Friday, December 30, 2011

And now, just the thing to make the year complete: The Star Wars Holiday Special!

Happy holidays, everybody! The year is almost over. While the sort of angry and/or depressing writing that permeates this blog might give a different impression, this has actually been a good year for me; it's just that my writing on more pleasant and cheerful subjects appears on sites other than this one.

Despite the dark topics that this blog mostly focuses on, I want The Superfluous Man to conclude 2011 and welcome 2012 on a happy note. To that end, I'm dedicating the last Superfluous Man post of 2011 to posting this link to my commentary, which I wrote the original version of in 2009 and have added to each year since, on the legendarily awful late 1970s TV cash-in, The Star Wars Holiday Special. I hope it makes you laugh. And if it piques your curiosity enough to get you to find a copy to watch yourself, remember: I tried to warn you.

Thanks for reading, and I hope I'll see you all again in 2012!

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Tuesday, December 06, 2011

The National Domestic Violence Hotline and the Verizon Foundation join forces to demonize abused children

The Verizon Foundation, a nonprofit offshoot of the telecommunications company, and the National Domestic Violence Hotline, established by the United States government in 1996 through grants provided under the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act, recently released a short video entitled “Monsters,” which the Verizon Foundation says shows the immediate and long-term impact on children who witness domestic violence.” Now, this is an important issue. Subjecting children to the spectacle of one or both of their parents being attacked, degraded, or tormented by the other is a form of psychological/emotional abuse that can be devastating even if no one ever raises their hand against the child. I'd praise the video for bringing this up if only the folks at the Verizon Foundation and the National Domestic Violence Hotline were actually siding with such children, rather than against them.

Now, one can- and should- object to the fact that the ad explicitly defines domestic violence to be something men do and women suffer- if my introduction to the concept of domestic violence were this ad, the notion that a man or a lesbian could be a victim of "domestic violence” wouldn't occur to me. That would be less of an issue if the makers and the typical expected viewer of this came from a culture where it was widely understood that the male perpetrator-female victim scenario described was not the only configuration possible, and children seeking help because of a violent mother weren't ignored or called liars because of traditional prejudices that “women don't do that” or feminist claims that “domestic violence is gendered,” but this wasn't made in that world. In this case the usual erasure of any victim of intimate relationship violence who isn't a heterosexual female is only a secondary problem, however.

The ad starts off with an animated depiction of a child in a violent household. We are told of her pain and distress. She lives in “darkness,” in a “nightmare.” And it is very conspicuously HER pain and distress, and SHE who lives in a world of darkness and nightmares- the consistent use of 'she” and “her” for the victimized child is not, as we shall see, merely a byproduct of the fact that English lacks a singular third-person pronoun for referring to a human being without reference to sex.

The source of her distress is explicitly referred to as her father, which brings us to the first group of children in the ad's cross-hairs. Suppose you're a little kid who's upset because you see Mommy hitting Daddy, or pushing him down, or throwing things at him, or waving a kitchen knife around and screaming about how someday she's going to cut his balls off. Maybe the sound of people yelling or screaming or sobbing at night makes it hard to sleep. Maybe you hate yourself because you think you're somehow the cause of it. Maybe you're afraid that someday Mommy will kill Daddy, or even get so angry about something that she'll kill you. Maybe part of you wishes she would, because surely she wouldn't act this way if you were a better child- and if you were gone, maybe everybody could be happy again.

And those nice people who talk about this thing called “domestic violence,” and how it's really bad, and that it's not children's fault, and that if it's happening in your house you should tell a grown-up you trust so you can get help, and that people being hurt by it deserve help and protection? They're not talking about you. They're not there to help you. They don't care about you. They've helpfully explained who the people who need and deserve help are, and you're not one of them.

Again, this wouldn't be such an issue in a world where a child whose mother abuses her father was likely to have other sources information telling her that what happens in her family is also "domestic violence," and that she and her father also deserve help, and where an adult authority figure told of such a situation by a child was likely to have also been exposed to such information, and to have internalized it to the point that they could be counted on to treat the child's situation with due seriousness. Unfortunately, people living in that world aren't the ones seeing this.

