Kennedy and Communism

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On November 22, it will be 50 years since I sat in my typing-for-infants class and heard a radio voice coming over the PA system. “There are reports,” it said, “that shots were fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade in Dallas, Texas.” My teacher, a model of business efficiency, concluded very plausibly that someone in the principal’s office was playing around with the equipment. Unfortunately, she was wrong.

I can’t say that I regard Kennedy’s death as a world-historical event. He was a brighter and, to me, a much more interesting and sympathetic personality than his kinfolk or most of the other political figures of the time. Several times in his life he faced the virtual certainty of death, and faced it with courage and cheerfulness. He learned enough about economics to advocate a large tax cut that vastly increased the nation’s wealth. He also helped to get us into the Cuban missile crisis — and then rather skillfully got us out of it. I don’t know what he would have done about Vietnam. I do know that he fostered a cult of military masculinity (fifty-mile hikes!) that produced some very sorry thinking and acting. He believed that Robert McNamara was a real smart guy; he had a soft spot for can-do fools like that. The scion of a gangsterlike family, he plotted to make his brother Robert and then his brother Edward presidents after him. He lied habitually and outrageously about almost every aspect of his own life. He accepted the Pulitzer Prize for a book he didn’t write, and became angry when people suggested that he hadn’t written it. There is reason to believe that in 1960 he was able to defeat his good friend Richard Nixon because his allies in Texas and Illinois stuffed the ballot boxes for him. Sadly, the evil part of Kennedy’s legacy was passed along, and amplified; most of the good died with him.

About the assassination I have little to say. To my mind, David Ramsay Steele made a conclusive case for Oswald as the sole assassin; see his article in Liberty in November 2003. Since then, no evidence has been discovered that threatens Steele’s argument, and much analysis has confirmed it. I am bothered, however, by something closely connected with the assassination (but not with Kennedy himself), something that appears not to bother anyone else. It is a strange idea: the idea that communism was never of any significance in America; that either there weren’t any communists or they never really did much of anything (such as killing President Kennedy). Even intelligent and well-disposed people believe this.

Sadly, the evil part of Kennedy’s legacy was passed along, and amplified; most of the good died with him.

But of course there were communists, and they did lots of things. They were very busy bees. It’s not for nothing that the 1930s were once called the Red Decade in American intellectual life, or that a ton of intellectual autobiographies were written from the standpoint of “I was a communist although later I quit.” About communist influence in the popular media during the 1930s and 1940s, take a look at Red Star Over Hollywood by Ronald and Allis Radosh — and even the Radoshes couldn’t get all the red influences into a book. In 1948, the Democratic Party was split by a conflict between anticommunists, communists, and communist stooges; out of it came the Progressive Party, an outfit managed by communists and their friends. Its presidential candidate was the former vice president of the United States, Henry Wallace. In 1956, there were still American intellectuals fighting it out over the issue of whether Khrushchev should have trashed the memory of Stalin.

How does all this connect with Kennedy? The connection is that the person who shot him, Lee Harvey Oswald, was a communist activist. Oswald defected to the Soviet Union and upon returning to the United States became a professional defender of Castro. He denied being “a communist” but proclaimed himself “a Marxist.” He had his picture taken holding a gun in one hand and militant literature in another; his wife wrote “Hunter of fascists” on the back of it. Oswald lay in wait for and attempted to murder Edwin Walker, a rightwing general. When the fervently anticommunist President Kennedy came to Dallas, Oswald succeeded in murdering him. Now, why do you think he did that? Do you think that communism might not have had something to do with it?

According to most conspiracy theories, however, Oswald either didn’t shoot Kennedy at all, or he was the least important member of a murder group that had nothing to do with communism. The theorists believe that Kennedy was murdered by rightwing CIA operatives, or rightwing oil companies, or rightwing militarists — anyone on the right will do. Even sensible people have trouble with the simple notion that Oswald was a freak for communism. Consider Fred Kaplan, writing for the Washington Post on November 14. Kaplan says that he himself, in his callow youth, accepted various conspiracy theories, only to discover that they weren’t decently based on fact. (I can say something similar about my own intellectual development.) But then he says:

The only remaining mystery, really, is Oswald’s motives — and yet, here too, no convincing evidence has emerged that links his action to the Mafia, the CIA, the Cubans, or anything of the sort. The most persuasive theory I’ve read — first put forth in a New York Review of Books article by Daniel Schorr (later reprinted in his book Clearing the Air) — is that Oswald killed Kennedy, believing the deed would earn him favor with Castro. But who knows? The mystery at the heart of the matter (why did Oswald do it?) remains unsolved.

“Really”? Do people talk this way about Leon Czolgosz, who assassinated President McKinley because Czolgosz was an anarchist and McKinley wasn’t? Do people talk this way about Charles Guiteau, who assassinated President Garfield because Garfield failed to gratify Guiteau’s insane idea that he deserved to be appointed ambassador to France? Do people talk this way about John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated President Lincoln because Wilkes was a supporter of the Confederacy and Lincoln had just destroyed it? Do people talk this way about . . . oh, why go on? If a member of the American Nazi Party, or the NRA, or even the PTA had killed John F. Kennedy, there would be no “unsolved mystery.”

The real mystery is why even well-meaning, well-educated Americans can’t just accept communism for what it was (and is): a political movement capable of interesting people and inspiring them, even inspiring them to violent action — which it has often praised and rewarded. Oswald killed Kennedy because Oswald was a communist, and acted up to it.

So silly is the cover-up-the-communists routine that the hosts of movies on my beloved Turner Classics are always alleging that someone was “blacklisted” or otherwise injured by “accusations” of communism, without ever wondering — just as a subject of curiosity, now that we’re discussing old so-and-so’s difficult life — whether he or she may actually have been a communist.

And speaking of cultural authorities, I recently (don’t ask me why) looked up the Wikipedia article on Ed Sullivan, the prune-faced impresario of early television song-and-dance shows, and discovered that its account of Sullivan’s life occupies itself mightily with the question of whether Sullivan excluded communists from his program. I have to admit that I am an agnostic on this grave moral issue. If I were Ed Sullivan, maybe I’d have had communists on my show, and maybe I wouldn’t have. I probably would have, if they were good enough dancers — but if you substitute “Nazis” for “communists” in this thought experiment, fewer people would say that my decision should be obvious. But look at what the Wikipedia entry says: “[A] guest who never appeared on the show because of the controversy surrounding him was legendary black singer-actor Paul Robeson, who . . . was undergoing his own troubles with the US entertainment industry's hunt for Communist sympathizers.”

If a member of the American Nazi Party, or the NRA, or even the PTA had killed John F. Kennedy, there would be no “unsolved mystery.”

All right; I guess so. But Robeson didn’t need to be “hunted”; everybody knew where he was on the ideological spectrum. And his politics ensured that he had other troubles, of the intellectual and moral kind, troubles far worse than not getting on the Ed Sullivan show. The facts are simple. Robeson had a great voice. He could even act. He was also America’s best-known communist. He was proud of this morally repellent role. Accepting the Stalin Peace Prize in 1953, he said, among many other things:

I have always insisted — and will insist, even more in the future on my right to tell the truth as I know it about the Soviet peoples: of their deep desires and hopes for peace, of their peaceful pursuits of reconstruction from the ravages of war, as in historic Stalingrad; and to tell of the heroic efforts of the friendly peoples in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Albania, Romania, Bulgaria, great, new China and North Korea — to explain, to answer the endless falsehoods of the warmongering press with clarity and courage.

For Robeson’s tribute to the “deep kindliness and wisdom” of Joseph Stalin, go here.

Wikipedia’s own page on the “Political Views of Paul Robeson” does its best for him, but it concludes, “At no time during his retirement (or his life) is Paul Robeson on record of mentioning any unhappiness or regrets about his beliefs in socialism or the Soviet Union nor did he ever express any disappointment in its leaders including Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin. Moreover, only a few sources out of hundreds interviewed and researched by two of his biographers Martin Duberman and Lloyd Brown agreed with the claims made in the mainstream media of Robeson's supposed embitterment over the USSR.”

Why bring these things up? Mainly because there’s a significant historical question at stake: were there communists or not, and were they important or not? That’s enough, but there are political reasons too. The abolition of communism from American history has been a way of arousing sympathy for the authoritarian Left and any ideas or people associated with it. It has been a way of keeping the Left from self-criticism, the kind of criticism that, one is given to believe, would automatically lead to such excesses as “witch-hunts” against “alleged communists.” Denying the presence of communism has been a way of obeying the old slogan, “No Enemies on the Left.” There is a danger here, similar to the danger of forgetting the sometime appeal of fascism.

This month witnessed another anniversary besides that of the Kennedy assassination. Thirty-five years ago, on Nov. 18, 1978, a man named Jim Jones engineered the murder-suicide of more than 900 people, mostly Americans, at Jonestown, Guyana. People think of Jones as some kind of offbeat Christian who got a little more offbeat. What he did is regarded as a warning against religious cultism. But he wasn’t, and it isn’t. Jones was a political agitator who used a pretense of religion — and it was a pretty feeble pretense — to sell what he called “revolutionary communism.” This approach enabled him to become a major player in San Francisco politics. Some of his fellow politicians covered up for him, ignoring or denying his communism; others were actually inspired by him — by his politics, not by his “religion.”

If you go to yet another Wikipedia page — “Peoples Temple” — you will learn a lot of things about this, although you won’t learn why the Jonestown episode isn’t seen as Americans’ most impressive and also most disastrous attempt to build a communist utopia. Yet the take-home message can still be found. It appears in the clichéd slogan that was posted behind the speaker’s stand from which Jones delivered his death decrees: “Those Who Do Not Remember the Past Are Condemned to Repeat It.”




