25 September 2011

"Perseus," by Robert Hayden

Her sleeping head with its great gelid mass
of serpents torpidly astir
burned into the mirroring shield--
a scathing image dire
as hated truth the mind accepts at last
and festers on.
I struck. The shield flashed bare.

Yet even as I lifted up the head
and started from that place
of gazing silences and terrored stone,
I thirsted to destroy.
None could have passed me then--
no garland-bearing girl, no priest
or staring boy--and lived.

21 September 2011

"The Help", "A Dance with Dragons", "On the Nature of Things", "Stuff White People Like", and "Melville: His World and Work."

The Help, Kathryn Stockett

Quoth Lizzie: "You better read The Help, because it's all anyone is talking about."  And true enough, it's been the hot topic for conversation ever since the movie came out and prompted people to ask, "Is it true that white people are the real heroes?  Sweet!"

But seriously, The Help is the story of three women in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi: two black maids, and the privileged white woman who writes their stories.  Stockett's text is written with a straightforward chronology, blessedly not starting in media res.  The first-person narration shifts among the three characters as they engage in their various challenges.  Those challenges are different, but generally the maids are worried about losing their jobs and the starvation of themselves and their children, while the white woman is worried about her hair.

Okay, I'm being a little unfairly glib.  But there is a controversy along those lines: people are wondering if this is a diminishment of the accomplishments of the civil rights era.  It's not that people deny that some white people did help the struggle - thousands of whites marched with Martin Luther King Jr., as The Help mentions at one point - but there is a widespread discomfort with any depiction of that struggle that focuses on them.

Let's start by acknowledging that this discomfort is valid.  Apologist history has had a long and consistent presence in America.  The kindly Pilgrims brought freedom to the warlike savages, remember?  And the idea that white people led the fight for civil rights is a seductive one that absolves a lot of guilt, even if it just isn't very true.  And lastly, any depiction of a segment of a struggle will necessarily be considered representative of its larger trend - if you see a book about a brave Swedish liberator of WW2 Jews, you're going to assume that Sweden was overall pretty good on that issue unless told otherwise.

However, I don't think the attacks on this book are very just.  The idea that books on the civil rights era must follow a specific formula - no heroic whities allowed - is ridiculous.  If we say that The Help is a bad book because it doesn't depict the civil rights era in a way that perfectly represents the actual events, then we're (a) going to be condemning a hell of a lot of other books, like To Kill a Mockingbird, and (b) we're going to be putting a freeze on a hell of a lot of other stories.  It would be one thing if the book claimed that John McCaucasian personally led poor Benighted Negro out into the light of freedom - a blatant misrepresentation would be something to complain about.  But not this.  Books should be permitted to have white characters involved in civil rights, especially when the message overall is so clear otherwise.

No, there's a very good reason you should not read this book, and it has nothing to do with the justice of its depiction of civil rights.  The reason is because it is not very well-written.

Stockett tries to instill dramatic tension through a specific plot device that is extremely artificial: she withholds information.  It is the simplest and most annoying way to keep the reader's interest heightened.  She has a character do something that is a "Terrible Thing" but then refuses to tell us until the end of the book - not because that ignorance is necessary for later dramatic impact or for character development, but just to piss us off.  What is the Terrible Thing?  Why does Miss Celia stay in bed all day?  What happened to Constantine?  I can forgive this on occasion, particularly when the discovery of this missing information forms the motivation for a character or is withheld for revelation at a moment of high drama to unleash catharsis in the reader.  But that's not the case here.  It's just artificial and bad writing, the clumsy string-pulling of an author who doesn't know what she's doing.

The characters are not entirely boring, but they are mostly flat.  Gawky White Ingenue, Sassy Black Momma, Sad Older Negress, Controlling Ignorant Mother... you know these people.  On the basis of those three-word labels, you could write up a description of them that would probably meet or exceed Stockett's characterization.  They even interact just about how you'd expect.

