Saturday, December 22, 2018

My Intense Ambivalence on Syria

So Donald Trump has announced that we're withdrawing our troops from Syria, in case you somehow hadn't already heard. Just kind of came out of nowhere. I should say first, as a disclaimer, that I obviously don't take him at his word on this. I won't be surprised if he ends up walking his promise back or abandoning it altogether--this is Donald Trump we're talking about, and in general politicians haven't proven exceedingly reliable at keeping their promises to end military engagements. So, to be concise, I'll believe it when I see it.

But suppose he means it. I guess faithful, or even occasional, readers of this blog might be expecting me to celebrate. But I don't feel much like celebrating. When I first saw the news, my reaction was cautiously positive--if Trump actually follows through, I thought, it will be the end of one front of our Forever War in the Middle East. But the more I thought, and read, about it, the less positive I began to feel.

It's a very weird feeling for me, to be disquieted at the news of the US leaving a battlefield rather than entering a new one. In general, my view of our military interventions is highly negative: I think the Gulf War, the Kosovo intervention in the 1990s, the 2011 Libya NATO intervention, and for that matter most of our intervention in Syria (to name just a few of the less extreme and controversial examples of our interventions) have been completely unnecessary, counterproductive and deadly. I have long taken a skeptical view of our approach toward fighting ISIS, worrying that it could end up being another drawn-out affair that would end up producing a lot of dead bodies (a prediction which I think has panned out pretty well).

So, why am I not celebrating our (still hypothetical) withdrawal from Syria? Some background is necessary. The Syrian Kurds, who have acted as our allies against ISIS, have succeeded in establishing a relatively autonomous society (commonly known as Rojava) over much of northern Syria. It's a truly remarkable society, by all accounts: every government institution has two co-presidents or co-chairpeople, one male and one female, and women have been granted a slew of new rights (the right to divorce and equal rights of inheritance, to name a couple important ones). Journalist Patrick Cockburn writes that, after visiting Rojava, he "felt that it was the only part of Syria where the uprising of 2011 had produced a society that was better than what had gone before, bearing in mind the constraints of fighting a war."

It's an ambitious project that is striving to be directly democratic. "There are democratic assemblies ranging from the neighbourhood level to cantons," per Guardian columnist Owen Jones. "Quotas are enforced to ensure representation for women, as well as for ethnic minorities." Rojava draws its inspiration from the writings of Murray Bookchin, an American libertarian socialist who envisioned a society run on a highly decentralized, grassroots basis with face-to-face debates and decision-making. I won't paint too rosy a picture of Rojava: it exists in the midst of a horrific civil war, and accordingly it has its abuses and shortcomings. It's no utopia. But its successes should be an inspiration not just to the rest of the Middle East, but to the world.
Members of a women's militia in Rojava (Biji Kurdistan/Flickr)

Here's the thing: Turkey doesn't want Rojava to survive. Turkey has been at war with its own Kurdish population for decades, and views the Kurdish militia in Syria as a group of terrorists due to its association with the Kurdistan Workers' Party. Turkey has taken aggressive action toward the Kurdish city of Afrin earlier this year and made it clear it intends to stomp out Rojava at its earliest possible convenience. One of the major obstacles to that plan has been the presence of American troops in Syria, whom Turkey is eager to show the door. Turkey, for those unaware, has been trending toward increasing authoritarianism and Islamism in recent years due to its viciously tyrannical president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

These concerns were already on my mind when I found out that, according to the Associated Press, Trump actually first agreed to withdraw at Erdoğan's prompting during a phone call between the two. So Trump may now actually, as liberals have long worried, be acting as the servant of an autocratic ruler from a Eurasian country--just not Vladimir Putin. There's a strange sort of irony for you, if that's even the right word.

There is, of course, a lot to dislike about the American intervention in general, and troop presence specifically, in Syria. The fact we have thousands of troops intervening in a country thousands of miles away without congressional authorization is breathtaking, or ought to be. It's also more than a little questionable from an international law perspective. And one has to wonder what the future of Rojava looks like if it continues to be reliant on protection from the US--is the American government really going to let Rojava continue as a radically democratic, socialist society, or try to mold Rojava into its own little client statelet? The idea of having American troops remain in Syria, given all of this, is a very unappealing one. I do want us to leave--but if we're going to, I want us to first have done everything possible to keep Rojava from getting crushed out, and that's not what Trump appears to have in mind.

The idea of having American troops stay in a Middle Eastern country to try to defend democracy sounds pretty neocon-ish, I'm well aware, and the argument feels weird to me even as I make it. But it's certainly not an idea confined to the war hawks; even Noam Chomsky recently said in an interview that "it makes sense for the United States to maintain a presence which would deter an attack on the Kurdish areas."

As for me, I don't really know what the right approach to all of this is, but I have a feeling it isn't the sort of withdrawal Trump has indicated he wants. It's even less clear what will actually happen. If you've ever read Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (and if you haven't, do) this should all sound a little familiar. In the Spanish Civil War, Orwell writes, the anarchist and trade unions in Catalonia managed to form a highly decentralized, democratic society--a genuine workers' state, it seemed. But they ended up being stabbed in the back by their "allies" and the progress was erased. Ultimately, Catalonia and the rest of Spain ended up under the rule of Francisco Franco, a brutal dictator. Let's hope history doesn't repeat itself.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

My Gradual Disillusionment with Daily Show Liberalism

As you may have heard, recently Tucker Carlson, Fox News' barely disguised neo-Nazi propagandist, suffered the awful fate of having protestors show up at his house. According to a reporter who--unlike Carlson himself--was actually there when the protest happened (and is presumably, again unlike Carlson, not a white nationalist), the protestors knocked on the door, chanted for a while, and left after about ten minutes. One person spray-painted an anarchy symbol on Carlson's driveway, to the annoyance and condemnation of others in the group. Carlson claims that the protestors broke his front door and that one person said they wanted to send him a pipe bomb--details that have been disputed, as there is no mention of the broken door in the police report and according to the aforementioned non-Nazi reporter (and video from the protest), the protestor who mentioned a pipe bomb was talking about the Trump supporter who mailed a number of pipe bombs to enemies of the president, not making a threat.

But a lot of people wasted no time in taking the word of a blatant racist at face value and virulently condemning the protestors. And one of those people, disappointingly enough, was Stephen Colbert, who tweeted: "Fighting Tucker Carlson’s ideas is an American right. Targeting his home and terrorizing his family is an act of monstrous cowardice. Obviously don’t do this, but also, take no pleasure in it happening. Feeding monsters just makes more monsters." It's not just the vandalism and threats (real or alleged) that Colbert seems to take issue with, but the fact that protestors would even show up at Tucker's home (perish the thought!) and just be so uncivil, failing to respect his right to spread hate to an audience of millions and then return home feeling completely safe from not just violence but even discomfort.

Like a lot of people, I couldn't help but feel disgusted by this, but my disgust got me thinking. I used to be a big fan of Colbert's, back when he had The Colbert Report on Comedy Central--and of his colleague and faux-rival, Jon Stewart of The Daily Show (Stewart has since retired and handed over the reins to Trevor Noah, a host who's been a disappointment even to a lot of people who never grew as ambivalent about Stewart as I did). I discovered both shows back in the summer of 2010, and quickly became a big fan of both. Back then, it's worth noting, I was no radical or socialist. I was a pretty mainstream liberal, happy with Obama's performance as president and enraged with the Republicans, whom I blamed for pretty much everything wrong with the country. So finding shows that satirized conservative media, and the Tea Party (remember them?), and Republicans in Congress, was gratifying and offered a sort of catharsis. Plus, the shows were both genuinely funny.

The Report and Daily Show provided a certain amount of solace for me on the night of the disastrous 2010 midterms, and in the aftermath, with a Republican-controlled House of Representatives sticking it to Obama at pretty much every opportunity. I was pleased to find out that Stewart and Colbert's programs were popular among my friends at school, too. I even got my dad into the shows. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert ascended to the level of being practically sages for me--sharp-witted, funny social commentators that could cut through the bullshit and get to the heart of the issues. And who were independent-minded, too--willing to criticize the Democrats now and then for good measure, when they did something wrong.

