Wednesday, September 28, 2011
Friday, September 23, 2011
Liberty and Folkways
The occasion of the post was the City of Chicago attempting to save money on its employee health insurance costs by charging an extra $50 per month unless they engaged in a regular exercise program. On the one hand he found the outraged reaction, treating this as a totalitarian nightmare amusing. On the other hand, he said, there is a serious insight here. When these people say freedom, they don’t mean, say, the criminal procedure protections offered by the Bill of Rights. After all, what are the chances they will ever actually be charged with a crime? Freedom to them means the right to their favored lifestyle, unhindered. And, although he does not add this, probably unchallenged.
On the one hand, I suppose I’ve known this all along. On the other hand, having it put in such stark relief explains a lot.
It’s easiest to understand when the coercive power of the state is implicated. After all, one of the commenters on the thread pointed out, any number of corporate employers do the same thing. And insurance companies may offer discounts for healthy lifestyles. But these meet with less resistance because, after all, you can always find another job or another insurer. But then again, no one forces city employees to work for the city; they are free to take another job, too. It explains the NRA crowd who seem utterly unconcerned about any part of the Constitution except the Second Amendment – nothing else infringes on their folkways. It explains the sense that freedom is being threatened even when the state coercion is very slight – use of taxpayer dollars to build trains and other public transportation, discussion of relaxing zoning laws to allow higher density housing, requiring posting of calorie and nutrition information in restaurants, and so forth. To people who identify a personal car with freedom, who like the quiet and roominess of the suburbs, who don’t want to be nagged about their food, these things feel intrusive even if there is no force involved.* People’s favored lifestyles are being criticized and officially disapproved of. That is intrusion enough.
It may explain part of what is behind Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism. In interviews he has argued that nothing Republicans do is as intrusive as, say, a ban on smoking in bars because they don’t seek to impose a lifestyle. (As the Religious Right influence in the Republican Party continues to grow, it will be harder and harder for Goldberg to deny that conservatives, too, seek to impose a lifestyle). It explains the reviewer who said the very embodiment of liberal fascism was Jimmy Carter going on TV in a sweater urging people to turn the thermostat down.
It also explains the hostility and that the sense that freedom is being threatened ever when the coercive power of the state is not implicated – switchboards that say, “For English, press one,” fast food restaurants offering healthy alternatives, store clerks who say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” and,, of course, any visible (or invisible) presence of Islam. The state is not involved in any of these, and the greatest coercion at stake is having to press one to get English. People make up elaborate PC conspiracies (presumably abetted by the state), but what is really happening, for the most part is that familiar folkways are being challenged and criticized. That feels intrusive enough.
Fum does not explore why this rage over a threat to one’s folkways is so much a right wing phenomenon. Why don’t you year it on our side? Right wingers I assume would say the answer is simple – ours is the officially favored lifestyle and theirs is the one under siege. I think there is something to this. In particular, our side has been highly successful getting part of its agenda, in the form of abortion and gay rights, enacted by the courts. What right wing lifestyle concern (other than gun ownership) has ever been constitutioalized? And our side is, after all, the beneficiary of building trains, nutrition labels, smoking bans, and so forth. But is it all as one-sided as right wingers often think? Their side has been the beneficiary of road building to accommodate more automobile traffic, density restrictions on housing, separate residential and commercial zoning, loopholes in fuel efficiency standards for SUV’s, various privileges given to churches, abstinence education, and so forth. The War on Drugs is a whole lot more intrusive expression of disapproval of a lifestyle than most conservatives will ever know.
I am inclined to think that our side’s reaction is not rage because instead we prefer condescension. We don’t so much reject any other lifestyle as illegitimate as feel smugly superior to anyone who doesn’t share it. And we do treat other lifestyles, such as suburban sprawl and heavy car traffic as social ills to be overcome. I think our side would do well to overcome its self-righteousness and acknowledge that yes, some people like living in suburbs, sprawl and all, and some people equate private cars with freedom and some people feel really threatened when you speak of their favored lifestyle as a social ill to be overcome. Try to imagine how it would feel if someone talked that way (in similarly smug and patronizing tones) about your favored lifestyle. And stop equating your consumer choices as marks of moral superiority instead of, you know, consumer choices.
