Friday, September 25, 2009

The soft bigotry of low expectations

Perusing Hit and Run, I encountered this post about some police caught on video who, having stormed a house during a drug raid, decided to settle in and spent several hours playing a bowling game on the resident's Nintendo Wii.

My instinctive reaction to reading this news is an illustration of how my expectations have changed over the course of the 15-16 or so years I've been interested in politics. I can remember a time when reading this story would have left me appalled at the police's misuse of property and lack of professionalism. Circa 2009, I read the post and my immediate response was, "Well, at least they were kept out of any other mischief for a few hours..." It's a sad thing when something that once would have dismayed you now seems almost refreshing by comparison.

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Monday, September 21, 2009

"I prefer 'extortion.' The X makes it sound cool."

At last, an excuse to work a Futurama quote into this blog. I'm stunned that it actually took me three years.

In a recent interview with George Stephanopoulos, (Hat tip to Psychopolitik) Barack Obama was asked to address one of the objections to Obama's proposal to force everyone to buy health insurance. (This is in large part to subsidize the costs of another common liberal goal- forcing insurance companies to insure more people at a loss, thereby turning insurance into disguised welfare. Most of the people uninsured by choice are fairly young, and the old are on average wealthier than the young, so this is a nice example of how much of the modern welfare/paternalist state actually redistributes income upwards.) Anyway, the following words were exchanged:

STEPHANOPOULOS: You were against the individual mandate...


STEPHANOPOULOS: ...during the campaign. Under this mandate, the government is forcing people to spend money, fining you if you don’t. How is that not a tax?

OBAMA: Well, hold on a second, George. Here -- here's what's happening. You and I are both paying $900, on average -- our families -- in higher premiums because of uncompensated care. Now what I've said is that if you can't afford health insurance, you certainly shouldn't be punished for that. That's just piling on. If, on the other hand, we're giving tax credits, we've set up an exchange, you are now part of a big pool, we've driven down the costs, we've done everything we can and you actually can afford health insurance, but you've just decided, you know what, I want to take my chances. And then you get hit by a bus and you and I have to pay for the emergency room care, that's...

STEPHANOPOULOS: That may be, but it's still a tax increase.

OBAMA: No. That's not true, George. The -- for us to say that you've got to take a responsibility to get health insurance is absolutely not a tax increase. What it's saying is, is that we're not going to have other people carrying your burdens for you anymore than the fact that right now everybody in America, just about, has to get auto insurance. Nobody considers that a tax increase. People say to themselves, that is a fair way to make sure that if you hit my car, that I'm not covering all the costs.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But it may be fair, it may be good public policy...

OBAMA: No, but -- but, George, you -- you can't just make up that language and decide that that's called a tax increase. Any...


OBAMA: What -- what -- if I -- if I say that right now your premiums are going to be going up by 5 or 8 or 10 percent next year and you say well, that's not a tax increase; but, on the other hand, if I say that I don't want to have to pay for you not carrying coverage even after I give you tax credits that make it affordable, then...

STEPHANOPOULOS: I -- I don't think I'm making it up. Merriam Webster's Dictionary: Tax -- "a charge, usually of money, imposed by authority on persons or property for public purposes."

OBAMA: George, the fact that you looked up Merriam's Dictionary, the definition of tax increase, indicates to me that you're stretching a little bit right now. Otherwise, you wouldn't have gone to the dictionary to check on the definition. I mean what...

Notice how hard Obama works to dodge the question. His entire initial reply ignores it completely; even after Stephanopoulous presses the issue, he tries to focus on his alleged rationale for the mandate and not the aspect of it he was actually asked about. The fact that this sort of rhetoric routinely works is a demonstration of how many people simply switch off their minds when their attention turns to politics. Consider how obvious this sort of evasion would be if it were applied to private life:

JT (Friend of mine, full name withheld to protect the innocent): Hey, where'd you get this high-definition TV?

John: The neighbors bought it a few months ago, so when they were gone on vacation last week I broke into their house and carried it away.

JT: What? You just took their property without permission? Isn't that stealing?

John: Well, hold on a second, JT. For years, we've been missing out on the superior image quality modern storage media make possible because we've been watching a standard-definition television that's nearly a decade old. Now I can play Call of Duty 4 in the resolution it was made for!

And my version doesn't even cover the best part, when Obama kicks things up from mere non sequitur to outright surrealism by arguing that the definition of the word "tax" is not relevant to the question of whether or not the mandate is a tax. A child could see through this in normal life, but in politics it often slips by people.

