Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Chasing their own anti-racist tails

I graduated from college in 1987. I was there for the initial rise of "political correctness," when the hair-shirt brigades descended on universities to demonstrate conclusively that dedicated lefties could be every bit as humorless and intolerant as the most frigid tee-totaling Methodists. No sex, no jokes, no fun -- and, most of all, no comfort in your own skin.

Well, it's good -- sort of -- to know that some things never change. Over twenty years later, that aversion to leaving people at peace to be their own damned imperfect selves comes through in hilarious form in a column from Canada's National Post, after an editor sat in on a four-part Toronto workshop on "Thinking About Whiteness and Doing Anti-Racism." Here's author Jonathan Kay's take on one participant's frenzy of self-doubt about the propriety of sharing her expertise with a class full of students, since that expertise might be the result of race-based advantages.
"Should I say yes? Or is it my responsibility to say no?" she said. "But then [my friend] may say, ‘I want you to do it -- because you have a particular approach ...'

"But wait! Could it be that the reason I have that ‘particular approach' is that I've been raised to think that I could have that particular approach, that I have the ability, that I am able to access education in a particular way? All these things are in my head, in my heart, not really knowing how to respond. On the other hand, I also recognize that the person asking me has the agency to decide that I'm the right person ... so I say yes! ... But then I'm still thinking ‘I don't know if I did the right thing.' I still struggle with this all the time ..."
All of this over whether or not to give a presentation on media arts. As Kay concludes:
In private conversation, they all seemed like good-hearted, intelligent people. But like communist die-hards confessing their counter-revolutionary thought-crimes at a Soviet workers' council, or devout Catholics on their knees in the confessional, they also seemed utterly consumed by their sin, regarding their pallor as a sort of moral leprosy. I came to see them as Lady Macbeths in reverse -- cursing skin with nary a "damn'd spot." Even basic communication with friends and fellow activists, I observed, was a plodding agony of self-censorship, in which every syllable was scrutinized for subconscious racist connotations as it was leaving their mouths.
Good times.

Have you ever wondered why some people don't just kill themselves?

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Monday, March 1, 2010

Watch out for 'Tea Party terrorists' -- like Paine and Thoreau

You'd think that, after a couple of centuries of major American figures describing government as, at most, something to be tolerated, political pundits would have made their peace with the idea that skepticism toward state power has a core place in American political life. If your toes tingle at the thought of more coercive programs, laws, politicians and bureaucrats, you're the (very) odd duck, not the folks with anti-government views. And yet, we still get the likes of Frank Rich throwing high-profile hissy fits because "the unhinged and sometimes armed anti-government right that was thought to have vaporized after its Oklahoma apotheosis is making a comeback," as heralded by ... Andrew Joseph Stack III's Kamikaze-style airborne attack on the Internal Revenue Service building in Austin, Texas?

For those not in the know, Stack, like many people, had a bone to pick with the I.R.S. and with the federal government. But the manifesto he left behind also accused drug and insurance companies of "murdering tens of thousands of people a year," charged that poor people get to die for the mistakes of the wealthy, and quoted Karl Marx. Anti-government Stack was, but his ideology, such as it was, doesn't appear to have been coherently right-wing or left-wing so much as ticked-off and populist.

Rich does appear to be aware that Stack isn't a very logical stick with which to beat the Tea Party movement that has him and his government-cheerleading chums so knicker-twisted. At least, he concedes "it would be both glib and inaccurate to call him a card-carrying Tea Partier or a 'Tea Party terrorist.' But he did leave behind a manifesto whose frothing anti-government, anti-tax rage overlaps with some of those marching under the Tea Party banner."

Nice how Rich works that gratuitious "Tea Party terrorist" bit in there, eh? But even as he smears his political opponents as guilty by distant and tortured association, he manages to overlook the fact that the anti-government sentiment he so regrets is neither a wholly owned subsidiary of the Tea Party movement and the Right, nor an aberration coughed up every decade or two by by unenlightened neanderthals briefly emerging from the philosophical swamps.

Frank Rich is a well-educated man with an Internet connection paid for by a respected news organization that has a vast historical archive of its own, so it's impossible to believe that the New York Times scribbler is unaware that Thomas Paine wrote in one of the more popular political tracts of the revolutionary period that "government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one." Nor can we believe he's unaware that James Madison hedged on Paine's sentiments only to the extent that he wrote, "It has been said that all Government is an evil. It would be more proper to say that the necessity of any Government is a misfortune." And certainly he knows about Thomas Jefferson's warning that "[t]he natural progress of things is for liberty to yield, and government to gain ground."

And Rich must surely be aware that he's skipping over a bit of context when he drops the overworked Joe Stack connection to shriek in shock that "[t]he Tea Partiers want to eliminate most government agencies, starting with the Fed and the I.R.S., and end spending on entitlement programs. They are not to be confused with the Party of No holding forth in Washington -- a party that, after all, is now positioning itself as a defender of Medicare spending. What we are talking about here is the Party of No Government at All." Surely, if only in high school, he read Henry David Thoreau's open hostility to the power of the state:
I heartily accept the motto, "That government is best which governs least"; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe--"That government is best which governs not at all"...
The United States of America was founded on anti-government sentiment. The shapers of its institutions and many of its major thinkers have always clearly viewed the state as something like the equivalent of a portable kerosene heater in a Wisconsin winter -- you might need the damned thing, but be very careful.

True, the fact that the heart and soul of American political history is thoroughly skeptical of government power doesn't mean that Madison and Jefferson were right and that Rich is wrong. Maybe he and his buddies are correct and we should stop worrying and learn to love big, well-armed institutions that claim a monopoly on the use of force and slaughtered 262,000,000 people over the course of the 20th century alone. (It's for the children, don't you know?)

But history shows that anti-government sentiment is in the mainstream of American political life, and Rich and his buddies are the out-liers. No shrieking effort to paint skeptics of state power as kamikaze terrorists -- shoe-horning Joe Stack in with Thomas Paine and Henry David Thoreau -- can change that fact.

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Monday, August 17, 2009

Government is your friend (just keep saying that)

The Tuskegee Syphilis Study, in which federal officials denied proven treatment for syphilis to African-American men just to see how the disease progressed, came to a belated end in 1972, so Ezra Klein, the high-school intern ... err ... young columnist at The Washington Post can perhaps be forgiven for failing to recognize the officially sanctioned 40-year abomination as evidence that we do indeed have a "government capable of madness." But government officials have engaged in other horrors in recent memory, so his astonishment that many Americans distrust the state can only be taken as appalling naivete -- or incredible idiocy.

On August 11, Klein wrote:

What we're seeing here is not merely distrust in the House health-care reform bill. It's distrust in the political system. A healthy relationship does not require an explicit detailing of the "institutional checks" that will prevent one partner from beating or killing the other. In a healthy relationship, such madness is simply unthinkable. If it was not unthinkable, then no number of institutional checks could repair that relationship. Similarly, the relationship between the protesters and the government is not healthy. The protesters believe the government capable of madness. There is no evidence for that claim, which means that there is no answer for it, either. That claim is not about what is in this bill, or what government has done in Medicare and Medicaid and the VA. It is about what a certain slice of Americans think their government -- and by extension, their fellow citizens -- capable of.

Leave aside, for the moment, the wisdom of the various health care proposals rattling around the chambers of Congress at the moment. Can anybody with even a passing knowledge of the past century's history say with a straight face that governments -- very much including the one under which we live -- are not capable of madness?

R.J. Rummel, Professor Emeritus of Political Science, University of Hawaii, has made a rather depressing name for himself by calculating the number of people murdered by governments during the course of the twentieth century. His latest estimate, revised upwards, stands at 262,000,000.

Yes, that mountain of bodies can mostly be blamed on the world's totalitarian governments, with bloody additions tossed in by merely authoritarian political systems. But democracies are capable of madness, too. The American Civil Liberties Union is currently digging through memos written by the late, unlamented Bush administration, which authorized the use of torture against detainees. The Obama administration is still resisting efforts to shine some light on just who is being held under brutal conditions at Bagram, in Afghanistan.

And then there's Tuskegee, which continued for decades under presidents and congresses from both major political parties.

Ezra Klein may ridicule public doubts about the wisdom of allowing the government further control over health care as the equivalent of demanding "what will prevent you from beating your wife?" of elected officials. But the truth of the matter is that government has been an abusive and untrustworthy partner for as long as it has existed. That doesn't mean that everything politicians touch ends in horror and bloodshed, but it's hardly an exercise in paranoia to voice the "distrust in the political system" that Klein finds so worrisome.