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Lessons from November 2013

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Let’s look at three of the elections held on Nov. 6, and try to discern what they could be telling us about 2014 and ’16.

Virginia

In the Virginia gubernatorial race, a “DC swamp slime” (Democrat Terry McAuliffe) defeated a “crusading prude” (Republican Ken Cuccinelli). McAuliffe got 1,065,000 votes (48%) to Cuccinelli’s 1,010,000 (45%). The Libertarian Party candidate, Robert Sarvis, garnered 145,000 votes, or almost 7% of the total. Sarvis, a young and very well-educated man with business experience, stood head and shoulders above the two major party candidates in terms of policy, personality, and integrity. Given the cankerous quality of the two leading candidates, Sarvis ought to have done even better. His distant third-place finish reinforces the already well-established fact that American voters are pretty much addicted to the two-party system. If the Virginia electorate won’t rise up against the McAuliffe-Cuccinelli choice presented to them by the two established parties, what hope is there for the LP becoming a national force? (Equally telling is the fact that Rand Paul went to Virginia and campaigned for Cuccinelli, not Sarvis.)

Sarvis took more votes away from McAuliffe than from Cuccinelli. He did best among young voters (18–29 age group), taking 15% of that vote. He won 15% of independents, and 10% of self-described moderates. It’s unlikely, however, that 15% of Virginia’s young voters will continue, as they age, to support the LP. The thirties and beyond bring new life burdens and responsibilities such as parenthood, mortgages, and paying for college. Some and perhaps most of those young LP voters will morph into persons who look to government for help with their adult responsibilities. It’s easy for young people to vote LP when they have a social safety net — their parents — to fall back on.

The youth vote in Virginia should give Republicans pause. Cuccinelli won only 40% of voters 18-29. Advocating state intervention in people’s sex lives, as Cuccinelli has (on this see Andrew Ferguson’s Oct. 3 Liberty article, “Two Evils”) is not the way to win the votes of young people. Keeping social issues to the fore is a sure recipe for helping Democrats win elections in most parts of this country.

McAuliffe won among all income groups, with the single exception of those making between $50,000 and $100,000 (this group, of course, is the one that is most squeezed by taxes). McAuliffe’s margins were highest among those making under $30,000 per year (65%–28%), and those making over $200,000 (55%–39%).

Cuccinelli carried the male vote, 48%–45%; McAuliffe won women by 51%–42%. These figures mirror national trends. Cuccinelli, however, won a majority of married women. McAuliffe won handily among unmarried voters; he carried single men by 58%–33%, and single women by 67%–25%. These are worrisome figures for the Republican Party.

Cuccinelli won the white vote, 56%–36%, yet still lost the election. Whites make up 72% of the Virginia electorate. That percentage will continue to decline in Virginia as well as nationally. McAuliffe won 90% of the African-American vote.

Virginia is of course something of a special case. McAuliffe won big in northern Virginia. The Washington, D.C. suburbs, which contain a large number of government employees, carried him to victory. He also won the Tidewater region by a large majority. This area includes a sizable military population, and in the past has been kinder to Republicans than it was to Cuccinelli. Almost one third of Virginia’s voters said that someone in their household had been affected by the government shutdown. These people voted heavily for McAuliffe. Government employees and their dependents have turned Virginia from a red state into a purple one.

Despite declining faith in government across almost all demographic groups, the great majority of Americans are not libertarians or rugged individualists.

But the problem for Republicans goes deeper than this. Demographic trends are turning the Old Dominion blue. Older white voters from rural areas no longer decide the winners in Virginia elections. Women and nonwhites are now the deciders, and Republicans in Virginia and across the nation are increasingly viewed with disfavor by both groups.

For the first time in 40 years, Virginia has elected a governor from the same party as the sitting president. The governor, the lieutenant governor, and both US senators are Democrats. Had the Republicans run a moderate against McAuliffe, they probably would have taken the governorship. But had the Democrats run just about anyone other than McAuliffe, that Democrat would have beaten any Republican. Republicans in Virginia should be worried — very worried.

New Jersey

Governor Chris Christie rolled to reelection with 60% of the vote. It’s surprising that he didn’t score even higher, given that the Democratic Party did little for its candidate. Christie got the attention of some analysts by carrying 57% of women and 50% of Hispanics. He even took 21% of the black vote. In the wake of the election, journalists and political junkies began speculating anew on the prospects of a Christie presidential run in 2016.

Yet the fact remains that Christie would find very rough going in the Republican primaries. He’s little better than a Democrat to Republican voters in such places as Iowa and South Carolina. A strategy based on New Hampshire-Florida-California doesn’t get Christie the nomination. Even if he somehow won the nomination, his prospects in the general election would be much iffier than most analysts appear to realize. His penchant for insulting people may work well for a New Jersey governor, but it’s not what most people want in a president. There are personal and ethical issues lurking in the background as well. A series of negative ads featuring Christie being Christie could have a devastating effect. The Democrats may have taken his measure already, which would account for their failure to try to drag down his majority in the election just past. Even New Jersey voters favor Hillary over their governor by 48–44. Christie may very well take the plunge in 2016, but one way or another his fate is likely to be the same as that of another New Jersey blimp — the Hindenburg.

Alabama: the establishment strikes back

A special Republican runoff election was held in Alabama’s 1st congressional district (the incumbent Republican resigned to take a position in the University of Alabama system). It pitted Chamber of Commerce-backed lawyer Bradley Byrne against Tea Partier and businessman Dean Young. The two candidates were neck and neck in the polls going into election day, but a late blizzard of spending by Byrne carried him to victory with almost 53% of the vote. National Tea Party organizations largely ignored the race, a tactical error that could mean the ebbing of Tea Party fortunes in the battle for the soul of the Republican Party.

The Chamber and other business organizations, as well as leaders of the establishment wing of the GOP, were energized by the government shutdown debacle. Since 2010 they had largely avoided confrontation, hoping to channel the radicals’ passion and energy into promoting establishment policies and goals. Prior to the shutdown, this dual track hypocrisy wasn’t working very well. Maintaining the dual track became impossible when Ted Cruz and Co. brought the federal behemoth to a halt for 16 days, a move that alienated wide swathes of the public, including many Republicans.

It remains to be seen whether the financial clout of the establishment can bring the Tea Party definitely into line. If the establishment fails in this the GOP will remain hopelessly divided between pragmatists and radicals, with electoral doom the result. Should it succeed, the Tea Partiers may just take their ball and go home, with electoral doom the result. To put it in another way, will the Tea Party accept more moderate policies in return for winning elections and gaining power? Centuries of political history tell us the answer is yes. But so far at least this grassroots movement has defied logic and convention. The GOP’s ability to remain a viable force in American politics is, therefore, uncertain.

What comes next?

Are the Democrats also staring into a pit of their own making? Just a month ago, things seemed to be going their way. The shutdown had obscured the botched rollout of Obamacare. The polls indicated widespread public disillusionment with the Republicans, who themselves seemed hopelessly divided. The October jobs number looked pretty good. Then came the second blow to Obamacare: several million people learned that the president’s promise, “If you like your healthcare plan, you can keep it,” was a bald-faced lie.

The ripple effect was immediate and profound. Obama’s favorability rating, and that of his party, plummeted. Democrats in Congress started peeling off and calling for changes in the Affordable Care Act. Public faith in government action as a force for good took yet another hit, and a big one — something that can only hurt the party of government. Obama himself appeared pathetic as he tried to explain his playing fast and loose with the truth. Does this portend an unraveling of the Democratic Party, with major consequences for 2014 and ’16?

Christie would find very rough going in the Republican primaries. He’s little better than a Democrat to Republican voters in such places as Iowa and South Carolina.

Probably not. The Obamacare storm is likely to blow over. A return to the pre-Obamacare healthcare system would not mean healthcare bliss for most of the uninsured, for people with pre-existing conditions, for parents whose children are unemployed (official youth rate unemployment is currently around 15%) and therefore dependent upon them for healthcare. Despite declining faith in government across almost all demographic groups, the great majority of Americans are not libertarians or rugged individualists. They want a certain amount of protection from the cold, cruel world and the powerful forces that inhabit it. The Republican Party, which is the party of less (though still big) government, has lost the popular vote in five of the last six elections. Although it has a majority in the House of Representatives, it actually lost the total vote for Congress by five percentage points in 2012.

The Democrats have certainly been hurt to some extent. While they had very little chance of recapturing the House in 2014, any hopes in that direction have now been definitely dashed. The Senate, which appeared safe only a few weeks ago (despite many more vulnerable Democrats than Republicans being up for reelection), may now be in play again.

2014 may then turn out to be a better than expected year for Republicans, though by no means a repetition of 1994 or 2010. How much success the GOP has will depend largely upon whether its two wings can come together to fight the common enemy. Of course, many Tea Partiers view the establishment wing of the GOP as the other enemy; at this moment it seems doubtful that many of them will choose unity over ideological purity. To the extent that this proves true, Republican gains will be limited.

And so to 2016. Republican strategist Mike Murphy sees three strong (i.e., electable) presidential candidates in the Republican stable for 2016 — Chris Christie, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, and Jeb Bush. I’ve already discussed the likely outcome of a Christie candidacy. Walker is not a national figure; he lacks the personality, drive, and money that would be required to make him one. This analyst would be flabbergasted if Walker made a splash outside the Great Lakes region.

Which leaves Bush. Should he run, the whole weight, financial and otherwise, of the GOP’s establishment wing will be behind him. His conservative credentials are superior to those of the two previous nominees. He has an attractive family, including a Mexican-American wife. Polls show that the public is gradually coming to have a more benign view of his brother’s disastrous presidency. All this indicates to me that he can win the GOP nomination for president, if he chooses to run.

