Saturday, April 22, 2006

It's the Power, Stupid

I've had some more time to think about Michael Tomasky's TAP essay on Communitarianism and the Democratic Party.

First, consider this passage from his essay:

For many years -- during their years of dominance and success, the period of the New Deal up through the first part of the Great Society -- the Democrats practiced a brand of liberalism quite different from today’s. Yes, it certainly sought to expand both rights and prosperity. But it did something more: That liberalism was built around the idea -- the philosophical principle -- that citizens should be called upon to look beyond their own self-interest and work for a greater common interest.

This, historically, is the moral basis of liberal governance -- not justice, not equality, not rights, not diversity, not government, and not even prosperity or opportunity. Liberal governance is about demanding of citizens that they balance self-interest with common interest.

This, I think, is exactly wrong.

First, I would argue that the "demand" (his words) for citizens to balance their self-interest with common interest is precisely the basis of just about every conservative critique of modern culture, from abortion to gay rights and school prayer. It might not have anything to do with the Republican's economic agenda, but it has everything to do with its cultural one. The conservative critique of modernity is precisely the liberal democratic notion that people should be reasonably free to live their lives on their own terms, as they see fit, provided they are not directly or significantly harming others. For conservatives, the type of individualism that allows and even encourages personal freedom of expression is anathema. In contrast, it seems vital to me that modern liberalism and the emancipation of the individual that it desires be given a voice from at least one political party in the country, and since Republicans, with their base of fundamentalist Christians are not inclined to provide it, Democrats can and must.

Second, the basis for liberal government is not "the demand that citizens place community interest over self-interest" but the belief that the purpose and vision of democracy and its correlary principle--popular sovereignty--is to shift power from royal and religious elites to the common man. Consequently, for liberal governance the essential aim of government (besides that common to all governments of securing order and protection from outside threats) is to diffuse power, to neutralize the concentration of power in the hands of economic, religious or governmental elites. The aim of liberal democratic government is therefore, to empower and liberate the individual, to pull the individual out of the group, as my political theory professor once remarked, to free him or her from the demands and conditional constraints created by private and public power centers against which the individual is unequally matched.

The essential basis of conservative philosophy is that the entity to be protected is society, and that the threat to society is the individual. This is why the conservative movement and the Republican Party have managed to fuse so well. It's economic and social coalitions are not essentially different. Both favor the establishment and enrichment of concentrated power, whether it is the corporation and wealth elite on the economic side, or the religious and cultural elite on the social side. Both demand that the individual be made subservient to a group or groups in society that dictate or constrain the individual's actions.

Attempts by Democratic Party leaders and strategists to articulate a response to the conservative menace to freedom tend to break down because, such as is the case with Communitarianism, it fails to link the economic and social wings and coalition members of the party. Tomasky's Communitarianism thus attempts to find an appealing rationale for the Party's economic agenda, be it Social Security, Medicare or aid to education, and to do so, comes forth with the notion of the public good versus individual self interest. This sounds all well and good until one recognizes that applied to the social and cultural sphere, it leads towards intrusion upon the individual and an invasion of the family's right to privacy.

The reason modern liberalism has embraced both income support and redistribution policies on the economic front, and civil liberties issues on the social and cultural front is because both aim to ensure that economic and religious foundations of power are mitigated to at least some degree, allowing the individual and the family to be more fully free.

If Democrats want to overcome the challenge to freedom and liberty represented by the Republican Party, it can best do this by emphasizing that the individual freedoms it seeks to protect (and of which Republican conservatives and Tomasky seem so contemptful) and opportunity it seeks to grant are equally important for the family as for the individual. Instead of talking about the individual right to privacy, liberals should talk about the family right to privacy. I believe this would allow the party to articulate and defend its civil liberty concerns (i.e. abortion and gay rights, voting rights, affirmative action, etc) a language that would at least partially negate the negative connotations that many in the conservative media and religious industrial complex* have tried to apply to the Democratic Party's pluralist goals and voting patterns.

