Imaginary sons

>> Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Hypocrite. Narcissist. Wingnut. Bigot. Those are some of the epithets—not counting the expletives—that have been hurled at Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, since he announced Friday that he now supports same-sex marriage because his son is gay. But these epithets aren’t coming from the right. They’re coming from the left.

According to liberal columnists and bloggers, Portman’s conversion—the first on this issue by any Republican senator—is too little, too late, and short on "empathy." But it isn’t Portman who's having an empathy problem. It’s his critics. They don't really understand Portman, conservatives, empathy, or how people change.

- William Saletan, "Rob Portman’s Empathy Problem";
Slate, March 18th, 2013.

Meh.  This was in the news last week: I rolled my eyes and trundled along, but I have to admit Senator Portman's late conversion irritated and annoyed me.  Not to the point I see a lot of benefit (personal or otherwise) to insulting the guy.  If anything, I suppose those of us who favor gay rights ought to refrain from epithets even if they're marching up to the tips of our lips; after all, regardless of whether the Senator is the kind of guy we want on the side of supporting same-sex marriage, or whether or not his motivations are the kind of thing we'd wish for an ally to have, better to have him (as LBJ would have said) inside the tent pissing out than to have him outside pissing in.  (Gods know, Lyndon Johnson may have been a rat bastard in so many ways, but I do love me that salty LBJ pulled-barbecue rhetoric.)

The thing is, though, that what William Saletan doesn't seem to get is that these kinds of conversion stories--however personal and human and sincere--really do reveal something about a certain kind of person that isn't the least bit laudable even if that mentality eventually comes around to the side of what's decent and right.  And it is about empathy at a really basic level.  There are people--and I'm not looking to tar a whole political party with a broad brush, though these folks seem to gravitate towards one party more than the other--who really seem to fail at empathic imagination, who really don't seem able to grasp what it might be like to walk in someone else's shoes (which is ironic given the religion many of them claim to subscribe to) and only come around on social or economic justice issues when it's directly affecting them or when some issue comes under their roof.

I'll be candid and confess I myself became more passionate about gay rights issues when I became more personally aware of how those issues affected family members and friends.  Which is one thing.  But it always seemed to me from the moment I gave these issues any thought at all, "Wow, that would really suck if it happened to me."  That is, my first instinct when I became conscious of the fact that gays and lesbians couldn't have the economic, social, medical, etc. benefits from marriage a straight person would was to instantly imagine what that would be like if I were gay or lesbian, or if those restrictions were applied to me.  Just as my first instinct upon hearing about racial injustice is to imagine what it would be like to be a black guy arrested for trying to sit down at a lunch counter or for trying to go to school.  Or--and I'm not trying to analogize apples and oranges, I'm just giving examples of where my brain goes when I hear about something horrible like this--my first morbid mental sensations when I heard about the Holocaust were to imagine myself surrounded by barbed wire and queuing up for the ovens.

This seems to me natural and instinctive--and not the least bit special; it seems to me to be fundamentally human, the basic cognitive processes of a social animal evolved to feel empathy and sympathy and pity, a creature with the cognitive and linguistic capacity to think about what-ifs? and to tell stories to itself and others about things that have happened, could happen, would happen.

I'm a big Philip K. Dick fan.  A recurring theme in his pulp stories and serious novels--I would contend the dominant theme linking practically all of his work--is the idea that empathy is a distinctively human trait, so human it's something that separates us from brute animals and simulacra.  Indeed, one of PKD's default paranoid obsessions, appearing over and over and over again in various short stories and longer works, is the question of whether you could ever tell a machine perfectly designed to imitate a person from a real live person (and sometimes, conversely, could you ever tell a real live person from a machine)?  Empathy was the answer Dick always came back to.  In Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? (very loosely adapted into the 1982 film Blade Runner), for instance, they even have a polygraph-like machine that gauges physical reactions to emotionally-affecting questions that are designed to trick humans into having visceral reactions to situations that would affect other people and animals, reactions that robots can't precisely imitate or can only imitate by consciously mimicry (causing a detectable lag in response).  With a related implication that psychopaths like the bounty hunter Phil Resch have become machinelike in some vital way, however their innards work.

