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Monday, December 27, 2010

The spirit and structure of German fascism

by John MacBeath Watkins


"Fascism" is a word that gets thrown around a lot, but it has achieved such a mythic status that it's easy to forget what a popular movement it was.  We tend to think of it like passenger pigeons, a thing that once turned the sky black, but now is gone.

I've run across a 1937 book, The Spirit and Structure of German Fascism, written by American economist Robert A. Brady, who was enamored of Thorstein Veblen's approach to economics.  Because he was writing before WW II, Brady was able to describe fascism as it was on the rise, without dismissing it as an aberration or simply an evil force like the ethereal  epidemic forces blamed for disease before the discovery of germs.

The Great Depression led to unrest, gaining adherents for fringe parties on the left and right.  In Germany, as in France, both the Communist Party and the Fascists gained strength.  They offered contrasting visions of society; the Communists advocated a classless society where all men were equal, while the Fascists saw a rigid caste system as natural.  The Social Darwinist strain in German politics -- sometimes called neo-Darwinism, and not to be confused with more recent uses of that term -- was there in World War I, as noted here.

The fascists believed so strongly in the heritability of merit that they insisted that sons of industrialists should be industrialists, the sons of laborers should be laborers, and so on.  Germany had made the last forms of serfdom illegal less than 100 years before WW II, so the notion that people were born to their station was a familiar one in German culture.  "Class war," therefore, was a crime against nature, not merely wrong, but repellent  Keep that in mind next time you hear someone accuse people of "class war."

The Fascists did not consider science objective.  Each nation had a science natural to them, they maintained, and any science that claimed to be universal was "Jewish" and false.  The "science" of racial hygiene was far more acceptable.

They offered a suffering people a scapegoat to blame.  The first German pogrom was in the 11th century and they continued for centuries, so this had a familiar feel as well.

The Führerprinzip, or leader principle, dictated that some are born to lead, some are born to follow, and the Führer's word superseded any written law.  This is why people of the generation that fought World War II were struck by Richard Nixon's explanation that "when the president does it, that means it's not illegal."  It smacked of the Führerprinzip.

Because the leader was wise, and the people should obey, a leader could use whatever means necessary to persuade people to do what needed to be done.  This willingness to mislead in order to lead is similar to Lenin's theory that the intellectual vanguard could say whatever they needed to in order to get people to do what was needed.

"Totalitarian" is a term invented by Italian Fascists, and was aspirational rather than condemnatory.  Mussolini boasted that Fascism politicized everything spiritual and human: "Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state."

Professional norms for government prosecutors, for example, would be replaced by the political expediency of the Fascist Party.  It's the ultimate in big-government conservatism; as Goebbels noted, people could think and say whatever they liked as long as they didn't mind going to a concentration camp.  Brady's book, published in 1937, quoted that remark, so it wasn't just a wartime expediency, it was a peacetime policy as well.  I know a number of intellectuals died in concentration camps for what they said against fascism, but I've never seen a figure for how many.


We should keep two things in mind about fascism.  One is that not only are officially fascist parties banned in Italy and Germany, politicians are aware that they have a branding problem, so any politician who adopts the aims or methods of the fascists will not only avoid the label, they will object strenuously to its application to them.


The second is somewhat countervailing to the first.  I call it the "shave the whales" problem, in honor of Scott Adams' cartoon illustrating the problem.  The reasoning goes like this:  Whales are mammals.  Mammals are hairy.  Shave the whales.


Similarly, we might point out that Hitler was a vegetarian.  Hitler was a Nazi.  Not all vegetarians, however, are Nazi.


