Monday, December 29, 2014

My Landmine Analogy

I almost made it through this month without a post. I found this in an old notebook and tweaked it. I believe it accurately describes how many conservatives conceptualize responsibility.

Let’s say a terrorist is planting landmines all over town. No group claims responsibility and no demands are made. Civil officials quickly put out advisories to reduce the risk. The public is warned to keep off the grass, for example. Are future victims thus at fault afterwards?

Of course not, because accidents will still happen – even to the most cautious person. A falling tree limb might detonate a mine next to the sidewalk. Or you could be inside your home when a dog runs by your picture window, showering you with flying glass shrapnel as the mine goes off. And the terrorist remains the first cause in any case. That cannot be denied.

We humans have a huge impact on our environment. And, for both better and worse, we are very adaptable animals. Usually, this is an advantage, but it also means we are too quick to accept the new normal as natural. Conservative pundits would likely treat the incidents above like being hit by lightning.

One big problem with seeing the market as an unknowable benevolent force of nature is that it is a human creation and a deception is in effect when accountability is removed. Every major industry tries to create a favorable environment for their product. Suppose the man planting landmines sells metal detectors or owns stock in a company that does. It is a far fetched possibility to be sure, but how is the conservative approach to pollution, unsafe products, or any other public health hazard any different? They want man-made hazards to be treated as natural hazards – treat the faulty product like a tornado. As Rand Paul said of the BP Deepwater Horizon offshore oil platform explosion, “I think it’s part of this sort of blame-game society in the sense that it’s always got to be somebody’s fault instead of the fact that maybe sometimes accidents happen.”

Now, let’s say your boss wants you to mow the lawn outside the office. It has gotten pretty tall since the panic started and the chances are pretty slim that there is a landmine on that particular parcel of land. After all, it is a big city and they have only found five mines so far and none in the last week. Even so, he does not want to do it himself. Go figure.

Conservatives, like corporations, are good at externalizing, risks, costs, and responsibility. So, if you find a landmine the hard way, it will because you were "careless." Like the BP oil rig, coal mine owners routinely ignore safety regulations and fines. After all, safety is expensive and time-consuming – it cuts into the profit margins and slows down the work. And when the coal dust ignites or a cave-in buries men miles under a mountain, you can always blame the miners themselves - or safety regulations.

A lot of conservatives have considerable difficulty grasping how basic responsibility works. Enough of them have this handicap that it has become an organizing principle. I think this is the case for two reasons.

The first I write about in my book. It is their propensity to identify with power and blame the victim. It’s sympathy for the alpha dog. As I write, “Usually, they are either bullies or bystanders who reflexively sympathize with power. Whether it is rape, sexual harassment, unsafe working conditions, or anything else, conservatives’ automatic response is to blame the victim and/or defend the violator.” Indeed, “They see bullying in stopping bullying.” They seem unclear on the concept:

It is almost as if conservatives do not quite grasp that being a bully makes you the bad guy. They want to be seen as the good guys, but they also like to bully and do not see any contradiction there. It bewilders them. This is a result of their tribal us-vs.-them mindset. To them, being the good guy is a matter of birthright rather than behavior. Everything your side does is clever and justified – it is only treachery if the other side does it. You are loyal to your team and you do not snitch.
We have seen a lot of this recently. Fox News’ reflexive sympathy for killer cops is certainly motivated in part by racism. After all, they do not talk about the importance of “innocent until proven guilty” in any other circumstance. And they jump to conclusions while saying we should not jump to conclusions. In the same breath as saying we should wait for the evidence they will call the victim a “thug” – even when all we know about the victim is that he is black. So, yes, there is definitely a bit of racism at work here. But there is also an authoritarian adoration of power that complicates understanding simple lines of responsibility. The two things are distinct, but linked.

The other problem conservatives have with understanding responsibility is their either/or approach to it. Everything boils down to individual responsibility – there is no collective responsibility for anything or any systemic injustices to fix either subtle or overt. Everything happens in a vacuum, as far as they are concerned. History and poverty are non-issues to them. If you point toward any societal factors, such as the fact that countries with smaller wealth gaps have less crime, they will accuse you of denying individual responsibility – as if the two things are mutually exclusive.

This dictates their thinking in questions of credit as well as blame. During the 2012 election, both Elizabeth Warren and Barack Obama made the point that success was a combination of individual ability and social infrastructure. As Warren put it, “There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate.” Summing up she added, “[P]art of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.” And Obama echoed this point in his “You didn’t build that” speech that conservatives willfully misinterpreted. “The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.” As I summed up, “Just as you need both hydrogen and oxygen to make water, prosperity comes from the combination of individual and the collective efforts. That is just common sense.” I also added that this was a very tame version of what Benjamin Franklin had written two centuries before on taxes:

Private property therefore is a creature of society, and is subject to the calls of that society, whenever its necessities shall require it, even to the last farthing: its contributions therefore to the public exigencies are not to be considered as conferring a benefit on the public, entitling the contributors to the distinctions of honor and power, but as a return of an obligation previously received, or the payment of a just debt.*

That was the social contract that Warren was talking about. 

Doctor Franklin probably made his case so forcefully because he had to. Individual responsibility is easy to explain: It is obvious and needs no advocates. Therefore, the subtler social factors need greater attention and explanation. They need to be stressed. No liberal or leftist that I have ever met denies there is an element of individual responsibility – that is a conservative caricature.