The idea that to be empathic is to be fully human is a notion that's stuck with me, though some recent studies have suggested that all sorts of birds and mammals, and not just higher-functioning critters like dolphins and apes, might be capable of various levels of what PKD implicitly defined as a hominid characteristic.  So I'm not quite as committed to it as I might have been when I was younger (and I certainly don't want to go to the place where being a non-empathic Homo sapiens means your humanity license gets revoked).

But if lab rats have been observed sharing stress with other lab rats over things that only affect them sympathetically, there's still something we do that birds and rodents and--at least so far as we know--dolphins and elephants and chimpanzees don't do: we make up stories about imagined people and their imagined problems that touch us; we have empathic imaginations, and this may be the trait, if there is one at all, that singles us out as being special.  And I mean, of course, we make up stories in the broadest sense of that phrase: we paint pictures that tell stories, write songs that tell stories, compose epic poems that tell stories, we tell stories that tell stories... well, you get the idea, right?  The ability to appreciate Shakespeare's Hamlet or Michelangelo's Sistene Chapel murals is the ability to put yourself in multiple places outside of yourself: to be, for instance, a man in medieval Denmark trying to cope with his father's untimely death and to be a spurned young girl in love and to be an angry brother seeking revenge on the one who wronged his sister and father and to be the poet composing all this ado about something, et alia, et cetera, with special emphasis on all the possible ets.

I have no idea why Rob Portman couldn't do this twenty, thirty years ago.  Or more.

I'm not trying to poke or punch--which is why I don't see the point in calling him out as a hypocrite or narcissist or whatever--I just find it genuinely baffling that he couldn't say, "Wait, that's really unfair and it sucks."  Even in the context of his religious whatevers, which he's apparently willing to set aside now: "That's really unfair and it sucks, but such is the way of the inviolate laws of The Creator Of All Things" (I mean, you can feel sympathy for the Devil, to borrow a pithy one from The Stones; Milton certainly did, and still chastised him).  I dunno: maybe Portman did; but the conversion narrative I was hearing last week wasn't that kind of thing at all.  He certainly has a right to change his mind, I just don't understand where his head was to begin with, is all.

It seems inevitable to bring President Obama's conversion into it; Saletan certainly does.  I suspect the big difference between left-wing acceptance of Obama's change-of-heart and Portman's is less about partisanship than it's about nobody really believing that Obama had a change of heart.  The President has a remarkable and charming talent for convincing people--often including myself--that he's really on their side and always has been, whatever it is he might be saying or doing right now, which is why so many on the left either express incredulous disappointment or overly-credulous support so much of the time.  I suspect most people on the left, anyway, were convinced the President was always secretly sympathetic to gay marriage and if anything were angry he wasn't demonstrating the courage of his convictions, and that his "change" following Vice-President Joe Biden's "gaffes" expressing Administration support for gay marriage was really more of an outing.  In other words that the President is basically lying about how he came to support gay marriage, but it's mostly okay because it was a kind of political white lie to get himself elected, pretending he was mildly opposed or undecided so as not to antagonize the homophobe vote or whatever.  To be honest, I don't know and I'm not sure I actually care; the whole thing kinda seems like it was always triangulation or whatever and that whatever the President really believe/s/d, he'd say nearly anything and tailor it to what would help most or hurt least.  It's not necessarily commendable, but I don't think I'm inclined to get upset about it either way at this point.

And anyway, I don't get the sense that Obama lacks imagination, and a lack of imagination is what's bugging me today.  It seems to me the mindset that doesn't grok why a lesbian would be upset she can't marry her lover also doesn't grok that a Middle Eastern shepherd might not be happy about a tank rolling through his flock, or that a citizen of a South American banana republic might be mildly happier with his local totalitarian warlord than he was or would be with a foreign fruit or oil company imposing the same policies through a puppet regime (and not even keeping the vig local, for chrissakes), or grok that a pregnant woman might consider having a probe stuffed up her snatch as part of some pointless demonstration of a fact she's probably already aware is violating some kind of boundary.  These things and items like them don't seem to me to be wholly unrelated and seem to have a common thread winding through them.