The all but exclusive fixation on male perpetrators brought about by gender feminist domination of this topic doesn't just erase or vilify male victims; it also throws many women and girls to the wolves, if the person who hurt them has the wrong genitalia. The folks who dominate the discourse about abuse typically seem, based on revealed preference, to desire the former badly enough to consider the latter an acceptable trade-off. These children get off comparatively lightly, however; they're merely written off. There are worse things.

The ad continues by saying that the girl will be more likely to be abused herself as an adult, since she will be more inclined see domestic violence as normal. And then, finally, the existence of male children comes up. After being told in anguished tones about how much girls are hurt by living in violent household, we're told “and her brother, he'll be twice as likely to become a monster himself.” At which point a little cartoon boy appears, briefly, only to immediately transform into a grotesque, ferocious-looking monstrosity that looks like some horrible beast of Greek mythology filtered through H.P. Lovecraft, looming hideously over the fragile, prone form of his helpless sister.

The little girl, of course, remains human.
Contrary to popular myth, most child abuse victims do not go on to become abusers themselves. There are many other ways a boy can be shaped by such an experience, even if they are seldom thought worthy of mention.

Maybe he'll grow up to think of all men as sadistic monsters, and loathe himself for being one. Maybe he'll cut himself off from others, seeing his own permanent loneliness as an acceptable price to pay to “protect” women and children from what he imagines himself to be- and what the makers of the ad want us to imagine him to be. Maybe he'll grow up to let other people abuse him because the memory of his father makes him so frightened by his own capacity for anger that he doesn't dare stand up for himself. Perhaps he'll teach his sons to “respect women” by doing likewise. (In which case he is hurting others, albeit not others the domestic violence industry cares about.) Maybe he'll actually try to stop his father, and get beaten to a bloody pulp. Or maybe he'll spend the rest of his life reviling himself for “failing” to protect his mother- for not being strong enough, or big enough, or brave enough, or loving his mom enough to somehow stop a grown man when he was only a child.

But no such boy, no traumatized boy who ought to be viewed with sympathy rather than fear and horror, exists in the universe of the ad. None ever could.

In two minutes and thirty seconds otherwise saturated with descriptions of the terrible pain and suffering inflicted on innocent people by domestic violence, the heart-wrenching litany of pain, misery and tragedy abruptly stops when male children are mentioned  and is replaced with horror and revulsion- not for the abuse or the abuser, but for the victim. Once the loathsome, terrifying boy-thing departs and the narration moves to the subject of the battered wife, the original tragic, sympathetic tone resumes. The effects of systematic emotional abuse on a helpless little boy are referred to solely in terms of how they make the boy seem scary, dangerous, inhuman, or evil.

Imagine being one of those boys and seeing this. Imagine being one of those boys and seeing this while being told that this is the message of people who really, really care about how domestic violence hurts innocent people.

The dehumanization is absolute. The effects of domestic violence on women and girls are bad because- as the ad pulls out all the stops to tell us- they cause women and girls to suffer. The effects of domestic violence on boys are bad... because they cause women and girls to suffer. The boy's capacity to experience pain is utterly erased, and he is stripped of any moral value as a human being in his own right. His existence and experiences are relevant only insofar as they affect people who do have moral value- women and girls. We are thus encouraged to think of traumatized male children not as victims who warrant sympathy or protection, but as menaces to be feared and despised- as monsters.

This is not unusual, though the Verizon Foundation video makes it more explicit than usual by portraying the boy as literally inhuman. Turning abused and traumatized boys into objects of fear or revulsion is a fairly common feature in discussions of domestic violence. The same is commonly true if the boy is the direct target of abuse. In public beliefs about male victims of (male-perpetrated) sexual abuse, in particular, the myth that abuse victims typically go on to abuse others is so ubiquitous and colors people's attitudes towards abuse victims so strongly that the victim's supposed propensity to abuse others in the future is commonly spoken of as if it were the primary harm of the abuse itself- the greatest evil of the abuse is becomes something that will happen to some undefined person at some point in the future, which conveniently vitiates the perceived need to feel sympathy for any actual existing male abuse victim.

