Tuesday, December 16, 2014

On Recognizing Military Despotism

If we regard certain recent events as forming a pattern, there is ample cause for alarm. Lately, the American people have been reminded of the fact that our military has engaged in torturing prisoners of war. We have seen that police officers in numerous states have taken it upon themselves to slaughter civilians on the mere suspicion of guilt, or as a reflex response to real or imagined dangers to themselves posed by unarmed teenagers. We have also seen the militarization of the police, where with increasing frequency officers who clearly cannot be entrusted with side-arms are being equipped with assault rifles, tear gas, and armored tanks. Abroad, it has become routine for members of our military to kill individuals merely on the basis of suspicion that they may be involved in terrorist conspiracies, and time and again, the poor judgment of drone operators has caused the death of children, members of wedding parties, and other innocents. 

It is important to dig a little deeper into the Founders’ 
thinking with respect to the connections among brutality in
law enforcement, orders to military personnel to engage in
torturing and murdering innocents, class struggle, and tyranny. 

Now, it is obvious that the Founders would have objected to these developments. They saw first-hand the abuse of military power by the British Empire, and crafted a Constitution that enshrined ideals such as the presumption of innocence and due process. Cruel and unusual punishments are explicitly banned. Moreover, the Founders left us with numerous warnings of the dangers inherent in a standing army. Specifically, there is a danger that an armed force can be used to crush political dissent, and the mere existence of this potential will embolden corrupt political leaders to embrace despotic rule. 

It is important to dig a little deeper into the Founders’ thinking with respect to the connections among brutality in law enforcement, orders to military personnel to engage in torturing and murdering innocents, class struggle, and tyranny. One tyrant whose name was familiar to the Founders was Draco. The expression “draconian punishment” is an allusion to him. This tyrant had decided to punish nearly every criminal offense with death.

A founder by the name of James Wilson used the example of Draco to argue that in a Republican government where Liberty is honored, punishments ought to be mild. Mr. Wilson wrote, “The laws, which Draco framed for Athens, are said emphatically to have been written in blood. What did they produce? An aggravation of those very calamities, which they were intended to remove.” 

Wilson reasoned that the continued application of harsh punishment will, in time, “introduce and diffuse a hardened insensibility among the citizens; and this insensibility, in its turn, gives occasion or pretence to the farther extension and multiplication of those penalties. Thus one degree of severity opens and smooths the way for another, till, at length, under the specious appearance of necessary justice, a system of cruelty is established by law.” 

The events in Ferguson, Missouri attest to this fact of human nature. When a police officer killed an unarmed civilian over a trivial offense, this did not inspire the people of Ferguson to respect the law more highly. We saw just the opposite: we saw riots and acts of defiance against the law. Why? Because people who know that their lives are held cheap have nothing to lose, nothing to fear, and nothing to hope for. 

Likewise, one defense expert believes that “al-Qaida is gaining strength in Pakistan, is stronger in Iraq than it was three or four years ago and is stronger in Syria than it was a year or two ago (source).” In another article, it is asserted that:

Drone strikes are causing more and more Yemenis to hate America and join radical militants; they are not driven by ideology but rather by a sense of revenge and despair. Robert Grenier, the former head of the C.I.A.’s counterterrorism center, has warned that the American drone program in Yemen risks turning the country into a safe haven for Al Qaeda like the tribal areas of Pakistan — “the Arabian equivalent of Waziristan” (source).
It is therefore reasonable to suppose that the so-called War on Terror is intended only to suppress a population that has been taught to hate us. As such, this war cannot end until the United States fails to maintain control. We saw this in the British occupation of India. We saw this in the U.S. occupation of South Vietnam. We are seeing this in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was a lesson that the Roman Empire learned millennia ago. 

Returning to James Wilson’s argument against draconian law, “Such a system is calculated to eradicate all the manly sentiments of the soul, and to substitute, in their place, dispositions of the most depraved and degrading kind. It is the parent of pusillanimity. A nation broke to [willing to exercise] cruel punishments becomes dastardly and contemptible. For, in nations, as well as individuals, cruelty is always attended by cowardice. It is the parent of slavery. In every government, we find the genius of freedom depressed in proportion to the sanguinary spirit of the laws. It is hostile to the prosperity of nations, as well as to the dignity and virtue of men.” 

