Archive for February, 2009

On socialism, populism and the Left.

February 28, 2009

A lot of people are wondering why Republicans persist in pretending that Obama is about to foist “socialism” on the American people. The answer is obvious: because it’s a safe, nonthreatening way to act like a populist. Everyone in Washington knows Republicans hate “socialism,” and everyone in Washington knows that it won’t actually affect the way most Republicans vote. But they’re playing with fire: Some Americans have come to hate their government so much they’re beginning to snort and paw the ground like it’s 1968:

I just want to offer you and the tea party protesters some words of encouragement. As someone who has studied (and blogged) protest as an act of democratic revolution and people power in the post-Soviet area, I know a lot about the dynamics of mass civil society unrest, government transition, etc…

What we are seeing now is truly huge POTENTIAL for massive civil unrest against the American government gone lunatic with spending. Realistically, 400-1000 people at a protest, even at a dozen protests across the country, will do nothing to change the minds of our idiot leaders.

However, it creates the POTENTIAL that each protest could have a million. The Orange Revolution in Ukraine did not start out with two million people camping in tents in downtown Kiev. It started with only a few hundred diehard activists.

We’re used to thinking of “massive civil unrest” as a tool of the Left, which is why hearing right-wingers talk about it approvingly seems so odd. Certainly “massive civil unrest” seems like an odd thing for any professed conservative to defend. But the contemporary Right understands populism much better than the American Left ever has, which explains why, despite decades of concerted efforts by leftists, the Left has not had a single successful populist of note in more than sixty years. (The last one was Huey Long, weirdly misportrayed ever since as a right-wing reactionary.)

Part of the reason is that leftists are bound to deplore The Way Things Are. The spectrum they chart goes all the way from minor revolution (“We should abolish capital punishment”) to major (“We should abolish the family”). The course of the Left, since the ’60s, has been toward a growing alienation from the way most people in America think and act, the way they live their daily lives — perceptible not merely in leftists’ embrace of identity politics, which rejects politics altogether in favor of postmodern gobbledygook and Orwellian groupthink, but in their Marxist assumption that only economics matters. The citizen is not a citizen but a “worker,” and all issues are organized labor issues. (The Right’s version of this is to call citizens “consumers” and pretend that all issues are market transactions.) As ill-fitting as these two attitudes are — it seems impossible to believe in both of them — they were what leftists were preaching for decades, and the message failed to appeal to ordinary people for the simple reason that it was never intended for ordinary people.

Right-wing populist demagogues, on the other hand, set themselves up as defenders of The Way Things Are, beset by big government and big business. (Since outright decrying the excesses of big business would leave themselves open to charges of socialism, right-wing populists generally code this message in denunciations of “liberal” Hollywood, as excessive and grotesque a manifestation of free-market capitalism as the world has ever known.) Taken out of its demagogue’s husk, where it nestles side by side with bigotry, xenophobia and homophobia, it’s a very appealing message because it contains a good deal of truth. So appealing is it, in fact, that it’s led many liberals — Richard Hofstadter was the first, with his warning against “the paranoid style” in American politics — to distrust and fear populism altogether.

So why is “socialism,” of all things, such an effective message, particularly considering that most of America’s cherished allies (Britain, Israel) fit the description if any country ever has? It could be residual distrust of anything remotely associated with Soviet communism, but that seems a dimmer memory every year. As Chevy Chase put it in Caddyshack: “This isn’t Russia. Is this Russia? This isn’t Russia.”

The reason the socialism charge is so effective, I think, is that it’s basically true. Our government showers the powerful few with favors and special privileges because they are powerful, and should remain powerful. (That was the message behind the ’08 Wall Street bailout: We may not like them, but we can’t live without them. What our leaders didn’t tell us was that “we” meant them and not us.) To paraphrase Gore Vidal, we have effective socialism for the rich and half-hearted socialism for the rest of us. The few privileges enjoyed by ordinary people — the right not to die in the gutter after retirement, for example — seem a paltry sum enough, considering we’re the wealthiest country in the world, but right-wingers still attack them because they dare not speak out against the genuine beneficiaries of American “welfare.” To do that would be to attack the status quo in a serious, no-kidding way — which is not the way to endear yourself to the party bosses. Yet “socialist” contains enough truth to make the charge sting.

