Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Trump is Clueless About the Second Amendment and Constitutional Law

   Another day, another outrage.  Yesterday Donald Trump made some remarks that sounded a lot like previous right wing calls for "Second Amendment solutions," that is, suggestions that conservatives should resort to political violence against their enemies.  This rhetoric is, in fact, common enough among today's right wing that it is difficult to credit Trump's defenders' claims that the candidate meant something else or was "just kidding," as if he hadn't been thinking of this popular extremist trope in the first place (and of the fact that his audience would love it).  In fact the only line of defense with even a pretense of credibility is that Trump has to keep saying outrageous things because that's what's got him where he is and if he stopped the whole thing would run out of gas.  That might very well be true.

   But the "Second Amendment solution" gaffe isn't the only thing about Trump's stand on gun rights/gun control that ought to give us pause about the Republican candidate's competence for the office of the Presidency.  The Republican nominee appears to have not even a high school civics class understanding of 1) the centuries-old debate about interpreting the 2A or 2) the larger context of the relationship between the Constitution (including the 2A) and the Judiciary (broadly understood as "constitutional law").  Let's take a look at these two respective topics, and Mr. Trump's less than amateurish take on them (I'm an amateur in this department; Trump is, to use a put-down made famous by the physicist Wolfgang Pauli, not even wrong).

   1) Second Amendment interpretation.  The 2A states, in its entirety, "A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed."  A sentence consisting of two simple clauses, but two clauses that are not necessarily consistent in their meaning or implications, the 2A has been the subject of literally thousands of judicial interpretations, as it is the institutional touchstone of decisions determining the constitutionality, or lack thereof, of all local, state, and federal laws, legal rulings and legislation regarding the purchase, possession and use of firearms.

   It's easy to see why the original intention of the 2A is vexingly opaque.  If it just said "The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed" that would be relatively straightforward, although still problematic as to the scope of "arms."  Not all conservatives would be inclined to accept that this includes the right of private citizens to maintain their own private nuclear bombs, after all, or fleets of combat helicopters, although some would (and do).

   But the 2A isn't just that phrase.  That phrase is preceded by a phrase that is clearly meant to function as the framers' argument for prohibiting the infringement of the right of the people to keep and bear arms, namely that  "a well regulated militia (is) necessary to the security of a free state."  That is, in the absence of a "well regulated militia" there is no justification (offered in the Constitution, that is) for any right of private citizens to keep and bear arms at all.  At least, so a politically liberal interpreter like me would read the amendment.  And while both sensible conservatives and liberals alike are naturally going to gravitate towards common sense positions like "sports rifles yes, artillery no," no such pragmatic consensus currently exists.  Instead there is a fierce debate that rages in the face of a serious national problem with gun violence.

   But the present topic is not this all-too-familiar one about the 2A and gun rights/gun control.  My topic today is Mr. Trump's grasp of all, or any, of this.  Trump appears to believe that the 2A is universally accepted as establishing the right of private citizens to possess firearms: he appears to be unaware of the whole venerable debate.  In his latest book Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again (November 2015) Trump gives us his "positions" on a number of major policy issues. On gun control he simply quotes the 2A in full and adds one word: "Period."  He maintains that Clinton wants to "overturn the Second Amendment" which goal is not and never has been any part of her (or the Democratic Party's) platform.  What liberal Democrats like Clinton and I contend is that gun control measures are not, as such, unconstitutional under the 2A.  Which brings me to:

2) Trump is shockingly clueless about constitutional law.  This is actually worse, I think, than Trump's mistaken belief that the 2A definitively establishes the right of private citizens to possess firearms because in this case his ignorance extends to our entire system of governance. "Hillary wants to abolish -- essentially abolish the Second Amendment," Trump told the rally on Tuesday, adding, "By the way, if she gets to pick, if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks."  He appears to believe that judges can rule on the constitutionality of the...Constitution.  Well, no.  Under our system of government the legislative branch can enact laws, and the legislature and the state legislatures acting in tandem can amend the Constitution.  The function of the judiciary (as regards the Constitution) is to rule on the constitutionality of laws and legal decisions through Constitutional interpretation.  The Constitution itself is the Hobbesian formal "sovereign" under which these rulings occur: it is not itself subject to judicial authority.  That relationship goes the other way around.  And although that basic fact may not be crystal clear to every blessed soul it certainly is to every constitutional scholar, judge, lawyer, legislator and 10th grade social studies student in this country.  Trump, not so much.      


Friday, July 15, 2016

The Sanders Supporters' Blind Spot on Race

   Two days after Bernie Sanders' endorsement of Hillary Clinton, now is a time to show respect for Sanders supporters including respect for their autonomy and self-determination as voters.  But we have also arrived at a teaching moment when it is dangerous to let important things go unsaid.   During the primary season I noticed something about many of my facebook/twitter Sanders-supporting friends that puzzled me.  I see social media as a means of knowledge production: my questions are more often sincere than rhetorical.  On the occasion of the California Democratic primary vote on July 7 I posed an honest question in response to some of the Sanders supporters' rhetoric: Why did black voters stick so overwhelmingly with Clinton throughout the primaries, effectively determining that Clinton would be the nominee with their vote in California?   The response to that post from some Sanders-supporting friends was startling and illuminating, and after a week of reflection I'm convinced that there is an issue here of great importance.  My intent is neither to shame nor to provoke but rather to have a substantial conversation.

   One friend, a member of my academic network (all of the three examples here are highly educated people), argued that black voters had not had time to discover Sanders because blacks were less educated than whites and had less access to social media because they owned fewer laptops, smartphones and so on.  Needless to say he was immediately pounced on for what seems a patently racist line of thought.  I got pretty testy with him myself.  Later on he was still aggrieved, still maintaining that "blacks are less educated" was a reasonable explanation of why they stayed loyal to Clinton.

   Black voters stayed loyal to Clinton throughout all of the primaries, but let's take a look at the black community in California.  California has a long history of black radicalism and has been a center of activism since well before the civil rights movement of the 50s-60s.  From East Los Angeles to Oakland the black political community has a long history of upheaval and struggle.  As a result of this history and because the Democratic Party must retain the loyalty of urban black voters there exists today a powerful network of black churches, communities and politicians who inform and mobilize the black vote.  On June 7 these black voters gave Clinton a 55% victory in California.  Also Clinton won by an average of 15 percentage points in every single congressional district where Latinos make up at least 40 percent of eligible voters  So, yes, it is unacceptably obtuse but also disrespectful to dismiss the support of black voters for Clinton as a result of their not having enough i-phones.

   Stranger still was the Sanders-supporting friend, this time a fellow alumnus of my college, who read the Clinton victory as evidence that California was "racist."  This was a younger woman very devoted to the identity politics of these days (she said she was a "latinx").  As a defender of the oppressed she was quite affronted when I pointed out that her view of the election was quite literally the opposite of the truth.  That simply could not be.

   No, she went on her merry (actually kind of rageful) way, dismissing facts that contradicted her meticulously constructed self-projection.  My academic friend had invalidated black support for Clinton, but this friend had to deny that the actual behavior of black voters, and the effects of that behavior (voters of color in California effectively decided that Clinton will be the next President of the United States on July 7) even existed.  There was no room for the (actual) black voters in her (imaginary) political universe.

   Then there was the third and final friend, another fellow alumni, who was in a self-congratulatory mood after the California primary.  It was a moment, he said, when he could feel "proud to be a white man," as white men were the only group of California Democratic primary voters who had given a majority of their votes to Sanders.

   Ahem.  The last time white males voted in the majority for the Democratic Party presidential nominee was for Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Meanwhile the Democratic Party has won the popular vote in five out of the past six elections.  Along with blacks and Latinos, the sizable support for Democratic Party candidates from women is the key to Democratic Party wins.  It's true that white male Democrats are responsible for several of Clinton's primary defeats, notably in Michigan.  But that is not some salutary example of white men voting progressively, as my friend let himself think.  That's just white men voting the way white men do.

   There is a larger lesson in all of this.  I want to discuss a remark made by Joe Walsh the notorious former Republican congressman turned right-wing talk show host.  Mr. Walsh most recently got attention after the tragic shootings in Dallas when he tweeted "Watch out Obama and Black Lives Matter thugs.  Real America is coming after you."  I can't resist also reminding readers that Mr. Walsh was sued by his ex-wife for failing to pay $117,000 in child support.   He blamed the bad economy for his failure to support his own children.  One guess who he blamed for the bad economy.