That may be the biggest flaw here: there are no surprises or anything interesting and new.  The characters who are ignorant and sinful in the book all exhibit textbook prejudice that seems like a simple inversion of today's accepted truths, with little subtlety about it.  The main villain is seldom humanized, instead residing in a sort of cartoonish place until she receives her appropriately cartoonish comeuppance.  Most everyone else is secretly Not Really Racist - there are no sympathetic minor villains or realistic characters whose prejudice is a flaw of judgment or weakness, rather than a moral failure.  It's boring and Playmobil-fake.

Read this only if you're interested in the conversation.  Don't read it if you're interested in a good book.

A Dance with Dragons, George R. R. Martin

There is literally almost nothing to say about this.  It's a fantasy book, continuing the series begun by A Game of Thrones.  It is almost indistinguishable from its predecessors - another enormous story set in a beautiful fantasy world and populated by well-drawn characters.  The story is interesting and exciting, with a ruthless willingness to kill pleasant characters and a plot that's drawn from a variety of classical sources.

This is a great work of fantasy, and it's even a pretty good work of fiction even if considered beyond its genre.  It's not quite at the level of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, and it is definitely not The Lord of the Rings (I actually heard such a claim, and I felt queasy) but it is worth reading if you like fantasy.

Check it out.

On the Nature of Things, Lucretius

Sometimes it's frustrating living in the modern age.  It's great we have toilet paper, but too frequently you discover that every original sentiment or philosophy was already written by someone in Ancient Greece or Rome.

On the Nature of Things is the best remaining example of the ancient philosophy of Epicureanism, a secular  approach to the world that disdained superstition and endorsed the idea that natural forces dictated the shape of the universe.  While not explicitly atheist, per se, this long poem does seek to prove that much of the stress of life came from worry about the unseen.  Drawing on the best examples of scientific thought from his time in a way that is either remarkably lucky or remarkably intelligent, he advocates "atomism" (the tiny-particle theory of matter that preceded the similar modern science) and sets out to prove various theories such as the existence of pressure and vacuums, many of which were later proven as true at least in principle. Some of his ideas are mildly strange, but overall the whole set of descriptions of the universe are remarkably true even with what we know now, two thousand years later.

There are other delights, such as his assessment of the human mind which would later be used as the underpinning and labeling for Freud's theories, but the real treat are his ideas about the soul and the poetry about metaphysical implications.  Don't stress about the afterlife; do no wrong not because of fear of divine punishment (the gods concern themselves not with us!) but because it will make your life unpleasant.

O humankind unhappy!--when it ascribed
Unto divinities such awesome deeds,
 And coupled thereto rigours of fierce wrath!
 What groans did men on that sad day beget
 Even for themselves, and O what wounds for us,
 What tears for our children's children! Nor, O man,
 Is thy true piety in this: with head
 Under the veil, still to be seen to turn
 Fronting a stone, and ever to approach
 Unto all altars; nor so prone on earth
 Forward to fall, to spread upturned palms
 Before the shrines of gods, nor yet to dew
 Altars with profuse blood of four-foot beasts,
 Nor vows with vows to link. But rather this:
 To look on all things with a master eye
 And mind at peace.
This is the truth, Lucretius says, and it should set your mind at ease.  He tells his story of particles and souls and morals with honeyed words, to make it more palatable - and it is sweet indeed!  Definitely read this, particularly if you consider yourself in any measure a scientist, a philosopher, a liberal, or an atheist.

Stuff White People Like, Christian Lander

Over the past decade, bloggers have steadily begun to recognize that they are already writing words.  And books are made of words.  So they just take those words they already wrote, edit them briefly, and pack them into a book with the same title as their blog (or Twitter account).  Thus I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell (from Tucker Max's reprehensible website), Shit My Dad Says (of the titular Twitter account), Badass (Badass of the Week), Passive Aggressive Notes (blog of the same name), and a large number of similar things.

This isn't a new thing - cartoonists, for example, have long recognized that collecting and republishing their work gets them more money for little extra effort.  Nor is it a bad thing, because folks are entitled to all the profit they can get from their writing, and there's a broader audience and more cachet in being published.