This puts me in mind of an old movie trope. You've probably seen it at least once: The villain, negotiating with the hero, promises not to kill somebody- one of the hero's friends, for instance- in order to gain the hero's trust or win some concession. The hero believes him, because federal labor regulations apparently require anyone who engages in fictional heroics in a visual medium to drink a bucket of lead paint before they begin their struggle against evil. The villain then says that he only promised that he wouldn't kill the person in question, and orders one of his minions to do it for him while he mwahahas in amusement. In like fashion, Obama's proposed insurance mandate doesn't force people to give their money to the government, it merely forces people to give their money to private companies strongly connected to the government. Completely different!

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Saturday, September 19, 2009

Manslaughter and other foibles

It's a bit late in the day to write about this, but its been fermenting in the back of my mind ever since the the news coverage of Ted Kennedy's death started. I actually expected Kennedy’s passing to be an even bigger deal than it is, given the American fascination, and a specially the American media’s fascination, with the Kennedys. Still, what we got was ridiculous enough, with days of wailing in the media and endless glorification of Kennedy’s supposed “compassion” and "service." There’s one thing that especially struck me.

It is a commonplace among libertarians that government leaders routinely do things that would cause them to be regarded as fearsome criminals if done without the halo of state power- looting people of their wealth, burning down cities, and so forth. I also find it interesting, however, to see the extent to which even actions that don't fall under the moral free pass given to "matters of state" get swept away.

One thing that always irritates me about the hagiographies that fill the media, and for that matter a lot of discussion by regular people, whenever a major politician dies is the way they deal with embarrassing aspects of the politician’s life that can’t be swept under the rug entirely: It is admitted that, though the deceased was of course a great man, he was “flawed.” This has been said a number of times about Ted Kennedy.

This is an interesting use of the word, and a nice example of how to be literally accurate and grossly misleading at the same time. My paranoia, tendency to slouch, and near-total inability to produce comprehensible human speech when I go to my neighborhood bar and the owner's daughter says hello to me are flaws. My elementary school gym teacher’s laziness was a flaw. The Trix Rabbit’s intemperate obsession with sugary cereals is a flaw.

Careening off a bridge into the water because of your drunk and reckless driving, leaving your passenger to her fate under the water, and then spending the next few hours- during some of which your passenger may still have been alive and hoping for rescue- trying to find a way to avoid telling the relevant authorities who might have saved her because you don’t want to damage your political career, and finally coming clean 9 hours later when you realize the authorities have already found the body rises several notches above the level of "flaw."

If you or I did that, the result would be the everlasting contempt of everyone who found out about it, and probably prison time. Most people would regard it as the defining moment of our lives, the act that defined our character. When a major politician does it, well, he was a complex person and we shouldn’t let one thing dominate our perception of such an important figure and great leaders often have feet of clay and hey, nobody’s perfect, right?

Bill Clinton would be another good example- office workers making dirty jokes and lewd remarks constitutes sexual harassment worthy of legal action, but the governor of a U.S. state having a female subordinate brought to his hotel room by a state trooper, propositioning her, and then responding to her rejection of his sexual advances by brandishing his genitalia does not. An extremely powerful man committing perjury while giving sworn testimony related to a female subordinate’s sexual harassment lawsuit isn’t a big deal, either.

Ted Kennedy, however, takes it to an even more impressive height (or depth): he kills an innocent woman formerly employed by his brother with his reckless, callous behavior, and when the nation’s biggest media outlets and most powerful statesmen summarize his life it is a footnote, too petty a matter to mar his glory. Ted Kennedy was a Great Man, the Lion of the Senate, a giant; Mary Jo Kopechne was an ant, as we are, and it is of no account if a few insects get trampled.

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Friday, September 18, 2009

New article

I've got a new article at Strike the Root. Have a look.

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Monday, September 14, 2009

A time for gibbering panic

Back in June, the nation was rocked by the murder of abortionist George Tiller by a radical anti-abortionist and the murder of museum security guard Stephen Johns by an elderly Neo-Nazi. The result was a tremendous frenzy in the media, with much exultation about how this proved the grave menace posed by right-wing terrorists and the need for everyone to shut up and do what our newly enthroned Dear Leader says. I talked about that a bit here.