Starting in late 2011, however, my politics began to shift considerably to the left. I'd always had some sympathy for idea of socialism; after seeing the world economy implode in 2008, I had little fondness for capitalism--but, of course, the idea that socialism is impractical, radical, naive etc. is reinforced in a thousand little ways in American culture, which was enough to keep me from going full red for a while. Ironically, my shift to the left came after several months of interest in libertarianism and Goldwaterite conservatism--I guess challenging my old liberal dogma from a right-wing perspective ended up leaving it vulnerable to my more left-wing impulses, which ultimately prevailed. And as I read interviews and articles from Hunter S. Thompson (who, at the time, was the most prominent representation of the far left in my world) and discovered figures like Noam Chomsky and George Orwell, I ended up drifting even further from my old liberalism than I'd ever expected. By mid-2012, I was describing myself as an anarchist.

My disenchantment with Daily Show liberalism, personified by Stewart and Colbert, was not immediate. They did, to their credit, offer critiques of Obama and the Democrats from the left at times. And even as I grew increasingly dissatisfied with Obama, I was more focused on the threat the Republicans posed. We were, of course, in the lead-up to an election that could replace Obama with some maniac Republican like Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum, depending on who won the Republican primaries. Even President Mitt Romney was a thoroughly grimace-inducing thought.

Stewart and Colbert at the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear (Reuters/Jason Reed)
But the cracks had started to form--so small they were almost imperceptible at first, but they were there. One of the earliest instances of disenchantment I can remember came from a Daily Show segment that attempted to skewer Froma Harrop, head of the National Conference of Editorial Writers. Harrop's offense was comparing the Tea Party to terrorists because of their role in the debt ceiling showdown in the summer of 2011. The awful hypocrisy of it, correspondent John Oliver indicated, was that the NCEW has a civility project, but is run by someone who's so clearly uncivil! The only problem was that Harrop's comparison wasn't really unfair. The Tea Party members of Congress were threatening the world economy--and, consequently, the well-being of a massive number of people--with a totally unnecessary crisis for no reason other than to try to push their far-right vision for the country. The position taken by John Oliver and The Daily Show seemed to be that, because the comparison was extreme and unflattering, it must be wrong--and anyone making it is just making themselves look like a maniac.

I remember continuing to watch both The Daily Show and The Colbert Report through 2012 and 2013, but--particularly with The Daily Show--increasingly having to grit my teeth because of how often Stewart seemed to emphasize "civility" and "bipartisanship" even in the face of a Republican Party that was clearly off the rails. In their coverage of the 2012 Democratic National Convention, The Daily Show featured another grating segment in which it attacked Democrats for being too dismissive and intolerant of the Tea Party, as if a movement rife with Islamophobia, homophobia, xenophobia and old-fashioned racism should be given the same acceptance as members of the marginalized communities its members so hate.

In late 2012, Stewart briefly turned his attention to the political situation in Italy, saying of Prime Minister Mario Monti's austerity measures: "Italy sucked it up. They got their fiscal house in better shape, everyone's glad, they did what they did." That moment struck me then because I knew that, in reality, austerity had been disastrous for Europe, targeting benefits to the poor and working class and resulting in shrinking economies--so it was odd to see a supposedly liberal voice praising it. And Italy was no exception to the rule--Monti took an axe to Italy's pension system, earning the ire of the country's major trade unions; and, accordingly, was rewarded with a rapidly shrinking economy.

In early 2013, Jon Stewart offered some commentary on Paul Krugman's proposed trillion-dollar coin--an idea designed to circumvent another manufactured debt ceiling crisis and fund government spending that had already been approved by Congress, in a budget passed by the Republican-run House of Representatives. Once again, the Republicans were attempting to derail the world economy in order to get policy concessions, as terrorists are wont to do. Stewart responded by essentially waving Krugman's idea off as a "gimmick," after giving a wildly misleading description of the situation that had led Krugman to propose the idea. His response was so miserably bad that even Jonathan Chait chewed him out over it. In response to the criticism, he doubled down, explaining helpfully that the coin was "a stupid fucking idea."

Although at the time it actually occurred I was still too enamored with Stewart and Colbert to realize it, the "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear" that they co-hosted in 2010 was in many ways a perfect illustration of the particular pathology afflicting the two of them (Stewart in particular). When he announced it, Stewart emphasized it would eschew the radicals on both sides--on the right, those who called Obama a socialist; on the left, those who called George W. Bush a war criminal. In reality, of course, the "Obama's a socialist" talking point was far more common on the right than denunciations of Bush as a war criminal were on the mainstream "left." But more importantly, Bush is a war criminal. The Iraq War was denounced as illegal by Kofi Annan, not by some random dumbass in a tri-corner hat.

Stewart also promised to provide signs with messages like "I Disagree With You, But I’m Pretty Sure You’re Not Hitler" and "Take It Down a Notch for America." Boy, are those some takes that have aged well--the Republicans have now elected a president who refuses to denounce white nationalist rallies and wants to revoke birthright citizenship. But, please, tell me more about how we should be polite and "take it down a notch." I'm sure that would have done the trick.

Even the name of the event basically lays out the problem with the Daily Show outlook on politics: The Rally to Restore Sanity, as if the core problem in American politics is a lack of sanity. One could be forgiven for thinking that insanity is the only explanation for, say, the Republican policy on climate change--which amounts to pointing us toward the rocky cliff of environmental catastrophe and slamming the accelerator like a speed freak leaving the scene of a bank robbery. But ultimately, it's not insanity for the people who really run the Republican Party, the megadonors and Big Business insiders whose interests determine the party agenda. They're rich enough to insulate themselves from the effects of climate change in the short-term and old enough that they'll die before the worst hits anyway. In the meantime, any serious government attempt to protect the environment would cut into their profits, so naturally they oppose it. It's cold-blooded and psychopathic, but it's "rational self-interest," to use Ayn Rand's catchphrase.

The crazy people in the government are there not because they managed to worm their way in somehow, but as Useful Idiots for the party's real base: Big Business and the super-rich. Genuinely fixing politics requires not just a purge of the lunatics but also a merciless scorched-earth campaign to take down their masters, which didn't quite make it into Stewart and Colbert's rally, as far as I'm aware. And it's a task their fundamentally kumbaya mentality is hardly well-suited for.

And we can't forget Stewart's frenemy-ship with Bill O'Reilly, with whom Stewart discussed having "sexual tension" with and defended against accusations that he was "evil." It all led up to a very pally debate between the two where, as the Tampa Bay Times put it, "O'Reilly and Stewart attacked each other's arguments but not their personalities, armed with facts and a fair bit of passion." Maybe Stewart should have focused on attacking Bill O'Reilly's personality more, given that, as it turns out, multiple women have accused him of sexual harassment and his own daughter has accused him of abusing his ex-wife. But, you know, how could you expect that a constantly belligerent right-wing hatemonger wouldn't be a nice guy personally? Sure, O'Reilly did make insanely homophobic and blatantly racist comments to his sizable audience, but we can't assume he's evil just because of that. That would require you to think that a person's politics actually do reflect on their character, and we all know you can't have that!

Aside From Stewart's obviously shaky understanding of fiscal policy and economics and the above-mentioned both sides-ism, one of the major flaws in the brand of liberalism put forward by The Daily Show et al. was always a desire to paper over the very real divides that exist, and have always existed, in America. "Most Americans don’t live their lives solely as Democrats, Republicans, liberals or conservatives," Stewart preached at his rally. "Americans live their lives more as people that are just a little bit late for something they have to do. Often something they do not want to do! But they do it. Impossible things, every day, that are only made possible through the little, reasonable compromises we all make." When it was becoming increasingly apparent that Trump would be elected president as the returns were coming in, Stephen Colbert--now hosting The Late Show--talked about how Americans had overdosed on politics, and that it "used to be something we thought about every four years...and that's good that we didn't think about it that much," then proceeded to list a number of (light-hearted) things Americans can all agree on to show that we're not so divided after all.

This is an appealing narrative; it's also wildly misleading and dangerous. There are a lot of people, for one thing, who have never had the luxury of only thinking about politics every four years. For instance, poor people who are dependent on government aid in order to survive. Or undocumented people who live in constant fear of deportation. Or LGBTQ+ people who have had to deal with the government denying them basic rights. Or black people who have suffered as a result of neo-Jim Crow policies, racist cops and employment discrimination. Or any of the people living in the multitude of countries we've bombed over the years. These people have never been able to go for four years without paying attention to politics because it affects their everyday existence. And encouraging people who do have the luxury of doing so to put aside politics except during election season doesn't do the above-mentioned groups any favors.

For another thing, many of the conflicts in American society are a lot more structural than this narrative recognizes. You're not going to rid of racism, or sexism, or homophobia, etc. just by emphasizing what we all have in common, no matter how romantic the notion may be, because there are people who benefit from the systems that uphold these ideologies. Republicans have been exploiting these prejudices for decades to get elected, for one thing, and when one of the two major political organizations in the country is devoted to upholding these ideologies deliberately and for its own advantage, they're not about to disappear because we emphasize some ethereal notion of unity.

