to indefinite detention without trial in federal courts in a measure supported by both Democrats and Republicans. It is a curious way to celebrate the 220th anniversary of the Bill of Rights.


I am not sure which is worse: the loss of core civil liberties or the almost mocking post hoc rationalization for abandoning principle. The Congress and the President have now completed a law that would have horrified the Framers. Indefinite detention of citizens is something that the Framers were intimately familiar with and expressly sought to bar in the Bill of Rights. While the Framers would have likely expected citizens in the streets defending their freedoms, this measure was greeted with a shrug and a yawn by most citizens and reporters.


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The Political Animal

9/11/11: The Stylus Avenger


(Twelfth in a series)

It had been possible in the countryside of so many nations, on another continent, always in transit, to leave the palpable sense of 9/11, if not our emotions, behind. The last day, at Charles de Gaulle Airport amid intense security, and three weeks after the attack, Julia and I rejoined the larger world.

The night before, though, in bed, I had done some thinking. I anticipated the security to come – what turned out to be three body and bag checks just between the gate and the plane – and knew it would be very hard to get a weapon on board. And the likelihood, at that point, of another plane hijacking was surely small. But the bad guys, as we say, can always figure a way, and streetwise New Yorker that I am, I like to be prepared. The trouble was, as much I may say I grew up on the streets of New York, the reality is that I’m a writer and an intellectual, not a Hell’s Kitchen tough or even McGyver. I wasn’t going to be stomping ass or fashioning impromptu weapons out of the pasta container from dinner. I needed something, though. I might be scared if anything happened on the plane, and I might die (in fact, I told myself if anything did happen, in order to free myself for action, I was going to consider myself dead already) but I wasn’t going to be terrorized, and I sure the fuck was going to take someone with me.

And then it came to me. In the computer bag I would carry, in one of the many pockets, would be a Palm Pilot. In the Palm Pilot, tucked unnoticeably into a slender hole at a back corner, was a stylus. It wasn’t sharp, but it had a point. It wouldn’t cut paper. But thrust with fury and fear at the rear, soft underside of the jaw, it would go in. It would do damage.

I would be armed.

Julia and I took our seats on the U.S. Airways jet. The subdued tension during the slow crawl along the corridor from the gate to the plane, through all three checks, had been evident in the silent appearance of normalcy sought by everyone around me. Now, in our seats, and in the early minutes of flight, what went through the passengers’ minds? How many thought as I did? Would something happen? What would it be? How would I react? (Though I had decided that, what would be my opportunity?) And the calming thought in surely every mind, at some point, was that it had already happened. It was done. It was not going to happen again three weeks later. Richard Reid and his shoe bomb were still two months away. We could ease our minds with that reasonable consideration, and three, four, five hours into the flight, it might seem as if it were still August or June or March. Until in an instant something did happen, and the world would be changed again, and all our reassurance an illusion.

How might it happen? How might I first come to know of it, and think myself dead? A sudden stir, a gasp, a cry? More cries. Shouts of intimidation to silence us, and I turn. A man, probably twenty-five or thirty, dark skinned and clean shaven, a Semite, like me, looking in all respects, perhaps, like a graduate student in engineering at some American university, pushing before him down the aisle a passenger, a knife at his throat, whom the hijacker had grabbed as a shield and to threaten us. All so fast. He would pass me before I had the chance to reach for the stylus, which in any event I must do carefully, not to draw attention, or I would die early and ineffectually. A meager weapon, too, the stylus would need total surprise at just the right moment, with just the right force at just the right angle, were it not to be a waste. So I would miss that chance. I would need time to arm myself; I would need time to provide another – the right – opportunity. Would it come? In the confusion and the unexpected developments, would I get the chance, or would it have been only a useless fantasy? Would I, indeed, determined not to die merely a victim, rush the moment? For who am I, writer, thinker, dreamer, no man of arms except in dreams, who am I, outside of a righteous dream, to think I could pull off such a thing? Would I rush the moment and miss my thrust? Then I’d be in it for sure, if I didn’t die at once.