(This illustrates the extent to which attitudes towards male victimization transcend the boundaries between different sides of cultural and ideological arguments. Feminists dominate the discourse about domestic violence and efforts to encourage public awareness of it, and do more than anyone else to encourage the hurt boy=future monster” attitude in that area. The same is not true in the case of male victims of male sexual predators, however, where such an attitude is expressed by many people from a much more diverse array of ideological backgrounds and is probably most conspicuously expressed by people of conservative views who are actively hostile to feminists. Members of both groups typically have an exaggerated view of male strength that makes it difficult to think of one as truly victimized rather than victimizer, and both often seem to think of raising boys primarily in terms of neutralizing the danger they are seen as naturally posing, so this convergence is to be expected.)

There's no need to assume that anyone at the Verizon Foundation or the National Domestic Violence Hotline had this aim in mind. It is the natural, predictable product of the mindset that dominates discourse on the subjects of domestic violence and child abuse, as well as related areas like sexual violence- one that tends to treat the well-being of males (especially once they're no longer young enough to enjoy the limited moral-value-by-association of being regarded as appendages of their mother) as having purely instrumental value, if that, which is prone to regarding even the most vulnerable males as present or future menaces to be contained, and which is at best extremely uncomfortable with the idea that males can be hurt as badly as females or should be viewed with equal concern if they are and frequently outright hostile to the idea. 

The best thing I can think of to sum up my feelings about this is something Jacob Taylor of the blog Toy Solders wrote a few years ago in his post “Being a Boy: 101.” He was talking about a different topic- a school speaker's treatment of a boy who had been sexually abused, rather than children who grew up witnessing their mothers being battered- but the subjects are closely related enough and his words so relevant that they're worth quoting here.

I wonder how many of the boys in that class have been abused. I wonder how many of them have been raped. I wonder how many of them go home to a house full of violence and say to themselves, “I won’t be like this when I grow up,” only to have someone like this woman say, “You have a penis. Yes, you will.”

There are so many monsters lying in wait for children to tear apart, yes. So terribly many.

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Monday, November 28, 2011

Thoughts on Daniel Klein's studies of economic literacy

A little while back economist Daniel Klein, a professor at George Mason University and editor of Econ Journal Watch, and Zeljka Buturovic, a researcher at Zogby International, published an article entitled "Economic Enlightenment in Relation to College-going, Ideology, and Other Variables" which presented data from a survey about how people of different ideological stances view economic questions that, Klein argued, inidcated that people who identify as politically left-wing showed less undertsanding of basic economics than those identifying as libertarians or conservatives. He's now calling his own prior claims "partially vitiated" in a new article by  Buturovic and himself, "Economic Enlightenment Revisited," based on the results of another survey which he believes shows that people of different ideologies are in fact about equally likely to believe falsehoods about economics, depending on how comfortably the answer to a particular question fits with their other beliefs. He attributes his prior results to a survey that was biased by including too many questions on issues the Left tends to be bad on and his own eagerness to believe something that supported his own assumptions. (Klein is himself a libertarian.)

I greatly admire Klein's willingness to publicly state that he believes himself to have been mistaken on a matter that he had been quite outspoken about. However, after reading his new article, I don't think he actually was wrong; at any rate, I don't think the additional data he presents tells against his own prior conclusion in the way he believes.

In each study, Klein gave the test subjects a list of statements about economics, such as "free trade causes unemployment." The survey subjects, all of whom were American adults, would then write an answer stating that they (strongly or somewhat ) agreed or disagreed with it, or weren't sure. Klein then compiled the figures for how often respondents of different political persuasions agreed with false statements or disagreed with true ones to get a sense of how well people of different beliefs understood economic issues. Conservatives and libertarians did better than liberals on the first survey. Concerned about the possibility that this result might be caused by an ideological slant to the survey items (cherry-picking subject matter so that most or all of the statements concerned areas people on the Left were especially likely to get wrong, for instance) rather than an actual difference in knowledge, he did a second survey, this time with questions intentionally designed to poke at potential conservative or libertarian blind spots. This time the results were reversed, with conservatives and libertarians scoring much lower than on the first survey.

