28 February 2012

Understanding American politics

This is a collection of my favorite writing about the fundamentals of American politics from around the web; expanding it slowly has been an ongoing project. All of these have contributed significantly to my thinking about how American politics works. Many of these are long articles, but they all have my highest recommendation as a good use of your time.

My quotes here represent more an effort to entice readers to read the whole thing than attempts to deliver the essence of each piece.

I've broken this collection into a few rough sections:



American political incoherence


It's difficult for politically-engaged people like me to remember that most Americans — even most American voters — don't really have a coherent political philosophy.

The Myth of a Conservative Public

Alan Abramowitz, a political science prof at Emory University, writes about how polling information shows that a lot of Americans are conservative in principle but liberal when you ask about specific policies.
even in the heyday of modern liberalism, the 1960s, most Americans agreed with broad statements of conservative principles. At the same time, however, when it came to specific programs addressing societal needs and problems, programs such as Medicare and federal aid to education, Free and Cantril found that large majorities of Americans generally supported activist government.

In many ways, the results of the Gallup News Service Governance Poll were strikingly similar to the findings that Free and Cantril reported back in the 1960s. On matters of principle, Americans in 2010 leaned strongly to the conservative side.

....

Until you examine some of the other results of the same survey — the ones involving government responsibility for addressing specific societal needs and problems.

....
And it is perhaps even more surprising that 67 percent felt that government should have major or total responsibility for “preventing discrimination,” that 57 percent felt that government should have major or total responsibility for “making sure all Americans have adequate healthcare,” that 52 percent felt that government should have major or total responsibility for “making sure all who want jobs have them,” or that 45 percent felt that government should have major or total responsibility for “providing a minimum standard of living for all Americans” (versus only 33 percent who felt that government should have little or no responsibility in this area).

Living on the edge, but still taking up way too much space

Cervantes at Stayin' Alive examines the paradox of Americans' enthusiasm for numerous particular government efforts at the same time as they resist “big government” at the level of talking to individuals. Why does American ideological conservatism win out over operational liberalism so often at the ballot box? The underlying engine — the reason why European-style social democracy never caught hold in the US — unhappily comes as no surprise. (See also a similar comment on resistance to Obamacare.)
Almost everyone in Fishtown claimed to be a conservative, and expressed scathing contempt for liberals. So what were some of their conservative ideas? .... nationalizing the oil companies ... government sponsored health care, a higher minimum wage ... massive investments in public transportation ... cleaning up the air pollution — all kinds of radical right wing ideas.
....
What's going on? I confess I have left out the most important issue that the good people of Fishtown were worried about. In their own words, it was the niggers. They were all on welfare, and they were taking all the jobs. (That's right, I often got that in consecutive sentences. And by the way, I would estimate that 1/4 of the households in Fishtown consisted of single mothers on welfare, or disability pensioners.)

Decision Makers

Chris Hayes examines “swing voters”. He too discovers that many Americans don't have a coherent political philosophy.
As far as I could tell, the problem wasn't the word “issue”; it was a fundamental lack of understanding of what constituted the broad category of the “political.” The undecideds I spoke to didn't seem to have any intuitive grasp of what kinds of grievances qualify as political grievances. Often, once I would engage undecided voters, they would list concerns, such as the rising cost of health care; but when I would tell them that Kerry had a plan to lower health-care premiums, they would respond in disbelief — not in disbelief that he had a plan, but that the cost of health care was a political issue. It was as if you were telling them that Kerry was promising to extend summer into December.

Most Americans Are Unaware Of [Insert Issue Here]

People also just don't know what's going on.
In truth, polls may be radically overestimating Americans’ knowledge. Respondents are known to offer strong feelings for policies that do not actually exist. To test the extremes of this fact in the most disturbing/hilarious possible fashion, I conducted a national poll to see how Americans thought about military intervention in an imaginary country.

No, America is not a conservative country

David Atkins at Hullabaloo describes the historical forces that create the illusion that the US is inherently more conservative than Europe.

Instead, what we see in the U.S. is three things: first, the lack of direct experience of domestic warfare that allows for an unchecked militarism untempered by the sobering experiences of Europe and Asia.

Second, the moneyed corruption of a winner-take-all system without publicly funded elections that creates economically conservative laws in spite of a fundamentally progressive populous. Americans want a stronger safety net and higher taxes on the wealthy. That we don't get them is more a product of the corruption of government than of our relative conservatism as a people.

But the biggest problem is the most controversial one, and I'm sure I'll get a lot of flack for saying it. We have a racism problem in this country ....



American political media


Our press isn't liberal or conservative. In truth, it has a weird political outlook all its own.

Clowns to the Left of Me, Jokers to the Right:
On the Actual Ideology of the American Press

Jay Rosen at PressThink examines how American news media is neither liberal nor conservative, but something else ... something bad for American politics.
You’ve got
  • The Church of the Savvy
  • The Quest for Innocence
  • The View from Nowhere
  • Regression to a Phony Mean
  • He Said, She Said
  • The Sphere of Deviance
These form the real ideology of our political press. But we have to study them to understand them well.

More Broder

Duncan “Atrios” Black calls some of the consequences of this news media philosophy “High Broderism”, after Washington Post journalist and commentator David Broder.
We normally think of “High Broderism” as the worship of bipartisanship for its own sake, combined with a fake “pox on both their houses” attitude. But in reality this is just the cover Broder uses for his real agenda, the defense of what he perceives to be “the establishment” at all costs. The establishment is the permanent ruling class of Washington, our betters who know better. It is their rough agenda which is sold as “centrism” even when it has no actual relationship with the political center in a meaningful way. Democracy's messy, in Broder's world, and passionate voters are problematic.

Le Hameau de la Potomac

Digby of Hullaballoo (my favorite political blog) coined the term “The Village” to describe the news media's brand of elitism. (If you want to follow her dead link to the Aravosis article she mentions, I have it captured by the Internet Archive.)

It's shorthand for the permanent DC ruling class who have managed to convince themselves that they are simple, puritanical, bourgeois burghers and farmers, even though they are actually celebrity millionaires influencing the most powerful government on earth.

It's about their phoniness, their pretense of speaking for “average Americans” when it's clear they haven't the vaguest clue even about the average Americans who work in their local Starbucks or drive their cabs.

Hide the Bunnies

More on the theme from Digby, including a mortifying long quote from Washington Post journalist Sally Quinn which inspired Digby to say this:
Like many a political observer, until I read this, I thought of DC as being more like a European Court filled with jesters and courtiers and grey eminences advising in the shadows. But Versailles could never be this hypocritically provincial — and proud of it. DC is America, through and through — America, ca. 1690. The Reverend Broder sentences the heretics to the stake while Sally Goodwyfe runs around screaming “burn them, burn them!”

Wall Street values in This Town

Another from Digby about the corrupting power of money on public servants and journalists.
The larger message of This Town is the sad-eyed truth that, ultimately, everyone sells out. The money quote for Leibovich is former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott’s honest explanation, “Washington is where the money is. That’s generally what keeps people here.” That comment meshes with my favorite aphorism about dewy-eyed young aides “coming to Washington to do good and staying to do well.”

A Funny Little Story About The Media

A Tiny Revolution explores how consequential this ideology of the news media really is. I also recommend checking out the commentary on this piece from Digby, Rotten Elites.
At the time, I remember thinking this:
  1. How interesting that the DC press corps knows grimy details about lots of politicians but only chooses to tell the great unwashed when they decide it's appropriate.
  2. How interesting that the DC press corps feels it's their place to make decisions for the rest of America; i.e., rather than laying out the evidence that Hart was weird, flaky, etc., and letting Americans decide whether they cared, they decided run-of-the-mill citizens couldn't be trusted to make the correct evaluation.
  3. How interesting that Cohen felt it was appropriate to tell all this to a small group of fresh-faced, ambitious, grotty Yale youths, but not to the outside world. And how interesting that we were being socialized into thinking this was normal.

BipartisanThink and the Principle of Seriousness

Matthew Yglesias at Slate makes an instructive little observation about a rhetorical trick which keeps them from “taking sides” at the price of keeping us informed about what is happening.
If the parties fail to agree because one party is being unreasonable and the other party is failing to cater to their unreasonable demands, then the apparently reasonable party is in fact failing to be serious. After all, a serious proposal is one that stands a chance of passing. Reasonable proposals will not pass a Congress in which one party is being unreasonable, so by definition the Principle of Seriousness allocates the blame equally to both sides.

False Equivalence: The Master Class

James Fallows unpacks a telling example of how the “a pox on both their houses” rhetoric of the press distorts our understanding of the relationship between the two political parties.
The essence of the false-equivalence mindset is the reflexive assumption that “reality” is halfway between whatever two contending sides assert. Maybe that reflects early immersion in the Goldilocks saga. (“This one is too big. That one is too small. This one is just right!”) Maybe it's a holdover from the age of Walter Cronkite. Perhaps it's the D.C. worthy-person's mantra, familiar from conferences and talk shows, that “partisans on both sides” are the main threat to progress. Whatever. We see it all around us now.