   But I digress.  I want to talk about a statement Joe Walsh made on June 26, when he tweeted "The single greatest act of racism in American history was the election of Barack Obama."  (Pause to let the ghastliness of that remark sink in.)  Of course the point is meant to be that people voted for Obama solely based on his race.  True, black voters gave Obama 95% of their vote in 2008 and 93% of their vote in 2012 and that vote was no doubt sweeter to make on account of Obama's own blackness, for them and for quite a few of the rest of us too.  But black voters gave the Southern centrist Al Gore 90% of their votes in 2000 and John Kerry, one of the whitest rich white dudes you're ever likely to see, 88% of their votes in 2004.  Bill Clinton (whatever he is) garnered north of 80% of their votes in his two elections as well and there is every reason to think they will do the same for his wife.

   Why?  Because the black electorate is loyal to the Democratic Party.  That hasn't been an easy thing for them.  Jesse Jackson called the Party out for unfulfilled promises in 1988 to historic effect.  But that community knows that coalition politics is the only way forward for disenfranchised people.  Jackson didn't organize all the black voters, he organized "all the little fish."  He was a black champion but he understood that his campaign was a phenomenon within the Democratic Party.  He had no intention of bolting, and neither does Sanders.  Party politics is all about solidarity.   Black voters don't get to go back to Vermont.  "If the people will lead, the leaders will follow" is NOT compatible with "Compromise is a sell-out." If the black electorate had its own party not only would they not win national races, they would also help to cement in the rule of a minority right-wing.

   During one thread exchange with Sanders supporters I said "Politics is hard."  I thought we had enough mutual understanding that they would understand that we have to make sacrifices and compromises in politics: politics is hard emotionally.  But that's not how they took it.  They thought I was calling them stupid. 


Saturday, June 11, 2016

On Voter Misogyny

   When I was in graduate school and starting as a young professor I learned an important lesson about life in the professional world - in all professional worlds: academia has no monopoly on anything that I'm going to discuss here.  Some (not a majority, but a portion) of my male colleagues were maladjusted, self-important, arrogant and over-proud, self-promoting and unsupportive, aggressive and unempathetic. But no, wait, that's not the important lesson that I learned.  I wasn't surprised by that at all.  I didn't necessarily like them, but I accepted that they were who they were (what choice did I have?), and I also understood, like everyone else, that I had to come to terms with these men, maybe patronize them a little, get them on my side.  Just a fact of life.

   No, the important lesson that I learned was when I realized that I reacted very differently to women colleagues who had any of these same sorts of qualities.  I felt offended and, honestly, a little abused.  I noticed if she wanted to talk about her work but was uninterested in mine.  I was provoked if she boasted about her talents or accomplishments.  I felt a more visceral kind of anger than I did towards the men if we clashed on a committee, or if I felt condescended to, or unfairly criticized (honestly, if I felt criticized at all).  I had to realize that I had a certain kind of respect for the men that I did not have for the women (and by the way I was raised in a liberal, feminist family that was mostly women).

     Respecting people is a tricky business.  We don't fully respect someone until, among other things, we respect their dark side: the dark side that every complex human being has.  (Of course appreciating a person's capacity for goodness is another necessary component of respect.  One has to be so careful in this conversation not to be misunderstood!)  The men around me were empowered (by me) to be jerks and maybe even to be a little creepy.  When we meet a man, any man, we tacitly understand that he might turn out to be, to some degree, a jerk or a creep.  The irony is that that is a necessary part of respecting him fully as a man.  Now there are some real differences.  Men are generally, I think most people will agree, more dangerous than women.  That topic is deep and I can't wander off into the essentialist/conventionalist discussion right now.  My point right now is simply that as a man in the professional world I had to come to understand that I gave permission, that is to say that I empowered, male colleagues to have any number of negative qualities that I bridled at when I encountered them in women colleagues.

   We can see how this kind of patronizing sexism works in the discussion of reproductive rights.  There is no doubt that the decision to end a pregnancy is (depending on the medical circumstances of course) a decision fraught with moral ambiguity that resists any easy closure.  Nobody thinks that abortion as such is a good, happy thing, although many people including myself may think that its safe and legal availability is a good thing.  Rather the underlying issue is about power: who in the community is authorized, empowered, to make decisions that take us into morally ambiguous territory?  My support for a woman's right to choose rests not on some complacent confidence in women's inherent goodness or in the good judgement and moral sense of any particular woman but in my civil, political conviction that individual women ought to and in fact need to be empowered to make this choice.  In my own thankfully narrow experience of this I am proud to say that I only ever had one unhesitating response: "Whatever you decide I support you."

   Now I want to talk about voter misogyny and, of course, about people's reaction to Hilary Clinton.  We have just had a long, difficult, very illuminating lesson about voter racism thanks to the presidency of Barack Obama.  An alarmingly large part of the white electorate rejected Obama's legitimacy as president out of hand: a black man did not have their permission to be President. (Even as I write this the Republican Congress will not take up his Supreme Court nomination.)  To take a small but endlessly telling example, there was outrage at the sight of Obama putting his feet up on Lincoln's desk.  Well-known photographs of Kennedy and Reagan putting their feet up on Lincoln's desk proved, I guess, that the Irish have come a long way (and as a student of Lincoln I can tell you he would undoubtedly have been amused).

   Clinton is probably not going to put her feet up on Lincoln's desk in the first place, which is something to ponder in itself, but let's take up a much more serious matter, and one that misogynist voters on the left never fail to mention.  In October 2002 Clinton voted in favor of the resolution to back the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq.  The subsequent war in Iraq was, in my opinion, an unmitigated disaster.  Before the invasion we had, here in my home city of Mayaguez, a series of anti-invasion demonstrations culminating in a large march to the plaza, and I was one of the marchers in those protests, just as I marched in protest of the Vietnam War in Washington at Nixon's second inauguration in 1972.  Now let's consider some things about Clinton's decision (the Senate vote was 77 in favor, 23 opposed).  Clinton was the junior senator from the state of New York.  The 9/11 attacks had happened 13 months before.  Clinton was a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.  She explained at the time that the vote was meant to strengthen the administration's hand in forcing further inspections (a diplomatic endeavor that the Bush/Cheney administration, which had already made up its mind, promptly dumped).  Most military analysts at the time believed that the war would be short.  No one had any way of knowing what would happen.  And, yes, she harbored future national political ambitions (I accept that as a factor even though that vote may have cost her the 2008 election).  She wanted to look tough and she wanted to look centrist.  I'm not arguing that she wasn't in any way cynical.  No, folks, that's not where I'm going at all.

   OK, so now she's "Killary."  Now she drops bombs on innocent children.  Now she makes political calculations about foreign policy.  Now she keeps an eye on the main chance.  Now she changes her stance on things as political circumstances change.  Now she naturally assumes her status as a member of the ruling elite.  Now she uses her authority to obtain more money and power.  Now she makes judgements that effect the lives of millions and that take us into morally ambiguous territory.  Now she wields power, makes deals with the opposition, retaliates against enemies.  Now she acts exactly like every other major party nominee that you ever voted for or against your entire voting life. Who does she think she is?  Or maybe the question is "what."  

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Trump's Ejection Rituals

   A pattern has emerged at Donald Trump's rallies. The Ejection Ritual has become a central, not an incidental, feature of the rallies.  It may be that the Ejection Ritual is actually attracting anti-Trump protesters, but it is also clear that if no one is disruptive, a non-disruptive person or group will be selected.  The Ejection Ritual has now evolved to the point where is has a clear structure and cooperation between Trump and the crowd: Trump stops his speech at the sound of a heckler (or perhaps someone with a Bernie Sanders hat, or perhaps a group of black students) and says, "Get 'em out!"  The crowd chants while the person/people are, usually more or less roughly, ejected.

OK.  This phenomenon is being widely reported.  What is striking to me is the very clear, very deep symbolic structure of this behavior.  It gets to the identity of Trump voters and the way that Trump is appealing to them.  It is not enough to denounce these people as uninformed and/or racist and ignore the larger context.  Here I want to keep it simple and just sketch out the symbolic structure of the behavior. 

First, who are these Trump supporters?  They are mostly white, working class, and uneducated (non-college).  That is not, at this point, surprising.  But they are also measurably disenfranchised (they report to pollsters that they feel they have no voice), xenophobic(they believe that immigrants are responsible for high unemployment among poor Americans)  and racist (they believe that most blacks don't work and live more or less comfortably on government checks).  Somewhat more puzzlingly they include many evangelical Christians.  All of these factors, including the last, are symbolized in the Ejection Rituals.

Like populist nationalism, evangelical Christianity tends to be messianic: a leader will appear to cleanse the polluted, expropriated community and restore virtue.  The disenfranchised will be restored to their rightful place.  Trump says he will build a Wall.  It is positively Biblical both in its proportions and its other-worldliness.  There is no real possibility of such a Wall, but Trump repeats again and again that he will build a great Wall that will keep the foreigners out. The Ejection Ritual is a  physical acting out of the wish for purification: the expulsion of the Demonic Other.  And it is a call-and-response routine between the people and the messiah: the strong man gives the order and the people respond.  It must be terribly cathartic for these angry, confused, frightened people to take part in the ritual behavior that acts out symbolically the purification ritual and Trump, a grandiose narcissist, has quickly adapted and begun emphasizing the ritual.  He has begun asking that people raise their arms as they pledge their loyalty, although I can't imagine the campaign continuing that.