I agree that the first survey is imperfect. In particular, the survey item "Third-world workers working for American companies overseas are being exploited" is problematic because, depending on how one interprets the word “exploited, ” agreement can be either a sign of economic ignorance (i.e. you believe that the workers would benefit economically if they had to fall back on whatever second-best option they had themselves judged inferior to the sweatshop) or an answer to a question- in this case, a moral one- other than the one the survey meant to ask and is intended to assess. (Though if you changed it to something more economics-specific, such as whether sweatshop make their workers worse off than they would be in their absence, I imagine the percentage of wrong answers would still be pretty high.) I also like the fact that the second survey includes an item about the economic effects of immigrant workers, an important and heated subject that was absent the first time around.

However, the first and second sets of questions differ in some important ways that are likely to make the first set more genuinely revealing than the second, because there were serious problems with the second set that make it questionable whether it measures what it is supposed to be measuring.

The first issue is that with the exception of the statement about sweatshops noted above the first survey consists of fairly clear, unambiguous statements like "Rent-control laws lead to housing shortages." This isn't the case with several statements on the second survey, and the result is that several statements on the second survey can't be trusted to measure what they're supposed to.

If some of my points here seem like semantic hair-splitting, it's because such hair-splitting is incredibly important in order to make sure that a survey is actually measuring what it's supposed to. Klein and Buturovic's interpretation of the new data hinges on certain quite specific assumptions about how survey takers interpreted the survey statements. If some of the survey statements are worded in a way that allows for multiple plausible interpretations of what's being asked, some of which could entail a different answer from the one treated as correct by the survey for reasons unrelated to economic ignorance, then responses to that statement on the survey can't be presumed to measure what it's trying to measure, especially if members of some of the the different groups being assessed are especially likely to take a particular interpretation. This is, I believe, the case on at least three of the survey items. One could argue about whether the word meanings I think were most likely being used by the typical respondent are the best way of using those words or not, but like the interpretation of “exploit” in the first survey that's not a question of economics.

Two statements to which the majority of libertarians gave what was judged to be a wrong response response were "Drug prohibition fails to reduce people’s access to drugs" and "Gun control fails to reduce people’s access to guns." The survey treats these statements as false, since prohibition makes the prohibited item more costly, so agreeing with them is counted as an incorrect answer in the respondent's score is.

But is it false? It depends on what "reducing access" means.

It could mean increasing the overall cost of getting drugs or guns, which is presumably the intended interpretation- but it could also be taken to mean, and in typical language is probably more likely to be taken to mean, eliminating the ability to acquire something at all or at least making it so insurmountably difficult that it is effectively impossible. Klein and Buturovic do acknowledge this problem, somewhat, but argue in defense of their interpretation of the responses that “it is reasonable to include price effects as a dimension of 'access'.”

It is reasonable, but it's also quite reasonable not to and instead treat access as basically binary, and I think it very likely that this is what most respondents- of all ideological types- were doing. In typical usage the latter meaning is probably more common- it would sound odd to most people if I said that an increase in the price of a particular class of products that I had previously been able to buy had lowered my “access” to them, unless the increase was so large that paying it was now completely out of reach. Gun and drug laws in the United States have done no such thing. Some illegal guns can be bought for less than $100, sometimes significantly less, and even people who literally own nothing but the clothes on their backs can and frequently do support illegal drug habits. The non-monetary cost of is high, due to prohibition- you have to be willing to break the law and possibly associate with dangerous characters- but it's also one that anybody can pay if they choose.