But there is one plain, irrefutable downside: sometimes blogs just don't translate into books very well.  This is the case with Stuff White People Like.

If you're not already familiar with the blog, it's essentially a faux-guide to "white people" or rather to liberal middle-class white people, specifically.  Hipster and environmentalist sensibilities - basically any form of elitism, real or perceived - is skewered.  Here's an example:

Since all white people consider themselves to be “creative,” they are constantly in need of products and accessories that will allow them to capture their thoughts.  One of the more popular products in recent years has been the Moleskine notebook.

This particular type of notebook is very expensive and was quite popular with writers and artists in the olden days.  Needless to say, these are two properties that are highly coveted in the white community.   In fact, it’s a good rule of thumb to know that white people like anything that old writers and artists liked:  typewriters, journals, suicide, heroin, and trains are just a few examples.
It's often low-hanging fruit, but it's still funny.  Not infrequently, I have recognized myself in the book.  The entry about bottled water perfectly described my evolution from bottled water, to specific bottled water, to plastic reusable bottles, to metal reusable bottles.

The methodology at work here is to flatly and accurately describe certain aspects of life, highlighting hypocrisies and groupthink with a dry tone and a hidden giggle.  It's a clever way to go about humor - it once powered the funnier bits of Seinfeld, and in a slightly more complex form it's now at work in The Big Bang Theory (with a special extra cloak of jargon).

Unfortunately, it wears thin.  Very quickly.  If you're going to mock the earnestness of a silly elite, it's best to do so with some sort of narrative arc working in the background and some emotional involvement for the audience, like with the Christopher Guest films Best in Show or A Mighty Wind.  Beyond that, small doses are preferable - perhaps in a blog updated once or twice a week, say.  To cram together so much sneering superiority into a book is like wadding up a dozen sticks of Fruit Stripe - it tastes great for ten minutes, then you're left gnawing on a flavorless wad that you can't wait to spit out.

Skip it, read the blog.

Melville: His World and Work, Andrew Delbanco

Melville was as American as hell, which is probably why he wrote a book that is in the running for Great American Novel.  His grandparents fought in the Revolutionary War, and before his death he saw the Civil War and enormous technological changes in the burgeoning Industrial Revolution - all central events on the American character that touched him personally.  He was a traveler of frontiers and a man of many cultures

Even more to the point, his masterwork, Moby-Dick, is of a scope and nature as to be suitable for endless re-reading.  Simple in theme, ornate in implementation, and gorgeous all the way through, it has had a history like that of America itself: a sleeping giant that shook itself awake in the early twentieth century, and whose powerful roar still is ringing despite the intervening decades.

One of the best aspects of Delbanco's work here is the way in which he connects Melville and his work to the larger picture, without gushing quite as badly as I do.  His well-measured prose traces Melville's wanderings, brief literary career, and dwindling end.  Special sections of analysis are devoted to his works, and from my passing familiarity with the field they seem to be excellent summaries of background and theme.  Most importantly for a literary biography, he doesn't fool himself with the polar sins of hero-worship or villainization.  He sees the juvenalia for what it is, but has reverence for the power of Billy Budd and the other great products of the man.

Delbanco's biography of Melville opens with an amusing homage to Moby-Dick, with a dozen different quotes from over the years testifying to the influence and power of the author on literature and our daily parlance.  And fittingly, it closes with an image of his obituary in Harper's: amidst notifications of the passing of Belgian generals and a former Superintendent of Public Schools, there is the simple line: "September 27th. - In New York city, Herman Melville, aged seventy-three years."

Check out this biography - it will delight newcomers to Melville and his hardcore fans in equal measure.

13 September 2011

Blatant Baby Boomer Bribery Bullshit

I can only express my anger through sufficient alliteration.

Watching the recent Double-Republican debate ("Tea Party GOP" is redundant) in Tampa, I saw that much of the discussion was occupied with the rhetoric of entitlement reform.  This issue of rhetoric has increasingly dominated the conflicts between the Republican candidates, largely because they're in lockstep on most issues.