I don’t – die at once. We struggle. Somehow – who knows how – I make my attempt, I miss, I parry a deadly blow, and we struggle. And now something more is amiss on the plane. There is more struggle. Bodies colliding. A blade seeking my throat, my chest, any part of me, if just to make me cry out and lose my grip. I fight with a younger, stronger man, hold him off.

Do I hold him off? For how long? Empowered by –? By what? And why me? Why am I the one who struggles for his life thirty-five thousand feet above theAtlantic Ocean? This is my fantasy. I can make the combatant anyone I choose.

What is to be gained, what is to be learned, by making the combatant me? I know what it would all be about for me. Why not – why not make it – why not make it Noam Chomsky – Noam Chomsky who struggles for his life so far from heaven or earth? He was ready to say, a mere two months after 9/11, in the The Monthly Review of November 2001:

We should not forget that the U.S. itself is a leading terrorist state.

A leading terrorist state, no different – at least for the moment, in methodological principle – from those who struck the towers.

And what does it mean, really, in the end, to separate the method from the motive? To distinguish the effective action from the essential actor? Critics of the supposedly misnamed “war on terror” like to instruct that terror is merely the method; it does not identify in any useful way the political issue, the motivation for the terror.

But if it does not identify the specific political motivation, does it not name perhaps a greater political practice? The institutions championed by the left – the U.N., the International Criminal Court, the NGOs that express its humanistic ideals – what do they express in their very nature but the idea that process, that method, matters. What political goal do they all pursue if not an elimination of all forms of terror, including state terror, as acceptable or tolerated methods for wielding political power and pursing political ends? Indeed, the elimination of terror as a rationalized practice of power, either by states against individuals or by political movements against the people who populate states, would be a culminating political – indeed, human – achievement in the history of civilization. Whether on the left or the right, whether Salvadoran death squads or Chechnyan guerillas murdering children, the methods are ultimately expressions of the nature of those who use them, and to rationalize one just a little more than the other because it has the political élan of a national struggle of liberation of the justification of national security is a moral cheat. It is the left that preaches, but practices no more than the right, the idea not only that the ends don’t justify the means, but that the means ultimately negate and replace the ends. So there is no way to call the U.S. a “leading terrorist state” and not claim it is essentially indistinguishable from the theocratic fundamentalists who attacked it.

So maybe there is something to be learned from making Chomsky the man who fights for his life in a jet now a world of its own. And for making the man me, too. Jay Adler. Noam Chomsky. But how? Jay. Noam. Which? How? It’s not Jay, not Noam, it’s – Joam. Joam… Adsky.

Joam Adsky grapples with the hate given human form that it might commit such acts.

Joam Adsky slips, topples onto his back against the aisle armrest – uhh! the pain – and now the man who dreams of paradise, a paradise devoid of the vacant odium that flows in him like a cold blood – the man holds his blade above Joam Adsky, straining with all his sense of purpose to bring it down. Adsky resists with all the vital force he has. The plane, in a commotion of resistance and strife, dips right, dips left. It is daylight above the Atlantic, and the sun catches the blade through the window, a sharp, piercing glint of light in Adsky’s eyes, gone, then back again. Gone. Then back.

The light. The point of light. It is all there, in the brilliant flicker of light, in that moment, disappearing and returning, that might be the last.

For what does Adsky fight?

We know he fights for his life. The fly in the web. The gazelle in the lion’s mouth. The vilest criminal. We all fight for our lives. To save our insubstantial, all-important lives. But is that it? Egoism and survival? Nothing more. Does the hijacker, attempting now to slit Joam Adsky’s throat – does he fight for ego and himself? We know that he does not. He doesn’t fight for his life at all. We know he believes. He believes. Does he doubt? I don’t think so. He might. But I think not. He would be human if he did, and he would still believe. Did Mohammed Atta doubt? As the North Towerloomed so enormously, a moment from his obliteration, did he cry out in fear, shield his eyes, look away? I guess that he did not. And in that is the apparent conundrum.

To be full of passionate intensity proves nothing, makes us neither best nor worst, though to lack conviction leaves us lost. At the very moment, Adsky and his foe may be concentrated on the blade: force and resistance, action and reaction. Zlavoj Zizek would have us think that most likely in Adsky’s will there is nothing more than mere survival. But if not, if Adsky believes – in something – how to measure it against the icy passion of his enemy? Whoever wins this struggle – who survives, who dies – proves nothing. The odds don’t favor Adsky – far older, weaker – though a loosened arm rest, ripped from the seat, slammed with all its hard metallic hinges into the face of God’s servant – that could make all the difference.