I realize this is all a bit long and I hope it isn't repetitive, but there's at least one more point that has to be made and that's that empathic imagination certainly isn't an endpoint.  I mean, being able to imagine how horrific it would be to have your family raked to pieces by a drone aircraft is, I think, very informative to the hows and whys of drone warfare, for example, but it's not an exhaustive and definitive argument either way: you could feel deep sorrow and solidarity for the victims of your violence and yet decide this act is necessary for some greater good (or at least is a lesser evil).  I'm not presenting this as an endorsement of a troubling and frankly horrific drone war, merely using it as a direct example and (as mentioned earlier) to also get to the point that an opponent of gay marriage could, I imagine, feel the gravest empathy for those his policies would injure but feel that the pain being caused was outweighed by all the other arguments against gay marriage--if he had any, which is (of course) part of the problem (the best he can really do is to say that God might kill and judge them based on what Paul says in his first chapter of his Epistle to the Romans and/or on how you interpret the bit about Sodom and Gomorrah in the book of Genesis--which is possibly not really their problem depending on how you take the second chapter of Romans 1; but, anyway, it isn't the strongest argument you could make for a variety of reasons, right?).

I don't, anyway, see any more point in praising Rob Portman than I do in damning him.  The reasons for his turnaround betray something in his mindset that I find kind of baffling... and kind of offensive, actually.  At the risk of getting too geeky by following a brief discourse on PKD with a Star Wars reference, Portman's change of heart has the same kind of unconvincing shallowness as Darth Vader's redemption at the end of Return Of The Jedi: okay, so when you were being ordered to kill children and blow up whole defenseless planets, being bootlicker to ultimate evil wasn't that big a deal, but when he started electrocuting your estranged son it became a "thing".  Good on you?  Glad you have your priorities lined up?  (By the way, you do realize now that you drugged and tortured your daughter, killed her adoptive parents, and turned her boyfriend into a wall ornament, right?  Hope the Rebellion's group policy covers therapy, because I think she might have a few issues to resolve--but at least you got some alone time with the boy during your last five seconds of life, amirite?)

I mean, no, it's not exactly the same thing--so far as I know, Senator Portman has never Force choked a couple of guys to death on an afternoon or chopped his surrogate father in twain or telekinetically roughed up his preggers wife (or blown up a whole planet--is there a limit to how many times we can mention that one?  or the Jedi younglings?  Jesus, George, what the hell is wrong with you, man?).  But yeah, it has that, I dunno, taint.  You might have thought he could have said at any point in his life, "What if that were me?  Or my brother?  Or my son before I knew he was actually gay or anything?"  Part of this whole deal with having a tricksy brain that can imagine possibilities and other people's feelings is that he wouldn't have even had to be gay, or have a gay brother--or, for that matter, a gay son.  But that's what it took.

Seems kind of sad and unfortunate in a way, if anything.




POSTSCRIPT:  Matthew Yglesias says it shorter and sweeter:

Remember when Sarah Palin was running for vice president on a platform of tax cuts and reduced spending? But there was one form of domestic social spending she liked to champion? Spending on disabled children? Because she had a disabled child personally? Yet somehow her personal experience with disability didn't lead her to any conclusions about the millions of mothers simply struggling to raise children in conditions of general poorness. Rob Portman doesn't have a son with a pre-existing medical condition who's locked out of the health insurance market. Rob Portman doesn't have a son engaged in peasant agriculture whose livelihood is likely to be wiped out by climate change. Rob Portman doesn't have a son who'll be malnourished if SNAP benefits are cut. So Rob Portman doesn't care.

It's a great strength of the movement for gay political equality that lots of important and influential people happen to have gay children. That obviously does change people's thinking. And good for them.

But if Portman can turn around on one issue once he realizes how it touches his family personally, shouldn't he take some time to think about how he might feel about other issues that don't happen to touch him personally? Obviously the answers to complicated public policy questions don't just directly fall out of the emotion of compassion. But what Portman is telling us here is that on this one issue, his previous position was driven by a lack of compassion and empathy. Once he looked at the issue through his son's eyes, he realized he was wrong. Shouldn't that lead to some broader soul-searching? Is it just a coincidence that his son is gay, and also gay rights is the one issue on which a lack of empathy was leading him astray? That, it seems to me, would be a pretty remarkable coincidence. The great challenge for a senator isn't to go to Washington and represent the problems of his own family. It's to try to obtain the intellectual and moral perspective necessary to represent the problems of the people who don't have direct access to the corridors of power.

