02 May 2016

planet loser:  a response

It was with much sympathy and a lot of nodding to myself that I read Freddie DeBoer's recent essay "planet loser."  I believe it worth my time to contribute a response -- from the perspective of a non-academic, gay worker bee who has gone through many not-very-creative jobs (although, like DeBoer, I was the son of a tenured professor).

Yesterday, I stood for election as a delegate pledged to Bernie Sanders in Wisconsin's 2nd congressional district "caucus."  This is a party-run meeting in which anyone can vote who showed up at a preliminary Sunday meeting in April and registered; Democratic party affiliation is not required.  (Yes, it is exclusionary because people have jobs and troubles getting to these meetings, but I find many of the criticisms of "oligarchy" leveled at the Democratic Party overblown.  I am grateful to George McGovern and others for getting this participatory primary tradition started in the 1970s.)

In a large, non-smoking conference room in Madison's Labor Temple -- a Magic the Gathering tournament was going on directly below us -- a little over a hundred of us made our decisions.  I, along with about thirty other candidates, gave a one-minute speech before any voting was done.  I was proud to receive four votes (none of whom were relatives) before I was eliminated.  I voted in two additional rounds before leaving the meeting.  Some tempers ran high, but it was on the whole a very civilized process.  (I can only guess at comparisons to the Republican delegate selection process.)

Honestly, I came away from this meeting feeling much better about American democracy and the quality of the society I live in.  I have my worries:  will Wisconsin get its 12 delegates from the LGBT community and thus meet one of its diversity goals? (There were apparently none from my district.)

Those of us who hate our jobs, find them unfulfilling, or have no job may be deemed "losers" in the way DeBoer explains.  A respected polling organization's work suggests that a large majority of those employed are not engaged at work.  The magical marketing and desire machine that is the Donald Trump campaign has been so active because tens of millions of people think they deserve more from their jobs and their lives.  The tragic part, in my view, is that so many of these people reject out of hand the very processes and institutions that would concretely help them to a better standard of living.  Labor unions are too "corrupt," universal health care is a "socialist monstrosity," and the mainline churches that have been a key part of American society for generations, providing what charitable services they can, are tarred as "un-Christian" and "watered-down" by fundamentalists (hello, Ted Cruz!)  The military still enjoys broad respect and popularity, and woe to us if they are really the only institution remaining to hold that prize.  (I wonder if this is what the President was alluding to in his bleak joke about "the end of the Republic.")

My conclusion is simply to say that we can all be winners if we try.  This will of course sound Pollyanna-ish to some and just like more of the same capitalist bullshit to others.  But what I mean by "trying" is getting involved in our communities in whatever way is easiest or most amenable to us.  It is serving without the immediate expectation of reward.  I dare say when Bernie Sanders first ran for mayor in Burlington, Vermont that is exactly what he was doing.

25 April 2016

A More Informative Slate , week of April 24

Clinton Refuses to Condemn Everything Henry Kissinger Ever Said About Southeast Asians
Single-Payer Health Care Systems Still Popular in Canada and Elsewhere, Polls Show
Food Pantry Use Across America Heavy As Month Nears End
Did Tolkien Understand Our Politics Better than David Brooks? By Skye Winspur

12 April 2016

Deray Mckesson's Bid for the Mayorship of Baltimore

Far-travelled, all our pilgrim paths redound
To one same glory, by CV unbound;

Forsaking 'real jobs' and risking much,
I learned that grace proceeds in shady paths.
You too will gain a crown of life unmarred,
Because you strove t'attain a higher good --
Against the math of systems in decline,
You brought out conscience and its upright line --
It matters not the outcome of one day,
When patronizing eyes our prospects slay.
The cause is juster when the young go in,
unsettling older sages with a vest,
or spurning that old guard by power caressed.

04 April 2016

1.  The Administration's strategy of denial re:  Judge Garland is patently ridiculous, and when historians look back on the Obama years this will be one of the most difficult things to explain.  When you are faced with unprecedented obstruction, you are being given carte blanche to do the unprecedented yourself and make a recess appointment.  (This could have been done as early as March 21, when a two-week "State Work Period" Senate recess began).

2.  In a somewhat related vein, looks like at least one Democratic candidate has earned grudging praise from Trent Lott.  The Palladium of Bipartisanship (copyright 1994, Newt Gingrich) often goes to the most unlikely of competitors.