But we are not at that moment yet.

How to judge the convictions of the hijacker against those of Adsky, whatever they may be – beyond his post-industrial, bourgeois comfort, his willingness to enjoy a single day of life though others do not, even – as some will claim – in consequence that  they do not. We cannot measure what the two stand on in the midst of a fight – even by what they feel, for emotions can be the very flicker of a Platonic shadow on the only walls our eyes have ever seen. On the plane, there is only their competing and indistinguishable wills (for Adsky is fighting like the devil) but not what forms their wills. So we must take them off the plane, God, or what passes for God in this drama, yanking them by their collars, high out of the troubled jet, far beyond the spinning earth, to set them some place where the cheap and common garb of intense conviction can be discarded.

Let us consider.

A jet seven miles into the troposphere, over, in fact, empty ocean, with nothing human above or below it, a jet out of control, climbing and descending erratically, banking left, banking right – how very like a postmodern world: unstable, to say the least, with every referent disconnected from its signifier, and the debate over signifieds a blood sport. What means anything? Civilization, whatever its meaning, is just a dream beneath the clouds. And God, if you’re a believer at such a frenzied moment, and even if you’re not, is a Will being worked through you. You have to decide, or in this case, Adsky, so the irony – the very great irony – is that while conviction is the falsest of Gods, found in this universe also among self-justifying egoists and the greatest of mass murderers, Adsky needs it too, if he is to live. It will serve him not at all to believe the man with the blade has a case against him, and I do not mean that it wouldn’t serve him just in the matter of saving his skin, because then we might as well stop right now. Close your reading light and go watch TV. We are all just animals pawing the ground and sniffing the air.

No, to save his life in any meaningful way, Adsky needs to believe his foe is wrong to want to kill him, and not just as a matter of principle – as a matter of ethical form. Adsky needs to believe, genuinely believe, that he is superior to what tries to annihilate him. He needs to believe not simply as an expression of ego, not merely as a matter of procedure; he must believe that his very matter – his very body and intellectual self – has value because it produced those ethical forms, those principles of justice and humanity toward which his civilization strives. As they were abstracted from him, they returned by that very process to him, suffusing the being who produced them with their value. Adsky is better than his foe for the very reason that he believes it is wrong for his enemy to wish so cold-bloodedly to take his life.

Adsky, and all those flailing about with him high up in the seemingly meaningless air, does not deserve to die, and not just as a matter of principle.

As a matter of principle, the postcolonial and Marxian critiques of the United States in the post World War II era frequently confuse substance with form, reducing political and moral ideas to legalistic procedure. But the theorized and codified human and civil rights that the U.S. and the rest of the West sometimes violate, and that much of the remainder of the world violates more, and more often, are the evolutionary product of the West’s own intellectual and social history, of its own long and continuing struggle to emerge from a political state of nature. The United Nations, the Geneva Conventions, and the whole complex of evolving international law and legal bodies are direct products, intellectually and materially, of this history. In the case of the U.N., the very institution would not have come into existence without the political, moral, and financial force of the U.S.behind it. This history and these institutions are part of the intellectual and moral achievement of the West, no less than imperialism, colonialism and slavery are elements of its degraded past. These achievements are not mere forms to be abstracted from the integral historical processes and living values that substantiated them. They are not simply procedural norms with which the authors of these achievements  may be demopathically manipulated – by fascists, autocrats, Marxist-Leninists, totalitarians and neo-totalitarians, tribalists and theocrats, or bien pensant critics of liberalism – while their enemies are merely rhetorically slapped on the wrist for attacking the nations that continue to build on these accomplishments.