This being said, not all folkways are worthy. Some really do have to be changed. Frum offers the example of outlawing thatched roofs in Boston in the 1630’s (a fire hazard) and building sewers in New York in the 1840’s (this encountered a lot of resistence!) And, although he does not mention it, a much less benign and amusing example was the resistance to desegregation, often expressed in terms of a threat to liberty. Even unhealthy lifestyles are not purely a matter of personal choice if they raise everyone’s insurance rates (much less are taxpayer subsidized though Medicare). But we are well-advised to keep in mind the extent to which most people do equate freedom with preservation of their folkways – and be sensitive to this before rushing to be too judgmental.
Labels: Dangerous Polarization
Thursday, September 22, 2011
The Real Dispute on Charity
Certainly every time I read conservative critiques of government social programs (either by libertarians or by Evangelicals), I do indeed come away with the impression that we are talking past each other, though perhaps not for the same reasons he does. To me it all comes down to a book I read by a rabbi about contrasting Christian and Jewish views of charity. Both religions, he commented, emphasize the importance of charitable giving. Both see it as having two purposes, to provide for the poor, and to teach us to be generous. But Jews focus more on providing for the poor and Christians focus more on teaching people to be generous.
This has some important implications. If the focus is on teaching people to be generous, then charity has to be voluntary; to coerce it defeats its entire purpose. If people’s voluntary donations do not adequately provide for the poor, then the remedy is to teach generosity better. Since generosity comes from the heart, it is a deeply personal matter that cannot be coerced. The focus is on the rights of the giver. In the Jewish view, by contrast, a mandatory tax does make sense.* Since the purpose is to provide for the por, ensuring sufficient resources to see to it that the poor are adequately provided for takes priority. By all means, let’s do better at teaching people to be generous, but in the mean time, the poor have to be provided for. The focus is on the needs of the recipient.
This, I would say, is the real difference in viewpoints. Evangelical Christians say that how charitable they wish to be is a private matter that the government has no business dictating. Libertarians say that being taxed for anything beyond essential core functions of government is a violation of their rights. Both denounce any taxpayer funded social services as socialism. I would say that socialism is the view that only the needs of the recipient matter, and that the rights of the giver have no legitimate place in public discourse, the Jewish view taken to its illogical conclusion. But the view I hear from libertarians is the opposite – that only the rights of the giver matter, and that the needs of the recipient have no legitimate place in public discourse. The absolutism of this view is alarming. I prefer a less absolutist view – that the proper balance between the rights of the giver and the needs of the recipient is a proper subject of public discourse.
To be fair to Mataconi, he does not appear to take the absolutist libertarian viewpoint. He acknowledges at least some scope for a taxpayer funded safety net and criticizes governmental social programs at least partly based on their effectiveness. But he offers two links (inaccessible because I cannot access the original) that do come much closer to the absolutist libertarian view. The first concedes that there might be room to disagree on whether private efforts would be sufficient, but then moves on to more important matters -- there is nothing compassionate about robbing people of their hard-earned money and theatening them with prison cells for tax evasion. Clearly, the adequacy of private efforts are a minor matter easily brushed aside; the important thing is the coercive and illegitimate nature of taxation. Still, ultimately he fails to address what to do if private contributions are not sufficient. The second, by contrast, does. He argues at length that we should learn to distinguish between society and that state. Society has legitimate business providing for the poor and the sick; the state does not. Society should not let the uninsured die for lack of coverage; the state should. And there’s the answer. If voluntary giving is not enough to pay for medical case, better for the uninsured to be left to die than for taxpayers to be forced to foot the bill.
I suppose my answer to all this would be that I am not willing to leave the uninsured to die because voluntary charity should provide for them. People don’t always do what they should. Government has a way of stepping in when they don’t. So sure, I believe that voluntary private charity should be sufficient to provide for the poor and the sick. I also believe that people should refrain from committing crimes, businesses should be scrupulously honest in their dealings, married people should live happily ever after, and all food on the shelves should be clean and safe. I also acknowledge that it doesn’t always work out that way. That’s why we have a criminal justice system, civil courts, divorce courts, and public health inspectors. And since private charity does not, in fact, adequately provide for the poor and the sick we have a social safety net. I would also say that I measure a society’s compassion, not just by how subjectively generous people are in their hearts, but by how objectively well it cares for its weakest members.
And that, I believe, is the real dispute over charity -- is its purpose to provide for the poor, or to teach us to be generous. Which matters more, the rights of the giver, or the needs of the recipient? Until we bring these alternate viewpoints into the clear light, the talking past each other will continue.**
*It is probably impolitic to point out that Islam takes a distinction Jewish view here. Islam favors a mandatory tax to provide for the poor with additional, voluntary donations strongly encouraged.