When people adopt the aims and methods once associated with fascism, we should object to them for the harm they do, not who was associated with them.  The value of a book like Brady's is that it helps us know where such ideas lead.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

crow myths spun off from the PBS program

By Jamie Lutton


    Crow Myths spawned by 

    I still have not found out the name of the PBS program (which I suppose I could just persist with Goggle, but it did not turn up yet.) I did  discover that that PBS program has spawned some wild tales about crows. The show  seems to have been broadcast a couple of times, and the tales of the brilliant crows among us has grown in the telling.  I have heard all sorts of variants on the tales of the prowess and intellectual ability of crows; a great many of the stories surpass what the program revealed.. The wildest reaction was the young man who told me very seriously that he worried about when the crows would learn how to use matches, as they would become pyromaniacs and burn down our cities.  His friend said, jokingly, that he was ready to bow down before his Crow Masters, when they reveal themselves in all their glory.. Most of the stories that were related to me involved tales of the wonderful ability of the crows to recognize faces, and that scientists had to wear masks at the UW so they would not be attacked by crows they had experimented on.  Many of the stories involved crows uncanny ability to recognize human beings from great distances.

None of those stories were true; the real studies were far more pedestrian. The PBS program discussed studies of how well the crow populations all over the world adapted to urban environments, that they recognized faces after many years after one short exposure, and that one group of crows in one geographical area in South East Asia seem to be smarter than primates. They could perform many difficult tricks to get food from boxes.

But the general rumor  that the crows are brilliant, and are studying mankind, and have been studying mankind forever, seems to have led to a greater respect and affection for the birds.   Perhaps people will be less likely to throw rocks, hit them with sticks, poison them, and hate them, if they have heard these tall tales.Perhaps they will learn to understand why they might get divebombed in the spring, when the baby crows are trying their wings out.

A crow attacted me - not

by Jamie Lutton

.
  Whenever I talk about watching crows, I always here this remark "a crow attacked me, once". Often people are filled with fear of crows, as if any rational creature that small would take on a human being.  What is going on is, I believe, is that a crow will dive bomb a human, usually hit the top of a human's head, then fly off, when the clumsy feet of a human are near a baby crow. Usually, the human as no idea that the baby crow is anywhere nearby, but the mama crow (who has done the attack) is hyper- aware of the baby, and wants to distract the human from the baby underfoot. This is my theory, anyway.

  To improve my knowledge of crows, I went and bought two crow books the day after Christmas:. CROW PLANET and CORVUS.  I will be able to pepper this blog with facts about crows, now, instead of conjecture.

        This morning, I missed my bus, so the crows and I kept close company while I waited for the second one, in the light December rain. I was working today across town, so I needed a bus. Two very aggressive crows ran along the top of a brick wall, cawing at me, while I walked to the bus stop.  They were only a foot or two feet from me, at hip level, on this wall. They got very nervous, when I turned to look at them. For a few heartbeats, I was very close to them, and I could see every feathered muscle, the curve of the leg, all gleaming black and their curious eyes on me, asthey examined me with the same curiosity I examined them.  Then, they edged away sideways, the way these birds do; but not too far, still staring at me, still standing on the wall.. I placed a few crow treats at the top of the wall, which disappeared quickly. They ate and grabbed treats quickly, then flew away, with beaks loaded with treats. .


         I put down another pile of treats, on the top of the wall by the bus stop, farther north.  This caused consternation with the crows, as getting a treat meant that they would have to get close to me.  There was great hoarse cawing and vocalization, back and forth, as more crows appeared, that roosted in the tree and on the telephone lines overhead.  A crow would land on the wall, eye the pile of treats, then fly away, as I was too close to the goodies.  There was a good bit of standing and staring at the treats, and at me, looking for a trap or a trick or a fast movement from me. Eventually, one would edge up sideways, grab one, and fly away.  This happened till the pile was down to four or five treats, and then I would add ten or so. This would make the crows in the tree squawk more, as they knew that a bolder crow might get the goodies. I did the several times, with bold crows getting a treat or two or three - often grabbing a treat with one jammed down their throats, as they grabbed another, while their more timid relatives commented on their rash actions, from the trees.  When I boarded my bus, most of the group descended on the pile, and jostled each other over what I had left for them.