The record shows that the vocal reaction of prominent segments of the left to 9/11 was, significantly, mere rhetorical acknowledgement of the procedural impropriety of the violence. Lip service to principle invariably gave way immediately, as in the second sentence of Chomsky’s September 12, 2001 statement, to political and moral sympathy with the projected inciting moral and political origins of the attack. Thus, while the remainder of the nation justly roused itself to action and to its self-defense, the left, when it wasn’t explicitly blaming the U.S. itself for the assault it suffered, was implicitly doing so by engaging in the kind of effort to “understand” that functions as a covert exercise in excusing. One year later, in the pages of The Nation – with a barbaric regime toppled, and a training ground for as regressive a force for terror as the world has ever seen destroyed – voices of the left were still, without embarrassment, working their worry beads about how appropriately to think and feel about 9/11, never mind act in response to it.

But Adsky hasn’t such time to consider whether he is worth defending.

If Adsky, on the plane, fights only for his life – a cornered animal baring primeval canines – then no argument he makes off the plane, for or againstAmerica, is meaningful. It is, then, mere rationalization, the construction of a world to fit the lie of one’s desires. He rolls this way, you roll that. If Adsky can believe, though, as much as does his enemy, then he can survive – not necessarily on this day, at thirty five thousand feet, where the battle may go to the younger, the stronger, and the better prepared, but on other days, when with equal conviction, and the greater strength of a better idea, the human race may continue its slow advance.

Can Adsky believe, though?

One part of Adsky has written Year 501. The thesis of that work, published just after the five hundred year anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the Western Hemisphere, is that the past five hundred years, up until this day, are best understood as an unbroken period of imperial conquest on behalf of elite driven markets.

While modalities have changed, the fundamental themes of the conquest retain their vitality and resilience….

A five hundred year human historical epoch, especially one that continues through your morning breakfast, is not unlike a geological period on a timeline: one may sweepingly observe that this was the period of invertebrate development, and neglect to note the obvious, conclusive entailment that at the beginning of the period there were no invertebrates and at the end there were. Life had developed.

The other part of Adsky considers that even today, after so much progress has been made, the history of nations continues as a cesspool of mass murder, of megalomaniacal tyrants and instigators of slaughter, of endless hypocrisies to cover unending greed, power struggles, and human and ecological callousness, and of ideological tendentiousness. Even the best of nations, confronted with such a world and the imperative to protect their interests and their people, will sully themselves in action. No nation steps out of this gutter clean.

Given such a universe, Adsky believes he deserves to live; he rejects the soul destroying totalitarian impulse masquerading as a representation of God, and the deracinated voices that rationalize it, and, there being, in reality, no dues ex machina to pluck him from the plane for any hypothetical and passionate tête-à-tête

– and Adsky being, frankly, under the circumstances, more than a little pissed and pumped –

he plunges the stylus into the hijacker’s neck and gasps righteously and greedily for the air of his own salvation.


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The Political Animal

“Free Labor,” from Abraham Lincoln – in Wisconsin

Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth President of th...
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Abraham Lincoln, in his so far unending prescience and wisdom, actually offered some thoughts on the nature of labor and capital in of all places Wisconsin – at the annual meting of the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society, in Milwaukee, on September 30, 1859. A brief passage from it, bolded below, is quoted often and can be found in the most unexpected places (about which, tomorrow). Lincoln later reused this passage in in his first State of the Union Address, of December 3, 1861, where, as in 1859, he very much had slave labor in mind in contrast to free labor. Relevant to today, nonetheless, is how Lincoln conceived the nature of free labor, in itself and in relation to capital. It impressed Teddy Roosevelt (another “Republican” today’s GOP can only cite in fellowship as an act of desperate grasping for forebears of greatness) that he, too, cited Lincoln on the subject.

The world is agreed that labor is the source from which human wants are mainly supplied. There is no dispute upon this point. From this point, however, men immediately diverge. Much disputation is maintained as to the best way of applying and controlling the labor element. By some it is assumed that labor is available only in connection with capital, that nobody labors, unless somebody else owning capital, somehow, by the use of it, induces him to do it….

But another class of reasoners hold the opinion that there is no such relation between capital and labor, as assumed; and that there is no such thing as a freeman being fatally fixed for life, in the condition of a hired laborer, that both these assumptions are false, and all inferences from them groundless. They hold that labor is prior to, and independent of, capital; that, in fact, capital is the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed — that labor can exist without capital, but that capital could never have existed without labor. Hence they hold that labor is the superior — greatly the superior — of capital.

