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Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Saturday, May 24, 2014

New Eyes on old New York Times Articles

by Jamie Lutton

It is not only the question of the world views of Hitler during his rise to power, and his first years as Fuhrer that intrigue me.

I would love to go through, say, the New York Times, to narrow it down to one newspaper, and see how they covered different eras. It would be worth reprinting their own articles, to reveal what prejudices they showed, and what, say, the editorial page looked like from decade to decade. Even from year to year, when the society was changing quickly.

I am not picking on this newspaper in any particular way, except that it is a very old  and respected paper, and is still being published, so there is some continuity that makes their statements somewhat less quaint.

The received wisdom that we tend to get in the history books allowed  in  public schools, was that America always knew what it was doing; and rarely went wrong.  The newspapers of the day, in particular this one, does give witness that this is simply not so. 

Think of all sorts of matters that are settled today, that were wildly controversial in their own time. A few examples might include the struggle in this country for blacks to achieve any civil rights for the last 150 years.. I understand that the when the New York Times covered the funeral of Fredrick Douglass they commented that he was so intelligent because he had 'white blood' in him.  That would be fun to dig up and reprint.

A careful selection of topics  might be fun to go check and see what the current wisdom was.  Women's struggle for the vote, and married women's property rights in the early 20th century.  The rights of Native Americans. The rights of Chinese and other Asian citizens and immigrants.

Closer to our time, how the  New York Times handled the new idea of women working outside of the home, and wanting to enter 'nontraditional' work places, like becoming lawyers, doctors, and engineers, and how this was seen as heretical and mocked gently and not so gently.  In the late 1960's. I recall this, myself, from when I was a teen.   Perhaps some of the respected journalists who wrote them went on to change their tune as the culture changed.

Then, it would be good to show to those interested in the modern civil rights era to see how the works of Dr. Martin Luther King jr. was covered by the press. I do believe there was a call, almost in unison, that he was asking for too much, and going too far, from every newspaper and from every pundit - that was white - for decades.

There is a book in this. I do not have the talent or the resources to write it, at least now, but it would be wildly entertaining.  It would only take a microfilm reader, some focus, some patience, and a strong stomach.   

A few of the most famous arrogant errors  of the Times are fairly notorious - who has not heard that when the Wright brothers made their famous flight at Kitty Hawk, the New York Times did not believe it, and would not report the event for several years? This story is often repeated in aviation history books.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The poverty of neoconservative philosophy (rethinking liberalism)

by John MacBeath Watkins

Neoconservatives, a group which included formerly liberal academics and their younger Reaganite allies, have had a great deal of influence on American foreign policy, especially during the lamentable George W. Bush administration. They envisioned a world in which American dominance would be unquestioned, and opposing regimes would be overthrown and replaced with democratic regimes, as the Bush administration attempted in Iraq.

They tried to portray themselves as the adults in the room, but their program proved impractical, unpopular, and built more on fantasy than reason. There was no economic or any real strategic rationale for the military adventures they championed, and the notion that you can impose democracy by force proved as fanciful as it sounded. Yet they retain influence in conservative foreign policy circles.

How did that happen?

Part of the story is about intellectual apprenticeship to a scholar not greatly celebrated in his lifetime, and whose influence may have as much to do with what people thought he meant as with what he actually said and wrote.

The intellectual roots of the movement were sown by Leo Strauss, one of the less coherent political theorists of the 20th century, famously referred to by M.F. Burnyeat as the "Sphinx without a Secret,"  after an Oscar Wilde story in which the subject is a woman who wants to appear mysterious, but has no secrets worth concealing.

Leo Strauss
Strauss is a peculiar figure in political thought. He wrote nothing I know of about modern public policy, and although his works are widely available in the United Kingdom, he seems to have no great following there or in continental Europe. Although he died in 1973, his influence wasn't celebrated or defended much until his former students began to influence high-level American foreign policy in the 1980s.