Oh, sure, some of them want to lower the corporate tax rate to 9% and some want to entirely eliminate corporate taxation and some want to just sign over a few states to Enron and call it a day, but because those are rhetorical distinctions, without merit in any real political discussion (and they know it), these various candidates are essentially arguing towards the same ideal - as little taxation as possible for corporations.  In the American discussion about where to drive the national car, the Republicans are just arguing over how fast we should be going when we ram the brick wall.

But throughout all of the back-and-forth on Social Security, driven by Texas Governor Rick Perry's recent statement that the program was a "Ponzi scheme" and a "monstrous lie," one constant holds forth.  It's a promise that's been present for the past eight years, ever since President George W. Bush made the first sally.  It goes something like this: Social Security is broken, and we have to end the program as you know it... but only for the young.

Here's an example from Mike Pence (R-IN):
Well, I don't know if they're saying don't touch [entitlements]... I think they're saying for people on Medicare or in Social Security..., let's keep the promises we've made to seniors.  Let's keep the promises we've made to people near the age of retirement.  I've said many times that I believe personally that we ought to draw the line at the age of 40, and say anyone over the age of 40, we'll keep you in the same deal that you've been promised in Social Security and Medicare all of your life.
Let's first of all, let's explode the myth of "broken Social Security" that I heard a lot of in the debate.  In a world of complex problems, Social Security is a simple one.  Unlike Medicare, it's not the future trend that's the problem - we're not in danger of rampaging growth in expenditures, but rather we're simply at too low a level of funding.  Add in a big chunk of money to the pot (a not insignificant hurdle, I'll grant) and the problem is pretty much gone.  This is not a broken program, it's just a program that need recapitalization (MSNBC Business analysis).  It's a different story from Medicare: try it there, and you only stave off disaster for five years.

There's a sort of problem, which is that since 1972 a subtle math error ("double indexing") unintentionally increased the rate at which benefits accrue.  It goes faster than the rate the payroll tax can match it; this was given a temporary fix in the early 80s, but that fix expired.  Social Security ain't broke.  But really, my focus isn't on this generally-accepted bit of wrongness among the GOP, but rather with their proposed "solution."

For all the rhetoric and the debate over the rhetoric going on, basically most of the GOP agrees with this "solution": some form of privatization of Social Security.  It comes in different flavors in Gingrich's plans or the Ryan plan, but essentially the government would no longer be managing Social Security's funds.  Right now, it takes in money from everyone who's working, and feeds some of it to current retirees and some of it into investments.  We pay for current retirees.  Current retirees paid for it when they were working, for their elders.  And that generation paid for the generation before them.  For seventy years, it's worked remarkably well, because it's fairly simple in its basics.

Privatization would still take the money from everyone who's working, but would feed it all into individual funds.  You'd have your own retirement account.  You could manage it to some extent, which presumably means investing it in different ways or at different rates.  It is a dramatic change from Social Security, and would mean the end of the program.

I should pause here to point out what happened to 401(k) accounts in the recent market crashes.  Just think of the horror of the destruction of a generation's Social Security in that way.  Of course, the government would step in - it'd just get piled on the debt.  Over and over.

While I think this "solution" is a bad idea, that wouldn't be the end of it.  It doesn't take a genius to see where it would go from there.  After ten years (or less) of privatization, conservatives would demand to know why the government was forcing anyone to save, or why there were such-and-such restrictions on investing with that fund, or whatever.  Making the government the clunky middleman rather than the manager just begs for the middleman's elimination.  You can hear the soundbites already: "The government shouldn't be forcing anyone to put money under their pillow - we need to let people invest how they want to invest!  Set America's money free from the shackles of Washington!"

And just like that, the safety net for the old would be gone.

I'm not sure how many people are fooling themselves about how privatization is still somehow magically "Social Security" just because they kept the name, or how many people have failed to think through and see that privatization would be a stepping stone to outright elimination.  But I think a lot of people actually do know those uncomfortable truths.  I think this because of that ever-present promise... we'll change it, but only for the young.