But furthermore, it is, in a gross and unpleasant way, to the (at least short-term) advantage of white racists, straight homophobes, sexist men, etc. to uphold the societal structures that are based on these prejudices. After all, those systems are designed to benefit them: racism makes it so white people are more likely to be trusted than black people, wealthier than black people, likelier than black applicants to get the jobs they apply for. Homophobia allows straight people to feel good about themselves because they aren't gay, gives them someone to look down on, someone to feel superior to, and makes it so their opinions count more in society than those of their gay peers. And so on with the other forms of bigotry. It's not shocking that, while plenty of white people are sincerely antiracist, plenty of straight people support equality for LGBTQ+ people, etc., plenty of others aren't and don't. After all, dismantling systems of oppression based on racism and other bigotries asks the privileged groups in each case to make a sacrifice: to abandon the privilege they've been given in the form of increased wealth, social status, and whatever else. It's the right thing to do, but not the easy one. Anodyne messages about what we all have in common and how we shouldn't get too focused on politics won't solve these problems any more than they freed the slaves or got women the vote.

But then again, while I don't doubt their hearts are fundamentally in the right place, Colbert and Stewart--both rich white guys--have never exactly shown they're that "woke" when it comes to marginalized groups. In 2003, Stewart mocked the idea of a transgender person on the Supreme Court as "Justice Chick With Dick". According to Daily Show writer and correspondent Wyatt Cenac, when he complained to Stewart about an Amos 'n' Andy-esque impression Stewart did of Herman Cain, Stewart responded by repeatedly screaming at Cenac to "fuck off." And of course, last year Colbert had his own controversy when he made a gay joke about Trump and Putin, for which he only offered a tepid non-apology apology.

A common defense to all of this--and one that Stewart notoriously relied on--is that Stewart and Colbert are comedians, not political experts, and they shouldn't be expected to give a profound, serious analysis of politics. That's true enough, but it's not just that Stewart and Colbert offer an unsophisticated analysis of politics, it's that they offer one that's actively wrong and misleading. And the reality is, they certainly weren't "just comedians" to a lot of their viewers. I know I definitely didn't just regard them as funnymen--I viewed them as sources of the sort of real political insight you wouldn't get from mainstream TV news, as sharp and incisive social satirists. So the excuse just strikes me as lazy and disingenuous. If you focus that extensively on talking about political and social issues, you're obligated to at least not give an actively misleading analysis, whether or not you're "just a comedian."

Ultimately, the rise of Donald Trump so viciously ripped to shreds the Stewart-Colbert view of politics that it seems remarkably quaint anyone could have ever taken it seriously. Not that there's any indication that either of them have reevaluated much. We already covered Colbert's response to Trump's election and denunciation of the Tucker Carlson protest. As for Stewart, this summer he made an appearance on The Late Show that reveals how little his thinking has changed. He faulted Trump's family separation policy, but noted that Trump "could have absolutely made a more stringent border policy that would have made [his] point about enforcement." The Obama administration's policy was denounced by Human Rights Watch for traumatizing families who spent months in detention--it's hard to imagine how any policy more stringent than this wouldn't have displayed "a Dickensian level of villainy," in Stewart's words.

He complains that Trump is devoted to humiliating his Republican critics, but doesn't mention that Trump's "critics" like John McCain (whom he alludes to) are, in fact, major enablers of his most destructive policies. He notes, correctly, the "extra layer of gleeful cruelty and dickishness" that characterizes Trump's policies, but nowhere mentions that this cruelty is inherent in the ideology the Republican Party has supported for decades and that Trump merely represents an undisguised, unapologetic personification of this ideology. Trump, Stewart seems to think, is just a member of the 15 or 20 percent of the country whose extreme rhetoric he claimed had dominated the political conversation, back when he announced The Rally to Restore Sanity--rather than an unvarnished representation of what the Republican Party (and its voters) stand for.

It took me a remarkably long time, in retrospect, to come to terms with how dangerously wrong the Daily Show view of politics really was (and is). I guess my residual fondness for and my good memories of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report got in the way of a completely honest reevaluation. Both Stewart and Colbert seem like good guys who are sincere about what they say; and both can definitely be very funny, and make good points at times. To Colbert's credit, his satirical conservative persona allowed his show to generally avoid the smarminess and both sides-ism that made The Daily Show so irritating in its worse moments. Perhaps that's why the most egregious comments of his I've cited here have been from the post-Report era of his career.

But in any case it's hard to imagine how Stewart and Colbert's brand of liberalism--and accordingly a great deal of their commentary--could be more thoroughly discredited. Whatever complaints one may make about the notorious Chapo Trap House podcast, their brand of satire is far better suited for the realities of politics, particularly nowadays: Ruthless. Unsentimental. And remorselessly partisan. Throw your so-called "sanity" out the window for all it's worth--the world is only getting crazier anyway.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Owning Milton Friedman with Facts and Logic (Part Two)

Welcome to part two of my rebuttal to Milton Friedman's argument against socialism. For those not aware, for this post and the previous one, I'm responding to the first chapter of economist Milton Friedman's book Capitalism and Freedom (the entirety of the chapter can be read here). If you haven't yet read part one, make sure to do that before starting on this installment.

With that out of the way, let's get going. When we last left off, our pal Milton was giving us a wildly inaccurate description of capitalism and had just argued that capitalism is actually great for employees because if their boss underpays them or mistreats them, no problem! They can just quit. From there
we move on to a new line of argument: "Underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself." Friedman elaborates:
The characteristic feature of action through political channels is that it tends to require or enforce substantial conformity. The great advantage of the market, on the other hand, is that it permits wide diversity. It is, in political terms, a system of proportional representation. Each man can vote, as it were, for the color of tie he wants and get it; he does not have to see what color the majority wants and then, if he is in the minority, submit.
Milton Friedman, economist and expert on screwing over poor people
(Chuck Nacke/Alamy, taken from Encyclopedia Britannica)
You just have to love the conception of freedom throughout this whole chapter: overseas vacations, practicing medicine without a license, tie colors--all the big stuff is covered. To address Milton's point here, it's worth noting that markets inherently skew toward valuing the desires of the rich over the poor (who has more money, after all?), which I guess is what he means by "proportional representation." And, rest assured, I don't think any socialists want to limit the country to a single tie color, for those who were concerned about that. But let's hear a little more about freedom:
The fundamental threat to freedom is power to coerce, be it in the hands of a monarch, a dictator, an oligarchy, or a momentary majority. The preservation of freedom requires the elimination of such concentration of power to the fullest possible extent and the dispersal and distribution of whatever power cannot be eliminated...By removing the organization of economic activity from the control of political authority, the market eliminates this source of coercive power. It enables economic strength to be a check to political power rather than a reinforcement.
Economic power can be widely dispersed.
How has that dispersal of economic power been working out since the Friedman-backed deregulation under Reagan, again? It kinda seems like we've been moving more toward the economy being run by a smaller and smaller number of people. But that's okay as long as those people aren't in the government, I guess, because "if economic power is joined to political power, concentration [of power] seems almost inevitable." Some would say that concentrating power in the hands of the people (rather than, say, in the hands of a wealthy elite) is a good thing, but I guess we wouldn't want to "count noses."
[I]f economic power is kept in separate hands from political power, it can serve as a check and a counter to political power.
The force of this abstract argument can perhaps best be demonstrated by example. Let us consider first, a hypothetical example that may help to bring out the principles involved, and then some actual examples from recent experience that illustrate the way in which the market works to preserve political freedom.

One feature of a free society is surely the freedom of individuals to advocate and propagandize openly for a radical change in the structure of the society--so long as the advocacy is restricted to persuasion and does not include force or other forms of coercion. It is a mark of the political freedom of a capitalist society that men can openly advocate and work for socialism. Equally, political freedom in a socialist society would require that men be free to advocate the introduction of capitalism. How could the freedom to advocate capitalism be preserved and protected in a socialist society?
In order for men to advocate anything, they must in the first place be able to earn a living
Yeah--good thing no one has to worry about earning a living under capitalism, as we all know from experience. "It would take an act of self-denial," Friedman continues, "whose difficulty is underlined by experience in the United States after World War II with the problem of 'security' among Federal employees, for a socialist government to permit its employees to advocate policies directly contrary to official doctrine." Yeah, it would really suck if you could get fired for activism--like for instance for supporting unionization in your workplace, which gets people (illegally) fired all the time. Worth noting also that the rate of illegal firings of pro-union employees during union election campaigns shot up dramatically under--guess who!--Ronald Reagan. Also, Milton either doesn't understand or is being deliberately dishonest about the fact that in a genuine socialist society, the "official doctrine" would be decided democratically and put up for debate; as opposed to, say, being decided by corporate elites who then intimidate employees into voting the right way by threatening to fire people if the wrong candidate wins.