In fact, our political system was built on an (imperfect) system of checks and balances meant to minimize the toll it takes on life, liberty and property since the founders didn't trust what they were creating. So when Klein objects that "A healthy relationship does not require an explicit detailing of the 'institutional checks' that will prevent one partner from beating or killing the other," we have to wonder just how long he's been skipping Social Studies class to pen his oh-so-earnest columns.

In the end, maybe the Obama administration's proposals for a greater government role in health care will prove to be a good idea. I doubt it, but I've been wrong before. But in the course of the debate over those proposals, questions about the trustworthiness of the government -- and its potential for madness -- should take center stage.

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Friday, July 10, 2009

Can't we all just get along?

Many years ago, I had a conversation with a woman that touched on the topic of abortion. We had already discovered that we were both firmly pro-choice on the issue, when I mentioned that I opposed public funding -- not because of anything specific to abortion itself, but because I think government screws things up when it gets involved in health care. Well, forget the previous half-hour of agreement on an intensely contentious matter of public policy; red-faced and teary-eyed, she was out for blood. If we weren't 100% in agreement, we were enemies.

A few years earlier, I was a volunteer on a state assembly campaign in New York. An older staffer (in retrospect, he was probably all of 35) was driving two of us volunteers back home from an event, when we started chatting about drug policy. It turned out that both the other volunteer and I favored legalization.

The driver damned near stopped the car to kick us both out.

Never mind that we were all working for the same candidate, who appeared poised to win (he did -- and proved as useless as the rest of them. Having moved on to politically connected jobs, he's not part of the current Albany spectacle), this guy wanted to declare war against us over one issue that didn't even feature in the campaign.

Emphasizing disagreement over agreement isn't uncommon. People are tribal and tend to view one another with suspicion. We look for small differences and then exaggerate their importance instead of looking for points of agreement and working together toward common goals -- or at least tolerating disagreements.

That's troubling enough, but the problem goes further. We also tend to notice differences in ourselves that set us apart from our chosen tribe, and then we expunge those differences. Over time, we make ourselves become more like the people with whom we want to be associated.

According to orgnet.com, a social networking analysis outfit founded by Valdis Krebs, for the first time ever, there was no overlap at all during the last election cycle among books read by liberals and books read by conservatives.

That makes conversation a little more challenging.

The self-tailoring extends beyond ideology to lifestyles that become associated with certain sets of beliefs, report Bill Bishop and Robert G. Cushing in their book, The Big Sort. When people choose neighborhoods where they feel comfortable, the settings come with a prevailing ideology pre-installed. Say Bishop and Cushing in their book, "ways of life now have a distinct politics and a distinct geography. Feminist synchronized swimmers belong to one political party and live over here, and calf ropers belong to another party andlive over there."

Surrounded, as they are, by people who share their beliefs, people become more like their neighbors, dumping attitudes that might set them apart, radicalizing their own views, and shunning "heretics" -- just like the more-progressive-than-thou denizens of Mike Judge's spot-on The Goode Family.

Given our tendency to transform ourselves into ever-more-extreme versions of what we think we ought to be, it's no surprise that political conversations can degenerate into trench warfare over small points of disagreement, leaving large areas of potential cooperation neglected.

But if the trend continues --and it has accelerated in recent years -- we're looking at life in a world dominated by combat between monolithic rival camps that have chosen to have nothing in common, instead of negotiation among individuals looking for points of agreement.

Given the vast power that has accrued to government in recent decades, that doesn't just bode poorly for the tone of debates. It suggests a sort of political total war in the offing, with the power of the state in all its intrusiveness used as a bludgeon against the opposition by whoever currently holds the reins of power. That's quite a prospect when friends and enemies can be identified by their clothing choices and their taste in music.

Won't that be fun? Oh wait -- it already isn't.


Wednesday, July 1, 2009

In which I infiltrate Team Red and Team Blue and report my findings

I meet the most interesting people through my blogging and my columns for The Examiner.

Because I write about gun rights, limited government and free speech, I get invited to participate in conservative conferences and mailing lists. My advocacy of gay marriage, drug legalization and restraints on law enforcement get me invites from progressive groups. I don't think either conservatives or progressives truly think I'm one of them, but rather they conclude -- accurately I'd say -- that I'm a guy they can talk to.

I really haven't had a bad experience with my (mostly passive) participation in these groups yet. The individuals with whom I've corresponded, on both sides, come off as decent folks, even when they voice opinions that I consider to be fucking insane. I can chat with them, have drinks with them and otherwise interact on a friendly level. There's quite a wide range of opinion on both sides, and significant disagreement over some important issues.

But the collective teams are a different matter. As in most situations, individuals are easier to take than the herd. I'm going to speak in generalities here, because I've promised to not name individuals or quote conversations from any of the groups that have been kind enough to entertain me as a participant.

First of all, both teams, red and blue, have their holy doctrines -- areas in which disagreement is treated as heresy.

With conservatives, that seems to be abortion. I was curious, at first, whether gay marriage might be a lightning rod, but that's not the case. There are homophobic wingnuts, but there's a lot of tolerance, too -- most conservatives just don't seem all that worked up about who is bedding who, and only lukewarm over whether gays can formalize their relationships as "marriage" or not. But abortion is the untouchable tenet. If you're pro-choice, you get stripped of your American flag pin.

For progressives, the point of Holy Doctrine that will not be disputed is global warming/climate change. For folks who insist on describing their ideology as founded in reason and science, their treatment of the issue is awfully theological. Deviate from the script and you lose your membership card in the reality-based community (and your right to sport a truly awful hippy name, like that used by ... never mind).

Neither the conservatives nor progressives with whom I interact seem to know many members of the opposing tribe -- by and large, the opposition are treated as aliens encountered only rarely, and then, hopefully, on neutral ground. This social division may be why they're all so prone to delegitimizing each other's world views.

For conservatives, lefties are mendacious bastards who adopt any argument under the sun in order to further a hidden, totalitarian agenda.

For progressives, righties are soulless scum who've sold out to whatever corporation is certainly sponsoring their advocacy, and who would undoubtedly spin a 180 in their opinions if directed to do so by their Wall Street masters.

It seems that nobody could ever sincerely disagree.

And, of course, the opposition is always plotting. The righties better get their white-supremacist military coup in motion and depose Barack Obama before he successfully repeals the 22nd amendment and serves as president-for-life.

While they're not necessarily dominant, both conservatives and progressives have sizable subgroups in their ranks that are remarkably open about their authoritarianism and contempt for civil liberties. With the right, this was no secret during the Bush years, with war-on-terror cheerleaders applauding the Bush administration's detentions and wiretaps, and denying the use of torture by the government right up until they praised the use of torture once it was revealed (or else denied that waterboarding, sleep deprivation and beatings qualify as anything more than gentle roughhousing).

With progressives, I see declining respect for the idea of free speech. The pattern here is the same as with every other policy issue on the left: Point to how much "better" Europeans and Canadians are at regulating "hate speech" for the good of society, and denouncing free speech advocates as corporate shills. It's only free if you can be punished for doing it the wrong way, don't you know, and anything that pisses off the self-appointed regulators is the wrong way. That's quite a shift from the dearly missed days of free speech absolutism (and it seems to bewilder some of the more traditional preogressives).

As individuals, I repeat: conservatives and progressive bloggers and pundits in these groups are almost all nice folks I can drink with. As Team Red and Team Blue ... well ... I'm surprised they haven't already started shooting at each other.


Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Nature comes a-calling

Not long ago, I mentioned a bobcat that was shot in nearby Cottonwood after mauling a customer in a local bar. Well, nature's sharp and toothy reality came by for a visit again, this time in the form of a young bear. The bear wandered around the area, took down a goat for supper, and was finally shot by Game and Fish.

I'm sorry the bear was shot, I really am. I don't shoot rattlesnakes if I can just walk around them, and I don't like rattlers half as much as I like bears.

But the bear's fate was sealed about the time it tore a goat into snack-sized pieces and went looking for more.

Verde Sante Fe, the development where the bear was first sighted, is about three miles from my house. It's an odd bit of suburbia surrounded by desert and grazing cattle. I have to pass the development on my way to and from home.

The hills behind the development, into which the bear wandered, are where I used to run my dogs before I picked a spot closer to home. I ride my mountain bike on the jeep roads back there. Those hills are actually nearly unbroken Forest Service land leading straight to my house and the surrounding area. They're absolutely beautiful and full of wildlife.

Basically, we're up close and personal with nature. And, sometimes, nature is hungry.

It's easy for people who live at a distant remove from forest, desert and fur to get all misty-eyed about the denizens of the wilderness. People who actually live here can love the wild every bit as much, but rarely romanticize it to such an unrealistic extent. Ultimately, the animals with which we rub shoulders pose a potential danger to our pets, our livestock, our children and ourselves.