An insurgent candidate representing the Tea Party wing — that is, Rand Paul or Ted Cruz — could score some surprising victories in the caucuses and primaries. He could even go all the way, in the absence of a heavyweight establishment candidate. But in that case the general election would end in Goldwater fashion.

The problem for the Republicans, even if united, is that their base of support is shrinking because of demographic trends. Voters who are white, married, and making between $50,000 and $150,000 per year will elect Republican candidates again and again and again. But this demographic is shrinking, while Democrat constituencies are growing. Attempting to combat this trend through voter suppression, as the Republicans have sought to do in many states, is both wrong and impractical. Somehow the GOP must broaden its appeal if it is to survive and prosper.

Hillary is probably the next president, unless she decides not to run. Any other Democrat could be vulnerable, depending upon how badly the Obama administration ends. In the absence of Hillary there is a small chance that Democrats will turn to a far-out candidate, such as Elizabeth Warren. A Warren candidacy would breathe new life into the Republicans.

It seems to me that either Hillary or Jeb will take the crown in 2016. Should both stand aside, we will be in for a very interesting campaign. In any case we should recognize that the best people rarely seek office, while government continues to grow bigger and more intrusive. This is a recipe for more bad things in our future. The decline of the Republic, which began in the mid-1960s (or, more precisely, at Dallas in 1963), will continue.




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Clueless in Seattle

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My hometown, Seattle, has probably elected a Marxist to the City Council.

I write more than a week after election day, and the outcome is still not certain. Washington votes entirely by mail, and counting ballots goes on for days. But the outcome seems more and more likely.

Seattle is the “bluest” part of King County, which is the bluest county in a blue state. The city’s longtime representative in Congress is Jim McDermott, apostle of single-payer health insurance. The city votes 85% Democrat.

Seattle does have a hard-left heritage, if you go back to the General Strike of 1919. More recently, it was in Seattle that anti-capitalist protesters tried to shut down the 1999 ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization, though not all the demonstrators were from here. They chanted the slogan, “This is what democracy looks like,” but it was a false claim. Democrats were what Seattle looked like, for years and years and years.

This is a city of mandatory recycling, of bike lanes and a ban on plastic bags. It was the center of Washington’s push to legalize marijuana. It tried, against state law, to ban guns in city parks. It has just elected as mayor Ed Murray, the Democratic leader in the state senate who pushed through the state’s same-sex marriage law and subsequently married his partner.

None of this quite prepares the city for a councilwoman the likes of Kshama Sawant.

Sawant appeared on the political radar a little more than a year ago. An immigrant from India, she was teaching economics at Seattle Central Community College, which had been a hotbed of anti-WTO activity in 1999. She filed for office as a Socialist Alternative candidate against state Rep. Jamie Pedersen, Democrat.

She held out the egalitarian ideal, he would hold out moves toward it, which she would depreciate as crumbs from the corporate cupboard.

Seattle’s alternative weekly, The Stranger, picked up her cause, suggesting that she also run as a write-in against the other representative in that district, Frank Chopp, Democrat. That was a brassy move: Chopp is the speaker of the House in Olympia, and at the time (when we had a female governor) he was the most powerful man in Olympia. He had a totally safe seat; Republicans had given up running candidates against him.

We have a top-two primary in Washington. Anyone can file for office and identify himself as “preferring” a party, or no party. The top two votegetters, however they identify themselves, go on to the November ballot.

Sawant made the top-two cut against Pedersen and Chopp. The law didn’t allow her to run against both, so she chose the speaker.

She challenged him to a debate. At this debate she blamed him for presiding over all the cuts to social programs the legislature had made during the recession. Chopp is a defender of those programs, and he responded that he had done his best to protect them. He had saved the funding for this one and that one; it was because of him, he said, that 95% of the children in the state had health insurance. Sawant replied that the speaker shouldn’t boast until all children had health insurance. Chopp invited the audience to work with him to provide for that 5%. On it went: she held out the egalitarian ideal, he would hold out moves toward it, which she would depreciate as crumbs from the corporate cupboard.

Chopp debated as a gentleman, an older white man careful of what he said about the younger woman. She was edgier. She had a brassiness alien to Seattle’s let’s-be-nice politics. Her followers, who dominated the debate audience, loved it.

Seattle has no Socialist party that amounts to anything. “Socialist” was a label she pinned to herself. Against the Speaker she took 29% of the vote, which is better than any Republican had done in several decades.

That was 2012. In 2013 she filed against Councilman Richard Conlin. It was a citywide race, because all council seats were at-large (though that has just changed).

Conlin has been a progressive. City government has an Office of Sustainability and Environment largely because of him. He pushed the ban on free plastic bags. Recently, though, he was the one holdout against the city’s ordinance mandating paid sick leave in private-sector employment — not because he disagreed with it in principle, he said, but because he disagreed with the details of it.

Council seats in Seattle are nonpartisan, but everyone knew Conlin was a Democrat; they were all Democrats. Conlin had the backing of most of the important unions, including the politically active Service Employees locals that were pushing a $15-wage ballot measure in the airport city of SeaTac. Conlin was backed by the Asian paper, the black paper, and the Seattle Times; by the Washington Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club; by just about every elected Democrat in the city.

Sawant’s most prominent endorser was Dan Savage, sex columnist at The Stranger. She had a few union locals (postal workers, school employees) and some organizations that sounded like unions (e.g., Transit Riders Union).

And she had grassroots support.

It wasn’t the socialism. Seattle has had plenty of socialists run for office — three others this year, if you count the communist who ran for the Port of Seattle commission. Mostly they just file and sit, raise no money and lose.

I talked to the communist. He said he had gone to hear Sawant speak, and was disappointed that her message was “pure populism.”

“She’s a Marxist,” I said.

“She says she is.”

Sawant wasn’t marketing workers’ revolution. She was advocating specific things: rent control, a tax on millionaires’ incomes (in a state with no income tax), and a $15 minimum wage.

In the richest county in Washington state, she raised more than $100,000 for her campaign. Of her largest donors, the most common occupation was software engineer. Her donors included engineers and other tech types at Boeing, Microsoft, Amazon, and F5 Networks.

Conlin more than doubled her amount. His war chest was to be expected. Hers wasn’t.

Her red yard signs far outnumbered his. An old political rule is that a yard sign should have no message other than the candidate’s name — a rule that never made sense to me, because such a sign would give no reason for supporting the candidate. Sawant’s signs broke the rule. They said, “$15 minimum wage.”

The gap between top and bottom earners makes a political difference, whether you think it does or not.

Washington already had a $9.19 minimum wage with a cost-of-living provision that would push it to $9.32 on Jan. 1, 2014. This is the highest minimum wage of any state. But the Seattle metro area also has one of the lowest unemployment rates of any US city and some of the highest costs. The economy is strong here. Median house prices have been rising strongly since the beginning of 2012, and have almost cracked $500,000 again. In the neighborhood of the Amazon headquarters a new studio apartment costs $1,500 a month. Obviously, prices are that high because some people can pay them, but there are many who cannot.

The income-equality issue doesn’t ring loudly to libertarians, who are content to respect whatever the market says. But the gap between top and bottom earners makes a political difference, whether you think it does or not. If that gap is not too wide, people will accept it. But it widens, decade after decade, and neither Republicans and Democrats do anything to stop it. The progressives talk about the middle class going away, which a gross exaggeration, but the proportion of new jobs that are middle-income is less than it was. Among recent graduates the technical ones do fine, some of them better than fine, but the political science and English lit grads are working in coffee shops and grocery stores, and they resent it.

They look to the left for political rescue, and in Seattle, the Democratic Party is not the left. It would feel like the left to most Americans, but here the Democratic Party is the establishment. Kshama Sawant is the left. Her cry is to “break the Democratic Party’s corporate domination of Seattle.”

Apparently, she has.


Editor's Note: On November 15, Sawant was declared the winner, with just over 50% of the vote.



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The Problem of “Voter Ignorance”

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At Cato Unbound, libertarian academics Jeffrey Friedman and Ilya Somin argue over the reason for voter ignorance. They agree that voters know pitifully little of political candidates and questions. Somin says it’s because voters are making a rational decision not to learn more. Friedman says it’s not a rational decision, but because voters think they know more than they do.

Both say it’s either-or. I don’t think it is, or that it much matters.

In the classic manner of debaters, each wants to define the other’s position narrowly and leave the indeterminate territory to himself. For Somin, Friedman’s position is that voters suffer from “inadvertent error.” For Friedman, Somin’s position is that voters are “deliberately underinforming themselves.”

Start with Somin. “Inadvertent” is a loaded term. It implies a voter who is trying reasonably hard but just messing up, again and again. That’s not really Friedman’s position.

If voter ignorance were “inadvertent,” Somin writes,“We could probably [reduce it] simply by pointing out to people that they are overlooking potentially valuable information. Just as warnings about the dangers of smoking convinced many people to quit, and warnings about the dangers of AIDS and other STDs increased the use of contraceptives, so warnings about the dangers of political ignorance and suitably targeted messages about the complexity of political issues could persuade inadvertently ignorant voters to seek out more information.”

The voter knows surprisingly little. To explain this is not to explain a positive thing.

Actually, the kind of political information Somin would want voters to have is complicated and detailed, whereas the information people absorbed about tobacco and AIDS was bumper-sticker simple: Quit smoking. Use a condom. The comparison is not apt.

On to Friedman. His terms “deliberately” and “underinforming” for Somin’s position are loaded, implying a voter who is consciously choosing to do what he knows is a poor job. And that’s not really Somin’s position.