Believe it or not, things are about to get stupider:
But let us suppose this act of self-denial to be achieved. For advocacy of capitalism to mean anything, the proponents must be able to finance their cause--to hold public meetings, publish pamphlets, buy radio time, issue newspapers and magazines, and so on. How could they raise the funds ? There might and probably would be men in the socialist society with large incomes, perhaps even large capital sums in the form of government bonds and the like, but these would of necessity be high public officials.
In case you haven't figured it out by now, Milton Friedman really doesn't understand how socialism works. Yes, in communist dictatorships the leaders have enjoyed a great deal of material wealth not afforded to the average person, but again that's because these countries aren't actually democratic but rather run by dictators and party bureaucracies. In an actually democratic system, why would "high government officials" be richer than the average person? That is literally the opposite of what Marx advocated.

Continuing on this blindingly stupid train of thought, Friedman writes: "The only recourse for funds would be to raise small amounts from a large number of minor officials. But this is no real answer. To tap these sources, many people would already have to be persuaded, and our whole problem is how to initiate and finance a campaign to do so." I guess we shouldn't be surprised, but apparently Milton Friedman not only doesn't understand socialism, he also doesn't understand how mass movements work at all. For one thing, they usually don't start with any idea held by one person or some tiny group of people that they have to spend money to persuade other people to support. For a movement to get off the ground, there generally has to be a lot of people who are already sympathetic to the cause or can be easily persuaded by word of mouth.

For instance, no one had to spend a bunch of money to convince people to support the Civil Rights movement. Given that African-Americans were systematically oppressed and mistreated throughout the country, no one had to put up billboards or print magazines to convince many of them (and those sympathetic to their plight) to support civil rights legislation and desegregation. These were views a lot of people already held, the question was just how to organize them into an effective movement--which, yes, may require some amount of money, but if you have a lot of people who are already sympathetic to your ideas, you can usually find ways to raise funds and get the message out, which helps you raise more funds and get the message out further, etc. But Milton has quite a different explanation for how political movements work:
Radical movements in capitalist societies...have typically been supported by a few wealthy individuals who have become persuaded--by a Frederick Vanderbilt Field, or an Anita McCormick Blaine, or a Corliss Lamont, to mention a few names recently prominent, or by a Friedrich Engels, to go farther back.
Wow, now there is an alternative history for you! The labor movement didn't succeed because of the organization and efforts of the masses, it succeeded because it was bankrolled by Friedrich Engels a la George Soros supposedly funding left-wing protests (as every far-right lunatic, including the president, believes he does). Milton Friedman literally thinks that radical movements succeed because they're astroturfed by rich people. There are no words for this. But wait--there's more!
In a capitalist society, it is only necessary to convince a few wealthy people to get funds to launch any idea, however strange, and there are many such persons, many independent foci of support. And, indeed, it is not even necessary to persuade people or financial institutions with available funds of the soundness of the ideas to be propagated. It is only necessary to persuade them that the propagation can he financially successful[.]
Wow, what a great thing! Isn't it wonderful that in a capitalist society you just have to convince some idiot with enough money to fund even the stupidest venture as long as you're sly enough to make them believe it'll make them more money? Wouldn't it be awful if the world's finite resources were under democratic control and we stupidly devoted more money toward, say, feeding the poor and curing diseases, rather than making reality shows about mentally unstable businessmen who then get elected president? Perish the thought!

"Let us stretch our imagination and suppose that a socialist government is aware of this problem and is composed of people anxious to preserve freedom," Milton the socialism expert proposes, continuing:
Could it provide the funds? Perhaps, but it is difficult to see how. It could establish a bureau for subsidizing subversive propaganda. But how could it choose whom to support? If it gave to all who asked, it would shortly find itself out of funds, for socialism cannot repeal the elementary economic law that a sufficiently high price will call forth a large supply.
A big part of the idea behind socialism is that everyone will have the resources to devote some of their time to leisure (or activism, if they so choose). Which democratic socialist is it that's proposing we don't give anyone more than they need to survive unless a government committee approves their request? Does Friedman also think that in a socialist society you have to ask the government for the money to go see a movie or buy a book or do anything other than survive? I know right-wing dolts like to say that socialism is all about turning the government into everybody's daddy or whatever, but I didn't think they believed it this literally.

"But we are not yet through," Friedman informs us (I had a bad feeling we weren't).
In a free market society, it is enough to have the funds. The suppliers of paper are as willing to sell it to the Daily Worker as to the Wall Street Journal. In a socialist society, it would not be enough to have the funds. The hypothetical supporter of capitalism would have to persuade a government factory making paper to sell to him, the government printing press to print his pamphlets, a government post office to distribute them among the people, a government agency to rent him a hall in which to talk, and so on.
So in Milton Friedman's imagined socialist society, when you go to Socialist Staples to buy a ream of paper do the clerks have to interrogate you about what you're going to print on it? And again, we have to substitute the word "government" with "worker-owned" every time it crops up in this paragraph, since socialism is about worker control of the means of production, not control by some government bureaucracy. The answer to this whole conundrum is really pretty simple: since in socialism the economy is managed democratically, a socialist society could just pass a law saying that everyone can have equal access to its resources regardless of political views, religion, race, etc. Nondiscrimination laws are already pretty common (even though Milton Friedman opposed them, it's worth noting) so there's no reason to think the same sort of thing couldn't be adopted in a socialist society.

The never-ending chapter continues:
A striking practical example of these abstract principles is the experience of Winston Churchill. From 1933 to the outbreak of World War II, Churchill was not permitted to talk over the British radio, which was, of course, a government monopoly administered by the British Broadcasting Corporation.  Here was a leading citizen of his country, a Member of Parliament, a former cabinet minister, a man who was desperately trying by every device possible to persuade his countrymen to take steps to ward off the menace of Hitler's Germany. He was not permitted to talk over the radio to the British people because the BBC was a government monopoly and his position was too "controversial".
Oh man, that would be rough to live in a society where people with controversial political views are marginalized by the media. So, in our capitalist society where the media is privately owned, let me ask this: how often do you see, say Noam Chomsky--one of the most prominent leftists in the world and a renowned academic--on CNN or MSNBC or any other major outlet like that? How many socialist opinion writers are there at the New York Times? It kinda feels like maybe capitalist media institutions also like to marginalize "controversial" opinions. Speaking of media monopolies, it's maybe worth noting that the ownership of media in the US has become increasingly concentrated over the last 20 years thanks to--you guessed it!--deregulation.

Friedman contrasts Churchill's treatment with the Hollywood blacklist, since Dalton Trumbo was still able to get employment by using a pseudonym and being a good writer; once it was discovered that Trumbo had written the Oscar-winning story for the film The Brave One, Friedman says, the blacklist fell apart since it wasn't profitable to blacklist talented people because of their political views. From this he concludes,
If Hollywood and the movie industry had been government enterprises or if in England it had been a question of employment by the British Broadcasting Corporation it is difficult to believe that the "Hollywood Ten" or their equivalent would have found employment. Equally, it is difficult to believe that under those circumstances, strong proponents of individualism and private enterprise--or indeed strong proponents of any view other than the status quo--would be able to get employment.
Yeah, it is hard to imagine a government-funded media entity--say, PBS--broadcasting, for instance, a show hosted by Milton Friedman, where he advocates for free market positions. It's highly unlikely that an entity funded by the government would give a platform to someone whose whole ideology is based on shrinking the government and cutting "unnecessary" government programs. Just kidding! Friedman got a ten-part series in 1980, broadcast by none other than, yes, PBS, where he "focuses on basic principles" such as "How do markets work? Why has socialism failed? Can government help economic development?" and discusses how the United States' success has been "threatened by the tendency in the last few decades to assume that government intervention is the answer to all problems" (according to a website that bears the same name as the program). This speaks for itself.