But whether it is credit or blame being assigned, conservatives are ideologically allergic to acknowledging collective responsibility for anything. Conservatives almost seem incapable of taking in the larger picture and seeing interconnections. And this trips up their thinking on issues besides responsibility. For example, Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman once explained the problem with austerity policies in a compelling way that anyone should be able to understand:

An economy is not like a household. A family can decide to spend less and try to earn more. But in the economy as a whole, spending and earning go together: My spending is your income; your spending is my income. If everyone tries to slash spending at the same time, incomes will fall – and unemployment will soar.

But conservative ideology is wired to ignore that explanation. To them, an economy is like a household – period. There is no outside context or environment. So, tighten your belt and work harder.

And, if you step on a landmine in the meantime, you only have yourself to blame.

Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography: An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds, Criticism, ed. J.A. Leo LeMay and P.M. Zall (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1986), 222.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014


I have nothing original to add about yesterday's grotesque grand jury decision in Ferguson, MO. Instead, I will just leave you with a few links from those who said these things first and better.

The first is a broadcast from a local public radio show called Strange Fruit. Yes, like the Billie Holiday song about lynching, appropriately enough. The program ordinarily looks at gay issues from the perspective of people of color, but this special episode focused on Ferguson. It distills many of the issues pretty brilliantly and explains how bizarre the legal proceedings were. (More on the later here and here.) The episode pretty much covers every aspect I can think of, so it is a good starting point. Give it a listen. It is worth your time.

And finally, some wise words from Tim Wise about white denial. He wrote it in advance, anticipating the decision. It gives a good summary of the events leading up to it.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

A Quasi-Apologia

No doubt you have noticed my shameless book promotions. Rest assured, there is shame.

I am still uncomfortable in this particular aspect of being an author. I absolutely do not have the temperament of a salesman; but in the world of self-publishing, that is one of the many hats I have to wear. The author hat hates the sales hat especially. I am instinctively wary of anything that feel like advertising. They say "Write the book you want to read." And I did. But my own advertising makes me not want to read it because, well, it sounds like advertising. So I have already alienated my core audience.

For example, yesterday, I posted elsewhere a link to the product page with the caption "Annoyed with the election results? Try this possible tonic." It felt crassly opportunistic. Particularly since even political people are sick of campaigns at this point - probably more than most. For example, my inbox is totally bloated with email appeals. Please fuck off.

But here is the thing: My message was genuine. I know I am biased, but really think my book is necessary. We need to call out conservatives on their phony patriotism. That is, after all, why I wrote the book in the first place. I do not mean that we should mimic their McCarthyist tactics. But we do need to have an argument over what America is about.

I am not naive enough to call it a "dialogue" because I do not think it is possible at this point. The "elephant echo chamber" is hermetically sealed tight against reason. You can try arguing with your Fox News-watching father-in-law, but it is probably not the best use of your time.  But, hey, if you do go that route - perhaps for the edutainment of the spectators - my book has a lot of good rhetorical ammunition. Just saying.

But arguing specifics is difficult when your opponents have a whacked worldview. The most obvious and incontrovertible policy point goes ignored if it does not conform to the other person's central narrative. It just bounces off their mental force field. Faulty fundamental assumptions must be debunked if we are to kick the gibberish out of politics. And the elephant in the living room that we are all ignoring is what conservatism truly is - a viceral aversion to liberty, equality, and democracy.

Of course, conservatives won't listen to that conversation either. But I am not talking about conservatives. I am talking to liberals - liberals and undecideds. We all need to understand two inter-related realities:

The first is that politics is inherently adversarial. Obama does not get that. Bill Clinton didn't either. Most democratic politicians don't. And we are all quite literally poorer for it. I touched on this in my previous blog post, "The Importance of Ideology." Franklin Delano Roosevelt's 1936 Madison Garden campaign speech springs to mind. It is the one in which FDR famously said of plutocracy and privilege, "Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me - and I welcome their hatred." Oh, how I would love to hear Obama say that!

I am certainly not the first person to say this. But what I think I bring to the table is pointing out the obvious - but almost never acknowledged - conflict between conservatism and patriotism. That is the second thing. Combine that with a little fighting spirit, and we can win some stuff.

So, yeah, buy my book - or borrow it. And talk about it. Review it. Because I do think it is needed.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Importance of Ideology

I regard "ideology" and "morality" as the two most dangerous forces on this 
 planet. About "ideology" I have expressed my suspicions elsewhere; here I 
will only mention John Adams's verdict that shortening "ideology" to "idiocy" 
would save some space and add a great deal to clarity.

- Robert Anton Wilson, Natural Law: Or "Don't Put a Rubber on your Willie"

Ideology certainly has its critics, but with all due respect to Messrs. Adams and Wilson, those with none are often no less idiotic. Ideology is like fire - it has equal potential to be destructive or constructive. And the Democrats would do well to embark on their Quest for Fire because, baby, it's cold outside.

The idea that the Democratic Party is floundering without its progressive vision is certainly not new. For example, Thomas Frank has written quite a bit on this and, in the interests of full disclosure, I quote him quite a bit in my book. But Frank's latest article in Salon expertly nails it.

Frank opines that we keep having these doomed loved affairs with post-partisan, post-ideological technocrats that fail to understand the inherently adversarial nature of politics. They reach across the aisle, compromising in advance, thinking their Republican opponents will be touched by their patriotic goodwill gesture rather than sense weakness and demand more. The result is standard bearers like Michael Dukakis who got Willie Hortoned and John Kerry who got swift-boated. If the candidate has incredible charisma, like Bill Clinton or Barack Obama, they survive the election only to get bullied by a thuggish Congress. But most mere mortals are not that politically gifted, so things rarely even get that far.

I think the problem is both tactical and temperamental. But, of course, those are related.