Usually, I put a .22 in my pocket when I run my dogs or take my kid on a hike. But bear ... This week, I traded my popgun for my .357. I hope I don't have to use it. But at least I'll have it handy.

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Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Intolerant thuggery may not have a political future after all

Pew- declining social conservatism
Source: Pew Research Center for People
and the Press
Much fuss has been made in the press about the low regard in which Americans hold Republicans, the stronger position of Democrats, and the ascendancy of Independents who refuse to affiliate with either party. But there's been relatively little discussion of the role Americans' growing social tolerance and concern for civil liberties plays in the GOP's troubles, or the fact that such "liberal" attitudes go hand-in-hand with a continuing distrust of government.

Gallup is getting play with survey results revealing that about 63% of the dwindling ranks of Republicans are white conservatives. The Democratic Party, by contrast, is more ethnically diverse and is overwhelmingly moderate-to-liberal.

But what do "conservative," "moderate" and "liberal" mean and what implications do such ideological identifiers have for the future?

The answer to those questions might be found in Trends in Political Values and Core Attitudes: 1987-2009, a publication of the Pew Research Center for People and the Press. The survey doesn't just rely on ideological labels that often conceal more than they reveal, but delves into opinions on social issues, economic matters and the relationship of the individual to the state.

The biggest change in views in recent years, according to Pew, comes in attitudes toward social tolerance and civil liberties. For example, while Americans are still somewhat uncomfortable with outright same-sex marriage (54% oppose, up from 49% last year), 53% favor civil unions "allowing gay and lesbian couples to enter into legal agreements with each other that would give them many of the same rights as married couples."
We're now at the point where a majority of the population favors marriage for gays and lesbians in all but name.

Overall, the share of Americans saying that "school boards ought to have the right to fire teachers who are known homosexuals" has dropped from 51% in 1987 to 28% today.

It's not just homosexuality, either. Only 19% of Americans say that women should return to their traditional role in society, down from 30% in 1987. And while 71% of respondents still adhere to "old-fashioned values about family and marriage," that's down from 87% in 1987.
Pew - civil liberties
In terms of civil liberties, while 55% of Americans agreed in 2001 that it "would be necessary to sacrifice some civil liberties to curb terrorism," that figure has declined to 27% today.
Interestingly, Republican support for surrendering civil liberties has tracked with national figures, declining from 40% two years ago to 27% today. But eight years of the security state under President George W. Bush have at least temporarily associated the Republican Party with Guantanamo Bay, warrantless wiretaps and state secrets doctrine (though President Obama seems dead-set on making all of that a bipartisan affair).

While 42% of Republicans would allow warrantless searches of the homes of potential terrorism sympathizers, only 34% of Democrats and 30% of Independents agree.

Tellingly, Independents track more closely to Democrats than to Republicans on social values. That's important because "independent" is where the action is, with the ranks of those rejecting both parties growing rapidly in recent years.

And, with important implications for the future, Americans are more socially liberal the younger they are. The "greatest generation," born before 1928 is more socially conservative than the "silent generation" born between 1928 and 1945, which is more socially conservative than Boomers born from '46-'64, followed by Gen-Xers from '65-'76. Today's so-called Gen-Yers are the most socially liberal of all.
Even on an issue where overall attitudes haven't really budged with time -- banning "books that contain dangerous ideas" from libraries -- support for censorship is highest among older Americans and lowest among the young.

But as Americans grow more socially tolerant and supportive of civil liberties, they're not necessarily embracing modern liberalism's love of state intrusion into the economy. That's especially true of those unaffiliated with either major party. According to Pew:
As a group, independents remain difficult to pin down. They are clearly left-of-center when it comes to religiosity and issues of moral values – independents’ views on homosexuality, gender roles, censorship and the role of religion in politics are clearly closer to those of Democrats than Republicans. They also tend to have more in common with Democrats with respect to foreign policy and military assertiveness. At the same time, their views on broader economic issues have taken a turn to the right in the latest survey. In particular, they are now more conservative on questions relating to the role of government in providing a social safety net and the government’s overall effectiveness and scope. They are also less aligned with Democrats than at any point in the past in their attitudes toward big business.
Pew - Federal government controls too muchSpecifically, 57% of Independents believe "the federal government controls too much of our daily lives." Sixty-one percent of Independents say that "when something is run by the government, it is usually inefficiant and wasteful." And 55% of Independents agree that "government regulation of business usually does more harm than good."

Pew describes this seeming growth in a combination of social liberalism and economic conservatism as "centrism," but that doesn't really explain much. On closer examination, Americans overall -- and Independents in particular -- seem to want a little less government in both their bedrooms and their wallets. They don't want politicians discriminating against gays and lesbians, authorizing intrusive searches or banning books. They also don't want politicians to try to manage the economy or intrude into private businesses.

Americans are increasingly tolerant of each other even as they remain skeptical of the state.

Sentiments are incomplete and inconsistent, but overall national sentiment has apparently drifted in a libertarian-ish direction, favoring more liberty and hostile to government impositions.

Such sentiments might last until the next poll, of course. But they do seem to point to an intriguing -- and encouraging -- future for the country. They also indicate shifts in the population's values and attitudes that the major political parties will have to address if they want to be relevant in the years to come.

Republicans, in particular, have to face up to the fact that their socially authoritarian positions are, increasingly, a minority preference.

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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Obama's Supreme Court pick has a taste for identity politics

In 2001, during a speech at the University of California, Berkeley, Judge Sonia Sotomayor said, "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life." It's an odd line coming from a judge who is traditionally expected to interpret the law without regard to personal biases. But it's also a telling line plucked from a speech that overall rejects the idea of neutral justice and endorses an indentity-politics theory that sees the law as morphing in meaning depending on the sex, race and skin color of the beholder. That's of concern coming from a jurist who has just been nominated by President Barack Obama for the United States Supreme Court.

Elsewhere in her speech at the annual Judge Mario G. Olmos Law and Cultural Diversity Lecture, Sotomayor seemed to assume that membership in an identifiable group imposed obligations regarding how people should go about applying the law.

For people of color and women lawyers, what does and should being an ethnic minority mean in your lawyering? For men lawyers, what areas in your experiences and attitudes do you need to work on to make you capable of reaching those great moments of enlightenment which other men in different circumstances have been able to reach.

She explicitly endorses the idea of identity politics elsewhere, too, approvingly quoting legal theorists who oppose the idea that the law should speak for itself.

[B]ecause I accept the proposition that, as Judge Resnik describes it, "to judge is an exercise of power" and because as, another former law school classmate, Professor Martha Minnow of Harvard Law School, states "there is no objective stance but only a series of perspectives - no neutrality, no escape from choice in judging," I further accept that our experiences as women and people of color affect our decisions.

The problem with this perspective -- and it is a big problem -- is that it means there is no objective interpretation of the law that makes the law knowable (in all its glory and for all its warts) by everybody. The assumption behind the identity politics interpretation is that every X chromosome, bit of melanin and ethnically flavored childhood brings with it a different understanding of what the law means -- not what it should mean (we all have different ideas about that), but what it actually means as it lies there in black ink on white paper.

The law, then, is in the eye of the beholder, to be interpreted according to group identity.

Why is this a problem?

Leave aside the idea that the law, as written, is good or bad. I write often enough about my difficulties with the laws on the books. But whether or not you agree with the law, you can at least stay on its good side (and pick the time and place of your transgressions) by knowing what the law means. Knowable law, fixed in meaning, allows you to plan for the future, know what your protections are, and also know what your risks are.

To know the law has fixed meaning is to have certainty in life.

But if the impact of the law, its protections for your liberty and property and its intrusions into your life are to vary depending on whether judges are white or black, men or woman, or were raised with a certain ethnic heritage, there is no certainty. If, under the law as enforced by the state, "there is no objective stance but only a series of perspectives," then it become overwhelmingly difficult to know your rights, to manage your property and to keep your actions within allowable bounds because you are forever standing on shifting legal sands.

Of course, Sotomayor's endorsement of identity politics is almost certainly situational. How would she react to Chief Justice Roberts stating that he thinks old white men are more likely to reach better conclusions than Latina women? Not with an enthusiastic endorsement, I would guess.

Before we even get into Sotomayor's history on the bench, her qualifications and her temperament, her identity politics have to be addressed.

It's one thing to recognize that we are sometimes biased by our backgrounds. It's another thing to tout such human imperfection as a good thing.


