Thursday, September 28, 2006

Freedom, Security and Good Red Herring

American Prospect Online - Centered Right: Something odd is happening in Scandinavian politics. Or rather, something normal has stopped happening. Everybody knows that for the better part of a century, social democrats have been building Keynesian welfare states in Scandinavia. The news is that economic liberals ('liberals' in the classical, continental sense of the term) have basically ceased to attack them. In fact, Scandinavia%u2019s center-right parties now actively embrace the welfare state. And suddenly -- and not coincidentally -- voters like them

I'm not sure I understand how a center right party can embrace the welfare state, much less an improved an expanded one, since I thought that the criterion for being "left" or "right" was precisely acceptance or rejection of the welfare state. What on earth else is there?

However that's a semantic issue. The substantive point is the realization by Rasmussen, the leader of Sweden's center "right" party, that "the welfare model is a necessary condition for the goal of liberalism, defined as a maximization of individual freedom and self-reliance....concerned with freedom to as freedom from."

From this perspective, government is not a categorical infringement on individual rights; on the contrary, government can and should expand individual freedoms by providing opportunities for citizens. Thus the accessibility of a quality education is a freedom issue, as is the availability of affordable health care, day care, paid maternity and paternity leave, etc.

It's surprising that this should be news in Sweden--or anywhere else. We're constrained, thwarted and hemmed in in innumerable ways--by the brute facts of nature and by the refusal of others to cooperate in supporting our most important interests. Without that cooperation, we can't get what matters most: interesting work, leisure and the avoidance of drudgery, opportunities for travel, the use of technology, novelty and variety. It's hard to imagine any life more meager or constrained, or less free than the life of a self-sufficient survivalist scratching out a living in some remote outback if freedom in the sense that matters means having a wide range of options.

In affluent Western countries, particularly in the US where libertarian sentiment is most entrenched, the government is the least of our worries. It's hard for me to think of how the government restricts my freedom in any serious way or prevents me from getting anything I want--apart from imposing speed limits with which I find it hard to comply. The government of course taxes me and to that extent restricts my options--since money is nothing other than the permanent possibility of preference satisfaction. But if I had that money in hand it wouldn't expand my options for all practical purposes because, in order to see to it that I wasn't backed into a corner--old, poor, with few options and at the mercy of others--I would have to save that money or use it to buy into private insurance schemes of various sorts.

So why, one wonders, are most Americans convinced even now that government is the problem rather than the solution and, more fundamentally, that there's a trade off between freedom and security? Security, safety nets and the knowledge that we will never be backed into a corner with few opportunities or choices, is precisely what liberates us from scrounging, skimping and perennially saving to preserve our freedom. Why in particular is it that people who are less secure and so less free than we are, those rural and exurban working class voters who could benefit from the welfare state, are most adamantly opposed to it: the old question again--what's the matter with Kansas?

At bottom I think it's a lack of imagination: they cannot imagine what it would be like to have a wider range of more desirable options--better access to education and training, a wider range of job options, shorter hours at work and longer vacations, affordable child care and good schools for their kids. They're constrained and financially insecure, stuck with mega-commutes from remote semi-rural areas because cities are unlivable and inner suburbs are unaffordable, stuck working 8 hours a day and overtime, 50 weeks a year and quite reasonably afraid that the few options they have will be taken away. Conservatives, whose policies have backed them into that corner, exploit that fear.