One last point: What both liberals and conservatives have managed to do very well is to separate this issue from politics. Just look at that sign from Tulsa:

Why should YOU pay for MY healthcare?

Why indeed? A true republican would answer: Because it is entirely in the interest of the powerful that you remain dependent on the whims of the marketplace — or the unlikely kindness of your employers — not merely for success, but for your very existence. Thus, ensuring health care is essential to ensure the well-being and independence of the citizenry. Naturally, this pragmatic answer, entirely in keeping with the principles of the republic, never arises in our discourse. Instead it’s been reduced to a debate over “liberty,” as if liberals who defend hate-crime laws or right-wingers who defend the right of a Republican President to do whatever he wants have any interest in liberty whatsoever.

Puncturing Bobby Jindal’s bubble.

February 26, 2009

The notion that the Republican Party only turned rotten last week, and that it used to be a haven of enlightened, principled Jeffersonians is a curious one. You’d have to reach back to Robert Taft (d. 1953) even to find a prominent Republican who matched the description, but still this delusion persists. The latest prominent public man to voice this popular notion is Bobby Jindal, current darling of the libertarian right, who last month put it this way: “The country didn’t stop being conservative; the Republican Party stopped being conservative. We need to go back to our roots.”

Since the Republican Party’s “roots” are as an insurgent party of the 1850s formed to oppose the extension of slavery, one can be forgiven for suspecting that Jindal’s concept of the party’s “roots” comes close to being sheer romantic fantasy. What principles have the Republican Party’s bosses ever stood for? Opposition to big government? The GOP in fact let all of Roosevelt’s New Deal slide through virtually unopposed (including its single worst act, the unconstitutional National Industrial Recovery Act), and let it stand ever since as a sort of permanent whipping boy. (1) Opposition to intrusive government? This is the same party that in the 1980s, in Walter Karp’s words, “made government more intrusive than ever,” launching the War on Drugs and compiling lists of “improper” persons, limning the sinister agenda they foisted full-force on the country in 2001. Opposition to foreign entanglements? It was a Republican President (McKinley, the most devious of them all) who gave us our first truly imperial war and launched us on the road to global empire in 1898. True, for about half a century they preferred to let the Democrats start their wars for them. But the eagerness with which they plunged into war under a suitably obliging president just how phony much of their professed “isolationism” was during the 1990s, when it served as a suitable tool with which to bash Clinton. (Clinton himself brandished his unabashed-liberal image as a means to distract voters from his actual policies, which crossed the line from “centrist” to outright right-wing before the decade was half dead.)

Despite all this, I confess that I find the idea of conservatism much more attractive than the idea of liberalism. As most commentators note at some time or another, the basic tenets of conservatism — opposition to excessive government, opposition to excessive taxes, opposition to excessive spending, opposition to excessive foreign entanglements — are immensely attractive because they’re based on opposing things most of us hate. The problem with defining conservatism this broadly, however, is that it leaves open the question why any decent person would believe anything else. Who would be a liberal if it meant nothing but calling for excessive government and high taxes?

Jonah Goldberg simplified the matter considerably by suggesting that all liberals were, whether they knew it or not, followers of the despotic and self-righteous Woodrow Wilson, the uberliberal of our age. Which leaves open the possibility that Wilson’s most hated enemy, Senator Robert La Follette, scourge of crooked machines and faux progressives, was himself a sort of conservative, defending the Constitution and Lincolnian government from its Tammany foes. I’d have no problem believing that, except that La Follette’s issues — with the possible exception of avoiding foreign entanglements — are most decidedly not those of contemporary Republicans. Contemporary Republicans rarely talk about genuine republican issues at all. To hear them talk about education, for example, you’d think the only issue at stake was the size of the workforce in 2019.

