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October 30, 2006

Moral Blight in the Middle East

Anybody who thought that Israel’s embarrassing performance in last summer’s war in Lebanon would somehow energize the peace process must have been born yesterday. It’s not just that the “defeat” (if that’s what it was) could only bolster the political stature of Hezbollah while simultaneously validating its intransigent extremism. The MSM saw that coming a mile away.

The thornier problem was that the fiasco was bound to poison the Israeli political culture. And with today’s cabinet appointment of Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the extremist Yisrael Beiteinu party, a hardliner and, by anybody’s standard, a racist, the chickens are coming home to roost. A scared and wounded animal is always more dangerous than it’s healthy counterpart. The same must be said of wounded politicians like Prime Minister Olmert.

The Boston Herald has a succinct gloss of this guys bio:

Lieberman, 48, became a national figure a decade ago as a top aide to then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. A powerful behind-the-scenes mover, he became widely feared for his strong-arm tactics. He has grown into a potent political force since then, thanks to the support of Israel’s large community of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Lieberman, a former bar bouncer, immigrated to Israel from the Soviet republic of Moldova in 1978. His comments about Arabs have made him a divisive figure. At the height of fighting against Palestinians in 2002, Lieberman, then a Cabinet minister, called for the bombing of Palestinian gas stations, banks and commercial centers. More recently, he called for trading Israeli Arab towns for West Bank settlements - in effect stripping Israeli Arabs of citizenship - and executing Israeli Arab lawmakers who met with leaders of the Palestinians’ Hamas rulers, who are sworn to Israel’s destruction.

Perhaps the most telling point is the fact that Lieberman was born and raised in the Soviet Union—not exactly fertile democratic soil.
Radical authoritarian nationalism is, by definition, incompatible with democracy. It’s also antithetical to the kind of individualistic and pluralistic values that will need to take hold if the Middle East is ever to find peace and prosperity.

Ironically, however, those values might be taking hold in the very region of Palestine that seems to have triggered their erosion in the rest of the land. There’s an unnerving story in today’s Washington Post about Israeli settlers moving back in to the Golan Heights. As the Post reports it, the migration is fueled in part by Israel’s expansionist ideology, and in part by the lure of frontier economics—free land. Generally those two are a potent combination (just as they were in the American West of the Nineteenth Century, as “Manifest Destiny” became the political religion of poor white opportunity seekers).

But in the Golan Heights there is at least “some” precedent for cooperation across the ethic and national divide. The region is inhabited by growing populations of both Arab and Jew, and it’s not particularly clear which community will outgrow the other. Also, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that cooperation between communities may be more profitable than competition. Hence (if the Post’s story can be taken at fade value), there is an emerging trans-national sensibility:

"After almost 60 years, the basic question of whether the Israelis have a right to create a Jewish state is being asked again after this war," said Taiseer Maray, director of Golan for Development, an Arab-rights organization in Majdal Shams. "This shows the stupidity of power. If I were a clever Zionist, the first thing I'd do is seek peace."

In Maray's Israeli travel document, the space beside "Nationality" reads "undefined." It is an apt description of a population that gathers Fridays at an overlook on the edge of the town to shout to relatives across the border with Syria.

The Arabs here are allowed to sell their apples in Syria and study at Damascus University. Hundreds of graduates have returned, many of them working in summer camps, professional clubs and civic groups, the main venues for political organizing.

"The feeling among the people here is that the Syrians could come back any day," said Maray, who has not seen his three brothers in Damascus since the 1967 war. "The settlers now talk about breaking down the boundaries between us with jobs and investment."

Arab grievances here center on the preferential treatment Israeli settlements receive in allocation of water, which is scarce and expensive for many Arab farmers. Meanwhile, civic campaigns for the removal of the Israeli military base on a hill in the center of Majdal Shams have been ignored.