Catherine and Michael Zuckert, in The Truth about Leo Strauss, considered one of the more balance books about the man, noted that:
Many scholars found his books nearly unreadable, and many others considered them so drastically misguided in their substantive readings of the history of philosophy that he was often dismissed by fellow scholars as an eccentric or, worse, as a willful and distortive interpreter of the philosophic tradition.
Burnyeat's takedown, Sphinx Without a Secret, published in 1985, was not the work of a political pundit, but of a respected scholar with a great reputation for his studies of the ancient philosophers Strauss taught about. He portrayed an almost cult-like intellectual surrender as part of Strauss's teaching technique.
Strauss asks—or commands—his students to start by accepting that any inclination they may have to disagree with Hobbes (Plato, Aristotle, Maimonides), any opinion contrary to his, is mistaken. They must suspend their own judgment, suspend even “modern thought as such,” until they understand their author “as he understood himself.” It is all too clear that this illusory goal will not be achieved by the end of the term. Abandon self all ye who enter here. The question is, to whom is the surrender made: to the text or to the teacher?
This may explain why his followers were his students, not people who had simply read his books and agreed with them. Reading is an interpretive skill, and critical reading is a particularly valuable one. Pleasing the teacher is a social skill, and coming under his spell is a personal transformation.

While liberalism starts with attempts to describe human nature -- "man in the state of nature" -- and derive from that knowledge what sort of government and society is best suited to mankind, Strauss was more interested in the question of whether the just society was possible (apparently, it isn't.)

The best we could do, he said, was for the philosopher to educate the gentleman in how best to manage society.

 From Sphinx Without a Secret:

The leading characters in Strauss’s writing are “the gentlemen”and “the philosopher.” “The gentlemen” come, preferably, from patrician urban backgrounds and have money without having to work too hard for it: they are not the wealthy as such, then, but those who have “had an opportunity to be brought up in the proper manner.”[12] Strauss is scornful of mass education.[13] “Liberal education is the necessary endeavor to found an aristocracy within democratic mass society. Liberal education reminds those members of a mass democracy who have ears to hear, of human greatness.”[14] Such “gentlemen”are idealistic, devoted to virtuous ends, and sympathetic to philosophy.[15] They are thus ready to be taken in hand by“the philosopher,” who will teach them the great lesson they need to learn before they join the governing elite.The name of this lesson is “the limits of politics.” Its content is that a just society is so improbable that one can do nothing to bring it about. In the 1960s this became: a just society is impossible.[16] In either case the moral is that “the gentlemen” should rule conservatively, knowing that “the apparently just alternative to aristocracy open or disguised will be permanent revolution, i.e., permanent chaos in which life will be not only poor and short but brutish as well.”[17]So who is “the philosopher,” and how does he know that this is the right lesson for “the gentlemen”? He is a wise man, who does not want to rule because his sights are set on higher things.[18] 
Strauss might be called the Saint Simone of conservatism, in that his popularity among the elite seems to have had a lot to do with convincing them that society should be run by people like them, for its own good.

Strauss believed what Plato had posited in The Laws: A society must be based on central truths. It's all very well to question those truths in your own mind, but if you publicly do so, you would, in The Laws, be brought before the Nocturnal Council, who would try to persuade you that you were wrong. If they did not succeed, they would try to convince you to keep your doubts to yourself, and if you insisted on publicly questioning the central truths, they would have you killed.

And the central truth, for Strauss's followers, was "American Exceptionalism," a phrase borrowed from American Marxists, which they redefined to suit themselves. You can hear the echoes of this belief in their claims that President Obama does not believe in American Exceptionalism.

The phrase was originally a term American Marxists used to explain the fact that while Marxism had gained many converts in Europe and parts of Asia, American workers wanted nothing to do with it. They argued that America lacked the class structure that enabled European workers to identify with Marx's thoughts.

Neoconservatives have taken American exceptionalism to mean America is exceptional, and belief in its greatness became the central truth around which the society was built. That is not necessarily a Straussian view, but one might call it the view of "vulgar Straussians," much as Stalinist came to be viewed by the more refined Marxists of the New Left as "vulgar Marxists."

Strauss repudiated John Locke, whose ideas are by most scholars considered the basis for the philosophy that produced the American Constitution. Strauss regarded Locke as a bridge to modern historicism and nihilism, which he felt led to totalitarian regimes.

The word "totalitarian" was invented by liberals to describe the Fascist regime in Italy, and enthusiastically picked up by the Fascists, who followed Benito Mussolini's dictum, "All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state."

How that differed from Herrod's Judea, other than the fact that the term had not yet been invented, remains a mystery.

