Sunday, March 30, 2014

Forming a Successful Political Coalition II. Transcending Divisive Social Issues

Skeptics of the two-party system have observed that, with respect to economic issues, both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party follow the same neoliberal agenda. What distinguishes the two parties is that the former is more “liberal” in terms of social issues and the latter is more “conservative.” So, for example, a socially liberal person may remain loyal to the Democratic Party because he or she supports gay marriage, even if he or she is frequently disappointed by the failure of the Democratic Party to take a strong position against larcenous bankers, corporate oligarchs, and war profiteers. A socially conservative person may remain loyal to the Republican Party because he or she opposes gay marriage, even if he or she is frequently disappointed by that party’s performance in other policy areas.
It is essential that Americans participate in a broad political coalition that is capable of challenging the two-party duopoly. To build this coalition, it will be necessary to confront these divisive social issues and find a way past them.
Let’s consider gay marriage and the desire to protect members of the lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender (LGBT) community from workplace discrimination. Many social conservatives are members of evangelical Christian communities. They are taught by their pastors that homosexuality as a sin. Children are taught this by their parents. And there are undoubtedly countless school teachers who convey, year in and year out, an implicit or explicit disapprobation of homosexuality. This sort of cultural conditioning will foment visceral feelings of disgust toward homosexuality.
There is no point in arguing that antipathy toward the LGBT community is something that can be kept out of politics. Perhaps dedication to the 1st Amendment guarantee of freedom of religion ought to restrain people from applying their religious views to the question of LGBT civil rights, but it doesn’t.  Politics comes down to matters of personal judgment and personal judgment is apt to be colored by religious convictions. The Founders grappled with the same issue. Even though they gave us the 1st Amendment, and even though it is clear that their intention was to establish a country where people of any faith could find equal representation under the law, their judgment of what is just or unjust was colored by Christian beliefs. This is not necessarily a bad thing. 
Sergius & Bacchus: Gay saints?
 To form a new political coalition, it is not enough to say, “Let’s agree to put aside these contentious social issues until we have jailed the bankers, put an end to government collusion with anti-American and anti-free-market multinational corporations, and defeated the war-mongering military-industrial complex.” I wish that it were that easy. But it is not that easy because gays who wish to marry will not – and should not be expected to – wait until economic injustices are resolved.
What is realistic, however, is to conscientiously set out to reduce the level of rancor that these social issues generate. Currently, Americans are divided by intense mutual animosity. There are the zealous opponents of the so-called “homosexual agenda” or “homosexual lifestyle” on one hand. On the other hand, there are zealous advocates of LGBT rights who delight in ridiculing, pathologizing, or baiting the so-called “homophobes” among us. There are those who absolutely must march, dressed in drag or skin-tight latex shorts, at St. Patrick’s Day parades. The hothouse flowers – which is to say, teachers and students at small liberal arts colleges – use the term “cis-male” to refer (pejoratively) to men who behave like heterosexuals.
The level of passion exhibited on both sides of the debate has taken on the character of a life-or-death struggle: if we relent in our efforts, the thinking goes, our opponents will gain the upper hand. If that were to come to pass, the future would be unspeakably grim. Thomas Jefferson was wont to use the expression, “we have the wolf by the ear and feel the danger of either holding or letting him loose.” So it is with partisans on each side of these social issues: they feel that they can neither relent in their struggle nor coexist peacefully with their opponents.
In order to transcend this rancor, it is necessary to understand its origin. I’ve suggested that anti-gay sentiment is consistent with some interpretations of the Christian scripture. But this does not provide a full explanation, because early Christians did not hesitate to preside over gay marriages and Sergius and Bacchus, who were almost certainly gay, are saints (source). And really, any Christian has a choice between heeding the words of the law-giving, punitive God of Leviticus or the words of that radically tolerant Son of God who told us to love our neighbor and to refrain from casting stones. The question is then one of uncovering the motivations that guide Christians toward certain passages and interpretations, and away from other passages and interpretations.
The broader concern among evangelical Christians appears to be that the family is under attack, by which they mean an intact nuclear family with a husband, a wife and offspring. In times of spiritual doubt Christians seek clarity. Their approach to defending the family is to state, in no uncertain terms, what it is and what it is not. Unfortunately for the LGBT community, many evangelicals appear to be in agreement that what the family is not is best summed up by the title of the book Heather has Two Mommies.
What could give rise to this perception of the family being under attack? Is this perception solely attributable to the existence of an influential LGBT rights movement? Or is this perception sustained by evangelical Christians’ concerns about the proliferation of divorce, pornography, vulgarity, obscenity, profanity, and secularism? If so, we may ask, are these concerns legitimate?
It’s probably true that Roman tyranny sustained itself for many years by ensuring that the people were provided with bread and circuses. And it’s probably true that if Americans spent as much time engaged in the careful study of politics as they do watching pornography on the Internet, we’d have a much better-informed electorate. It doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch to conjecture that this compulsion for momentary gratification fosters self-absorption, and self-absorption in turn fosters a combination of self-neglect and callous disregard toward the lives of others.
Spiritual philosophy, in its truest form, guides us to a keener awareness of the subtle consequences of own own behavior. It reminds us of the necessity of compassion. What is singularly lacking among anti-gay zealots and gay-rights zealots is compassion toward those with whom they disagree. And without compassion, rapprochement between the two camps will never happen.
I’ll suggest that the rancor occasioned by these divisive social issues is indicative of a primitive “in-group / out-group” mentality. It is sheer emotivism – that is, espousing beliefs and engaging in actions simply because they express one’s own prejudices and appeal to one’s own vanity. The ascendency of primitive thinking is very likely a symptom of the profound anxiety that 99% of Americans feel: anxiety occasioned by a lack of job security, the fact that it is nearly impossible to save as much for retirement as one must, the prospect of life-long peonage to student loans and mortgages, and the sense that their government is becoming increasingly hostile toward the interests of the poor and middle class.
To follow up on that last point, anxiety about the satisfaction of basic human needs, according to Abraham Maslow, leads to a more primitive way of thinking. Likewise, confidence in the ability to satisfy one’s basic needs leads to self-realization and compassion toward others. Maslow’s thinking may be usefully supplemented by Alderfer’s consideration of the forces that act against self-actualization. This is shown in the figure below. I will conclude by suggesting that the creation of a viable political coalition to challenge the two-party duopoly will be aided if its members find the courage and strength of will necessary to transcend primitive emotivism (despite their anxiety) and hold fast to spiritually-informed, compassionate rationality. Once this elevation of consciousness is achieved, it is likely that these divisive social issues will cease to divide. 
Maslow &Alderfer believed that sophistication of thinking is partly determined by quality of life