Klein and Buturovic also state they believe that their interpretation would be sound even if one doesn't interpret “access” in the way they had in mind. They don't specify what they mean by this. My assumption is that they're referring to the marginal gun owner or dug user in the absence of legal restrictions- even if “access” is treated as purely binary the total number of people with access in that sense would be decreased by prohibition because there would be some people for whom drugs or guns are now completely inaccessible who would have had access if the laws were less restrictive. Again, this is a perfectly valid way of interpreting the statement, but it's not the only valid way or the typical way. In contexts like this the word “people” is almost always means, and will be taken to mean, people in general or on average or the great majority of people- almost no one will interpret “reducing people's access” to mean depriving a few extreme outliers of access or slightly lowering the total sum total of people who have it.

Guns are readily accessible even in jurisdictions that forbid them, some of them at prices so low that anyone who can't afford one now likely couldn't have afforded one even in the total absence of gun control, and illegal drugs are so ubiquitous that the government can't even keep them out of its own prisons. In everyday English the statements "Drug prohibition fails to reduce people’s access to drugs" and “Gun control fails to reduce people’s access to guns” are true, even if there are other valid ways of interpreting the statement under which it would be false. In the absence of any indication that the respondents were assuming the definition the creators of the survey had in mind, there's no reason to assume that choosing “agree” indicates economic ignorance.

Another statement on which the study indicates libertarians were more likely than liberals or progressives to give the wrong answer was "A dollar means more to a poor person than it does to a rich person,” which the study treats as true.

If we take this to be basically a statement about the declining marginal utility of money, then this is true, but in that case it would be better to phrase such a question in terms of a single person at different levels of wealth rather than two different people. As is, the statement entangles declining marginal utility, a pretty fundamental concept that can rightly be considered a matter of basic economic understanding with the more complicated and contested subject of the validity of interpersonal utility comparisons. People who would choose “disagree” because the question uses two different men and they don't think such comparisons are possible or meaningful may or may not be correct, but even if they're mistaken being on the wrong side of a complex philosophical dispute is quite a different thing from not understanding basic economic concepts.

The other and probably bigger problem is, again, one of ambiguity: There are common uses of “means more” that do not entail that the statement is true. To say that "a dollar means more" to person A than to person B can just as easily be taken to mean that A is more frugal than B, or drives a harder bargain, or is more miserly, or makes wealth a greater priority in his life, none of which necessarily suggest that A has less money. My suspicion is that the differences in answers between people of different political persuasions boils down to philosophical differences, with libertarians being more likely to think of people in terms of their actions and liberals/progressives more likely to think of them in terms of their needs. In any case, agreement and disagreement are both defensible answers to the question as written.

Aside from ambiguous language, there's another problem with comparing some of the statements from the first survey with the second one. The statements about economics in the first survey were, with the exception already noted, quite straightforward claims on the effects of economic policies, and "agree" and "disagree" each represented distinct , dichotomous positions. You believe that minimum wages or free trade cause unemployment, or that they do not, for instance, and disagreeing with a statement from the first survey is a pretty clear statement of what you do believe. Thus, disagreeing with a wrong statement is a pretty solid indication that your beliefs on the subject are in fact correct, while agreeing with a wrong statement means that you are solidly wrong, as opposed to largely but not entirely correct, and that those who disagreed are closer to the truth than you are. This is not the case with some of the second survey.

After the gun control and drug prohibition questions, the statement which the greatest number of libertarians gave a response counted as wrong to was “When two people complete a voluntary transaction, they both necessarily come away better off.” This is something that had no analog of the first survey- it is an incorrect statement designed to closely mimic a correct one. All voluntary transactions take place because both participants believe they will come away better off from it, and- since they have direct knowledge of their own preferences, usually know more about their own situation than anyone else, and have more incentive to figure out whether the transaction is a good idea or not than anyone else- they are usually correct. The great majority of voluntary exchanges do benefit the participants- but not all, since sometimes people do things that, with the benefit of hindsight, were not a good idea even according to their own preferences and values at the time. Agreeing with the statement from the survey is thus pushing things too far.

Disagreeing with the statement, on the other hand, can mean believing anything from "They almost always come away better off" to "they never come away better off." We have no reason to believe that the typical person who correctly chose "disagree" did so because their own beliefs about the benefits of voluntary exchange are more accurate than people who chose "agree." Indeed, I would be surprised if this were the case. The claim that all voluntary exchanges turn out to be mutually beneficial is too strong, but it comes much closer to the truth than the belief common among statists, particularly of a leftist bent, that people frequently or routinely enter into voluntary agreements that cause them harm.