Friedman tries to sink Somin’s “rational ignorance” with pure logic. He writes:

If voters can plug into Somin’s formulae even a vague estimate of the benefit of their party’s or candidate’s victory, then they must think that they know enough about this benefit to be able to base their vote on this knowledge. Somin and other political scientists may think that voters should know a lot more than they do, but voters seem to think, even in Somin’s account, that they know enough that they can roughly guess who to vote for. And that’s all they need to know if they are to falsify rational ignorance theory, for, according to the theory, they should be deliberately underinforming themselves. But if they did indeed deliberately underinform themselves (by their own standards), then, of necessity, they wouldn’t be able to calculate the benefits of voting, because they wouldn’t think that they could predict the benefits of a given candidate’s or party’s victory.

In other words, “rational ignorance” is an oxymoron. Friedman, too, is drawing a sharp line around his opponent’s position, making sure that common sense is outside it. But he is trying to win by definition.

This isn’t about definitions. It’s about why people do what they do. Well, think about average voters. It’s true that they make decisions on limited data (as do we all). They often don’t maximize the use of the data they have. I knew a journalist who made his livelihood thinking about public questions. He voted against John Kerry because Kerry reminded him of stuck-up frat boys. (At least that’s what he told me.) That’s not much of a reason to choose a president, but it’s common enough. Pollsters will tell you that many Americans vote for the candidate they think “cares about people like me” or is “not phony.”

That voters engage in this sort of Holden Caulfield-style ratiocination is not going to change. Is it “inadvertent”? To a certain extent. Is it “rational”? In the way Somin uses that word, sometimes. Most people know far less about public policy than the candidates they’re electing will need to know, and it’s not worth it to them to learn more, because they have other things taxing their brains. Do they know they don’t know a lot, as Somin says? Yeah. Do they think they know more than they do, as Friedman says? Probably, and for some of them, certainly. Are they “deliberately underinforming themselves”? Deliberate overstates it for most of them, just as rational does. Remember what the choices are: Kerry or Bush? Obama or Romney?

Friedman argues that Somin’s position requires that people understand their vote won’t decide the election, and that most voters don’t understand this. I think just about anyone will admit this if you corner them. But they don’t think of voting in those terms and they resent you cornering them about it. They are small-d democrats, proudly part of a country where the collective voice of the voters does count. As Friedman points out, they have been told since kindergarten that voting is good and that good people vote. It is part of who they are.

Does the Friedman-Somin dispute matter? Friedman says you can make a better case for a libertarian society if voters are ignorantly ignorant. If they’re rationally ignorant, he suggests, maybe you could make the state more powerful, and give voters more reason to pay attention to politics. In other words, people are not paying attention to A, B, C, and D, so let’s pile on E, F, G, H, and I.

Makes no sense to me.

Somin’s argument, above, that the ignorance Friedman posits would be easier to fix does not move me, either. It’s not going to be fixed either way. It’s a permanent condition.

Here is where I end up. The voter knows surprisingly little. To explain this is not to explain a positive thing, like why he drove to the grocery store at 11 p.m. Thursday night. Here you are trying to explain why he did not do a thing, and there are a million reasons. He never thought of it. He was tired. He doesn’t like to read. He does, but he wanted to read up on the marijuana trade, or disposable razors, or the new trucks instead. He was rationally ignorant. He was irrationally ignorant. He was stoned. He assumed wrongly that he knew enough. He didn’t care whether he knew enough. His wife got sick. His dog got run over. He ate refried beans.




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Sand Shortage

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Milton Friedman's notion that "If you put the federal government in charge of the Sahara Desert, in five years there'd be a shortage of sand," has been borne out for decades in US energy policy. Sitting on top of the world's most prolific supply of oil, coal, and gas, every president since Richard Nixon has promised energy independence. The result: an energy dependence that led to the September 11 attack by Osama bin Laden.

With terrorism financed by oil revenues (Saudi Arabian, for the Sunni variety, and Iranian, for the Shiite variety), fretting terrorists evidently anticipated an oil shortage. Who could blame them? When the oil ran out, they would be left with sand. Disconcerted, therefore, by America's voracious energy appetite, bin Laden complained, "Muslims are starving to death and the United States is stealing their oil." That, and our military presence in the Arabian peninsula, provoked his famous 1998 fatwa, exhorting God-fearing Muslims "to kill the Americans and plunder their money wherever and whenever they find it."

But Muslims were not starving because of US oil theft. We paid a fair market price of untold trillions (plus an annual premium of $30–60 billion in taxes to protect the Persian Gulf, even before 9/11). Hunger — along with poverty, ignorance, disease, violence, and despair, to name a few other maladies common to the region — was the result of Muslim governments put in charge of the oil fields.

In the early 1900s, when oil was first discovered in the Middle East, the Muslim world had been in decline from its former greatness for over 100 years. Defying the principles of free market capitalism, and at least a few laws of probability, Muslim political leaders managing Muslim oil — the greatest single source of naturally conferred, easily accessible wealth in the 20th century — extended the decline for another 100 years.

Who would have thought that decades of brutal, totalitarian police states, run by secular tyrants, would fail to restore the tremendous successes Muslims had achieved in the glory days of AD 600–1500?

The descent of Muslim military power, economic strength, and scientific leadership began, ironically, around the time the American republic was born and Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations. The subsequent adoption of democracy and capitalism by the US and European nations produced immense prosperity and an ever-widening gap between the West and the Muslim world. Today, by any meaningful measure of achievement, Muslim countries lag dramatically behind the West. During a 2010 interview on Al-Arabiya Television, Saudi scholar, Ahmad bin Baz (the son of the former Saudi grand mufti, Abdul Aziz bin Baz), explained,

We Muslims have found ourselves at the tail end of the world's progress. The Muslims are always on the receiving end, and their only role in life is to receive from others. Western society has become the society of innovations. It is Western society that produces and adapts itself to the changes of life, whereas we Muslims have become passive recipients of all these innovations, and all we do is sit down and ponder whether these innovations are permitted or forbidden by Islam.

Muslim leaders are no doubt perplexed by their abysmal failure to rejuvenate Islamic civilization. Who would have thought that decades of brutal, totalitarian police states, run by secular tyrants, would fail to restore the tremendous successes Muslims had achieved in the glory days of AD 600–1500? Why has the terrorism of Islamists (i.e., religious tyrants from organizations such as al Qaeda, Hezbollah, the Taliban, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the nation of Iran) been so slow to advance the Muslim cause? What other strategy might invigorate Muslim innovation, should corruption, cronyism, intolerance, bigotry, homophobia, and misogyny fail?

Give up? Here's a clue: it involves neither democracy nor capitalism. Instead, some Islamist intellectuals have decided that the future of Islam lies in a global Caliphate. They even have annual conferences for indulging in the fantasy. A promotional video for "Caliphate Conference 2012" proclaimed that "the Islamic Caliphate is the only social and political system that has the right solutions to the political, social and economic problems of humanity" and asserted that "the relentless decline of Capitalism has begun. The time has come to fight against poverty. Time to obliterate the injustices. Time for the correct system."

While the precise architecture of the "correct system" is a little sketchy, many of its core concepts — common bonding tenets, mandatory for all self-respecting Islamist intellectuals — are well known. These include (a) totalitarianism, masquerading as religion, (b) absolute rule by Sharia law, the legal codification of the Quran, (c) hatred of Jews, (d) blame to Jews (for caliphate failures), and, of course, (e) death to Israel.

When (or if) the Caliphate begins its transition from a pan-Islamic state to a global empire, the failures produced by the spreading dystopia and cultural havoc will be too numerous and varied to indict Jews alone. Thus, Islamists can be expected to add Christians and other infidels to (d) above.

As a surprise to Israel (not to mention the residents of cities such as Mecca, Damascus, and Cairo), Jerusalem will be the capital of the Caliphate. And as a surprise to capitalism (not to mention the billions of people it has lifted from poverty, more people than any other economic system in the history of mankind), it will be blamed for the world's poverty. Add “Capitalism” to (c) and (d).

A Sunni (al Qaeda) version of the Caliphate is scheduled to be victorious by 2020, right after four years of the "final battles against nonbelievers." However, given the pace at which Iran is developing its nuclear weapons, a Shiite version may be established sooner — unless, of course, al Qaeda steals its nuclear capability from a crumbling and sympathetic Pakistan. Picking a winner is troublesome, as is the idea of a Shiite theocracy having a nuclear bomb among its weapons and a “Death to America Day” among its holidays. Foreign policy experts tell us that Iran seeks its nuclear capability to gain a seat at the table of power. On the other hand, says former CIA director James Woolsey, al Qaeda simply wants to "blow the table up." It's a safe bet that “America” can be added to (c), (d), and (e).

Osama bin Laden was correct to worry about the conservation of oil in a desert region.

America's hedonistic culture mocks the "purity" of Mohammed-era ideals. The conspicuous progress of American capitalism undermines Islamist efforts to reconcile Islam with modernity. To the more eager Caliphate builders, the salve for this incessant irritation might be an EMP attack. A small (1 KT) nuclear weapon or two, detonated at an altitude of as low as 40 km, would destroy our infrastructure (power, communications, transportation, etc.) and, as a bonus, instantaneously fry our blasphemy-spewing smartphones, TVs, radios, and other electronic devices. According to the 2008 “Report of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack,” its effect would be “something you might imagine life to be like around the late 1800s" — not the 7th century, but a start.

If the Islamists prevail, their caliphate will be the first since the previous Islamic Caliphate was dissolved by Kemal Atatürk in 1924, following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I. Islamists are nothing if not ambitious, and patient.

That patience is about to be tested. Thanks to capitalism, America is now in the early stages of an oil and gas boom, despite all efforts by our federal energy intellectuals to stifle fossil fuel production. As Gary Jason pointed out in A Totally Fracked Planet, "We will reach energy independence in the not too distant future, thanks not to any corrupt crony green energy industry (solar, wind, ethanol, or biodiesel) but to the vast resources of shale oil and gas made available by advanced fracking technology." Privately owned US companies, employing innovative drilling techniques and private capital, on mostly private land, have made the US the fastest growing oil and natural gas producer in the world. The US is expected to be independent of all foreign oil, except for oil imported from Canada, by 2018.