It has now been confirmed that the fatal shooting of anti-abortion protester Jim Poullion in Owosso, Michigan was because of Poullion’s politics; the shooter was apparently outraged by Poullion’s protest signs. When combined with such events as the murder of Private Andrew Long by an opponent of the war in Iraq, I'm sure the establishment media, always evenhanded, will recognize the menace left-wing extremism poses and address it in the same way that they have addressed right-wing crimes, providing us with plenty of:

Grave warnings about the threat of left wing-violence

Pious hand-wringing over how left-wing politicians and pundits share the blame for these deaths by creating an atmosphere of terror and hatred against conservatives and other critics of the ruling party- e.g. The hysteria and vitriol with which any expression of dissent against the Democrats has been greeted since the beginning of Obama's administration

Angry condemnations of liberals who whip up violent hatred by attacking conservatives with hateful "code words" such as "fascist," "theocrat," "warmonger," "neocon," or "racist"

Calls for government suppression of the sort of "hate speech" that incited Poullion's murder

Frequent comparisons of pro-choice advocates, antiwar demonstrators, and other people who disagree with the Republican Party to murderous left-wing political movements such as the Bolsheviks, the Khmer Rouge, Shining Path, and the Red Army Faction
And so on. If recent history is any guide, I'm sure there all sorts of creative ways to declare any meaningful opposition to the Republican Party inherently illegitimate, now that we've seen the horrible results of just letting people disagree with them in such an irresponsible fashion.

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Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Caring about the war is so 2008

The end of August marked the close of what is now the bloodiest month for the United States forces in Afghanistan since its presence began there in 2001, with 45 confirmed deaths. I haven’t seen any numbers for Afghan deaths, but given the escalation in violence it seems likely that they were high as well. As you may recall, Afghanistan is where President Obama wants to increase American troop numbers.

I wouldn’t blame the average person all that much if they didn’t recall it, though. It’s not given much attention, compared to the former President Bush’s military decisions. Nor is it criticized very much, since the bulk of the antiwar movement apparently slipped into a coma during Barack Obama’s inauguration ceremony and is now descending into a permanent vegetative state.

The rapid drop-off in interest really is remarkable. Principled exceptions exist, but often only throw the rest into sharper relief. For instance, Cindy Sheehan has continued her antiwar campaign into the new administration, calling on Obama to end the war just as she did George W. Bush and protesting at Martha’s Vineyard during Obama’s presence there.

And yet, the woman that so much of the press couldn’t get enough of now barely warrants a mention from either the press or many her former comrades and supporters, something she herself has commented on. I suppose some of the media indifference can be attributed to the fact that the novelty element is gone now that she’s been known for a few years, but the very fact that she is continuing her crusade against the war even with Bush gone seems like something I would expect to draw interest- one of the things that originally made her famous was her utter relentlessness, and so her willingness to go after Democrats as fiercely she did Republicans is a dramatic illustration of the very trait that made her noteworthy to begin with. Apparently, though, the heartbroken mothers of dead soldiers just aren’t very interesting without a Republican in the White House.

I expected most of the American Left to lose interest in the war issue once Obama was in office, and especially once Obama started to escalate American military efforts in Afghanistan. Similarly, I expected them to start finding torture, attacks on civil liberties, and unrestrained executive power much less bothersome once they were wielding those weapons themselves. Perhaps above all else, I expected their whole “dissent is patriotic” shtick to fade away as well. However, I really didn’t expect the change to be quite so abrupt. It's a demonstration of an important lesson libertarians need to keep in mind- neither liberals nor conservatives are actually very good on the issues they're supposedly on the right side of.

This phenomenon- and especially the hysterical liberal reaction to the supposed menace of right-wing extremists with the temerity to use their outdoor voices at protests- reminds me of a scene in the novel 1984. At the height of a Hate Week rally, an Ingsoc Party official is whipping the crowd into a frenzy against Oceania’s hated enemy, Eurasia. Mid-speech, he is quietly handed a document by one of the other officials and instantly starts railing against Oceania’s hated enemy Eastasia, with whom Oceania has always been locked in a deadly struggle alongside Oceania’s steadfast ally Eurasia. The crowd, noticing that all the Hate Week posters still say that Eurasia is the enemy and has always been the enemy, conclude that traitors are trying to sabotage Hate Week by spreading confusion and lies, and in their righteous outrage begin tearing down and destroying posters bearing slogans they had been shouting themselves only moments before. (I don't have the book in front of me, so I may have mixed up Eurasia and Eastasia. Which would be quite fitting, of course.)

I think a lot of it is sincere, in the sense that many of the people acting this way are not motivated by cynical partisan point-scoring and really do feel that things that were outrages crying to Heaven for justice when done by the Bush administration suddenly stop mattering when Obama is in charge. People can have tremendous power to believe things they weant to believe, and too many people have too much emotional energy invested in loving Obama and hating Bush as the definitive evil in American history to start wondering how different they actually are. Much the same can be said of many conservatives.

I wish that weren’t the case- in some ways I find the idea of people behaving that way, and the power of the human mind to warp itself to escape reality, more disturbing than the idea that they are simply amoral hypocrites. Tribalism is a powerful thing, and the drive to believe- not just say, but truly, genuinely believe- what you want to believe is probably even stronger.

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