This is standard Third World practice, the policy of tin pot dictators whose policies keep the peasantry impoverished and then, at election time, win their votes by dispensing little bits of money. And they vote for the guy because the only alternative to a crumby life with patronage from the Big Man is a crumby life without patronage. This is Walmart giving Thanksgiving turkeys for the poor and promising employees from its New Orleans stores flooded out by Katrina equally lousy jobs in other parts of the country. This is Roger Hedgecock, the local conservative radio call in talk show pundit telling low-wage non-union workers that they could of course see that unions were out to do them wrong to benefit rich, greedy politicians: unionized labor jacked up the price of food. And these low-wage workers, judging from those that got on the air, they bought it--after all it was they who most needed cheap food given their low, non-union wages. The logic is the same as the logic of arguing that we shouldn't oppose the war in Iraq because if we if we weren't fighting there we would be in danger of terror caused by anger over the war in Iraq.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Hezbollah Rules--Not OK

Lebanon%u2019s Future: Bending Toward Hezbollah or Leaning to the West? - New York Times: Pro-Western Lebanese politicians have watched with dismay as Iranian influence has spread across the region, largely with the help, they say, of American foreign policy....There is an Iranian empire slowly but surely being erected, said Walid Jumblat, a weary, aging Druze warlord cloistered in his ancestral castle deep in the mountains of the Shuf region.Mr. Jumblat has emerged as Hezbollah's most vocal opponent among the American-backed pro-democracy movement that holds a slim majority in Parliament today.

What a bloody nightmare!

So this is our advertisement for Westernization: the US promotes "regime change" to install puppet dictators who will serve America's interests while Israel burns, bulldozes and carpet-bombs any country that won't cooperate. No wonder they hate us; no wonder they want no part of "freedom" and "democracy" American-style.

I just saw a short piece on the BBC news about Romanian orphanages, storage facilities during the Cescascu regime when the state encouraged people to have as many children as possible and abandon excess kids whom they couldn't support. Now that the euros are rolling in, the state is making an effort to reunite them with their birth families, find foster homes for them or put them into family-like group homes. But according to one social worker, it's still commonplace for women to abandon their babies at the hospital after giving birth because it's become a "habit." It's remarkable how quickly a habit like this, which overrides what must be a hardwired compulsion to see to it that one's children survive and contribute to the gene pool, can be established.

When do we get out of the Cold War habit of behaving as if we lived in a bipolar world where the only way to assure our safety (we thought) was by installing puppet regimes, where we assumed that any nation we couldn't dominate was a threat? Here we are, standing on top of this dung hill, whacking down anyone who tries to climb up because we're convinced that anyone who isn't prepared to eat our shit is out to get us.

Of course the pictures of bulldozed villages and dead children bother me. But it's a miserable world out there where life is nasty, brutal and short. Tribes are always beating up on one another; women are always beaten; children always die. What the US and Israel do is just more of the same--it hardly matters whether it's us killing, maiming, torturing and destroying property or the tribes doing it to one another. In the long run the real damage is the resistance to Westernization that our behavior promotes and perpetuation of the primitive, violent, tribal cultures in which most of the world's population is trapped.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Bush 9/11: Tasteless and Formulaic

I watched Bush's 9/11 speech on PBS, introduced by Lehrer who noted that the President had said that his speech "wouldn't be political."

Within 2 minutes it seemed, Bush had introduced the Iraq theme, associating the war in Iraq with 9/11, making the usual noises about protecting America from the Bad Guys and bringing "freedom" to the people of the middle east. These themes meandered through the speech like fat marbling red meat--the speech was carefully crafted.

My first impression, politics aside, was that it was in bad taste. I wonder how many other Americans thought that? This was the time to talk about heroic firefighters, to console the widows and orphans and to talk about us pulling together as a nation--not to manipulate public sentiments in support of the Iraq war.

The rest of the speech was the usual malarkey about spreading freedom and democracy, enhanced with allusions to the fight against fascism and nazism during WWII and Communism during the Cold War. I wonder how effective this appeal is given that few Americans remember WWII and that many don't remember the Cold War.

The analogy in any case isn't apt. For those of us who remember Communism, or Fascism, the image that horrified us was the picture of masses marching goose step, working in grim satanic mills or waving their Little Red Books during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. It was the horror of group-think, of individuality submerged, the oppressiveness of impersonal technology and individuals marching in lockstep to the Great Leader and to the Machine. Islamicism just does not plug into this template and so the rhetoric of "freedom" doesn't ring true.

