31 July 2013


It would be naïve to call these guys representative of a force for good or a force for evil. They are better understood as a force with its own agenda. And they're getting stronger.

For the uninitiated, that's

Image via Bruce Sterling, prophet of the age, who has a link behind it to a UK Guardian piece: XKeyscore: NSA tool collects ‘nearly everything a user does on the internet’.

Chairman Bruce follows up with a long, glorious rant with this as the punchline:

They have the beatific look of righteousness rewarded. Che Guevara in his starred beret had more self-doubt than these guys. They are thrilled with themselves.

People, you couldn’t trust any of these three guys to go down to the corner grocery for a pack of cigarettes. Stallman would bring you tiny peat-pots of baby tobacco plants, then tell you to grow your own. Assange would buy the cigarettes, but smoke them all himself while coding up something unworkable. And Ed would set fire to himself, to prove to an innocent mankind that tobacco is a monstrous and cancerous evil that must be exposed at all costs.

And yet the three of them together, they look just amazing. They are fantastic figures, like the promise of otherworldly aid from a superhero comic. They are visibly stronger than they’ve ever been before. They have the initiative in a world afflicted with comprehensive helplessness.

And there’s more coming. Lots, lots more.

24 July 2013

The American social contract

Clearing his throat on the way to reviewing Jaron Lanier's new book Who Owns The Future?, Freddie deBoer provides a spot-on summation of the social crisis precipitated by the structural changes we are seeing in the economy.

What becomes of America when the social contract can no longer be fulfilled? Generations of parents taught their children about deals that they thought were immutable aspects of the American condition; they now watch their adult children struggle in a society where those deals are not honored. The current employment crisis in the U.S. can be understood only in light of this basic social contract, the central theme of the American myth, the moral of our national fable: If you work, you will survive. Not only will you survive but you will prosper. All our propaganda begins here. Young Americans are promised that work will translate to an ever-improving lot in life, within and across generations — a bigger house when you’re 40, and your children in a bigger house than they were raised in. You might say that this is a lot to ask of any social order. But then, it wasn’t my idea.

A country that has made its self-definition utterly dependent on the ubiquity of paying work now has an insufficient number of jobs. This is not short-term economic cyclicality; labor-force participation has dropped, fairly steadily, for decades. Capital-biased technological change contracts industry after industry. The most powerful, most profitable companies now employ a tiny fraction of the workers that similarly sized enterprises once did. The biggest employers, like Wal-Mart, provide insufficient wages and hours to give employees access to middle-class existence. The problem is not merely those who are entirely unemployed but also those who need more hours or higher wages and can’t get them. And all these people desperate to work or for more work undermine the bargaining power of those currently employed. Who asks for a raise when there are 50,000 young graduates who will do your job for two-thirds of what you make now? Who complains about discrimination, harassment, and other workplace immiseration when relief for employers is a round of pink slips away? This is what an employment crisis means. The unemployed suffer, and their suffering causes the employed to suffer. Each person’s precarity is instrumental in another’s.

It is hard to overstate: This country, in its current condition, has no other option but something close to full employment. Our pathetic social safety net, even absent the contracting effect of austerity measures, can’t fill in the gaps caused by the demise of ubiquitous employment. Even the counterrevolution has no other idiom; the most common epithet directed toward Occupy protests, after all, was “Get a job!” That the near impossibility of getting a job was the point for many who were protesting was too destabilizing a notion to be understood. In the short term, I have no doubt that the unemployment rate will fall. The question is the long-term structural dependability of a social contract built on mass employment.


For argument’s sake, let’s consider America’s employment crisis not as a failure of conservatism, market fundamentalism, neoliberalism, nor austerity. Let’s suppose that the problem is proceduralism.

A proceduralist views society not in terms of a necessary goal (say, happiness and opportunity for all its members) but instead as a set of rules that it must follow—because they are natural, because they stem from the Western tradition, because they comport with human behavior, because they follow God’s law, depending on whoever is justifying the current procedure. If these rules are followed, no injustice needs to be redressed. Rules can be discarded or changed if their intent is found to be problematic, but outcomes can be good or bad without issue. Problems arise only if the rules are broken.

Proceduralism tends to be popular among those who wrote the procedures; it’s a discourse of power. From Wall Street to the NSA, “we were following the rules” is a cynical but effective defense, undertaken by people who know that those same rules will save them from the consequences of their destructive yet superficially lawful behavior.