During the last ten years, capitalism has been turning our long dependence on Middle East oil into little more than a bad memory of the 40 years of feckless policies concocted by our federal energy stewards. And it will turn the dream of Islamists into a nightmare. Try running a totalitarian state on oil revenues, when Brent crude drops from today's price of $110 per barrel to $70 by the end of the decade. What will Caliphate Conference 2020 have to say about world domination when dwindling Saudi Arabian and Iranian terrorism contributions squeeze prospective caliphate budgets to nothing?

Osama bin Laden was correct to worry about the conservation of oil in a desert region. He may have pondered over the use of sand when the oil beneath it ran out. Perhaps he recognized that excessive reliance on oil was the real source of the Middle East plight — that all the while, Muslims were more dependent on their oil than Americans. If Muslim leaders meted out freedom and opportunity, instead of crumbs from the table of oil revenue, economic diversity would result. Industries such as manufacturing, banking, tourism, and agriculture would expand and thrive. Who knows? As America becomes the new Middle East, the Middle East could become the next Silicon Valley, creating thousands of companies, millions of jobs, billions in tax revenues, and trillions in profits to shareholders— as it did here, in capitalist America. Why not? Unless you are an Islamist, there is no reason to believe that Middle Eastern Muslims are not as intelligent, industrious, and ambitious as American Muslims.

Meanwhile, according to an NBC News series on the economic and political ramifications of the American oil and gas bonanza, things will be looking up in America. Lower energy costs are making American businesses more profitable and competitive. New and better jobs are being created. With lower product prices and rising incomes, our standard of living will increase. And we will buy unprecedented quantities of any blasphemy-spewing, Islamist-mocking semiconductor devices Silicon Valley can invent. Semiconductors, by the way, are made from silicon, which is, in turn, fabricated from silicon dioxide — aka, sand.




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Is the GOP Terminally Stupid?

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On October 8 I received an email from Representative Luke Messer, a Republican representing the 6th District of Indiana. Attached was a “constituent survey” that Rep. Messer wanted me to fill out and email back to his office. As the reader can perhaps guess, the survey sought my views on the government shutdown.

To the best of my recollection I have never been in the state of Indiana, much less the 6th Congressional district. I did fly over the state once, I think. In any case I can’t conceive why Rep. Messer would want the opinion of this New Englander on the government shutdown. The survey itself was framed in classic push-polling style, an attempt to draw from me the answers that Rep. Messer and his allies so want to receive from the public.

The Tea Partiers just don’t seem to understand that the country as a whole is not to the right of Rick Perry.

For the fun of it I did fill out and send back the survey. But the whole business only reinforced the impression that has been growing in my mind — that the GOP is incredibly and perhaps terminally stupid.

This impression was further reinforced by an AP dispatch from Washington dated October 12 and titled “During Shutdown, Congressional Pay Strikes a Nerve.” Quite a few Republican friends of the shutdown saw no problem about collecting their pay while it was going on. They gave no thought to donating their salaries or setting them aside for the duration. I quote from the dispatch:

When Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., was asked whether he’d continue to collect his paycheck during the government shutdown, he offered a defiant response: “Dang straight.”

Days later, a penitent Terry changed course, telling his hometown paper, the Omaha World-Herald, that he was “ashamed” of his comments and would have his salary withheld until furloughed government workers got paid again.

And Rep. Terry was hardly alone. The AP went on to quote several other Republican members moaning, “I need my paycheck,” until constituent anger forced them to backtrack. “[I put my] needs above others in crisis. I’m ashamed of my comments” said one.

These are the people who craft our laws. So devoid of common sense are they that they could not see the political incorrectness and moral turpitude of their words and actions. This is the GOP the Tea Party has given us. Apparently, the complete proletarianization of our politics is being realized — not, as one might have expected, by the Democrat Party, but by the GOP. The party of Wall Street and the country clubs has been taken over (or almost so) by petit bourgeois Babbitts.

Consider the Tea Party-driven strategy behind the government shutdown. It began as an attempt to defund Obamacare. When this provoked indifference or hostility among the majority of the electorate, the GOP sought to extract concessions in other areas of spending and entitlements. This looked like extortion to many observers, and polling showed that the public agreed. Rather than fold a losing hand, the Republicans upped the ante by threatening not to raise the debt ceiling, a much more chilling prospect for business leaders as well as average voters. The Republicans gave the Democrats one opening after another to demagogue the situation, and Obama and his minions proceeded to do so. As a result the Republican Party, both in Congress and out, has dropped to new lows in public approval. Over 40% of the Tea Party currently disapproves of the GOP, according to the latest Gallup poll.

The actual dangers threatened by the Republicans’ stand have been overstated by the media as well as the Democrats. The government shutdown has done very little harm to the nation as a whole, although depriving federal workers of pay is hardly fair and will, economists say, lead to a slowing of economic growth if the shutdown is prolonged. But one way or another, the government is eventually going to reopen, and the effects of the shutdown will pass.

The GOP threat not to increase the debt ceiling is a more serious matter, though not for the reasons Obama and Co. have put forward. Republicans in Congress have pointed out quite correctly that money coming into the Treasury every month exceeds the amount needed to pay the interest on the national debt. Despite Secretary of the Treasury Lew’s prediction that October 17 would bring financial Armageddon, there is no prospect of serious trouble before about November 1. Moreover, the US has actually defaulted on its debt at least twice in the past (once in 1814 when the British came close to making us a colony again, and then in 1979 when a fight over a balanced budget amendment led to a brief delay in the Treasury’s ability to redeem about $120 million in maturing T-bills) without the world coming to an end.

Yet the environment today is quite different from that of 1814, when we were not the linchpin of the world economy, or even 1979, before the era of globalization. As so often in economic affairs, it’s the psychology that matters. Loss of confidence in the US as the world’s rock of financial stability would almost certainly lead to panic in world markets. A prolonged crisis would likely cause the dollar to fall from its perch as the world’s reserve currency, and the effects of that would be felt in every American business and household. A global 2008 for which no bailout could be organized might follow. The result could be a years- or decades-long depression in the US and much of the world.

The scenario outlined above may or may not reflect the exact conditions a default would produce. But do we really want to find out? Certainly the vast majority of Americans are not willing to gamble their livelihoods on Republican assurances that a default would be no big deal.

And therein lies the absurdity of the GOP position. Senator Cruz’s crusade against Obamacare, which touched off the crisis, has morphed into a game of chicken threatening the stability of the world economy. This is a path few Americans want to tread. Recall that over 40% of Tea Party members¤tly disapprove of the GOP.

Within the last few days the Republicans have tried to say that they provoked the shutdown and debt ceiling fight in order to force the Obama administration to negotiate over spending cuts and entitlement reform. Had they actually started out with that line, they might have attained the moral and political high ground. But too late did they realize that this was the only possible way to justify shutting down the government and threatening to default on the national debt. Everyone knows how and why this contretemps actually began, and few are buying the new Republican line. Obama and the Democrats are winning the argument despite the weakness of their case.

Quite a few Republican friends of the shutdown saw no problem about collecting their pay while it was going on.

This Republican performance represents the quintessence of political stupidity. The Republicans have bungled a potentially winning hand into a losing one. They have inflicted enormous political damage on themselves for 2014. Whereas six months ago it seemed certain they would reclaim a majority in the Senate, that prospect now seems very dim. While they will almost certainly not lose control of the House, their majority may well shrink, with districts gerrymandered to provide small Republican majorities tipping Democratic. 2014 is beginning to look like 1998 all over again — but worse.

Ideologically the party has been split asunder, with the establishment wing further alienated from the far right faction. This makes its presidential prospects even more tenuous. If Ted Cruz is the nominee in 2016, establishment Republicans will stay home or vote for Hillary. If the candidate of the establishment, that is, Jeb Bush, runs and wins the nomination, many Tea Partiers will go rogue by not voting or perhaps even taking the third party route. The Tea Party mantra, on the morrow of Hillary’s landslide, will be that the GOP candidate was another Romney, i.e., not conservative enough. The Tea Partiers just don’t seem to understand that the country as a whole is not to the right of Rick Perry. Maybe they will get a nominee to their liking in 2020. Then, after he or she is crushed in that election, perhaps reason will prevail, and stupidity recede. Perhaps.

More than any other single person, Ted Cruz is responsible for the present fix the Republicans are in. He won his Senate seat by taking on the Republican establishment in Texas. But that establishment is too far right for most of the rest of the country. Cruz, who definitely wants to be president, has gained new prominence, not by reaching out to the center but by pandering to his Tea Party supporters. This may or may not be a good idea for someone seeking the Republican nomination for president in 2016 or 2020, but from a national perspective it amounts to political suicide.

The GOP, whose symbol is the elephant, faces, like the real animal, the danger of extinction. California, once a purple state, is now definitely blue. Florida, once a red state, is purple trending toward blue. Texas is still a red state, but demographic trends indicate that its future is purple and perhaps even blue. If and when Texas goes, the Republican Party will be finished nationally. Cruz, the Cuban-Canadian-American who was last seen hobnobbing with Sarah Palin on the National Mall, is doing nothing to prevent the GOP’s decline — indeed, he is accelerating it. By choosing the path of political stupidity he is leading the Republican Party to destruction.

The elephant, reputedly a highly intelligent animal, does not have the ability to save itself from extinction. The GOP is headed that way purely because it has become too stupid to recognize political realities.

¤




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My Excellent TSA Adventure

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In late September, I paid a visit to my sister in Santa Barbara. Having heard the horror stories about the ultra-vigilant guardians of our skies, I was leery about going through security. I hadn’t flown for two years, and thought the process might have gotten scarier. As I prepared to depart from Phoenix, however, things went without a hitch. Shoes off, all the contents of my pockets in a plastic container, arms over my head for a nudie shot (the only new, unpleasant feature) — all routine.