I might have saved some time if I'd read that first... no, I think I still needed to get it off my chest.




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Sunday after the storm

>> Sunday, March 17, 2013

A Starbucks in Austin. So it's not the quote-unquote "weirdest" place you could be in Austin, TX, but it's here, here being near where I need to be. The ScatterKat is back at the hotel, sick, but we had plans to meet a cousin of mine for dinner and I'm out--hours beforehand--to keep the appointment and pass along the ScatterKat's regrets.

SXSW is more-or-less over. They have a softball game and barbecue today but the music has stopped. Well--not quite; it's coincidentally Saint Patrick's Day and there is Irish music on the street and blaring from some venues, and/or non-Irish music coming from venues hoping to help the citizenry express their solidarity with the Emerald Isle by getting drunk to Eminem or whatever. But the music and booze we came for is basically over but for the underhand pitches and pulled beef (and when you put it that way, it suddenly sounds like a metaphor for the music biz, don't it?).

We could have left town today, I guess. But I think I like having the day of rest, because leaving Austin is something you have to do early (at least where we're going home to) and it world be a little batshit (in my view) to close a show at two in the a.m. and go to the airport three, four hours later. Seems like a good way to go blind. Here's one day to decompress, walk around, have a chai latte from an industrial fast food coffee purveyor.

And there's a kind of vibration in the air you can feel walking down Fifth or Sixth, drifting past the dim dark eyes of the Convention Center. It reminds me of my drama geek years and the last performance of a show, or the moments after. This universe came from nothing and to nothing it returneth. Something pregnant with sorrow, something departs the world. Men carry dismantled scaffolding to the backs of trucks and it feels like they're breaking the city. Saloon doors yawn like broken-jaw mouths and looking down their throats is like looking down the pipes of a cartoon whale (sans swallowed pirate ships, though some of those tattooed gypsy-dressed men supervising the work could nearly pass for buccaneers). This is what it looks like after the storm; I'm kinda sad the ScatterKat has to miss it, but she needs her sleep and plenty of liquids.

Austin after the hurricane makes my hometown look like a provincial shithole. Back in Charlotte, they're arguing about noise ordinances and how to chisel money out of the public for football stadium renovations. These things aren't unrelated if you know that Charlotte, North Carolina has a massive inferiority complex and desperately wants to be a "world class city". (Not my words.) The city wants to go to bed early, something real world class cities never do at all, and there's a popular and mentally-deficient idea that Charlotte can be a world class city if we have a football team, a basketball team, a NASCAR museum.

Nobody travels literally and actually from the far side of the planet to see your fucking football team. They have their own local sports they passionately follow, and anyway, they all think football is something you play with a round ball you're not allowed to touch with your hands. They'll come for your music festival, your film festival, your tech conference; they'll come for something cultural or intellectual or, most of all, something generally relevant. I'm not knocking professional football though I frankly have no use for it at all, I'm just saying pro sports are something a big city might have, but they don't make a big city.

Twenty-seven years ago, a much of guys from the Austin alternative newspaper decided they were sick of flying to New York and L.A. for music industry events, so they invented a music conference out of thin air in an act of pure will. The cojones. I can't say what downtown Austin was in the 1980s, but now it's hotels and shops and restaurants and bars: people come here, and I don't even know if this place has any sports teams at all. Charlotte is hung up on spending time and money to subsidize a multi-million dollar corporate entity and staying very, very quiet after sunset. And then wants to pretend it's someplace when it's really still nowhere, no matter how many political conventions they might host. Someone once called it a nice place to live but you wouldn't want to visit; honestly, living there is a little on the dull and boring side, too.