In recent weeks, a group calling itself the Syrian National Alliance has been posting communiqués around town calling for a new campaign against the Israeli occupation, including armed operations. "But we really don't know who they are," said Ayman Abu Jabal, 40, a former prisoner who works for Golan for Development. "So far they have not been very convincing."

One can only hope that this is a harbinger of things to come. Most of the debate about the Middle East is essentially a game of moralistic one-up-man-ship. Each side argues that it is more innocent than the other—and both have shitloads of evidence to prove it. And each side argues—though much less vocally to outsiders—that their deed to the land was signed by God himself, that in defending their soil they are only claiming their divine inheritance. (The underdogs in this fight are, admittedly, a little more assertive about the “exclusiveness” of their deed—but losers tend to be extreme when fighting back, it helps the recruiting efforts).

It’s not that the moral paradigm is invalid as an analytic tool. Of course important moral arguments can—and at some point, should—be made. Without in any way advancing the “moral equivalency” argument that so riles Israeli publicists, it is enough to say that all peoples have a right to a homeland and self-determination, and that right is not dependent on national virtue. No, arguments based on claims of moral superiority get no where. And pushed to the outer limits, such arguments are weapons in the hands of people like Avigdor Lieberman, politicians who are perfectly happy cloaking their racism in moral pieties.

Posted by stevemack at 06:46 PM | Comments (7514) | TrackBack

More Inequality

Take a look at Kevin Drrum's post on inequality, and especially the entire New Republic article by Jonathon Chait on the same issue (sorry, no link).

Posted by stevemack at 03:55 PM | Comments (2486) | TrackBack

Global Warming, Economic Freeze

You have to wonder whether the Stern Report out of Britain today, as dire as it is, will have any measurable impact on the American political climate. Sterns analysis is that climate change will have a devastating impact on the world economy (something akin to either of the world wars).

From the WaPo story,

Failing to curb the impact of climate change could damage the global economy on the scale of the Great Depression or either world war, according to a report issued today by the British government. The environmental devastation could cost between 5 and 20 percent of the world's gross domestic product, the report found.

The money quote from Stern, head of Britain’s Government Economic Service:

There is still time to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, if we act now and act internationally. But the task is urgent. Delaying action, even by a decade or two, will take us into dangerous territory. We must not let this window of opportunity close.

You’d think that that would be enough to scare even the most fact-averse neocon ideologue. But just a little deeper in the Post story we have the “equal time” quote from the other side—the visionaries at Cato:

"There's just a very small part of GDP [in industrialized nations] that's affected by weather in a direct or indirect way," said Jerry Taylor, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute, which accepts contributions from fossil-fuel companies. "It's very difficult to sketch out this disaster scenario."

One does not have to be either an economist or a scientist to see how tragically stupid such an observation is. He seems to be talking about climate change in the same way one discusses the impact of light showers on a church picnic. Climate change of the sort now predicted by mainstream scientists is obviously much more dramatic, and will likely have a more devastating ripple effect. If the Post wanted to balance their story, they might have done better to follow the Guardian’s example and offer up something from those who worry that Stern is too timid. (In fairness to the Post, we should thank them for pointing out the financial interests of their backers.) The Guardian writes:

It would be wrong to say that there is no scepticism from those blogging about the Stern review, both from those who feel his analysis does not appreciate the full extent of the peril the planet is in, and climate change sceptics.

Derek Deekster, on the Blog of Funk, writes:

"Believing an economist's prediction about the fate of the planet is like believing [Simpsons character] Charles Montgomery Burns has his employees' interests at heart. Stern's view on the state of the planet is far too limited in its scope. He says the global economy could shrink by "as much as 20%". This is ludicrous. He's not looking at the indicators. The global economy won't just shrink, it will totally disappear as we know it; 40% of species wiped out? Possibly more like 99%. Still, at least Sterns knows what REALLY scares people - cash - and it is a good thing that someone is talking the language of commerce from an ecological standpoint."