I don't think Bush has either helped himself or hurt himself with this speech. I'm waiting to hear what cleverer bloggers and journalists have to say.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

The Other...and the other Others

Mr Multicultural shows his teeth - Sunday Times - Times Online

Two of the founding grandes dames of British multiculturalism got into a cat fight this week. Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, has been “pandering to the right”, spat Ken Livingstone, the mayor of London...Livingstone had a hissy fit and accused Phillips of selling out black people. “He’d had a brief sort of black power fling,” said Livingstone, “dissing” Phillips’s past activism, “and ever since then he’s gone so far over to the other side that I expect soon he’ll be joining the BNP.” It seems that Trevor ain’t been “keeping it real” enough for he’s calling new Labour’s No 1 homeboy a coconut. Maybe Trevor should get some gold teeth and grab his crotch more often...

Britain’s irony is that the person profiting most from exploiting racial tensions is not a glamorous funky demagogue but a white middle-aged nerd. But K Diddy is savvy to the way race is skilfully employed in America and has imported those techniques here.

The one nice thing about the War on Terror is the exposure of the Other with all its warts--is if this were some surprising novelty. Suddenly it's become almost fashionable to note that those paradigmatic Others, heroes of the left counterculture (in which I came of age), brown third world males, are violent, misogynistic religious bigots and racists who hate other Others even more than they hate even more than they hate materialistic Western decadence, American militarism or any of the other left-countercultural bugaboos.

Why did it take so long to figure this out? Why hasn't everyone figured it out yet? And, most interestingly, why are those who haven't figured it out, so selective about Otherness?

We see Red Ken, who happens to be white, hissing and spitting at Trevor Phillips for not being black, or red, enough. Skin color isn't sufficient for Otherness--or necessary: Ward Churchill still has followers. Race as such only confers potential Otherness and white partisans reserve a special place in Hell for people of color who don't meet their expectations. There is, in any case, a hierarchy of Otherness: race trumps gender, sexual orientation and disability; cultural alienation trumps race; and third-worldism, currently at least, is at the pinnacle of Otherness. If culturally alienated, underclass black males beat up on women, good leftists go with the guys. If third world Muslims are misogynistic, anti-semitic and homophobic, the politically correct, including self-described feminists and Jews, go with the Muslims.

I'm still trying to figure this out. There is an interesting piece on Foucault in the Chronical of Higher Ed that gives me some idea in retrospect of what was going on when all this got started. It seems that c. 1970 Foucault got the idea that the power that oppressed us did not emanate from individuals at the top of some hierarchy but from a network of impersonal forces embedded in the culture which enforced conformity through various forms of soft power. Again, one wonders why anyone thought this was a new idea. But I recall that at the time it caught fire.

We were convinced that we were caught in that evil net--spun by the military-industrial complex, Western rationalism and materialism, Academia, the suburban bourgeoisie, the advertising industry--the whole fabric of mainstream culture or, as we called it, the Establishment. The aim of the counterculture's political wing, I remember, was not to fix things so that Others like me could get in, but to dismantle it. Others who were excluded, actively resisted and, if necessary, did violence to disrupt it were icons of the Revolution that we imagined we were fighting. By the same reasoning, Others who managed to get in, middle class blacks in particular, were traitors hardly worthy of Otherness, and excluded Others who didn't cause trouble, in particular women, were at best, low priority Others. At the time, the paradigm Others, those who were most disruptive and so most "transgressive" were the big, brutal, crotch-grabbing underclass black males with gold teeth of whom Trevor Phillips is very definitely NOT. Nowadays it's Islamicists on jihad--more brutal, more transgressive, and genuinely alien.