Thursday, May 21, 2009

With the Constitution, what you see is what you get

When asked about President Barack Obama's just-begun process for selecting a Supreme Court nominee to replace Justice David Souter, senior presidential advisor David Axelrod backed Obama's suggestion that constitutional considerations might play a secondary role to giving the "powerless" a "fair shake." That's red meat for conservatives seeking evidence that the new president wants to impose a radical agenda on the country through judicial decree rather than through legislation subject to constitutional limits. Of course, not long ago, many of those same righties warned that the Constitution "is not a suicide pact" and shouldn't stand in the way of the war on terrorism. When they're in power, right and left alike tend to read whatever they please in the seemingly clear words of the Constitution.

Back in Barack Obama's franker days, when he was a relatively unknown Illinois state senator, Obama told an interviewer from Chicago's WBEZ 91.5 FM:

[I]if you look at the victories and failures of the civil rights movement and its litigation strategy in the courts. I think where it succeeded was to vest formal rights in previously dispossessed people. So that I would now have the right to vote, I would now be able to sit at a lunch counter and order and as long as I could pay for it I’d be okay.

But the Supreme Court never ventured into the issues of redistribution of wealth. And served more basic issues of political and economic justice in this society. And, to that extent, as radical as I think people try to characterize the Warren Court, it wasn’t that radical. It didn’t break free from the essential constraints that were placed by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution, at least as it has been interpreted.

And the Warren Court interpreted it in the same way that generally the Constitution is a charter of negative liberties—it says what the states can’t do to you, says what the federal government can’t do to you, but it doesn’t say what the federal government or the state government must do on your behalf...

Many observers have credibly interpreted Obama's words to mean that he regretted the courts haven't been more creative in their interpretations of the Constitution, and that he wanted judges to go further. He seems to want the judicial branch to find mandates for a specific vision of socio-economic justice in words that don't explicitly say anything of the sort. His comments after Souter announced his resignation, in which he called for a nominee to have "that quality of empathy, of understanding and identifying with people's hopes and struggles as an essential ingredient for arriving at just decisions and outcomes" reinforced speculation that he was looking for an extra-constitutional approach to the law.

Of course, Obama isn't the only one to treat the Constitution as a Rorschach test. The Bush-era Office of Legal Counsel famously found constitutional authorization for massive unilateral executive authority in a document penned by people who had just recently thrown off a monarch, as well as justification for torture alongside a ban on "cruel and unusual pubishment."

Judge Richard Posner, who wrote a whole book, Not a Suicide Pact: The Constitution in a Time of National Emergency, arguing that constitutional protections for personal liberty should give way to national security concerns in times of danger, has been known to discuss the supposed tradeoff between liberty and security in purely utilitarian terms, without regard to the plain language of the Constitution.

So when David Axelrod argues that "fidelity to the Constitution is paramount, but as with any document that was written no matter how brilliantly centuries ago, it couldn't possibly have anticipated all the questions that would be asked in the 21st century," he's breaking no new ground. Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives -- all have a history of praising the Constitution as a nice historical artifact that needs to be carefully stored out of the way lest anybody trip over it while going about the important business of creating a Brave New World.

They just differ on how that world should look.

None of this is to say that the Constitution is perfect or should be immune from modification. In fact, the founders installed a whole amendment process in Article V for the purpose of keeping the document up-to-date. The process works, we know, because it has been used. If you really want to turn the country into a socialist ant hill or transform the president into a sadistic god-king, the appropriate method is to amend the Constitution accordingly.

But that's hard work -- intentionally so -- and requires an open debate about the merits of the proposed changes. There's no predicting just how a debate might conclude. It's much easier, after all, to slide under the radar and appoint judges who simply "interpret" the Constitution in peculiar ways.

So, for the forseeable future, the creatures who roam the halls of power in Washington, D.C., will continue to voice pretty words about the Constitution, while seeing in it reflections of their own agendas that have nothing to do with the words actually written on its pages.

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Monday, April 20, 2009

Civil liberties for me, but not for thee

Last week brought us two unrelated stories about nasty encounters between people going about their lives and law-enforcement authorities. One was a college-age environmentalist who was Tased and arrested by police in Eugene, Oregon. The other was the pastor of an Arizona church who was Tased and beaten by Border Patrol agents at a checkpoint well within the country. In both cases, the treatment of the men seemed not just brutal,but also largely unprovoked.

And in both cases, some commentators reserved their sympathy, because the victim was, to their eyes, the wrong kind of person.

Perhaps Gawker summed up the phenomenon best in a piece about Pastor Steve Anderson called, "This is Not the Civil Libertarian Hero You're Looking For." Wrote John Cook:

[I]t sure seems like he was wronged by overzealous Department of Homeland Security goons. It's the war on terror and war against Mexicans gone mad! Liberals should be outraged. Conservatives should mock them for that outrage.

But wait -- here's a video of him calling Barack Obama a devil. He's a Republican! And the jack-booted thugs at DHS are calling all God-fearing Republicans terrorists. Conservatives should be outraged! Liberals should mock them for that outrage. Wait -- are DHS checkpoints along U.S. highways good or bad now? We're so confused.

As befits Gawker's usual tone, it's hard to figure out whether the author has an actual point to make. But his piece ably presents the notion that sympathy for people whose rights may have been violated is reserved for those with the "right" ideology and affiliations. Registered to vote with the other team? Too bad for you -- get lost.

In cruder form, that notion is captured in comments on news reports about the cases. At the Register-Guard, one genius passing opinion on the Tasing of Ian Van Ornum, who rode the lightning twice while lying, restrained, face-down on the sidewalk said, "Just looking at this guys hair tells me that the police were justified."

In the comments on my own column about Anderson's encounter with Border Patrol and Arizona highway patrol officers, which resulted in 11 stitches, a reader said, "I have a hunch this Anderson boy provoked this incident and, most likely, is not being truthful. Anderson is a classic religious kook, a poorly educated Jesus freak."

Maybe I'm being old-fashioned here, but I'm under the silly impression that our rights are dependent on our being human and having a pulse -- not on party affiliation, culture, religion or whether or not we approve in any way of the people about to enjoy a close encounter with the authorities.

Look, when we treat civil liberties, or protections of any sort against the powers-that-be, as special privileges to be doled out only to those with the right opinions, then we all lose. The authorities are only too happy to exploit that attitude as a wedge to divide and conquer us all, piecemeal. Between the unsympathetic political opponents of whoever has been abused, and the habitual fans of state authority who sympathize with nobody who confronts the authorities (you know, the people who comment, "When A Uniformed Officer (Read Authority Figure) Tells You To Do Something, Keep Your Smart Mouth Shut And Do It."), the government can always command a majority against one of their victims and his few friends.

That is, they can if we play that game.

We don't have to. We can -- and should -- treat protections for our rights as setting the basic ground rules for dealing with each other. With those rules established, we can get about the business of vilifying one another and engaging in the usual political and cultural combat. But those rules are fundamental -- without them in place for everyone, we have no protections for ourselves.

It's up to you, folks. You don't have to like other people to respect their rights. But if you're going to consider civil liberties and individual rights as special privileges to be reserved only for your tribe, you better hope that your buddies are in power -- forever.

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Thursday, December 11, 2008

Che che che took my baby away

Reason.tv comes up with another great video. This one debunks the cult of personality surrounding Che Guevara (and, incidentally. Mao Tse Tung):

But, if your radical-chic friends can't be convinced, get them an appropriate gift to keep them warm.

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Thursday, December 4, 2008

Different strokes for different folks (with lousy taste in architecture)

I don't know a lot about architecture, but I do know that I consider the work of the late Paul Rudolph, a modernist who died in 1997, to be a study in butt-ugly. You can see his Orange County, New York, Government Center below.

On second thought, I do see a certain powerful originality to-- Oh Hell. Who am I trying to kid? That's an eyesore.

But not everybody agrees with me. New York magazine reports that, while "his brutalist, sometimes off-putting buildings" were "once criticized as the worst of high modernism’s excesses," they "are now recognized as some of the most expressive American architecture of the twentieth century."

And therein lies the inspiration for the lesson for the day.

You see, in today's enlightened world of design review, where neighborhood committees and landmarks commissions have approval authority over developers' plans, a gathering of officials who share my architectural taste, but lack my live-and-let-live restraint, might easily deny the Paul Rudolph fans of the world the right to construct buildings they consider masterpieces. Or, conversely, Rudolph aficionados might force me to fashion my home along brutalist lines and then live in the godawful thing.

Taste really is a personal matter. All a government committee can do is enshrine one set of preferences at the expense of others held just as dearly by people who don't at the moment, hold coercive power.

So why not let us all build to our own fancy? I can live with Rudolph-inspired constructions so long as I'm equally free to satisfy my own preferences. Sure, we don't get to enjoy the pleasure of playing petty tyrant, but we may actually get some diversity of design, some creativity appreciated by some (if not others), something better than state-approved blandness. We all get a piece of what we want, instead of an endless battle to impose "the right way" on everybody else.