**And what is really interesting is how the same person can flip from one view to another apparently without noticing he difference. Left libertarian Jim Henley says that he might have written something like that once. He even says, "I supported the true empathy of unforced charity, worried about government programs 'crowding out' civil society, and believed that the 'coerced' nature of redistributive policies made it impossible to be 'moral' at all, since morality requires affirmative choice." Clearly the focus is on charity as teaching us to be generous and entirely on the rights of the giver. The needs of the recipient are secondary at best. But he explains that he has change his mind. The reasons he gives essentially deal with his severe doubts about the ability of private contributions to do the job – the costs of modern medicine are too great, local communities are easily overwhelmed, and the emotional burden can be just too great outside of the sort of impersonal bureaucratic organization that gives some professional distance. In other words, the needs of the recipient will not be met. Does he not see the basic difference in outlook between these two views?
Wednesday, September 21, 2011
Why We Should Abandon the Myth of the Social Security Trust Fund
And really, we had it coming for obscuring the true nature of Social Security. The myth of the Ponzi scheme is simply a variant on the myth of the trust fund – pointing out how poorly the trust fund model applies. But once you drop the trust fund model, and the claim that it is a Ponzi scheme loses its credibility.
What is really happening is simple. Social Security is a tax-and-transfer system. People of working age are paying taxes to support retirees. When today’s working people retire, a younger generation of works will be taxed to support them. And so on. So long as everyone pays in and everyone expects to live long enough to benefit, there is little resistance to such a system. All advanced industrial countries in the world have such a system in one form or another.
So where does the trust fund come into the picture? Until extremely recently, Social Security ran a surplus, i.e., it took in more than it paid out. And what became of the surplus? It was used to fund other government operations. But the general fund, when it used Social Security funds to run operations, would say that it owed Social Security a certain amount to be paid back in the future. Critics called that raiding the Social Security trust fund. Anti-critics called it investing in U.S. treasury bonds. But raiding the Social Security trust fund and investing it in treasury bonds are exactly the same thing. Either one just means using Social Security tax revenue to fund current operations. The "trust fund" is nothing but an accounting gimmick, a theoretical promise that when Social Security falls into deficit, other taxes will be used to pay the benefits. Talk of the trust fund running out just means that this theoretical promise will expire and the government will no longer be obliged to use non-Social Security taxes to pay Social Security benefits.*
I can understand why supporters would want to encourage the myth of the trust fund. Fearing that people would not be willing to pay a tax during their working lives to support current retirees, and that retirees might have misgivings about asking working people to foot the bills for their own retirements, advocates of Social Security proposed the fiction that really people were paying into a trust fund ad receiving their investments back. Such arguments remove the usual resistance to a tax-and-transfer system, but the play into the hands of people who claim it is a fraud or in danger of failing.
Why? Well, for one thing, since there isn't an actual trust fund, it is very easy to make the case that no such trust fund exists or, if it does, that it is being egregiously mismanaged. Real trust funds start with a lump sum and have bunch of financial experts looking for the best investments. Real retirement accounts and pension funds have to have actual money and investments to cover future payments. Social Security simply takes the incoming revenues, pays current obligations, and then spends the surplus on other government operations. You would, indeed, never be able to get away with running an actual trust fund that way (hence the accusation that it is fraudulent). All of which is irrelevant once you concede that there is no trust fund, but only a simple tax-and-transfer system.
But even more significant is the scary talk of the trust fund running out in 2037 (or whenever). If you treat Social Security as a real trust fund that means (a) that we can keep making payments with no trouble up till then, but then (b) that once the trust fund runs out, Social Security will run out of funding and payments will cease.
The real situation is both more and less alarming. It is more alarming in the sense that the shortfall has begun right now and we are already obligated to start cutting into everything else to pay for the gap in Social Security. Maybe the thought that everything but Social Security having its funding cut to pay for Social Security doesn't bother you, but it definitely bothers me. On the other hand, expiring of the trust fund does not mean that all funding will collapse. It means the theoretical oblitgation to strip everything else to pay for Social Security will cease. Revenues will continue to come in. They will merely fall about 25% short of obligations. Cut Social Security obligations by 25% for everyone born after (say) 1956 and the problem will be solved. Or, if you don't like that approach, there are any number of other alternatives to match revenues to obligations.