For another example, consider the issue of NSA wire-taps. From Tomasky's Communitarian point of view, the president is basically right to do whatever he wants to "fight terrorism", even if that means invading a family's privacy without a warrant, because it is in the common interest, and liberal Democrats should just stop complaining about it and whining about individual rights, which are really pretty pesky things that need to be bulldozed in the name of the common good. Obviously, this will not do for a Democratic vision of governance, or at least one that seeks to provide checks on concentrated power, whether in the government or in society as a whole.

In short, the unifying element of modern liberalism is not the common good, as articulated by Tomasky, but the need to reduce the adverse effects of concentrated power. By reducing the adverse effects of concentrated power, the common good, in the pluralist and best sense of the word, is also preserved.

For an additional critique of Tomasky's Communitarianism see Digby's post.

*I'll elaborate on this concept in a future post.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Recasting the War on Terror

This week brought with it two new attempts by Democratic thinkers to jump-start a 2006-2008 campaign message and articulate a broader Party rationale.

One was published at The American Prospect by Michael Tomasky. The short version is Tomasky outlines two variants of liberalism, the first a nationalistic and communitarian "responsibilities over rights", "we're all in this together" paradigm, the second an individualistic-rights-equality-justice paradigm that supposedly came out of the late 1960's and whose one-issue-interest group nature has been responsible for driving many white Democrats to the Republican Party. Tomasky favors Democrats going "back" to the first paradigm, which he says was the heritage of the good old Democrats like FDR, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson and Clinton. Tomasky makes a fair share of good points in the essay, but overall his message sounds an awful lot like DLC-light.

The second was drawn up by Democratic economists Roger Altman, Pete Orzag, and Robert Rubin. This group of Clinton era administrators has billed itself and its approach as "Hamiltonian". The authors favor balanced budgets, and greater government "investments" in education, health care, and worker retraining.

The best that can probably be said about each piece is they at least say something; they're a start. But both strike me as largely "political" approaches to recasting the party's message as opposed to viewing the party as a means of addressing the greater, structural problems the nation faces.

One example of this is that neither set of authors says much about the "war on terror" or national security. How should Democrats approach the "war on terror"? Or better yet, the question should be, what do Democrats actually think about the 9-11 attacks, Al Qaeda, and the threat of "terrorism"? Not how should Democrats spin national security as a policy matter but what do Democrats actually think about the threat of terrorism and perhaps more broadly, radical Islam?

Since I'm a progressive Democrat I'll give it a shot. There are three primary lessons I draw about Al Qaeda from 911 that would seem important for Democrats to articulate and address.

First, the terror attacks remind us that our problems are as much global as domestic. The World is Flat, as Thomas Friedman says. In other words, while improving our education systems, reducing marked income inequality, and expanding access to health care within the U.S. are important, our major challenges, particularly from the point of view of the federal government, continue to lie outside our borders. And what are these challenges? Ultimately, "oil dependency" generally, but something more serious and alarming--the disparity of well-being and resource-use between between us and the rest of the world. A NY Times article and editorial this week pointed out that the U.S. consumes 20 million gallons of oil per day, while our nearest "competitor", China, consumes 6.5 million. And China has about one billion more people than we do. Bluntly, we're consuming too much of the world's stuff. No amount of war-mongering or sabor-rattling is going to ensure our dominance in this area. Gas is back up to $3 a gallon in the U.S. If the party isn't over, the fat lady is about ready to sing. And needless to say, the issue of global income and opportunity disparities is a key contributor to the vitriolic immigration debate.

How will the U.S. begin to address these disparities? Is working towards greater free trade and open trade borders the answer? This is not an invitation to Democrats to pander to local constituencies, as legitimate as that might be, or to revert to knee-jerk protectionism rants. It's an invitation for Democrats to evaluate how our trade and international business policies are working, not just for our own immediate "good" but for the well-being of all mankind. This is not just being altruistic, although that would be OK, too. It's vital for our survival that other countries be successful economically and create the right kinds of opportunities for their populations.