But what happens when established procedures lead to unsustainable or immoral consequences, such as widespread and persistent unemployment? The employment crisis reveals a conflict between the procedures of democratic capitalism, which ensure certain rights but promise nothing else, and the logic of the American social contract, which justifies the social order by assuring citizens that they can trade work for material security.

Talk of social contracts is passé in an America obsessed with technocapitalist visions of a prosperous future. The yen for “disruption,” an empty term for empty minds in empty people, makes traditional obstacles like social contracts suspect or downright pernicious. This has led to an embrace of proceduralism by those true believers who want an app economy to be the engine of capitalism. And such people rule the world.

The problem for proceduralists is that social contracts exist for a reason. It turns out that there are, actually, certain outcomes that society must ensure if it is to go on functioning. The really essential function of the social contract is to prevent the people from burning everything down. There are too many of us to be held down by force. The average person must agree to be governed for anything resembling civilization to endure. If the average citizen finds that their agreement with society has been broken, then civil unrest will result, as it has in Egypt, and in Greece, and in Turkey, and in Brazil. Trust me: it is not the cops that keep people from invading your home and stealing your stuff. Proceduralists may generally rule, but eventually, their bodies end up stacked in the village square.

Reactionaries of various stripes respond that something, somehow, will come along, despite the fact that recent Stanford graduates, pockets stuffed with Silicon Valley cash, are creatively disrupting the jobs out from under hundreds of thousands of Americans. The economy will correct itself, jobs will spontaneously will themselves into being, just as the finance industry will become spontaneously, magically self-regulating.We just need everybody to buy into the rules, to accept the procedure..

For the rest of uswho have lost faith in these rules, the question is what else is to be done. Can full employment be brought back by force? Can something else be built in its place? These are uncomfortable questions in a proceduralist country populated by a teleological people.

23 July 2013

Abortion and contraception

Here's yet another study demonstrating the obvious.

Providing free, reliable birth control to women could prevent between 41 percent and 71 percent of abortions in the United States

If “pro-life” advocates were interested in reducing the number of abortions performed, as they say they are, they would be advocates for free contraception. But they aren't.

How puzzling.

19 July 2013

Cookie Monster

A little magic on Twitter today from a great American poet:

Zimmerman's certainty

I've been reading commentaries (and commenting myself) on George Zimmerman's shooting of Trayvon Martin, and I've discovered folks who believe that that Martin reversed on Zimmerman and attacked him. They make much of a bit of court testimony from Chris Serino, lead investigator for the police on the case.

He also testified that he believed Zimmerman was telling the truth, especially after Serino bluffed that Martin's cell phone may have captured video of the incident.

“I believe [Zimmerman’s] words were, ‘Thank God, I was hoping somebody would videotape it,’ ” said Serino.

I can see how that could seem very convincing ... if you take Zimmerman as fundamentally credible. But I find it very easy to reconcile this statement with the possibility that it was Zimmerman who confronted, even assaulted, Martin.

Let us suppose that Zimmerman is hotheaded, bigoted, self-righteous, and stupid. I'm not saying he is these things, mind you; I'm just a guy who reads the news, so I don't know. But he could be. The evidence in the public record is at least consistent with the possibility, and there are things which hint that he is.

Let us imagine him that way for a minute.

It's easy to imagine that guy going chasing after Martin. Because he'd feel justified in doing it; he's the hero of his own little action movie in his head. It's easy to imagine that guy going up to Martin and confronting him provocatively and seeing Martin's angry response through bigot-o-vision as an unprovoked threat. It's easy to imagine that guy grabbing Martin's arm when Martin tried to walk away — which legally means Zimmerman assaulting Martin — and feeling justified in that. It's easy to imagine that turning into a pushing-and-shoving scuffle from Martin just trying to get away which could put Martin's elbow in Zimmerman's face, costing Zimmerman his footing so he falls and hits his head. It's easy to imagine Zimmerman on the ground and Martin yelling, Zimmerman dazed and panicked and fearing what he perceives as a scary Black thug attacking him. That Zimmerman could have drawn his gun and shot Martin and felt himself completely justified, thinking that his life had depended on it.