  Once in a while, some human would  walk in front of this scene, and would ignore what was happening, as they were in their own worlds; either on a cell phone, or talking to their friends, or listening to music. But a few people, women, noticed what I was doing, and nodded at the birds and me, who would get spooked by them and fly up for a while.   I told them I was watching the birds for my blog, and one said that they had fed the birds,  but not recently; we both agreed that they were beautiful.

        The bus driver remarked that he had 'been attacked' when I told him I watched crows; I said in passing to him that is was probably a crow defending 'his' nest, but it is hard to explain what probably happened in a few sentences. Crows get a bad rap because their children are so hard to raise in an urban environment, with so few trees and ground cover for them.

  I had watched a PBS special that said that crows take a while to learn how to fly; and that they flop about on the ground a bit till they get their proper use of their wings down.  I can visualize a mama crow being nearby, ready to attack the head of any human who got too near a baby crow, even though they might not see the baby.

           This did happen to me once years ago. I had a crow attack my head for no particular reason, one June morning. I was more curious than concerned; I went to a pet store to get a treat for the crow, but she or he was long gone.  I figured out what happened only when I saw the PBS special, which I have to recommend to my readers here.  I will try to find out the name of the program; and post it here; it was broadcast in the last 6 months; and it was a study on the intelligence of crows, conducted by the University of Washington scientists. They banded baby crows, and watched them over a few years, for their ability to identify faces.

            I will do a separate blog on the way that study has entered the local  folklore - next  time.

Friday, December 24, 2010

The camera lie

by Jamie Lutton.

People watch me tossing treats to the crows. Some of them overcome the local reticence to ask me what I am doing. I tell them that I am photographing the crows, or filming them.

I have to give a reason for what I doing. It is not enough that I like to watch them, or that I am (actually) writing about them. I feed crows a lot more than I write about them. Photography sounds somehow more official and useful than just watching the crows; watching them for its own sake.

I have recorded in my brain all sorts of images of wintertime antics of crows, and not one dot of film or photographs. The lie is to keep some pecksnifian from calling the police, or from just telling me not to. And, somehow, what I am doing feels illegal and wrong; so I toss treats to the birds furtively, in back alleys, and side streets. I don't want to yelled at; one of those yelling sessions that freeze the blood and makes one head hang in shame. In a big city like this one, people who monitor your behavior are all around. So, I have my official lie, and I keep merrily on, every early morning, watching the crows, and they watch me.

What is wrong with just looking at something? The fixation on photographing something is so wrong, somehow. The camera gets between you and the observation at hand. Even when I look down at my hands, when I am prying my bag open, to get treats out, I am missing a moment of watching the birds, and I miss so much. If I had a camera, or film camera, I would be trying to get the birds to pose, to capture a particularly farcical or beautiful moment or sequence in flight, and spoil our friendship.

Also, I can't afford a good camera, and I am afraid of breaking an expensive one, after I got one. So some of this altitude is from poverty, really.  I do not have money to invest in gadgets to record my birds.  I still feel, though, that it would not be the same. It never could be the same as standing in the winter rain, getting my hair soaked, getting rather cold, and looking at wet crows, their feathers soaked. Some of the birds, their feathers stick up like wet hair on a human, from the pounding rain. They stop and shake the rain off, from time to time, like little black cats.  But this does not seem to deter them, really.  We  endure the weather together, for a little time, so that we can have a bit of throw,  get and eat the  dog treats.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Mysterious crow business

by Jamie Lutton

I could not sleep; I was miserable, depressed, dark thoughts; I don't feel very well at night any more. I have had a grim fall; lost my father just a month ago, who I was very close to. I am plagued with bad dreams. So, I got up early, left my house before dawn. Watched this crow, at the top of this tall pine tree, cawing its heart out,with great volume, about two blocks from my apartment. I tried to lure it down to me; I stood in the middle of the road, and cawed back at it, and waved treats at it. Tossed a few on the ground.