02 March 2016

My head was working full speed in these minutes, on our joint behalf, to prevent the fatal first steps by which the unimaginative British, with the best will in the world, usually deprived the acquiescent native of the discipline of responsibility, and created a situation which called for years of agitation and successive reforms and riotings to mend.  I had studied Barrow and was ready for him.  Years before, he had published his confession of faith in Fear as the common people's main incentive to action in war and peace.  Now I found fear a mean, overrated motive; no deterrent, and, though a stimulant, a poisonous stimulant, whose every injection served to consume more of the system to which it was applied.  I could have no alliance with his pedant belief of scaring men into heaven...

T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, chapter 117

24 February 2016

A constructive rant, continued

Civic realism:  an inspiring alternative

In place of an unbalanced interventionism that I have just criticized, I suggest the United States pursue a restrained yet morally rigorous course of "civic realism."  This realism is best exemplified, I think, by two presidents in our history - one of whom is still living and a continuing source of moral inspiration to me and many other Americans.

The first presidential model for civic realism is John Quincy Adams.  Introduced to international diplomacy at an early age by his father, he eventually became Secretary of State under President Monroe.  It was during this period, in a July 4, 1821 address, that he cautioned that the USA does not "go abroad in search of monsters to destroy."  Freedom and democratic values were best fought for with the persuasive power of a high moral example, he said.  As president from 1825 to 1829, he signed a treaty of reciprocity with Mexico - an important step forward in bringing the American republic into the community of Western Hemisphere nations - and tried to uphold the property rights of the Cherokee nation against white settler demands and the state of Georgia.  (Adams' advocacy for the Cherokee is usually not considered part of his foreign policy, but I think it should be; they were a people with their own government and written language living in mountainous areas of the country who were not, most of them, accorded the rights of US citizens.)

After his presidency, Adams campaigned hard to enforce the existing ban - enacted in 1807 - on the Atlantic slave trade.  He opposed the US declaration of war on Mexico in 1846, warning presciently that it would only result in the increase of slave territory and undermine his nation's reputation for honest dealing and non-aggression in the world.

In a more recent period, President Carter also pursued a foreign policy very much in line with my concept of civic realism.  In a much-criticized decision, in 1977, he negotiated a return of the US-held Canal Zone to Panama (it was something like the Guantanamo Bay of its day, a constant reminder of US arrogance and neocolonial privilege in the heart of Latin America).  The fact that the handover treaties were signed with a military government, under General Torrijos, did not disqualify it from being a moral imperative, in Carter's view.  As he said in his remarks at the signing ceremony, the treaties "mark[ed] the commitment of the United States to the belief that fairness, and not force, should lie at the heart of our dealings with the nations of the world."

Carter waged the Cold War with moral suasion and not the further buildup of arms (as Reagan did) or too-clever-by-half Realpolitik schemes that left whole regions of the world reeling from military violence (as Nixon did).   Aided by his Poland-born national security adviser, he made a point of bringing up the rights of dissidents in the Soviet Union and Soviet-dominated Europe.  In a courageous decision, he ordered a US boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; this is something that should be remembered and perhaps revisited in the runup to the 2018 World Cup, scheduled to be held in Russia.

The civic realism I propose is not, therefore, a cynical abdication of the United States' role as a leading democracy, nor is it an invitation for more warfare in the name of "preserving the balance of power."  It is a moral way forward:  we can accept the continued persistence of governments that we find unjust holding sway over millions, indeed hundreds of millions, while remembering our best traditions of free speech and pluralism and re-enacting them whenever it is appropriate.  "Diplomatic gestures" have taken a heavy beating in recent months, but they are not ineffectual.  Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa are not wrong when they speak of the strength and assurance that these gestures bring to people denied freedom and self-determination.

17 February 2016

My discontent with 13th-century foreign policy: a constructive rant


In these times we are constantly told that it is the United States' particular mission to impose a just peace on Syria, North Africa, and Southwest Asia.  Usually, foreign policy experts and presidential advisors couch this mission in secular terms:  we are "the indispensable nation," or only we can save religious minorities under repressive Muslim regimes (the Yazidis, for example) from extinction.

It's my contention that, far from reflecting a mature 'internationalist' worldview, this sort of talk is just a retread of medieval Christian obsessions with crusading.  Beginning around the year 1100, Christian kings and potentates of Europe eagerly embraced invasions of Muslim-majority lands as a way of proving their fitness and religious virtue.  Reading the Christian chronicles of these crusades, it becomes clear how little difference there is between the self-flattering ideology of, say, a Richard Lionheart and the "moral seriousness" that US foreign policy mandarins espouse.  Both have little to no concern with the practical issues of building functioning states under foreign occupation, or ensuring basic law and order after a glorious lightning descent on Saracen / Arab territory.