Moving the money to individual accounts won't perform any loaves-and-fishes multiplication - we're still going to have a bit too little money coming in, and a big chunk needed to make up the shortfall.  If you're not going to put more money in through taxes (heaven forbid!) then you need to reduce the payout.  Everyone realizes that - most Republicans just also sorta think the money would work harder in private hands rather than public.  They just don't quite believe it, and know they can't quite sell it to the baby boomers who are coming up on retirement benefits.

But there is an idea they can sell to the baby boomers.  Simply: fuck you, we got ours.

It's not so outright, of course.  These boomers have kids and grandkids they're worried about.  They have to keep thinking of themselves as fiscally responsible and honest.  They need something to tell themselves, at night in the dark.

With Social Security, it's the idea that privatization isn't really an elimination of the program, and it's the idea that the kids will be better off if we change it.  They're not willing to do this for themselves, because the baby boomers have been expecting their full benefits.  You'll actually hear that word, "expect," as if it's a magical justification that only applies to their expectations!  The idea that their grandparents, parents, and their children might have had expectations - might have expected them not to destroy Social Security! - isn't as important as their expectations.

It's also why the Medicare prescription drug program, Part D, was passed a few years ago.  The baby boomers didn't want to pay for a program that would benefit them by providing cheap prescription drugs, so they just tacked the whole damn thing onto the deficit.  It was quiet enough so that they can ignore that their children have to pay the resulting debt.

It's also why they seize any possible strands against the proof for climate change.  The science isn't proven, it's not certain, so they can keep cramming coal into our air - better to err on the side of disaster, am I right? If we do need to take action, it will only be after more study and some serious results... maybe in twenty years.  Maybe when the kids can deal with it.

If I was wrong, you'd see them calling for an immediate transition to privatization - say, within the decade.  It's perfectly possible, and just as plausible and easy to do.  It's also immensely more fair.  But it'd result in a shared sacrifice, rather than one they can pile on top of the young.  And on a gut level, they know it.

I'm not saying that baby boomers are stupid or evil - my parents are boomers, and they're neither of those things.  But far too often that generation has let itself be convinced that the best thing for them is also the "right" thing to do.  As soon as they got the knife, their slice of cake just happened to turn out the biggest.  Not all of them agree with it (my parents included), and not all of them have gone along with it.  Just like always in life, no individual is at fault for the actions of a group - except where they had a hand in it.  But when a book was written about the generation before the boomers, it was called The Greatest Generation.  What could we call the Baby Boomers, short of the Selfish Generation?

Fuck us, they got theirs.

08 September 2011

Palmetto Freedom Forum and MSNBC/Politico Debate

There have been two different events recently in the 2012 GOP race.  The first was the Palmetto Freedom Forum down in South Carolina, and the second was the big debate sponsored by MSNBC and Politico.

Palmetto Freedom Forum
This has been called "kissing the ring" of DeMint, and it very much was that.  Jim DeMint (R-SC) - one of the biggest avatars of the Tea Party - and his cronies worked up a very intelligent list of questions designed to force the candidates into making direct pledges in response, getting them on the record on those things.  The candidates were sequestered and presented individually, so that each one made their responses to the questions without hearing their opponents.  This was actually a very good way to do things, and revealed far more about the candidates than a traditional debate.

DeMint and the other host got the candidates on the record about the Constitution, tried to push them into the position that the 14th Amendment prohibits abortion, and tried to nail them down on conservative economic orthodoxy.  All of the candidates who attended (Bachmann, Romney, Paul, Gingrich, and Cain) performed strongly, but particularly Gingrich and Romney.  The former displayed his incredible ease and familiarity with this sort of thing, and his breadth of knowledge allowed him to toss around enough ideas so that he could out-flank the outright demands of the hosts for agreement.  Ask Gingrich about why taxes are bad and you get a lecture on the principles of Lean Six Sigma as revealed in the Federalist.  Romney, on the other hand, succeeded once again by just not screwing up.  He was intelligent, articulate, and aggressively reasonable.