Sky Harbor is a huge airport. Tens of thousands of people pass through it daily, and everybody is too busy to hassle a vaguely Nordic-looking middle-aged lady. Nobody in his right mind would mistake me for a terrorist, but in any facility of such size, I would expect to encounter big government at its most oppressive. Santa Barbara’s airport, on the other hand, is small and rather quaint. Its sole terminal looks something like a high school building. I anticipated that my pass through security, on the way home, would be equally uneventful.

I could not have been more wrong. Evidently the TSA agents at tiny airports demand to be taken seriously. They aren’t going to let anybody think she’s dealing with Andy Taylor or Barney Fife.

As my sister stood and watched behind the barricade, a reassuring maternal presence seeing me off, I presented my boarding pass and picture I.D. I don’t drive, so the state of Arizona has issued me an all-purpose identification card. The agent squinted at it as if it were written in Chinese. He turned it over several times, perused it front, back, and upside down, and called over another agent. They both behaved as if it were the most extraordinary thing they’d ever seen.

They informed me that the card displayed no expiration date. I informed them that this was a general identification card, not a driver’s license, and that my identity wouldn’t expire. I wasn’t aware the TSA had made it a rule that only drivers could fly. I didn’t come right out and say this, of course. Barney Fifes never tolerate so much as a peep of impertinence.

My sister stepped around to the side of the barricade. For a moment, I wondered if she was going to step over it. She had plenty to say. “It was good enough to get her here,” I specifically remember her telling the agents. “I don’t know why it shouldn’t be good enough to get her home.”

They looked peeved. They couldn’t keep her from flying, because she wasn’t going anywhere. Nor did they offer any reason to reject her argument. But they kept on brooding over the card.

He turned it over several times, perused it front, back, and upside down, and called over another agent. They both behaved as if it were the most extraordinary thing they’d ever seen.

Agent Number Two took it over to a different station and called someone on the phone. He came back, gave me my card, made some officious little squiggles on my boarding pass and waved me through. My sister and I were relieved. I would not be relegated to non-personhood.

I assume the agent called Arizona and verified that this was indeed a state-issued ID. I was not aware, before this incident, that non-drivers presented any greater threat to airline security than, say, terrorists who drive themselves to airports. Evidently, however, the very fact that we don’t drive means we are shady characters. Perhaps it is petty for me to raise this question, but is every adult who doesn’t drive now potentially subject to such a hassle before being permitted to board a flight?

What is it, specifically, that casts a shadow over us? Is it that, in this small way, we don’t conform to the norm? Is it that our form of identification requires TSA personnel to think? I’ve put these questions to a number of my friends. Their response has been that I, like a typical libertarian, enjoy nitpicking about government oppression. That I find it under every rock.

I suppose I do get testier about authoritarian silliness than a lot of people might. But surely there’s no harm in asking the questions. In retrospect, it bothers me less that the incident happened than that I felt I didn’t dare ask these questions to the agents at the airport. At one time I would have, but now — as if by animal instinct — I’d be afraid to.

What is happening to us, as a country? As a people raised to presume ourselves free from such cringe-inducing intimidation? This is the question that haunts me. Though what happened to me amounted to no more than a minor irritant, I must admit that I was genuinely afraid. My guts knotted up within me in a way to which I’m unaccustomed.

Would a terrorist feel that sort of fear in that sort of a situation? Or is the procedure designed primarily to intimidate law-abiding citizens like me? I don’t want to become accustomed to that feeling. I wonder if eventually it will, for all of us, become routine.




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Two Evils

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In odd-numbered years, there’s rarely much at stake electorally. One of the very few races of note in 2013 is in Virginia, where the gubernatorial race pits Republican attorney general Ken Cuccinelli against former Democratic National Committee head Terry McAuliffe. Both are odious; even among loyal party-line voters there will be very few unheld noses at the polls.

It was McAuliffe, you may recall, who pulled together the funds for Bill Clinton’s presidential run, reaching out to the most toxic corporations and associations — arms manufacturers, polluters, real estate shysters — for donations that would be paid off in regulatory favors down the line. It was McAuliffe, as well, who masterminded the infamous “Buddhist temple” (read: Chinese government) fundraisers for Clinton’s reelection, as well as brokering face time with the president and first lady, even sleepovers in the Lincoln Bedroom — for the right price.

After a public falling-out with Al Gore over the latter’s botched 2000 campaign (one of McAuliffe’s few good points is seeing Gore for the sanctimonious hypocrite he was and always had been), McAuliffe took over at the DNC as the party received its biggest gift in years: the presidency of George W. Bush. However, despite his undeniably effective, undeniably dirty fundraising, he could not oust Bush from office. After running Hillary Clinton’s 2008 bid into the ground, McAuliffe was out of national politics; “the best fundraiser in history” — as Gore himself had said in happier times — had lost his touch. Since he clearly had no intention of just going away, that left only one option: state politics.

In 2009, McAuliffe ran for governor of Virginia — though “ran” is probably the wrong phrasing; more accurate to say “fell flat on his face.” McAuliffe tried to ingratiate himself with the electorate by visiting “every corner” of the state, but he was only ever going to be regarded as a creature of the DC suburbs, a potentate of the despised northern counties. McAuliffe didn’t even make the general election; instead, he got thumped in the primaries by a state senator, Creigh Deeds, who would go on to lose handily to then-Attorney General Bob McDonnell.

McAuliffe pulled together the funds for Bill Clinton’s presidential run, reaching out to toxic corporations and associations for donations that would be paid off in regulatory favors.

And yet, despite all of this baggage, McAuliffe is running again in 2013, and to this point with a slight lead (4 to 6% in most polls) over his Republican competitor. Certainly McAuliffe hasn’t become any better of a candidate in the last four years. What could explain this shift in fortunes?

A few things. First, there is the ongoing, literal shift in fortunes toward the DC suburbs. Much of the wealth extracted by the federal government in recent decades has sloshed into northern Virginia, drawing lobbyists, bureaucrats, and other parasites who make their living off of others’. According to Forbes, half of the richest counties in America, as measured by per-capita income, lie in northern Virginia. The prosperity of these communities (not to mention their extravagant school systems, lavish pensions, and gold-plated healthcare plans) depends on the continuing bloat of the National Security Agency, the Department of Defense, and any number of other agencies situated there. They are as establishment as it is possible to be; they will support anyone and anything that maintains their privileged position — and McAuliffe is all about privilege and position.

Second, the Virginia Republicans are much weaker and more fragmented than they were last time around. In 2009, Bob McDonnell benefited from the ongoing recession, building a successful campaign around a pro-business message and, in the process, bringing the state’s social conservatives (who were behind him no matter what) together with its fiscal ones. However, once in office McDonnell quickly became enmeshed in corporate kickback scandals, culminating in criminal investigations into the governor’s alleged acceptance of gifts totaling upwards of $140,000. McDonnell also alienated the social libertarians among his base by breaking sharply right on several social issues, especially abortion (requiring an ultrasound prior to the procedure) and gay rights (blocking legislation extending health coverage to same-sex partners). With McDonnell blocked from running for reelection by Virginia statute — and potentially also by criminal conviction — the task of keeping the coalition together now falls to AG Cuccinelli.

Which brings me to point the third, Ken Cuccinelli himself. A true believer in the legislation of morality, Cuccinelli has never seen a moral cause he wouldn’t champion. He’s fought rearguard battles in favor of anti-sodomy and even anti-adultery laws, opposed any attempt to end discrimination against gays in public (note: as opposed to private) hiring, created a human trafficking taskforce with the intent and effect of cracking down on prostitution, pushed abstinence-only sex ed, and tried to give police and school administrators the power to search students’ cellphones to prevent sexting.

He has also — and he wasted his own money on this, so it’s in no way unconstitutional, but nonetheless telling — made up his own version of Virginia’s state seal, which features the Roman goddess Virtus, a personification of virtue, wearing a tunic that leaves one breast exposed, as she stands victorious over the vanquished Tyrannus. Never mind that a single exposed breast is often taken to signify modesty — even unobtainability. Never mind that the state’s own description for the seal states that Virtus is dressed in “Amazon” style; i.e., semi-robed. No, for Cuccinelli, as for all prigs, all flesh is prurient; therefore, he devised a seal with a breastplate to conceal the offending teat. If virtue is to conquer tyrants, she better do so in a PG manner.

As with any ideological conservative, Cuccinelli has his good points: he’s fought against eminent domain abuse, and he’s staunchly anti-tax, even leading the fight against a generally bipartisan gasoline tax increase. But stack against that his anti-immigrant stances, such as support for a “papers, please” law allowing police to investigate the residency status of any suspected illegal, as well as for language tests for laid-off workersseeking unemployment benefits. And add in also his embarrassing lawsuit against the University of Virginia relating to research performed on global climate change: Cuccinelli asserted that such research amounted to “fraud” against the taxpayers. Whatever your views on the subject, the prospect of a state’s attorney general wasting huge amounts on court costs in order to meddle with university research should prove chilling, and would have provided a fearsome precedent.

A true believer in the legislation of morality, Cuccinelli has never seen a moral cause he wouldn’t champion.

So Virginia’s voters must choose between the DC swamp slime, and the crusading prude — and these are the images that are drilled into their heads, over and over again, during every television and radio broadcast, on every website, in every newspaper, on every street corner, on and on and on and on. Huge amounts of money assure that this saturation will only get worse: McAuliffe’s taken in $20 million, Cuccinelli more than $13 million; every dollar’s being put to use in shouting at voters, telling them in so many words how the other guy is a scumbag, a misogynist, a bigot, a stooge; certainly unfit to take on the job presently occupied by a(n alleged) crook, and by many other crooks before him.