On this spectrum, it sounds like the “moderate” view is Stern’s.

Posted by stevemack at 03:41 PM | Comments (987) | TrackBack

October 26, 2006

Legal Issues

Over at the Brecher Brief I have two posts worth mentioning: In "Married and Gay in New Jersey" I consider how appropriate it is to use the judicial process to fight for fight for fundamental rights. I'd also recommend Dahlia Lithwick's argument in Slate.

In "The Military Commissions Act: A Right to Torture?" I argue that it is dangerous--and unnecessary--to alter the Constitution even in the "war on terrorism.

Posted by stevemack at 02:08 PM | Comments (196) | TrackBack

October 23, 2006

Flags of Our Fathers

I went in to see Clint Eastwood’s “Flags of Our Fathers,” the story behind the famous photo of soldiers raising the flag over Iwo Jima, expecting to leave irritated. I already knew the theme: our need to turn decent, ordinary kids into heroes—whether or not they want to be, or think they are—just to pander to our own narcissistic ideals. It’s certainly a good point, and one this story seemed tailor-made to argue.

But it still nagged me. Wouldn’t the film be an ironic parallel of the thing it’s trying to critique? The boys would still be symbols, only now they’d be used to represent something else—the tragedy of misplaced romanticism or the loneliness of the “unhero” or . . . whatever. Either way, they’d still be dressed up in some uniform and made to parade around so we could get a good life affirming cry out of it.

Well, maybe. But I still got a good cry out of it anyway.

It’s not that I think my original instincts were wrong, exactly. When you turn anything into a symbol, by definition then, you gut it of its original meaning. At communion, the blood of Christ no longer gets to be fermented grape juice. Fluttering atop a pole, Old Glory no longer gets to be a swatch of colored fabric. And in war, the kid who, in a fit of passion and fear, hurls himself against the monster of death, no longer gets to be just a kid. That’s just life, in the human world, anyway. The existential meanings of the things, or people, we make into symbols are never as important to us as the ideas we assign them.

That’s what happened to the three boys Eastwood gives us. And that may not be Eastwood’s point, but it is his movie. And as much as I want to care for those kids—and especially, the haunting, disturbing, Ira Hayes—just because they were people, each a cauldron of very special pain and fear, I can’t quite do it. What I do care for is the thing they represent—that is, whatever we need them to mean today.

Or whatever meanings we need today—flags is, after all, plural.

For Peter Travers of the Rolling Stone, the meaning we need is clear:

The ambitious script by William Broyles Jr. (Jarhead) and Crash Oscar winner Paul Haggis jumps back and forth in time in ways that could have been a jumble if Eastwood wasn’t so adept at cutting a path to what counts. That would be the ferocity of battle, edited by Joel Cox and shot in desaturated hues by Tom Stern to show what Eastwood sees as the brutal darkness of it. That would be the parallels to the Iraq War and the lies being perpetrated in the name of blind patriotism. That would be the honor due the soldiers who fight in the face of death on foreign shores and then face disdain at home.

Maybe, although I’m not so itchy to call the fight against Imperial Japan an allegory for “blind patriotism.” Or maybe it is something a little more existentially human, as Manohla Dargis of the New York Times seems to say:

[T]he film works, among other things, as a gentle corrective to Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan,” with its state-of-the-art carnage and storybook neatness. (Mr. Spielberg, whose company bought the film rights to “Flags of Our Fathers,” is one of its producers.) Where “Saving Private Ryan” offers technique, Mr. Eastwood’s film suggests metaphysics. Once again, he takes us into the heart of violence and into the hearts of men, seeing where they converge under a night sky as brightly lighted with explosions as any Fourth of July nocturne and in caves where some soldiers are tortured to death and others surrender to madness. He gives us men whose failings are evidence of their humanity and who are, contrary to our revolted sensitivities, no less human because they kill.
Or maybe it’s about the futility of constructing any large meaning worth saluting. That symbols never mean what people want to pretend they do—even the best of them are frauds—so always be prepared to look behind the curtain. Maybe, but I choose not to believe it.