Finally, I have questions about the behavior of the police and the Secret Service at these Ejection Ritual rallies.  It's no surprise that trump is hostile to the press.  What is surprising is to see the level of violence from public law enforcement.  Perhaps it is difficult to resist the emotional pull at a mass event both symbolically enacting violence and inciting actual violence.  But it does not bode well for America under president Trump.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Democrats: Own Gun Control

Everyone knows that the political winds are shifting.  This is natural.  The political pendulum swings, there are long-term self-corrections.  It's also striking how quickly people, when considered as a very large group, come around to a new idea once a "tipping point" arrives: a big majority opposes legal marijuana for years, until one day it doesn't.  Civil rights for gay people is the cause of a few "radicals" for decades until one day suddenly there's a majority of people saying "Well of course civil rights for gay people!  What were we thinking?"  And those who said "Over my dead body" also have a way of adapting, of revising their own emotional history along with the communal story.  Most of the action here is cultural.  Politically speaking, the bottom line is that someone has to win, not one, but a series of election cycles to turn the battleship around.

A political party, in order to appeal to people's imaginations, needs a coherent political philosophy, a way of looking at politics that is consistent and systematic, and that can be easily understood.  This ideological coherence doesn't make a party necessarily either good or successful, but it helps enormously, as the history of presidential politics since the 1960s shows.  The long decline of the Democrats and the long dominance of the Republicans, the height of which was the Reagan 80s, was characterized by the popularizing of a very clear line of conservative thought with two strands, right-libertarian economic ideas and traditional fundamentalist social ideas.  This combination tapped in to basic American mythology and was convenient for the business community.

The Democrats, meanwhile, easily baited as "socialists" vs. "capitalists," and with a bad relationship with a relatively small left wing (whereas the Republicans had a good relationship with a relatively large right wing), found themselves unable to articulate an overall ideology that was systematic enough to suggest strategies.  They were defined by their opponents as the "tax and spend" party.  Republicans ran on economics and security and won again and again.  But the GOP did have a weakness: to keep the Reagan coalition together lots of red meat had to be thrown to the social conservatives.  Older Republicans like Nixon, Goldwater, Ford and Reagan didn't really care that much about fundamentalist notions about abortion, homosexuality and so on.  But the better politicians among them saw the political benefits of taking up these causes.  Later the Bushes, emulating a successful Reagan tactic, loaded the judiciary and the federal bureaucracy with Christian activists and other conservative advocates.  It was good political insurance for these mainstream politicians.  But it translated into real changes in social policy and into real radicalization of the GOP, and now, naturally, inevitably, there is a Democratic opening.

The breakthrough of 2012 included the reelection and therefore Democratic ratification of Obama, but it also was a matter of Democrats losing some fear, taking some risks, and seeing those risks pay off.  Specifically Democrats chose to "own" (as in embrace fully and publicly) gay civil rights, and to reinforce the party's commitment to women's rights (this was handed to them by an out-of-control misogynistic solar flare of some sort from the Republicans that kept erupting from the mouth of old white man after old white man all year), and, more vaguely, "immigration reform" which has suddenly come to mean doing good things to immigrants instead of bad things.  This show of boldness paid off handsomely for the Democratic Party.  A Democratic coalition based in identity politics shows every sign of being able to beat a Republican Party with a single constituency.

And that brings me to the point of this column, today.  No need to dilate on the point much: the Democratic Party should own gun control.  It should step up to the fight with a clear identity and purpose, not radical, but identifying the most outrageous excesses of the present situation and pledging to take action to reform it.  And put that to the voters, nationally and statewide in many states, and the Democrats will go on winning.  Go ahead, take the chance.  Now is the time.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Lugar and North Carolina: a low point in the story

The news this morning is pretty dismal. Richard Lugar, the six-term Republican senator from Indiana and one of Washington's senior statesmen, lost the Republican senate primary to Richard Mourlock, a bomb-throwing Tea Party favorite. Meanwhile in North Carolina a state constitutional amendment defining marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman passed (in a state that had already banned gay marriage). This during a week when Vice-President Joe Biden and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan both expressed their support for gay marriage, a good thing but with the unfortunate effect of setting in relief President Obama's less than forthright position on the issue. The two stories make for an interesting political blend, albeit a rather acidic one.

I'm not comfortable with the political strategy of hoping for bad news. When the "outs" want things to go badly for the "ins" they put themselves in the position of hoping that the whole country suffers. The present temptation for liberal Democrats like me is to hope that the Republican Party continues down its radical path until it marginalizes itself (and it's a fair way gone in that direction right now). But no one should really want that. We should listen to Senator Lugar and the eloquent warning he issued after conceding.

A tough political maxim holds that voters vote for one of two reasons: love or hate. An election where both sides are voting from hate is a dismal thing to contemplate. Now that Mitt Romney has the Republican nomination sewed up we're hearing that the conservative base, which does not love him, will nonetheless turn out to vote because of their hatred for President Obama, and that's probably right. But the reverse will also probably be true: the GOP has become so scary to so many that liberals, including supporters of gay civil rights who are disappointed with President Obama, will feel compelled to vote for him when contemplating the alternative. Rule #1 in politics as in life: you can always make things worse.

As to that it's not obvious (unfortunately) that Obama's reticence on gay rights is a net political minus. The vice-presidency is essentially a political post. One of the veep's main jobs is to help the president win election campaigns. He can throw red meat to the base and take a hatchet to the foe, the dirty work that the president does well to avoid. And Joe Biden is a vice-president from central casting. When he says he's in favor of gay marriage it doesn't move the policy, but everybody hears it. If Obama were to be equally unequivocal the main effect would be simply to tag him at that position; there's not much the president can do about state referendums.

A maddening thing about democracy in a big country, with tens of millions of people voting, is that in a close election the voters who tip it over aren't the political junkies who watch the cable news shows. They're not even the people with more or less established political identities who more or less know which political party they're going to vote for. It's the people who pay almost no attention at all, who couldn't name three of the GOP primary candidates and maybe couldn't come up with the name of the vice-president. They stopped reading press coverage of politics oh, maybe three generations ago. Those people vote according to their own, poorly-developed gut instincts, which is all they've got. And it looks like this is going to be a very close election.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Can You Guess Why Elena Kagan Has Never Been a Judge?

A major talking point in the Republican resistance to President Obama's nomination of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court will be her "lack of judicial experience." It is true that although there is a long history of Justices without prior experience on the bench, Kagan will be the first one in 40 years. But it's worth noting exactly why it is that Kagan never served on the bench: she was caught up in the Republicans' institutional sabotage of President Bill Clinton's judicial nominees.

In June of 1999 Bill Clinton nominated Kagan to be a federal appeals court judge. Orrin Hatch, Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, simply refused to schedule a hearing. This was one of many tactics used to block dozens of Clinton appointees, leaving many important judicial offices empty for months and even years. The cost to the nation was not important to political-gaming Republicans.

Nor is this history one of both sides using the same tactics. Republicans have pioneered the use of the filibuster and other tactics to block nominees, and succeeded in thwarting Clinton nominations at a rate far higher than Reagan or either Bush experienced. And, as usual, the hypocrisy is as high as the elephant's eye.

Like the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor, the Kagan nomination can reasonably expected to be successfully confirmed by the current Senate, with its 59 Democrats. But judicial nominations are one of the key battlegrounds in the dangerous evolution of the use of parliamentary maneuvers to stymie the functioning of the government. Like economic and foreign policy, judicial policy requires that the citizens do some homework.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Hey GOP: How low can you go?

Just a quick note to register my disgust with the Republican talking point on the arrest of would-be Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad: that a terrorist suspect (in this case an American citizen) should not be read their Miranda rights. The reason I want to add my voice to this is because the point was stayed on yesterday by leading national figures of the GOP, and these are politicians with reputations as relatively centrist: Arizona Senator John McCain and former New York Governor George Pataki (and others such as New York Congressman Peter King and Independent Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman; if there was literally a memo they couldn't have been more on point).

To me, a few different things come together here to make this GOP talking point more outrageous even than usual:

1) These are not the "wing-nuts." These are the national mainstream party leaders.

2) The conservatives have been standing around at their cocktail parties since the 60s deploring Miranda, and habeus corpus in general, and have used the "war on terror" as a vehicle for stripping Americans of their constitutional rights. This cynical practice of the last administration continues unabated.