As an excluded Other, all I ever wanted was to get in--and to revise the membership rules so that everyone could. I'm sitting here at the table in my IKEA kitchen, in my suburban home, this Labor Day weekend, sipping Corona and mellow. This is the life I always wanted--the life of an upper middle class white male from which we Others used to be excluded, and from which most of us are still excluded. I got all I ever dreamed of. I don't have to do pink-collar shit work; I have a husband, kids, cats and a chocolate lab, a grand piano, laptop, fast internet connection and wifi. [another sip of Corona--it's damn hot here] This is the summum bonum and the life that most of the human race would choose--if they could get it. I struggled and fought, and lived in fear for half of my adult life, to get this--and the whole of my political agenda is directed to fixing things so that everyone, here and abroad, can--so that all us Others can get into the Establishment and stop being Other.

'Nuff blogging. It's Labor Day Weekend and my last gasp of freedom for the year--I go back to teaching in three days. I'm actually kind of looking forward to it--I like teaching, and like students generally. I'm also looking forward to sitting in on a math class: I like math even though math doesn't like me. Happy Labor Day! Keep the Red Flag flying! Drink beer--be happy!

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Iran and the Art of Political Judo

If America Wanted to Talk, Iran Would ... - New York Times

JUST imagine. President Bush phones up Iran’s president, thanks him for his thoughtful letter, and asks to sit down and discuss social, political and economic challenges facing the two nation...what might happen if Washington suddenly decided, in a high-level public act, to follow Don Corleone’s advice to keep one’s friends close but one’s enemies closer?...Many political analysts, Western diplomats and reform-minded people here say a gesture from Washington to Tehran, or more precisely a gesture that demonstrates some degree of respect and openness to Iran, might well be seen here as far more threatening to the leadership than the threat of economic or political sanctions.

“Radicalism has always been supported and strengthened by the West,” said Emad Baghi, a former cleric from a highly respected family who heads a human-rights organization here even as he retains good contacts with the judiciary.

In Iran, the term hard-liner is part of the political lexicon, less a pejorative title than a label along the lines of liberal or conservative. In that vein, many Iranians refer to President Bush and his administration as hard-liners. And the conventional thinking here is that hard-liners help hard-liners, with their hard-line policies.

It does look like we're getting thrown every time--goaded by Iran and other hostile regimes into making a lunge and then tripped into a painful back twist that lands us flat on the mat.

It's hardly surprising. Nothing is more effective in getting the populace to rally around the flag, support an oppressive regime and put up with violations of civil rights than the threat of invasion by a foreign power. We should know that. Warrantless wire-taps and female dress codes are minor inconveniences compared to getting blown up or having your town bulldozed.

I'm not sufficiently sophisticated in these matters to understand exactly what the US would risk if Bush had sent a polite, carefully crafted response to Ahmdinejad's 18 page letter or invited him to a sit-down Corleone fashion apart from support by his "base" at home. However it's pretty clear that the minority who support his policies wouldn't stand for it. At the last go-round the W-team picked up on Kerry's unfortunate remark about the desirability of fighting a "smarter," more "sensitive" war and ran with it. Ahmadinejad may have impressed his base by representing himself as the voice of reason, challenging the US to discussion and debate, but Bush's base is convinced that anything other that brute force and ignorance is a sign of weakness. This is probably why W makes a point of representing himself not only as more brutal than he is but also as more ignorant.

What is most depressing is that his claims in support of the current policy are unfalsifiable and so there can be no denoument. We will "stay the course" because if by leveling Iraq, or (by proxy) Lebanon we haven't succeeded in installing toady pro-American regimes throughout the Middle East or eliminated the threat or terrorism, it just shows the haven't fought long enough or hard enough, wasted enough money or personnel, or delivered a good enough walloping. I'm no dove, but the prospect is one of an endless cold war that goes hot periodically when the US recovers enough military capacity to invade and flatten yet another Middle Eastern country that someone imagines is a base for terrorists. War without end, amen.

We will blast one country after another into the stone age, ruin the credibility of their educated, cosmopolitan elites, destroy their middle classes, empower demogogues who rally the idiot peasantry and set off tribal warfare to finish the job--starting with the US.