Now, it seems strange to anyone who's read Locke that Strauss would think badly of him, since Locke based his philosophy on natural law (now often called human rights,) which at least for one school of Straussians is the central belief on which America was founded. But Locke argued that the social contract that is the basis for any government is formed to protect those rights. Strauss felt that modernism lowered its sights compared to the ancients, having as its goal survival, while the ancients sought truth and justice.

Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence, considered Locke one of the three greatest men ever to have lived. Clearly, there would appear to have been quite a gulf between the beliefs of the founding fathers and those of Leo Strauss.

Strauss left the University of Chicago in 1969 and died in 1973, so one might think his influence should be waning, if not a thing of the past. But he influenced William Kristol, editor of the influential conservative journal The Weekly Standard, and John Podhoretz, editor of another conservative journal, Commentary. They, in turn, have influenced a couple generations of conservatives. And while Strauss wrote little about contemporary American politics, those men have written of little else.

Strauss may have died, but he left behind him Straussians to spread his ideas.

The Straussian understanding of the American project has therefore become thoroughly entrenched in the mindset of many on the right. The problem is, this understanding of America is very much at odds with the basic ideas of liberal democracy as understood by the framers of the Constitution.

The notion of a central dogma all must believe is very much at odds with the freedom of speech and belief enshrined in the First Amendment. We have no nocturnal council, we have instead the flexibility of a republic that can change as minds change, and the freedom to argue for change.

Now, a philosophy that is as top-down as that of Leo Strauss and his followers might believe we can overthrow opposing regimes and be welcomed as liberators, and they will elect a regime friendly to us. But in practice, any sovereign nation allowed to choose its own government will choose one that reflects the ideas and interests of its people. In Iraq, for example, that was a regime more friendly to Iran than to the United States.

Part of the problem is that neoconservatism is not an economic philosophy, except by association with the supply-siders who were part of the same Republican administrations. They really had no ideas about how their foreign adventures would pay for themselves, and in fact, were not concerned with this. They wanted to spread the influence of American exceptionalism, however defined.

The problem is, past empires have been built on an economic basis which modern global finance undermines. You can bring peace to a region and get your nation's companies a chance to exploit foreign markets, but their stateless income will seek the lowest tax regime, not the nation that made that income possible, as we explored in this post. This means that there is no cycle (virtuous or vicious, depending on your point of view) to support empirical power.

As a result, it appears the new world order will be built by trading blocs, more like modern versions of the Hanseatic League than like any past empire.

Neoconservatives have accused President Obama of "leading from behind," because he's tried to form alliances to solve international conflicts rather than going it along or as a leader of a barely-willing coalition. But his technique seems like a better match to the reality of the modern world system of security. Aggressive nations that assert their individual power tend to generate a backlash against themselves, as China seems to be doing in southeast Asia.

But the failure of neoconservatives in formulating foreign policy that produces desirable results does not seem to keep politicians on the right from listening to them.

Links for this series:

Rethinking liberal theory 1: Thomas Hobbes, blasphemer and patriot
Rethinking liberal theory 2: The outlaw John Locke, terrorist, liberal, and advocate of freedom
Rethinking liberal theory 3: A compact to protect property, or a conspiracy to create meaning?
Rethinking Liberal Theory 4: John Milton and the many shapes of truth
Rethinking Liberal Theory 5: Adam Smith, moral philosopher of the marketplace
Rethinking Liberal Theory 6: Mythmaking and manufacturing
Rethinking liberal theory 7: Hegel, the end of history, and the triumph of the liberal idea
Rethinking liberal theory 8: Liberalism and individualism: The invention of the Util and the way west
Rethinking liberal theory 9 Property and freedom: Why language is the basis for the social contract 
Rethinking Liberal theory 10: Physiocrats & mercantilists: The economic philosophies of the founding fathers
Rethinking Liberal Theory 11:Stateless income, global capital, and the death of empires
Rethinking Liberal Theory 12:Capitalism:So much more than market
Rethinking liberalism 13: What is money? 

Rethinking Liberalism 14: Tribalism and the emerging new world order
Rethinking liberalism 15: The poverty of neoconservative philosophy
Rethinking Liberalism 16: More on the poverty of neoconservative philosophy

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Vladimir the hairless Russian bare

by John MacBeath Watkins

Vladimir Putin
thought he was a cute one
and the Russian bear
liked to show his chest bare
quite free of hair
did he use Nair?
Is he bare
down there?