And the thing is, they’re each right about the other’s unworthiness.Little wonder that the two are polling between 80 and 85% combined in most polls, with huge portions of the electorate undecided, or at least unwilling to commit to either one.

What’s interesting is that, when Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis is included in these polls, he regularly pulls 8–10%. Sarvis’ campaign has been run on shoestrings: by the end of August he’d raised about $60,000, and spent only $45,000 of it. But I’d wager that by the next count, that number will have at least doubled: Sarvis is making good use of his intermittent time in the spotlight, hovering around the showing off his photogenic family, making a case for libertarianism both socially (gay marriage, drug reform) and fiscally (anti-tax, anti-subsidy and other manifestations of crony capitalism).

Sarvis has elaborated these positions while hanging around outside the interminable statewide series of debates between McAuliffe and Cuccinelli, debates to which he, as a third-party candidate, has not been invited. But that may change. On October 24 there is a debate scheduled in Blacksburg at Virginia Tech, with a ground rule that any candidate polling 10% in “major independent statewide polls” can participate. Cuccinelli, showing himself an abject coward, has requested that this bar be raised, to make it in effect impossible for Sarvis to participate. McAuliffe, knowing full well that Sarvis will take more votes out of the Republicans’ hide than the Democrats’, has already signed on, and I would speculate might even provide background support to help Sarvis reach or maintain the required numbers, and then dare Cuccinelli to back out of an event that the attorney general himself requested.

I don’t know what kind of debater Sarvis is, especially when placed up against two able manipulators of rhetoric. But he starts with the advantage of not being either one of them, so there’s every chance his message could be heard. On the other hand, Cuccinelli could prevail, succeeding in getting Sarvis barred from the event with the usual tack of snobbish bluster. If so, then Sarvis will definitely continue to get interviews — McAuliffe will make sure of that — but will lose the chance at a live audience.

Whatever happens, Sarvis has succeeded in injecting something approaching interest into this most dire of elections. Where once the only enjoyment available was looking forward to either Cuccinelli or McAuliffe losing, and savoring the schadenfreude of the concession speech — and there still will be that; my God, how I’m looking forward to watching one or the other spit out the words of defeat while having to drum up at least the pretense of respect for his opponent — now there is also the hope that a message of freedom might make its way into at least a few new hearts and heads.



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Critical Thinking

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Government is the froth that floats on the surface of a fluid. That fluid is the culture. The dirtier it is, the dirtier the froth it generates.

As a kid growing up in India, I always found that local goons, tyrants, sociopaths, and freeloaders emerged spontaneously, almost in direct proportion to the quality of the social environment in which they appeared. If you got rid of them, they soon reemerged. There was no way to avoid the emergence of goons, unless the underlying culture was addressed. This was invariably true, even if a vast majority of people opposed those goons, for the existence of goons is correlated not with people’s conscious views about them but with people’s own character, with the general culture.

As American society degenerates, its politics degenerate in direct proportion. Improvement in culture must precede any improvement in the quality of our politics. I have no prescription for how to improve the culture, but I do have an opinion about how people are mentally enslaved.

I have been to about 60 countries and have lived in four of them. Other people travel the world to see the world. I travel the world to use it as a mirror, to understand myself. Twenty-three years ago, when I left India for the first time, I decided to stop eating Indian food. I stopped having Indian friends. I did not want to have anything to do with India. I hated it.

Alas, I have left India but India hasn’t left me. I am still recovering from the indoctrination, conditioning, and irrationality of the culture I grew up in. This has been the case despite the fact that I have revolted against authority and irrationality for as long as I can remember. That is the grasp of indoctrination on the psyche.

Government is only a symptom of the problem. The real problem is within the society, which is extremely superstitious and irrational.

People often think that the problem of India is its government. Sane investors and Western institutions keep insisting that India should focus on some very simple, basic issues: build up infrastructure, make the bureaucracy more responsive, control inflation, remove unnecessary regulations, provide better schooling and primary healthcare, and better law and order. They believe that addressing these issues would have an extremely high-leveraged effect on the Indian economy. But while these policy suggestions appear simple and rational, they never stick.

Even in these days of technology, more than 50% of India’s population has no access to toilets. People must go in the open to defecate. A rational investor might think that investment in some very basic communal sanitation would yield significant results in months, if not weeks. But this never happens. The same rational person has been saying for over two decades that given democracy and an English speaking population, India will eventually overtake China. The reality is that not too long back India had a higher per capita GDP than China. Today, an average Chinese is four times richer than an average Indian. And the Chinese economy continues to grow much faster than the Indian.

The problem is that the so-called rational person, often blinded by political correctness, looks at India in a very superficial way. He fails to understand the philosophical underpinnings that guide the Indian society.

The situation is not too dissimilar to that of a health fanatic suggesting to an obese person that he must reduce his sugar consumption and smoking. To the fanatic, the prescription looks easy and simple; to the obese person, it does not. It is hard for the prescription to stick unless the obese man addresses his deeper problems. Moreover, if the fat man does stop consuming sugar and smoking, the health fanatic will soon be likely to discover that the target of his advice is now consuming other bad things — more alcohol, more carbohydrates, more something. For the problem truly to be addressed, one must go to the source. Similarly, what look like simple policy prescriptions that India must follow consistently fail to produce results.

The problem of India is not its government. Government is only a symptom of the problem. The real problem is within the society, which is extremely superstitious and irrational.

A lot of what you and I perceive as corruption is not what the Indian society sees. Morality is relative, and mostly based on expediency. There are common expressions in India such as “you can only scoop butter with a crooked finger,” which is basically a rationalization for crookedness. Another is that “Dharma [religion] is for the temple.” This suggests that you can forget about morality once you are outside the temple precincts. Indeed, India has never been through the age of reason or the age of enlightenment. In many ways the mindset is still very medieval. It is grossly lacking in rational philosophical anchors. To top it all, Indian culture seriously discourages critical thinking, thereby ensuring that dogma and superstition stay in place.

One of my earliest memories is of being slapped by my teachers for asking questions.

In a relatively capitalist country such as America, rational people can see what causes what effects. The more socialist a society becomes, the more the path from causes to effects becomes convoluted and difficult to understand. The minds of those who grow up in such a culture are an entangled web, embedded with corrupted instincts. If you become aware of your own mental tangle — which is very, very unlikely — and you try to undo the damage, you cause yourself more mental difficulties, because every thinking pattern that you try to straighten out conflicts with several others, and you must suffer for decades dealing with it.

One of my earliest memories is of being slapped by my teachers for asking questions. During the winter season, my school, instead of starting later in the morning, started even earlier. In winter I had to wake up at four in the morning, for no apparent reason. If we enjoyed any particular subject, the teachers ensured that the enjoyment would not last. They would beat us for exactly the same reason that led them to praise us on another day. If one kid did something wrong, the teacher would beat everyone. To avoid this, if you told the teacher who was the wrongdoer, she would beat you for snitching. And then of course we could be beaten for not snitching, on a later occasion. This is not just about the teachers but about how people in the surrounding society interacted with one another.

You grow up utterly confused and cloudy in your thinking, with an uncertain sense of causality. Your mind then becomes capable of absorbing all sorts of garbage, irrational and contradictory beliefs, and superstitions. Your eyes and senses no longer experience the truth as they are designed to see it.

You are forced to respect authority, not virtues; and the result is you become incapable of differentiating between right and wrong. You become extremely gullible. You speak what sounds good, not what is true. Speaking the truth for the sake of speaking the truth was a revelation to me when I arrived in the West. Our elders told us always to speak the truth, in the same way in which they gave us the concept of not worrying about the concept of morality outside the temple, and we parroted the saying, because it sounded good. But it had no significance apart from making us hypocritical. Critical thinking was washed away in dogma and authority.

The system cripples you mentally. Even if a vast majority of superstitious and hypocritical people consciously oppose the state and how it is run, it will still exist, for the anti-nutrients that feed the state do not come from people’s vote but from their character.

Adults face the same system as the children. A collectivist system — as in India — detaches people from the consequences of their actions. The feedback people receive in their interactions with society contradicts the truth of how the world works, because the costs get socialized while the gains do not. Trickery and heavy handedness seem to work, with those at the receiving end having no recourse to retribution. Bad behaviour goes unchallenged and never registers in the core of one’s being as “bad.” Real wealth creation in such a system feels like an unnecessary hassle with little economic advantage to be gained from it. From an individual’s point of view, time and capital may be better spent elsewhere. Political connections and “bribes” look like much more efficient ways to make money.

You become dull, apathetic, and mostly non-thinking. A trillion fights keep happening in your brain, with no rational means of resolving them. You are left with no confidence, because everything you see or believe is a floating abstraction, often in conflict with what your senses appear to tell you.

Indian brains are imprisoned by authority, American minds by political correctness.

It is important to distinguish the collectivism of Mao’s China from that of India. In China, the individual and his survival was in conflict with the state. In contrast, in the case of India, collectivism has been made a part of the individual’s DNA. In such a society, what individuals tend to do is exactly more of what created the original problem. Indians are very impervious to rational suggestions, and one must expect to face massive verbal attacks if one tries to extricate them from their mental slavery.

Judging from the way in which societies have historically worked, at one point India must collapse under the weight of its irrationalities and break into smaller pieces. Of course, this transition will not be easy and not without huge strife. Some of it has already been seen in the religious strife that rent the country at independence, and that still manifests itself, sometimes in acute forms.

Some might think that what happens in India will never happen in the US.