Tomorrow we fly east into the land of dopes with schemes, our sleepy wannabe burg with its scamming politicos and grey men in suits. I miss my cat and there's a job there that puts food on the table and a roof over the food. I can't help feeling a certain level of disappointed contempt for my hometown, not for what it wants to be not even for what it is, but for the landfill gulf between the aspirations and the reality, and the greedy flies buzzroaring over the trashpit.

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I might be a snob. I might be okay with that.

>> Friday, March 15, 2013

The ScatterKat and I went to South By Southwest this year. I went two years ago by myself and liveblogged it; this year, somehow, I couldn't be bothered. Not precisely sure why. I could try guessing. I'm not writing much anymore; that has frozen in my veins and the thought of writing seems like a better idea for a thing to do than a thing to actually do. Besides, the man said, writing about music, it's like dancing about architecture.

(I am reduced to cliches.)

We've been having a great time, anyway. Tons of good music. A snake-oil salesman told me and twenty other people he'd love to invite us to sit in Neil Young's car and listen to music. Dave Grohl confessed his undying love for Gungam Style. Nick Cave told some loser text messing during his set that Satan could get him a better cell phone. Mexican anarchists covered "Rock Me Amadeus" while the sun set over a flock of probably-confused ducks. Amanda Palmer made my girlfriend cry. Rodney Crowell and Robyn Hitchcock taught me some things about The Beatles and Richard Thompson observed a songwriter could do something "simple, like this" before unloading an acoustic guitar riff that would turn my fingers to spaghetti knots if I even tried (several minutes later he made me cry; bastard).

You know, typical SXSW, no big deal.

Some kids almost young enough to be my kids if I'd ever gotten laid in high school lauded the virtues of the post-(music) snob world today. I'm not sold. I'm pretty sure I'm a music snob, and I'm not sure I have a problem with that. I'm not sure I want to live in a world where you're not supposed to say a piece of music is shit--especially when it's shit. These kids today, with their smug idealism and naive tolerance.

More to do. Just checking in. Posting this from the tablet, so it may look funny. Might have more to say later--or not. Rock on.

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Dead letter office

>> Thursday, March 07, 2013

I will speak until I can no longer speak. I will speak as long as it takes, until the alarm is sounded from coast to coast that our Constitution is important, that your rights to trial by jury are precious, that no American should be killed by a drone on American soil without first being charged with a crime, without first being found to be guilty by a court.

Senator Rand Paul's filibuster ended after thirteen hours, and credit to him for doing it the right way, yammering for thirteen hours (with occasional ceding the floor to other yammerers), instead of trying to do it one of the Bizarro World ways the Senate sabotages itself procedurally (not that I'm sure he had a choice--I understand he may not have had the cloture votes, or someone else had them, or however that works).

I don't have much of an opinion on John Brennan's nomination for CIA head.  Or maybe it's more accurate to say that my opinion is that I just don't care.  I have to confess I'm not even sure why I should care: how much difference is there likely to be between one prospective nominee for that particular job and another?  It's not like the Department Of The Interior, where the wrong nominee is going to try to gut the environment for Jesus or something.  What's the difference between a liberal spymaster and a conservative official-keeper-of-secrets, and how would you know?  Isn't the nature of the job that anyone, idealist or realist, extremist or moderate, optimist or cynic, is going to ultimately have to stick their arms in up to the elbows in the nation's official cloak-and-dagger shitpile with-or-without their sleeves rolled up first, to fish around in there and bob-for-apples if god-and-country so require?

But I digress.  I heard Senator Paul's comments on NPR this morning, and it was a reminder of something that's been bothering me for several weeks now.  And this is that while I agree with the Senator on principle--and fancy that, I agree with the neo-Randian Republican on something (see, it happens!)--I also have to wonder if he's right.

See, what I've been thinking of is the obvious elephant in the corner that nobody seems to be talking about for some reason: that would be those four lost airplanes in the air on the morning of September 11th, 2001, and the questions that floated around in the days after re: the Air Force response to the hijackings.  For various reasons, the FAA and Air Force responses that Tuesday morning were chaotic and ineffective--I don't mean that as a criticism, merely an observation (I'm not sure what they really might have done differently, given the policies in effect at the time, which were subsequently amended; indeed, that sort of relates to the whole point of this post).  But one of the obvious questions you have to ask is, if a military jet fighter had the opportunity to down one of the hijacked planes before it was flown into a building, should the pilot have opened fire?  Could the pilot have opened fire?