3) Both McCain, running for his political life against a right-wing challenger in the Senate race in Arizona, and Pataki, running right to position himself for a presidential bid in 2012, are trying to exploit the bomb scare in a completely brazen manner. They don't mind torpedoing any useful discussion of security procedures with their frivolous sound-byte about Miranda rights.

4) In McCain's case in particular, but generally as well, this sound-byte is obviously racist: focusing on Miranda rights links the "war on terror" to fear of immigrants and to the anti-immigrant Arizona law. As I say, in McCain's case this is just too obvious to be missed. The dog whistle has become a bullhorn.

One would like to think that old pros like McCain and Pataki would try to carve out a niche as responsible centrists who could unite the increasingly-radicalized conservative base with the center electorate. If not them, then who? But alarmingly enough (they know things I don't), the Republican national leadership appears to be making the exact opposite calculation.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Put Bill Clinton on the Supreme Court

In the discussion about who President Obama will nominate to fill the Supreme Court vacancy with the retirement of Justice John Paul Stevens, we've been hearing the idea floated that someone with political experience would be healthy for the Court. I'm more inclined to favor a distinguished jurist myself, but I do have a modest proposal if we're going to go with a politician: put Bill Clinton on the Court!

This idea gets more fun the longer one thinks about it. He is, after all, generally recognized as the master politician of his age, whatever else one might think of him. He's not the kind of guy you want wandering around at loose ends, either: the Court is the only box big enough to hold him, and it'd get him out of Barack and Hillary's hair. Idle hands do the devil's work! And he is a former constitutional law professor, after all. And empathy up the wazoo! (At times quite literally, one gathers.) Personal experience with the law, even. And one relishes the thought of the up-the-wall-driving potential the appointment would have for our dear conservative friends. I for one am constantly thinking of new ways to express my feelings for them these days.

True, the confirmation process might be a tad bumpy. But doesn't anybody else miss the gaudy entertainment provided by the Clarence Thomas hearings? (Don't answer that.) I think that the next time Barack, Michelle, Hillary and Bill are all dining together (have they ever dined together as a foursome? Interesting question), Barack should wait until all three are in mid-sip and just put it out there. Fun times! And the most spit-take-worthy thing of all? In all sincerity, I wouldn't mind seeing Bill on the Court one bit!

(Addendum: Although I wrote this post in a jocular spirit, it's turning out to get a lot of attention. A testimonial to BC's enduring charisma, I'd say. One point of information: It doesn't matter (technically speaking) that Clinton lost his law license. A Supreme Court Justice needn't be a lawyer at all, barred, disbarred or otherwise. In fact, the only constitutional requirement for a seat on the High Court is that one be nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. That's it. President Obama could put Jerry Springer on the Court if he could get him confirmed. Although, as I stated in the first paragraph, I myself would be more inclined to go with Judge Judy.)

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Obama is the Champion of What?

That President Obama has some of his lowest poll numbers yet this morning is not the sky falling. Many presidents experience similar numbers in their first years. The troubling number is that more respondents are now against the health care bill than for it. These numbers do not represent a conservative fantasy of everyone rallying to the side of the Teabaggers. The low numbers in general, but particularly the numbers on the health care legislation, reflect the fact that the president has lost the left. When the public option is not in, when expansion of Medicare is not in, there ceases to be enough real reform to make the bill seem worthwhile. This is a mistake: even a watered-down package of legislation would be a step in an incremental move in the right direction.

But that's not what I want to write about today. I want to stick with this issue of where the progressive left is with Obama. Granting that even just a few points of the poll number slippage is owing to left-leaning opponents of the final bill pulling off, the overall numbers are still close enough that that would make a big difference. At a minimum it's certain that the president would have some number higher than what he's got now if he had the Democratic base galvanized, which he does not, and that that number wouldn't be so bad relative to other administrations. Bottom line: this White House would be doing better politically if it were further to the left. The current failure is to be not radical enough.

Demographics are on the Democrats' side, and the country is coming off of a long conservative cycle. Democrats and liberal voters felt that they'd been being beat up on by the Republicans for a long time. They wanted someone who was more pugalistic, a fighter. That was the energy that Howard Dean tapped into. The electorate in general is not as doctrinaire as the various chattering classes. Ronald Reagan wasn't elected in 1980 by a nation won over to conservative philosophy, he was elected by a nation that wanted to change the channel. He presented real change (of the kind he favored) as just that, a change (what the public wanted).

That was a time when voters were realigning themselves, and now is also such a time. There are insurgent currents on the right with which progressives might make common cause. It is the (much smaller) left, after all, that has forever been opposed to corporate dictat, or to wanton environmental destruction, or to massive military operations conducted globally, in perpetuity. But these are also preoccupations of the populist, Christian, middle class element of Republican voters who are so restive today. Obama at his most politically successful could be stripping those voters away like a bear getting at the honey.

But he's not doing that right now because he is coming off as just another yes man to corporate interests and just another yes man to the Pentagon. We know what he said during the campaign: health care for all, and an end to the two wars. That's what he envisioned, he said so time and again. So it was somebody else who told him that he couldn't do public health insurance, and it was somebody else who told him he couldn't withdraw US combat troops from South Asia. Who's your daddy, Barack?

Peggy Noonan, of whom I am not a fan notwithstanding her fine Irishness, did say something on MSNBC this morning that struck me as maybe uncomfortably true: she pointed out that in her experience as a columnist, most national political leaders have die-hard adherents who will angrily rally, showering hostile e-mails on any pundit who lobs criticisms at their champion. She said she didn't see that fierce core of Obama supporters.

A champion must be a champion to some people, but a champion must also be a champion of some cause. With Reagan people felt that they knew what he stood for. They weren't necessarily as committed to conservatism as he was, or even very committed at all. It was the trust that he created by a sense that he was grounded, that he would always move in a predictable direction that was governed by his own judgement come what may. Obama needs to project that aura of leadership now. A leader has to be leading somewhere. This president will see his fortunes rise when he moves to the left, as counter-intuitive as that may sound to some. You heard it here eighty-zillionth.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Obama in China

Watching early reports on President Obama's visit to China this morning, two thoughts:

1) The Chinese are clearly enjoying their ongoing rollout as a premier world power (I don't like "superpower," it's a debased usage like "supermodel"). As in so many other areas, the Chinese understand the role the US plays in this. A visit by the American head of state is still different from a visit by any other leader. Obama is the right kind of American politician to handle that: he knows how to gain by giving, something the previous administration had no instinct for at all.

There is also a palpable sense that both sides realize that if they can somehow develop a working partnership they can be twice as strong as either can alone ("Chimerica"), leavened by underlying doubts on both sides about the ultimate intentions of the other. Economically, for example, although China may have a strategic advantage because of their truly awesome reserve of US dollars, they could only do serious damage to the US by beggaring themselves. Obama's political style is salutary here: he can make it easier to get concessions (floating the yuan, enforcing copyrights, stopping underselling) by helping the Chinese save face (an all-important factor in Chinese diplomacy).

2) The Bush-Cheney administration was committed to maintaining the security status quo along the Pacific Rim: dozens of bases and a nuclear armada right in China's face. This Pax Americana is no longer tenable politically or financially. With the end of the Cold War (a work in progress) the US must find a way to stand down as the global gendarme or go broke. This is easier said than done.

There are three options: a) Try to maintain the status quo. I take that to be a clear non-starter; not even our allies in the region want that. b) Solve all the regional security problems (insure Japanese security, reunify the Korean Peninsula, peacefully settle the issue of Taiwanese status, etc.). That option is a dream, equally obviously. 3) Have the Chinese, the Japanese, and the Russians handle regional security.

Notice that my critique is not primarily of the big bad USA. It is the Asian powers, on my view, including liberal parties in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, who make free use of anti-American rhetoric, but who have thus far been far from willing to put their money where their mouths are. Only China (perhaps with help from Russia) can deal with North Korea. They don't want to because of the expense. They would like to send the bill to the Japanese and the Americans. China's "Middle Kingdom" intransigent style of diplomacy has also achieved exactly nothing towards resolving relations with Taiwan. Thus even Bill Clinton had to continue the saber-rattling policy of sending nuclear-armed carrier groups into the Taiwan Strait when China's hawkish generals would indulge in one of their periodic rounds of threats, and Obama will too. The Chinese need to do better than that if they want the Americans to go home. I hope they do, because most Americans want the Americans to go home too. I certainly do.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Did You Hear About Glenn Beck and the Chinese Communists?

I confess that I've never actually sat down and watched Glenn Beck's show on Fox. I'd watch a show if only for the purpose of writing this post, but G. and Sophia wouldn't stand for it. From plenty of sampling in the media I had a pretty good idea that conspiracy rhetoric was a big part of the schtick. You know, where you draw the sinister and shadowy connections. So I hopped on over to YouTube to have a look and sure enough I found evidence that this was a theme.