Posted by stevemack at 10:21 PM | Comments (1498) | TrackBack

On Being "More" Equal than Others: Inequality and Democracy

In What’s the Matter with Kansas? Thomas Frank famously argued that the rise of social conservatism has been engineered by Republicans to distract the poor and middle class from voting their economic interests. I never really bought the argument because I have always believed that values, conservative or otherwise, play a real and legitimate role in political decisions. The most appropriate approach for liberals, I believe, is to address those values issues head-on.

That said—and Republican ploy or not—economic conservatives have certainly done their best to hold up their end of the fight. When pressed on the question of income inequality, economic conservatives have two basic answers: One, “there’s no such thing” and, two, “it’s not so bad, anyway”.

The “there’s no such thing” argument appears to be the most slippery—and blatantly political. At the core it rests on a definition game, the meaning of income. You can read the argument in a more political context, here. Both arguments are handily refuted by the Economic Policy Institute (yes, that liberal think tank). (CNN does a nice job of glossing the stats here.)

The other argument, that “it’s not so bad, anyway,” is at once more serious and more disturbingly narrow minded (besides being a tacit acknowledgement of widening economic disparity). The crux of the argument is that, even if the rich are getting richer, the poor are still better off than they ever were—and continue to get better. Moreover, public policy attempts to narrow that gap only undermine the fundamentally human drive to gain status through achievement; this “positional competition” is the psychological engine of progress. As Will Wilkinson puts it:

Are the external effects of positional competition really like pollution, as Layard says? Or is positional competition more like the light of the sun: it can burn you, but nothing grows without it? It’s not so easy to tell. Nobel Prize-winner Gary Becker and his

University of Chicago colleague Kevin Murphy have argued that without the motivating prospect of increased status, there would be ‘underinvestment’ in entrepreneurial activity: ‘Great scientists and outstanding entrepreneurs receive enormous prestige and status precisely in order to encourage scientific and startup activities,’ they write.[22] The benefits of such status-seeking, they say, may more than offset the negative effect of status ‘arms races’. Even if the taste for positional goods is unavoidable, Indiana University economist Richmond Harbaugh argues that fear of falling behind may induce high rates of savings—a kind of stockpiling for future status-signaling consumption races—with positive overall effects on economic growth.[23] There’s no excuse for ignoring the benefit side of the cost-benefit ledger.

To be fair, Wilkinson’s is not taking issue with equality but a certain kind of politics that attempts to dismantle the competitive machinery—both economic and political—that leads to inequality. The problem here is that, even if the poor are now much better off than they ever were, relative economic privation undermines democracy. In a capitalist society (an economic system, by the way, that I think is both inevitable and demonstrably good), money wields power. The Supreme Court even categorizes it as [political] speech. Free enterprise may supply the fertile soil for political liberty, but radical (and accelerating) inequality supply the building blocks of oligarchy.

The answer here is not the cartoon version of old-style liberalism that attempts to erase inequality by government fiat—nor is it a utopian fantasy that promises to end competitive struggle through some mass, ideological lobotomy. And, as 2006 Nobel Prize economics winner Edmund S. Phelps makes clear, it is not the "corporate capitalism" of Western Europe sometimes idealized by American liberals (but effectively copied by American megacorporations). In fact, there is no “one” answer. What is needed is a sustained, pragmatic, experimental, drive to invent new ways to put productive resources within the reach of all citizens.

Doing so is a matter of commitment, a “values” question.

Posted by stevemack at 05:00 PM | Comments (3094) | TrackBack

On Staying the Course

So, we’re to stay the course. There’ll be no “cutting and running” as long as Bush is at the helm.

What tragic nonsense.

One of the exasperating—no, depressing—things about Bush’s fiasco in Iraq is that he’s given a bad name to two, very important ideas: “spreading democracy” and “just warfare.”