It's kind of obvious to me that downing a hijacked airplane with sixty people on board (e.g. United Air 175) before it downs a building with six hundred and thirty people in it (e.g. the South Tower of the World Trade Center) deprives the sixty people on the airplane of their lives, possibly without due process.  If the President gives the order and an Air Force pilot executes it, it seems pretty self-evidently a Fifth Amendment violation.  At least sixty violations, not even counting the destruction of United Air's property without due process, any lost freight and luggage, etc.  You might think I'm being facetious, but absolutely not: shooting down an airplane to save ten times as many lives is simply unconstitutional.  And it could be completely necessary.  A trade of dozens of lives for hundreds, of two hundred and forty-six for two thousand, seven hundred and thirty-one is tragic but not obscene.

I'm not defending the incoherence of Attorney General Eric Holder's "defense" (if you can call it that) of the Obama Administration's disturbingly obscure policy (or lack thereof).  It doesn't fill me with any confidence in the Administration that they're simultaneously willing to bluntly state that they'll retain the option of killing Americans anywhere but unwilling to give any particulars on the hows and the whys of it.  "Trust us" is inherently an unstable and awful policy statement even if you're inclined to trust someone, because there's always the next guy.  (The problem with Tyranny--Tyranny in the sense of governance by a Tyrant, not the sad degradation of the term to mean "policies we don't like"--isn't that Julius and Augustus are such bad fellows and people you wouldn't want in charge of things; it's that their heirs are dudes like Caligula and Nero, holy crap can you believe it?)

I think I'm just trying to ask a question I don't have a real answer to, to point out that this is, in fact, an issue and a concern.  A problem.  A big problem, actually.

Our Constitution being antiquated and screwy has been bugging me a whole lot lately.  This is one of the reasons I've been thinking about this whole "killing Americans at home" issue the past few weeks even outside the scope of the outrage expressed by liberals and libertarians over the past several weeks.  Senator Paul's not alone in the concerns he expressed in his filibuster--I heard he cited Glenn Greenwald, and how often do you think that's ever going to happen?  Paul et al. are on the side of the angels on this one, I think, I'm just not sure the angels know what the hell they're doing or are... I don't know if I want to use the word "right", considering that I don't really think they're wrong.

I'm just wondering what you do when an airplane with sixty people on it is about to smite a big tall building on a busy work day morning.

And while I'd cite this as being yet another thing those original authors of the Constitution couldn't get their minds around--what's the Eighteenth Century analogue for weaponized mass transit, anyway?--it isn't like I have an answer.  I want to be clear on this: I have absolutely no idea what could possibly be suggested by way of a mechanism that protects the civil liberties of the doomed few against the might-be-saved many when you maybe have a few minutes before shooting down an airplane over an urban neighborhood becomes just as bad as simply letting it murder everyone who can't make it down a stairwell before the pancaking happens.  It doesn't seem like you really want to make this kind of thing one guy's snap decision, and it doesn't seem you have much of a choice about it.

I'm trying to think of what might have been analogous in the Eighteenth Century to a hijacked plane hurtling towards a building in the Twenty-First.  So, the best I can come up with is a quarantine situation: you have one (or a few) people whose individual rights to freedom have to be balanced against the public safety; it's a lousy analogy.  There's usually time in these sorts of situations to evaluate and diagnose the carrier, and the carrier has opportunity to appeal his decision, and at the worst you're locking him up in a hospital or sanitarium as opposed to depriving him of his life; oh, and by the way, this kind of thing is, so far as I can tell, broadly Constitutional.  I haven't done tons of research, but a quick survey suggests this is (unsurprisingly, seeing as you're probably not dying of smallpox or tuberculosis as you read this) routinely put down to "a valid exercise of the state's police power".  Sometimes, when we're talking about quarantining diseased livestock, the government has to buy a bunch of dead poultry or cattle, but that hardly sounds unreasonable when the issue comes up.  All of which seems commonsense when you're talking about sequestering someone so they don't cough it around on everybody, and seems wrong when you're talking about, let's face it, killing a bunch of people.