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Forging a Successful Political Coalition: On Recognizing Corporatism

For a little while, the Occupy movement garnered some press. The reasons why the movement has since all-but-disappeared into the memory hole are fairly obvious. It was led by people who didn’t believe in leading, which is to say, a mix of anarchists and advocates of direct democracy. Many of whom crept from their sleeping bags around 11:00 am to reminisce about how cool it was to have been a Vietnam War protestor back in the day and breathe deep the nostalgic aroma of patchouli and burning cannabis. It was barely a “movement” at all, inasmuch as movement implies a direction. 

The TEA Party movement has been noticeably more resilient, and has even managed to front candidates for political office. This is an accomplishment. Albeit an accomplishment that is diminished by certain missteps along the way – such as, for example, Christine “I am not a witch” McConnell’s ill-fated run for office in 2010, and Rich “I’m not a Nazi, I just dress like one” Iott’s run for office in the same year. This is is to say that the TEA Party just like the Occupy movement has suffered from the lack of capable leadership. 

A Civil Servant at Tiananmen Square
The Occupy movement attracted left-wing individuals and the TEA Party attracted right-wing individuals. But, as pointed out in a memorable article by James Sinclair (here), the ideological differences between the two groups obscure the fact that members of the two groups shared many of the same concerns. In this post, I will discuss the common ground between the two groups as a step toward envisioning a political coalition that could, in theory, challenge the dominant two-party system. 

James Sinclair observed that many Occupy protestors shared the concern that corporations have too much political influence in this country, and that many TEA Party protestors shared the concern that government has too much influence. In fact, Sinclair tells us, the root cause of many of the problems our country faces is that collusion exists between corporations and government. Positional ideology is extremely unhelpful in this situation because it compels some people to focus their animus on corporations and others to focus their animus on “big government.” The result is that people talk past one another and can’t even recognize it when they are essentially in agreement. 