Well, "big deal," right? Except that Glenn Beck works for the Australian Rupert Murdoch, who owns Fox. Mr. Murdoch owns Star TV, the biggest station out of Hong Kong, and he works closely with the government of the People's Republic of China. These deals are of Chinese government influence over content on his channels in exchange for access for Mr. Murdoch to the $50 billion advertising revenue of Chinese state-owned TV. (Here is an Esquire magazine article on the topic with lots of good links, although it embarrassingly repeats over and over the error that Murdoch is "an American businessman"). In fairness to Rupert Murdoch he has publicly asked the Chinese government to open up to the world's media. Those who know him smile and say he wants the money. Glenn Beck works for the same people who produce television news for the Chinese Communist Party. Literal fact.

All paranoia aside, it may be that Mr. Murdoch's worst crime here in North America is his hugely successful "Fleet Street"-ization of American TV news, turning it into a tabloid media more familiar in the UK and Australia, patently biased, patently exploitative. The counter-argument is that it's good that we know what we're watching. And Glenn Beck is nothing, after all, compared with what people are going through in Central Asia.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Obama's Nobel Four Days Later

The surprise awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to President Obama was Friday 10th, four days ago, so now there has been enough time to inventory some arguments/reactions to the Nobel Committee's action.

The Norwegians may not be alone in perhaps sincerely believing that for a black man to win the presidency of the United States is grounds for a Nobel in and of itself. This may be exactly right so far as I can see, although the Europeans do have an alarmingly cartoonish perception of American multiracial society.

People were quick to interpret the award as a slap at Bush, both those who applauded such a snub and those who resented it. I think that's maybe overestimating Bush's importance at this point, and I doubt that the Committee's intentions were primarily spiteful. Perhaps some were thinking of European anti-Americanism and the Atlantic community, so to the extent Bush is a factor in that he's a factor (there is probably some truth in all the views of the award).

Bush may also indirectly factor into the sense that the Europeans (and make no mistake, the Nobel reflects European opinion quite specifically if it reflects world opinion at all) see the US as an older, somewhat maladjusted colleague who needs lots of stroking; there is a palpable sense of hopefulness in the comments of European leaders that perhaps the Prize will inspire the Americans to do good instead of evil.

There is an interesting question as to what sort of function the Nobel Peace Prize is to serve. "What sort," as a precise function is indefinable. The Prize is predicated, for one thing, on the idea that the members of the committee themselves are enlightened promoters of peace. In practice this is unavoidably political. Why have such an award at all if no good is to be done with it? Thus the award has grown forward-looking, an act of potential influence as much as of retrospective appreciation.

This was the principal emphasis of Obama's own remarks Friday morning. "This award must be shared with everyone who strives for justice and dignity," he said, thus directing public opinion to the Committee's intentions and beliefs as distinct from his own. It was a West Wing kind of moment as the White House managed to put together an effectively classy response to something very big that had been thrown over the transom before breakfast that morning.

As to that, politically it's an overall plus for Obama notwithstanding that it is an eyebrow-raiser. It really is extraordinary to see the Norwegian Nobel Committee throw its weight behind an American president. It's an illustration of how quickly the Europeans could rally back with the Americans if the Americans were doing good things. And there is no doubt that in the long run the Prize increases the individual's personal stature (Theodore Roosevelt, Desmond Tutu, Rigoberta Menchu).

But let's be cynics and assume that the Europeans are more interested in manipulation than seduction. The idea is that having the Prize makes it harder for Obama to exercise American military power. I think that's overstated. In fact one could make an argument that increasing his authority this way makes it easier for him to do what he likes, war or peace.

Specifically it has been said that the Committee wants to discourage an American attack on Iran. That could be given the provinciality of the Norwegians: they may be under the impression that an American attack on Iran remains possible (after 9/11 a Frenchman fulminated to me that the Americans might bomb targets in France).

The really pressing issue, and the one that just possibly (although I doubt it) swayed the Committee to throw the Prize to Obama at the last minute, is Afghanistan. I'm a Democratic Party loyalist and a big fan of Obama, but let's talk turkey for a minute here. The Democratic candidate always has a problem signaling toughness on foreign policy in campaigns against the Republicans. In 2008 Obama had the advantage that the Iraq war was extremely unpopular. He needed to run against that war but avoid coming across as too dovish. So he ran saying that he would prosecute the war in Afghanistan and go after Osama bin-Laden. Now his generals want 60,000 more troops.

The war in Afghanistan is a mistake. Al-Qaeda is operating in Pakistan, and elsewhere. Afghanistan cannot be pacified (ask the Russians, the British, the Mogols, Alexander...). The central government is, as Lincoln would say, "highly metaphysical," as most of the country is governed by regional chieftains. This is indeed a defining moment. The US needs to get out now. That, like health care reform, will only happen with real leadership from President Obama. He can only prove his strength by withdrawal. That's how he can earn his Nobel Peace Prize.

Meanwhile I'd love to be a fly on the wall when he talks to Al Gore about getting the Prize. Inevitably Gore will tease him that he doesn't have an Oscar, but I think Obama has a plan: if he fixes the college football playoff season, and he's working on that right now, I think he would be a cinch for the Espy. Take that, Al Gore!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

We've Got "Death Panels" Right Now

That's right. Bureaucrats deciding who will live and who will die, with an eye on the budget. A recent article in the Los Angeles Times, not exactly known for its left-wing sympathies, reports that HMOs in the state deny on average one out of five claims. I'd suggest reconsidering if you're insured by PacifiCare: they reject 40% of all claims by their livestock - er, I mean clients. Cigna's a little better: they only refuse care to one out of three people who need it (remember these claims are only filed after a sick or injured person sees a physician).

Of course it's not surprising that the present system includes assiduously working, merciless "death panels": the current system is a for profit system. The private bureaucrat isn't trying to conserve budget money, they're trying to make profit money. According to Republicans, that's alright: if you've involved yourself in a business exchange and the other person turns out to get to kill you so he can make some more money, that's the free enterprise system at work. Private "death panels" (that are hard at it every day, right now) are acceptable.

Meanwhile, one of the several health care reform legislative packages includes (among many other things) the provision that, by request of the patient, public option-insured patients could receive end-of-life counseling. This would be, for example, advice about wills, about hospices, and so forth. A study published in the August 18th issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association found that such counseling improved both the quality of life and the longevity of terminally ill patients (and this study was, surprisingly enough, reported without criticism by Fox News, which has degenerated along with the Republican Party itself into hysterical reaction; I guess Mr. Murdoch's people can't stay on top of everything).

It might be useful to point out to your conservative friends that we have "death panels" right now, and that the president is trying to get rid of them.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Puerto Rico and the "Public Option"

The phrase "health care reform" actually covers several different, interrelated problems. All of the problems are essentially financial. One problem is the high cost of medicine in the US, a consequence of unbridled capital-driven medicine. This will be hard to fix. The health insurance industry and the pharmaceutical industry are wealthy and powerful, and they will not go down without a fight. The "single payer" option is basically nationalization of health care. It would wipe out these for-profit industries. I support single-payer because a) I think health care is a civil right and b) the present system appears to be unsustainable. However 1) it does not look to me that single payer is politically feasible and 2) after all even us liberals must agree that such a radical change would put us well into the realm of unforeseen consequences and as a matter of fact I really hate bureaucracy: I hate it so much that I actually know how to spell it. If we are to have single payer, it will come at the end of a process that will take years.

However much of the borderline-hysterical opposition to health care reform is confusing two things: "single payer" and "public option." These are completely different issues. I believe that we will end up with some sort of public option in the US as a result of the push for reform that we are seeing now. But public option isn't anything like socializing health care. Public option is an entitlement program for people who cannot afford health insurance. It is an attempt to address the problem of over 40 million people, mostly women and children, who have no health insurance in the US today.

I live in Puerto Rico, and we've already got the public option here - we've had it for years. It's called La Reforma. Anyone can go on La Reforma who wants to, there are no income qualifications or anything like that. It is strictly a matter of choice. In fact even a state employee like me (I'm a professor at the state university) isn't on La Reforma. We've got Triple S, recently changed from Blue Cross. Our paycheck deductions vary depending on which of a couple of different options we choose. It's pretty good coverage that includes prescriptions, dentistry and even psychiatry. In other words, my family's health insurance is just like that of most of you states-side readers. As professional people we don't have anything to do with La Reforma.

Of course the public option could conceivably be competitive, just like the U.S. Post Office has been a competitive carrier for most of our lives. There was a junior professor here a few years ago, a young and single man who was living on a shoestring, and he actually took his chances with La Reforma in order to save the money in his paycheck. Like I said, anyone can choose it, rich or poor. But a parent or a middle-aged person or most of us would prefer better coverage. It's not about us. It's about the poor.