As we mercifully approach the end of this first chapter (and I swear to you that this really has just been one chapter of the entire book), we get a few more doozies, like this one:
[A]n impersonal market separates economic activities from political views and protects men from being discriminated against in their economic activities for reasons that are irrelevant to their productivity--whether these reasons are associated with their views or their color.
That's right, capitalism cures racism now! Forget everything you've heard about that persistent racial wealth gap or the many verifiable instances of employment discrimination based on race, sexuality, gender identity, etc. (and also forget the fact that Friedman opposed any laws against such discrimination); forget that whole thing about black people not being allowed to sit at lunch counters up until the 1960s; forget everything you thought you knew, because it turns out that the free market is the answer to all of it. This book is melting my brain. And to wrap this chapter up, Milton leaves us with this tidbit:
Yet, paradoxically enough, the enemies of the free market--the Socialists and Communists--have been recruited in  disproportionate measure from these groups [African-Americas, Jews and immigrants].  Instead of recognizing that the existence of the market has protected them from the attitudes of their fellow countrymen, they mistakenly attribute the residual discrimination to the market. 
If the market really protected these groups from discrimination, then let's just say I would really, really hate to imagine what they would have gone through with no protection at all. Now please excuse me as I go treat the third-degree burns I have from this scorching hot take.

Now that we've made it to the end of that one chapter, allow me to remind you that this wasn't written by Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh or some other such loudmouth imbecile, but by one of the great gurus and intellectuals behind deregulation and Reaganomics. To this day, a lot of people who support these policies view him as one of the best and smartest spokespeople their ideology has. And the sad thing is, they're probably right about that.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Owning Milton Friedman with Facts and Logic (Part One)

Socialism is making a major comeback in the U.S., as plenty of people will tell you. We've seen a surge in the membership of the Democratic Socialists of America since the 2016 election, a high-ranking Democratic incumbent toppled by a socialist challenger, and according to a Gallup poll released this August, Democrats prefer socialism to capitalism by a clear margin. But not everyone's happy--indeed, there are plenty of people armed with Margaret Thatcher quotes and "pictures of Venezuelan supermarkets" (that are actually pictures of American supermarkets) who are ready to tell you that socialism is not cool and that socialists are dumb idiots who would turn our country into the next Soviet Union.

But of course, those people are only pallid imitations of the real masters of the genre--guys like F.A. Hayek, Ludwig von Mises and, of course, Milton Friedman. For anyone unfamiliar, Milton Friedman was a champion of deregulation who served as one of Ronald Reagan's top economic advisers and helped bring us the global economic crisis we had about a decade ago. He also inspired the economic policies of the brutal dictator Augusto Pinochet, which were such a disaster that Pinochet ended up firing his Friedmanite economic advisers (the "Chicago boys") and nationalizing Chile's financial institutions. So you know his economic arguments have got to be good stuff.

With that in mind, I thought it would be fun to go back and look over Friedman's truly dazzling argument against socialism as expressed in the first chapter of his book Capitalism and Freedom (the full chapter can be read here). Full disclosure: I have not read the rest of this book, but I can only imagine what it's like based on this killer first chapter.
Milton Friedman, deep in thought about how to further screw up
the world economy (Picture from Wikimedia Commons)

Because there is a whole lot to unpack and all of our attention spans are only so long, I have decided to make this a two-part series rather than one single, extra-long post. Part two should be up within a few days after this post is published, so make sure to check my blog's front page for it.

Friedman starts off:
It is widely believed that politics and economics are separate and largely unconnected; that individual freedom is a political problem and material welfare an economic problem; and that any kind of political arrangements can be combined with any kind of economic
arrangements. The chief contemporary manifestation of this idea is the advocacy of "democratic socialism" by many who condemn out of hand the restrictions on individual freedom imposed by "totalitarian socialism" in Russia, and who are persuaded that it is possible for a country to adopt the essential features of Russian economic arrangements and yet to ensure individual freedom through political arrangements.
I'm willing to bet that very few democratic socialist would agree that they're advocating "for a country to adopt the essential features of [Soviet] economic arrangements." Democratic socialism's entire point is democratic control of the economy, whereas in the USSR the economy was managed by a party bureaucracy with no meaningful democratic control. Lenin actually undermined workers' control of the economy (which he basically acknowledged) and strikes were illegal under Soviet law, so the differences between say, Stalin and Rosa Luxemburg were definitely not just based on questions of "individual freedom."

In literally the next sentence, we get this gem: "The thesis of this chapter is that such a view is a delusion, that there is an intimate connection between economics and politics, that only certain combinations of political and economic arrangements are  possible, and that in particular, a society which is socialist cannot also be democratic, in the sense of guaranteeing individual freedom." So the ideology that supports workers controlling the economy through--wait for it--democracy, is not democratic, because it doesn't support "individual freedom." As Friedman probably knew, democracy isn't about individual freedom, it's about rule of the people, but given that his ideology is extremely antidemocratic it's not surprising he would change the definition of the word "democracy".

Things start to get really good when we begin to delve into Friedman's idea of individual liberty, though. He writes:
The citizen of Great Britain, who after World War II was not permitted to spend his vacation in the United States because of exchange control, was being deprived of an essential freedom no less than the citizen of the United States, who was denied the opportunity to spend his vacation in Russia because of his political views. The one was ostensibly an economic limitation on freedom and the other a political limitation, yet there is no essential difference between the two. 
Yes, that crucial liberty to take a vacation overseas--good thing everyone can afford to do that under capitalism! I also seem to remember a certain capitalist country not letting people vacation in Cuba, but somehow that doesn't seem to come up here.

Let's learn more about freedom from Uncle Milty:
The citizen of the United States who is compelled by law to devote something like 10 per cent of his income to the purchase of a particular kind of retirement contract, administered by the government, is being deprived of a corresponding part of his personal freedom...True, the number of citizens who regard compulsory old age insurance as a deprivation of  freedom may be few, but the believer in freedom has never counted noses. 
Yeah, since when do the beliefs of a majority of the people matter for democracy? And again, somehow all the people living in poverty and being paid starvation wages under capitalism don't come up as infringements on freedom anywhere in this chapter--we're too busy focusing on the real issues like government retirement contracts and international vacations. But believe it or not, things are about to get even better.
A citizen of the United States who under the laws of various states is not free to follow the occupation of his own choosing unless he can get a license for it, is likewise being deprived of an essential part of his freedom. So is the man who would like to exchange some of his goods with, say, a Swiss for a watch but is prevented from doing so by a quota. So also is the Californian who was thrown into jail for selling Alka Seltzer at a price below that set by the manufacturer under so-called "fair trade" laws. So also is the farmer who cannot grow the amount of wheat he wants. 
So because I can't just be, say, a heart surgeon without a medical license, I'm being deprived of "an essential part of [my] freedom." Milton Friedman's vision of society is apparently a world where there are just Lucy van Pelt-style booths on every sidewalk for if you need a psychiatrist, or a lawyer, or a pharmacist, because why wouldn't we want just anybody to be able to market their skills in one of those fields? How about driver's licenses, one has to wonder--are those another infringement on essential liberty? As for the Alka Seltzer seller he mentions, not being able to sell a product at a price lower than a limit set by a manufacturer seems like it has more to do with capitalism than socialism. But Milton Friedman believes in that mythical form of capitalism where the market stays free and unregulated, not that awful crony capitalism, which just happens to be the real-life result of his ideas. And on that topic:
The kind of economic organization that provides economic freedom directly, namely, competitive capitalism, also promotes political freedom because it separates economic power from political power and in this way enables the one to offset the other.
Don't you love living under capitalism, where rich people and big business have absolutely no influence on politics? It's a good thing we don't live in a system where the average person's political opinions have basically no influence on public policy or anything like that--good job, capitalism!

"I know of no example in time or place of a society that has been marked by a large measure of political freedom, and that has not also used something comparable to a free market to organize the bulk of economic activity," Friedman wisely tells us right afterward. Funny how the freest countries now seem to have highly regulated economies and generous social services--not exactly what's being promoted here. That's not even to get into libertarian socialist societies like revolutionary Catalonia, Makhnovia, and modern-day Rojava, which are also a pretty strong rebuttal.