But it scorned me, looking out over the city, cawing and cawing and cawing. It was cold, and raining a bit, and the top of the tree swayed in the wind. But the crow was on mysterious crow business, and had no time for me, cawing and looking out over the pre-dawn city landscape. This morning, I got up even earlier. I saw no crows at all; heard some peepings from some unidentified small birds, and some seagulls go by. They seem to rise first.

It was still rather dark out; at 7:15. This was the shortest day of the year; but the weather was good. It had rained overnight, like yesterday, but was not raining just then. Almost warm.

Overhead, I saw a group of crows flying south, about eight of them, up high, on some purposeful trip nothing to do with humans. They were croaking faintly to each other, as they flew. When I came around the corner, to get coffee, there were no crows about at all. It was still dark; all I could see were seagulls up high, crying out. I got my coffee, and chatted with the owner at the tiny drive-through coffee stand, and watched the sky. Suddenly, from several directions, crows appeared, and roosted in the top of this tree across the street from me, at the very top of the tree. They roosted close to each other,and as far as I could tell, were almost silent. They were croaking at each other, quietly, talking crow business, I supposing making plans for the day. There were at least 20 of them, roosting close to each other. I tried to get their attention; nothing doing. Nothing worked. I stood in the middle of the crosswalk, and stared at them; waived my arm. They were busy with their plans for world domination, or just planing their cribbage game later. Finally, after a good five minutes, a smaller, skinny crow, peeled off, and flew over my head, and stared at me, then another. I knew what that meant. I crossed the street ( I had been watching them from across the street, to see them better) and went around the corner. Threw out a couple of treats to the birds who had peeled off from the group. There was suddenly a flurry, and the whole group came around the building, to check me out. The usual hilarity ensued; with a black cloud of crows - and a few seagulls - fighting, flying, floating up and over the treats I threw out for them. I ducked inside the big grocery store to get my breakfast and lunch for my 12 hour day at work; when I walked over to the front door, one little fellow buzzed my right ear, then landed near my right foot. I threw him a treat at this feet, specially for him. When I came back out the front door, I had a welcoming committee of a few crows. As I walked to work, I threw out a one treat at a time, aiming them at specific birds who had gotten closest to me. Usually I threw handfuls of dog treats on other mornings, this made it a better game, as they had to be fast to beat their friends for the treats I threw. It was a greater challenge than when I threw twenty treats at a time; then everyone would get one. Also, I was walking down the main street, which they do not like as much; too many people, even at that hour.

I got to work; and only one lone crow was still with me, perched high up on a telephone wire, silent, staring at me. I threw him five treats, then went in to work, and to write this.

I now know I can get up before the crows, and watch their secret morning meetings. I know that I will never know all their business, or even a tiny fraction of it. Their games with people are a sideline for them; just
like me petting a dog or throwing sticks for it. That they get food from us is merely a hobby for them; I am sure that before people were in the New World; they had other rich sources for food, that were just a sideline to their important crow business.

I can only stare up, and speculate about what they are up to, before I begin my mysterious work for the day, that they might puzzle about, as they escort me to my place of work, hitting me up for dog treats, buzzing my head, staring down at me from telephone lines and trees.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Gold, air power, and blimps on a computer screen

by John MacBeath Watkins

Ron Paul's website has a post about his views on the money supply, and it contains one of the most wonderful images I've seen in a polemic in some time.

"What, then, is fiat money? It’s exactly what we just talked about: money that can be inflated or increased at the push of a button at the say-so of a powerful person or organization. Nowadays most dollars are just blimps on a computer screen and it’s extremely easy for the Federal Reserve to create money out of thin air whenever they want to."

There you go, blimps on a computer screen.  Spend them however you like.

(The text has been changed to "blips on a computer screen" on Ron Paul's website, which demonstrates why you can't trust electronic media to say the same thing every time you read it. You see, it lacks the permanence of octopus ink.)

Actually, while it's not entirely clear who wrote that post, Ron Paul is an advocate of the gold standard, or even the use of gold and silver as a medium of payment.  He regards "fiat currency" as unreliable and prone to rust, just like the cars were back in the 1970s.