La Reforma is on the scruffy side. You can "choose" your doctor, but only from the list of doctors who accept the plan. That's no different from my family's private coverage, it's just that fewer doctors accept the public plan. There is a myth of "choice": we don't have a big problem, but we do encounter doctors and other health service providers from time to time who don't accept our plan. We get our meds at Walgreen's; Walgreen's doesn't accept La Reforma. Scruffy doctors, scruffy pharmacies, health care that's not as complete and not as high-quality as that of a family with employer insurance or private insurance. But better than no insurance at all. That's what the "public option" is: a minimal medical safety net for the poor. It's an absolute scandal that the US doesn't have it.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

US Imperialism, Chinese Imperialism

It is usually the case that ethnic and religious conflict turns out under analysis to be economic and political conflict. The oppression of one group by another almost always has to do primarily with profit and control, and these are the issues that push ordinary people to the point of violence. This is the case with the recent rise of ethnic violence in far-western China. Han Chinese are migrating into Tibet and Xinjaing, with predictable push-back from the native populations. The migration is essentially economic, including many examples of the classic story of the young man seeking economic opportunities far from home. However this migration has been greatly augmented by Chinese government settlement policy. Although China's economy continues to grow, a drop-off in exports has led to sharp rises in unemployment. In order to avoid unrest in Chinese areas, the western regions are being used as a safety-valve to redistribute idled workers. China also wants to firm up control of Xinjiang as it plans to develop oil and gas pipelines from central Asia and exploit other important natural resources in the region.

What warrants some critical attention is 1) the Chinese government's role in settling Han Chinese in these areas as a matter of policy, 2) the Chinese government's refusal to accept responsibility for the consequences of these policies in favor of anti-Western demagoguery, and 3) the problem that ordinary Chinese, at home and abroad, have in overcoming a centuries-old mindset formed by foreign exploitation in order to grow up and accept the responsibilities of a great power.

It is clear that we are living through an epochal time in Chinese history. All Chinese, as well as the Chinese government, must understand that this means that China and the Chinese will be coming under much more criticism in the years to come, both internally and externally. A thicker skin will have to be developed. Americans (like me) are exceedingly familiar with this phenomenon. The most basic fact of life pertinent to this discussion is that the strong person can bear to hear criticism, the weak person cannot. There is no clearer proof of weakness and insecurity (not to mention wrongfulness) than an inability to confront criticism from others.

The specific problem confronting the Chinese government is ethnic violence in Tibet and Xinjiang. These two regions together constitute far-western China. Neither area has historically been inhabited by Han Chinese. They are ethnically, linguistically, religiously and historically non-Chinese areas. I will discuss Tibet, where China's crimes are much graver, in future posts. Chinese conquests, native revolts, and reconquests date back about 250 years in Xinjain ("Uyghuiristan," more accurately). A little bit of historical background helps one gain a sense of the situation, but I will keep it brief.

The first Chinese invasions of East Turkistan, or Uyghuristan, occured in the mid-1700s. Then as now Chinese policy was frankly expansionist, and Chinese settlements were built on conquered Uigher lands in the late 1700s. However China lost control of Uyghuristan through a series of revolts in the early 1800s and for most of the 19th century the country was under Uigher rule. In a scenario common throughout the Far East for centuries (and to this day), the Chinese minority was the focus of native hostility as they tended to be successful merchants and to resist cultural and linguistic assimilation (similar to traditional perceptions of Indians in East Africa and Jews in Central Europe). In 1863 there was a genocidal anti-Chinese rampage that killed over 7,000 Chinese. China reconquered Uyghuristan in 1877 and the new province was given the name "Xinjiang" (meaning "new frontier") for the first time in 1884. However after the fall of the Qing dynasty in the early 20th century Uigher leaders reasserted themselves, effectively triangulating with the Russians who have long contested this region with the Chinese. The East Turkestan Republic was declared in 1933.

In 1943 a Chinese Communist delegation visited the country, but fearing a plot the government ordered all Chinese communists killed; Mao Zedong's brother Mao Zemin was one of the victims. The Red Army defeated the forces of the Eastern Turkestan Republic in 1949. Maoist attempts at cultural genocide of the Uighers in the 1960s (part of "The Great Leap Forward") led to massive Uigher refugee flows into Soviet-controlled areas in 1962. In recent years there have been significant ethnic riots, with large but uncertain numbers of deaths, in 1990 and again in 1997, when police roundups during the Muslim holiday of Ramadan led to a series of riots and bombings. The East Turkestan Independence Movement (ETIM) has existed for many years but suffered a severe setback after 9/11 when the US government accepted and cooperated with the Chinese description of Uigher nationalists as "terrorists." In fact a number of Uighers were held for years at Guantanamo Bay.

The present disturbance originated in Urumqi, the largest city in Uyghuristan, which has been part of the enormous Chinese construction boom of recent years and which subsequently now has an Han Chinese ethnic majority. Apparently stories about ethnic violence among workers in China's Guangdong province led to an outburst of Uigher-on-Han attacks in the city, followed by counter-attacks by gangs of Hans. The government admits to approximately 200 deaths, but has worked hard to cut off internet and other communication access to the area. Journalists have been allowed to interview Han victims in hospitals, but not Uighers. Uigher sources, predictably, claim that China has understated the extent of Uigher casualties.

Another city to watch, though, is Kashgar, the center of Uygher culture. Here cultural genocide on a scale approaching the destruction of the culture of Tibet is occurring while you read these words. The old city, the world's best-preserved example of traditional Central Asian "Silk Road" Muslim culture, as well as the center of contemporary Uygher culture, is being bulldozed away. A small Disneyland-style area will be preserved for tourism. Meanwhile aggressive settlement, far exceeding anything the Israelis have done in Palestine, will insure that the Uygher culture is exterminated forever. Kashgar is closed to outside communication, foreigners found there are driven to the airport and sent away, local people found with foreigners face imprisonment and possibly death.

Finally, there is the issue of Chinese demagoguery in response to criticism of Chinese imperialism in Muslim areas. The Chinese government (I draw a sharp distinction between the Chinese government and the Chinese people) has for years blamed unrest in Uygheristan on local nationalists, using the familiar language of "terrorism." Now, however, the perception that there is a conflict between China and Uygheristan must be downplayed, so there is a return to blaming sinister foreigners (read the US and the "West") for the "problems." Just as in the US, this propaganda is primrily aimed at a domestic audience, as no outside observer would agree that anyone other than the Chinese government itself is responsible for cultural genocide and ethnic settlement in Uygheristan. How ironic that the rationale given for foreign plots is that the area is rich in resources and the likely route of energy pipelines: that is the reason that China is destroying Uygheristan!

The US is guilty of the same hypocrisy in Iraq and the Middle East in general: if you are going to go to violence in order to assure your access to valuable resources, perhaps each power has as much right as another to struggle for survival in this way. But it is better to have the real motives on the surface, in the discussion. In Iraq and Uygheristan, the issue is oil. National governments will continue to practice the diplomatic and rhetorical dark arts, but ordinary people can be expected to rise above their provincial sympathies and try to see things clearly. Too many Americans are not up to this challenge, but the problem is worse among Chinese.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Republican Misrepresentation of Sotomayor's Role in "Ricci vs. DeStefano"

There isn't much chance that Judge Sonia Sotomayor will not be confirmed later this month as the next Supreme Court Justice, the first latino/a (and a Puerto Rican from the Bronx no less) to go on the Court. So I'm just going to focus here on something that is very important about what we're watching this week whether she is confirmed or not, and that is the way the right wing (and to that extent the media) are misrepresenting the actual facts about Judge Sotomayor's ruling on Ricci vs. DeStefano. There has been some reporting that this issue will be the focus of Republican criticism.

Remember as we review the facts of Judge Sotomayor's participation in that case that most Senate Republicans understand that the perception that Republicans are attacking Sotomayor because she is a latina is political poison for the Party. The only big electoral state the Republicans carried in 2008 was Texas: everyone can do the math.

Listen to the Republicans this week. They will be implying (sometimes baldly stating) that Judge Sotomayor endorsed reverse discrimination in the Ricci case. The Ricci case, they will loudly state, is the proof that Judge Sotomayor is a reactionary affirmative action reverse racist. Here are the facts:

1) Both sides in the original situation appealed to the same legislation, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The Civil Service Board of the City of New Haven invalidated the results of the firefighter's promotion exam because the Board was worried that they might be sued under Title VII. Ironically, the firefighters who had passed the exam (17 whites and 1 latino) then sued the City under that very law, Title VII. Two things to notice: a) Both sides appealed to the same law. This was not a dispute about the constitutionality of the law. b) The Civil Rights Act is legislation that was passed by Congress. Any judicial proceeding affirming the right of the City to act under its interpretation of the Act is affirming the constitutionality of a law passed by the legislative branch. Nothing more, nothing less.