Wilson’s insight appears to describe the current situation we face in the United States. And, in closing, it is of particular interest to see what that great historian Plutarch had to say about the political situation that led to Draco’s ascendency: 

At that time … the disparity between the rich and the poor had culminated, as it were, and the city was in an altogether perilous condition; it seemed as if the only way to settle its disorders and stop its turmoils was to establish a tyranny. All the common people were in debt to the rich. For they either tilled their lands for them, paying them a sixth of the increase … or else they pledged their persons for debts and could be seized by their creditors, some becoming slaves at home, and others being sold into foreign countries (source).

And it also bears noting that Solon, who replaced Draco with the charge of correcting his predecessor's excesses, immediately granted mortgage amnesty, to eliminate the serfdom of the many at the hands of the few. Today, we still associate the name "Solon" with wisdom.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Making Sense of Ferguson

Following the incident in Ferguson, Missouri, there is reason to believe that police officers are free to murder civilians with impunity. Granted, there is a difference of opinion on whether the officer who killed Michael Brown was justified in doing so. And out of respect for this difference of opinion, I am saying “reason to believe” even though my first inclination was to write “definitive proof.” I won’t try to conceal my personal bias, which rests on the conviction that people who possess lethal weapons have a responsibility to use them with restraint, and to place a check on their own cowardly impulse to kill rather than accept even the barest hint of danger to their own safety.

In reflecting on the Ferguson killing, I eventually realized that if one is to believe in some of the principles on which this country is founded, one must have courage. It takes courage to believe that a person is innocent until proven guilty. It takes courage to believe that every citizen has a right to the due process of law. It takes courage to accept a form of government that values the lives of all of its citizens, as opposed to a form of government where force is absolute and disobedience is not tolerated.

When people lack courage, they won’t honestly admit to being cowards. They won’t admit it, but they reject the credo, “He who sacrifices freedom for security deserves neither.” Instead, they hide behind a veil of self-righteousness. 

The George Wallace Republican

George Wallace is the archetypal conservative coward, who was so frightened by the idea of black children mixing with white children that he declared, “As your governor, I shall resist any illegal federal court order, even to the point of standing at the schoolhouse door in person, if necessary.” He was so frightened of civil disobedience that he said, “If any demonstrator ever lays down in front of my car, it'll be the last car he'll ever lay down in front of.” This is part of that same unfortunate tradition which goes back to the Jim Crow era, in which blacks were punished for walking on the same side of the street as whites.

The George Wallace Republican of today does not openly espouse racist attitudes and may not see him- or herself as racist. To illustrate the self-righteous attitude behind which moral cowardice lurks, refer to Rod Dreher’s stunningly obtuse piece, titled Tips for Not Getting Shot by Cops. It includes advice such as “When a police officer tells you to stop walking down the middle of the road, do what he says.” I agree that citizens ought to comply with police officers’ instructions, but the article is galling in its failure to explain why it is that African Americans keep getting killed by police when they have committed minor infractions, or in the case of Eric Garner, they have committed no crime at all other than exhibiting uppity behavior. 

The Al Sharpton Democrat

Al Sharpton became famous in the 1980’s for championing the cause of Tawana Brawley, a girl who claimed that she had been raped by five white men. It turned out that Ms. Brawley had been lying about the whole thing. Mr. Sharpton was not ashamed of having tarnished the reputations of the falsely accused (among whom were a police officer and district attorney), but has instead made a career of showing up wherever an outrage against racial equality has occurred. Like the Biblical hypocrites, he steals the limelight from the victims and parades his own high-mindedness in front of the cameras. 

For a while, Ms. Brawley had been a cause célèbre. Celebrities including Bill Cosby offered a reward for evidence that would bring the rapists to justice. Mr. Cosby was perhaps grateful for the opportunity to publicly demonstrate his commendable attitudes. 