Myths Debunked: The Liberal Media

In case you need an antidote to claims that the news media is “liberal”, an index of links to various articles debunking that canard.

The Two American Tribes


Between looking into history and looking at recent events, I have become a perennialist about the split in American culture. Most Americans' thinking about politics is muddled, yes, but it springs from two great cultural wells with profoundly different ideas about the American project, what society should mean, and how our politics should work. This is not a new division but one that goes back to the beginning.

Metaphor, Morality, and Politics

George Lakoff may be the best-known contemporary liberal commentator to look at the political divide in America. A linguistics professor, he describes our political thinking as rooted in two profoundly different systems of metaphors.
For me, one of the most poignant effects of the ignorance of metaphorical thought is the mystification of liberals concerning the recent electoral successes of conservatives. Conservatives regularly chide liberals for not understanding them, and they are right. Liberals don't understand how anti-abortion “right-to-life” activists can favor the death penalty and oppose reducing infant morality through prenatal care programs. They don't understand why budget-cutting conservatives should spare no public expense to build prison after prison to house even non-violent offenders, or why they are willing to spend extra money to take children away from their mothers and put them in orphanages — in the name of family values. They don't understand why conservatives attack violence in the media while promoting the right to own machine guns. Liberals tend not to understand the logic of conservatism; they don't understand what form of morality makes conservative positions moral or what conservative family values have to do with the rest of conservative politics. The reason at bottom is that liberals do not understand the form of metaphorical thought that unifies and makes sense of the full range of conservative values.

Red Family, Blue Family (PDF)

Doug Muder offers a modification of Lakoff's theory of the American political divide, shifting the metaphor.

Ault’s insights about fundamentalist families give a clue as to where Lakoff went wrong. The right distinction isn’t between the conservative nuclear family and the liberal nuclear family, but between two completely different ways of experiencing family. Those two modes of experience may express themselves in families that are not nuclear at all.

The key distinction in Ault’s account is not strictness vs. nurturance, but the Given vs. the Chosen. What, in other words, is the source of your responsibilities to other people? Are you born with obligations? Or do you choose to make commitments? As with strictness and nurturance, every actual person experiences some combination of obligation and commitment. But emphasizing one or the other makes a striking difference.

Who Owns the World?

Doug Muder again, talking about a different but deeply related distinction between liberal and conservative thought: the profound difference between justice and charity.
When you’re expecting a compassionate response and don’t get it, it’s tempting to write people off as selfish or hard-hearted. But many of them aren’t. Some people who look at the world this way are quite generous. They give money away. They put themselves out for others. They volunteer. But the model they put on this behavior isn’t justice, it’s charity. Justice, to them, would mean keeping what is theirs. Giving it away is charity.

A New Ideology

This blog post doesn't really belong on this index, but along the way it includes this aside which does:
ultimately the difference between the right and the left is this; the right thinks you get more out of people by treating them badly, the left thinks you get more out of people by treating them well.

Why People Vote Republican

A discussion of the moral psychology argument which Jonathan Haidt offers saying that liberals and conservatives share some moral sensibilities but not others. Haidt's TED talk on this is also wonderfully clarifying.
In several large internet surveys, my collaborators Jesse Graham, Brian Nosek and I have found that people who call themselves strongly liberal endorse statements related to the harm/care and fairness/reciprocity foundations, and they largely reject statements related to ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. People who call themselves strongly conservative, in contrast, endorse statements related to all five foundations more or less equally.

Liberal vs. conservative

My own attempt at a succinct description of the two philosophies.
For conservatives, a just society ensures that people who are moral and responsible prosper, while people who are immoral and irresponsible do not prosper, suffering consequences for their actions. A good social order delivers rewards for virtue and punishments for vice.
....
For liberals, a just society provides for people's needs and allows personal freedom, and this depends upon equity. Liberal conceptions of personal freedom include both negative liberty (freedom from constraints) and positive liberty (resources which enable one to act). A good social order is one in which everyone is free and equal.

America's Tribes

Michael Lind at the New America Foundation also argues that the split in American politics and culture is perennial.
On opposite sides in the English civil war, and then in the US civil war, the Yankees and Cavaliers have always been on opposite sides in US politics. For generations, the moralism of Protestants in New England, such as Cotton Mather and John Adams, has clashed with the worldly honour code of renaissance country gentlemen in the south, such as Thomas Jefferson and Robert E Lee. In New England, the politics of reform was organised around the town meeting; in the coastal south, the politics of deference and patronage was based on the courthouse gang. “Good government” is a New England idea. So is the idea of American exceptionalism, of an American mission to set an example to the world, or to save it. The ancestors of the New England Yankees emigrated to the American colonies in order to found a perfect Calvinist commonwealth. By contrast, the ancestors of the southern elite emigrated to the colonies in order to get rich quick by lording it over Indians, blacks, and poor whites. For New England, the US is — or should be — a New Jerusalem. For the south, the US is simply the successor to the British empire. The southern oligarchs, like their cousins who once ran imperial Britain, think in terms of profit, not providence.

How a Brutal Strain of American Aristocrats Have Come to Rule America

Sara Robinson describes our political division as reflecting a fight between Yankee and Southern elites and their conceptions of “liberty”.

When a Southern conservative talks about “losing his liberty,” the loss of this absolute domination over the people and property under his control — and, worse, the loss of status and the resulting risk of being held accountable for laws that he was once exempt from — is what he's really talking about. In this view, freedom is a zero-sum game. Anything that gives more freedom and rights to lower-status people can't help but put serious limits on the freedom of the upper classes to use those people as they please. It cannot be any other way. So they find Yankee-style rights expansions absolutely intolerable, to the point where they're willing to fight and die to preserve their divine right to rule.

Once we understand the two different definitions of “liberty” at work here, a lot of other things suddenly make much more sense.

Ressentimental Journey

Digby again. Another perennialist, Digby holds that the Culture War we think of as being born in the ’60s goes much deeper, a split that gave us the Civil War and dates back to before even then.
It's true that those who say that the 1960s presented a very specific, unique challenge to the aristocrats who reacted with new tools and coordination against what they saw as a serious political and cultural threat. But nonetheless I still see this as a continuation of the battle that has raged in our country since its inception, a battle between the two warring American tribes. Those two tribes originally broke down on geographical lines, North vs. South, but have since evolved into something much more complex, beyond just class or region or race, although it has elements of all three. Underlying all the “issues” of any given era is the notion of moral righteousness and inferiority, ressentiment, that stemmed from the original sin of slavery and created two American “tribes” which operate reflexively under certain recurring impulses.

....

But this phenomenon can't simply be explained today as North vs. South or the liberal elite vs "heartland values" or whatever it's called this week. This is a battle between two American tribes, defined by human themes of resentment, morality, wealth, class, power, race and family. It is not specific to any particular issue or even any region anymore (even if its political boundaries might fit more or less within the original lines) and history suggests that it's unlikely there will ever be a final reconciliation through politics. Even a bloody civil war couldn't settle our differences. It's hard to believe that something as pedestrian as electoral politics could do it.

It's Hamilton vs. Jefferson All Over Again

Chris Ladd at the website of conservative apostate David Frum succinctly describes the tribal split, as many historians do, as between Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians.

Simply put, Hamilton was a proto-capitalist New York banker who wanted to see the country embrace a commercial model. His vision would require a strong central government to invest in infrastructure and regulation.

Jefferson was a Southern plantation owner who wanted a republic of small landholders where each was practically sovereign on his own property. His model required almost no central government. It was simple and in the beginning it was dominant, especially in the South.

A House Divided

Billmon of his blog Whiskey Bar describes how the perennial conflict of political cultures has mutated over time. (The maps have been lost to time, though I feel sure that the first two must have been these and the third one of Spain must have been much like this.)

If I had to boil our modern kulturkampf down to two words, they wouldn't be blue and red, they would be “traditionalist” and “modern.” On one side are the believers in the old ways — patriarchy, hierarchy, faith, a reflexive nationalism, and a puritanical, if usually hypocritical, attitude towards sexual morality. On the other are the rootless cosmopolitians — secular, skeptical (although at times susceptible to New Age mythology) libertine (although some of us aren't nearly as libertine as we'd like to be) and less willing to equate patriotism with blind allegiance, either to a flag or a government.

....

.... the modern American political dialectic is superimposed on older but still extant divisions: geographic (North and South), religious (Catholic and Protestant), ethnic (WASPs and everybody else) and of course class (with the great divide in American politics usually falling between the middle class and the poor.)

These geological layers of conflict — some still active, others now almost dormant) vastly complicate the political landscape and create major headaches for partisans on the opposing sides ....

....

The problem is not so much that there are two Americas, but that each of them — particularly “red” America — believes they constitute the only true America. Thus all the talk on both sides about “taking back the country” ....