2) The 18 firefighters' case was heard in Federal District Court by Judge Janet Bond Arterton, a Clinton appointee. She ruled against the firefighters in a "summary judgement." That is, she ruled that there was not sufficient reason for the Courts to overturn a decision of the City. Again, this is basic everyday "constructionist" jurisprudence, of the kind conservatives support. No policy-making, and upholding the authority of the elected lawmakers.

3) This is the most important detail, I think: the case next went to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. There is was heard by a three-judge panel. The presiding judge, that is the judge that wrote the opinion, was Judge Rosemary Pooler. The third judge was Robert David Sack. Pooler wrote what is called a per curiam decision all of eight sentences long. Such decisions are anonymous and unanimous, and are used by courts where there may be disagreement among the judges but a collective view that it is not worth fighting it out. So Sotomayor played, relatively speaking, a very small role in this case. The Second Circuit simply upheld Judge Arterton's ruling, which simply stated that the City's Board had been acting properly within its understanding of the law. Sotomayor did not write this ruling, and it is an anonymous and unanimous ruling. She sat on a three-judge panel that was presided over by someone else. That's it.

4) The Supreme Court ordered a review of this case certiorari, meaning it exercised its authority to instruct the Circuit Court to send the case up for review. That is, the Supreme Court intervened in the process to cause a case to go up to the Court that otherwise would have come to an end. The Court ruled in favor of the firefighters on June 29th, along the expected 5-4 ideological lines.

Remember the gist of these facts as you listen to the Republicans all week telling us that Ricci vs. DeStefano is proof that Sotomayor is biased and an activist. It is sheer distortion. Get a better sense of Sotomayor here, for example, or here.

(Here and here are two earlier posts tagged Sotomayor.)

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Chavez and Honduras

First of all, let me join the chorus and say that Honduras (or rather, the Honduran political and military elite) ought to bow to international opinion and to today's resolution from the Organization of American States and reinstate ousted President Manuel Zelaya. President Zelaya was not acting outside of the constitution when he pushed for a referendum on amending the Honduran constitution to allow him to run for reelection (and to presumably propose other amendments as well).

However I am blogging today to lament the political tone-deafness of the left, who quickly fell into a by-the-numbers, knee-jerk reaction of blaming perfidious Yanqui for the coup, led by the patently demagogic Hugo Chavez, who, by the way, is as responsible for this coup as anyone. President Zelaya won the 2005 Honduran presidential election by 4%, the smallest margin of victory in Honduran electoral history. Difficulties in delivering his (admittedly progressive and supportable) efforts to reform the Honduran economy have led to erosion in his standing in recent polls. It is, in fact, improbable, given the available numbers, that President Zelaya would succeed in being reelected even if he had the constitutional right to run (which, remember, he does not). Nor was the Honduran Supreme Court's decision to overrule his firing of the country's military chief and his insistence on going ahead with the referendum unconstitutional, whatever names one wishes to call the members of the Court.

So where do I go on all of this? Zelaya ought to have appreciated that politics is the art of the possible, that his election had been a good thing, and to continue to work for progressive transformation of Honduran politics and economics. But instead he fell too much under the influence of Hugo Chavez, who probably put the situation over the tipping point when he sent a plane full of ballots and other election materials to Honduras, alarming many people beyond the right-wing elite. Chavez was so intent on cultivating another example of his Castroist formula for moving a country towards one-party rule that he pushed Zelaya to go too far too fast. It was obvious to anyone paying attention that Zelaya did not have the popular or the institutional support for this kind of maneuver.

If you want to keep repeating what you've been chanting since your momma taught you the mantra while you were in your crib, that this is all the fault of perfidious Yanqui, that's an easy thing to do. You know the words to the song. But if you want to be part of building an independent, culturally and politically distinct Latin America you might try listening to some other tunes. I acknowledge Castro's motives and his good heart. But the economic failure of his revolution is at least as much the fault of his centralist policies as the bloqueo, which meanwhile serves the Cuban Communist Party's political interests immeasurably: there would be no Cuban Communist Party today if not for the bloqueo. Chavez, meanwhile, is a demagogue, a racist, and a war-monger. So let me ask you, my lefty reader (the only kind I have): are you helping to advance progressive evolution in Latin America? Or are you just pleasuring yourself?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

"Say the Magic Words" on Iran

Responding to Republican criticisms of President Obama's response to the political crisis in Iran, and demands that the president get "tougher" or "lead" the international response, Democratic Indiana Senator Evan Bayh wondered on Chris Matthews' Hardball show last night, "What are the magic words that would satisfy them?" (the Republicans). (And although Bayh is well to the right of me and I don't agree with much of what he says, a good example of the American discussion is this surprisingly sophisticated discussion during his appearance on Fox News Sunday.) This is an excellent question on several levels.

First, just asking the question draws attention to a fundamental reality: there is nothing much more than rhetoric that anyone outside of Iran can offer. Military action is unthinkable; I'm assuming we don't need to spend much time discussing that. Economic and diplomatic sanctions of various kinds have been in place for many years, and tightening them (or even maintaining them as they are) is a bad idea for two reasons: they make things worse for ordinary Iranis who are already in difficult economic straits (this election was largely fought out over domestic economic policy, not foreign policy), and sanctions and other punitive actions change the subject from an internal Irani political struggle to a struggle with hostile outside powers: exactly the kind of narrative change that the hard-liners want.

Which leads to the second level of meaning of Bayh's question about "magic words": to whom would President Obama be speaking when he uttered these mysterious words that would satisfy his conservative critics in the US? To the Iranian regime? That would just be handing them ammunition for their demagoguery. To the Iranian people? Do US conservatives want the president to egg them on into more dangerous territory, without any ability to back them up? That has happened before. To the international community? The Europeans a) have made it clear that they are tired of, and hostile towards, US domination of international security politics and b) very badly need to prove to the world, to the US, and to themselves that they can indeed provide a real alternative to the US on security problems and get real results, and the US badly needs for them to develop this capacity as well.

So that leaves the president talking to the US. More precisely, the Republicans would like to get into a political football game with the administration and see if they can score some points. So they are appealing to the US public: "See, the Democratic president isn't tough enough. He's weak in his response to the crisis in Iran." This is their inevitable position, because their only goal is to regain political power. And that means that there are no magic words that would satisfy them. This is the card that they have to play, and they have to play it.

What Obama needs to do is not speak to the Iranians or to "the world," he needs to educate the American people. His speech in Cairo was truly extraordinary in any number of ways (showing respect for the Koran, for example), but one of the most important things he did was to simply state publicly that the US had helped to engineer the 1953 coup that ousted the democratically-elected Mohammed Moseddeq and installed "Shah" Reza Pahlevi, who ruled autocratically and without democratic process until the Islamic revolution of 1979. All this because Mosaddeq dared to challenge the monopoly of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, the British government's largest financial asset at the time. By simply acknowledging these events, President Obama probably did, in fact, contribute to the atmosphere of transformation now welling up from the young population of Iran. The Republicans, in their belligerence and willful obtuseness towards history, would push the Iranian mindset back to 1979; Obama is 2009.

An irony is that speaking in Cairo, with a speech that was listened to closely across the Muslim world, a large part of Obama's audience was already well aware of the Cold War history of US and British excesses in the region. But it is in the US that this needs to be understood, not just for reasons of principle, but for the very urgent practical reason that it explains the need for US reticence on current events in Iran. Any perception that the US is actively meddling in the events happening there now will play straight into the hands of the hard-liners. Obama understands this. Who are worse: the Republicans who don't understand this because they don't bother to know our history, or the Republicans who understand this perfectly well?

The tricky part for an American president is that he must never appear to be anything less than completely patriotic, making explicit lectures about past errors and misdeeds difficult. But I think that Obama should just lay it all out there. The Republican Party assumes that Americans are idiots (just the way they like it). What happens when one assumes that they're smart? I teach students for a living and I can answer that question: assume people are smart and they quickly reveal themselves to be just that.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Sarah Palin is a Demagogue

A demagogue is someone who appeals to people's sense of victimization or to their simple prejudices in order to motivate them with feelings of anger, outrage or spite. In ancient Greece (the source of the word: demos, people, and agogos, leading), entrenched aristocracies were frequently overthrown by demagogues, the sense of the word at that time being "organizers of the common people." Greek conventional wisdom, however, took a negative view of this progression, as typically demogogues emerged as tyrants, meaning rulers who were governed by no law other than their own beliefs and desires.

Today the word demagogue means someone who capitalizes on the resentments or passions of some group of people, usually including the sense that the demagogue is exaggerating or misstating the facts, in order to use the target group as a means to power. Eva Peron, who represented herself as a common Argentine woman as opposed to the local Latin oligarchy, is one modern example of a demagogue. The most striking example of demagoguery in the 20th century was Hitler's use of the Jews, who he portrayed as sinister manipulators and not "authentic" or "pure" Germans, to focus and thus control and direct anger and violence that had in fact built up as a result of German defeats in World War I. Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez are contemporary examples of demagogues: they are able to blame the United States for the sufferings of their own people and as an external threat that necessitates authoritarian rule.