The price of seeing the occasional Paul Rudolph building is one I'm willing to pay.

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Wednesday, November 5, 2008

What do the major parties stand for again?

It's no secret that the Republican Party needs to retool its brand in a big way. But Democrats may face a need to repackage their own product, and that effort could be more difficult for an ascendant political party looking to hold on to its advantage than for one looking to recover from disaster.

After two consecutive ballot-box wipeouts, in 2006 and 2008, even the densest GOP apparatchik must suspect that a heady mix of militarism, nativism, enthusiasm for big government, abuse of civil liberties, neglect of free markets and contempt for anybody with a college degree may not provide a roadmap to a viable future role in American political life.

Republicans have a couple of options, The most obvious ones are:

  • a retreat to social conservatism combined with economic populism. This would take advantage of the current rush to blame free markets for the financial mess that politicians actually wrought without having to think too hard about the existing rural-exurban base of the GOP. Such a move would be relatively easy and advantageous in the short term, but it probably has a limited future in a country growing increasingly heterogeneous and tolerant, and in need of a free economy. Call this the Mike Huckabee alternative.
  • A return to an emphasis on free markets and small government while repudiating the nativism and intolerance that have marked the GOP in recent years. An explicitly libertarian approach is probably out of the question, but a willingness to set the culture war aside could make the party at least inoffensive to some groups that have found it repugnant in recent years. While probably a tougher sell in the short term, and one that could alienate some of the existing base, such a move might make the party once again viable in urban areas, on the coasts, and among the growing ranks of Latino voters. Call this the Barry Goldwater alternative.

How Republicans will position themselves in the months and years to come is up to them, and the ultimate decision will, no doubt, be hashed out in the post-debacle infighting to come. It will be fun to watch, at least.

Democrats, on the other hand are sitting pretty, enjoying the fruits of a hard-won victor--

Whoops. No, the Democratic Party faces challenges too, though its problems may come from its success.

Even as Barack Obama was rolling up a big win in California, gaining a 61% to 37% advantage over John McCain, Proposition 8, banning gay marriage, was simultaneously chugging along to a narrow victory. That win was almost certainly attributable to African-American voters who, while giving 94% of their vote to Barack Obama, were also giving 70% of their votes to Prop. 8. Latino voters also favored the measure, but only by 53% to 47%.

The fact of the matter is that the newly energized African-American base of the Democratic Party, and the party's growing Latino constituency, are more socially conservative than the party has positioned itself to be in the past. It's not just gay marriage; a 2004 Zogby survey found that 78% of Hispanic voters and 62% of African-American voters hold pro-life positions on abortion. The number for the general population is 56%.

The Democratic Party has traditionally sold itself as supportive of gay rights and reproductive freedom -- positions which seem unlikely to be compatible with the values of a large and growing number of its adherents. But its base includes gay and lesbian voters and socially liberal voters who like those traditional positions. To please one constituency may mean alienating the other.

To a certain extent, the woes of the Republican and Democratic parties are inevitable for broad-based political organizations in a diverse society. Trying to hold together a large coalition means engaging in a massive case of cognitive dissonance that inevitably causes conflicts when contradictory promises try to occupy the same politicians' attention at the same time.

The degree to which the parties successfully address those conflicts will determine their viability in the future.

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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The email humor that will determine the most important election ever!

It's the final lap in that demolition derby we call the 2008 election (yeah, yeah, I know demolition derbies don't really have laps -- bear with me). And the tribes are making their purest, most true-to-self last-minute appeals.

As a one-time-New Yorker, graduate of a liberal Eastern college, who likes to mountain bike and shoot, writes about civil liberties and supports free markets, I have friends on both the right and the left who insist on sending me their rally-the-troops emails, just so I can mock them and burst their bubbles. Below are realio-trulio emails I received within the past couple of days.

From the conservatives in my life:

Twas the Night Before Elections

'Twas the night before elections

And all through the town

Tempers were flaring

Emotions all up and down!

I, in my bathrobe

With a cat in my lap

Had cut off the TV

Tired of political crap.

When all of a sudden

There arose such a noise

I peered out of my window

Saw Obama and his boys

They had come for my wallet

They wanted my pay

To give to the others

Who had not worked a day!

He snatched up my money

And quick as a wink

Jumped back on his bandwagon

As I gagged from the stink

He then rallied his henchmen

Who were pulling his cart

I could tell they were out

To tear my country apart!

'On Fannie, on Freddie,

On Biden and Ayers!

On Acorn, On Pelosi'

He screamed at the pairs!

They took off for his cause

And as he flew out of sight

I heard him laugh at the nation

Who wouldn't stand up and fight!

So I leave you to think

On this one final note-



From the liberals in my life:

What I especially like about these emails is how effectively they sum up the essentially accurate rule of thumb that lefties think conservatives are stupid, and righties think liberals are evil (libertarians, of course, know that they're both right. Just kidding!). You have (terrible) poetry about the thieving hordes to come competing with a smug-o-gram.

Oh, by the way, Tooch's law holds that the side screaming loudest about voter fraud is about to get cremated at the polls, and judging by my in-box, that puts the Repubs at a distinct disadvantage this time around.

Anybody out there have more interesting political missives to share?

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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Taking on the control freaks with 'Dumbocracy'

When editorial-page pundits nod their heads approvingly about "moderates" and "centrists," they're usually talking about establishment types willing to borrow a tidbit here and a sample there from the whips-and-chains wings of both the political right and the political left. Want to ban dope and guns? Hey, you're a moderate! And if you keep the penalties for transgressors to crippling fines and the occasional misdemeanor conviction instead of felonies, you're an eminently reasonable moderate.

That's not the kind of moderation that Marty Beckerman advocates in Dumbocracy: Adventures with the Loony Left, the Rabid Right, and Other American Idiots. What gets Beckerman, a twenty-something writer who first hit the literary scene with Generation S.L.U.T., is the control-freakery to be found in the outer reaches of the political spectrum. As he puts it:

Hard-core right-wingers want to shove God down our throats, but hate the freedom of guys who shove things down one another's throats. (Hint: it's their cocks.) Meanwhile left-wingers wish to regulate our behavior with taxes on anything unhealthy/enjoyable, prohibitions on tactless speech, and regulations that determine how much time we spend in the shower.

Says the author: "If you've ever used the words 'social justice' or 'moral crisis' without irony, I probably fucking hate you."

If your defenses are already up after those mini-tirades, the fact is that you're probably part of the problem. You're one of those people who "care" so much that you have an irresistible urge to threaten people with fines or imprisonment for doing things you disdain, or for not doing things you consider oh-so-praiseworthy.

Well, too bad for you, then.

But if you find Beckerman's ideas intriguing and wish to subscribe to his newsletter -- or at least delve deeper into his book -- you just may be his sort of moderate. That is, you really don't give a damn how other people live their lives as long as they have the decency to feel the same way about you.

And if you then follow Beckerman on his journey, he'll take you on a tour of extremists left and right. They're the kind of folks who vilify and want to persecute the opposition.

"Political tags - such as royalist, communist, democrat, populist, fascist, liberal, conservative, and so forth - are never basic criteria. The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire."
-- Robert A. Heinlein
(one of three quotes opening Dumbocracy)

For instance, he catalogues the various and sundry restrictions on abortion that have been imposed by social conservatives, such as the gag rule (on U.S.-funded overseas clinics offering abortion infromation), the partial-birth abortion ban act, the interstate abortion bill "which criminalizes transportation of minors across state lines to receive abortions" and parental approval requirements for teenagers. These restrictions are all a bit ironic in light of the same politicians' championing of policies, such as abstinence-only sex education and controls on access to contraceptives, which tend to result in higher abortion rates.

But if, like me, you can think of some officeholders in their sixties who aren't too old to be terminated, and you're sneering at those freaky right-wingers, Beckerman dodges in from the other side to remind us that Margaret Sanger, the patron saint of birth control, was a nut who advocated sterilizing the "unfit." And it was just three years ago that a Planned Parenthood chapter created a cartoon in which a pro-choice superhero "shoots, drowns and decapitates anti-abortion protesters."

Beckerman takes to task a Bush administration spokesman who suggested that same-sex couples "move to another country," but also targets radical feminists who want to virtually eliminate the male sex.

He goes after uber-religious super-patriots who herd anti-war protesters into holding pens and try to turn the Air Force Academy into a well-armed seminary, and trendy lefties who make common cause with the fun-loving suicide bombers of Hamas.