On Politics: Barbarism, Inequality, Tyranny

This last piece on understanding the two American political tribes is from conservative John C. Wight, who offers not two categories but three, in order to distinguish conservatives from libertarians. Some of how he describes liberals is risable — “theory does not allow them to regard traitors or corrupters or criminals or anarchists or foreign soldiers or spies or saboteurs or terrorists as enemies because the only enemy is the institution”! — but the piece is nonetheless illuminating and droll.

At the current time, among the nation in which I live, there are three distinct political theories in competition for the minds and souls of the next generation.

Each theory is based on a distinct view of the character of the nation and of mankind; each theory identifies a different discontent with civilization in general or our current laws and customs in particular. That is, the reason why there are three theories is because there are three general opinions as to the main danger facing mankind in general and the nation in particular.

Those who value civilization are called conservatives. For them the enemy is barbarism.

Those who value equality are called liberals. For them the enemy is exploitation, that is, the abuse of the free market by the rich or by the many to oppress the poor or the few.

Those who value liberty are called libertarians. For them the enemy is slavery, that is, the abuse of the authority of the sovereign to oppress the citizen.

....

The reason why political discussions between partisans of these theories are so often futile is that their goals are unrelated to each other, and the fears of one seem highly theoretical, if not ridiculous, to the other.



The Nature of American Conservatism


My own intellectual and political reflexes reflect such a deep-seated American progressivism that I have devoted significant energy in recent years to trying to understand what drives American conservative thinking.

Partisanship IS Democracy

David Atkins at Hullabaloo examines superstitious distrust of “big government”.

City councilwoman Jan Martin says she hears this all the time. That it's become a matter of faith in the city that private is better. And she tells us a story. In the dark days, after the tax measure was defeated, city council was having another meeting about slashing government.

Jan Martin: And a gentleman came up to me and actually thanked me for the adopt a street light program. He had just written a check to the city for $300 to turn all the street lights back on in his neighborhood. And I did remind him that for $200 if he had supported the tax initiative, we could have had not only streetlights, but parks and firemen and swimming pools and community centers. That by combining our resources, we as a community can actually accomplish more than we as individuals.

Robert Smith: And he said?

Jan Martin: He said he would never support a tax increase.

Why Conservatives Are Still Crazy After All These Years

Rick Perlstein, author of two great books about the origins of contemporary movement conservatism Before The Storm and Nixonland writes in Rolling Stone about how the American hard right we see in the form of the Tea Party today is far from a new phenomenon, and should be understood as the latest manifestation of a school of American thought that goes a long way back.
But are right-wingers scarier now than in the past? They certainly seem stranger and fiercer. I'd argue, however, that they’ve been this crazy for a long time. Over the last sixty years or so, I see far more continuities than discontinuities in what the rightward twenty or thirty percent of Americans believe about the world. The crazy things they believed and wanted were obscured by their lack of power, but they were always there — if you knew where to look. What's changed is that loony conservatives are now the Republican mainstream, the dominant force in the GOP.
....
Over fifteen years of studying the American right professionally — especially in their communications with each other, in their own memos and media since the 1950s — I have yet to find a truly novel development, a real innovation, in far-right “thought.”

The Long Con: Mail-Order Conservatism

Another long article from Perlstein in The Baffler about the profound link between conservative direct mail campaigns and other mail scams, and what they imply about the conservative sensibility.
It’s time, in other words, to consider whether Romney’s fluidity with the truth is, in fact, a feature and not a bug: a constituent part of his appeal to conservatives. The point here is not just that he lies when he says conservative things, even if he believes something different in his heart of hearts—but that lying is what makes you sound the way a conservative is supposed to sound ....

Nixon's Babies

Another from Digby about the dirty aspects of movement conservatism, inspired by the Tom DeLay influence-peddling scandal.
I think the evidence show that the conservative movement was bound for corruption from the get-go. The modern Republicans, from their earliest incarnation in the 60's, starting with still active operatives like Morton Blackwell and Karl Rove to the next generation of Abramoff, Norquist and Reed, have always operated as dirty tricksters, and corrupt power brokers. The modern Republican Party is not, and never has been, the party of Ronald Reagan, not really. It's the party of Richard Nixon.

....

They have come to represent the three most important wings of the modern conservative movement --- the Christian Right (Reed), the movement ideologues (Norquist) and the big money boys (Abramoff.) They are the Republican party. And they are all corrupt.

Why Conservatives Think The Ends Justify The Means

One more from Rick Perlstein, this time in The Nation, talking about the different stakes for liberals compared to conservatives.

That first principle is the matter of procedure versus norms. As I wrote in a 2003 review of Eric Alterman's book What Liberal Media?
We Americans love to cite the “political spectrum” as the best way to classify ideologies. The metaphor is incorrect: it implies symmetry. But left and right today are not opposites. They are different species. It has to do with core principles. To put it abstractly, the right always has in mind a prescriptive vision of its ideal future world—a normative vision. Unlike the left (at least since Karl Marx neglected to include an actual description of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” within the 2,500 pages of Das Kapital), conservatives have always known what the world would look like after their revolution: hearth, home, church, a businessman’s republic. The dominant strain of the American left, on the other hand, certainly since the decline of the socialist left, fetishizes fairness, openness, and diversity. (Liberals have no problem with home, hearth, and church in themselves; they just see them as one viable life-style option among many.) If the stakes for liberals are fair procedures, the stakes for conservatives are last things: either humanity trends toward Grace, or it hurtles toward Armageddon.

A very important point. It has to do, too, with the almost opposite definitions liberals and conservatives affix to the word “principle.” For liberals, generally speaking, honoring procedures—means—is the core of what being “principled” means. For conservatives, fighting for the right outcome—ends—even at the expense of procedural nicety, is what being “principled” means.

....
In short, if you're a conservative, isn't the point of an election to win, so you can bend the world to your will, no matter the means it takes to get there? Even if you don't necessarily have the majority's support?

What Conservatives Really Want

George Lakoff again, offering a shorter introduction to his model, applied specifically to conservatism.

Conservatives believe in individual responsibility alone, not social responsibility. They don't think government should help its citizens. That is, they don't think citizens should help each other. The part of government they want to cut is not the military (we have 174 bases around the world), not government subsidies to corporations, not the aspect of government that fits their worldview. They want to cut the part that helps people. Why? Because that violates individual responsibility.

....

Freedom is defined as being your own strict father — with individual not social responsibility, and without any government authority telling you what you can and cannot do. To defend that freedom as an individual, you will of course need a gun.

What Is Conservatism and What Is Wrong With It?

Phil Agre reaches for a fundamental definition of conservatism. He offers an unflattering answer, which includes the hostility to democracy which Perlstein alludes to.
Liberals in the United States have been losing political debates to conservatives for a quarter century. In order to start winning again, liberals must answer two simple questions: what is conservatism, and what is wrong with it? As it happens, the answers to these questions are also simple:
Q: What is conservatism?
A: Conservatism is the domination of society by an aristocracy.

Q: What is wrong with conservatism?
A: Conservatism is incompatible with democracy, prosperity, and civilization in general. It is a destructive system of inequality and prejudice that is founded on deception and has no place in the modern world.
These ideas are not new. Indeed they were common sense until recently. Nowadays, though, most of the people who call themselves “conservatives” have little notion of what conservatism even is. They have been deceived by one of the great public relations campaigns of human history. Only by analyzing this deception will it become possible to revive democracy in the United States.

Dead Right

John Holbo reads conservative David Frum's book, looking for Frum's political philosophy ... and doesn't find it.
This is supposed to sound sober and sensible. If cultural conditions are functions of economics, you can’t change the culture without altering the economics. So conservatives must keep up the titanic, colossal, epic, probably cosmically doomed and tragic economic struggle to keep government small … so people will not dress funny or wear their hair in hairy ways? Sort of wimpy, as ragnaroks go. Notable disproportion here between means and the wished-for end. Even if you are the sort of person who feels deeply offended by funny, ethnic clothes (we're off the deep end) – even if you think it is anything like your business to dictate fashion sense to everyone around you (we're so off the deep end) – how could you possibly think it was so important as all that? And yet immediately we are off and running about after the bourgeois virtues, all dying out: thrift, diligence, prudence, sobriety, fidelity, and orderliness. I won’t bother to quote. Why can I not exhibit all these virtues beneath and/or behind a beard, kente cloth and/or keffiyeh? Frum seems to find it too obvious to bear arguing that the trick is impossible. (Yet he can’t actually think that.) Does Frum seriously believe there are no shrewd, sober businessmen in those parts of the world where businessmen wear beards and keffiyehs and kente cloths? (Obviously he doesn’t. That’s crazy.) So what does he think? I think he just has a powerful feeling that: things ought to be a certain way. And if they are that way, everything will be all right.