First, with near suicidal naiveté, liberals believe that we can all agree that we want competent government when conservatives actually want to sabotage whatever government they cannot eliminate entirely. In Thomas Frank's book, The Wrecking Crew, he shows how this has been the corporate right's modus operandi since at least the 1920s. Business association literature of the period argued that the best bureaucrat is a bad bureaucrat. They have an ideological commitment to this idea. Even conservative columnist P.J. O'Rourke admitted this when he quipped, "The Democrats are the party that says government will make you smarter, taller, richer, and remove the crabgrass on your lawn. Republicans are the party that says government doesn't work, and then they get elected and prove it." And, as we all saw, that governing philosophy disastrously cumulates in the words "Heckuvah job, Brownie!" 

Until Democrats stop calling Republicans "the part of no" and start calling it the party of sabotage, they will continue to misunderstand and underestimate their opponents' motives and methodology. Republicans have a vicious, anti-civic ideology, but it is better than none because it at least gives them drive. Democrats not so much. Actually, they also have an ideology, albeit by default: to make things better rather than worse. But they refuse to embrace it except in the most tepid, halfhearted fashion. As I wrote in my book: 
Conservatives’ anti-civic attitude does not stop at defunding public schools or at demonizing teachers unions. It threatens every single bolt of our rusting infrastructure. Conservatism desires the literal disintegration of American civilization. I would say they are the secular equivalent of Evangelicals who want to hasten the Apocalypse, except they are not that secular. But the impulse is identical. They yearn to see the Last Days at Galt’s Gulch and this selfish, pessimistic yen is the very essence of every Glenn Beck broadcast. Starkly put, we are in a fight between those who want to improve society and those who want to implode it. And those who see tyranny in empathy have plainly chosen implosion.
Second, liberals are too quick to compromise while conservatives are too resistant to - and too many liberals react by trying to make up the difference and meet them more than halfway. Of course, this is not to say that conservatives never compromise - but only when they recognize that they absolutely have to and that requires a minor miracle. Conservatives have been known to walk away from free gains on the table because they felt entitled to the whole loaf. As Paul Krugman had admitted in an otherwise laudatory Rolling Stone article on President Obama:
Obama was indeed naive: He faced scorched-earth Republican opposition from Day One, and it took him years to start dealing with that opposition realistically. Furthermore, he came perilously close to doing terrible things to the U.S. safety net in pursuit of a budget Grand Bargain; we were saved from significant cuts to Social Security and a rise in the Medicare age only by Republican greed, the GOP's unwillingness to make even token concessions.
Liberals are quick to compromise because they are not purists and cherish fairness and cooperation. They want to be magnanimous in victory and see pressing their advantage as being a bully. As Robert Frost once joked “A liberal is a man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel.” This is a uniquely liberal handicap. Obviously, conservatives have no such qualms. Indeed, they don't even know what qualms are.

Conservatives love bullies - they celebrate them. That is why the Tea Party embraced torturer Allen West. It is the single biggest thing they liked about New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Is is why they adore Russian strongman Vladimir Putin. Rush Limbaugh, Bill OReilly ... the right's thug love is boundless.
(Thomas Frank also discussed the right's predilection toward bullying in The Wrecking Crew.) As I wrote in my book, "This explains the bully/wimp format of debate shows like Hannity and Colmes and the Buchanan and Kinsley era Crossfire." The burly conservative jock pounds on the skinny liberal geek. Our politics is an 1980s teen film.

Liberals naively project their own patriotic non-partisanship on conservatives by assuming they also want what is best for America and that specific policy differences are piddly little things that can be surmounted with sufficient good will.  But as I wrote, this ignores their ideological zeal:
Chris Christie’s career also illustrates conservatism’s callousness. Hurricane Sandy hit the east coast in the midst of the 2012 election. President Obama temporarily suspended his campaign to prioritize federal relief efforts. That was his job. Chris Christie, in turn, did his job and cooperated with Obama. The photo ops of them inspecting the devastation together told the hopeful story of Democrats and Republicans putting aside their partisan differences in a time of crisis. Of course, this infuriated conservative purists who accused Christie of helping Obama look presidential at Mitt Romney’s expense. But what was Christie supposed to do? Refuse help? Hide from the cameras?
Yes. In fact, their ideology demanded it. Election aside, they felt accepting any help was inherently a betrayal of conservative principles. But strategy and ideology are one. Voters saw events torpedo the right’s anti-government rhetoric at the most inopportune moment. Americans were glad to have their Uncle Sam and, to hardcore conservatives, that was the real tragedy which should have been avoided at all costs.
Of course, afterwards, we learned that Christie used hurricane relief money to reward obedience and punish dissent. But the point here is conservatives' attitude toward pulling together. It can be summed up in Grover Norquist's equating bipartisanship with date rape - a tortured metaphor that suggests that he does not really know what consent means, although I suppose we should applaud the fact that he recognizes there is such a thing as date rape. When Obama inherited the greatest economic catastrophe since the Great Depression, Rush Limbaugh summed up conservative cooperation: "I hope he fails."

I think part of the problem is that Democrats do not understand the message in Mad Men. It is a TV show about the importance of ideology. In an article in the Washington Post, social historian Stephanie Coontz (another author I quote a lot in my book) has called it the most feminist show on the air. It is a show about why we need feminism and the
untenable circumstances that it rose to correct.

The show has many strong women characters who are frustrated and unhappy because they are individually playing by society's ludicrous rules and losing. They have not yet realized that they need to get together and collectively break those rules and rewrite them. Let's look at a few:

Betty Draper is not a weak woman by any means, but she still thinks that being the perfect housewife with the right husband is the central recipe for happiness. She has steely determination, but it is all channeled within the system. In the virgin/whore dichotomy that society uses to classify women, she represents propriety. As a mother of two, she is not technically a virgin. But her repressed sexuality comes close. 