And he finds people, right and left, who want to ban, tax or restrict anything you might enjoy, whether it's booze, dope, tobacco or food.

Socially conservative religious zealots in both the U.S. and Israel probably get the toughest going-over in the book, but that's logical enough given Beckerman's obvious affinity for the pleasures of the flesh and the eight stern years under President Bush (who he calls King Retard). Still, he has plenty of disdain to spare for extreme secularists, like Richard Dawkins, who question whether parents should be allowed to teach religious ideas to their children.

Overall, if you want to boss people around, you probably should read Dumbocracy for all of our sake. But you won't like it. And if you don't want to boss people around, you'll actually enjoy this book.

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Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Political segregation marches on

I just joined a new social networking group, as if I really need to spend more time online. Bureaucrash Social is a networking site for libertarians, civil libertarians, classical liberals, Ron Paul Republicans, anarchists -- generally, people who celebrate individual freedom and look on government with suspicion.

Bureaucrash Social is a pretty cool site -- good functionality and a slick look. Best of all, it lets me connect with like-minded people without fretting overly much about butting heads with control freaks of one flavor or another.

Folks with a taste for being left alone aren't by themselves in this. Sites like Diatribune fill a similar role for lefties, while Power to the People is one service that helps conservatives get up-close and personal. Whether you like liberty or prefer crushing liberty, if you want to associate only with like-minded people, that task is becoming increasingly easy.

It's not just online, either. Bill Bishop, in his book, The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart, documents how people are increasingly segregating themselves into communities of people who share similar cultural values and political views. As of 2004, 48.3% of Americans lived in counties that are politically uncompetitive -- one major party or the other has a lock on local political loyalties. The process tends to be self-sustaining, too. As people spend more time with their political tribes they become less compromising in their own views and increasingly intolerant of opposing ideas. As the political environment becomes one-sided, dissenters are spurred to migrate to welcoming communities of their own.

I see it myself. The reason that I find Bureaucrash Social such a haven is because it can be difficult to be a libertarian in a world of "national greatness" conservatives and cult-of-Obama liberals. In particular, advocacy of free markets and small government isn't very popular right now, so it's easy to flee to an environment where similar refugees gather.

And once there ... Well, I certainly don't become more compromising myself. A ready source of intellectual ammunition and a supportive environment wonderfully stiffens the spine and recharges the batteries.

Is that a bad thing? Bill Bishop argues that political balkanization has created a country "whose inhabitants find other Americans to be culturally incomprehensible" and "has made national consensus impossible."

I'll attest to the culturally incomprehensible part. On a non-partisan social networking site where I participate, I was privy to an exchange of messages between two old college friends over Sarah Palin's "scary" lifestyle of guns and snowmachine races. To put this into context, you have to understand that these women -- former roommates -- had a race at the end of their senior year to see who could bag more sexual partners. I don't know who won, but I know the tally for each soared north of 50. One then became, for several years, a lesbian, while the other neglected to slow down her romantic adventures during her first, not-so-successful marriage. At their prime, they both had healthy appetites for pretty much any available intoxicant that could be smoked, drank, snorted, swallowed, or ... I don't think either went for needles.

I'm not criticizing, mind you -- the only person wronged along the way is one ex-husband. I like these women, think they're good people, shared in much of the lifestyle and settled down at about the same time -- OK, I had less settling to do -- that they did. But it takes a certain cultural myopia for somebody from such an interesting background to wag a finger at anybody who stops short of cannibalism. Scary really is in the eye of the beholder. But you might not realize that if you have little contact with people who live very different lifestyles.

As for making consensus impossible ... Is that really such a bad thing? I've written before that political polarization may well help to keep us free, and I still think that's true. When people are politically segregated into hostile camps, the government can never have the full trust or support of the population. That means that any administration will face hostility and opposition. "Consensus," to be honest, is usually the battlecry of political hucksters trying to sell us a bill of goods and ticked off that we won't all get with the program.

A little more willingness to compromise, would probably be a good thing, though -- but not among us folks on the right side of the issues. What we really need are uncompromising libertarians and liberals and conservatives eager to bend over backward to accommodate us.

Somehow, though, I'm not sure everybody is going to eagerly embrace that idea.


Sunday, September 14, 2008

Thank you, Americans, for hating each other

There's a cacophony rising across the land. It's the noise generated by discord, mutual recrimination -- by insults hurled by politically inflamed hordes with fingers stuffed in their own ears.

It's the glorious sound of freedom.

In The Chronicle of Higher Education, Laurie Fendrich, the director of the Comparative Arts and Culture Graduate Program at Hofstra University, writes:
In this polarized election—Obama and McCain are, by most accounts, in a statistical dead heat—there are two “majorities,” if you will. Those who have made up their minds on the candidates hang around in their respective “Amen” quarters, rarely talking to anyone other than people who think the way they do—except to shout at them. Democrats for Obama and Republicans for McCain hardly ever talk with one another about their respective ideas, and instead—if my own experience is any indicator—look at one another with dismay, if not contempt.
Writing for Variety, Brian Lowry points out that even the TV shows we watch have become identifiers of our political tribes, with people proudly touting their own entertainment choices as representative of their political and cultural affiliations.
The Palin pick comes as both the TV audience and political discourse have polarized -- the former fueled by an increasingly fragmented audience, the latter magnified by loud and angry voices from talk radio, cable news and the Internet. Lacking on both fronts is much respect for conflicting views, as the conversation degenerates from "I like this and you like that" toward something more akin to "I like this, and you must be a complete moron -- or an effete snob -- for liking that."
The fact is that Americans -- through yet another election cycle -- remain bitterly divided into rival camps, and contemptuous of the ideology, culture, religion, recreational choices and even hairstyles and dinner menus of those who hold opposing loyalties. And that's excellent news for those of us who value liberty and limited government.

Unfortunately, in a democratic country, the greatest threat to personal freedom comes not solely from above, but from next door. It's ideal when our neighbors espouse tolerance, respect for the rights of others and belief in the autonomy of the individual, but that's all too rare these days. More often, the folks across the way and down the street think "liberty" is a very nice word, but it won't stop them from nodding their heads in group approval of a host of policies that bind us in laws and regulations that are enforced by a multitude of cops and inspectors -- an expensive apparatus that requires extensive bureaucracy and high taxes.

It's all for our own good, of course -- our own good that we're threatened with fines and jail time for doing harmless things that annoy the busybody majority, and for wanting to go about our lives without filling out forms in triplicate.

A lack of political division can be very dangerous, indeed, when the things that people agree upon are meddlesome and presumptuous. And that deep red/blue divide in this country may actually cover a great deal of consensus on the issues.

In a column for the Los Angeles Times, NPR's Dick Meyer claims that the great political polarization of America is much ado about nothing.
Poll after poll, focus group after focus group show that the vast majority of Americans -- the Silent Majority, perhaps? -- are pragmatic, independent and un-partisan in their basic views. They are eclectic: "liberal" on some matters, "conservative" on others. They are not slaves to that hobgoblin of small minds, consistency. On fundamental matters such as belief in equality for women and minorities, or how large a role religion and family play in individuals' lives, the consensus among voters is broad. Unlike other times in U.S. history, there simply are no issues such as slavery, Prohibition or Vietnam that inspire violent protest or social disruption.
In typical pundit fashion, Meyer ends on a "why can't we all just get along" note, hoping that we can all put aside our differences, find our inner consensus, and get to the business of governing the country.

But do we really want our neighbors to get about that business of governing for its own sake, without regard for how they want to govern?

I would argue that our freedom shouldn't be so dependent on the approval of a fickle majority. Sure, it's great if groupthink tosses up a brilliant endorsement of free speech, legalized pot, low taxes and restrained law enforcement. But what if the majority decides it doesn't like brown people -- which is pretty much the case with the anti-immigrant frenzy gripping much of the country? Or what if everybody holds hands and concludes that our taste for hunting is just too declasse?

Better to have our neighbors at each others' throats. If red and blue camps are at-daggers-drawn, at least we know that one faction will always distrust the government, considering the apparatus of the state to be nothing more than a tool for the hated and temporarily ascendant opposition.

Fortunately, that sort of division seems to be guaranteed in the current environment.

In his recent book, The Big Sort, author Bill Bishop finds that Americans have become so prosperous that they're moving from one community to another, not for jobs or family, but for proximity to like-minded people. In an interview on the book's Website, Bishop says:

The quick answer is that most places, most communities in the nation, are growing more politically one-sided — either more solidly Democratic in presidential elections or more reliably Republican. The "red" and "blue" maps of the states are totally misleading. The real differences in American politics today are found at the level of the community. We're increasingly sorting into communities that reliably vote Democratic or Republican in presidential elections.