That is, it's easy to imagine that Zimmerman confronted Martin, attacked him, escalated the fight, then shot Martin when things didn't go the way he wanted — and thought that he was entirely justified in the eyes of the law, even though under Florida law, having assaulted Martin first he would have been guilty of at least manslaughter for shooting Martin in this hypothetical, even if he had sincerely feared for his life.

Given how little we can confirm about what happened that night, I cannot claim to know that any of this happened. But it's plausible that it did. Which makes it easy for to imagine Zimmerman being guilty but believing that he was acting reasonably and within his rights. He could have sincerely believed that video evidence would vindicate him, as Serino says, when in fact it would do the opposite.

The point here is not the question of Zimmerman per se. Again: I cannot know about him.

The point is that whether or not Zimmerman is the person I described, that guy does exist out there. And we have just demonstrated vividly that the criminal justice system will support him. So even if Zimmerman was right and justice was served in his case, on a broader scale this trial has demonstrated systemic racism and injustice.

Update in November:

I have a commentary from Josh Marshall, Sick To My Stomach, which says exactly what I'm thinking about what we have learned about Zimmerman since I originally wrote this piece.

Now we have him allegedly pointing a loaded weapon at his new girlfriend and apparently barricading himself in the house after police arrived on the scene. Add to this the earlier history of violent incidents including violently resisting arrest in 2005 and the real world verdict is now beyond a reasonable doubt as to this point: Zimmerman is a liar and a habitually violent and frequently out of control man who should never have been allowed to possess a gun.

Given all we know now about Zimmerman and all the additional evidence he's provided us with post-acquittal, there's simply no reason to doubt the worst case scenario of how Trayvon Martin died. The only real question is whether Zimmerman shot him in cold blood or killed him during the confrontation he himself forced to happen.

These revelations make my speculation that his shooting of Trayvon Martin may have come from panic, stupidity, irresponsibility, and semiconscious bigotry not the least generous plausible reading of Zimmerman, but actually the kindest. (Another update: evidence of Zimmerman's character keeps piling up.)

That makes me want to talk about how this post originally came to be. I wrote it as a response to conservatives on an online forum who insisted that Zimmerman's reply to Officer Serino was part of a great pile of evidence which demonstrated that we could be certain that Zimmerman was rightfully defending himself against a fierce, unprovoked attack by Martin. These people were smug about how they were looking at the facts and bravely following them where they led, unclouded by a political agenda.

It is hard not to scent racist bigotry in people who find that absurd image of Martin randomly attacking a stranger not just plausible, not just likely, but certain.

In turn, while I phrased my original post cautiously as a speculation of what might have happened, I imagine that it's obvious that it reflects my intuition about what really did happen. My framing my description as merely a speculation wasn't just in the name of rhetoric in a debate, though; I don't have any special knowledge, and need to be wary of overestimating my knowledge at a distance.

But it is interesting that my intuition is now strongly supported by later evidence, is it not? Why, in this case, was my intuition better than those conservatives’?

This question of intuitions is important. What do we find plausible? Who do we find credible? I don't want a system of justice that simply accepts intuition — not even my own — but the question of intuition matters.

So let me confess where I got my image of Zimmerman. I got it from this softball interview with him on Fox News:

Watching that, to my eye, it's obvious what kind of person Zimmerman is. I know that guy. He has no self-doubt. He could have done what I described and rationalized himself as being in the right, no sweat. And aside from recognizing that guy as as “hotheaded, bigoted, self-righteous, and stupid .... the hero of his own little action movie in his head”, there's one other thing I now about that guy: conservatives are dead suckers for him.

I first learned this watching Oliver North testify in the Iran/Contra hearings, when I was quite young. His earnest self-righteousness gave me the heebie-jeebies but conservatives lapped it up. They always do, when it's a member of their tribe.

I've commented before about how differing responses to earnestness are part of the liberal-conservative culture divide in America. Liberals have a deep-rooted skepticism about it, because we think that one needs self-doubt to check one's self. Cultural liberals' attitude is not entirely a good thing — earnest sincerity can be beautiful and powerful. But conservatives are far too credulous about it, which makes them too supportive of the smug and self-righteous. And they never seem to learn.

This is a culture gap that literally kills.

Update March 2015

Still that guy.

“I believe God has his plans, and for me to second-guess them would be hypocritical, almost blasphemous,” he said when asked if the encounter that ended Martin’s life would have turned out differently.

Update August 2015

Was he always a neo-Confederate?