Joan plays by a very different script. She uses her sexuality to navigate the good old boys environment of the advertising firm, but it proves to be a limited form of liberation. And when the initially timid Peggy advances beyond the secretarial pool to write ad copy and start to assert herself, Joan accuses her of not knowing her place. We see a limited form of sisterhood when Joan is first training Peggy. Joan warns Peggy about the treacherous terrain, pointing out one pitfall after another. Neither yet realizes that they should work together to fill-in those pits and transform the terrain. Again, they are operating in a pre-feminist world, playing by its rules and predictably losing. And that is because they have no ideology. 
Post-ideological Democrats can learn a lot from watching these pre-ideological women.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Another Announcement

To celebrate the launch of the physical version of my book - and take advantage of the election - the ebook version will once again be available for free for five days next week from Monday the 27th to Friday the 31st. Just remember that the last day is Halloween. So, this is your second chance at a free copy. And if you already have a copy, this is your chance to get the corrected version without those annoying typos.

Press Release

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Luddites, Rejoice! My book is finally a physical thing that you can buy and hold in your hands! It feels great and I highly recommend the experience. (Your mileage may vary.)

As a bonus, The Amazon page for the Kindle edition no longer has the intimidating estimated 823 page count. Instead, it gives the print edition’s more approachable 360 page count. It is actually only 292 without end notes. Yes, I have a lot of end notes. I had feared that the previous page count was scaring readers off - either preventing purchases or postponing reading.

You may now address me by my ISBN number: 978-1500314637.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Texas Textbooks Redux

Texas is at it again - and now so is Colorado.

As you may recall, in 2010 the Texas State Board of Education decided to whitewash the high school history curriculum in their Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) standards. They sought to sanitize it of any non-conservative content i.e. anything that might reflect negatively on any dead white men. As I wrote in my book, their patriotic efforts got unpatriotic results:

The original curriculum asked students to “explain the impact of the Enlightenment ideas of John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire, Charles de Montesquieu, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Thomas Jefferson on political revolutions from 1750 to the present.” But the new guidelines erased the words “Enlightenment” and “revolutions.” Moreover, they also dropped Thomas Jefferson in favor of Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, and Sir William Blackstone. The only American political philosopher on the previous list was dumped to make room for two foreign theologians and a hardcore monarchist.

I am not kidding. In his famous Commentaries on the Laws of England, Sir William Blackstone wrote, “The king is not only incapable of doing wrong, but even of thinking wrong; in him there is no folly or weakness.” So, the king is infallible, like the Pope? I am not sure how that qualifies Sir Blackstone as a revolutionary thinker. Oh, but wait, I forgot: the Lone Star State had dropped the word “revolution” too. Perhaps Texas will next replace their state song with “God Save the King.”

This week, Texas is back in the news on this issue for two reasons.

First, a panel of scholars recently looked into how the textbook industry has accommodated Texas so far. No serious historian was optimistic about the prognosis since the new curriculum's flaws were apparent from the start. Edward Countryman, one of the scholars on the panel, had recalled that the school board's fractious drafting process had brought Texas international ridicule. In fact, "When it was done, even the explicitly conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute gave TEKS a D, on the grounds that it amounted to political and cultural indoctrination, a dash of mindless inclusivity, and brute memorization."

As James W. Lowen explained in Lies My Teacher Told Me, Texas is a huge textbook market and accordingly has subtly dictated content for years because publishers are loathe to produce expensive separate editions. Likewise, when the Kansas State School Board passed new standards that mandated intelligent design be taught alongside evolution in 2005, it posed a huge potential headache for biology text book publishers. (This decision was reversed in 2007.) Texas creates the same complication with history texts.

But with TEKS, the former subtlety is gone. James W. Lowen had complained that textbooks were boring because they glossed over conflict and controversy, thereby alienating students from the subject of history. But TEKS attempts to shoehorn the Bible into the Constitution by requiring textbooks to reference the “laws of nature and nature’s God” when discussing political concepts. Summarizing, the panel's findings, Edward Countryman wrote, "We agreed on two big points. First, most of the publishers had tried hard to deal with the situation that TEKS presented. Second, however, dealing with TEKS at all means distortion, or worse."

Second, the Texas State Board of Education had also made news this week by opposing the College Board's national Advanced Placement U.S. History course and exam. High school students who do well on the test get college credit, but conservatives consider it to be rife with anti-American messages. Accordingly, Texas is expected to vote against teaching the College Board's course, although they will allow the students to take the exam using TEKS to prepare. As Talking Points Memo explained:

The controversy stems from the recent overhaul of the AP test, administered by the New Jersey-based College Board, that was meant to de-emphasize memorization. The new exam will be given for the first time in May and includes a lengthy framework to help teachers better-prepare students for the requirements.

Conservative activists, though, have decried the new course, the teachers' framework and even the exam itself as rife with liberal themes and focusing on the negative aspects of U.S. history. Some have even likened it to "mind control" engineered by the federal government.

Government mind control? Oh, the irony and lack of self-awareness.

Not to be outdone, the school board of Jefferson County, Colorado is trying its own hand at historical revisionism. They moved to remove all mentions of civil disobedience from texts and classroom materials intended for the teaching of AP U.S. history. Why? Because, as Raw Story explained:

The right-leaning board-members said they believe history teachers should teach nationalism, respect for authority and reverence for free markets. They should avoid teaching any historical events or acts that promote “civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.”