Besmirching the notion of justified warfare will be an especially difficult problem for democrats, I fear. Vietnam left multiple scars on American political culture—but one of them was that made too many liberal Democrats reflexively hostile to any argument for using American military muscle—no matter how necessary or appropriate. I cheered, then, when Clinton (pretty much alone among world leaders and castigated by Republicans) took out Milosivic. Surely, here was a case where the use of military power to advance a foreign policy goal was not only right, but (dare I say it?) righteous. If I were a conspiracy theorist, and believed that Bush had seventy times the brains I know he has, I might speculate that the whole Iraq business was an attempt to bomb the Democrats back to 1972.

But how the Iraq war has poisoned the notion of spreading democracy is something that I almost take as a personal injury. I have always been a Wilsonian democrat (small “d”) in both temperament and philosophy. It’s something of a religion for me. I published a book on democratic theory; a meditation on America’s most important poet, Walt Whitman, that I hoped would teach me something about the metaphysics of democratic life. And it has. I am, finally, one of democracy’s true believers. I don’t happen to believe that it is morally equivalent to other forms of human social organization. Rather, I believe it is something of a moral absolute, however vague in theory or imperfect in practice it may in the real world.

But believing that democracy is a moral imperative is not the same thing as believing that political or electoral democracy, in isolation of any other cultural support, is some sort of magical force powerful enough to transform a whole people and their traditional way of life. Political democracy is always the product of historical change, a cultural evolution. Democratic ideas are always woven into a nation’s cultural fabric before democratic rights are taken at gunpoint or secured by ballot. Democracy never comes top down. And it is never the gift of an enlightened occupation force.

Thinking otherwise is foolish and dangerous.

And foolish and dangerous are perfect synonyms for that delusional fantasy called the Bush doctrine. AIE, the neoconservative think tank that provided much of the theoretical underpinnings of the Bush Administration (much of its personnel, as well), argued for that doctrine’s central feature back in 2003—when their golden “Pax Americana” seemed to them just beyond the horizon:

A third reality that argues for assertive U.S. power is that the opportunities to extend a "balance of power that favors freedom"--or, more precisely, a preponderance of American power that favors freedom--outlined in the Bush Doctrine are genuine. The collapse of the Soviet Union is clearly making for a Europe "whole and free." Democratic practices are taking firmer root in cultures previously thought to be inhospitable, particularly in Asia, where Lee Kwan Yew's assertion of an authoritarian streak in "Confucian culture" looks increasingly suspect; Taiwan has spawned an almost raucous multiparty system and seen a peaceful transfer of power within it. In such a context, the Bush Doctrine's promise to liberalize the Islamic world--especially as it remains itself politically fractured--cannot be lightly dismissed, even if it may take many years to fulfill.

This formulation only works, of course, when you conveniently forget that Taiwanese political democracy was incubated within a raucous free market system—and that fostered by an American-backed military government led for some twenty-five years by Chiang Kai-shek (or, as Truman called him, “Cash-My-Check”). In Taiwan, a hunger for political liberty pretty much began as a hunger for economic liberty. But then again, what the hell was the Boston Tea party all about? Or for that matter, the Magna Carta?

A culture based on freedom and democracy come to people when they find those things essential for advancing their “material” life. That’s not cynicism, it’s history. That doesn’t mean that democracy is only a philosophical fig leaf covering greed. A mature democratic culture is a rich tapestry of beliefs and values—about what it means to be human, about the obligations of social life, about our connections to the rest of nature. But those beliefs and values don’t take hold in a society until its people, as individuals, claim ownership of their own destiny. And nothing about recent Iraqi history suggests its people are anywhere close to that point. Those blue fingers that seemed so inspiring did not belong to citizens in any real sense of the word—just combatants in the civil war using the best weapon at hand. Or, perhaps as Brendan O'Neill puts it, it's something way beyond civil war.