But the interesting thing, to me, is the confusion about what money is.  With Federal Reserve notes, the dollar bill is (in linguistic terms) a signifier, signing that a dollar in value belongs to the bearer.  We can think of money as a favor owed to the person who owns it.  If you have a lot of dollars, the world owes you a lot of favors.

The thing is, gold and silver mean the same thing when used as currency.  They also have a use value, for electronics, jewelry, and fancy dining utensils.  Those dual roles actually interfere with them serving either role well. Why should the gold used in electronics cost more because confidence in the banks is shaky?  Why should the money supply increase when a miner hits the mother lode, or decrease when a treasure ship sinks?

Those problems help explain why France was so helpless in the Second World War.  Japan, then Britain, then Germany, then America, then France dropped the gold standard during the Great Depression.  Here are the economic results, in terms of industrial production:





That's from here: http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/10/09/modified-goldbugism-at-the-wsj/

The result was that France, which had fought Germany to a standstill in World War I, was poorly equipped for WW II.  Most of the French aces in their brief resistance to the German forces flew the Curtis P-36 Hawk.  You probably haven't heard of it, because it was generally considered obsolete at the beginning of the war, but Curtis could deliver then on time, with spares, in the quantity ordered, so they were the most advanced aircraft widely available to the French at the time of the invasion.  There were better French designs, but their industrial base had eroded to the point that they could not be produced in sufficient quantity, in time, and in good operating order.  In WW I, the British had difficulty equaling the French aircraft industry, and the Americans were barely in the game, but ill-advised monetary policy eliminated that advantage, and no doubt this was reflected in all areas of industry, leaving the French nearly helpless against the German juggernaut.

If you understand value as a favor owed, notes on a piece of paper make a lot of sense for keeping track of them.  If you're confused about what money is, and think only things with a use value, such as gold or silver, have real value, you are adopting the failed policy of the French prior to WW II.  So why isn't the gold standard the Freedom Fries of monetary policy?

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Agnotology, the science of our time

by John MacBeath Watkins

I've discovered a new word, agnotology, "the science of creating ignorance."  It was coined in 2001 by Robert N. Proctor, a Stanford University professor specializing in the history of science and technology.  The idea applies to deliberate efforts to create doubt about science, such as the tobacco company pushback on cancer research, and the unintended consequences of concealing information for other purposes, like the military's classification of research that would have confirmed plate tectonics about a decade sooner than actually occurred.

In 2003, Proctor organized the first conference on the topic, titled "Agnatology: The Cultural Production of Ignorance," held at Pennsylvania State University.

Proctor and others propose that the flood of knowledge now available may not be creating a more knowledgeable citizenry.  When people are overwhelmed by the quantity of information available, they have to look to elites to select which information they need to know.  Our increasingly polarized society produces a situation where different groups pick different elites.  Those who watch Fox News will be presented with quite different information than those who watch MSNBC, and those who (horrors!) do not watch television may get their information from blogs with names like Red State (conservative) or Conscience of a Liberal (I think you can figure that one out.)

The result is that different groups are judging what is true from different sets of information, often cherry-picked to lead to the conclusion the source wants the viewer/reader to come to.  The problem here is not just the flood of information, it's a deeper one involving the splintering of our society and the splintering of which elites different groups choose to regard as legitimate.

In a court of law, a case may be thrown out if the prosecutor is found to have concealed exculpatory information.  In the court of public opinion, no such rule applies.  As a result, manipulation of information, even outright lies, can be rewarded.  If an elite trusted by a large part of the population (I'm looking at you, Fox News) won't report that the politicians it favors have lied, the backers of those politicians won't mend their ways.  If exculpatory information is concealed (nope, no death panels in this here healthcare bill) the lie will win the day.

Of course, this will only happen if a powerful group takes the Leninist position that the intellectual vanguard must be willing to mislead the masses to guide them to the proper action.  I knew people like that in graduate school, where they tended to be Marxists.  Now we have recovering Marxists like David Horowitz who are conservatives, and we see some of the methods of the old "new left" adopted by the new right.