We know that current Republicans do not believe this, that contemporary conservatives openly consider workers (who, if organized, are maggots) to be “tools” of capital and those who direct their labor. Lincoln goes on to include in his consideration what is perhaps the essential American conservative ideal of the nation – the prospect of individuals freely, from their labors and their own faculties, rising above their station in life.

They do not deny that there is, and probably always will be, a relation between labor and capital. The error, as they hold, is in assuming that the whole labor of the world exists within that relation. A few men own capital; and that few avoid labor themselves, and with their capital, hire, or buy, another few to labor for them….Again, as has already been said, the opponents of the “mud-sill” theory insist that there is not, of necessity, any such thing as the free hired laborer being fixed to that condition for life. There is demonstration for saying this. Many independent men, in this assembly, doubtless a few years ago were hired laborers. And their case is almost if not quite the general rule.

In the “mud-sill” theory, individuals are destined to play an unchanging role, hold a fixed status, in the nation’s economic and social life – no “anyone can join the ranks of the wealthy.” That is not the America ideal, the defining individualism of the country, so, as Lincoln characterized the attitude then, as conservatives will still claim it, the deserving advance in life; those who don’t are not deserving.

The prudent, penniless beginner in the world, labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land, for himself; then labors on his own account another while, and at length hires another new beginner to help him. This, say its advocates, is free labor — the just and generous, and prosperous system, which opens the way for all — gives hope to all, and energy, and progress, and improvement of condition to all. If any continue through life in the condition of the hired laborer, it is not the fault of the system, but because of either a dependent nature which prefers it, or improvidence, folly, or singular misfortune.

That there continues to be opportunity in the United States for some of talent, initiative, hard work, and good fortune to advance far from where they began in life is indisputable. Many people will know of someone who has, and that knowledge, that case, helps maintain the ideal. But is it possible to say of the United States created by Reagan and the Bushes and the conservative and “trickle down” ascendancy of the past thirty years, and in the decline of organized labor, as Lincoln said, that

Many independent men, in this assembly, doubtless a few years ago were hired laborers. And their case is almost if not quite the general rule.

Anyone who knows the economic facts of the the past three decades cannot say so in honesty or without shame. Lincoln framed his observations in detached exposition of the ideas of others, but he found a clever way to make his position known.

I have so far stated the opposite theories of “Mud-Sill” and “Free Labor” without declaring any preference of my own between them. On an occasion like this I ought not to declare any. I suppose, however, I shall not be mistaken, in assuming as a fact, that the people of Wisconsin prefer free labor, with its natural companion, education.

We need to recognize that for Lincoln here, “free labor” is not just in contrast to slave labor – it is labor by which people can express and advance their freedom through labor, and not be trapped and used always as “tools” and “mudsil,” what Republicans today would make of all but the very few who can still overcome the increasing obstacles set before them.

It being Lincoln, he managed to end a prosaic address on a loftier level.

And by the successful, and the unsuccessful, let it be remembered, that while occasions like the present, bring their sober and durable benefits, the exultations and mortifications of them, are but temporary; that the victor shall soon be the vanquished, if he relax in his exertion; and that the vanquished this year, may be victor the next, in spite of all competition.

It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: “And this, too, shall pass away.” How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! — how consoling in the depths of affliction! “And this, too, shall pass away.” And yet let us hope it is not quite true. Let us hope, rather, that by the best cultivation of the physical world, beneath and around us; and the intellectual and moral world within us, we shall secure an individual, social, and political prosperity and happiness, whose course shall be onward and upward, and which, while the earth endures, shall not pass away.


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The Political Animal

What Gingrich Meant When He Called Obama an Anti-colonialist

Certainly you recall it. We had some discussion of it here, and here, and here, and here. The curious question at the root of the whole discussion was what it means at this p0int in history and the evolution of world culture to call someone an “anti-colonialist” and mean it as a pejorative? What does it tell us of the world view of the person so using the term? We might call it a kind of ideological revanchism, and as much as the GOP is driven in its policies to reverse a century of progressive social policy, so too is it motivated to reaffirm Western imperialism. Witness:

One of the first acts of the new Republican-controlled House is to take away the floor voting rights of six delegates representing areas such as the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam and American Samoa.