Mill and Nietzsche on Frum

Holbo's sequel post to Dead Right, almost as instructive as the original.
He's a seething mass of potent preferences and aversions, which are after all merely customary observances: some reasonable, most groundless and arbitrary or outdated. But it is intolerable to him to check and see which are which, because he is powerfully attached to the whole set – even the teeny, tiny aesthetic ones. (Cut your hair, damn hippies!) Yet it is necessary for Frum to produce reasons, because he is also powerfully determined others should share his preferences. And he is averse to authoritarianism. He does not wish to impose his mere private preferences tyrannically. As Dostoyevsky's Underground Man puts it: all should be compelled to bow down before me voluntarily. This entails tortuous, self-deceptive mental gynmastics.

Lee Atwater's Infamous 1981 Interview about the Southern Strategy

Rick Perlstein gives us not only the original interview in its entirety, but helpful context and analysis.
You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites .... “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

Those words soon became legend—quoted in both screeds (The GOP-Haters Handbook, 2007) and scholarship (Corey Robin's 2011 classic work of political theory, The Reactionary Mind). Google Books records its use in ten books published so far this year alone. Curious about the remarks' context, Carter, who learned Lamis had died in 2012, asked his widow if she would consider releasing the audio of the interview, especially in light of the use of race-baiting dog-whistles (lies about Obama ending work requirements for welfare; “jokes” about his supposed Kenyan provenance) in the Romney presidential campaign. Renée Lamis, an Obama donor, agreed that very same night. For one thing she was “upset,” Carter told me, that “for some time, conservatives believed [her] husband made up the Atwater interview.” For another, she was eager to illustrate that her husband's use of the Atwater quote was scholarly, not political.

So what does the new contextual wrapping teach us? It vindicates Lamis, who indeed comes off as careful and scholarly. And no surprise, it shows Atwater acting yet again in bad faith.

Thinking Like A Conservative

Perlstein unpacks the underlying logic of key elements of conservative rhetoric in this series of posts at The Nation.
  1. mass shootings and gun control
  2. biding time on voting rights
  3. shutting down government
  4. goalpost moving
  5. epistemology and empathy
  6. government dependency

Allow me to remove this rhetorical club I keep in a sheath alongside my waist and beat some of my liberal friends with it, because I’m getting frustrated, frustrated, frustrated, and I can’t hardly take it no more. Despite a continuous flow of examples to the contrary this spring, summer and, now, autumn, our side keeps on wishfully, willfully and rather ignorantly denying the plain evidence in front of their faces about how conservative politics works. Namely, I keep seeing predictions that this, that or the other signal from polls or the political establishment or a traumatized public will “finally” “break the spell” of right-wing extremism on a certain issue, or even on all issues—and then we see that prediction spectacularly fail.

We can’t keep on going this way, my friend. You have to finally come to terms with how conservatism works. Now, that guy in the White House, Obama—I’ve given up hope that he’ll ever get it. I still have faith in you, though. Stop judging conservative by the logic of “normal” politics, or by the epistemology of the world as you, a liberal, understand it. Or as Poli Sci 101 understands it. Every time you do that, you denude us of strength for the fight. Grasp the right on its own terms. Stop trying to make it make sense on your own.

Christians in the Hands of an Angry God

“Infamous” Brad Hicks examines contemporary evangelical theology at length, tracing its connections to conservative politics.
How did so many seminaries and so many preachers and so many authors get converted to this false gospel? What deal did they make with Satan himself, and why? What did they think that they were doing? These aren't rhetorical questions. I've met one of the people who “signed” that deal and helped enforce it. He was quite proud of his achievement, and years later told many of us about the meeting where that decision was made. It is only recently that I came to understand just who the other side in that deal really was, as opposed to who the fundamentalists in that room thought they were dealing with.

A Very Old Story

Digby at Hullabaloo traces “Heartland” cultural resentment back through the Civil War and before.
Indeed, this has been a problem since the dawn of the republic. And it isn't a problem that will be solved by the Red States gaining and maintaining power. They have held power many times throughout our history and they were still filled with resentment toward “the north” (now “the liberal elites.”) And, it won't be solved by adopting different stances on “moral issues,” or telling the current Democratic southern constituencies to suck it up. Maybe it's time we looked a little bit deeper and realized that this tribal problem isn't going to be solved by politics at all.

The “liberal elites” will no doubt be making more compromises in the direction of heartland values for pragmatic reasons. But, judging by history, it won't change a thing. Neither will Republican political dominance.

The Resentment Tribe

Digby again looking at the cultural resentment animating our politics, quoting extensively from Abraham Lincoln's Cooper Union Address.
Wherever resentment resides in the human character it can find a home in the Republican Party. This anger and frustration stems from a long nurtured sense of cultural besiegement, which they are finding can never be dealt with through the attainment of power alone. They seek approval.

The Cooper Union Address

Abraham Lincoln's speech, made during his Presidential campaign, itself rewards the contemporary reader. As Digby says, it describes the deep resentments of American conservative political culture vividly.

The question recurs, what will satisfy them? Simply this: We must not only let them alone, but we must somehow, convince them that we do let them alone. This, we know by experience, is no easy task. We have been so trying to convince them from the very beginning of our organization, but with no success. In all our platforms and speeches we have constantly protested our purpose to let them alone; but this has had no tendency to convince them. Alike unavailing to convince them, is the fact that they have never detected a man of us in any attempt to disturb them.

These natural, and apparently adequate means all failing, what will convince them? This, and this only: cease to call slavery wrong, and join them in calling it right. And this must be done thoroughly — done in acts as well as in words. Silence will not be tolerated - we must place ourselves avowedly with them. Senator Douglas' new sedition law must be enacted and enforced, suppressing all declarations that slavery is wrong, whether made in politics, in presses, in pulpits, or in private. We must arrest and return their fugitive slaves with greedy pleasure. We must pull down our Free State constitutions. The whole atmosphere must be disinfected from all taint of opposition to slavery, before they will cease to believe that all their troubles proceed from us.

Rush, Newspeak, and Fascism

David Neiwert, a journalist whose blog Orcinus and other work covers the far right in America, lays out a description of what fascism is, how it works, and what it does and does not have to do with American conservatism in a very long essay built around the central figure of Rush Limbaugh. It's long, so you may want the PDF.
Rush Limbaugh likes to call himself “the most dangerous man in America.” He offers this epithet tongue in cheek on his radio program, but the truth is, he isn't kidding. Over the decade and more that Limbaugh has ruled America's talk-radio landscape, it has become inescapably clear that he is, if nothing else, certainly the most dangerous demagogue in America, maybe in history.
....
One of the problems with the easy bandying of the term “fascist” nowadays is that, by being loosely attached to figures who are only conservative — including people like Rush Limbaugh and George W. Bush — it obscures the actual mechanism by which genuine fascism manifests itself. It also lends itself to a hysterical assessment when clarity and focus are what's really needed.
....
The line between right-wing extremists and “the conservative movement” has been increasingly blurred in the past 10 years. The distance between them now has grown so short in some cases as to render them nearly indistinguishable.
....
This, in addition to sloppy thinking, is why some on the left will offhandedly label Rush Limbaugh or George W. Bush “fascists.” I'm here to explain why, despite all appearances, they aren't. Yet. And how we'll know when they are.

An Observation From Highpockets

Digby observes how conservatives account for the failings of their leaders and their policies. Written back in 2005, but ever relevant.

Movement conservatives are getting ready to write the history of this era as liberalism once again failing the people. Typically, the conservatives were screwed, as they always are. They must regroup and fight for conservatism, real conservatism, once again. Viva la revolucion!

There is no such thing as a bad conservative. “Conservative” is a magic word that applies to those who are in other conservatives’ good graces. Until they aren't. At which point they are liberals.

Get used to the hearing about how the Republicans failed because they weren't true conservatives. Conservatism can never fail. It can only be failed by weak-minded souls who refuse to properly follow its tenets. It's a lot like communism that way.

The Conservative Mind

A long article from Corey Robin, explaining his thesis that contemporary conservatism has a direct continuity with early conservative thinkers like Burke and Hayek, who are commonly misunderstood.

Historically, the conservative has sought to forestall the march of democracy in both the public and the private spheres, on the assumption that advances in the one necessarily spur advances in the other. Still, the more profound and prophetic stance on the right has been to cede the field of the public, if he must, but stand fast in the private. Allow men and women to become democratic citizens of the state; make sure they remain feudal subjects in the family, the factory, and the field.

No simple defense of one's own place and privileges, the conservative position stems from a genuine conviction that a world thus emancipated will be ugly, brutish, and dull. It will lack the excellence of a world where the better man commands the worse. This vision of the connection between excellence and rule is what brings together in postwar America that unlikely alliance of the capitalist, with his vision of the employer's untrammeled power in the workplace; the traditionalist, with his vision of the father's rule at home; and the statist, with his vision of a heroic leader pressing his hand upon the face of the earth. Each in his way subscribes to this statement, from the 19th century, of the conservative creed: “To obey a real superior ... is one of the most important of all virtues—a virtue absolutely essential to the attainment of anything great and lasting.”