The Al Sharpton Democrat cares about racial injustice but enjoys a certain detachment. It is enough to declare one's opinion that the Michael Brown shooting was wrong. There is no reason to consider one's own complicity in creating a situation in which African American men are second class citizens who are feared and hated by the police officers who are charged with protecting them.

One Whig’s Opinion

We live in a society where many people are disadvantaged. And it is clear that a disproportionate number of the disadvantaged are members of racial or ethnic minority groups. Many people believe that the situation can be best explained in terms of racism. 

It is possible, however, that the root of the problem is the ongoing program by a privileged few to control the means of enjoying political influence and wealth. The privileged few may be composed of a disproportionate number of whites. Yet, the problem is not intrinsically a problem of race.

Whites are not exempt from suffering extreme political and economic disadvantage. Nor can we expect that privileged black people will remember and take to heart the historical legacy of their race (example).

Although it is almost certainly true that Michael Brown would not have been killed if he had been white, there are two ways of viewing this situation. The more popular view is that this is strictly a matter of race; thus, whites do not need to worry about being shot in the street like dogs. 

The less popular view is that the injustice that we allow blacks to suffer will, in time, be suffered by whites. The political and economic disadvantage that others suffer, we will suffer in time. And we may someday lament the fact that the American people did not declare with firmness and unanimity that the death of Michael Brown was an injustice that can never be repeated.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Contempt Toward the Electorate is a Proof of Despotism

The fear of the LORD is to hate evil: pride, and arrogance, and the evil way, and the fraudulent mouth, do I hate. – Proverbs, 8:13
Recently, an architect of Obamacare by the name of Jonathan Gruber became an Internet sensation. A video shows him passionately explaining to an audience why a “lack of transparency” is key to the success of legislation. I understand and respect the point of view of Mr. Gruber’s defenders. It is true that legislation need not be clearly stated in order to benefit the public good. As society becomes more complex, the solutions to social problems are liable to become more complex as well. It is highly unlikely that every member of the voting public will have a full grasp of what it is he or she is supporting or opposing. 

But I also understand the point of view of his detractors. It is troubling that the ordinary voter cannot independently evaluate the merits of the Obamacare legislation unless he or she has a law degree or an in-depth knowledge of health economics. 
What is more troubling is that Mr. Gruber’s attitude displays a “we know what is best for the voters even if the voters do not know what is best for them” attitude. The latter reminds me of Heraclitus’ adage: “beasts are driven by blows to pasture.” The voters, then, are dumb brutes, led in the right direction by the judicious application of the shepherd’s staff. 

If he thinks so little of the public, can we be confident that he has the best interests of the public at heart? And more to the point, if there is any element of truth to the notion that voters are incompetent to govern themselves, why is this so? Is it the fault of the American people, or is this the result of designing political leaders who wish to draw more power onto themselves?

The Gruber video played nicely into an article of faith long held by conservatives: namely, that liberals are elitists. By implication, conservatives are more in tune with the sensibilities of voters who have not had the benefit of an Ivy League education, or the cultural advantages that come from being born in a Blue State. 

It bears noting that contempt for voters is not confined to liberals. During the 2012 election, Mr. Romney’s advisor Eric Fehrnstrom said on CNN, “Everything changes … “It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again.” He was alluding to voters’ short memories. Words had been said during the primaries that Romney could afford to forget about during the general election. There was also that caught-on-tape moment of Romney candor, when the candidate himself dismissed 47% of the electorate as unworthy of consideration. 

Mr. Romney is an unusual case, however. He is unusually outspoken – a veritable Marie Antoinette of the Republican Party. He was visibly distressed at having to mix with the hoi polloi during his campaign for office, when he would’ve been much happier attending dressage events or playing with his vast collection of luxury antique and modern automobiles. What is more common is for Republicans to don the mantle of folksiness. We saw that with George W. Bush, the Connecticut-raised plutocrat who cultivated a Texan twang and mangled the English language, and Ronald Reagan, who could neutralize a hard fact simply by smiling at it.  