Five of those delegates are Democrats, while one, from the Northern Marianas Islands, is an independent.

The GOP decision to rescind the ability of delegates to vote on amendments on the House floor was the predictable outcome of a longtime party divide. Democrats extended the voting rights in 1993 when they controlled the House, Republicans disenfranchised the delegates when they became the majority in 1995 and Democrats restored delegate rights when they regained control of the House in 2007.

I won’t focus on the apparent trench political maneuver of denying six probable opposition votes in the new congress, because that is not really a meaningful consideration.

The partisan battle has always been as much about political symbolism as the actual ability of delegates to influence national policy. Under the Democrats, delegates could vote on the floor on amendments – in what is known as the Committee of the Whole – but not on final passage. And their votes came with the stipulation that they could not change the outcome of a vote.

Well, just what is that symbolism?

Republicans have long argued that the Constitution, which says the House should be made up of representatives chosen by the “several states,” rules out voting by non-state delegates. The office of new House Speaker John Boehner on Tuesday said Boehner “continues to believe . that delegates should not vote in the Committee of the Whole because they constitutionally cannot vote on the House floor.”

“It’s very apparent to me that we need to focus on the Constitution and (under the Constitution) states are to be represented in the House of Representatives,” said House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier, R-Calif.

Ah, it’s the Constitution – that’s the thing. But the GOP respects the role of the courts in our democracy, does it not?

Democrats counter that, when Republicans sued to reverse the 1993 extension of voting rights, two federal courts ruled that Congress had acted within constitutional bounds. They also point out that the delegates represent U.S. citizens who serve in the military and are fighting and dying in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Not only citizens serving in the military overseas, but the residents of Washington D.C. are long disenfranchised citizens too. But D.C. is a constitutional anomaly, a mess in our own house long overdue for clean up. Foreign territories, though, governed by the United States and populated by people who are not citizens of the nation – should these not give “the greatest democracy in the world” pause? Yes, they all have complex histories. Puerto Ricans have been long conflicted and divided about how they wish to resolve their history with the U.S., and as a first principle we should be guided by what they want.  In the meantime, does it not behoove us not to rule, but to govern in partnership and respect – not to make a point from the very start of taking what is, to begin, so little away? If the Constitution still rated the descendants of African slaves as three fifths of a person, would Boehner and the GOP argue for day-to-day adherence to that constitutionalism while we sought to overturn it?

There are reasons the Republican Party isn’t called the Democratic party.

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The Political Animal

Citizen Bloomberg

Reports The New York Times:

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has been frank about why he took pains to keep his search for a new schools chancellor secret, saying he wanted to avoid a public spectacle.

But a spectacle is exactly what Mr. Bloomberg has unleashed, and one week after announcing his choice of Cathleen P. Black, a publishing executive, to succeed Joel I. Klein at the helm of the country’s largest school system, the mayor’s aides are trying to fend off mounting skepticism about her selection.

If you know enough about the political career and procedures of Michael Bloomberg, you know it was not a public spectacle he sought to avoid, but public scrutiny. Now, the CEO-King encourages his nominee to behave like another nabob who is equally elevated above the mob.

Ms. Black has repeatedly declined interviews, allowing other voices to fill the void.

None of this should surprise from a ruler mayor who believes himself unbeholden to those he deigns to govern for free out of corporatist-technocratic noblesse oblige. He can defy the people’s will in overturning the term limits they imposed on his job, he will travel in secret without any acceptance of an obligation to transparency, and still – he is so wealthy – he can purchase the endorsement of the electoral will and the acquiescence of those over whom he lords.

The opposition has coalesced slowly, partly because of the mayor’s tight grip on the city’s political sphere, which is strengthened by his popularity and his vast financial resources.

We learn the lesson without end, and some never do, that those who descend to govern or raise themselves up in their governance, however well-intentioned they begin or believe themselves to be, lose the democratic spirit just as they find entitlement. We have three more years to fully learn the lessons of just how wrong was Michael Bloomberg’s third term as mayor of New York City.

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