How many times must a man shave his chest
before they will call him a man?
And how many times must a man oil his abs
before he's a boy in the band?

The answer, my friend, is blowing up Ukraine,
the answer is blowing up Ukraine.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Tribalism and the emerging new world order

by John MacBeath Watkins

I've written before in this space about the breakdown of the world system as stateless income deprives nations from the rewards they once enjoyed by enforcing international order. Now I'd like to address the order that seems to be replacing the old system.

In areas where total peace is breaking out, such as western Europe, tribalism is reasserting itself. Catalonia, Venice, and Scotland once again contemplate independence within the European Union, confident that they will not have to defend themselves from rogue state actors. Their expectation is that matters such as currency and central banking can be left to the EU, and perhaps they can either enjoy the protection of NATO as free riders or even as participants.

Ethnically diverse states outside of such organizations are in trouble. Breakaway groups can make alliances with predatory states, as South Ossetia did with Russia in the Russo-Georgian War.

Vladimir Putin attempted to swing Ukrainia into the Russian orbit with soft power, offering money and cheap natural gas to the elected government as a reward for turning economically away from Western Europe and toward Russia.

In exchange for $15 billion and a 33% discount on natural gas, Putin got Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to agree not to sign the E.U. Association Agreement that was on offer. This led to riots that eventually led Yanukovych to flee the country, leaving behind documents that showed how much he'd stolen from the citizens he was elected to represent.

Faced with the fact that no one seems to want to link themselves with Russia except at gunpoint, Putin brought out the guns, which like the uniforms, trucks and armored vehicles of the Crimean invasion force, were not marked with their nationality.

This is making association with a larger protective association essential for countries with bumptious neighbors. The Philippines, which kicked out American military bases in 1992, has recently signed an agreement allowing the American military to build up its presence in the Philippines. This came after China became more assertive in its irredentist  claims to territory that has been governed by its neighbors.

The emerging order relies on organizations like the EU, NATO, ASEAN, SEATO and the African Union , some economic and some security related, to keep regional order. This represents a continuation of the trend for the replacement of a system of empires with one based on hegemony, of the soft power of voluntary association replacing the hard power of conquest. It also represents an end to empires based on conquest.

Economic associations tend to grow more rapidly than security associations, but the need for the latter becomes evident after the establishment of the former. Just as empires relied on economic feedback to support their military adventures, and economies relied on empires to protect their interests, economic unions lead to a need to protect trading partners. Putin understood that a Ukraine economically enmeshed with Western Europe would eventually want the protection of NATO.

Only the largest countries, such as China the United States, can afford to operate independent of such associations. Russia, with an economy smaller than the United Kingdom and Brazil, is clearly trying to punch above its weight, but with an economy about the size of Italy's, it is not clear that it can afford to sustain its aggressive posture over time. The use of maskirovka, or masked warfare, may be cheaper than an out-and-out invasion, but even such tactics won't keep costs down if there is sustained resistance.

One of the lessons of the Soviet war in Afghanistan is that a Russia dependent on hydrocarbons for income it spends on imported food is economically vulnerable. Russian farming isn't quite the disaster Soviet farming was, and the nation now provides itself with grain, but it still imports more food than it sells.

Russian interference with the Ukraine and Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea are going to test this new system. I don't know how willing voluntary associations will be to defend the Parcel Islands, but populated areas that are part of security organizations are probably going to be safe. Areas not part of such associations, not so much.

Voluntary economic associations are related to liberal ideas. They may include autocratic states such as Myanmar, but they then become a source of pressure on such states to institute liberal reforms.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

A strange kind of patriot: The historical background of the Bundy philosophy

by John MacBeath Watkins

Sean Hannity is shocked, shocked, to learn that Cliven Bundy is a racist. Bundy said that Negroes were better off as slaves. Back in what he seems to think of as the good old days, a young slave, wondering what career to follow, would be directed to the cotton field with a large bag, and their life's work was set. Or, as Bundy put it:
... “They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves...
Who knew that someone who refuses to acknowledge the supremacy clause of the United States Constitution would harbor racist sentiments?

Anyone who has studied the history of this philosophy.

Armed men from around the country are now flocking to Bundy's ranch to protect him from the law of the land. They claim that no one above the level of the county sheriff should have law enforcement authority over the federal land Bundy has his cattle on, and has been grazing his cattle on without paying for two decades.

