Saturday, May 30, 2009

Progress and Farce: the Sotomayor "Debate"

For most of the time since the idea of “democracy” emerged in ancient Greece, Western political thinkers, with a few exceptions, regarded the idea as unworkable or contemptible or both – in much the way that most political philosophers today regard the idea of “anarchy.” Significant support for “democracy” did not develop until late in the eighteenth century and the idea remained controversial for many decades thereafter. Well into the twentieth century, there were political formations that were officially “anti-democratic.” But with the defeat of fascism after World War II, that ended; everyone became a “democrat.” Lately, the consensus has been shaken in some parts of the world by the rise of theocratic regimes, but even “Islamic republics” do not expressly oppose democracy; indeed, some of them, Iran for example, are quite democratic according to many of the usual measures. But at the same time that there is near universal support for the idea, disagreements rage about what “democracy” is. The “peoples’ democracies” that not long ago abounded throughout the Eurasian landmass and that still survive in Eastern and South-Eastern Asia bear little resemblance, at an institutional level, to so-called “Western democracies” which, in turn, bear little resemblance to the “democracies” assumed by most philosophically minded democratic theorists. Thus nowadays the term is what philosophers call “essentially contested”; everyone or nearly everyone is a “democrat” at the same time that there is no consensus on what “democracy” is.

Nevertheless, the trajectory of “democracy’s” fortunes represents progress of a sort. It reflects an incontrovertible and probably irreversible fact: the emergence of the demos, the people (in contrast to elites), as full-fledged participants in the political scene, even as rule by elites remains unshaken everywhere. The fact that everyone now claims the democratic mantle as their own also shifts the nature of political debate in generally salutary ways. There is no consensus on what “democracy” is, but there is a consensus among “democrats” of all stripes on some points pertinent to that question; for instance, on the idea that political regimes are accountable, ultimately, to the people whose lives and destinies they control. The more consensus there is, even if only on vague generalities, the more constructive debates about what “democracy” really is and what “democrats” really want become.

There are many other essentially contested concepts in our political culture; for example, equality of opportunity. No one is against equal opportunity, but debates rage over what that ideal involves. To a large extent, this is what the debate over affirmative action is about; defenders defend preferences for certain classes of people as a way to equalize opportunities across the population; detractors reject special preferences for the same reason. “Freedom” is another example – who today is against it! – even as conceptions of freedom diverge significantly. It is the same with “justice.” In these cases and others as well, the gap between theory and practice cannot just be explained by hypocrisy and deception, though there is plainly no lack of either. There are also “philosophical” differences lurking beneath the nearly universal support these very general ideas now enjoy. That this is so shows that progress has been made; not nearly enough, but progress nevertheless. It shows that we are moving in the right direction, albeit at a tiny fraction of a snail’s pace.

Thanks to Barack Obama’s nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to become a Justice of the Supreme Court, it has become clear in recent days that “racism” or rather “anti-racism” has become an essentially contested concept too. Nearly everyone, it seems is officially against it – even blathering right-wing talk show hosts, Fox News pundits, and GOP luminaries. No doubt, this represents progress too. At least for the time being, we are past the days when overtly racist doctrines can become official state policy or when right-wing political movements expressly endorse racist views. Even the Jean-Marie Le Pens, Jörg Haiders, and Avigdor Liebermans of the world are obliged to pull their punches.

But in the Sotomayor “debate,” it is not like it is with “democracy,” and “equal opportunity,” or “freedom” or “justice.” This is not because there is nothing to discuss about what racism is. There are interesting questions that might be raised about that and about connections between racism and the various forms of ethno-centrism and theocracy that blight our planet’s politics. There are many questions to be asked; many debates to be engaged.

The reason why the current “debate” is unilluminating – indeed, farcical -- is that the right-wing drivellers and pundits have no coherent concept of what “racism” is. There is no “philosophy” underlying their comments, not even implicitly. For them, the word is just a tool to deploy to confuse and inflame.

[Or so I understand. My information about the latest from Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck, G. Gordon Liddy, Pat Buchanan, Newt Gingrich, Tom Tancredo and a few others comes mainly from the copious examples adduced by Rachel Maddow on her show on MSNBC. I haven’t the stomach to watch Fox News, much less to listen to talk radio. Life is too short.]