Conservatism is dead because it lives

Another from Corey Robin, describing the victory of conservative ideas even as the Republicans' grip on electoral victory begins to fade.
Conservatism is dead because it lives. It has triumphed. It may lose elections, but its basic assumptions, going back to the reaction against the New Deal, now govern both parties. The economist John Quiggin calls it Zombie Economics, and it has never seemed a more appropriate metaphor. The dead walk among us. They are us.

The Punishers Want To Run The Country or
We Are All Tipped Waitstaff Now

No More Mister Nice Blog explains Republican resentment of Federal workers in terms of their psychology and vision of society, echoing Corey Robin's thesis.
At heart the entire Republican Party is made up of winners and losers and they are united in just one thing: they think that money is the only way to tell who is who. If you have money, you use that to distinguish yourself from the losers and to demonstrate your superiority by punishing them further. If you are a loser—a worker, for example, or have no health insurance (say) your job as a Republican is to take your status as a given, accept it, and turn around and get your jollies kicking someone else farther down the line.
....
The right boundaries for workers are that they know their place, that they can be fired capriciously, and that they exist primarily to make the employer feel good about himself and, further, that like waiters in a restaurant and prostitutes with their johns their job is also to make the employer believe that he is receiving an extra good form of treatment not accorded to others diners or johns.

What's It All About Then

Paul Krugman talking about the debate over economic policy responses to the Great Recession following the ’08 financial crisis describes not just conservatives' advocacy of austerity but most conservative punditry on most topics.

Proponents of austerity, however, were lying about their motives. Strong words, but if you look at their recent reactions it becomes clear that all the claims ... were just excuses for an agenda of dismantling the welfare state. That in turn helps explain why the intellectual collapse of their supposed arguments has made no difference to their policy position.

One interesting point, which Wren-Lewis gets at and I’ve mentioned on other occasions, is that the austerity side of this debate isn’t just disingenuous; it doesn’t seem to comprehend the notion that other people might actually argue in good faith. No time to do the link right now, but back when we were discussing stimulus many people on the right, economists like Lucas included, simply assumed that people like Christy Romer were making stuff up to serve a political agenda. And now I think we can see why they made this assumption — after all, that’s how they work.

The paranoid style in American politics

This classic Richard Hofstadter essay from 1964 remains relevant, showing how a certain flavor of right-wing paranoia has always been with us.

The basic elements of contemporary right-wing thought can be reduced to three: First, there has been the now-familiar sustained conspiracy, running over more than a generation, and reaching its climax in Roosevelt’s New Deal, to undermine free capitalism, to bring the economy under the direction of the federal government, and to pave the way for socialism or communism. A great many right-wingers would agree with Frank Chodorov, the author of The Income Tax: The Root of All Evil, that this campaign began with the passage of the income-tax amendment to the Constitution in 1913.

The second contention is that top government officialdom has been so infiltrated by Communists that American policy, at least since the days leading up to Pearl Harbor, has been dominated by men who were shrewdly and consistently selling out American national interests.

Finally, the country is infused with a network of Communist agents, just as in the old days it was infiltrated by Jesuit agents, so that the whole apparatus of education, religion, the press, and the mass media is engaged in a common effort to paralyze the resistance of loyal Americans.

Politics, Not Economics

A series of tweets from Umair Haque of the Harvard Business Review about the relationship between conservative politics and the global economic crisis.
10. Conservatism EXPLICITLY aims for rent-seeking, social fracture, systemic externalities, and elite capture.
23. (Neo)feudalism is essentially the event horizon of modern conservatism. Where it comes full circle, and regresses into lunacy.

Regurgitating the apple: how Modern Liberals “think”

This last piece on conservative thinking, in an odd reversal, is actually a talk by Evan Sayet given at the prestigious conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation attempting to explain to conservatives how liberals think. There are times when it seems to liberals that Amercian conservatism often seems to consist of no positive program at all, but rather a contrarian opposition to liberalism. This piece is a fascinating window into how that appears from the other side.
I assume that just about everybody in this room agrees that the Democrats are wrong on just about every issue. Well, I'm here to propose to you that it's not “just about” every issue; it's quite literally every issue. And it's not just wrong; it's as wrong as wrong can be; it's 180 degrees from right; it is diametrically opposed to that which is good, right, and successful.

What I discovered is that this is not an accident. This is part of a philosophy that now dominates the whole of Western Europe and the Democratic Party today. I, like some others, call it Modern Liberalism. The Modern Liberal will invariably side with evil over good, wrong over right, and the behaviors that lead to failure over those that lead to success.
....
But if they're not stupid and they're not evil, what's their plan?


More vocabulary from Left Blogistan


Having introduced the terms “High Broderism” and “The Village”, here are some more whimsical terms from left-leaning bloggers that teach a lesson about American politics.

If Wishes Were Horses, Beggars Would Ride —
A Pony!

Belle Waring offers a funny and useful snark trope.
It's like when you can't decide whether to daydream about being a famous Hollywood star or having amazing magical powers. Why not — be a famous Hollywood star with amazing magical powers! Along these lines, John has developed an infallible way to improve any public policy wishes. You just wish for the thing, plus, wish that everyone would have their own pony! So, in Chafetz' case, he should not only wish that Bush would say a lot of good things about democracy-building and fighting terrorism in a speech written for him by a smart person, he should also wish that Bush should actually mean the things he says and enact policies which reflect this, and he should wish that everyone gets a pony. See?

The Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics

Matthew Yglesias notices a troubling superstition in American foreign policy.

Suffice it to say that I think all this makes an okay premise for a comic book. But a lot of people seem to think that American military might is like one of these power rings. They seem to think that, roughly speaking, we can accomplish absolutely anything in the world through the application of sufficient military force. The only thing limiting us is a lack of willpower.

What's more, this theory can't be empirically demonstrated to be wrong. Things that you or I might take as demonstrating the limited utility of military power to accomplish certain kinds of things are, instead, taken as evidence of lack of will. Thus we see that problems in Iraq and Afghanistan aren't reasons to avoid new military ventures, but reasons why we must embark upon them ....

Wingnut welfare

The system of sinecures which keeps conservative soldiers gainfully employed.

Wingnut welfare refers to jobs or deals offered to conservatives on the basis of ideological purity rather than talent or experience. The term was coined in 2005 by blogger Jane Hamsher, who used it in reference to Pajamas Media.[1] It has since become a popular term among liberal bloggers.

Wingnut welfare typically describes positions at conservative publishing houses, opinion journals and websites. However, not all such positions are considered wingnut welfare. The term is generally applied to those positions or deals which are divorced from free-market business principles. Put simply, wingnut welfare recipients are not expected to generate profit or even make any money at all. Such operations are heavily subsidized by wealthy benefactors such as William Regnery Jr. and Richard Mellon Scaife and organizations such as the John M. Olin Foundation.

The Balloon Juice Lexicon

A witty guide to numerous other common refrains used on political blogs. Useful as a reference, but also well worth browsing. In three parts:

More classics


A grab bag of other invaluable blog posts which help explain What's Going On in American politics.

Common Fraud

A long and fascinating exploration of an example of deceptive advocacy propaganda.

A few years back I had an argument with one of my brothers. I said that right-wing disinformation had a whole lot more money and organization behind it than anything the left had to say. He said no, it didn’t. I said yes, actually; it did. He again said no it didn’t, so I saw there was no use in talking about it, at any rate not with him. But it’s true. Corporate America doesn’t just buy airtime and put together slick ads for its products. It also uses its money to generate some of the slickest disinformation on the planet.

We think we’re so clever, we think we can cope, we think we’re on top of the problem. We don’t just take any old advice off the Internet. We think we know where to find the good stuff. We know to think twice before listening to corporate spokesmen. We give extra credence to private netizens who, out of the kindness of their hearts, are giving us the straight dope on something. We’ve done it a hundred times before. We’ve done the same when someone asked a question we could answer, and felt good for being able to help them.

It’s different now. There’s too much money at stake for that frontier to stay open. Deceiving us has become an industrial process.

Southern Strategery

Digby again, with an examination of how racism (particularly in the South but not limited to it) has shaped American politics in ways that make the country resistent to social democracy.
Racism is the original sin of the American experiment and progress in expunging it is slow going, especially in its ground zero, the south. It may even be that some of our most cherished beliefs about ourselves — individualism and self-sufficiency — are partially grounded in an ugly reaction to slavery and the fallout from it. White Supremacists and neo-confederates are exactly what they appear to be and more subtle aspects of their philosophy play themselves out in the multitude of ways that people rationalize their beliefs about government social programs and many other things in American culture.

Obama stump speech strategy of conciliation considered harmful

Written back in 2007, when candidates Obama, Clinton, and others were about to enter the Presidential primaries, this article offers a good capsule description of the dynamic created by Movement Conservatism in American politics on its way to prophetic criticism of Obama's tactics of compromise with the Republican party.
Slowly but surely, well funded and well organized Conservatives pushed their ideas from unthinkable, to radical, to acceptable, to sensible, to popular, and finally into policy, in a process described as The Overton Window. As surely and ruthlessly, progressive ideas were marginalized, and then silenced altogether. And spending what it took, the winger billionaires used the Conservative Movement to restructure politics, and having restructured politics, economics. To their economic benefit.