The caption, ‘the 2nd protects the first’ is a double entendre. The first flag I painted on this canvas was an American Flag, but decided to repaint over it with the Confederate Flag when I heard Andy was getting sued by CAIR. The 2nd flag I painted was the Battle Flag — which we need in America in order to protect the first.

Update August 2015

As time passes, ever more smug and transparently racist.

We all know how it ended for the last moron that hit me.

It never ends.


This guy:

On the implications of our environment of lots of hotheads, guns, and rationalizations to escalate to deadly force:

Kyle Rittenhouse’s Defense Was Strong — It’s also a threat to the rule of law.

As Shaila Dewan notes in the New York Times, “legally kill or legally be killed” scenarios are just one of several pathological consequences of America’s lax gun regulations, and permissive police use of force and/or self-defense laws. In much of the country, Americans have a legal right to openly carry weapons of mass murder. And yet all it takes is one suspicious bystander, a phone call to the police, and the arrival of a trigger-happy cop for the legal act of carrying an AR-15 — or a toy gun — to become a legal basis for one’s summary execution.

If America’s permissive self-defense laws and abundant guns open up a vast zone of permissible killing, the precise borders of that territory are shaped by white supremacy. In a 2013 study of U.S. homicides, the Urban Institute found that killings involving “a white perpetrator and a black victim are 281 percent more likely to be ruled justified than cases with a white perpetrator and white victim.”

A legal environment that favors the armed in their confrontations with the unarmed, police in their confrontations with suspects, and whites in their confrontations with Blacks is antithetical to social peace, let alone social justice. It is, however, quite favorable to the American far right.

18 July 2013

The circular political spectrum

John Harrison at the journalism blog JMACED adds a smart little wrinkle to a commonplace observation.

There are many people who construct politics and its underlying ideologies as a spectrum that runs from left to right. This is a misconception.

Politics and ideology are a broken circle in which anarchy is the only thing that separates left wing totalitarianism from right wing totalitarianism.

Indeed totalitarianism itself is a form of anarchy; it is arbitrary and without respect for the rules and rights at the centre of our political life and which centre left and centre right subscribe to: the sovereignty of the people, the rule of law, freedom of speech and assembly, and all the other forms and practices of the liberal democratic state.

The adherence of both the right and the left to these values diminishes the closer they move to totalitarianism.

Given its popularity, some may ask, “where does libertarianism fit in?” Libertarianism is a form of anarchism; an untrammeled, unregulated free market.

This makes the vertical axis of his diagram map to respect for institutions, which is nifty.

12 July 2013

Self-defeating libertarianism

Digby, in talking about the militarization of American police, makes a general observation about the minarchist-libertarian strain in the movement conservative coalition.

I've always thought that when you see government as having few legitimate functions beyond a military to protect the nation from foreign threat and a justice system to enforce contracts and police the citizens, all the state's power and money would logically flow to those functions. In other words, a pure libertarian system is highly likely to lead to a police state.

This is not because libertarians want such a thing, of course. It's because human nature dictates that if you build it, they will use it. And when you have created an environment, as Republicans have over the past 40 years, in which the only unquestionable responsibility of government is police and military — and the money spent toward those functions is deemed to be sacred — well, it stands to reason those institutions will grow exponentially as the rest of the government shrinks. That's what's happening right now. While Head Start and Meals on Wheels are starved of funds, the security state grows by leaps and bounds.

Hardcore conservatives are fine with that. They are authoritarians by choice. But the last thing libertarians want is a police state. And yet their philosophy may inevitably leads the nation to create one.

The pro-life movement isn't

An apostate from the “pro-life” movement discovers the hypocrisy of the movement and its real motivation.

I found that making birth control widespread and easily accessible is actually the most effective way to decrease the abortion rate. Even as I processed this fact, I knew that the pro-life movement as a whole generally opposes things like comprehensive sex education and making birth control available to teenagers. I knew this because I had lived it, had heard it in pro-life banquet after pro-life banquet, had read it in the literature. The pro-life movement is anti-birth-control. And opposing birth control is pretty much the most ineffective way to decrease abortion rates imaginable. In fact, opposing birth control actually drives the abortion rates up.