And if it is a good analogy, haven't we just sided with Holder and the President, which isn't exactly what I wanted to do here?  I mean, if it's a valid exercise of governmental power to confine a plague bearer before he or she bears the plague around, is it such a far stretch to conclude that it's a valid exercise of governmental power to trade the lives of a few for the many (it certainly sounds like the kind of thing Mr. Spock would do, and Mr. Spock is very sound when he's not in heat)?  (And what's the difference between a pilot opening fire and a drone operator doing it?  I think the answer in this context is "none", with none of the policy concerns that might make the use of drones overseas problematic--which somehow seems a little ironic, no?)

This really doesn't seem correct, does it?

I want to be clear for the nth time that this isn't an apologia for the Administration's drone policy or what can only really be called their assassination policy--policies that have to stick in your craw even if you think they're necessary or required by circumstances (or are at least the lesser of evils).  I just don't have a particularly satisfactory answer to this, and I think the questions are necessary.  I don't think we should trust anybody with the kind of authority over life and death the Administration seems to be staking out for itself; on the other hand, I think--and I can't believe I think this--that the principles staked out by a number of people on the left and right, including (of all people) Senator Rand Paul, are principled, moral, and incorrect.  Which I think means we end up deciding what's worse for ourselves, making the Constitution (or whatever we'd replace it with in our imaginations) a literal suicide pact, or making it a dead letter?



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Dirty commies

>> Friday, March 01, 2013

Egads!  Senator Ted Cruz is doubling down on comments he made nearly three years ago about communists at Harvard!  Yes, he stands by his remarks even though Harvard has been quick to announce they don't harbor many dirty commies at all (if any!) and even after he comes under fire from segments of the press and from some Democrats for raising the spectre of McCarthyism, etc.

Feh.

Actually, I'm not pissed at Cruz.  I'm pissed at Harvard, much of the supposedly liberal press, and the Democrats who have denounced Cruz's comments.

Because, see, Cruz's comments may not be factually accurate where Harvard's faculty is concerned--although I don't really care if they are or not, maybe they're completely and one-hundred-percent on the Marx; and Cruz's comments about President Obama's radicalism are clearly deranged and fictional, though they're pretty much what we've all come to expect from the Republican party's loudest mouths these days (again, though I don't think it ought to bear this much repetition: much of the President's foreign and domestic policy isn't particularly distinguishable from that of noted socialist rat Richard Nixon's.)

But whether they're accurate or not, isn't the correct response, "So what?"  What pisses me off isn't that Cruz is trying to smear people by red-baiting them, it's that the United States has gotten itself wedged so far up inside the prolapsed anus of mid-20th Century right wing talking points that "communist" is still considered a smear instead of something that's either shrugged off or cheerfully admitted.

Most likely shrugged off.  I mean, Communism as anything like a viable political movement in the United States was pretty much moribund well before McCarthy turned it into a blackballable offense during the collective paranoia of the immediate postwar era.  Socialism in general was pretty much over as an independent political force once the Democrats successfully co-opted the country's more centrist socialist leaders, much of the movement's social justice platform, and incorporated several of the socialists' least-socialist economic policies into the New Deal.  By the beginning of World War II, it's fair to say that the most radical leftists in the American socialist movement--including the actual communists (the terms "communist" and "socialist" don't really mean quite the same thing, necessarily) were in prison or exile, or had moderated their views in fear of prison or exile.