Fresh Thinking … Almost

Ron Unz, a conservative business-leader and political activist, recently made the news because he attempted to advance a California ballot initiative which would have raised the minimum wage to $12.00 an hour. This is noteworthy because the archetypal conservative (e.g. Alan Greenspan, Paul Ryan, and Marco Rubio, see here), is apt to view the minimum wage as yet another example of government interference in the free market. Unz explains that increasing the minimum wage would allow the federal government to collect more revenue to allocate to programs such as Social Security (here), and thus ease the overall burden on current taxpayers.
After spending a few moments nodding in agreement with his arguments, I noticed a little further down that Mr. Unz penned an article titled, “What’s Good for America Is Good for Wal-Mart, and Vice-Versa.” That’s when I started to have that sinking feeling one gets when the accountant says, “that tax refund I mentioned? I made a mistake.”  

Corporatism; or, Let’s Talk about Wal-Mart

Mr. Unz’s view is that Wal-Mart owes its success to being able to offer low-priced goods. If it offered its employees a living wage as opposed to what it offers employees currently, it would lose its competitive advantage in the marketplace. This argument leaves Wal-Mart blameless. Here, we see the mischievous influence of political ideology – specifically in the form of uncritical faith in the free market. And this is not to say that there is anything wrong with believing in free markets. The problem is that, in the case of Wal-Mart, it is not a question of free markets at all.
In fact, Wal-Mart owes much of its success to President Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton the candidate said that he would reassess China’s Most Favored Nation (MFN) status in light of that government’s flagrant abuses of human rights. The tragedy of Tiananmen Square – where at least 300 pro-democracy protestors were mowed down by China’s military forces – was still fresh in Americans’ memories. As president, Bill Clinton reversed his earlier position, and renewed China’s MFN status. 

Wal-Mart is the single leading importer of Chinese goods. As reported in Village Voice,

… the Clintons depended on Wal-Mart’s largesse not only for Hillary's regular payments as a board member but for travel expenses on Wal-Mart planes and for heavy campaign contributions to Bill's campaigns there and nationally. According to reports in the early '90s, before Bill and Hillary moved to D.C., neither was raking in the big bucks, but prominent in their income were her holdings of between $50,000 and $100,000 worth of Wal-Mart stock (source).
One may reasonably conjecture that a causal relationship exists between the largesse of Wal-Mart toward the Clintons and Bill Clinton’s subsequent reversal of his position regarding trade with China. Although the incident was eclipsed by far more salacious and colorful Clinton Era scandals, it bears mention that President Clinton had been under investigation for accepting improper campaign contributions from Chinese nationals (source). 

Going a little further back, China and the United States did not have normal trade relations until 1980. Before that, the U.S. did not trade with countries that had non-market economies. This restriction was one of the only sensible ideas to have come from the Cold War mentality of the 1950s. There are perfectly good reasons for not trading with non-market economies. In the case of China, the economy is still centrally planned. Low-wage migrant workers are drawn into the manufacturing centers like Shenzhen, made to work 80 hour weeks, and housed in crowded dormitories. The fact that companies such as Wal-Mart are free to avail themselves of these underpaid, mistreated workers means that there is a downward pressure on the wages of American workers.  

The point is this: so-called free trade agreements are carefully designed to benefit a few well-connected large corporations. These agreements allow politicians to bring in more campaign cash and increase their personal wealth, but harm the public interest. Before we can discuss a new political coalition, it is necessary that conservative-leaning Americans recognize that fine expressions such as “free markets” and “free trade” are merely doublespeak. It is also necessary that liberal-leaning Americans adopt a more skeptical attitude when listening to politicians who eloquently dilate on their empathy for the working poor.  

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

What Patriotism Requires. Hint: It’s Not Anti-Semitism

The name Kesha Rogers has been in the news lately. She’s a Texan running for the U.S. Senate, and may end up besting her Democratic Party rivals in the primaries (source). She’s been ridiculed by the mainstream media as a “tinfoil hat” candidate for her unorthodox views. However, being a skeptic when it comes to the mainstream media I decided to learn about her by reading her own words.

Some of her positions are commendable and I will go so far as to say Whiggish. For example, her position is that voters should:

“End the Wall St. and Euro bailouts by reinstating Glass-Steagall and a national banking system. We must create a world of fixed exchange rates, tariffs, and regulated federal credit that only goes to productive industrial and infrastructure projects. We should never try to pay for industrial progress by taxing the population to death, or pushing austerity to pay for investment (source).”
This is exciting stuff.  