Helping ourselves by helping others is important because if the Iraq war has shown us anything it's that Military Force as the one and only instrument of fighting "terrorism" is rather limited at best, badly flawed at worst. This is the second main lesson I draw from the 911 attacks on our shores. Tough talk and shock and awe will only get us so far. We can't blow up every country, or legitimately even threaten to blow up every country we think might endanger us. Liberals expressed a deep concern with the Bush administration's "pre-emptive force doctrine", but the truth is, no matter what our stated policy, military force can't be used in all, or even most cases. In fact, it can only be used rarely if at all. Three years after toppling Saddam Hussein, we have every indication that from a terrorism perspective, we may have left that country, and by extension ourselves, worse off as a result of the invasion. Nation building ain't easy. Rather than ape Republican rhetoric about being "tough" Democrats should unashamadly argue that the military is a greatly limited tool in the fighting the "war on terror" and that we need to begin to address other means of assuring other nations and their populations that we have their well-being in mind.

The third lesson is that religious fundamentalism is very dangerous. While the 911 attackers were radical Islamists, religious fundamentalism of various stripes has caused a considerable amount of bloodshed throughout history. We have an interest in ensuring that no one religion gets a monopoly on public policy or civil society. Radical Islam, like other variations of puritanical religions, is predicated on the notion that it is the only valid form of human salvation. Once that attitude is given free reign, non-believers can be cast as non-human, as The Other. True religion will protect the freedom of all religions to worship and participate equally in our democracy. Some Republicans give evidence of supporting a regressive, un-Constitutional Christian Reconstructionism. Democrats should ask their opponents if this extremism and exclusivity is what they believe in. Naturally, addressing the problems and role of faith in the public square is controversial. But one of the Democrat's greatest problems in recent years has been a seeming unwillingness to offend anyone. But the growing influence of radical religion in American life can't be ignored in the hope that it will go away. Ignoring the role of radical religion in America will be just as fatal as ignoring it in Afghanistan.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The Chicago Way

Malone: You said you wanted to get Capone. Do you really wanna get him? You see what I'm saying is, what are you prepared to do?

Eliot Ness: Anything and everything in my power.

Malone: And *then* what are you prepared to do? If you open the can on these worms you must be prepared to go all the way because they're not gonna give up the fight until one of you is dead.

Eliot Ness: How do you do it then?

Malone: You wanna know how you do it? Here's how, they pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That's the Chicago way, and that's how you get Capone! Now do you want to do that? Are you ready to do that?

Eliot Ness: I have sworn to capture this man with all legal powers at my disposal and I will do so.

Malone: Well, the Lord hates a coward. Do you know what a blood oath is, Mr. Ness?

Eliot Ness: Yes.

Malone: Good, 'cause you just took one.

We live in a strange world. Michelle Malkin publishes the names of students who opposed allowing military recruiters on campus, causing some among her readership to respond to the students with death threats and other forms of harassment. Yet, it's the "left" that's "unhinged".

Nevertheless, it's counterproductive to complain or even point out, as many of my favorite bloggers have, that Malkin's behavior is "over the line" or beyond the pale, and that she should apologize. The Rush Limbaughs, Ann Coulters and Michelle Malkins of the world don't apologize. Calling for their apologies makes them stronger and more vitriolic. It makes them think we're weak. Nor is the corporate media or their political sponsors going to call them on anything they do, no matter how outrageous.

And we've seen this before. Remember the Swiftboaters? The first reaction of the Kerry campaign and many among the left was to call for the ads to be withdrawn and the sponsors to be refuted by decent figures on the political "right" (like John McCain).

That was effective, wasn't it?

There seems to be an assumption on the part of us leftists that the "right" is supposed to be playing by the rules, and they aren't.

Calls for apologies and even factual counter-presentations don't phase the "right's" pundits, screamers and hate-mongerers. It's sad to say, but there's only one language, one tactic that the "right" understands. It's action. There's only one place it recognizes, and that's the gutter.

The emergence of Daily Kos and other Democratic web-sites is proving to be an important force in shaping party politics. But I suspect that many of us are only beginning to understand the nature of the Republican underground, as represented by its talk radio hosts, web-bloggers, cable television networks, "family" advocacy councils, reconstructionist theorists, and anti-intellectual rabble rousers, which play such a large role in elevating or destroying GOP candidacies and cowing the corporate media.