From here, our friend Milton starts to explore the history of freedom and the free market, with results that are just fascinating.
History suggests only that capitalism is a necessary condition for political freedom. Clearly it is not a sufficient condition. Fascist Italy and Fascist Spain, Germany at various times in the last seventy years, Japan before World Wars I and II, tzarist Russia in the decades before World War I--are all societies that cannot conceivably be described as politically free. Yet, in each, private enterprise was the dominant form of economic organization. It is therefore clearly possible to have economic arrangements that are fundamentally capitalist and political arrangements that are not free.
Even in those societies, the citizenry had a good deal more freedom than citizens of a modern totalitarian state like Russia or Nazi Germany, in which economic totalitarianism is combined with political totalitarianism. Even in Russia under the Tzars, it was possible for some citizens, under some circumstances, to change their jobs without getting permission from political authority because capitalism and the existence of private property provided some check to the centralized power of the state.
Imperial Russia might have had a life expectancy of somewhere between 20 and 35 and a literacy rate of about one in four, but things weren't all bad, I guess. He continues, "The relation between political and economic freedom is complex and by no means unilateral. In the early nineteenth century...There was a large measure of political reform that was accompanied by economic reform in the direction of a great deal of laissez faire. An enormous increase in the well-being of the masses followed this change in economic arrangements." Nice of Friedman to at least pretend to care about the well-being of "the masses" even if his economic ideas have actually been terrible for them.

"The triumph of Benthamite liberalism in nineteenth-century England was followed by a reaction toward increasing intervention by government in economic affairs. This tendency to collectivism was greatly accelerated, both in England and elsewhere, by the two World Wars. Welfare rather than freedom became the dominant note in democratic countries," our champion of the masses continues. What an awful thought, that people might value the right to not die from treatable diseases or languish in poverty over such crucial freedoms as the right to take an overseas vacation or practice medicine without a license. "Recognizing the implicit threat to individualism, the intellectual descendants of the Philosophical Radicals--Dicey, Mises, Hayek, and Simons, to mention only a few--feared that a continued movement toward centralized control of economic activity would prove The Road to Serfdom, as Hayek entitled his penetrating analysis of the process." For anyone curious, Hayek also happened to be a notable stan of the brutal Pinochet dictatorship. Funny how that works.

Skipping ahead a bit, we come to this passage:
Even in relatively backward societies, extensive division of labor and specialization of function is required to make effective use of available resources. In advanced societies, the scale on which coordination is needed, to take full advantage of the opportunities offered by modern science and technology, is enormously greater. Literally millions of people are involved in providing one another with their daily bread, let alone with their yearly automobiles. The challenge to the believer in liberty is to reconcile this widespread interdependence with individual freedom.

Fundamentally, there are only two ways of co-ordinating the economic activities of millions. One is central direction involving the use of coercion--the technique of the army and of the modern totalitarian state. The other is voluntary co-operation of individuals--the technique of the market place.

The possibility of co-ordination through voluntary co-operation rests on the elementary--yet frequently denied--proposition that both parties to an economic transaction benefit from it, provided the transaction is bi-laterally voluntary and informed. [Italics in this passage and all others from the book are in the the original text.]
Uh-huh, and how voluntary is it when people accept badly paying jobs because the alternative is to be homeless? The idea that an agreement is truly voluntary when it's between a rich corporation and someone whose only alternative is to beg for a living is a bad joke, but also one that libertarianism is based on, so no surprises here.
Exchange can therefore bring about co-ordination without coercion. [Again, only if we accept that someone who takes a low-paying job to avoid starving to death isn't being coerced.] A working model of a society organized through voluntary exchange is a free private enterprise exchange economy--what we have been calling competitive capitalism.
In its simplest form, such a society consists of a number of independent households--a collection of Robinson Crusoes, as it were. Each household uses the resources it controls to produce goods and services that it exchanges for goods and services produced by other households, on terms mutually acceptable to the two parties to the bargain. It is thereby enabled to satisfy its wants indirectly by producing goods and services for others, rather than directly by producing goods for its own immediate use. The incentive for adopting this indirect route is, of course, the increased product made possible by division of labor and specialization of function. Since the household always has the alternative of producing directly for itself, it need not enter into any exchange unless it benefits from it. Hence, no exchange will take place unless both parties do benefit from it. Co-operation is thereby achieved without coercion.
This isn't a description of capitalism. Capitalism is based on wage labor, meaning that the owners of the means of production hire workers to do the actual labor and then the owners sell their goods or services at a profit--so the workers don't get to keep the full fruits of their labor, which is exactly why it's been criticized over and over again by socialists. Everyone is this situation Friedman laid out owns the product they produce and gets to decide what to do with it, and the workers (the households) own and manage the means of production--meaning that Friedman has actually just described a primitive form of socialism. Whatever you think about free markets and free exchange, they're not the same thing as capitalism--but because it would be a lot harder to justify the actual defining characteristic of capitalism (exploitation of labor), Friedman has invented a scenario that has pretty much nothing in common with how capitalism works in the real world.

Friedman's weak attempt to justify the realities of capitalism comes next: "Specialization of function and division of labor would not go far if the ultimate productive unit were the household. In a modern society, we have gone much farther. We have introduced enterprises which are intermediaries between individuals in their capacities as suppliers of service and as purchasers of goods." Thank God for those handy "intermediaries" that let investors and business owners get rich as their employees rely on food stamps to survive. What would we do without them?

Don't worry, though--Uncle Milty has the perfect Free Market solution for beleaguered employees: "The employee is protected from coercion by the employer because of other employers for whom he can work[.]" So if your employer has you working in unsafe conditions for starvation wages, no problem--just quit your job! Checkmate, socialists.

This seems like as good a point as any to wrap up this first installment. Make sure to check back soon for the next one, where Friedman's arguments get a lot more ridiculous than anything we've seen so far. Don't miss it!

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Midterm Mania

November 7, 2018

The great midterm battle-pageant of 2018 is coming to a close, but not without gruesome casualty figures on all sides involved. It has been a long and ugly affair, with no one able to claim a Total Victory now that it is (almost) all said and done. So it's on to the next big rumble as the media turns its sights to 2020, and an election that's looking sure to be a bruiser, not to mention one of the most surreal and weirdest spectacles in modern American history. But we'll save that for later.

Election day got off to a weird start for me, as I stumbled on a story about Harvard astronomers speculating that an "interstellar object" detected last year could actually be some kind of alien spacecraft. "Considering an artificial origin, one possibility is that 'Oumuamua is a light sail, floating in interstellar space as a debris from an advanced technological equipment," the astronomers wrote. It's weird to see something like that in a CNN article and not in some big-budget sci-fi flick, but then again nothing seems that weird anymore. If some advanced alien race were to stumble upon Earth, I suppose it's an open question whether they would even bother to make contact or just obliterate it at first sight to preemptively eliminate any threat its dumb, hairless monkey inhabitants might pose, either through malice or sheer stupidity. And if they chose to enslave us instead, it could well be an improvement.

Enough with that. We're here to talk about midterms. Starting next year, the Democrats are in charge of the House, which they won fair and square despite merciless gerrymandering by their opponents. So the next two years will almost certainly make the last two look dull and tepid and comparison. It will be a constant circus, like some manic combination of the Watergate years and a Tom and Jerry cartoon, as the Democrats launch investigations on multiple fronts and issue subpoena after subpoena and the slobbering orangutan president shrieks about voter fraud and "illegals." He's already started with it, accusing CNN of "voter suppression" at a press conference today. He's like a child that hears a word used and knows it's bad but doesn't quite grasp what it means, and then turns around and uses it anyway.

Nancy Pelosi took the Democratic victory as an opportunity to prattle on about a "bipartisan market of ideas that makes our democracy strong," a phrase so hacky it could have been spat out by a computer program designed to string the most tired political cliches into quasi-coherent sentences. The idea of Nancy Pelosi as speaker once more is a bad side-effect of this otherwise good news, like waking up after a night of heavy drinking to find you've mysteriously traveled back in time by about ten years or so. There could hardly be a weirder or more off-putting anachronism as Speaker of the House if the Democrats elected a fax machine or a Civil War musket--and no, that is not a comment on her age, merely her brand of politics. But it seems all but sure she's got the job, and the Democratic leadership is not exactly full of appealing alternatives.

Meanwhile, the Republicans managed to expand their majority in the Senate--the house of Congress devoted to "protect the minority of the opulent against the majority," in James Madison's words. To give the wealthy elite greater representation in the government than a truly democratic system would allow. This is the second consecutive election where Republicans' asses have been saved by a ridiculous and antiquated element of the government--last time it was the Electoral College, as we all remember. The GOP managed to stomp several Democratic incumbents in red-leaning states, though I'm not sorry to see many of them go--border wall-supporter Joe Donnelly in Indiana, for instance, or Claire McCaskill, who recently went after "crazy Democrats" in a sad attempt to pander to the right. Their fate is well-deserved and they will not be missed by anyone. Let their tales be a reminder of the futility of Democrats tacking right--though the reelection of arch-scumbag Joe Manchin is a rude defiance of that rule.