But our political differences are really just the tip of what has been a social and economic transformation. The nation has sorted in nearly every way imaginable. Young people have congregated in some cities and left others. People with college degrees have increasingly clustered in particular places. Not only have demographic groups sorted themselves into particular places, we've also constructed our social lives so that we spend more time around like-minded others. Over the last thirty years, our civic clubs, our neighborhoods, and our churches have all grown more politically homogenous.

When we don't even live near people who hold differing opinions, we become more confirmed in our own sense of identity -- and more likely to demonize the "other." An election win by the opposing tribe isn't just a shift in political fortunes -- it's a triumph of barely understood and easily caricatured evil. Government, then, faces eternal opposition and distrust from whomever is out of power.

And in that political battleground that hobbles and thwarts government action, those of us who recognize the state as a threat to our personal autonomy can find safe haven for our freedom.

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Thursday, September 11, 2008

Can you bridge that chasm at the State Policy Network?

Every time I attend one of these political conferences, I have to relearn a difficult truth: I am no longer a hard drinker. So when I stay out past my bedtime schmoozing with think-tank types and knocking back pints of wine on somebody else's dime, I always end up with a next-day head of the sort I once had to earn with rivers of tequila. A tequila drunk? That's worth a hangover. A little red-wine tipsiness is no compensation for that midget-squatting-on-my-head feeling.

Hey, it's all for a good cause, right?

But whose cause is it? The gathering here in Scottsdale is a mixed bag of policy types, activists, bloggers, journalists and the like, spanning the spectrum from some kind of libertarian to some kind of conservative. And that's an increasingly fractious spectrum. The majority are pulling, pulling, pulling for McCain/Palin, but there's a lively Bob Barr contingent too (I haven't run into any Chuck Baldwin supporters).

And the constituencies don't necessarily grok each other. Yesterday, when news spread that Barr had asked Ron Paul to take the number-two slot on the Libertarian ticket, with current veep contender Wayne Allyn Root's blessing, some conservatives pushed that offer as a supposed deal-breaker -- how can you support Barr if he's making nice with (oooh) Ron Paul?

Of course, it doesn't work that way. For most of the folks considering Barr, Paul's presence on the ticket would be a bonus. His opposition to overseas military adventures, the Bush administration and the big-government GOP establishment are considered good things.

There's a growing chasm between many libertarians and conservatives, but people seem to be tripping over the damned thing without noticing that they've stubbed their toes.

The one thing the libs and cons do seem to agree on is that Sarah Palin was an inspired choice. The staff of one organization told me they pulled down their office Barr memorabilia after she won the nod. Maybe Palin is lying across that chasm all by herself as a human bridge.

Whatever happens with that chasm in the future, I'm finding these meet-and-greets to be worthwhile. The business-card collection is enough justification, as far as I'm concerned. I can't have too many additions to the ... well, nobody uses Rolodexes any more.

Which brings us to the next big boon from this conference. There's a huge emphasis on Web 2.0 and online social networking here -- tutorials and advice that are ideal for anybody who needs to promote a blog or a Website. Yes, I picked up some useful info.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go nail down the left wing of this little gathering by posting another piece or two at Examiner.com calling for legalizing prostitution.

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Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Celebrating British wussiedom

Leaving aside the political commentary, I think this says it all about how anemic our old, imperial master has become in its dotage. From the Times of London comes this contrast of the "weedy" British culture with its "buff" American counterpart:
I like the fact that - without ever talking about it - we all decided we didn't, actually, want to survive the Apocalypse. Because, yes, we'd be alive - but in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, full of buff, shouting American survivalists. The British are only into living so long as it's civilised and pleasant. As soon as we have to poo in a hole and lose reception of BBC4, we're quite happy to become extinct. We are not into all this forceful, effortful, yippy, yappy, living-and-winning-at-any-cost stuff. We don't want ripped, renegade leaders, like Gerard Butler in 300, shouting, “Tonight, we dine in Hell!” We want someone who is, ultimately, very good at accounts, shouting, “Tonight, we dine in the dining room!”
And in that dining room, I believe the special might just be ... Eloi.


Monday, July 14, 2008

What's all the fuss about Wall-E?

A.O. Scott of the New York Times insists that the new, animated, children's movie, Wall-E, is "is a cinematic poem of such wit and beauty that its darker implications may take a while to sink in." What are those darker implications? That "[c]onsumer capitalism, anticipating every possible need and swaddling its subjects in convenience, is an infantilizing force."

Picking up on the same perceived message, but from a vastly different point of view, Jack Markowitz asks in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review if the kiddie flick's "producers realize how much they are, perhaps unintentionally, promoting an anti-market -- even anti-American -- world-view?"

So is Wall-E a profound parable or dangerous propaganda?

The truth is that this flick, which my wife, son and I sat through on an overcast Sunday morning, is something less impressive than fans and critics alike would have us believe. That is, Wall-E is a disappointingly mediocre movie.

Fifteen minutes into the slow, gray, dialogue-free first part of this cinematic misfire, we almost walked out -- not because be were offended, but because we were painfully bored. My kid squirmed, I shifted in my seat and my wife shot should-we-go glances at me over the tot's head as we waited for something, anything, entertaining to happen on-screen.

Fortunately, Eve -- the female robot and love interest -- showed up, bringing actual color and action with her.

Don't get me wrong -- as has been noted elsewhere, the animation is impressive. Pixar has done some cool stuff on-screen.

And the robots are cute and fun. The love story between them is sweet and they show commendable qualities like courage, compassion and individual initiative.

As for the political content that has folks cheering or jeering depending on whether they've declared their fealty to team blue or team red? Well, it's a lot more simple-minded than the reviewers would have you believe. I mean, "don't litter -- a lot, anyway" and "get off the sofa, drop the slushie and turn off the TV" are about as much message as I see my kid taking away from the movie for the next decade (he's not yet three). I don't think those are especially controversial or objectionable messages.

There is an anti-business element to the story, since something called Buy n Large has apparently taken over the world, branded everything and enabled people to be fat, wasteful slugs. But it seems to be a relatively benign sort of corporate rule, enforced more by convenience and screaming deals than the iron fist of oppression. It's also too over-the-top to take seriously, especially when presented by those anarcho-syndicalist collectives (not), Pixar and Disney.

Which leads us to the one really offensive element I found in the movie: the treatment of people as gullible, slothful cattle, incapable of resisting even the mildest inducement or exerting any independent effort or thought if offered a few luxuries. I mean, really, if that's your view of human character, you should just confine your elitist nonsense to scribbling "Kill Your TV" in chalk on the streets of the nearest college town and spare the rest of us the inanity.

Honestly, the only people I can imagine displaying such an exaggerated herd mentality are the twits rushing to endorse or denounce a movie that isn't worthy of all the energy that's being expended.

I hope somebody releases a good children's movie soon.


Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Tribalism in a wealthy society

More talk about growing ideological segregation and polarization in the American body politic -- this time from the Los Angeles Times.
As many of the 10 million Americans who move from one county to another each year chose to live in narrowly defined "communities of interest," the nation's counties became more politically segregated and increasingly less politically competitive. In 1976, only 38% of counties had a partisan spread larger than 20 percentage points; in 2004's astonishingly close election, more than 60% of U.S. counties saw landslides.

And homogeneity breeds more homogeneity. Political minorities in landslide counties tend to vote less and even withdraw from other forms of civic life, while political majorities vote more. In any given lopsided locale, the triumphant majority opinion hardens -- the blues become bluer and the reds redder -- and cross-party communication stops. And when communication stops, each side begins to view the other as more extreme. According to one study, fewer than 25% of Americans have regular discussions with people they disagree with politically. The more educated Americans become, the greater the distance. Americans who hold graduate degrees live the most homogenous political lives.

To a certain extent, this is to be expected in a country with increasingly diverse cultural and media outlets -- despite the popular-in-some-cynical-quarters counterfactual nonsense about "media concentration." Perhaps New York City of the 1920s, with its horde of newspapers and newborn radio media, enjoyed something approaching the explosion of voices that cable TV, satellite and, especially, the Internet have introduced to the world. It's only natural that people should gravitate to the outlets that share their interests and values, the way my grandfather huddled over the Brooklyn Eagle.

But the geographical apect of ideological segregation is something new. Only in a highly mobile and extremely prosperous society could large numbers of people afford to move from state to state, not for economic reasons, but to find political homes. That suggests that people are not just tribal (which we already knew), but that they'll use growing resources that come with relative wealth to reinforce tribalism. That's interesting.

Will the process continue? I expect that people will continue to gravitate toward media and cultural outlets that share and reinforce their views. Whether they'll continue to divide geographically -- perhaps in more refined form in the future than simple red/blue -- is something we'll have to wait to see.