Ferdinand de Saussure, the father of modern linguistics, believed that words give us the categories we use in symbolic thought.  Perhaps now that we have a word for it, we can think more carefully about the practice of agnotology.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Stalked by a Murder of Crows

by Jamie Lutton

Hello, faithful reader(s). Over the last month or so, I have discovered why people in general do not feed crows. Not that I have stopped, but there are a few problems with the habit.

They find out where you live. A few mornings ago, I was buzzed on my balcony, near my elevator, by a cheerful fellow, who cawed at me. He flew right in front of my face, as I looked at the view. When I went outside, he and his friends greeted me enthusiastically and cawed at me till I gave them dog biscuits.

This particular group of about eight eats the trash left outside a group home for mental patients two blocks from my apartment. They get fairly close to me, perching on NO PARKING WEST OF HERE signs, looking down at me, and shifting from one foot to another on the telephone wires overhead. If I keep walking, they buzz over my head, flying in great graceful loops, forlornly, trying to get my attention. I usually toss them a few dog treats, maybe twice, then I keep walking. A few of them follow me, and caw at me for more, flying over the street and landing in front of me as I walk away from them. I usually toss a extra biscuit or two. They peel off after a block, I think, for a reason. The crows on the next block are territorial.

Near where I get my coffee, across the street from an outdoor coffee drive through hut, for years a woman has put down pounds and pounds of feed for birds at dawn. This attracts pigeons, gulls, and of course crows. The crows wait now until I walk by. This group is a tiny bit more aggressive, and there are more of them. Usually 50 or so. They sit very quietly, all in a tight group, on the top of a nearby building, and the telephone wires, watching me. They send down an ambassador to greet me, landing on the sidewalk in front of me, or he flies by my head. Sometimes two or three of them. The rest of them rest, and wait. If I throw out a couple of treats, they all launch themselves off of the wall, in a great flurry, to get them. My innate sense of fairness makes me throw out a big handful, then, so they can all get some. I hurry away, as a black cloud spins and flies over the treats, landing and taking off.

I go inside my shop. I set up the register, and putter about for a while, then take the signboard out to the sidewalk. I look up. About 20 of them have followed me to work. They nonchalantly fly back and forth from tree, to wire, to top of post, in front of me, almost flirting, to get my attention. Knowing better, I go inside and get more treats anyway. I toss maybe four or five out, and then 40 of them suddenly appear from all directions to descend on the treats, so I have to toss out more. As I retreat inside, I see my obese orange shop cat is staring with terror and fascination at the birds swooping in; very still, very bewildered looking.

I go inside to work for the day. For the rest of the day, I see a few crows hanging about, peering in the window now and then. The shop cats peer back out at them, going from window to window.

I can avoid dealing with the crows, mostly, if I walk down the main street, Broadway, as the crows are shy around people. I will get a few bolder ones following me in the trees, but mostly the really big group will not bother me.

If I knew I was going to get this popular, I might not have started this. I wonder what summer is going to be like. But the crows had been flirting with me for years. The group that eats trash near my apartment have been flying down and hopping near my feet, or flying overhead for years and years. I succumbed to the temptation to give them what they wanted; to make them happy.

How anyone can resist them I don't know; everyone has once fed a crow perhaps, and then found that he or she was too popular with them for comfort. I do think they dive around my head to amuse me; it does not frighten or alarm me a bit. They are just trying to get my attention, and they fly so beautifully. It is rather like that I have many new friends, now. I now know how St. Francis must have felt.

It has been raining a lot in November and December here.  They call it the Pineapple express, locally.  The crows are not impressed by this, but they still fly in very rainy weather. I see them, on my way to work. They are all bedraggled, with their feathers here and there, when the rain is really pelting down, but they are still flying about.