The loss of Andrew Gillum in Florida was much more disheartening, despite some of his unimpressive pandering in the general election season. Gillum was a genuine progressive, if a flawed one, and Ron DeSantis is a vile little creep. Somewhat mystifyingly, despite electing Republicans for governor and senator, though, the voters of Florida approved an amendment to give voting rights to felons, which is a welcome repeal of a Jim Crow-style disenfranchisement tactic--and one of the other assorted pieces of good news.

There were quite a few of those--Colorado banned prison slavery and elected an openly gay governor, two Muslim women and a Native American lesbian woman were elected to Congress, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez became the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. Indeed, a record number of women were elected to the House--and a crypto-Nazi punk named Kris Kobach went down in flames in Kansas. Not to get sappy or start claiming that Trump doesn't represent "America's Values"--he represents the values of a many Americans, and values with a long and ugly history in America--but it seems clear that despite the political power the ultra-reactionary right wields, the American population is continuing to progress when it comes to marginalized groups like women, people of color and LGBT+ people. The left is still winning the Culture War, and it does occasionally translate into meaningful political successes.

The aftermath of the midterms has already begun, with Trump lashing out at Jim Acosta and firing Jeff Sessions, his elfen-faced white supremacist Attorney General, and replacing him with some stooge named Matthew Whitaker. And Whitaker is now taking control of the Russia investigation from Rod Rosenstein, another target of Trump's contempt. Well, Sessions got exactly the exit he deserved, and I will never stop taking joy in it when Trump turns on his erstwhile supporters with all his rabid, apelike fury. But firing Sessions may have just been a prelude to eliminating his archnemesis Robert Mueller, which would make things very interesting, particularly with an incoming Democratic House.

And so the soap opera goes on.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Free Speech Revisited

The infamous Antifa--bane of the existence of New York Times opinion writers everywhere (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Last year, I published a post on free speech that I recently reread. Not surprisingly, I found that certain parts of it seem less convincing to me than they did back then, because over the course of the last year or so my thinking about freedom of speech has honestly shifted a lot. In my post last year, I took a pretty strong stance in favor of freedom of speech, and made a lot of arguments that are pretty typical in terms of what you'll hear from people who oppose restrictions on speech--some of them I still think hold up, some not so much. So I wanted to reexamine the issue here and talk about how my thinking has changed, and how it hasn't.

Let's start with how it's changed. In my original post I wrote the following:
There is...a moral question to address: is responding to words with force really justified? The rhyme we always use on children, "sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me," is an oversimplification, of course, but it isn't without a great deal of truth. Fining or imprisoning a person damages them in a tangible way; words do not. Again, I am fully aware of the emotional distress words can cause, but trying to create a world in which no one is ever upset by anything anyone else says is neither practical nor desirable.
This is definitely one of the points I was least impressed with when I recently reread the post. Being exposed to hate speech does, indeed, lead to harms as tangible as any. In fact, earlier in the same piece I even quoted this from an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times:
Racist hate speech has been linked to cigarette smoking, high blood pressure, anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, and requires complex coping strategies. Exposure to racial slurs also diminishes academic performance. Women subjected to sexualized speech may develop a phenomenon of “self-objectification,” which is associated with eating disorders. 
These negative physical and mental health outcomes — which embody the historical roots of race and gender oppression — mean that hate speech is not “just speech.” Hate speech is doing something. It results in tangible harms that are serious in and of themselves and that collectively amount to the harm of subordination. The harm of perpetuating discrimination. The harm of creating inequality.
The idea that hate speech causes no "tangible harm" is absurd and I was obviously trying to overlook evidence that contradicted what I wanted to believe, relying on the dumb and weak argument that because being exposed to hateful speech doesn't leave a bruise or reduce the amount of money in your bank account, that means the harm it causes doesn't really count. Even though I made an attempt to be sensitive, I ultimately ended up reducing the real negative effects on mental and even physical health that hate speech has to "hurt feelings," which is particularly indefensible. It's the same argument that far-right shitheads like Ben Shapiro and Milo Yiannopoulos make, fundamentally.

It also overlooks the very real role of propaganda in helping extremely destructive movements gain political power. Certainly the right to freedom of speech--and the closely related right to freedom of assembly--are important for fascist and other far-right parties and organizations to build support and work their way up to the highest levels of government. These political factions can end up killing large numbers of people when they attain power, and the role of propaganda, rallies, marches etc. in that rise to power is far from negligible. Even if the connection between cause and effect isn't as readily obvious or immediate as, say, the connection between someone punching another person in the face and the second person getting a black eye, it's still very real. So, like a lot of stuff we tell kids, "sticks and stones..." is just another nugget of bullshit that should be disregarded by anyone over the age of sixteen or so.

The next paragraph has not held up much better in my view:
Facing offensive speech head-on offers a clarity that censorship cannot: it allows us to figure out why these utterances are so repulsive to us, rather than simply attacking those who make them. Further, as Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote, "Our government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher. For good or for ill, it teaches the whole people by its example." If the government punishes people for their speech, does it not encourage intolerance and force over rational debate?
Nobody needs to hear racial slurs or Nazi propaganda to know they're opposed to it and understand why they're opposed to it, and the idea that banning genuine hate speech would push us toward some point where we're unable to have a discussion that doesn't break out into a fistfight is beyond stupid--not to mention disproven by the countries that actually have hate speech laws and still manage to have intelligent discussions free of violence or irrational intolerance.

In general, a lot of my argument in favor of free speech is premised on the idea that Saner Heads Will Prevail--that the most intelligent and rational arguments will win out when all perspectives are given a fair hearing. History has shown over and over again that this is not how things work, and it's delusional to cling to that idea when Donald Trump managed to get elected president. And rational arguments do nothing to alleviate the real damage done to people who are exposed to hate speech.

As the first paragraph I quoted indicates, I also clung to the idea that people have a moral right to say what they want--that it is inherently Wrong and Bad to try to shut down any speech, regardless of how reprehensible it is. I no longer stand by this at all. Speech that is designed to dehumanize other people is in no way deserving of tolerance of any sort, and political propaganda that furthers the goals of destructive movements isn't either. We are not morally obligated to allow people to utter or publish speech that falls into these categories, and there's nothing inherently immoral, in my opinion, in preventing them from doing so or punishing them for doing so (depending on how these things are done, of course).

I also fell into the trap of seeing free speech as a good in and of itself--an approach that's pushed heavily in the United States. We are told that it is taking the moral high ground to let Nazis march in a Jewish neighborhood and allow the Klan to hold rallies (and even provide police protection for such assemblies, lest anyone try to disrupt them with violence). That's how I used to think, for sure, but not anymore. The idea that giving fascists and racists the right to spread their propaganda and organize to further their cause is somehow noble or good is widely held, but I can't see any reason we should continue to believe it. Are we supposed to think that we're not entitled to express our own views unless we give that same right to people whose goal is to terrorize racial and ethnic minorities? I'm pretty comfortable with the principle that people who want to commit genocides, and hope to use speech to further that cause, are no longer entitled to freedom of speech.

So, that's how my opinion has changed: I no longer believe that we have any moral imperative to respect others' right to free speech, when those others are racists, Nazis, Klansmen, etc., who are using that right to further their evil causes or insult and dehumanize vulnerable groups--and I no longer think that allowing these voices to be heard is in and of itself a valuable thing. No--when bigots are prevented from making their bigotry heard, that is a good thing, in my opinion. And, to the extent that hate speech laws actually discourage real hate speech (i.e. speech designed to dehumanize and attack vulnerable groups) and political propaganda for destructive ideologies such as Nazism and racism, hate speech laws are good. Obviously, these views are a radical departure from the ones I expressed in July of last year, which is the result of a lot of contemplation and internal debate on my part.

So, how have my views stayed the same? Well, obviously on a moral and theoretical level they have changed completely--but when it comes to the practical arguments my old blog post makes, I think they largely hold up. For instance:
If nothing else, pure self-interest should be a motivating factor for the support of freedom of speech...Some leftists may be thrilled with France's anti-hate speech laws, but they may be less thrilled with France's crackdown on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement under the pretense that it is hate speech. Not surprisingly, giving those in power permission to censor certain viewpoints means they are likely to use that power to censor the viewpoints they dislike...As a leftist, I have to note that it is stunningly shortsighted of my fellow leftists to support giving the government the power of censorship while expecting it not to be used against us.
This I still wholeheartedly believe. Indeed, any leftist wanting to give the US government greater power to punish speech it doesn't like must be insane, if not downright suicidal. The example I cited about BDS in France is just one illustration of how hate speech laws are likely to backfire against the left. And, as I noted earlier in the post, "in point of fact, hate speech restrictions do not seem to have been especially effective at squelching out fascism and racism, given the rise of far-right parties across Europe." For this reason, hate speech laws still strike me as a bad idea--while they surely have some positive effects, the potential for abuse is high, and ultimately they don't seem to be all that effective in actually eliminating hate. Or even keeping it from becoming a major political force, for that matter. The cons seem to outweigh the pros, in my opinion, particularly in a country like the US where the government has a long history of attacking left-wing movements. None of the rebuttals to this argument that I've heard or seen have come close to being convincing.