It begs the question of how they would teach about our country's revolutionary origins. Of course, we already know the answer, because it is how American authoritarians have always taught it. As I wrote in my book:  

The conservative version of the American Revolution has no revolutionaries. Radicals were absent and nobody was ever rude, insolent, or disobedient. In their portrayal, people spoke a great deal about freedom but refrained from personally exercising any. In short, conservatives envision the revolutionaries using the word freedom as they do today – without really meaning it.

It is a longstanding problem that will probably always be with us. In a 1901 speech entitled "Training That Pays," American treasure Mark Twain expressed his contempt for this kind of indoctrination passed off as education that conservatives advocate. He spoke at meeting of the Male Teachers Association of the City of New York after New York Superintendent of Education Charles H. Skinner. Skinner gave a speech entitled "Patriotism for the Young." He advocated the new overseas imperialism that Mark Twain hated. Twain's classic rebuttal drew a stark line between patriotism and nationalism and remains relevant today: 

If patriotism had been taught in the schools years ago, the country would not be in the position it is in to-day. Mr. Skinner is better satisfied with the present conditions than I am. I would teach patriotism in the schools, and teach it this way: I would throw out the old maxim, ‘My country, right or wrong,’ etc., and instead I would say, ‘My country when she is right.’ Because patriotism is supporting your country all the time, but your government only when it deserves it. [emphasis original] 

So I would not take my patriotism from my neighbor or from Congress. I should teach the children in the schools that there are certain ideals, and one of them is that all men are created free and equal. Another that the proper government is that which exists by the consent of the governed. If Mr. Skinner and I had to take care of the public schools, I would raise up a lot of patriots who would get into trouble with his.

EDIT - 10/08/15:

And, flashing forward to the present day, here's a McGraw-Hill geography textbook actually calling slavery "immigration" and slaves "workers." I'd say the phrase "whitewash" was never so literal, but I imagine there are countless other equally apt examples.

Of course, it is the logical consequence of conservative thought. In a mirror incident, this Iowa talk radio host has suggested enslaving undocumented immigrants. This king-maker in the Party of  Lincoln actually asked “Well, what’s wrong with slavery?” Conservatives: Burying the Irony Meter on a daily basis.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Jefferson and Orwell

Regarding my previous post, a friend commented to me that the dead do not get angry or disappointed, so there is no point in worrying about what the founding fathers thought.

I partially agree. But as a history student, I am interested in how we got to here from there. History is the study of change over time, and thus a subject that change-averse conservatives do not look too hard at. They would rather fetishize the past than actually try to understand it. Their "respect" for it is really an ignorant and shallow infatuation. To them, the past is at best a vague and convenient vehicle for their idealizing tribal imagination and at worst a tool or weapon to seize authority with. Serious study would spoil the adolescent enthusiasm and ruin its utility for them.

Thomas Jefferson wrote a lot about allowing society to evolve and adopt new ideas. I have quoted him on this topic before. But this quote on shrugging off the dead hand of the past is especially relevant:
Can one generation bind another, and all others, in succession forever? I think not. The Creator has made the earth for the living, not the dead. Rights and powers can only belong to persons, not to things, not to mere matter, unendowed with will. The dead are not even things. The particles of matter which composed their bodies, make part now of the bodies of other animals, vegetables, or minerals, of a thousand forms. To what then are attached the rights and powers they held while in the form of men? A generation may bind itself as long as its majority continues in life; when that has disappeared, another majority is in place, holds all the rights and powers their predecessors once held, and may change their laws and institutions to suit themselves. Nothing then is unchangeable but the inherent and unalienable rights of man.
Speaking of the Citizens United ruling, as I was previously, I think we can accurately extrapolate from that quote Mr. Jefferson's likely opinion on corporations being made immortal persons. And that is not without worth today. As George Orwell wrote in his dystopian novel 1984, "He who controls the past, controls the future." It is a question of plotting our trajectory by bending the arc.

In fact, Thomas Jefferson gives us one potent example at the start of  his next paragraph:

I was glad to find in your book a formal contradition, at length, of the judiciary usurpation of legislative powers; for such the judges have usurped in their repeated decisions, that Christianity is a part of the common law. The proof of the contrary, which you have adduced, is incontrovertible; to wit, that the common law existed while the Anglo-Saxons were yet Pagans, at a time when they had never yet heard the name of Christ pronounced, or knew that such a character had ever existed.
Hopefully, Tony Perkins will someday familiarize himself with both quotes.

Bottomed on Corruption

Okay, apparently, the Family Research Council's Tony Perkins believes that the Founding Fathers would oppose overturning the Supreme Court’s infamous 2010 Citizens United ruling - the one that effectively makes bribery protected "speech." Alexander Hamilton and John Jay probably yes.

Alexander Hamilton actually advocated corruption. But I imagine most of the others would probably applaud the recent Senate vote that moved the proposed constitutional Amendment forward. For example, it would not be recklessly speculative to suggest that Thomas Jefferson would be on the opposite side of the issue from Hamilton. As I wrote in my book:
Of course, I am not arguing that the founders all agreed. There were reactionaries as well as radicals. For example, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay felt wealth should run the country and they had no problem saying so. In fact, Hamilton had actually advocated corruption as a desirable mechanism toward that end. He was an admirer of the British Parliament in which votes and government posts were then openly bought and sold. It kept the rich in control because only they could afford to buy legislation. Hamilton said, "Purge that constitution of its corruption, and give to its popular branch equality of representation, and it would become an impractical government: as it stands at present, with all its supposed defects, it is the most perfect government that ever existed." This prompted Thomas Jefferson to claim, "Hamilton was not only a monarchist, but for a monarchy bottomed on corruption." If Hamilton were alive today, he would no doubt join the GOP in opposing campaign finance reform."
Mind you, this is the same Tony Perks who thinks that trying to overturn the Citizens United ruling amounts to Christian persecution. It was not Thomas Jefferson, but I seem to recall that somebody famously drove the money changers out of the Temple of Jerusalem with a whip in hand.