Who thinks this way?

At one time, most of the former states of the Confederacy. After they lost the Civil War, federal troops occupied the South during the period of Reconstruction, from1867 to 1877. While there, they enforced laws allowing former slaves to have access to polling places so that they could vote. This was decisive in the 1876 election of Rutherford B. Hayes.

Initially, it appeared that Sam Tilden had won the election, winning the popular vote and 184 electoral votes. Hayes had 165 electoral votes and there were 20 disputed electoral votes. The votes were in Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina, where each party reported that their candidate had won. One of the reasons Tilden did so well was that in the former confederate states in 1874 and 1876, all levels of government chose not to police the polls, allowing whites to intimidate blacks to keep them from voting.

The matter was resolved by giving Hayes the contested vote, which the Southern states agreed to for a price. Hayes would remove federal troops occupying the South, and the Posse Comitatus Act would prevent federal troops from enforcing state laws in the future. This was the beginning of the era when you had to be a white racist to win public office in a former Confederate state.

This is why a philosophy that says the federal government is evil and should be cut back "until it's small enough to drown in a bathtub" is so appealing to people like Cliven Bundy (aside from the fact that it gives him an excuse for not paying his grazing fees.)

Bundy has promoted himself with a video showing him riding a horse while carrying an American flag, but he's a strange kind of patriot:
“I believe this is a sovereign state of Nevada,” Bundy said. “And I abide by all Nevada state laws. But I don’t recognize the United States government as even existing.”
Good to know. So, what's that you've got attached to the pole, a dish cloth?

States' rights got another boost when the feds got involved in voting again, with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In 1969, a Portland, Ore., retired dry cleaner named Henry Lamont Beach started issuing charters for Posse Comitatus units, promoting the idea that there is no legitimate unit of government above the county level.

Beach was a former member of the American Silver Shirts, a fascist organization that was started after Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933.

And here's what Bundy said on Glenn Beck's  radio show recently:
“I only want to talk to one person in each county across the United States, and here’s what I want to say: County sheriffs, disarm U.S. bureaucracy. County sheriffs, disarm U.S. bureaucrats.”
This talk is part of a philosophy that stemmed from the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the efforts to keep white power over blacks. The federal government isn't a bogyman because it's powerful, it's a bogyman because it uses its power to enforce the rights of people who aren't like Cliven Bundy. I don't think he's just a swindler who wants to graze his cattle for free, though that temptation might help shape his views. I think his entire philosophy starts with his racism, and goes on to condemn the federal government because it wants him and people like him to stop acting on their racism.

The modern conservative movement got its start with Barry Goldwater's presidential campaign of 1964. That was the year the Civil Rights Act passed, and Goldwater opposed it, on libertarian grounds, he said. This, and Nixon's Southern Strategy in 1968, formed an alliance between libertarians -- actually never a very big group -- and racists.

In the 1970s, southern whites faced with integrating their schools began starting "white academies" -- private schools often associated with churches. Keep in mind that Southern Baptists split with the rest of the Baptist church over slavery in 1845. Northern Baptists tended to disapprove of slavery, and didn't want missionaries to take slaves with them, for example. Southern Baptists wanted a church that taught that slavery was just fine.

In the 1970s, when the IRS started questioning the tax-free status of church-affiliated schools that discriminated against blacks, the modern conservative coalition was complete. Certain churches joined in the cry to limit government power.

Granted, libertarians didn't have much in common with religious conservatives. But they wanted allies who wanted to limit the power of government, and their philosophy became attractive to people who wanted to limit the power of government for reasons having nothing to do with philosophy.

I'm well stricken in years, and have become cynical about why people believe what they do. All too often, a set of ideas can be a cover for attitudes and prejudices that have nothing to do with reason. In Bundy's case, his refusal to pay grazing fees to the government is symptomatic of his deeper attitudes. It's not about the grazing, really, it's about history and prejudice.

“I only want to talk to one person in each county across the United States, and here’s what I want to say: County sheriffs, disarm U.S. bureaucracy. County sheriffs, disarm U.S. bureaucrats,” Bundy said
“I only want to talk to one person in each county across the United States, and here’s what I want to say: County sheriffs, disarm U.S. bureaucracy. County sheriffs, disarm U.S. bureaucrats,” Bundy said