To be sure, a little foreign intervention can be quite helpful when a people are struggling to realize their democratic ambitions. Our own revolution is example enough. But France did not unilaterally decide to liberate us—then occupy us—so we might learn from them the fundamentals of an enlightened politics. When the hunger for democracy builds to a critical mass in a nation, and its people need and want our help in their fight for liberty, we won’t need to argue the case to them or the world. They will be making the case to us.

And that’s when you don’t cut and run.

Posted by stevemack at 03:13 PM | Comments (4007) | TrackBack

October 05, 2006

Conservative Moral Bankruptcy

Is Foleygate a distinctly conservative scandal?

Yes, but not because there’s a link between conservatism and aberrant sexual behavior, gay or straight. The problem is that the conservative political establishment is morally paralyzed. The simplistic and shallow ideological vision of social conservatism has disarmed its political leadership of the conceptual tools necessary to make meaningful moral distinctions between healthy and abusive or predatory homosexual conduct.

The problem is that the leadership must paper over some fundamental differences between elements of its base. For the vast majority of mainstream (non-social) conservatives, “normal” homosexual conduct (i.e., engaging in non-abusive, mutually rewarding relationships between consenting adults) is plotted somewhere on the spectrum between tolerable and insignificant. (I have seen some studies to support this, but most of my evidence here is admittedly anecdotal). But for social conservatives—the demographic that currently holds the monopoly on Republican moral rhetoric—it is neither; in fact, absolutist and unrealistic intolerance concerning homosexuality is one of their a signature issues. The practical effect is that mainstream conservative realists like (presumably) Speaker Hastert have no language to explain or critique Foley-like aberrations—they are unable to articulate a distinction between the behavior they officially repudiate but secretly accept and actions they think are truly repulsive. So, among friends, they shut up.

From this perspective, feigning ignorance was probably the only thing Hastert could do. He could not condemn Foley publicly (or warn him privately) for stalking sixteen year old pages without begging the “gay question.” In order to say exactly where Foley crossed the line he would have had to acknowledge that there even was a line to cross. Of course, that wouldn’t be a problem for most mature adults. They’d draw the line by first affirming Foley’s moral right to have a relationship with any consenting adult he wishes—then point out that targeting kids who are both sexually and psychologically immature is a gross moral transgression: it selfishly makes a plaything of somebody else’s innocence, robbing them of it in the process. Moreover, they’d argue that for a member of Congress to do so is a misappropriation of public power for the gratification personal appetite—an act just as repugnant as any other act of official thievery.

But Hastert can’t say that. He’d have to begin with the proposition that Foley’s primary moral failure is the fact that he’s gay (whether he believes it or not). But then what? If the big concern is Foley’s homosexuality, the fountain of evil from which all else has sprung, the other stuff is small potatoes. At best, maybe, they are evidence that points to the real transgression; not distinct sins in themselves. Mention them, sure—but stress them too much and you muddle the moral picture. It would be like the prosecutor in a murder case harping that it was such a tragedy the killer had to break a brand new door lock to get to the victim—making vandalism the real crime.

Or, like liberal Democrats saying to one of their own: “we affirm your right to be a hate-filled racist, but we draw the line at cross-burning.” Another heinous act of vandalism.

And without the language to make serious moral judgments, it’s best to blame the press or the Democrats or the kids themselves.

Or better yet, just say you forgot!

Posted by stevemack at 12:38 PM | Comments (7427) | TrackBack

"A Whitman for our Time."
- Jerome Loving,
"Stephen John Mack's The Pragmatic Whitman: Reimagining American Democracy, [is] The most thoroughly informed philosophical reading of Whitman to appear in decades. Mack develops the premise . . . That Whitman shares with John Dewey a vision of democracy as a 'civic religion' in America, a profoundly secularist and progressive perspective.

- M. Jimmie Killingsworth, Texas A & M University
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