So, as "Malone" might ask of us would-be-nation changers, "what are you prepared to do?...And *then* what are you prepared to do?" Many of us, I know, would rather not play this game, not stoop to the level of raunch politics specialized in by the Michelle Malkins of the world. We live in a democracy where we strive for the values of pluralism, education, and tolerance needed to support a civil society. We'd like to do our anti-war protests and democratic participation peacefully.

But our opponents are not going to let us do that. To even have a chance of turning back the nation's slide towards fascism--and that's where the Savages, Limbaughs, Coulters, and Malkins would lead us--we have to create an environment where liberal ideas can be heard. To do that, liberal groups, individuals, and leaders need to have the protection to act. The "right's" interest is in creating a climate of fear to make sure that we can't act. That's why the UC Santa Cruz group was targeted. As seemingly minor a group or effort as they appeared to be making, the "right" needs to make them an example. Creating fear on the part of the progressive community, or creating ridicule among the mass public for the left, is what the "right" has been specializing in for the last two decades. Even if the press release had not contained contact information, don't think the "right" would be beyond finding that information anyway.

So what am I saying? If we are going to take steps to turn back the tide of militarism and authoritarianism we need to recognize what the other side is prepared to do. And when the Michelle Malkins of the world step "over the line" we need to respond with action, not plaintative words or calls for apologies. We need to become actors, not reactors. We need to become the hunter instead of the hunted. When the Michelle Malkins of the world call for hate-male and death threats from their readers, their hosts need to wonder when and where the next horse's head is going show up under their bed-covers.

That's the Chicago Way.

Yeah, I don't know why either

The perfesser:

Blogger Michael Totten has been blogging from Iraq. The latest installment is here, with links to his earlier posts.

With his detailed first-person reports and excellent photos as he travels the area, Totten is offering a kind of reporting that Big Media seem not to be delivering. I'm not sure why that is, but his stuff -- supported entirely by reader donations -- is well worth your time.

Yeah, I don't know why the corporate media isn't doing his style of reporting either. But maybe this has something to do with it:

Police on Monday found 18 bodies in Baghdad, including a prominent Sunni politician's brother who had been missing about three weeks.

Taha Mutlaq, who disappeared in late March, had been shot several times in the head and appeared to have been tortured, police said.

His brother, Saleh Mutlaq, is the head of the National Dialogue Front, which won 11 seats in Iraq's parliament.

Police also found 17 unidentified bodies around the capital, all of them shot in the head and showing signs of torture.

Twelve of the bodies were discovered in Dora, a Sunni district in southern Baghdad.

Two other bodies were found in Khadhamiya, a Shiite area of northern Baghdad, and three turned up in the Shu'la neighborhood in northwestern Baghdad.

The discovery of bodies killed in similar fashion has been a regular occurrence in Baghdad since sectarian violence flared after an attack on a revered Shiite mosque February 22.

Of course, once Iraq is pacified, a unity government is formed, and the oil is flowing again, there's always Iran.

What a Surprise

Georgia Enacts a Tough Law on Immigrants

ATLANTA, April 17 -- Gov. Sonny Perdue signed a sweeping immigration bill on Monday that supporters and critics say gives Georgia some of the nation's toughest measures against illegal immigrants.

The law requires verification that adults who seek many state-administered benefits are in the United States legally. Employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants face sanctions, and companies with state contracts must check employees' immigration status.

The law also requires that the police check the status of people they arrest.

Many of its provisions will not take effect until July 1, 2007.

The bill drew demonstrators on both sides at the Capitol here and prompted a daylong work stoppage by thousands of immigrants.

The regional counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Tisha Tallman, said she was studying potential legal challenges.

Governor Perdue, a Republican, said at the signing: "I want to make this clear -- we are not, Georgia's government is not, and this bill is not, anti-immigrant. We simply believe that everyone who lives in our state needs to abide by our laws."