Anyway, it’s hard to see what’s “conservative” — in the elevated sense — about Jindal himself. As a Congressman, he voted to make the PATRIOT Act permanent, voted to make flag burning illegal, voted for the REAL ID Act. He voted for Bush’s single worst legislative coup, the Military Commissions Act — the single worst assault on habeas corpus rights in our history. He voted for the invasive Federal Marriage Amendment. The National Right to Life Committee gave him a 100 percent pro-life voting record. (2) Not one iota of this have we heard from a media rushing to crown Jindal as “the GOP’s Obama.”

It might be argued, I suppose, that Jindal represents an advance over the demagoguery of most Republicans of the last decade. If we are to judge politicians by their actions, and not merely their words — and certainly not their public images, or the effectiveness with which they deliver speeches — Jindal seems little different from the other Republicans who have been eagerly defiling the Constitution and popular government (often, distressingly, in the name of the Constitution itself) for decades. I understand why conservatives want him to be different. There’s never been a more opportune time for a truly conservative figure to emerge and reject the empty blather of the GOP’s platform as so much demagoguery and bluster. Such a figure could transform the way we think about politics altogether. But if conservatism means nothing more than opposing high taxes, the word is so degraded as to become meaningless.

1. I should probably come clean and confess that I think most of the Second New Deal, from 1935 to 1937 — Social Security, etc. — was fine and dandy. I have no patience with historians — “historians,” I should perhaps say — who think Roosevelt was a fascist, or that only a “laissez faire” approach a la Coolidge could have ended the Depression.

2. I recognize that it’s possible to oppose Roe v. Wade on federalist grounds, and prefer that abortion policies be left up to the states. But someone with a 100 percent pro-life record wants abortion banned, not left up to the states.

Conservative cinema?

February 13, 2009

This week, National Review issued its list of the 25 best conservative movies of the last 25 years. (Unfortunately, it’s not all on one page; you have to comb through all the entries to find them.) It’s about what you’d expect; the only surprise is the placing of the genuinely wonderful The Lives of Others (which was apparently the late William F. Buckley’s favorite movie) at No. 1. It’s hard not to be charmed by a list that tries to find a conservative lesson in Ghostbusters, but reading this list reminds me of what baffles me about modern conservatism (or pseudo-conservatism). I’m genuinely hard-pressed to identify what it is they believe in, since everything they celebrate seems to come into conflict with something else they celebrate.

Reading the list, you learn that conservatives hate and fear the state:

Terry Gilliam’s Brazil portrays a darkly comic dystopia of malfunctioning high-tech equipment and the dreary living conditions common to all totalitarian regimes. Everything in the society is built to serve government plans rather than people. … Terrorist bombings, national-security scares, universal police surveillance, bureaucratic arrogance, a callous elite, perversion of science, and government use of torture evoke the worst aspects of the modern megastate.

But you also learn that conservatives love their state, at least when it’s beating the crap out of other states:

A welcome glorification of Reagan’s decision to liberate Grenada in 1983, the film [Heartbreak Ridge] also notes how after a tie in Korea and a loss in Vietnam, America can finally celebrate a military victory.

A righteous state like America has every right to wage war. To question this is beyond the pale:

Most movies about the Vietnam War reflect the derangements of the antiwar Left.

We also learn that liberals hate freedom and never want to fight for it:

Braveheart taught that freedom is not just worth dying for, but also worth killing for, in defense of hearth and homeland. Six years later, amid the ruins of the Twin Towers, Gibson’s message resonated with a generation of American youth who signed up to fight terrorists, instead of inviting them to join a “constructive dialogue.” Liberals have never forgiven Gibson since.

That said, conservatives aren’t too clear on what this “freedom” thing means. One might assume that it included, at the very least, respect for the law, respect for privacy, and respect for a free press and a diverse public opinion. But no, a true conservative hero would violate them all:

The Dark Knight (2008): This film gives us a portrait of the hero as a man reviled. In his fight against the terrorist Joker, Batman has to devise new means of surveillance, push the limits of the law, and accept the hatred of the press and public. If that sounds reminiscent of a certain former president—whose stubborn integrity kept the nation safe and turned the tide of war—don’t mention it to the mainstream media.

We’ve heard a lot of interesting defenses of George W. Bush, but I believe this may well be the first time anyone’s ever likened him to Batman.