As I mulled this over, I realized how very obvious it was. The cause of abortions is unwanted pregnancies. If you get rid of unwanted pregnancies the number of people who seek abortions will drop like a rock. Simply banning abortion leaves women stuck with unwanted pregnancies. Banning abortion doesn’t make those pregnancies wanted. Many women in a situation like that will be willing to do anything to end that pregnancy, even if it means trying to induce their own abortions (say, with a coat hanger or by drinking chemicals) or seeking out illegal abortions. I realized that the real way to reduce abortion rates, then, was to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies. And the way to do that is with birth control, which reduces the number of unwanted pregnancies by allowing women to control when and if they become pregnant.

I realized that the only world in which opposing birth control made any sense was one in which the goal was to control women’s sex lives.

Captured for future reference.

11 July 2013

None dare call it ...

Robert Reich asks a pointed question.

Suppose a small group of extremely wealthy people sought to systematically destroy the U.S. government by
  1. finding and bankrolling new candidates pledged to shrinking and dismembering it
  2. intimidating or bribing many current senators and representatives to block all proposed legislation, prevent the appointment of presidential nominees, eliminate funds to implement and enforce laws, and threaten to default on the nation’s debt
  3. taking over state governments in order to redistrict, gerrymander, require voter IDs, purge voter rolls, and otherwise suppress the votes of the majority in federal elections
  4. running a vast PR campaign designed to convince the American public of certain big lies, such as climate change isn't occurring, and
  5. buying up the media so the public cannot know the truth.
Would you call this treason?

I would not. The Constitution is very specific about treason because it's too easy to make the accusation of “treason” into an all-purpose attack, as Reich does here.

But that's not really the question he's asking, is it?

09 July 2013

Liberal vs conservative

In my index Understanding American Politics I offer links to folks offering a number of ways of thinking about the difference between liberals and conservatives. I'd like to offer a little framework of my own.

Liberals and conservatives have different conceptions of what constitutes a good society.

For conservatives, a good 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. Reward virtue; punish vice.

Further, conservatives generally take it that there is an obvious, natural, traditional form of society which produces this kind of good, if imperfectly. One might say that what conservatives seek to conserve is the good social order of their moral intuition.

For liberals, a good 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.

Further, liberals generally take it that there is no “natural” form of society; any social order is a deliberate artifice, created by people making choices about what values they want society to express.

To liberals, the conservative dream is wrong because its system of rewards and punishments is really the cultivation of inequality, and conservatives' naturalization of their vision of the correct social order is a rationalization of their preferences.

To conservatives, the liberal dream is wrong because its cultivation of supposed equality rewards vice and fails to recognize virtue, which makes liberals' attempts to engineer society doomed to result in catastrophe because they corrupt society's correct and natural form.

A conservative friend sharpened the point about “the obvious, natural, traditional form of society” in a discussion on Facebook:

Conservatives do understand the artifice of constructed civilization — we argue for Natural Law but not the State of Nature

Nicely put. To conservatives the correct social order is natural but not effortless — without devotion to the correct social order, conservatives believe we will devolve into barbarism.

In another context, I found myself saying this all again:

Crude as they are, I believe that the political terms left and right are not merely useful, not only meaningful, but reflect the most fundamental political question. Are people equal, or not?

A great many other questions depend upon this one, over which people will necessarily debate. What forms should society take, what norms and institutions? How best should we pursue that order? How shall we understand our current order? What precisely do we mean by “equality” in the first place? And so forth?

But that root question of equality admits no debate, if by debate we mean effort to persuade through reason. Jefferson calls equality “self-evident” because it is logically prior to the argument he is about to build in the Declaration. Equality itself he will not argue.

Because argument does not avail us. It is a deep moral question, deeper than persuasion. The answer other than one's own is unthinkable; to try to consider the alternative brings only increasing bafflement and disgust.

Are people equal, or not?

The left says yes, people are equal. The right says no, people are not equal.

In the United States, our political language calls for an affirmation of equality, and so conservatives obscure what conservatism means. Yes, people are equal, but choices must have consequences. Yes people are equal, but the heavy hand of government enforcing equality is tyranny. Yes people are equal, but the most “productive” people deserve the fruit or their efforts. Yes people are equal, but property rights are sacred, and some people happen to have more property. Yes people are equal, but we also value liberty, and must not trade liberty for equality. Yes people are equal, but the pursuit of equality leads to the horrors of communism.

Yes people are equal, but. So no, people are not equal, cannot be equal.

This is always there if you dig.