Sarah Palin is a demagogue. Her rhetoric is strikingly consistent: she is a common person from humble origins (a victimized woman who may help herself to feminist rhetoric when convenient), motivated by a higher law than secular laws (Christianity), and angry and indignant about elite and less purely American forces that are active in sinister plans to deprive the volk of their political autonomy.

I don't think that Palin will ever again be on a national political ticket because I just don't think she's got the right stuff, and so I wasn't much interested in discussing her further, but the other night I saw on TV an extraordinary scene of protesters in front of David Letterman's studio in New York and I felt compelled to take a couple of minutes to spell this out. These people were whipped up into a frenzy. The history of demagogic success is full of tales of broad swathes of national populations who thought "it can't happen here." Sarah Palin understands as well as everyone else that Letterman was not referring to her fourteen-year-old daughter (I'm not going to bother with the ritual "His joke was tasteless but..." caveats). Without any doubt she despises feminists (by the way) behind closed doors as part of the Godless liberal left. She has no compunction about using her children and her family as chessmen in her rhetorical machinations. She saw an opportunity to demagogue an issue and she took it.

She traffics in anger, resentment, innuendo, exaggeration, provocation and distortion. She presided over political rallies where members of the crowd called the Democratic candidate a traitor, a terrorist, a communist, a Muslim, an Arab, a monkey and a nigger, routinely calling for his murder well within her earshot, and only took steps to clean up the perceptions of these rallies when it became politically necessary (in fact she scarcely bothered: it was McCain who took conspicuous steps to clean things up). She is a vicious, dangerous person. That is a plain fact.

Friday, June 5, 2009

The Sotomayor Discussion on the Island

Some of my North American friends have asked me about the reaction to President Obama's nomination of Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court. I'm surprised that there has been such a muted reaction here on the island: not as much press coverage as I would have expected, and so far not a single Puerto Rican friend or colleague has mentioned it. Puerto Ricans have mixed feelings, not all of them attractive to contemplate. Sotomayor was born and raised in the Bronx: this means that a lot of the locals don't consider her to be a "real" Puerto Rican. This alienation between the approximately 4 million Puerto Ricans who live on the island and the approximately 4 million Puerto Ricans who live in the States has deep roots.

The initial large waves of immigration occurred during the Great Depression and during and after World War II, and many of these migrants were from the poorer and blacker sectors of the society. Puerto Ricans, who have a very complex genetic heritage and a society that is, relative to most societies worldwide, not very racist, nonetheless have deeply conflicted feelings about their African heritage. In the Caribbean racism takes the form of "whiter than, blacker than," rather than the one-or-the-other mythology of the North. So the islanders, many of whom are more similar in identity to middle-class people from other Latin American countries than they are to the US urban underclass, often look down on the "Nuyoricans." Depressingly, it is not hard to find people who say "She's not Puerto Rican."

Then there is the "status" issue, that is, the question of the formal relationship between Puerto Rico and the US. Many nationalists feel that Puerto Rican participation in US institutions is part of a creeping assimilation (the pejorative term here is "annexation"). These elements resisted the conducting of presidential primaries by the US parties here last year, primaries that I saw as a very positive development: the tension is between a farther-off goal of Puerto Rican independence (something I am not against and that I predict will eventually occur) and the nearer-term effort to enfranchise Puerto Ricans, who are US citizens but second-class ones who have no senators or congressmen, nor the right to vote for the president (this includes me, by the way: as an island resident, my civil status is exactly the same as all other residents). This while more than one out of ten US soldiers overseas is Puerto Rican: I take that to be an outrage against the US Constitution.

Finally there is an intensely willful insularity among islanders, a manifestation of the deeply ingrained instinct to passive resistance that has evolved over centuries of colonial domination. Ask a Puerto Rican on the street who the Vice-President is and the odds are high that they will have no idea. A paradox of Puerto Rican politics is that the lower the socio-economic status, the more likely that the individual will favor statehood: Uncle Sam protects them from the oligarchic Spaniards; and at the same time the lower classes are more likely not to speak English and to understand very little about US institutions and political life. (The haute bourgeois Puerto Rican professors at the university, who actively work to prevent the students from becoming proficient in English, are almost universally fluent English speakers themselves).

So all in all, I have to report that the reaction is distinctly depressing, considering that Sotomayor's mother was born in Lajas, an area on the southwest coast about a half-hour's drive from where I'm sitting, and that Sonia Sotomayor herself is a native Spanish speaker whose father never learned to speak English. But the circumstances of Puerto Rican political life are both tragic and complex. The marginalized are always turned against each other.

There is some good news to report, however, at least good from a Democratic partisan perspective. In yesterday's El Nuevo Dia, one of the biggest papers on the island (maybe the biggest) and one that could fairly be described as center-right politically, I found an article on page 20 (I'm always on the lookout for any Sotomayor coverage). "Espadas en alto por Sotomayor" was the headline: "Swords raised for Sotomayor." It was a short piece consisting of interviews with two Puerto Rican politicians.

The first was Ramon Luis Rivera, the alcalde of Bayamon, a large municipio that comprises part of the greater San Juan metropolitan area and that consists mostly of large, dense working-class neighborhoods (five of my mother-in-law's six sisters live there). Puerto Rico is divided into 78 municipios, which are a cross between cities and states: "alcalde" translates literally as "mayor," and the head of state of the island is called the governor, but the alcalde is a sort of mini-governor of a geographical region, usually centered around a city of the same name. Bayamon is one of the largest municipios on the island in terms of population and is as I said part of the San Juan urban area, making Sr. Rivera the political equivalent of somewhere between mayor of Newark and governor of New Jersey.

Rivera has been affiliated for many years with the US Republican Party. Many higher-level island politicians affiliate with one or the other US parties, for reasons of political expediancy. But the discussion in the US about the nomination of Sotomayor is turning him around. "Me han sorprendido declaraciones fuera de lugar de varios lideres republicanos": "I have been surprised by the statements coming from various Republican leaders." He singled out comments by Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh, who have both accused Sotomayor of being a racist. "Sotomayor no solo tiene todas las calificaciones de su capacidad juridica y profesional, sino que tambien le daria un balance filosofico al Tribunal Supremo de Estados Unidos": "Sotomayor not only has all the judicial and professional qualifications, but she will also give philosophical balance to the Supreme Court." Exactly the point that the right-wing Republicans are attacking. He goes on to mention Republican opposition to President Obama's stimulus plans, and unlike the Sotomayor nomination, the issue of stimulus money is on the lips of Puerto Ricans everywhere one goes. The economic situation here is much more desperate than in the States. He concludes that he has been a Republican "hasta ahora," but now he has "la carpeta abierta," that is, the issue is open.

The other politician mentioned in this article was Jose Enrique "Quiquito" Melendez, like Rivera a member of the Partido Nuevo Progresista Popular, the pro-statehood party that is generally viewed as the most conservative party (although that is another complicated discussion; some of the PNP's leaders are affiliated with the Democrats, and their main rival the PPD, the "Populares," also represents some conservative elements such as the Catholic vote etc.: a discussion for another time). Melendez is the PNP's candidate for an upcoming Puerto Rican Senate vacancy, and he was recently dispatched to Washington to meet with the (extremely conservative) Republican senators Don Young of Alaska and Dan Burton of Indiana, who is certainly one of the most right-wing senators today. The original agenda was the legislation on yet another plebiscite on statehood sponsered by Young and Burton, but Melendez also raised the issue of the Sotomayor nomination, urging the Republicans to support it.
His reaction to that conversation was along the same lines as the comments by Rivera: "El Partido Republicano no puede ponerle trabas innecesarias a una candidata que tiene todas las calificaciones": "The Republican Party cannot put unnecessary conditions on a candidate who has all of the qualifications."

The reason all of this is significant is that Luis Fortuno, the young and recently-elected governor, has been very clear about his ideological allegiance to the Republican Party as well as to statehood. Now, however, he is scrambling to deal with a budget in free-fall, quite possibly ruining his chances of re-election by announcing over the past two weeks that he will cut the public payroll by some 30,000 people, and sending out last Monday the first 7,816 dismissal slips in the mail: the kind of thing that is the kiss of death in Puerto Rico's traditional patronage politics. To reform and rehabilitate Puerto Rico's finances he will need every ounce of help he can get from Democratic-controlled Washington. Now the Sotomayor nomination is throwing a major wrench into his plans: perceived Republican prejudice may pull the domestic political rug out from under him.

Thanks a lot, Newt and Rush.