I go out, too. I usually do not carry an umbrella, and I often forget my hat. I get to work with my longish hair soaked, so I have to use a paper towel to dry off.  But I do not like umbrellas, there is some sort of trick to carrying them so you don't poke other people that I have never mastered. Possibly it is because I am so short. So, I usually do not bother.

The crows are on their usual patrol near my house and near the coffee stand, and near my workplace, begging for dog treats.  They will grip the telephone wires in the heaviest downpour, shifting from one foot to another, staring out across the city, and glancing down at me, as if to say, well? well? get on with it. I throw out treats that skitter into puddles, which fazes them not a bit, as they eat them right away, then. I had observed them dipping the dog treats before, in water, to soften them up.  As I said, they are all bedraggled, feathers poking up and sideways in the heavy downpour, but still patrolling looking for food and for my flick of my wrist, that  signals that I have thrown more treats out.

Today was unsettling. No crows. The sun was out, and it was unseasonably warm for December. I saw only two crows, and they wanted no business with me. They were flying east, both of them towards the rising sun.  I saw no other crows this morning. I assume that they were flying east, to greet the sun, as it came up to dry out their wet world. I suddenly had a fierce desire to rise up with them, to greet the December sun, so beautiful after so many wet days.

 I wondered about crow religion; if they worshiped the sun, and met in secret places, after wet, miserable days like the ones we just had.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

That Sister Souljah moment

by John MacBeath Watkins

This morning I listened to a Democratic congressman passionately denouncing President Obama's "cave" on not letting the Bush tax breaks for the rich expire.

My first thought was, where was this passion before the election? Obama favored a vote on the issue back in September, but Congress balked.

My second thought was, this is Obama's Sister Souljah moment.

Sister Souljah is an African American hip-hop MC and political activist who during the 1992 presidential campaign was quoted as saying, "If Black people kill Black people every day, why not have a week and kill White people?"

Bill Clinton, in a speech to a predominantly African American audience, condemned the statement, saying that if the words black and white were reverse, "you might think David Duke was giving that speech."

That was the moment at which most political observers say Clinton captured the middle in his campaign for the presidency. Much like chess, political campaigns are usually won by the candidate who captures the middle.

The more I look at the deal Obama struck with the Republicans, the more it looks like he pulled a rabbit out of a hat. The deal provides billions of dollars in stimulus at a time when the economic recovery is looking stalled, extends unemployment benefits without the cuts in stimulus money the Republicans had been demanding, and exposes the hypocrisy of the Republicans on deficit reduction.

It also shows Obama willing to compromise with the opposition, undermining the Republican narrative that Obama is an extremist.

But what makes this his "Sister Souljah moment" is the liberal opposition to it. I'm sure the President would prefer that his party's congressional delegation had recognized the benefits of the deal and swallowed their revulsion for the extension of the Bush tax cuts to the rich, but he actually benefits with independent voters because this liberal opposition highlights the pragmatic willingness to work with the opposition that he campaigned on.

He may have been trying for this moment when he attacked "purists," but only opposition from the liberal wing of his own party could secure his bonafides as a centrist willing to take a pragmatic approach to the nation's problems.

And as the parties have become more polarized, the ranks of the indepent voters have swelled. My take is that these voters are no more liberal or conservative than they were before, they are simply reacting to increasingly ideological parties by abandoning the parties. They want Washington to work, and to represent the people who voted for them, not the think tanks and pundits who drive the ideology.

The results of the last two elections show that voters are pragmatic. If the economy sucks, vote out the incumbents. If it keeps sucking, vote out the new incumbents. Repeat until you find someone who can play this game.

A little more patience might give one approach or another a chance to work, but you can appreciate the logic.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Locke was wrong

by John Macbeath Watkins

I've been working on a long essay on political theory. It's about 38,000 words at this point, so a bit longer than a blog post. This is the basic argument:

Too much of our national conversation is about property, with both Marxists and libertarians insisting that if we perfect our relationship to property we will achieve perfect freedom. It all started with Locke's Second Treatise of Government, in which even life itself is reduced to property.