I am pretty sure it was not Tony Perkins either.

This Island Earth

Okay, conservatives. Let me spell it out for you: We are all on the Island. You like to think you are the Skipper, but you are actually a strange, hateful amalgamation of Gilligan and Mr. Howell who inexplicably loathes the Professor and has anger management issues in general.

The point being is you keep fucking things up for the rest of us.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Cowboys and Aliens

It is a tricky thing to pull off a historic atrocity analogy. You have to be very careful with them and you are probably better off just not trying. And, as I have written so many times before, conservatives compulsively rush in where historians fear to tread. So I don't want to mimic their mistakes.

It is, therefore, with great trepidation that I follow conservatives into this treacherous territory. But, I have two analogies which I think might help explain the situation in Palestine to my fellow Americans.

Let's start with this familiar story. Europeans arrive in a promised land with superior firepower and inform the brown inhabitants that God gave them this land. This may involve giving Indians small pox blankets or planting landmines in Palestinian olive orchards.

Note: I am using the word "Indian" here because I will use the word "native" to refer to both Native Americans and Palestinians in this analogy and I want to avoid confusion. This first analogy writes itself and it is totally obvious how it will play out, but bear with me.

From the very beginning, there are atrocities on both sides. In America, scalping was practiced by Indians and Europeans alike. In Palestine, the practice was bombing. Many Israeli politicians were at one time terrorists themselves who had targeted civilians as well as military targets during the British Mandate. As with early America, atrocities continued on both sides long after nationhood was achieved. We had elected Andrew Jackson president and the Israelis had elected Ariel Sharon prime minister. Israel's apologists claim that Palestinians never wanted to share the holy land. Well, Irgun and the Lehi did not either. Hard right Zionists insist they must actualize a "Greater Israel" consisting of all the territory that biblical Israel had conquered. For Ingrun, this included Jordan. The "Manifest Destiny" parallel should be obvious.

In any self-perpetuating cycle of violence, both sides express outrage that is simultaneously heartfelt and ridiculously hypocritical. Such is the inherent nature of all ongoing feuds. But the lopsidedness of the conflict makes the outrage of the strongest party even more absurd.

In both early America and modern Israel, you had/have three main groups - natives, settlers, and the army. The army is supposed to keep the peace between the natives and the settlers; but since the army is made of the same ethnicity and nationality as the settlers, there is zero even handedness. If a settler kills a native, he gets a slap on the wrist - if that. If a native kills a settler, it triggers a punitive strike on the entire native community. This tacit incentive system gets exactly the results you might expect.

In both cases, the natives are restricted to the most barren land and their sources of sustenance systematically squeezed. The strongest side rarely bargains in good faith. Needless to say, this exacerbates resentment and cynicism on the weaker side. Human beings being human beings, the stronger party becomes a bully. The infamous Zimbardo prison experiment illustrates how quickly this can take place.

I am not trying to romanticize anyone. If the situation were reversed, their roles would be too. Nor am I denying that underdogs often get romanticized. Anyone with an elementary sense of fairness is apt to to romanticize an underdog unless their sympathy is already locked-in for the other side for some other reason - often for having been the underdog on some previous occasion. Victims becoming bullies is a pretty familiar trajectory in human history. I would not be the first observer to remark that colonists who came to our shores fleeing religious persecution in England had no problem being persecutors themselves. Benjamin Franklin beat me to it in his June 3rd, 1772 Letter to the London Packet:
If we look back into history for the character of present sects in Christianity, we shall find few that have not in their turns been persecutors, and complainers of persecution. The primitive Christians thought persecution extremely wrong in the Pagans, but practised it on one another. The first Protestants of the Church of England, blamed persecution in the Roman church, but practised it against the Puritans: these found it wrong in the Bishops, but fell into the same practice themselves both here and in New England.(1)
And as V.G. Kiernan wrote of the Dutch winning their independence from the Spanish Hapsburgs:
It did not escape comment that the Dutch were no sooner gaining their freedom at home than they were depriving other people of theirs, an inconsistency repeated by several European nations later on. But they were only doing to Asians what they were ready to do to their English neighbors, co-religionists and allies in their war of independence. In 1623 the English at Amboina were seized, tortured and killed.(2)
But, sympathy or bias aside, it is a tautology worth examining that the side with the most power has the most power. That side has the most control of the situation and can best end the cycle of violence. It has the brunt of the responsibility for escalating or de-escalating things. Likewise, a policeman probably does not need to empty his pistol's clip into an unarmed black teen with his hands up.

Moreover, the "pox on both houses" opinion ignores the fact that one side are the invaders and the other is the resistance. I don't endorse nail bombs any more than I endorse scalping, but it is moronic to be shocked or get morally indignant when the natives strike back with whatever paltry resources they have. That is just going to happen as naturally as gravity. It is a tragedy the same way tornadoes, volcanoes, or earthquakes are - except instead of cold fronts hitting warm ones or tectonic plates grinding together, it is people. The only difference is that people can do something about it. But the people who can do the most about it are, by definition, those with the most firepower.

America and Israel are both young countries that share the same original sin.

Okay, this native analogy is probably not very original. But I have another analogy.

Imagine, if you will, an interstellar invasion of Earth. The Red Dawn fantasies of paranoid survivalists notwithstanding, no nation could possibly conquer the United States at this time. The absurdity hamstrings any suspension of disbelief. So, why not go for broke, be a geek, and imagine an Independence Day-like alien invasion from outer space?