MSNBC/Politico Debate
This was the first event with Rick Perry in it, and so the focus was all there.  Most specifically, the focus is on his doubling-down on the "Social Security is a Ponzi scheme" declaration first revealed in his book earlier this year.

Anyway, with Perry in the race, there's someone unafraid to take a swing at Romney.  They both knew this was coming, and they brought some zingers with them.  I won't go into the numbers, because they mostly just reveal the difficulty of attributing job growth to any executive.  The more important element was that as the actual races draw closer and with the injection of a strong new front-runner, the near-anointed Romney was able to demonstrate that he is serious and even-tempered.  He was able to display his moderation, which is important: his strategy has long been (and now has to be) that he is the electable Republican.

The debate was not run very well.  There were stuttering questions, technical problems, and a serious lack of transitions from one topic to another.  It wasn't helped by Gingrich's old trick of accusing the hosts of bias, as though he wasn't perfectly aware that the point of a debate is to highlight differences and not similarities.  Voters already know that all the GOP candidates oppose the Affordable Care Act - they want new information about why they oppose it and how their opposition variously squares with things like the existence of Romneycare or the like.

The big news will be Perry's attack on Social Security, as I said.  His book Fed Up! introduced that criticism, saying it was unsustainable (not even close to true, by the way).  He had the option to back off of that criticism when he first entered the race, and even here in the debate he had that opportunity to soften his rhetoric (Gingrich obviously and kindly set him up for a potential repudiation).  But Perry chose not to, instead going at it with both barrels.  This radicalizes him and makes Romney seem more moderate.

It's hard to declare a winner.  In some sense Perry won, just by performing sufficiently well.  If he had flubbed this in a major way, his chances would crash just as hard as they rose.  By doing okay, he's cemented this race into a two-man sprint.  But by revealing himself to be seriously radical in comparison to Romney, he's also made Romney seem far more electable.  This perception was increased by his attacks on climate science and biology - positions also held by Romney (this week, anyway) but which look particularly bad with Perry's chicken-fried contempt.  So this debate was probably a win for both of them in different ways, and it relegated the rest of the candidates "to the bleachers," as Rachel Maddow put it.

07 September 2011

What is a liberal American to do?

Liberals are in a tough spot these days.  Obama has been a disappointment in general: he has governed as a moderate conservative.  First, I'll illustrate some of the problems.  Then, I'll discuss what to do.

Myth:  Liberal Obama is trying to appease our enemies and is weakening our national security.
Fact:  Troop levels and military spending are at record highs.  Iraq troops are barely reduced, Afghanistan troops are much higher, and we went in and attacked Libya by air and provided material support for the rebels.  This is a highly interventionist administration, pursuing an aggressively conservative foreign policy - Obama is just actually successful at it.  Whistle-blowers and other threats to the expanding executive have been cracked down on with enormous strength.  Guantanamo is still open.

Myth:  That Kenyan anti-colonialist won't let us use all of our energy resources.
Fact:  Oil drilling and production are at record highs.  I'll say that again: the number of drilling rigs and the amount of oil being produced is at a record high.  So are, incidentally, the profits of oil companies.

Myth:  The job-killing EPA is crushing out all small businesses.
Fact:  The EPA has failed to pass basically any decent new rules, and now won't regulate emissions damaging the ozone.  They have taken the smallest of baby steps forward on regulation.

Myth:  Obamacare is a monstrous extension of hyper-liberal policies that will come into your house and get your children drunk.
Fact:  The Affordable Care Act is composed purely of elements proposed by conservatives ten years ago (or even more recently).

Myth:  He refuses to secure our borders, and he is going to give amnesty to dirty foreigners.
Fact:  Deportations are at a record high, as well, and the DREAM Act is dead.

So what is a liberal to do, admitting that Obama has not governed anywhere near as far left as we'd like?