Curiously, although NR conservatives presumably take pride in the successes of America’s free market, they get positively apoplectic about the most prominent (and certainly the most successful) example of unfettered American capitalism — something that every single liberal in America, moreover, associates with capitalism and capitalist values. I refer, of course, to Hollywood:

Forrest Gump (1994): It won an Oscar for best picture—beating Pulp Fiction, a movie that’s far more expressive of Hollywood’s worldview.

300 (2007): During the Bush years, Hollywood neglected the heroism of American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan—but it did release this action film about martial honor, unflinching courage, and the oft-ignored truth that freedom isn’t free.

An “oft-ignored truth” that just happens to be the theme of every action movie ever made?

It’s a shame NR didn’t decide to extend the list beyond the last quarter-century; one can only guess at the results: Casablanca? For a Few Dollars More? Metropolis? Planet of the Apes? Elvis Presley’s Clambake?

Wal-Mart and the myth of the lazy poor.

February 7, 2009

Fed up with hearing left-wingers like Barbara Ehrenreich and Naomi Klein natter on about how bad Wal-Mart is, Charles Platt decided to get a job there and prove them wrong. Andrew Sullivan, of course, approvingly links to his post and highlights his conclusion: 

Subsequently I considered writing about my brief experience, but a book defending a company that has been demonized does not have a large potential audience, and the writer tends to be dismissed as either hopelessly naive or bribed by corporate America. … Somehow that kind of news is never as popular as denunciations of the free market written by professional handwringers such as Barbara Ehrenreich.

Not having read any of Ehrenreich’s books, I can’t speak to how effectively Platt demolishes her thesis. (Though I’d note that criticizing Wal-Mart, a specific company, does not in and of itself amount to denouncing the “free market.”) But there are a couple of obvious problems with Platt’s experiment. First, Platt joined up with the specific intention of disproving Ehrenreich by having a pleasant experience working at Wal-Mart. Unsurprisingly enough, he found his “brief” time at the company pleasant:

The job was as dull as I expected, but I was stunned to discover how benign the workplace turned out to be. My supervisor was friendly, decent, and treated me as an equal. Wal-Mart allowed a liberal dress code. The company explained precisely what it expected from its employees, and adhered to this policy in every detail. I was unfailingly reminded to take paid rest breaks, and was also encouraged to take fully paid time, whenever I felt like it, to study topics such as job safety and customer relations via a series of well-produced interactive courses on computers in a room at the back of the store. Each successfully completed course added an increment to my hourly wage, a policy which Barbara Ehrenreich somehow forgot to mention in her book.

Platt does not tell us how long he spent at Wal-Mart, but I’m struck by how many of his observations could have been gleaned from observing employees (the liberal dress code) or simply talking to management (everything else). In other words, he worked there long enough to confirm his own prejudices, but not long enough to learn what it would be like to work there for, well, a long time. The fact that he was fortunate enough to have a pleasant supervisor doesn’t amount to much of a recommendation; it doesn’t take a wild leap of logic to conclude that a bad-tempered supervisor might have made an already “dull” job miserable. (For a truly harrowing account of how miserable it might be for someone who worked there for “a couple of years,” as opposed to a “brief experience,” check out the sixth comment on Platt’s post.) 

Still, Platt insists, his co-workers were happy to be working there:

Several of my co-workers had relocated from other areas, where they had worked at other Wal-Marts. They wanted more of the same. Everyone agreed that Wal-Mart was preferable to the local Target, where the hourly pay was lower and workers were said to be treated with less respect (an opinion which I was unable to verify). Most of all, my coworkers wanted to avoid those “mom-and-pop” stores beloved by social commentators where, I was told, employees had to deal with quixotic management policies, while lacking the opportunities for promotion that exist in a large corporation.

Platt’s decision to highlight these particular sentiments is highly curious, because they are every bit as much a “denunciation of the free market” as any liberal’s diatribe against Wal-Mart. “Mom-and-pop” stores are not any less part of the free market because liberals like to shop there. An economy entirely dominated by Wal-Marts might be very efficient and “benign” (just like the Wal-Mart Platt worked at), but it would not be much of a “free” market, unless we define that not as an economy in which everyone has the opportunity to rise to the top, but one which is merely free of government intervention.