The Powell Memo: A call-to-arms for corporations

Bill Moyers explains the powerful influence of the Powell Memo in shaping the landscape of American politics as Nixon's Southern Strategy evolved into Movement Conservatism.
Lewis Powell felt compelled to assert, in a memo that was to help galvanize business circles, that the “American economic system is under broad attack.” This attack, Powell maintained, required mobilization for political combat: “Business must learn the lesson ... that political power is necessary; that such power must be assiduously cultivated; and that when necessary, it must be used aggressively and with determination—without embarrassment and without the reluctance which has been so characteristic of American business.” Moreover, Powell stressed, the critical ingredient for success would be organization: “Strength lies in organization, in careful long-range planning and implementation, in consistency of action over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing available only through joint effort, and in the political power available only through united action and national organizations.”

The Powell Memo (also known as the Powell Manifesto)

The original text of the memo itself.
But one should not postpone more direct political action, while awaiting the gradual change in public opinion to be effected through education and information. Business must learn the lesson, long ago learned by labor and other self-interest groups. This is the lesson that political power is necessary; that such power must be assidously (sic) cultivated; and that when necessary, it must be used aggressively and with determination — without embarrassment and without the reluctance which has been so characteristic of American business.

A short history of white racism in the two-party system

Doug Muder with a clarifying explanation of how the Democratic and Republican coalitions shifted during the era of the Civil Rights Movement. Instructive because movement conservatives have been misrepresenting this history in recent years in order to claim that Democrats Are The Real Racists. The real history shows something more interesting instead: that for historically contingent reasons our nation's two cultural tribes have never neatly divided between our two political parties ... until now.

If you’ve seen the Lincoln movie, maybe you’re still walking around with this bit of cognitive dissonance: In 1864, the Democrats are the party of slavery and the Republicans the party of emancipation and racial justice. What’s up with that? How did we get from there to here?

The story is doubly worth telling because Republicans like Ann Coulter and Jonah Goldberg have been misrepresenting it so grossly.

Why Welfare

A review in The Economist of Alberto Alesina's and Edward Glaeser's book Fighting Poverty: A World of Difference which show that support for social democratic welfare state in the United States is undercut by racism.

Racial diversity in individual states is correlated with the generosity of welfare. For instance, the authors find that in 1990 Aid to Families with Dependent Children ranged from over $800 per family per month in mainly white Alaska to less than $150 in Alabama and Mississippi, where almost one-third of the population is black. Even after adjustment for inter-state differences in average incomes, the correlation with race remained strong. Across countries, too, racial diversity goes with low government spending on poverty relief.

The reason, argue the authors, is that “race matters”, and they marshal statistical evidence, much of it from opinion surveys, to back this up. People are likely to support welfare if they live close to recipients of their own race; but are antipathetic if they live near recipients from another race. The divergent attitudes of Europeans and Americans to the poor are underwritten by the fact that the poor in Europe tend to be ethnically the same as most other folk. In America, their skin is often a different colour.

The authors say that “political entrepreneurs”, eager to use race as an excuse to turn the poor against redistribution, shape attitudes to race and to poverty.

Tea Party Yankees

Seth Ackerman brings convincing historical research to show that the Republican wing we call the Tea Party isn't a Southern invasion; it's more structural than that.

Today’s Republican extremism owes more to the Constitution that established the Union than the secessionists who sundered it. It’s Hoover’s party — and Madison’s — not Calhoun’s

....

The notion that this brand of Southern Democratic politics prefigured modern-day Rush Limbaugh-style Tea Party Republicanism is fallacious. If, today, there are modern-day equivalents of Russell’s genre of Southern Democrat – on issues other than civil rights – they are not Eric Cantor or Ted Cruz, but rather Ben Nelson, Mary Landrieu, John Breaux, or Claire McCaskill. In other words, the closest modern-day equivalents of the conservative Democrats of the 1940s are modern-day conservative Democrats.

As for the process by which those traditional Southern Democrats were eventually displaced by an ever-expanding Southern Republican Party – a process Judis attributes to Goldwater and his fellow conservatives “seiz[ing] the mantle of states’ rights” – it was a gradual, uneven, and complex one. What is notable, though, is that over the long run it represented a process of convergence with the rest of the country – not a retreat into some moonlight-and-magnolias particularism. And for good reason: during those decades, the South’s social structure was converging with the North’s at a stunning pace. Once a poor, rural and agricultural backwater, the South emerged as a suburban, postindustrial growth region. In almost every aspect of its society – including its new forms of racial stratification – it increasingly resembled the North. And the same was true of its politics.

....

After two centuries laboring under a Constitution crafted by principled opponents of democracy, who saw as one of their central goals the suppression of any chance that concerted majorities might ever use the state for positive ends, how can anyone be surprised that this country is hospitable to anti-government extremists?

Anatomy of the Deep State

Mike Lofgren offers an overview of the contemporary systems of oligarchic political power which aren't quite a conspiracy, but are an abrogation of American democracy.
Yes, there is another government concealed behind the one that is visible at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue, a hybrid entity of public and private institutions ruling the country according to consistent patterns in season and out, connected to, but only intermittently controlled by, the visible state whose leaders we choose. My analysis of this phenomenon is not an exposé of a secret, conspiratorial cabal; the state within a state is hiding mostly in plain sight, and its operators mainly act in the light of day. Nor can this other government be accurately termed an “establishment.” All complex societies have an establishment, a social network committed to its own enrichment and perpetuation. In terms of its scope, financial resources and sheer global reach, the American hybrid state, the Deep State, is in a class by itself. That said, it is neither omniscient nor invincible. The institution is not so much sinister (although it has highly sinister aspects) as it is relentlessly well entrenched. Far from being invincible, its failures, such as those in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, are routine enough that it is only the Deep State’s protectiveness towards its higher-ranking personnel that allows them to escape the consequences of their frequent ineptitude.

26 February 2012

Critical thinking

Via Lauren Davis at io9, a set of nifty little animations about critical thinking.


It reminds me that one of these days I want to create a set of icons for each of the major logical fallacies.

23 February 2012

Commentary on my open letter to PantheaCon

I have reserved this page for comments on my long open letter to PantheaCon so that the comment thread there can be a place for people to co-sign the letter if they wish. I invite comment here, and if commentators have posts elsewhere — in praise, comment, or criticism — they can email me and I will linkback to their comments on this page.


Twitter references to the letter.

Included on a link roundup on The Wild Hunt

Linked from Cheryl's Mewsings

Tony Mierzwicki at The Emerald Tablet links the letter in his long post about the events, PantheaCon 2012 part 2 of 2: Healing our Community

Yeshe Rabbit links the letter in a comment on her own blog post Reaction, response, and resolution: on PantheaCon & protests.

Lucy at Fifteen Minutes to Fame has a long post The Power of Cis-Only Rituals? which uses the letter as a jumping-off point for a critique of assumptions underlying exclusive cis rituals:

So, when cis women talk about the power and importance of cis women-only spaces, I tend to be very suspicious because excluding trans people doesn’t actually do what they think it does .... what it does is reinforce cultural transphobia and cissexism because the cis women can see the power of their experiences while claiming that excluding trans women let them have it .... They experience confirmation bias when they have cis-only rituals because they know that only cis people are there .... This leads them to declare that they require cis-only spaces even as they have no idea if this is actually true.

The Bad Witch refers to the letter as “a not rhetorically uncharged eye-witness report” in the post D is for Dianic, Diversity, Discrimination, and DNA

Morag Spinner kindly refers to the letter as “one of the best links” in the post Discrimination.


I received this comment by email:

Pantheacon is never going to be “all events are open to all members.” Never. There will be, at the very least, age-restricted rituals (much of which I think is ridiculous; why have a PG-13 ritual limited to 21 and over only?), and there will almost certainly be number restrictions (“only 15 people at the build-your-mask workshop because that's all I have supplies for”).

There are many other types of restrictions. Aside from the men-only/women-only rituals, there are “must wear white” rituals, and “must be able to dance” rituals, and so on. I don't think anyone wants to insist on an end to those.

I believe Miniver's right: P'con needs a *policy* for restrictions, not an end to them. It needs to clarify what kinds of restrictions are allowed, and how identity with the restricted group can be challenged, and whether a presenter needs to provide an explanation/justification for the restriction.

In this particular case, the problem wasn't a cis-women-only ritual that wasn't reasonably labeled; it's that the ritual claimed to honor “all feminine beauty,” and then insisted that some women are not feminine enough to attend. The problem wasn't the restriction per se, but the “all” part of the description.

Elf


PantheaCon has published a policy on exclusive events.