It also still strikes me as generally a bad idea to try to chase objectionable speakers off of college campuses or prevent them from speaking. It always seems to fuel the anti-PC hysteria and result in more tedious articles from Jonathan Chait and Bari Weiss about the dangers of the illiberal left--and, given the media attention it draws, it's hardly effective in actually denying the speaker themselves a platform. Of course, there are considerations that should come into account when deciding whether someone should be allowed to speak on campus--if they're likely to use their platform to make students less safe, for instance by targeting and harassing a transgender students like Milo Yiannopoulos did; or if they're likely attract dangerous and violent people to the campus and the area around it, like Richard Spencer did. But when it comes to a more "academically" racist old coot like Charles Murray, or some idiot troll like Christina Hoff Sommers, it's probably best to just ignore them, or to show up and protest but keep it "civil." It's not that they deserve it, it's just a matter of optics.

So, what about antifa, and black bloc-style tactics against far-right marches and rallies? I spoke out against them in my previous post. I guess you could say my feelings are pretty mixed. I absolutely value antifa, and I don't think it's fair to reduce their movement to just punching Nazis. It's important to show up and confront racists and fascists--and given that their ideologies are based on violence, it's important to be ready to respond in kind if violence breaks out. And I think that being an active Nazi, or a white nationalist, or whatever, absolutely means you deserve to get beaten up. But, yeah, black-masked anarchists crashing through police barricades and beating people with clubs or whatever probably is not great optics for the left. And while it might make those on the far right less likely to hold assemblies (a good thing), I'm not sure how much it does to actually defeat the far right politically given that we live in the age of the Internet--which makes it pretty easy to spread ideas with no marches or rallies necessary--and that the people who faithfully vote Republican in every election are frankly a much bigger threat to the world than the dorks who show up for alt-right rallies. But I've already changed my mind on a lot of things, and maybe my mind will change about this too.

So I guess from a practical standpoint, my thinking on free speech hasn't changed much. As distasteful as it is to me, even the ACLU's practice of defending Nazis' right to free speech may be valuable in that it helps discourage and prevent any attempts by the government to restrict speech--and it's no secret that if the government got free rein to crack down on speech they don't like, they'd be using that power against the left and not just the far right. But a lot of the more theoretical or moral arguments in favor of free speech ring completely hollow to me--including the ones I made just last year. It was a lot easier, to be frank, when I could wholeheartedly embrace the cause of free speech--and it would probably be easier now if I could believe that hate speech laws and beating up Nazis were completely productive approaches. But I can at least know that my beliefs now are the result of a more honest examination than the ones I held when I wrote my blog post last year, and for that reason I wanted to put them out there.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Dear Liberals: Republicans Aren't Your Friends

By the time I've published this, Brett Kavanaugh will probably have been confirmed to the Supreme Court. This is bad news for many women, labor unions and a lot of other people, but pretty good news for Clarence Thomas, who's now only the second-biggest sex creep out of the nine justices. The final vote hasn't happened yet as of my writing these words, but every Republican senator except Lisa Murkowski has come out in support of Bart O'Kavanaugh, and all of them (again except Murkowksi) voted to proceed with his nomination. This is after Jeff Flake and Susan Collins both made a big show out of being undecided and supporting an FBI investigation. Once the FBI had completed an extremely half-assed investigation, they both decided that was good enough and they could now support the Kav without shattering their image as independent-minded, post-partisan American Heroes.

Which leads me to the main thrust of this blog post. I want to address a misconception that I see among a lot of liberals. In particular, older liberals seem to cling to it. So to any liberals who are reading this, let me say something extremely simple, but equally important, which is this: Republicans are not your friends. I don't mean that you shouldn't be friends with regular people who happen to be registered Republicans, I mean the Republicans in Congress and in the media. They are not your friends. They are your enemies, and the enemies of any positive future for the country and the world.

Sen. Jeff Flake (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Now--if you're a liberal--this might seem obvious. You're probably thinking of guys like Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan and other such walking piles of trash. That's not who I'm talking about. Of course, everything I said above applies to them, but they're not the ones I'm writing this post about. I'm talking about the assholes like to pretend they're Very Upset about Trump's lack of decor when he tweets something stupid but then turn around and help him actively screw over millions of people. These are people like Ben Sasse, Susan Collins, the late John McCain (as previously discussed) and of course the aptly named Jeff Flake.

Let us keep in mind, for starters, that every Republican senator except Lisa Murkowski supports Brett Kavanaugh even after multiple women have very credibly accused him of sexual assault. And while, yes, Murkowksi deserves a very small amount of credit for coming out against the Kavster, let's not forget she voted to put Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court, and that his vote was crucial in the Janus decision (which said public sector employees can't be required to contribute to the unions that represent their interests), the decision to uphold Trump's travel ban, and doubtless will also be a deciding vote for many other horrible decisions that make life worse for large numbers of people.

Yes, some of the "moderate" Republicans have defected from the party line at crucial moments, such as during the attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, but they don't deserve brownie points for doing the right thing every once in a while when the rest of the time they do things that make life harder and more miserable for vast numbers of people. If they really wanted to act as a check against Trump, they could become independents, or Democrats, or at least stop supporting the worst and most destructive things he does.

The point of this, by the way, isn't about how they are as people--whether they're doing what they think is right, and mean well, and are sincere. There's a strong case to be made that Jeff Flake and Susan Collins are grandstanding frauds who want to be lauded by the media and by Democrats while quietly enabling Trump's agenda, but that's not the point. Even if they and the other Trump-critical Republicans are completely sincere and well-intentioned, it only shows their view of the world is dangerous and delusional in the extreme and that they are in no way useful allies.

While we're at it, all of this also applies to #Resistance heroes like David Frum and Bill Kristol, who have won plaudits by reinventing themselves as anti-Trump Republicans. These guys, granted, might be more genuinely anti-Trump than Flake et al., but their ideas are still absolutely awful. Both Kristol and Frum continue to defend the Iraq War, the worst war crime of the twenty-first century so far and an atrocity that killed an estimated several hundred thousand people. Even Trump has said the Iraq War was a terrible idea.

You might be tempted to respond at this point by quoting Frederick Douglass: "I would unite with anybody to do right; and with nobody to do wrong." Or to point out that Hitler was able to rise to power partially because of how divided the opposition was. To which I say: yeah, if any of these jerks actually offer some useful form of resistance to Trump, support them in that particular instance. If they're actually doing something that might make the world a better place, join them in that particular endeavor. But supporting them when they actually do something good doesn't mean you have to heap praise on them for their courageous opposition to Trump, and their condemnations of Trump are cheap and useless. No one cares when Jeff Flake whines about Trump saying a mean thing or David Frum writes a piece saying that he's just like Fredo Corleone. These things change exactly zero people's minds and effect no change whatsoever. Neither deserves praise when their authors are so completely awful in every other respect.

So, please: stop praising these people. Stop treating them as some kind of antidote to Trump. Their ideology helped lead to Trump and they have absolutely nothing to offer. They are not useful as allies. One of the problems Hillary Clinton experienced in 2016 was a major decline in minority turnout. Is allying with "moderate" Republicans the key to bringing black and Hispanic voters back to the polls? Will it help turn out young voters, do you think? These people are clinging to some pre-Trump conservatism that has been soundly defeated in their own party--Republicans overwhelmingly approve of Trump's performance as president. There is no actual base for their ideas.

On the other hand, there is a real surge that we're seeing on the left, with incumbent Democrats being unseated by upstart progressive challengers, widespread support for Medicare-for-All, and a surge in membership for the Democratic Socialists of America. These are the people to pay attention to if you care about bringing down Trump. Maybe you don't agree with all the ideas that some of the more left-leaning segments of the population hold, but you have no excuse for refusing to ally with them if you've been drooling over every Republican that coughs up some lame criticism of Trump.