Though it’s easy to make fun of left-wingers’ endless enthusiasm for “local” businesses, the sentiment is not inherently left-wing. The surest proof of this is that conservative politicians rarely make appeals to Wal-Mart executives in their speeches, or declaim the glories of General Motors. Rather, they exalt the magic of the “free enterprise” system, in which every American is free not merely to work as a cog in a “benign” corporate machine but to own and run his own business (should he be so inclined). That system does not require the nonexistence of corporations, but it does require a healthy and thriving market of small businesses. 

Last spring, I did a story on El-Con Mall, Tucson’s oldest mall, which turned into a “ghost mall” sometime during the mid-’90s. The handful of local business owners who were still running thriving stores (a barbershop, a poster shop) were gregarious and talkative, regaling me with stories of the mall’s fitful attempts to revive itself, the UA celebrities (Channing Frye, Lute Olson) who frequented their shops, and how a local neighborhood successfully rallied to prevent a Wal-Mart from opening there in 1999. The other stores’ employees, of course, couldn’t tell me anything; all they could do was glumly hand me a number to call, where I could speak to someone in California who’d never laid eyes on the mall. It was a striking lesson in the inherent chilliness of corporate enterprise. The local employees couldn’t tell me anything for the same reason a McDonald’s employee can’t give you his opinion of the food; they might compromise the reputation of the company. Even had I been able to talk to the CEO, he couldn’t have told me anything much, for the same reason. In short, there was no way at all for anyone in these places to give an honest assessment of what it was like to work there. All I would have gleaned would have been publicity boilerplate. In short, corporate enterprise almost inevitably robs employees and employers alike of any public voice. (The free-marketer’s riposte to this, of course, is: “They’re free to work somewhere else if they don’t like it.” Which is only true if the “mom and pop” stores Pratt scorns continue to thrive.)

This brings me to my second, and far more serious, problem with Platt’s experiment. This, it turns out, was his inspiration: 

If you haven’t heard of Adam Shepard, this illustrates my point. His remarkable bookScratch Beginnings, now being promoted through www.scratchbeginnings.com, describes how he went through an experience far more gruelling than my brief flirtation with low-paying work. He placed himself in a homeless shelter with $25 in his pocket, found a job as a day laborer, then worked for a moving company, and after 10 months had a pickup truck, an apartment, and $2,500 in savings. His conclusion: People can still make it in the United States if they are willing to live carefully on a budget and work hard.

Either there is no poverty problem (a concoction of myth-spinning liberals), or the poverty problem is entirely created by poor people and their inability to “live carefully on a budget and work hard.” It’s a convenient story if you happen to oppose any government action against poverty. 

It’s hard to know where to begin to dismantle this nonsense. Shepard, a college graduate, started his “gruelling” experience about 10 rungs ahead of the vast majority of homeless people. (For one thing, as my wife pointed out, he’d probably seen a doctor and a dentist more recently than most homeless people. Paying for dental work is hard enough for college students.) He also started his experience tabula rasa — i.e., he didn’t have to overcome a mental illness, support a family, or overcome a drug addiction. He also had some idea of what he was going to do to pull himself out of poverty, because he wasn’t plunged into it, or born into it, he decided to do it. In short, he possessed exactly none of the things that most commonly cause people to be poor in the first place. No wonder it only took him 10 months. Slumming in order to write about the experience is one thing (Orwell did it, famously, in “Down and Out in Paris and London.”). Slumming in order to prove that poor people are lazy is despicable.

Of course, Pulp put it more succinctly back in 1995. If I could call Shepard and play him this song over the phone, I would:

Rent a flat above a shop

Cut your hair and get a job

Smoke some fags and play some pool

Pretend you never went to school

But still you’ll never get it right

’cause when you’re laid in bed at night

Watching roaches climb the wall

If you called your dad he could stop it all…

You’ll never live like common people

You’ll never do whatever common people do

You’ll never fail like common people

You’ll never watch your life slide out of view

And then dance and drink and screw

Because there’s nothing else to do.