Realistically, how would we react in that situation? Would we distinguish between civilian and military when they begin bringing their families over? Of course not. We would do our utmost to convince them that Earth is not a safe place to bring your spouse and offspring. And if their military technology were so advanced that any assault against them was a de facto suicide mission, how long would it be before some of us just started strapping bombs to ourselves in acknowledgement of the cold, dark logic of our new circumstances? Probably less than fifty years.

And religion has a way of inserting itself into life and death situations. Religious difference would certainly piggyback on to the conflict. Obviously, all differences would be instantly highlighted, but once again the fear of death would magnify religion even more. Warring nations are quick to claim that God is on their side. Even when both sides share the same religion, they may still call it a "crusade." But when the religions are different, things get uglier. The crusade rhetoric becomes more likely, if not inevitable as George W. Bush unthinkingly illustrated. The distinction between "patriot" and "martyr" would blur for most people - most probably immediately. And the alien invaders would no doubt call us crazed, fanatical "animals" as a result. Again, the dynamic would be as natural as gravity.

Perhaps at this point some conservative will call me a human race-traitor for my dim view of humanity. On the contrary, like that great citizen of the world Thomas Paine, my loyalty to humanity is solid. I share his original humanist patriotism. It is the opposite of narrow, tribal nationalism. And what Paine had to say on the origin of property is relevant to the issue of nationalism too:
It is deductible, as well from the nature of the thing as from all the stories transmitted to us, that the idea of landed property commenced with cultivation, and that there was no such thing, as landed property before that time. It could not exist in the first state of man, that of hunters. It did not exist in the second state, that of shepherds: neither Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, nor Job, so far as the history of the Bible may credited in probable things, were owners of land. Their property consisted, as is always enumerated, in flocks and herds, they traveled with them from place to place. The frequent contentions at that time about the use of a well in the dry country of Arabia, where those people lived, also show that there was no landed property. It was not admitted that land could be claimed as property. There could be no such thing as landed property originally. Man did not make the earth, and, though he had a natural right to occupy it, he had no right to locate as his property in perpetuity any part of it; neither did the Creator of the earth open a land-office, from whence the first title-deeds should issue.(3)


1) Benjamin Franklin, The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, ed. by Leonard W. Labaree et al. (New Haven: Yale University Press), 1959, 19:163-68.

2) V.G. Kiernan, The Lords of Human Kind: European Attitudes to Other Cultures in the Imperial Age (Boston and Toronto: Little Brown and Company, 1969), 11.

3) Thomas Paine, The Life and Major Writings of Thomas Paine: includes Common Sense, The American Crisis, Rights of Man, The Age of Reason and Agrarian Justice, ed. Phillip Sheldon Foner (New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1993), 611.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

White is the New Black

As the tragedy in Ferguson continues to unfold, it touches on so many issues - racial profiling, society's devaluation of black lives, the militarization of policing, freedom of the press, etc. One is conservative media's coverage and framing of events.

In my book, I have devoted an entire chapter to the right's routine Orwellian inversion of history. As I wrote before, this was one among very many things that kept me postponing my book's completion. Almost every other day, some new example of that reactionary reflex would occur and I felt I had to retroactively shoehorn it into my manuscript. Each new quote felt more stupefying than the last, but eventually I realized that I had to stop somewhere and I consoled myself with the fact that this ongoing phenomenon was keeping my book fresh and relevant even as my examples age. Now, my only worry is sounding like a broken record.

Well, this one takes the cake - at least, until tomorrow. According to regular Fox News commentator Laura Ingraham, the protestors demanding to know the name of the cop who shot an unarmed black teenager are a "lynch mob." But she had previously called the armed militia members who had a stand off with federal authorities at the Cliven Bundy ranch "Freedom Riders."

Roll that one around in your head for a moment. I will wait.

Granted, the two statements were made well apart - she was not contrasting the protestors with the militia members. And I suppose it is possible that she was just unthinkingly using whatever hyperbolic comparison popped into her head without thinking too hard about the labels' origins. But conservatives do this so routinely now that I am disinclined to give her the benefit of the doubt. Twisting history is their strategy.

Whatever your politics, you should acknowledge this as an embarrassing absurdity. No liberal opinion maker could say something that stupid and remain gainfully employed. He or she would hemorrhage viewers. Not so for conservatives. They may become totally radioactive to advertisers, but Glenn Beck is now making even more money since he has left Fox. They know how to monetize controversy. It is a Pavlovian vicious cycle between pundit and audience: This is what the rank and file likes to hear, and the Elephant Echo Chamber happily delivers regularly.

I am certainly not the first person to notice any of this. But I have spotted a larger pattern that I think merits discussing. This is how conservatives think - at least enough of them to swing the GOP toward the lunatic fringes. Denial and projection are not just something they do occasionally: It is their dominant reflex in explaining events. In my book, I take pains to say that we all can project or say stupid things. But no other group rewards and turbo boosts it like conservatives do.

Why? Because it is inherent in the conservative mindset. These are people who are hostile to liberty and equality who are living in a country that is founded on pursuing these ideals. These are the people who have always postponed our democratic promise and done their utmost to make our ideals a hollow joke. Yes, liberals can certainly disappoint, either out of thoughtlessness or cowardliness, but only conservatives have made such subversion an organizing principle

And yet, conservatives are all about conformity, obedience, and belonging, so they cannot acknowledge their history of sabotage. Just as the GOP's Southern Strategy denies racism while relying on racist dog whistles, conservatism covertly milks this un-American animus while challenging others' patriotism. Indeed, the first is a facet of the second. Race is a volatile topic the world over, but America's identity has a stake in equality that makes American racists feel extra defensive. Their authenticity as Americans always feels under assault.
Conservatives have always attempted to co-opt the founders. They denied the founders' deism and secular open mindedness. But now, their rewrites reach into recent history - into events that are in the living memory of millions. Case in point: the Civil Rights Movement. You simply cannot make a lynching analogy any more awkward than Laura
Ingraham has - at least not without making the exact same one as Bill O'Reilly had. But whether deliberate or unthinking, it is still completely in sync with her audience's ass-backwards worldview.