PantheaCon will adhere to state and federal laws which require age limitations and non-discrimination on the basis of age, race, national origin or gender. We also affirm the importance of safe space and will continue to schedule presentations that limit attendance to specific groups of individuals. All workshops or rituals that say “Women Only” or “Men Only” will be open to all who self-identify as such.

PantheaCon cannot police all boundaries. One thing has become evident, simply seeking to make restrictions on gender unambiguous is not sufficient. Prospective presenters applying to make group-specific presentations should be clear in their language about limitations and observe these guidelines. Private rooms, including Hospitality Suites, at the DoubleTree are not subject to this policy. In the past, groups have held invitation-only events and skyclad rituals in private rooms, and PantheaCon will not interfere in these private arrangements.

PantheaCon aims to provide a safe environment for all of its attendees to enjoy their diverse paths. As we evolve, this policy may be subject to some nuanced changes in the future. We welcome any and all comments on this policy.

An open letter to the PantheaCon organization

To Glenn Turner and the other organizers of PantheaCon:

I write to you in the understanding that you have asked for feedback from the community about this year's contention over gender and ritual and the role of transgender Pagans at PantheaCon, as triggered by Z Budapest's ritual Sunday night and the protest that accompanied it.

Already, just a few days after the weekend has concluded, we see an explosion of discussion of these topics by Pagans on the web. With so much discussion in the air, I want to try to speak to the specific implications for you in the PantheaCon organization.

Even that specific focus demands a long-windedness which I hope that you, and other interested readers, will forgive me. Understanding the meaning of the weekend's events demands understanding their context. Understanding the implications for the future demands opening some difficult questions.

A word about me

I am a Pagan Hermeticist and a cis man. (For readers unfamiliar with the term “cis”, it means “not-trans”; I was called a boy the day I was born and call myself a man today. The trans community has expressed their preference for this language over other alternatives; I use it as a mark of respect for trans people.)

The night of Z Budapest's ritual I had duties which prevented me from witnessing the protest against it. As I am neither trans nor a witch nor a woman nor present at the pivotal event, one might say that I have no stake in that singular moment last weekend.

But I believe that I do. I have participated in PantheaCon every year for fifteen years. I am a Pagan living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Your event is an integral part of my community. And so I write to you as a member of that community.

I must also note that I am co-founder of Solar Cross Temple with T. Thorn Coyle, who played an important role in the events of the weekend, having precipitated the protest by announcing her intent to sit in silence outside the ritual. (It's worth noting that Thorn, who at that point did not know that anyone would join her, did not refer to her plan as a “protest” at all. That we now refer to this as a protest contains a lesson, I suspect.) But I speak neither for Thorn nor for Solar Cross, but rather as a member of the PantheaCon community.

The past year

The incident at the Lilith ritual at last year's PantheaCon and the the many discussions in the Pagan community which followed influenced both the shape of this year's Con and the significance of Budapest's ritual. I'll not rehash the whole story here, but I want to underline a few key points essential to understanding the current controversy.

The clumsiness and confusion underlying the original incident demonstrated how despite often having good intentions the Pagan community does not have the sophistication about gender which it needs in order to properly welcome every member of the community. We saw how people neither thoughtless nor malicious took actions that turned badly sour, leaving trans Pagans feeling justifiably alienated.

The original incident demonstrated how exclusive rituals, however defined, can put the PantheaCon organization in the awkward position of enforcing the ritual's rules and implicitly endorsing the the event.

The vigorous discussion which followed demonstrated that the Pagan community could not and would not defer an examination of how we handle the complexities of gender any longer. That discussion failed to close (or even to fully open) many of the questions we face. Having demonstrated a commitment to talking about those questions was no small achievement, but we still have many Pagans of different perspectives feeling that they remain unheard, unsupported, and unsafe in the community.

In short, we found that we had a lot of work to do, that the work is difficult, that we cannot turn away from it, and that PantheaCon has an essential role to play in helping to lead the greater Pagan community forward.

This year's PantheaCon

The PantheaCon organization obviously made a commitment to this process. The Con schedule included numerous events — talks, rituals, and panels — addressing gender in the Pagan community and in Pagan practice. The schedule included a ritual offered explicitly welcoming of all women, both cis and trans. The convention theme of “unity in diversity” obviously alluded, in part, to PantheaCon including trans people in that diversity.

That deserves applause. Both the PantheaCon organization and PantheaCon community the made the effort to walk the walk.

This makes me certain that you included Z Budapest's ritual in this year's schedule with the very best of intentions. The thinking must have been that, in the spirit of having spaces which support the needs of the diverse members of the Pagan community, it made sense to have a range of differently-defined rituals, including one limited to women but inclusive of all women, both cis and trans, and another ritual limited to only cis women.

I can imagine a ritual for cis women only which many of the people who protested this weekend would have found entirely appropriate for PantheaCon and the community. I can imagine many others among the protestors finding that such a ritual justified criticism but not protest.

But Z Budapest's “The Sacred Body of Woman (Self-Blessing)” was not that ritual. It represented a terrible failure of what I take to be the PantheaCon organization's intentions.

Z Budapest

Budapest has a reputation for — putting it kindly — stubbornness and speaking bluntly. I respect that strength of character. It is impossible to imagine that a gentler woman could have broken the ground she has and achieved the things she has in the times and circumstances she faced. The Pagan community stands on a foundation of those achievements, and while I can count myself as neither witch nor woman, as an American Pagan I mark myself as owing an incalculable debt to her. One could easily argue that without her efforts over many years, PantheaCon itself might never have happened. And many, many people in our community have greater and more direct debts to her and her work.

That speaks to the past, but her value to the Pagan community lies not only in the past. Just two weeks before PantheaCon I stood in circle with her at the Pagan Studies Conference, where she served as keynote speaker. At one point the energy of our circle had started to flag. She got a mischievous look and said something that has always seemed as trite and flat as a bumper sticker to me. “The Goddess is alive,” she told us.“And magic is afoot.” These words held a spark I never recognized before. Then she turned and grinned and said it again, differently. “The Goddess is alive, and magic is afoot!” It was utterly infectious and we repeated it with her. “The Goddess is alive and magic is afoot! The Goddess is alive and magick is afoot!!” The Goddess was there, and I knew her in a way I never had before. Magick.

So while I have the profoundest disagreements with many things that she stands for — some well beyond the scope of this letter — it pains me to speak against her. It does not surprise me that some people wept as they sat in protest on Sunday.

But.

One of those things which she stands for is the fear and hatred of trans women. She represents transphobia in the most literal sense.

Many commentators have pointed to this statement attributed to her, inspired by last year's controversy:

This struggle has been going since the Women’s Mysteries first appeared. These individuals selfishly never think about the following: if women allow men to be incorporated into Dianic Mysteries,What will women own on their own? Nothing! Again! Transies who attack us only care about themselves.

We women need our own culture, our own resourcing, our own traditions. You can tell these are men, They don’t care if women loose the Only tradition reclaimed after much research and practice ,the Dianic Tradition. Men simply want in. its their will. How dare us women not let them in and give away the ONLY spiritual home we have!

Men want to worship the Goddess? Why not put in the WORK and create your own trads. The order of ATTIS for example,(dormant since the 4rth century) used to be for trans gendered people, also the castrata, men who castrated themselves to be more like the Goddess.

Why are we the ONLY tradition they want? Go Gardnerian!Go Druid! Go Ecclectic!

Filled with women, and men. They would fit fine.

But if you claim to be one of us, you have to have sometimes in your life a womb, and overies and MOON bleed and not die.

Women are born not made by men on operating tables.

I cannot read this as anything other than contempt toward trans women expressed through deliberate insults. The word “Transies” alone is unmistakably a slur. Budapest says both directly and by implication that trans women are in no sense women, they are nothing other than men in disguise, and the only meaning to their desire to circle with cis women is what it denies to cis women. This dismisses the lived experiences, material realities, and obvious commitment of trans women to living as women.

T. Thorn Coyle, who instigated the sitting in silence at Budapest's PantheaCon ritual, called this hate speech. She is right. It denies the fundamental dignity of trans women, as many commentators have described more ably than I can.

Recently, Budapest has said that some people have attributed things to her that she did not really say, though she has not specified what she means. Perhaps she includes this well-known blog comment … though tellingly she has had nearly a year to correct the record on it and has not found it necessary to do so.

But even if this specific comment did not come from her, the sentiment of fear and hatred and disrespect for our trans sisters it contains unmistakably reflects her expressed views, well known in the community. Many people have described her as having made similar comments in person, and I count myself among them. The morning before I circled with her two weeks ago, at the conference she spoke this same idea that trans women wanting to circle in women-only spaces are none other than men who, characteristically for men, want to deny women any space to themselves.

I will not attempt a full critique of those ideas here. Others have, more ably than I could. It is enough, in order to understand the significance of her ritual on Sunday and the protest that accompanied it, to note that many people in the Pagan community, both cis and trans, rightly regard Budapest as hostile to trans women.