'Liberal Internationalism':  not a new ideology

Recently I read Jean de Joinville's Life of Saint Louis.  Written by a crusading knight and servant in King Louis IX's (r. 1226-1270) household, the Life brims with religious fervor and tries valiantly to find the hand of God in everything that happened to the author and the army he followed.  Joinville is careful to tell us that not all Saracens (Arabs) are evil.  Indeed, in what is surely a very early example of the "good Westernized leader" trope which has brought us such luminaries as Ahmed Chalabi, he singles out a prince named 'Scecedin,' knighted by the German emperor Frederick II, for praise as a chivalrous and trustworthy negotiating partner.  (For John McCain, finding a Scecedin among the Syrian rebels is the clear solution that our president is too feckless to seek.)

What actually happened in these campaigns was, more or less, as follows:  Louis IX's invasion of Egypt ended disastrously, with the majority of his invading army eliminated by dysentery, starvation, or desperate conversions to IslamAfter being expelled from Egypt, he held out in the walled Lebanese port of Acre for four years.  He died in 1270 on another hapless crusade in Tunisia.  Help from the Mongol khanate in Persia, which the Christian world grew increasingly convinced would save their cause, never materialized to an effective degree.

Despite these misadventures, Louis was lauded by Joinville as the holiest king ever to walk the earth and was canonized by the papacy in 1297.  I cannot avoid thinking of Dick Cheney and the unchallenged deference he still appears to enjoy among neoconservatives today.  However, it's not just neocons on the right that get this treatment.

In the last twenty-five years or so, a school of diplomacy and foreign policy has emerged, often lazily called "liberal internationalism," that advocates for military intervention frequently and passionately.  Their arguments are generally much the same as those Joinville and his ilk proclaimed, but for "God" and "the cause of Christ," they substitute "justice" and "the cause of human rights."  The ends still justify the means in this new school of thought:  it matters little to its exponents how many civilians are killed and made homeless, how much vital state infrastructure is obliterated in the showers of holy bombs they call for, so long as evildoers (sorry, "bad actors") are removed from power in the countries they most care about.

That these wished-for interventions almost always involve military action against majority-Muslim states is in no way related to some religious bias, the internationalists argue - oh no!  It just so happens that humanity is most abjectly suffering in Libya, Iraq, Syria, or Yemen, and "morality" demands that we do something there first.  Maybe in a few decades, when this noble humanitarian project can be declared finished, something should be done about Burma, or Congo, or endemic gang violence in Honduras.  (Latin America has always been a curious blind spot for this crowd.)

Samantha Power, President Obama's onetime foreign policy advisor, is certainly a major figure in this school, and the accolades heaped upon her are eye-catching.  New Republic editor Leon Wieseltier  called Power “one of the keepers of idealism in America,” who “remains almost giddily unreconstructed in her imagination of justice.”  Today's Grail-seekers, it turns out, are just ordinary Americans with colorful pasts and Harvard degrees who have seen the light of global justice and will forego sleep and homely comforts on the pilgrim way to end genocide forever.

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates was none too impressed by these fervent internationalists when they proposed US military punishment and reconstruction of Libya in 2011.  Recalling the debates within the Obama administration, he said:
It was several White House staffers. They were Ben Rhodes and Samantha and, I might add, Susan Rice—particularly strong advocates of getting involved in a U.S. military engagement. And I don’t know whether these folks have a guilt complex over the Clinton Administration’s having botched Rwanda, where the U.S. did nothing, or what, but they are very much driven ... It becomes detached from U.S. national interests. So I was totally opposed.

"Liberal internationalists" play a rhetorical game that they always lose, or more accurately, that the Ted Cruzes of the world always win.  Their hardline neoconservative colleagues will inevitably press for their wishy-washy interventions to be made "tougher."  No-fly zones and three-times-weekly surgical strikes give way, under the pressure of the neocon propaganda machine and the greed of the military-industrial complex, to daily carpet bombing and finally ground troops.  And why not?  If the ends really do justify the means, there is no good reason to stop at whatever level of military force most New York Times readers find palatable.

Stay tuned for the continuation...