The law will not affect emergency medical care and educational benefits for children in kindergarten through 12th grade. Federal courts have said those programs have to be provided regardless of immigration status.

Exemptions were added for other services like prenatal care and the treatment of communicable diseases.

Outside the Capitol, a few hundred supporters of the law applauded loudly when word came that Mr. Perdue was signing the measure.

The crowd waved American flags and cheered as State Representative Melvin Everson, a black Republican in the House, denounced illegal immigration as a cancer.

"The last time I checked," Mr. Everson said, "America was the land of English, not Spanish."

So the bill and the state are by no means "anti-immigrant" but one of the bill's supporters says (illegal) immigration is a "cancer" and that the last time he "checked", America was the land of the King's English, not Espanol.

Wanna know about "Mr. Everson"?

Melvin was born on September 24, 1957 to the late Northern & Willa Everson of Abbeville, Ga. He attended Wilcox High School and graduated in 1975. After high school he attended Albany State University and graduated in 1983 with a BS in Criminology. Melvin married Geraldine M. Everson and they have one son, Ricardo D. Everson who attended South Gwinnett High School and was an honor graduate. He is a recent graduate from UGA with a B.S. degree in social work. He is currently applying for Law School at UGA.

Melvin served 23 years in the military and just recently retired in 1999. He served 5 years on Snellville's Planning Commission before running a successful campaign to become a council member in 2000. He is a charter member of the Snellville Optimist Club, Associate Pastor of Salem Missionary Baptist Church in Lilburn, Ga., and served on the Take Pride in Snellville Committee. Everson served two terms as President of the South Gwinnett High School PTSA and two terms as Vice President.

Melvin was a fifteen-year employee with JCPenney Catalog as a Customer Relations Supervisor until the company ceased its Atlanta operations in July 2003. During fourteen of those years, Melvin served as the United Way Advisory Member for JCPenney for Clayton, Henry and Butts counties, and just recently completed his tenure as the 2003 campaign chair of United Way in Clayton County. Melvin is currently an Associate Pastor at Salem Missionary Baptist Church and a Probation Officer for Professional Probation Services.

So a black Republican in the South who thinks (illegal) immigration is a "cancer" and who says that the last time he "checked" America was the land of the King's English and not Espanol, although the issue of English-Espanol doesn't appear to have been at all relevant to the legislation at hand, also turns out to be an "associate pastor" of a Baptist church.

Charming. Who'd a thunk it? A Christian and a bigot. In a way, the Christian Right is "right"--it's awfully hard being a Christian these days, especially when we're represented by such fine spokesman as Mr. Everson.

You know what the sad thing is? I checked out Everson's bio because the fact that he was a black Republican in the South piqued my curiosity, and made me suspicious that the guy was probably a right-wing evangelical. And how about that? He is.

And while we're on the subject, what sort of pastor is it that doesn't appear to have anything resembling a religious education? I know I probably sound like some sort of snob, but the Bible was written in Hebrew (the O.T.) and Greek (the N.T.) with some Arabic thrown in for good measure. It usually helps if the pastor preaching the Word is familiar with the Biblical languages or at least has some awareness of the basics of theology. Guess that's not a condition for churches these days.

And what's with this guy's resume? He was born in 1957. He served in the military for 23 years. He was an employee at JC Penney for 15 years. I'm having a hard time with the math. He's 49 years old and has apparently worked for 38 years. Maybe that military career was part-time.

Anyway, it's be nice to hear, for once, of a bigot not being connected to Christianity

Sunday, April 16, 2006


I'll admit I'm having a strange reaction to the "wild speculation" about Iran and whether there will soon be "wars and rumors of wars" again in the Middle East.

The strange reaction I'm having is I just don't buy it. Maybe I'm naive or deluded, I don't know which. I just don't think the administration can afford to go there, literally or figuratively. I know they're messianical and inept, but I don't think they're this crazy. Don't get me wrong, the reality based community is well within its rights to begin spreading the alarm, given the snow-balling we got between 9-11 and March 2003. But the administration, someone in the administration, has to know or at least highly suspect what some of the implications would be of an Iran war.