But pretending there is a trust fund in the light of all evidence to the contrary does nothing to protect the program. It simply exposes the embarrassing contradictions.**
*So what would have happened if we had followed Bill Clinton's advice and used his surpluses to "shore up the Social Security trust fund"? Assuming the surpluses would have continued and the economy had not crashed (two dubious assumptions), we would have continued to un surpluses until Social Secuity obligations began exceeding revenues. Then the surpluses would gradually have dwindled. This would mean using non-Social Security taxes to pay for Social Secuity benefits, on an indefinite basis. But so what?
**And I can't resist a link to Paul Krugman, bless his heart, defending the concept of a Social Security trust fund. His logic is most unpersuasive (at least to me). He points out that Ronald Reagan cut income taxes while raising Social Security taxes. This had the practical effect of not actually cutting total taxes, but merely making them more regressive, but it sold well as a plan to protect Social Security. "[I]f you say that there is no link between the payroll tax and future Social Security benefits – which is what denying the reality of the trust fund amounts to – then Greenspan and company pulled a fast one back in the 1980s: they sold a regressive tax switch, raising taxes on workers while cutting them on the wealthy, on false pretenses." To which I can only say, "Well, DUH!" I've known that all along.
Saturday, September 17, 2011
Slice Four: European Semi-Fascists
I will admit to not following these European parties much, but they take a growingly nasty, semi-fascist tone. They belong to a longstanding and ugly European traditional of blood and soil nationalism, one that has a deep-seated tradition of anti-Semitism, distrusting the Jew as liberal cosmopolite without national loyalty. The current version is much the same, only it substitutes Muslims for Jews as the internal enemy and passionately supports Israel. The old hatred for the liberal cosmopolitan Jew remains, but with the assurance that they hate liberal, cosmopolitan Jews only because they are liberal and cosmopolitan, not because they are Jewish. The distinction between the good Jew and the bad Jew is made far more explicit than any mainstream politician or religious figure in the United States would dare.
To take the most exteme example, consider Anders Breivik. Jews and Zionism were not his primary concern when he opened filre on Norway's Labor Party youth, but the subject did appea in his manifesto. One commentator remarks:
Breivik's "Zionism" coexists with a virulent brand of selective anti-Semitism -- one that sees Jews as likely carriers of cosmopolitan, nontraditional values and targets liberal Jews for special loathing. In his discussion of Nazism, Breivik agrees that most German and European Jews in the 1930s were "disloyal" -- "similar to the liberal Jews today." Hitler's error, he believes, was to lump the "good" Jews with the "bad," instead of rewarding the former with a Jewish homeland in a Muslim-free Palestine.Another quotes him as saying“[P]lease learn the difference between a nation-wrecking multiculturalist Jew and a conservative Jew…Never target a Jew because he is a Jew, but rather because he is a category A or B traitor.” Both observe that Breivik is by no means alone. The semi-fascist English Defense League harasses Muslims and is led by a Holocaust denier, but engages in pro-Zionist demonstations. >Meanwhile “a Belgian politician known for his contacts with SS veterans, an Austrian with neo-Nazi ties, and a Swede whose political party has deep roots in Swedish fascism,” met with members of the Israeli Knesset to express solidarity with their stuggle against Arabs.
As for the present, Breivik estimates that about three-quarters of European and American Jews, and about half of Israeli Jews, "support multiculturalism"; he urges fellow nationalists to "embrace the remaining loyal Jews as brothers rather than repeating the mistake of" the Nazis. What to do with today's "disloyal" Jews, he does not say.
What is going on? The most obvious answer is simply that Muslims have replaced Jews as the accepted scapegoat and since Israel is a Western outpost fighting the Muslim hoards, it must be an ally. Certainly, I think there is a great deal of truth to that, but I do not think it is the whole truth. The other part of it is that nationalists, even as they define themselves by their enemies, often each other, have a strong affinity for each other just beneath the surface.