The ritual

PantheaCon included only only one scheduled event featuring Budapest this year:

The Sacred Body of Woman (Self-Blessing)

This skyclad rite honors the body of each and every woman present, the beauty and grace of the feminine form in all of her infinite variety. Allow yourself to be embraced by the glorious love of your sisters, with voices raised in sacred song in this central ritual of the Dianic Tradition. Genetic women only.

Emphasis mine.

It would be wrong — it would be an insult to the diversity of trans people — to suggest that the trans community speaks with one voice. Indeed, the concerns and the rhetoric of the trans community exhibits so much diversity, and moves so quickly, that even keenly interested people can have difficulty keeping up. But in at least one way trans people have spoken unambiguously: if you want to demonstrate respect toward trans people, when you describe people as not-trans, you refer to them as “cis”. Cis men. Cis women. Cis people.

So a person who cared to make the effort could have identified this ritual as exclusive to cis women without making the description itself insulting.

That the description of the ritual used, instead, the strange descriptor “genetic women” indicates that Budapest — and by extension, you in the PantheaCon organization having published this description in the guide — either did not make the effort to know that this language would be offensive, or did not care.

What Budapest's ritual signifies

Many commentators have suggested that the protest against Budapest's ritual represents an attack on cis women having their own space at PantheaCon, an attack on the Dianic tradition, an attack on Budapest for having unpopular opinions. These readings are wrong. I have spoken to several of the protestors, and read the writings of many more. Niether the fact of a ritual restricted to cis women nor the fact of Z Budapest present a ritual inspired the protest.

It was combination of the ritual description and it being led by someone well-known for bigotry against trans women and its timing in the wake of the events of the last year that add up to the ritual being an insult to trans women. It was that having this on the convention schedule implied that such an insult is an accepted part of Pagan culture.

The protest

So the Pagan community stepped forward and said:

No. We cannot allow the implication that we accept bigotry against our trans sisters. We cannot allow the implication that we accept insults to our trans sisters.

Nor can we allow the implication that we disrespect our Dianic sisters who find value in spaces for cis women only. We will protest in the least disruptive way we can.

But we will not let the moment pass unmarked.

I say the Pagan community pointedly. This was not a protest of trans women, or of trans people, or of activists. It was a protest by a range of people reflecting the diversity of the Pagan community.

I have no doubt that the diverse participants in the protest, and those not present but aligned with it in spirit, hold a suitably diverse range of opinions about the greater questions of gender in the Pagan community. I look forward to that conversation, which has already begun to unfold.

Mindful of that, I don't want to pretend to speak for all of the protestors. The one opinion I feel confident in claiming that the protesters share is that we want our trans brothers and sisters to feel welcome in our community.

So what about rituals exclusive to cis women, in general?

The Pagan community is now talking about the role of rituals exclusive to cis women in Pagan practice.

No one can or should enforce some kind of ban on rituals exclusive to cis women, and were such a ban even possible, I certainly would not want the PantheaCon organization to police it, if for no other reason than that you don't deserve to be cursed with that kind of responsibility.

But no one is calling for that, and defenders of exclusive rituals for cis women who hear an attack on Dianics' religious freedom, who hear some voices in the Pagan community “telling them what to do”, have heard something which no one has said. They have mistaken criticism for some kind of compulsion. I see a Pagan community which recognizes the freedom of Budapest or anyone else to say and do what they wish. But that freedom does not extend to freedom from criticism.

Frankly, some criticism is warranted. In many of the defenses of cis women's circles, I have seen some unexamined transphobia. I'd like to see more discussion to explore that, and I'm heartened to see that happening; the community has obviously made a commitment to discussing these questions.

But those transphobic commentators — Budapest among them — do not speak for all cis women who build exclusive spaces, or even more narrowly for all Dianics. And in this conversation I think we have also seen the awesome power which rituals and other spaces exclusive to cis women can have. I cannot imagine how anyone could hear the stories that cis women have told about the importance of these spaces without feeling profoundly moved. And the depth of these spaces' significance goes beyond what I can ever fully appreciate having lived the life of a cis man.

This reflects one of the truths learned by social justice movements. A range of forums are necessary to nourish the community. We must have inclusive forums where we all come together. And we must have exclusive forums where people who share a more specific identity can do work they can only do together with people who share that identity. And not for nothing, it's worth noting that we owe this realization in large part to women like Z Budapest who discovered the vital importance of women having some spaces away from men.

So we have some work to do to figure out the place of exclusive rituals for cis women in the Pagan community. More conversation is needed, and it looks like we are going to get it.

I say all of this in service of pointing out that this conversation isn't PantheaCon's to adjudicate. You shouldn't do it, you cannot do it, and I cannot ask you to do it. But you do need to follow this conversation as it unfolds, because you need it to inform a thing which I am asking you to do.

The need for a clear policy about exclusive spaces at PantheaCon

Unhappily for the PantheaCon organization, we have obviously come to the end of an era in which it has been possible to run the Con without having pinned down exactly what role exclusive events — events which will only admit some members of our community — have at PantheaCon. I think you will no longer be able to make decisions about events in isolation, but will need to do it in reference to a clear, explicit policy.

In retrospect, it becomes evident that this day had to come eventually. It's not hard to imagine the exclusive events the community would reject out of hand. But if there are some exclusive events PantheaCon supports and others which it rejects, what defines the difference? Someday you have to answer the question, and that day is now upon us.

An argument can be made that as an environment where the Pagan community as a whole comes together, PantheaCon simply should not include exclusive events at all. That would be a clean solution, and I believe that you need to consider it.

But eliminating exclusive events would also be a loss. Eliminating events exclusive to cis women would be a loss. We have been talking about exclusive rituals' power for cis women, and they can be powerful for many other groups as well. Certainly many conventions of all kinds include exclusive events, so they are not inherently a problem. But I think you cannot schedule them any more without referencing a policy that you publish to the world.

“Event descriptions must not insult people who are excluded from the event” would make a good rule to include in that policy.

I'm not asking for a policy to last forever, but I believe that the organization does need to name one for next year, and to commit to refining it in the years to come.

The need for an apology from the PantheaCon organization

You have taken on the question of gender at the conference with grace and goodwill and seriousness of purpose, and mostly done a good job of it. But with the inclusion of Budapest's ritual you screwed up badly, and you should have known better.

You need to apologize to trans women, to PantheaCon participants, and to the Pagan community as a whole. It was your responsibility to forsee this problem, and you failed.

A non-apology apology will not cut it. You're not sorry people's feelings were hurt, you're sorry that you did the wrong thing. You need to make clear what was wrong about it, so that we know that you understand, and so that the whole Pagan community can see what was at stake.

Everything I have seen from the PantheaCon organization makes me confident that you will step up. This will do a great deal to heal the community.

The need for an apology from Z Budapest

I believe that before this weekend, it might have been possible to schedule Z Budapest for an event without it constituting an insult to trans women. Had she been speaking on another topic, or leading a different kind of ritual, it would not have been an endorsement by PantheaCon of the range of her views, and thus could be read not as an endorsement of the bigoted slurs she has made toward trans women ... though even that seems iffy in retrospect.

But at this point, she has become identified with her rhetorical attacks on trans women. Scheduling her for anything now would read as support for her and what she has said and done.

Yes, she attempted an “apology” the night of the ritual. I presume that the PantheaCon staff urged her to do so, and if that guess is correct you deserve great credit for that. But that was not a real apology, and the community needs one. She needs to say that what she did was wrong. She needs to show that she knows why it was wrong. She has to promise not to do it again.

PantheaCon should not silence her, and does not have the power to do so anyway. But you don't have to give her a microphone.

What I call for

PantheaCon is facing this crisis because you have shown invaluable leadership in the Pagan community, both with respect to the addressing the role of gender in our community and in general. That leadership is renewed each year and ratified by the community's participation in the event.

We need you to show that leadership again. So I am calling on you to do three things:

  1. A clear apology from PantheaCon for the insult to trans women implied by the scheduling of Z Budapest's ritual
  2. A refusal to schedule Z Budapest for any PantheaCon events in the future unless she apologizes for her comments about trans women and recants them
  3. A clear policy about what constitutes an appropriate basis for a ritual with restricted participants

I hope that other members of the community join me in this call.


Commentary on this blog post

I hope that other members of the Pagan community will co-sign this letter. Co-signatories need not agree with the letter in every particular, but should agree with the things I called for at the end. I am reserving the comment thread on this page for people to join me as co-signatories on this letter; any other comments on this page will be deleted.

But in the hope that this letter will garner comments and criticism, I have created a separate page on my blog for commentary and discussion. I will also try to index every discussion of the letter which I know about on that supplemental page. I encourage folks commenting elsewhere to contact me by email, so that my index can be as complete as possible.

I strongly encourage anyone to repost this letter, in whole and in part, but I ask that all re-posts link back to this page.

As I have had reports of some folks having trouble posting blog comments, I have added a section for folks who have emailed me asking to be co-signatories:


Autumn Tyr-Salvia aka St. Mae of Discordian.com

Elf