To respond to that I must again go back 23 years, to the time when I first arrived in the West. The airport was a happy place. The immigration officer addressed me as “Sir.” I looked around to make sure that he was addressing me. How could a government officer not treat me like garbage? In those days airport security was courteous and prompt for most Western people. But what would have been impossible to imagine then is now common and acceptable. Security now has no inhibitions about asking even old ladies to strip off their clothes. And alas, people gladly do that. In Canada, where you don’t have to take your shoes off before going through scanners at airports, most people do anyway. In just 23 years, I have seen North Americans increasingly groveling before the ever-more-mindless bureaucrats.

Western people endlessly worry about real or perceived discrimination. They worry about segregating their garbage and about ensuring that they buy so called fair trade coffee. They discuss the issue of sweatshops in faraway countries, about which they have absolutely no clue. “Everyone should have the right to free healthcare and a living wage,” they say. Political correctness forbids Americans to discuss any possible fallacies in these one-dimensional views.

How the Indian grows up muddled in thinking is different from how the American psyche is being muddled — but assuredly it is being muddled. In India we were made unreasonable by fear, irrational feedbacks, and mental self-numbing. In America, the self-esteem movement wants adults to provide “positive feedback” to kids even if they are not doing well. Doesn’t this confuse their understanding of causality? Aren’t they made irrational, in a feel-good way? Through love and warmth, kids in the West are, for instance, induced to swallow politically correct positions on the environment — something they don’t have the data or the competence to understand. Doesn’t this impede critical thinking? Indian brains are imprisoned by authority, American minds by political correctness.

Orwell’s 1984 is likely the later stage of collectivism, as is the case with India, but Huxley’s Brave New World is likely the earlier stage, as is the case in the West. The mental virus that afflicts Indians now increasingly afflicts those in the West.

Apathy has rapidly sunk its deep roots here. What is happening to Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning has been reduced to an orgy of public entertainment. Irrespective of the merit of their cases, should Snowden return to the US to face “due process” when Bin Laden was killed and dumped in the ocean and when the prison at Guantanamo Bay continues to run? Similar cases a few decades back would have probably have brought a change in the US government. Even civil libertarians talk about why the NSA should not be spying on American citizens or why the president should not have the right to pass executive orders to kill Americans. But, what about non-Americans? Are they not human beings? Are their lives and privacy not important? Try discussing these issues, and Americans will start going around in circles and start responding irrationally, not unlike the way Indians do. “Due process” and “the rule of law” were seen as very fundamental to the Western civilisation. In an era of expediency, they are still much talked about but are getting increasingly diluted in their moral essence.

Americans are impressed when they hear that many women in the poor parts of the world do not have a sense of self or of an independent existence. They do not reflect that they themselves are slaves for more than half of their lives, paying taxes and following stupid regulations. They fail to see any connection. It is so easy to see the slavery of other people but not your own.

Collectivism is increasingly present in the DNA of those in the West. Individuals in the West are likely to keep doing more of exactly the same things that created the initial problems, slowly retracing their steps, back to the medieval period. Will the West become another India? I would not be surprised at all.

It is so easy to see the slavery of other people but not your own.

Obama and Bush, however criminally minded they may be, are only symptoms of problems. The problem lies in the current state of the Western culture. In my view the danger is not the tens of trillions of dollars of Western governmental debt but the process of cultural degeneration in which reason and evidence are replaced by dogma and unverified belief systems are protected by a lack of critical thinking.

Lack of liberty is the result of a lack of freedom within our minds. Our conscious search for liberty will be futile if we fail to address our deeper mental constructs. Only a rare human being would claim not to want to be free, yet many people who claim to want freedom exist in wretchedness and slavery. The good thing is that bureaucrats and politicians, the purveyors of collectivism, are often lazy and stupid. They have no power that the culture does not give them. They will wither away or take to begging on the streets if we as people give up the virus of irrationality and take to critical thinking.

/div




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Obama’s Syrian Folly

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President Obama is about to ask Congress to endorse military action against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. Over the past week momentum has been building against the Obama policy of airstrikes to punish Assad for his use of chemical weapons against civilians. It’s not that the case against the Assad regime is weak. On the contrary, it is clear that sarin was used by regime forces at Ghouta near Damascus on August 21, killing hundreds of civilians including children. (It is not known whether Assad personally ordered the use of gas, but it is virtually certain that his forces, and not the Syrian rebels, are responsible for the August 21 attack.) But a war-weary American citizenry simply sees no compelling reason to start yet another war in the Middle East. The atrocity in Ghouta does not rise above the many ghastly events that occur around the world on an almost daily basis. I have mentioned before in this space that some 7 million people have been killed in the Congo since civil war broke out there in 1996, and yet America has done nothing to stop the killing. Why then is Obama so keen to avenge what in comparison is a small-scale atrocity in Syria?

We should be clear that the president is motivated primarily by the need to shore up what’s left of his international stature and credibility. In 2012 he foolishly called the use of chemical weapons a “red line” that al-Assad must not cross. At Ghouta his bluff was called. Undoubtedly he now feels that he must strike in order to restore respect for himself and the nation he leads. He has in recent months been dissed by China (over hacking and other matters), Russia (over Edward Snowden), and Britain (where Parliament voted down a government proposal to join the US in attacking Syria). As Obama sees it, to do nothing would only further erode what remains of the respect he commands on the world stage.

A second reason for the strike is the misguided humanitarianism of the president and his closest advisors, particularly National Security Advisor Susan Rice and Secretary of State John Kerry. This past weekend Kerry bloviated ad nauseam about Bill Clinton’s regret over not intervening to stop the slaughter in Rwanda. Rice is known to believe in military action to fulfill humanitarian goals. Leaving aside the fact that there are more humanitarian crises in the world than we have forces to deploy on such missions, there is in fact no reason whatsoever to believe that lobbing a few cruise missiles into Syria will alleviate the suffering there. It may, in fact, increase suffering by intensifying and spreading the conflict. Al-Assad’s Shiite allies in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon have indicated that US and other targets in the Middle East and perhaps beyond will be hit if we act against Syria. Are they bluffing? Perhaps. But do we want to find out, given that we have already exhausted ourselves fighting terrorists and others over the past dozen years?

The president is motivated primarily by the need to shore up what’s left of his international stature and credibility.

Russia has said that it will provide advanced weaponry to Syria in the event the US goes to war. Such a move could lead to additional US strikes to knock out Syria’s augmented defenses. A spiraling escalation of the conflict, while unlikely, should not be discounted. Every war, a soldier recently said to me, is a door into the unknown. Risking a major war to restore Obama’s amour propre is simply a bad idea.

The US and the new government in Iran have been talking behind the scenes about negotiating an end to the nuclear issue that has divided them for years. The prospect of ending the danger of war in the Persian Gulf, of avoiding yet more American blood and treasure spent, will be thrown away if we attack Syria.

In recent days world opinion as well as opinion here at home has turned decisively against the idea of US intervention in Syria. It remains to be seen whether the US Congress will find the courage to stand up to the president. Obama shrewdly asked Congress for authorization to strike, which places the burden of responsibility equally on its shoulders. The leadership of both parties appears to be “on board.” A certain amount of obfuscation has been used by the administration to persuade the leadership to support war. House Speaker John Boehner and others have been told that the strikes will be limited, that we will basically be sending Assad a message. At the same time, Senate hawks were told that the strikes will be more extensive and punishing. Its prestidigitation may come back to haunt the administration in the near future, assuming that Congress does vote for war.

We will soon know whether members will follow the leadership down the primrose path. At present, members see their constituents opposing war by 10-to-1 and even 100-to-1 margins. Most of them will await the president’s speech to the nation on Tuesday to see whether the political winds shift. Opponents of war on the far Left and far Right will vote their consciences; most of the rest will vote according to what’s best for them politically. Much therefore rides on Obama’s performance Tuesday. If his speech is well received, congressional authorization will be assured, and the missiles will fly soon thereafter. For what it’s worth, this analyst is convinced that Congress will vote to authorize war.

One hopes that the strikes will be limited, and that we will then declare that Assad has been taught a lesson, followed by a return to the status quo ante. Syria’s allies will choose not to act, and the war will not spread. But in the past few days the Defense Department has expanded its list of targets, some of which will require attacks by strike aircraft. An air campaign stretching out for days or possibly even weeks could be in the offing. Such an expanded campaign is more likely to provoke a response from Syria and Syria’s friends. A longer, messier intervention by US forces could conceivably devolve into a regional war. If events spin out of control, the possibility of boots on the ground cannot be excluded.

Every war, a soldier recently said to me, is a door into the unknown. Risking a major war to restore Obama’s amour propre is simply a bad idea.

It’s pretty clear that the military dreads such a possibility. On Sept. 5 Major General Robert Scales (ret.) published a scathing op-ed in the Washington Post opposing Obama’s march to war. Within the last two days I have spoken to a retired Army colonel and a captain in the Army Reserves. Both feel Syria would be the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time. The colonel in particular, a former brigade commander, spoke passionately about the need for the Army to recuperate from a dozen years of war. He told me that in his opinion, the Army is “broken,” pointing to the rise in suicides and the epidemic of sexual assault as sure proof of this. He would not exclude the possibility that another war now might end in defeat and a complete breakdown of the force.

A certain feeling of dread overhangs the movement toward war. US public and world opinion are strongly against any US action, allies are falling away, and enemies seem prepared to retaliate. The Congress is likely to endorse the war nonetheless. And the administration seems determined, come what may, to strike. Perhaps the event will prove less dramatic than one fears — a few days of bombing accompanied by shrieks of protest and threats from Assad and his friends. In that case, Obama and his friends will feel vindicated; presidential credibility will be, at least in part, restored. But nothing will have changed on the ground in Syria. The killing will continue. And there remains the possibility that we will become involved in a new war, a war that may extend beyond Syria. All this because the president chose to cavalierly lay down a “red line” he thought that a tinpot dictator wouldn’t dare to cross. Helluva way for a great power to conduct foreign policy.




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