At the risk of offending Godwin’s Law, Europe, say, 1870 to 1940 is a fine example. It was in the later 19th Century that right wing and nationalist became synonymous. * Indeed, the right wing's great claim to legitimacy was that they were more patriotic than their rivals. Right wing nationalists, if ever they seemed intellectually unfashionable, might comfort themselves with the thought that liberals with their belief in universal human rights, and socialists, with their international brotherhood of labor, might talk a good game, but can they be counted on when the chips are really down? When the test comes, we’ll see who really stands by their country in its hour of peril.**
Then Hitler invaded, and a funny thing happened. Liberals and socialists patriotically stood up for their countries, while right wing hyper-nationalists all turned out to be a pack of traitors! The remnants (and descendants) of French anti-Dreyfussards, -- who in the 19th Century fiercely protected France from one Jew falsely accused of spying for the Germans -- now collaborated en masse with German occupiers. To this day, French ultra-nationalist Jean Marie Le Pen defends the German occupation as not "particularly inhuman." The same pattern held across much of Europe -- the Arrow Cross in Hungary, the Iron Guard in Romania, the Ustasha in Croatia, Quisling's Nasjonal Samling in Norway and an impressive host of other ultra-nationalists, who regularly impugned the patriotism of their opponents, showed that they came to powe by opening collaberating with Nazi invaders. Even the extreme Zionist Lehi approached the Nazis in 1940 to propose an alliance -- Nazis would sent European Jews to Israel and cooperate with them in expelling the British!
Why should this be so? It is easy enough to explain for the liberals – they saw Hitler as an obvious threat to universal human rights. Likewise the Socialists *** saw his hype-nationalism as anathema to an international brotherhood of – well, anything. But why were so many right wing hyper-nationalists the first to cut a deal with the Nazis?
The reasons are varied. In some cases, no doubt they acted out of sincerely patriotic motives, believing that resistance was hopeless than their best chance was to cut the best deal possible. But certainly they would have accepted no such excuses if the positions had been reversed, and the liberals or socialists had been the collaborators and the right wing the resistance. Others defined themselves in terms of some enemy other than Germany and were willing to accept German support on the theory that thine enemy’s enemy shall be thy friend. But it must have become apparent before long that Germany was a far worse enemy than – well, whoever else they opposed. I can only assume that in the end, right wing super-nationalists so often turned out to be traitors who collaborated with Hitler because at some level they saw him as a kindred spirit and liked what he stood for.
As I say, it's easy to call Godwin on these comments and to accuse me of comparing support for Israel with collaboration with Hitler. That is not what I mean. I mean, rather, that ultra-nationalist cooperation with the Nazis is only the most extreme example of all ultra-nationalists being much alike under the skin. And I am saying that European semi-fascists are fond of Israel’s most hard line Likudniks, not out of any inherent fondness for Israel or Jews, but simply because they respect and admire hard line nationalism in all its forms. They despise liberal, cosmopolitan Jews because they recognize libeal cosmopolitanism, not rival nationalism, is the true opponent of ultra-nationalism. And who knows, maybe if push comes to shove, they will discover that Islamic nationalism, too, is a kindred spirit.
*It was not always so. More on this in my next post.
**Am I being anachronistic here, attributing to late 19th and early 20th Century right wingers the aggrieved resentment at being intellectually unfashionable that obviously so roils the American right today? Mayber, But I am inclined to think that this sort of siege mentality is an important part of right wing authoritarian thinking in any age.
***By socialists, I refer mostly to the Social Democrats, who retained enough of Marx to continue believing in an international brotherhood of labor (and to recognize that it could be preserved only by avoiding international wars), but not enough to take the whole revolution and class warfare too seriously. Communists, by contrast, were little more than Soviet agents. They opposed Hitler when they got the order, but no sooner.
Sunday, September 11, 2011
A Brief Aside: Mel Gibson
I could see several reasons why this might be so. For one thing, these were pre-Christian Jews, and therefore still the Chosen People and free of the taint of having rejected Jesus. Second, Gibson is a Catholic and therefore learned the Books of the Maccabees as scripture and not mere apocrypha, or even history. But above all else, it the story is clearly part and parcel with his other movies like Braveheart and The Patriot. This will be his third movie about a nationalistic revolt. Apparently Mel Gibson like nationalistic revolts on general principle.
Thursday, September 08, 2011
Pseudo Libertarians and Essential Core Functions
[M]ost Republican officeholders seem strangely uninterested in the effective repeal of Fourth Amendment protections by the Patriot Act, the weakening of habeas corpus and self-incrimination protections in the public hysteria following 9/11 or the unpalatable fact that the United States has the largest incarcerated population of any country on earth. . . . Instead, they prefer to rail against those government programs that actually help people.Well, sure, hasn't he ever heard Ronald Reagan's famous quote, that the scariest words in the English language are "I'm from the government and I'm here to help." But Ronald Reagan's hostility to government never stopped him from favoring a huge expansion in privacy invasions and incarceration in his so-called War on Drugs.