It's despicable and unsurprising that anti-communism became a fever after WWII.  The American right had always been anti-communist, of course.  The center-left jumped on that bandwagon, too.  But part of the context of McCarthyism has to be understood in light of the communications breakdown between the Soviet Union and United States after the war, the mutual paranoia and hostility as the Soviets (understandably, from their point of view) seized a buffer zone between themselves and the always-invading-Russia West while the United States (understandably from our point of view) failed to keep the Soviet Union from brutally seizing Eastern Europe and imposing a kind of post-colonial totalitarian colonialism upon territory the Allies were ostensibly  liberating ("You say 'po-tay-toe', I say 'po-tah-toe'; you say 'buffer zone of affiliated states under Soviet Socialist Republic sponsorship', I say 'crazed power grab to impose foreign domination on victimized countries in an immediate postwar power vacuum'").  Oh, and of course there was the fact that deficient American scholarship and longstanding American prejudices re: Russia and China ensured that Americans across the political spectrum regarded International Communism as a monolithic bloc in spite of obvious and easily discernible rifts between Soviet and Chinese communists going back to the 1930s so that when the Chinese Nationalists (beloved and supported by the American government for decades) were driven from the mainland in 1949 by a popular (and communist) revolution it certainly appeared to American observers that those conniving Soviet bastards were interfering with our special relationship with the Chinese (we love them, they love us, and gahddammit if only things would settle down over there for us to give a Bible and sell a bicycle to ev'ry yellaoneovem wouldn't that be swell?); which wasn't what was happening at all, but you can't completely fault someone with myopia for misreading billboards (you can fault him for not wearing his glasses).  Anyway, the overreaction is understandable.

But despicable.  Because the thing that's basically un-American about McCarthyism is that we're supposed to be a country that's founded on a basic right to disagree about stuff, to have your own opinion and express it.  The First Amendment covers a right to your opinion and to not be repressed by your government.  You might note it doesn't cover anything about what kind of economic system the country might have, maybe aside from the broadly anti-Mercantilist assumptions behind certain Congressional powers over commerce in Article I, section 8 of the Constitution.  In a free society, it's perfectly fair to say "communism is stupid" but saying, "Bob is a communist" ought to be regarded as either a statement of fact or a non sequitur, but never as a slight, much less a reason to terminate Bob's employment and arbitrarily blacklist him.  (I should note that if someone doesn't want to give Bob a job simply because they don't like his politics, it's a free country; but if they don't want to hire him because they're scared to or prohibited from hiring him, that isn't a free country at all.)
 
Where this leads, I think, is that the defensive reaction in some circles to Cruz's comments is actually more un-American than Cruz's remarks are to start with.  Cruz's claims may be true or false, and either way it's hard to see why they might be relevant to anything at all in this day and age.  He may be an oaf for trying to insult someone for their real-or-alleged beliefs, much like someone making an anti-Catholic or anti-Semitic comment might be.  But what are we to make of those who are circling the wagons and accusing Cruz of defamation, that is, of making false comments that injure the reputation of the subject?  Why should "communist" be a slander any more than "Catholic" or "homosexual" or "quadroon"?

We'll note in passing that Cruz also accuses people of talking about the overthrow of the United States government.  Which is obviously ironic coming from someone who's endorsed by Tea Partiers, a group of people who have talked a-plenty about overthrowing the US government and/or about disobeying duly passed laws of that government.  But there's also the basic fact that there's a difference between legitimately treasonous acts like advocating, soliciting, or committing actual acts working towards the overthrow of the United States government (e.g. opening fire on an American sea fort--but I digress) and merely talking about it (which again, Tea Partiers often do).  The former words and deeds are obviously illegal, but the latter isn't.    It's one thing--and you'd think this was obvious--to say that you're gathering up your guns and ammo and setting a date for seizing the Capitol, and another to simply say you think that would be a good idea or wish someone would hurry up and do it, or even that you think it's inevitable that at some point in the unknown future the oppressed working classes will rise up and et cetera.  I have no idea what Cruz is saying someone else said, and for all I know Harvard classrooms were hopping with beret-wearing students and teachers busy wiring up barrels of fertilizer to batteries and reviewing their stacks of surreptitiously-harvested blueprints of key infrastructual weak points.  Or, you know, it may be that some academics at Harvard, in the time-honored(?) tradition of academics everywhere and at every time in history, occasionally spoke out their asses as people are wont to do when they have a captive audience, especially when they're talking about something they've talked about so much it manages to bore them a little even if they still love it deep down (a paradoxical peril posing problems for pedagogues--I imagine).

Harvard, anyway, ought to be saying they're proud of their tolerance of academic diversity, and the Democrats ought to be fearlessly advocating on behalf of our nation's (oft honored in the breach) tradition of civil liberties.


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