After all, a poll taken last year found that nearly a third - 29% - of Louisiana Republicans think that President Barack Obama bungled the response to Hurricane Katrina. Of course, this titanic natural disaster occurred on President George W. Bush's watch. (Almost half - 44% - were unsure of who was at fault.) But what is most stunning is that it happened in their own state only seven years before the poll was taken and yet so many of them still got it wrong! If conservatives can forget or rewrite that in their minds, anything is possible.

UPDATE: David Horowitz has just joined the "lynch mob" metaphor bandwagon.

SECOND UPDATE: Ben Stein now too.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

An Analogous Absurdity

I have neglected this blog for too long. I have a few embryonic posts on important topics that I will post soon, but I just had to address this little bit of geeky ephemera.

Apparently, some homophobic fan boy recently objected to a lesbian scene in a Star Trek novel. He wrote a letter, and the writer gave a great response. My first three reactions to the incident were: 1) Imagine that fan boy's reaction if the characters were gay males. 2) Dude, where have you been? Lesbians on Star Trek are old news. The Deep Space 9 episode “Rejoined” aired in 1995. Catch up. And 3) It's fucking STAR TREK. If you have a problem with any form of tolerance you are in the wrong fandom.

Watch Starship Troopers instead.

I call this an analogous absurdity because the homophobe’s response looks a whole lot like conservative "patriotism." One of the many points I hammer home in my book is that America is supposed to stand for liberty, equality, and democracy and that conservatives chronically oppose those things. These three big ideals cover a lot of ground, and the ripple effects cause conservatives to oppose America’s every ethos – from our status of a multicultural nation of immigrants to the very concept of progress itself. As I wrote before in this blog, William F. Buckley Jr. declared in the National Review’s 1955 mission statement that his magazine “stands athwart history shouting Stop!” By contrast, Thomas Jefferson once wrote:
But I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.
In that respect, Star Trek – and every inherently secular humanistic message contained in it – is an extension of America. Both are animated by a vision of an advanced, scientific-thinking society that is both tolerant and egalitarian, and yet nevertheless values individuals' right to live as they like. As Thomas Jefferson explained, “Rightful liberty is unobstructed action, according to our will, within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others.” But theocrats cannot grasp this. They think "God's law" trumps all else. Jefferson thought otherwise. "The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg." Legislating Leviticus is inherently un-American. 

This vision was committed to our coinage. As Benjamin Franklin had inscribed on our nation's first penny "Mind Your Business." On the opposite side of the coin are the words "We Are One" surrounded by thirteen interlocking rings to represent the thirteen original colonies. This later became our nation's motto E Pluribus Unum - "One From Many." In time, this got tied to our generous multicultural identity - the one outlined in the poem on the Statue of Liberty that reads: "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me."

In my book, I argue that the interdependent ideals of liberty, equality, and democracy form a tripod with each leg supporting the other two and thus the structure as a whole. I further argue that empathy and generosity are the glue that holds all the pieces together. Of course, the conservative temperament cuts against all of these things. It stands athwart history and America's liberal traditions shouting self-contradictory nonsense. Just as there are Trekkers who do not get Star Trek, there are Americans who do not get America. And for the same basic reasons.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Disappointment Redux

In the introduction to my book, I said something to the effect of my being the "Richard Dawkins of American History." I would like to retract that analogy now because his ass-haberdashery has gotten worse.

It is not that I object to his abrasiveness - quite the opposite: I embrace abrasiveness. After all, I am both a cartoonist and a fan of satire. Mark Twain had called laughter humanity's greatest weapon:

 Power, money, persuasion, supplication, persecution—these can lift at a colossal humbug—push it a little—weaken it a little, century by century; but only laughter can blow it to rags and atoms at a blast. Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.

But I distinguish between assholish tone and assholish content. The former is often both entertaining and necessary for the reason I gave above.  Although, I suppose I should not be surprised by the high correlation between the two. Likewise, Bill Maher has been disappointing more and more - from his whining about his taxes to his misogynistic analogy on Israel's recent invasion of Gaza. Full disclosure: I also praise Maher in my book when contrasting his libertarianism with Penn Jillette's.

I had asked a friend about Dawkins' ass-haberdashery earlier when there were less egregious quotes out there. After some discussion, I decided to leave it in. I took a conscious risk and it was a bad call.

My exact words were:
If I convert a conservative, that is a bonus but I am not banking on it. I am somewhat brusque and I expect they will react to my evidence the same way Creationists react to dinosaur bones. So, I suppose it is my intention to be the Richard Dawkins of American history by bluntly presenting long-established facts: The founders were mostly Deists – deal with it. The Civil War was fought over slavery – deal with it. This is not a “reach across the aisle” sort of book. Both the title and thesis effectively prevent that. 

Plus, Richard Dawkins disses art and history? You can well imagine what I think of that. Yeah, fuck that guy. Cartoon History of the Universe creator Larry Gonnick should go medieval on his ass. As Matt Groening had once put it, "It is unwise to annoy cartoonists."

EDIT: The Dawkins bit has been dropped.