But maybe the administration hasn't yet learned the lesson from Iraq that history is starting to write. Maybe America's power elite thinks Iran will look like Afghanistan and the first few weeks of Gulf War II.

Someone, someday will probably go back and write a very interesting book about the wars America waged between 1981 and 2006. They will write about how after the national trauma delivered by Vietnam, America's military was seemingly resurrected, aided by new technology and the capture of the government by a new conservative elite, dedicated to recreating America as a militant, faux-Christian "City on a Hill" ruled by uncompromising patriots and inhabited by loyally unquestioning citizens.

When they inquire as to America's military excursions in the Reagan era and beyond, they'll no doubt highlight our trampling of Grenada, our clandestine support for right-wing dictatorships in El Salvador, Nicaragua and elsewhere throughout Latin America, our one-time bombing of Libya, the invasion of Panama and capture and trial of Manuel Noriega, and the Reagan era's grand finale, Gulf War I, the route of Saddam Hussein's army and the liberation of Kuwait. This survey of the new American militarism might even include the air-war over Kosovo, leading to the ending of Serb atrocities, the capture of Slabodan Milosovic, and the stabilization of the Balkans by UN and NATO peacekeepers. Finally, the events of 9-11 and the soon to be unleashed invasion of Afghanistan will come under review, serving as the high-point of American triumphalism.

Then this history will turn to Operation Iraqi Freedom, known at the ground level as Cobra II. Before Iraq 2.0, and even in its early stages, the resurgence of America's military might appeared to be a fait accompli. The Reagan tough talk and defense build-up that's been credited in some quarters to the demise of Communism, the against-expectations quick roll-back of Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait within a week's time and a scant loss of American military personnel, and the also relatively successful reconstituting of Afghanistan, where America's Cold War enemy had failed, seemed to all point to limitless possibilities for American military hegemony. New technology assured military victories would be short and relatively painless. Wars were no longer really wars. Not only was a draft or full societal war mobilization necessary, ground troops themselves might rarely be needed.

In a way, it's hard to fault the planners of Gulf War II. The peaceniks had been wrong about Gulf War I and Afghanistan. No chemical or biological weapons had been unleashed as a result of GWI, nor had our oil been shut off. American troops did not get bogged down in Afghanistan as had the Soviets. History had not been a valid guide for assessing just how thoroughly dominate the American military machine had become against third world foes.

In the lead-up to GWII, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld no doubt typified the beliefs of neoconservatives everywhere when he spoke aboard the Intrepid, a WWII air craft carrier anchored in the Hudson river on February 14. His speech was entitled, "Beyond Nation Building". In it, he criticized the nation-building policies of the previous administration saying that in Kosovo, they had created a "culture of dependency". America's new strategy was perfectly illustrated by its Afghanistan campaign where the U.S. was "helping the Afghans build their own country." There was no need for significant troop deployments and nor would there be a long occupation. The Iraq campaign would be even more efficient Rumsfeld promised. Iraq was rich in oil and the administration had more time to prepare the postwar plan.*

But as the last three years have demonstrated, GWII would be the first black mark in America's new military era. Iraq has and is demonstrating that war cannot be fought on the cheap, with magical bombers that alleviate the need for "boots on the ground" and large-scale sacrifices at home. If there is an Iranian invasion, the 101st Fighting Keyboarders won't get to stay downstairs in the basement or on campus flying yellow ribbons at support the troop bake sales.

This is why I don't think there will be military action against Iran. I don't see it stopping or being limited to a few smart bombs against selected, well known targets. Air attacks on Iran would prompt a response, in Iraq and elsewhere, that would rise above the level anyone could write off as being liberal defeatism.

The neocon's military party is over. Iraq was the beginning of the end of it. If there is an Iran, the neoconservative agenda will be sent back to the stone-age.

And that book on 1981-2006 American military history will be quite a read. In the meantime, and for an alternative perspective, read what Billmon has to say.

*Taken from the book, Cobra II, by Michael R. Gordon and General Bernard E. Trainor, page 151.