The whole distinction is key to the entire Republican world view. Did Lofgren seriously work with Republicans for 28 years and never learn the concept of Essential Core Function? Or, as someone else put it, the difference between the Mommy Party and the Daddy Party? *
Lofgren will never read my blog, but for anyone who does and shares his confusion, let me explain the difference between real libertarians and what I would call pseudo-libertarians. Real libertarians distrust the government in all its aspects, both “mommy” aspects and “daddy” aspects. They differ on which “mommy” functions (if any) are legitimate. As for “daddy” functions (armies, police and prisons), they regard these as more necessary and legitimate than mommy functions, but also more dangerous. Hence real libertarians try to limits daddy functions as well as mommy functions to the minimum necessary. Wars in genuine self defense are acknowledged as necessary, but wars of choice should be avoided. Police are obviously necessary for traditional crimes like murder, rape, theft and so forth, but victimless crimes like gambling, drug trafficking or prostitution should be allowed. That's why real libertarians are big advocates of drug legalization.
Pseudo-libertarians, by contrast, essentially divide government into its Essential Core Functions, i.e., daddy functions, and everything else, i.e., mommy functions. Opposition to government and protection of freedom are therefore seen as confining government to its essential core functions. Daddy functions are, by definition, not seen as threats to liberty because they are Essential Core Functions. It is only when government spreads into mommy functions that liberty is in danger because mommy functions mean that government is metastasizing beyond its proper role, and who knows how far it will spread. The same rule applies, by the way, to opposition to government spending. Any spending whatever on mommy functions is an outrageous extravagance that we cannot afford and must be ruthlessly cut. Armies, policy and prisons, by contrast, don’t count as “spending” because they are Essential Core Functions and therefore you don’t have to worry about how to pay for them.
Once you understand this distinction, it explains a lot. It explains why wiretapping, indefinite detention, endless war and torture under George Bush were not threatening, and remain unthreatening even when now under the much-feared Obama, but universal health care is the end of all liberty. It explains why the Republican base is completely unconcerned about the possibility that Governor Perry might have executed an innocent man. Executions, far from seeming like the ultimate government intrusion on liberty and therefore to be carefully controlled, are an Essential Core Function and therefore not threatening, even if they get the wrong person sometimes. It explains why pseudo-libertarians seem so unconcerned about the War on Drugs. Focusing on the shocking searches and seizures, police kicking in doors, the SWAT teams, the long prison sentences for minor offenses and so forth doesn’t conjure up loss of liberty to a pseudo libertarian; it merely shows that the Drug War is within the government’s Essential Core Functions and therefore not threatening to liberty. And it explains why a business lobby that sponsored Arizona's anti-immigration law as a business opportunity to increase prisoners for the private prison industry could unironically call itself the conservative, free-market orientated, limited-government group.**
The most extreme form I have seen of this was a letter to the editor explaining that government is really just a monopoly on violence and clearly a monopoly on violence has no business providing services. Wrap your head around this if you can. Government is not threatening liberty so long as it is being violent. Only when it does anything that is not violent do we have to start worrying.
Back to Lofgren, he discusses Republicans' extreme acts of obstructionism and sabotage in ominous terms, "[L]egislating has now become war minus the shooting, something one could have observed 80 years ago in the Reichstag of the Weimar Republic. " But, he says, Republicans are not just doing this to undermine Democratic adminstations, they are seeking to undermine people's confidence in government itself, because the more people's confidence in government is undermined, the more they will vote for Republicans, the anti-government party. But, once again, their attempt to undermine people's faith in government applies only to government in its mommy functions. Daddy functions are a different matter altogether. And, indeed, polls show that while people's confidence in government in general and Congress in particular falls ever lower, confidence in the military and the police remain high. Certainly, it is important for the public to have confidence in the military and the police. The 60's and '70's were an alarming example of what happens to society when the public does not have confidence in the military and the police.
But the military and the police are not just the most essential core functions of the government (although they are that). They are also deeply (and properly) authoritarian organizations that are supposed to be kept under civilian control. But the more the public reveres the military and police and holds civilian authorities in contempt, the harder such civilian control will be to maintain.*** It has long been clear to me that the Republicans aspire to a de facto one party state, somewhat along the lines of Mexico or Japan. What Lofgren seems to be implying is that Republicans are seeking to hollow out our democratic institutions altogether until only the authoritarian ones actually function.