Sadly, this sensible perspective is part and parcel of the fatally flawed philosophy of Lyndon LaRouche. Delving into this philosophy is a useful exercise because it highlights some of the difficulties of mobilizing public sentiment to consider alternatives to the prevailing neoliberal political philosophy.This philosophy is sold to the American people under the "Democratic Party" brand or under the "Republican Party" brand, but beneath the labels, it's the same product.

LaRouche’s ideology squarely opposes neoliberalism. First, it recognizes the dangers of corporatism (as in, the self-serving allegiance of political and business interests). Secondly, it recognizes the benefits of nationalism (as in, a focus on improving the domestic economy as opposed to improving the competitive position of a few giant multinationals in the world economy). 

Unfortunately, LaRouche’s ideology wanders into tinfoil hat territory by incorporating, among its core tenets, the idea that the British Empire continues to shape world government and international economic policy. If one Googles “British Empire” and “Rothschild” it quickly becomes clear that this talk of the British Empire is integral to a conspiratorial worldview in which Jews are portrayed as members of a malevolent cabal. And indeed, one of Ms. Rogers’ more ambitious campaign promises is to take on the British Empire. I won’t waste the reader’s time by expounding at length on the details of this bizarre fantasy, other than to point out that the Rothschilds were Jewish. Even though LaRouche supporters are known for drawing a Hitler moustache on pictures of President Obama (from which we may infer an unfavorable assessment of Hitler’s politics), holding up the Rothschilds as an example of what’s wrong with the world is something that comes straight out of Hitler’s playbook.

The Rothschilds figured in Nazi German propaganda.

I will assume that the reader understands why it is foolish and evil to demonize the Jews as a people. There is simply no rational explanation to be offered for this way of thinking, but there are plenty of explanations which point to the irrational side of human nature. This brings me to the point of this essay. I will suggest that the political situation is frightening, and that fear infects our thinking with irrational sentiments. 

If an investigator sticks to the facts, a strong case can be made for the argument that neoliberalism has spread throughout the world because of a concerted, multigenerational effort by politicians and oligarchs to promulgate this philosophy. Whenever someone who cares about the 99% decries the evils of so-called “free trade” policies, he or she is quickly discredited. Or, as we saw in the case of President Obama’s 2007 campaign, it is permissible to speak about the evils of “free trade” when the purpose is to mislead the public and secure their votes. There are no wealthy donors who will finance the political campaigns of individuals who are truly opposed to a neoliberal philosophy. There are no political leaders who are prominent nationally who have not taken money from the likes of Goldman Sachs.

When an uneducated person or a demoralized person tries to comprehend the situation, he or she may -- like the caveman who trembled at the sight of lightning and invented an angry God -- rely on myth-making. But these myths are, as a rule, unproductive or even counter-productive. These myths only reinforce ignorance, when the better course of action is to acquire more knowledge.
If a concerned American takes note of the facts outlined above, he or she can be forgiven for imagining that a fearsome conspiracy exists, and that this conspiracy aims to cheat ordinary Americans of economic opportunity. There are vanishingly few small business owners or entrepreneurs who can start from a place of poverty or modest means and create a retail enterprise to challenge Walmart, an insurance company to challenge Wellpoint, or a drug company that can withstand a hostile takeover by a multinational pharmaceutical corporation. Wall Street bankers can steal the retirement savings of an entire generation with impunity. 

There are reasons for the patriotic American to be afraid. But to be an American patriot, it is necessary to conquer one’s fears. It is important to remember the words of George Bernard Shaw, “hatred is the coward's revenge for being intimidated,” and let go of the impulse to vilify the Jews. Likewise, there is no cause for hating the wealthy as a group. However, one may justly resent and oppose wealthy individuals when (a) they have come by their wealth by impoverishing the American people or (b) they use their wealth to exercise greater political influence than can be achieved by casting one vote. 

Having said all this, let’s remember that the only hope of restoring America’s future is by embracing the principle of unity. It is necessary for us to overlook minor differences in opinion in order to work together. When these differences in opinion aren’t so minor, it’s important to remember why a person might be tempted to harbor anger against some ill-defined conspiracy. Bertrand Russell said, “Neither a man nor a crowd nor a nation can be trusted to act humanely or to think sanely under the influence of a great fear.” Patriotism, then, requires courage in the fact of an unprecedented threat to our liberties as Americans. And patriotism requires compassion, so that we may patiently address the errors in the thinking of our fellow citizens and form closer bonds with them.