Even more interesting would be if that ideological segregation led to increased decentralization and more political experiments.

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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The barrier of ideological labels

If you're the kind of obsessive who actually tracks changes in my profile blurb, to the right of my posts, (and who among us doesn't eagerly await such revisions), you may have noticed that I no longer describe myself as a "writer and editor with a radical-libertarian bent." Instead, I now say I'm a "writer and editor with a strongly pro-freedom bent."

This isn't because my political views have changed -- not in the least. I altered the wording because I've come to realize that labeling myself so specifically -- and my blog, by extension -- acts as a barrier to some readers who automatically tune out arguments from people with "enemy" political affiliations, even if they agree with much of what I have to say.

I'm not here to preach to the choir, and I'm not especially interested in turning a focused discussion on tax policy, education, civil liberties or a property dispute into a free-wheeling debate over the minutiae of my overarching ideology. We can have that conversation sometime, but not every goddamned day.

Instead, I want to use this blog to discuss important political, cultural and legal issues, and to put forward arguments for preserving and expanding individual liberty.

Back when I ran About.com's civil liberties site, the editors once came to me with a proposal to more closely brand the project as a libertarian online publication. I objected that a civil liberties site was inclusive; a libertarian site was exclusive. As it was, I was read by conservatives, liberals, moderates, libertarians and at least one anarcho-syndicalist (are you still out there?). They didn't all agree with everything I wrote, but they came to read the articles and debate in the forums. The moment I identified the site as a libertarian site, each disagreement would turn into a skirmish in a war of clashing worldviews, and the folks who didn't consider themselves libertarians would flee to comfortable ideological havens.

So we kept the sit as a civil liberties site, and I kept my diverse readers.

I want to do that with this blog, too. Disloyal Opposition is a pro-freedom publication. Yeah, I'm a libertarian, but that doesn't mean you have to be one too. If you agree with the property rights pieces but can't stand my advocacy for drug legalization, so be it. If you're down with gay marriage but iffy on gun rights, that's OK.

Forget the labels. It's all about freedom, and we all think that's a good thing, right?


Thursday, May 15, 2008

California to permit same-sex marriages

California's Supreme Court took the very big, and very welcome, step of overruling state law forbidding the recognition of same-sex marriages. In In re Marriage Cases (PDF), Chief Justice Ronald George wrote:

In light of the fundamental nature of the substantive rights embodied in the right to marry — and their central importance to an individual’s opportunity to live a happy, meaningful, and satisfying life as a full member of society — the California Constitution properly must be interpreted to guarantee this basic civil right to all individuals and couples, without regard to their sexual orientation.


In sum, we conclude that statutes imposing differential treatment on the basis of sexual orientation should be viewed as constitutionally suspect under the California Constitution’s equal protection clause.

That gives laws mandating discriminatory treatment of same-sex relationships the same 86ing accorded laws against interracial marriages in 1948.

The San Francisco Chronicle warns that the historic decision "could be repudiated by the voters in November" if a ballot measure supported by 1.1 million petition signatures passes muster with the voters. But that's November. The Supreme Court decision goes into effect in 30 days. That leaves many months during which gay and lesbian couples can cheerfully bind their futures together as frighteningly optimistic straight couples long have. The fate of those unions would be up to the courts.

Will judges blithely annul such marriages the way they did the 4,000 performed in San Francisco in 2004? That's possible, but the earlier weddings were found to be illegal, while any ceremonies performed in light of today's ruling will be legal up until the voters put a stop to the practice.

My personal preference would be to take marriage out of the government sphere and make it an entirely private matter. So what if that leads to even more interesting permutations, such as plural marriage?

But so long as marriage requires a trip through the bureaucracy, the bureaucrats shouldn't discriminate.

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Monday, May 12, 2008

You mean Americans are still polarized?

Remember all that talk of "political polarization" that was all the rage earlier this decade? Americans were supposedly dividing into bitterly opposed camps, reading one set of political books to the exclusion of opposing ideas and socializing only with like-minded acquaintances. That's all gone now that we're in a postpartisan age in which--

Oh bullshit. Polarization is back.

Say William A. Galston and Pietro S. Nivola of the Brookings Institution in the New York Times:

The share of Democrats who could be called conservative has shrunk, and so has the share of liberal Republicans. The American National Election Studies asks voters a series of issues-based questions and then arrays respondents along a 15-point scale from -7 (the most liberal) to +7 (the most conservative). These data indicate that 41 percent of the voters in 1984 were located at or near the midpoint of the ideological spectrum, compared with only 28 percent in 2004. Meanwhile, the percentage of voters clustering toward the left and right tails of the spectrum rose from 10 to 23 percent.

Most strikingly, political polarization has become akin to political segregation. You are less likely to live near someone whose politics differ from your own. It’s well known that fewer states are competitive in presidential races than in decades past. We find similar results at the county level. In 1976, only 27 percent of voters lived in landslide counties where one candidate prevailed by 20 points or more. By 2004, 48 percent of voters lived in such counties.

Galston and Nivola say that Americans are self-segregating into communities that broadly share their values and attitudes. That doesn't just concentrate people in places where they hear no dissenting views; it actually exaggerates the views that already hold. That's because "once a tipping point is reached, majorities tend to become supermajorities. This is consistent with the findings of recent political science and social psychology: individuals in the minority of their group tend to shift their views toward the majority, while members of the majority become more extreme in their views. In such circumstances, discussions within groups often intensify, rather than moderate, the underlying polarization."

That squares with phenomena I've noticed among the circles in which I move. I have friends in both Flagstaff (predominantly liberal) and the Verde Valley (mostly conservative). Dropping in on a gathering of either crew can be like visiting an echo chamber -- there's not much diversity of opinion. The Flagstaff types almost never encounter people who favor, for example, loosening economic regulations or firming up property rights. The Verde Valley residents just don't run into people who believe in the right to choose abortion or support teaching kids about contraception.

And this isn't exactly a hardcore area; live-and-let-live still holds a lot of sway in Arizona. Many of those Flagstaff liberals are gun owners, for example, and many of the Verde Valley conservatives believe in reining in police power.

But in areas where there's common agreement, there's a total inability to comprehend how anybody could come to a countervailing opinion because they just don't usually run into people who voice an opposing view.

Take that phenomenon to Cambridge, Massachusetts, or Provo, Utah, and ... well ... Oh, Hell. I used to work in Cambridge. I know exactly what the result is -- think, the Stepford Commies.

But why, after over two centuries of American politics, is so much of the electorate now polarizing and drawing into camps so separate that they don't even socialize or live near one another?

As I've written before, I think it's because the stakes have grown so large.

[G]overnment has so intruded into every nook and cranny of modern life that Americans have real reason to fear the outcome when their opponents control the levers of political power.

Take the controversy over gay marriage as an example. Politicians debate the merits of a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, but there's no real reason that marriage of any sort should be a public policy issue. New York didn't require marriage licenses until 1908 and many states that required licenses earlier provided for private alternatives, such as publishing banns.

Likewise, private ownership of firearms and personal use of marijuana were regulated by states and localities, if at all, into the 1930s. Entangled in federal law in 2004, guns and dope now serve as defining issues for many Americans, and can decide the outcome of elections.

Even Americans' mealtimes are subject to official scrutiny. The federal government is rolling out an advertising campaign to nag people about their eating habits, and some public health groups want to impose high taxes on so-called �junk food� to discourage its consumption.

Who can blame Americans for being at-daggers-drawn when marital arrangements and lunch menus are at the mercy of the victors in the next election?

In his 1955 book, The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy, historian Jacob L. Talmon wrote that liberal democracy "recognizes a variety of levels of personal and collective endeavour, which are altogether outside the sphere of politics." In contrast, "totalitarian democracy treats all human thought and action as having social significance, and therefore as falling within the orbit of political action."

That sounds familiar. Over the years, Americans have turned a country in which most areas of human life "are altogether outside the sphere of politics" into one in which every detail of life is treated as "falling within the orbit of political action."

This election, we have presidential candidates discussing a government takeover of health-care decisions, talking about marching Americans in unison for the good of some national purpose and otherwise dismissing the idea that anything is beyond the reach of the state.

If everything is subject to electoral outcomes, then people who hold views at odds with your own aren't just political opponents; they're enemies who want to reshape your life according to values you consider abhorrent. Why would you want to mingle with them?

This isn't the sort of a divide you cross with a warm and fuzzy PR campaign. If you want to reverse political polarization, you have to reduce what's at stake in political contests. Put more areas of human life off-limits to government intervention so that a victory by the political opposition just doesn't matter so damned much.

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