That is why the Weimar analogy seems so ominous. The reasons German democracy fell are many and complex. But one of them was that the German people became so disgusted watching the petty bickering and incompetence of their democratic leaders (salted with a hefty dose of obstructionism and sabotage by anti-democratic parties, who were by no means limited to the Nazis) that they longed for a dictatorship to cut through the squabbles and just get things done. It is starting to look familiar.
*If you follow the link, by the way, you will see pseudo-libertarian assumptions within it. Mommy nurtures; daddy protects. Daddy can be cold and distant, but mommy can be suffocating. The assumption is that infringements on libety come only from the mommy side and that the only libety problem one might have with daddy is that he allows too much of it. But this is nonesense, of course. Daddy doesn't just protect, he disciplines and punishes. It isn't just that he can be cold and aloof; he can be overly strict, punitive, and even abusive. When daddy infringes on your liberty, it is usually a lot more direct and severe than when mommy does.
**This was another story I regarded with some skepticism. It sounded too much like some classic left wing conspiracy theory. Still, the story originate with NPR, which is certainly a respectable organization. Reading the story with a cautious eye, what one comes away with is not that the Arizona anti-immigration law was a conspiracy by the private prison industry to increase the number of inmates, but that anti-immigration legislators saw a powerful potential ally in the private prison industry and sought to enlist their help. Such things are normal in the legislative process, though smellier than usual in this case.
***Just to be clear, I am not afraid of an outright military dictatorship. I am afraid of a military and police that hold themselves aloof from the wider society and feel superior to it, and civilian authorities too timid to stand up to them.
Labels: Dangerous Polarization
More Real Than Reality
Of course, it does turn out to be impossible. They are actually part of an elaborate game by rock-like creatures on the planet wanting to stage a battle between good and evil and creating famous historic characters to play the parts. (Lincoln is on the side of good, of course). The less said of the rest of the episode the better. But there is one good line at the end, when Kirk wistfully says that they all seemed so real, especially Lincoln. Spock says that in many ways they were more real than the actual historic characters. “Because they were taken from our impressions of them, how could they be anything but what we expected?”
Ghastly as the rest of the episode is, this statement is actually quite profound. If Captain Kirk has stepped through the Guardian of Forever and met the real Lincoln, he would no doubt have been disappointed. The real Lincoln would have been a flawed human being with his own quirks and annoying habits, quite incapable of living up to Kirk’s expectations. The false Lincoln, made to match for Kirk’s expectations, was a whole lot more subjectively “real” to Kirk that that objectively real Lincoln could possibly have been.
I have taken a lesson from this, not just that anything that seems too good to be true probably is, but that anything that too perfectly fits your prejudices and preconceptions should not be trusted. This impression is strengthened by the book, They Never Said It, a collection of spurious quotes.* The two most common sources of spurious quotes – Lenin, who regularly has people’s worst fears put in his mouth, and (you guessed it) Lincoln, who is made a source of quotes for absolutely everything people want to support.
On the whole this has served me well. For instance, when I saw this picture of Sarah Palin, I immediately spotted it, not so much as a hoax, but more of a spoof, the perfect expression of what Palin's enemies think of her, rather than an actual pictue.
All of which is an overly lengthy lead-in to what a lot of liberal blogs have been commenting on – the recent piece by former Republican Congressional staffer Mike Lofgren his old bosses. Emotionally, it is very appealing, a former Republican expressing exactly all my prejudices and preconceptions about the Republicans, based on inside information. It seems too good to be true. Is it?
If it were anonymous, I would assume it was a hoax. But the author published under his own name. Legistorm on Lofgren confirms that Mike Lofgren really is (was) a Congressional staffer. And Michael Tomasky, who shares my concern, is willing to take the word of James Fallows, who has plenty of Washington contacts and vouches that Lofgren is for real. (He also comments that Lofgren has worked "mainly" for Republicans).**
So apparently this is for real. Substantive comments to follow in my next post.
*And yet it did have quotes that appealed to my preconceptions and I wanted to believe.
**Tomasky also asks the question – how did someone like that get to be a Republican in the first place. He answers that Lofgren has been on Capitol Hill for 28 years, and that when he first arrived, it was perfectly normal and acceptable for a Republican to be sane.