First, we should acknowledge the context.  The opposition has become, let's face it, just plain crazy.  You won't hear any acknowledgement of these facts from Republicans, after all.  The GOP is poisoned with ludicrous exaggerations, and completely out of touch with reality in its criticisms.  Part of it is a power play: they have to shriek at the top of their lungs and put their organization into action to come smashing into Obama at every opportunity, because otherwise they're not going to get any votes.  Their hysteria and paranoia are necessary, because it demands their presence in leadership.

So to some extent, these realities of the Obama administration are a reflection of the success of the highly-organized scream machine of the Republicans, that has successfully controlled the debate and shifted the Overton window far to the right.  For all that Obama has been excellent in putting policies into practice - even objectionable ones like Libya - they've been terrible at messaging.  Obama has in many ways simply been the extraordinarily capable administrator of Republican policies, though they could never admit that.

But the eternal question arises, forced on us by a dichotomous political system: what the hell can a liberal do?  It's not like John McCain would have been better.  It's not like any of the GOP candidates would be any better.  Universally, they would be nightmares, because they are victims of the hard shift to the right of American politics as well.  If liberals fail to vote for the moderate conservative Obama, they'd just be contributing to the victory of the extremist conservative Republican candidate.  And that's not what we want.

Neither, though, do we want to be taken for granted.

The Republicans have been getting this one right for years: the Republican base demands adherence.  They primary politicians they consider insufficiently conservative, every single year.  They do this based on a coherent conservative orthodoxy, and in deference to the wealthy entities (the rich and corporations) whose interests are served by the GOP.

Democrats doesn't do this very well.  The Democratic Party represents the poor, the vanishing union base, specific interest groups, as well as (to a lesser extent) some of those same corporations.  There's no single liberal philosophy, and no agreement on goals.  And that needs to change.

There's no inherent reason that the Republican coalition (Christians, fiscal conservatives, neocons) is inherently more cohesive than the Democratic coalition.  The Democrats need to recognize two things:

  • The old base is vanishing.  Consensus has swung against unions in a big way, just as it once swung for them in a big way.  And just like how one hundred years ago, the Democrats aligned themselves with the unions as representatives of the working poor, now they need to align themselves with a different way to represent those working poor.  Further, there is a new strain of "values voter" that prizes the environment and essential liberties, and that strain is badly represented in several aspects and could be consolidated into one solid interest group.  The Democrats need to forge a new base.
  • Principles are important.  They allow for easy measurements of politicians against their promises, and even if they are ultimately simplified or dumbed-down versions of bigger truths, they're a reflection of how people just naturally think.  "No taxation without representation" was the first example in American politics of the power of the slogan.
How can a liberal help effect this change?

First of all, don't just donate to Barack Obama or any individual politician.  Donate to MoveOn.org or Greenpeace or Americans for Democratic Action, instead.  The ADA, for example, is honoring Nancy Pelosi, which is the right thing to do because she has been one of the greatest liberal leaders in the past decade.  Empower these agencies to act as kingmakers and broker deals on policy with Democratic candidates.

Secondly, read and get involved with the modern liberal movement.  Subscribe to the RSS feeds of those organizations, and maybe go check out DailyKos.  Read The Nation, The New Republic, and other purveyors of moderate liberal thought.  Listen to liberal leaders like Nancy Pelosi, Russ Feingold, and Al Franken.

Third and most importantly, keep on the backs of Democrats.  Obama's press secretary, Robert Gibbs, once expressed frustration with the "professional left."  Well, forgive my language when I say, "Boo fucking hoo."  Yes, liberals have goals and demands that Obama has not and probably will not meet.  And yes, we will and should continue to still demand them.  Loudly, persistently, and passionately.  Advocacy for the environment, for the working poor, for true liberty - it doesn't end.  Democratic leaders should feel as badgered as Republican leaders to cater to their base.  If they don't like it, they can go work as lobbyists like every other retired politician.  

There is opportunity in this crisis of the party system.  We can't let the two parties be conservative and extremist conservative.  Fight for the future, liberals of America.