No doubt, the Obama administration is subtly encouraging the blather; it is to the Democrats advantage, after all, when Republicans make a mockery of themselves. Obama is still preposterously popular, so perhaps the current spate of race-baiting in the guise of “anti-racism” is comparatively harmless. But, according to all the polls, at least a fifth of the American population is so benighted, so ignorant and so uninformed that Rush Limbaugh and the Fox pundits and, what is by now nearly the same thing, the Republicans do have a “base” they can rally by playing the “anti-racism” card; in fact, it seems that that’s the whole idea. But this is a dangerous game. As became evident in the presidential campaign last year, there are more than a few nativist, know-nothing, God-fearing bigots out there who can easily be driven over the edge. That this could happen in the guise of “anti-racism” is, I suppose, a development to be applauded. It is further evidence that progress has been made. But that will be small consolation, should the Limbaugh-listeners et. al. become unhinged. Even with an African American President and a Latina on the Supreme Court, it could still happen here.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Love Me, I'm a Moderate

For all I or anyone else knows, Sonia Sotomayor may turn out to be the best Supreme Court Justice going; after all, the competition is not very steep. Her qualifications are outstanding. And, although I’ve never been quite sure what “the American dream” is supposed to be, she surely exemplifies it. Then there is the welcome symbolism of elevating a Latina and a woman to the post. Some knowledgeable people question the intellectual depth of her rulings as an appellate judge; they wonder whether she can be a “liberal” counterweight to Antonin Scalia, the most overrated “conservative” (reactionary) Justice in recent history. Somehow they forget that anyone with the sense they were born with – Judge Judy, for example – could trounce Tony Two Vote (it was that second vote for Bush that unleashed the horrors of the past eight years) in any intellectual contest whatever.

In nominating her, Obama did good for a change. He also did something shrewd. As Republicans mobilize their “base” to oppose her, they will alienate themselves even more than they already have from the growing ranks of Hispanic voters, doing in their electoral prospects for the foreseeable future. They will also reveal themselves as the shallow, ignorant and mean-spirited fools they are; as if it isn’t clear enough already.

Yet, in promoting her nomination, the POP, the Party of Pusillanimity, the party that “won” the last election, stresses how “moderate” she is. Once again, Obama’s “bipartisanship” is running amok. It would be laughable, were it not of a piece with the rest of Obama’s practice of governance: maintaining the rule of law by obstructing the prosecution of the war criminals Cheney, Bush, et. al.; fixing the financial crisis by saving the fortunes of the Wall Street predators who brought it on; fixing the health care crisis by assuring that private insurance companies and Big Pharma will get the lion’s share of the “solution”; fixing George Bush’s wars by continuing the occupation of Iraq and, at great cost to “homeland security” and international order, escalating the war in Afghanistan. Call it “pragmatism” or “centrism” or “moderation.” It is fast becoming the hallmark of the Obama presidency.

Thus, until Sotomayor is confirmed, we will hear her praised endlessly for her “moderation.” New York Senator Charles (Schmucky Chucky) Schumer has been tapped to shepherd her through the confirmation process. The man is nothing if not a moderation freak. With the frequency that the lately loquacious Dick Cheney invokes 9/11, expect him to invoke the m-word. It will be a sickening spectacle for those of us who think that the Right, having lost the last election (which is not the same thing as the Left having won!), should not continue to rule. Meanwhile, we can only hope Sotomayor has the good sense and judicial temperament not to take the Obama-Schumer characterization of her to heart.

Friday, May 22, 2009


As Vice President, Dick Cheney avoided the media like the plague; now he can’t make himself available enough. One can only guess what he thinks he is accomplishing. Perhaps he believes he’s performing a public service by defending his (officially, George Bush’s) policies so vociferously; after all, he does have the moral and intellectual shallowness to believe what he says. No doubt too, he’s positioning himself (and his commander-in-chief) for vindication if and when the next big “terrorist” attack comes; he’s shrewd enough to attempt that. Perhaps his motives are more clever still: by casting the “debate” over torture as a dispute about security policy, he could be trying to save himself from prosecution, laying the groundwork for the (spurious) argument that, in the Land of the Free, one does not criminalize policy differences.

Needless to say, in a saner world, there would be no “debate” at all. Cheney has admitted, even boasted, of committing war crimes. A good case could be made as well that he has committed crimes against the peace and crimes against humanity. Along with Rumsfeld and Bush and the rest of them, Cheney should be brought to justice, not taken seriously. End of story!

So far, though, the Obama administration has been taking Cheney seriously, even if only as a foil. Thus the spectacle of back to back speeches on national security and the rule of law: Obama’s delivered yesterday at the National Archives; Cheney’s, moments later, at the American Enterprise Institute. Since, unlike Cheney, Obama is no fool, he must be playing along for a reason. It is instructive to speculate on what that reason might be.

Obama, of late, has become an almost Orwellian figure – talking one way while doing just the opposite. He advocates for transparency, while keeping “the facts” (including pictures of torture victims, each one worth a thousand words) away from public view, just as his predecessor did. He advocates eloquently for the rule of law while reviving military tribunals for erstwhile “enemy combatants,” and even going so far, in his National Archives speech, as to propose indefinite preventive detention (with the window-dressing of judicial review) for “terrorists” who, for one reason or another, cannot be tried within the legal system. Even George W. Bush didn’t go that far!

I will speculate presently on why Obama has taken this turn. What I would point out, first, though, is how having Cheney babble on in the public eye facilitates it. Cheney may have taken upon himself the role of Obama-opponent-in-chief. But, in fact, what he is doing is strengthening Obama’s hand. This would be a welcome result, except that it is becoming increasingly clear that strengthening Obama’s hand is tantamount to facilitating his rightward drift.