Typically, conservatives express contempt for voters by making ostensibly factual statements which insult the voters’ intelligence. For example, they’ve been saying that the United States is on the verge of being invaded by members of the Islamic State crossing the Mexican border. This is an absurd statement, both because there is a complete absence of any evidence in support of the claim, and because IS members who wished to visit the United States wouldn’t need to climb over the fence between Mexico and the U.S. but could simply use their legal passports and fly in on commercial flights (source). 

Do Voters Really Believe That?

Now, I am going to suggest that American voters ought to get more respect. But I can’t honestly press that case without acknowledging that voters are willing to accept a lot of far-fetched ideas. Whether it is an ISIS invasion through Mexico or the idea of government-appointed Death Panels or anything coming from the mouth of Michele Bachmann, there seems to be no limit to what some people are willing to believe. 

Let’s start with the idea of Death Panels. Lots of conservatives seemed to believe the claim that the Obamacare legislation contained a provision mandating that health care providers try to press senior citizens to opt for euthanasia. If a voter lacks formal education, is told this by elected political leaders, and is surrounded by people who are saying this is true, then it is really no surprise that the voter ends up believing it. But really, it doesn’t matter how smart you are, if you are surrounded by false information you are apt to believe some of it. 

And that whole idea of Death Panels was true, in a certain light. Obamacare really is a frightening thing. The idea of Death Panels is valid insofar as it conveys the emotional truth, “There are provisions lurking beneath the surface that are liable to harm us.” Honestly, I wished more people had been paying attention to the omens. Americans have been placed under a legal obligation to give their hard-earned money over to private insurance companies, and the economic incentives are such that insurance companies will try to trim benefits, increase rates, and kick people off the plan (which in fact happened during the initial roll-out, despite the fact that Obamacare was supposedly guaranteed to all who qualified). Being turned down for benefits or knocked off a medical plan can, and does, kill people. 

In other words, there are different kinds of intelligence. A formally-educated person can grasp technical language and abstract ideas, but still be fooled by articulate lies. A person may lack formal education but nonetheless know the different between an honest deal and a con.

Mind you, it’s not just Republicans who believe crazy ideas. Democrats believe that handing health insurance over to private insurers is “health care reform.” That’s kind of like believing, “we ought to leave bank regulation to people who used to work for Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan” – oh wait, people actually do believe that. OR rather, we could assume that the people who voted for Obama in 2012 believe that this is a wise course, because that is exactly what Obama did during his first term (source). And Republican members of Congress have gone along with this. 

The bottom line: if you’ve voted Republican or Democrat in recent years, you must believe that foxes are ideal candidates for guarding hen-houses. 

The Unfortunate Truth

Political scientists at Princeton recently completed an in-depth study of the American political process. They concluded that when a majority of voters favor a position that is at odds with the position favored by economic elites and/or with organized interests, even when they favor it by a large majority, they usually lose (source). This speaks to the closing point of this essay: namely, that corruption has become a defining feature of the political process in this country. In taking stock of the facts, one is inevitably drawn to the conclusion that this corruption must exist in both political parties.

Styles of voting

Political leaders are contemptuous of the average intelligence of the American public, but the wisdom of the public is nonetheless demonstrated by the fact that it clearly recognizes the existence of widespread corruption. A majority of Americans, for example, favor campaign finance reform (source). A majority of Americans believe that the economy would be revitalized by means of public investment in infrastructure (source). A majority believe that defense spending is too high (source). A majority understand that Obamacare would have been of far greater benefit to the American people if private insurers had been forced to compete against public providers of health care (source). 

As expressed by one political analyst, ordinary voters understand that “the fix is in” and that they are “powerless in an economy run for the benefit of the rich and well-connected (source).” Our political leaders know full well that the country is under the control of oligarchs. When our leaders display contempt for the intelligence of the American voter, they are letting slip the arrogance of power, and revealing the true face of despotism. Aristotle said that “governments which have a regard to the common interest are constituted in accordance with strict principles of justice, and are therefore true forms; but those which regard only the interest of the rulers are all defective and perverted forms, for they are despotic.”

I'd be far more willing to trust in legislation that I cannot fully comprehend if I were confident that our leaders were not corrupt. As it stands, it is best that legislation be as simple and transparent as possible.