But what is property? Not objects, which exist regardless of owners. It is the web of rights and obligations we attach to objects. It is, in fact, the meaning of objects, and is only one category of the meanings that define us. For property to exist, meanings must exist, which means that language must precede property. Making and using language is a social act. The signs (words) that we attach to meanings are arbitrary, not instinctive, so we must agree to the signs to understand meanings -- it doesn't matter whether we say aloha or hello, as long as we agree these are words of greeting.

The social contract, therefore, is not a pact to protect property, but a conspiracy to imbue the world with meaning. To be free is to be able to engage in this creative act, to be unfree is to be denied it. Those who would control people against their will must first manipulate, then chain the word, and in so doing deprive people of the opportunity to define themselves, in fact, deprive them of their humanity.

That's the basic argument. The essay goes back to history and prehistory to talk about how we become human, how we define humanity and exclude people from that definition, the emotion of belief and its relationship with truth, the social construction of race, the subversive speech of groups like the lollards and Goliards and efforts to suppress them, and alternatives to democracy.

I'm still working on it, but you have the basics.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Deficit-Reduction Theater: We're in deep voodoo here.

by John MacBeath Watkins

Today, the deficit-reduction commission appointed by President Obama ended its work without even voting on its proposal.  Erskine Bowles and former-Sen. Alan Simpson, co-chairs of the commission, realized they didn't have the votes for the proposal they released Nov. 10 to be adopted by the full panel, so they didn't hold a vote.

Of course, the reason they can't get that support is that it was a lousy plan, replete with what Henry Aaron of the Brookings Institution calls "magic asterisks" -- promised cuts like those in the 1980 Regan budget, cuts that never materialized.  Its proposed changes in tax policy were disruptive and cuts were severe.

There's a fairly simple way to reduce the deficit.  You increase revenues and cut spending.  We currently spend more than six times as much on our military than the second-place country, China.  American military expenditures amounted to 43% of the world total in 2009.  That kind of muscle makes our leaders far too quick to spend the lives of our service men and women and the wealth of our treasury. So how about if, once we wind down the ill-advised adventures we're now engaged in, we only spend five times as much as the next biggest military spender?  In 2001, our lawmakers voted for tax breaks they said would stimulate the economy and would expire in 2011.  The economy is in a shambles and 2011 is a month away, so why not hold them to the expiration date they voted for?

Those two changes would take care of most of the problem.  Cutting the rate of increase in the cost of medical care could take care of the rest, and the Affordable Care Act takes a stab at that, so guess what?  The new majority in the House wants to repeal it, and has no proposal for a replacement for it.

Meanwhile, Democrats and Republicans are negotiating a deal whereby unemployment benefits will be extended in exchange for the extension of tax cuts for income above $250,000 a year.  In other words, we (Republicans) will let you spend more if you (Democrats) will let us cut revenues.  I can see the Democrats' point of view -- we're in the worst economic state we've been in since the Great Depression, and temporary measures will alleviate much suffering.  I honestly can't see any justification for the Republican point of view.  They say the temporary extension of the unemployment benefits busts the budget, but they think the much longer extension of the tax breaks for the wealthy, which are far more expensive and build a structural deficit into our government's accounts, are not a problem.  If they believe that, they're in deep voodoo (economics.)

Now, I have my doubts about the priorities of politicians who think addressing the deficit is the most pressing matter at a time when voters are more worried about the economy, and I don't buy the argument that cutting the deficit will stimulate the economy.  But we've sure seen a lot of grandstanding about the deficit, and the priorities revealed by the current negotiations on taxes and unemployment benefits show that this has been nothing but grandstanding.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Tax Debate

by John MacBeath Watkins

I've been watching the tax debate in bemusement, wondering why no one seems ready to point out the simple fact that the Republicans voted for those Bush tax cuts to expire, so if they expire in January those who voted for their expiration will include all the congressional leadership of the Republican party.

Can't we recast the debate somehow so that this is more evident to low information voters?