01 September 2011

My Problem: Atheism, Liberalism, and Muslim Extremists

I'm a fairly liberal guy. So when I see the rampant islamaphobia on the part of many conservatives, I am disgusted. The First Amendment protects the right to freedom of religion, but for many conservatives there seems to be a quiet addendum - "except for Muslims." Now, I'm not saying that the whole conservative movement wants to ban Islam, only that a vocal minority (e.g. Pamela Gellar) and a vicious echo chamber conspire to turn a common and mild fear of the "other" into hyped-up worries about the imposition of sharia law on Americans and other nonsense. It perpetuates the climate of paranoia that has proven so harmful to America lately.

But on the other hand, I'm also an atheist, who believe that religion in general has tended to do more harm than good in the world. At one time, Christianity was the channel for a wave of misogyny, racism, and class oppression throughout Europe, not to mention thousands of pointless sectarian conflicts. Today, Christians are diverse enough and have managed to begin ignoring the Old Testament to a sufficient degree that it is much less harmful, although I still think convincing people to dedicate their lives to a delusion and have sex without condoms is a fairly sad thing.

As a result of these two positions, I occasionally run into the tricky matter when it comes to modern Islam. I am in the difficult position of believing that everyone should have absolute free expression of their religion, while simultaneously thinking everyone should also probably just knock it off. This isn't ordinarily a problem, because there are many things that I think are silly or wrong even though I also think they should be legal. For example, I think it's creepy for a 70-year-old guy to marry a 20-year-old girl - but it should still be legal. Then there are days like today, when I read through the news and the old familiar pattern leaps out at me.

From the AP:
A Kosovo Albanian man confessed Wednesday to killing two U.S. airmen at the Frankfurt airport, saying in emotional testimony at the opening of his trial that he had been influenced by radical Islamic propaganda online.
From CNN:
The Nigerian Islamic militant group Boko Haram says it bombed U.N. offices in Abuja last week because the world body is a partner "in the oppression of believers," a spokesman for the group said Wednesday.
From the NYT:
At least 10 people were killed Wednesday in Quetta, in southwestern Pakistan, when an explosion struck a crowd in a parking lot near a Shiite mosque, police officials said.
Day after day, Muslim extremists around the world are killing people.

Now, I'm aware that there is some bias here. Many of the power centers of Christianity are in affluent and stable first-world countries, while many of the power centers of Islam are in poor and conflicted second-world and third-world countries; children of war are radicalized. Additionally, the Anglophone community tends to like news that reinforces their worldview, and so media organizations tend to report such items more prominently. To some extent, this governs the frequency of these news reports. I know that the trend I see is not necessarily representative of the full facts.

But I am equally aware that, particularly as the tenth anniversary of 9/11 approaches, it would be asinine of me to try to pretend that there aren't more Muslim extremists in the world than any other kind of extremist. And they are killing people. So what do I do?

Do I condemn Islam itself for having a tendency to spawn violent extremists? Because while I think that's true, I also think that Christianity has a tendency to spawn violent extremists - the difference is just that Christians as a group are wealthier and empowered at the moment.

It's a problem.

If I join in the chorus, I'm helping in some small way to contribute to a climate of hate that's just making things worse by building ignorant opposition to foreign nations, blindly supporting Israel no matter their actions, and segregating and stigmatizing a harmless American minority whose rights deserve protection.

But on the other hand, extremist Islam deserves to be opposed with as much rhetoric as I can muster, because it is convincing a legion of Muslims around the world to kill and die in the name of an absurd ideology. I can't honestly say that I don't think Islam is a threat - even if I immediately add, "And so is Christianity."

Frequently, I just stay quiet.  I don't want to defend a xenophobic culture of prejudice, and I don't want to defend an institution whose suras demand violence in the same backwards way that Leviticus does.  But my silence is becoming increasingly uncomfortable.  I am starting to feel like I should be defending neither, and attacking both.  Is there a contradiction in that?  It's something to work out.