There is still enough Obamamania around that Obama can get away with most anything. If only he’d use his “political capital” for good – for instance, by forcing Israel to stop obstructing the two state “solution” that it officially favored – at least, before the advent of the Netanyahu-Lieberman regime in Tel Aviv. But Obama is using it instead to perpetuate Bush administration policies, albeit with name changes and countervailing rhetorical declarations. The degree to which Obama is betraying his supporters’ expectations is remarkable even for those of us who never expected much more from Obama than cosmetic changes (from the Clinton, not the Bush, presidencies). Why so much recent bait and switch?

The main culprits, of course, are the constraints under which our bought and paid for political class operate. But I suspect there is something else going on in addition, something signaled by the excessive, indeed pathological, “bipartisanship” Obama and his minions promote. Notwithstanding the profound fluidity of the present political conjuncture, notwithstanding the fact that there is now more opportunity for real change than has existed for decades, Obama seems to have bought into the proposition that it is well to govern from the center. The jury is still out on how good or bad that idea is; Obama is so impressive and so politically adept that even I cannot bring myself to conclude just yet that it is an unequivocally bad idea, notwithstanding the mounting evidence that it is. Maybe, one hopes, he’s just “faking right.” That’s almost certainly an “illusion” in Freud’s sense, an expression of an unconscious wish. But, whether governing from he center is as bad an idea as the evidence suggests, it is plain that circumstances have shifted the center leftward – at least in domestic affairs. To an extent that would have seemed impossible just a year ago, a progressive role for an affirmative state has come back onto the agenda. But, at the same time, the Cheney-Bush legacy, kept alive by Cheney’s endless speechifying, is moving the center towards the right. By not bringing Cheney and the others to justice, by taking them seriously instead, Obama, wittingly or not, is encouraging this process.

Cheney’s speeches pull the center rightward not because his ideas, such as they are, have any appeal. Outside the twenty percent or so of the population who still think Cheney and Bush governed well, his ideas have no more appeal than they have merit. But, even if hardly anyone takes what Cheney says seriously, the constant reiteration of Bush era lies, half-truths and rationales, legitimated by Obama and echoed in media coverage, frames policy discussions in an unhealthy, indeed disabling, way. The problem, in short, is this: Cheney and Bush did so many wrong things so poorly that doing these same wrong things well has a certain appeal. Thus in the security “debate,” Obama proposes to get it right, where “it” designates more or less Cheney’s and Bush’s policies. The result is that with Obama’s help, those policies, implemented competently and in ways that pay homage (dishonestly) to the rule of law become the centrist position.

How ironic that, despite widespread support for “change we can believe in,” and despite recognition of the need to prosecute Cheney, not legitimate his ideas, this despised and deposed “acting” President continues to influence policy. It is because Obama has unwisely locked himself into a symbiotic relationship with his de facto predecessor. This may work to Obama’s advantage in the short run. But it surely works to the disadvantage of all who truly do respect the rule of law. The Obama-Cheney relation, which has lately come to loom so large on the political scene, is an unhealthy relationship from which nothing good can come.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


It goes without saying that the Republicans’ problem is not, as the punditocracy claims, a “lack of ideas”; it is a surfeit of stupid, base and servile ideas. But who can fail to be impressed by the sheer obstinacy of the Party of No, and by their adeptness in leveraging their power, notwithstanding their unpopularity! Stupidity and shrewdness are starkly evident in the so far successful campaign of Republican legislators to keep GITMO “terrorists” away from anywhere near where their constituents reside; indeed, off American soil altogether. Their rationale is not that American prisons cannot contain GITMO inmates; such a contention would be too reasonable for the stalwarts of the Greater Evil Party, not to mention too difficult to defend inasmuch as the claim is transparently false. That’s why the Republicans have gone NIMBY – attacking Obama, and rousing their “base,” by exploiting the well-known Not In My Back Yard sensibilities we denizens of the Home of the Brave so often evince.

Thus the Republicans demonstrate, yet again, how fiendishly clever they are – almost to the point of sublimity. If only the “democratic wing” of the POP, the Party of Pusillanimity, had been half as obstinate, how many Cheney-Bush era evils might the world have been spared! If only they would learn from their GOP counterparts even now, we might now be spared having to live in a country where real terrorists -- the Cheneys and Rumsfelds and, of course, the George W Bushes of the world – are free to live the high life and to amble freely about in between appearances on Fox News.

But that’s not the way of our Democrats; they’re too forgiving, too “bipartisan,” too (stupidly) “nice” for anything like that. Thus yesterday’s spectacle -- where the Democrats joined the Republicans in denying the Obama administration the funds to shut Guantanamo down until Obama comes up with a plan for resettling GITMO inmates that NIMBYs can live with. Yet again, “bipartisanship” translates into POP capitulation and GOP rule -- as Democrats, in true Pelosiite fashion, take everything that might actually implement genuine lesser-evilism “off the table.”