To a lesser extent I would make the same criticism of another item, "When two people complete a voluntary transaction, it is necessarily the case that everyone else is unaffected by their transaction." This is false, but there's no way to tell whether a person who answered "disagree' and got marked as correct was merely thinking "No, transactions can have externalities," or believes that externalities not only exist but are so common and so large that most or all seemingly private agreements are actually a public/government concern,, or chose "agree" because they believe that they or society as a whole is harmed in some moral or spiritual sense if voluntary interactions they don't like are allowed to occur.

The fact that at least one of the questions on the second survey was, by design, a "trap" set for people of a particular ideological bent in a way none of the first survey's items were is a serious problem. This is especially the case when the format is a essentially a series of true/false questions where a correct answer of "false" encompasses a broad spectrum of widely held possible answers, a great many of which are even less accurate than the false statement in the survey. Such a survey item is worse than useless for assessing how knowledgeable different groups are, because the best way for a particular group of people to be rated as highly enlightened on the subject by getting the correct answer is abject ignorance- it's only when you're in the ballpark of being right that you're at risk of agreeing with the not-quite-right claim and being marked as wrong in the survey results. It's like a test of scientific knowledge where respondents have to agree or disagree with the statement “The Earth is 5 billion years old,” which overstates the Earth's age a bit- giving the wrong answer requires knowing that the Earth is several billion years old, while someone who believes that the entire universe is only a few thousand years old will give the correct answer by disagreeing.

I think Klein and Buturovic's concern about possible bias against people on the political Left in the original survey led them to overcompensate in the second survey, resulting in the problems described. If anything, the fact that Klein and Buturovic's attempts to balance against possible bias against people left of center required them to downplay the first survey's focus on straightforward claims about the effects of economic policy in favor of more abstract and/or ambiguously worded questions and come up with questions that were specifically designed as traps for other ideologies only seems to underscore the results of the original survey; at any rate, it doesn't make Klein's original conclusion that people on the Left knew less about economics seem less plausible.

So I think Klein is wrong now about being wrong before. He attributes what he believes to be his error to confirmation bias, pouncing too eagerly and uncritically on data that seemed to reinforce his existing beliefs. Based on the two survey articles, my own impression is just the opposite. Klein goes so far to guard against his own possible bias against liberals and progressives that he ends up biasing things in their favor and against his own (at the time) interpretation of the first survey. Given Klein's demonstrated willingness to scrutinize his own position and even publicly criticize his own past conclusions, this is unsurprising. Monitoring yourself for bias in your own favor involves the same trade-off as detecting other things: the more vigilant you are to ensure that nothing gets past you and the more sensitive you are to possible signs of your quarry, the greater the chance of a false positive. The direction in which I believe Klein has actually erred is just the sort you'd want in a person involved with a publication like Econ Journal Watch- would that more people's mistakes were the result of going too far to be fair to their opponents!- but in this case his desire to ensure a level playing field has backfired.

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Friday, November 04, 2011

Kick him when he's down

There's a very interesting article by Art Carden and Steven Horwitz at The Freeman Online called "Eugenics: Progressivism’s Ultimate Social Engineering" about Progressive Era legislation and the arguments made in favor of it by its original supporters, some of whom supported economic statism not because they didn't understand what its real effects would be but precisely because they did. As Carden and Horwitz put it it:
In other words, what we today think of as the unintended consequences of laws supported by today’s well-meaning but economically uninformed Progressives were actually the intended goals of some of their intellectual ancestors a century ago. Early Progressive economists understood the effects of these interventions, but they thought those effects were desirable.

For instance, one of the principle arguments against minimum wage laws is that increasing the minimum wage will make workers whose productivity is not high enough to make them worth hiring at the new minimum unemployable. Thus, they are deprived of both their wages and the opportunity to gain skills and experience that might help them improve their lot. The victims will be disproportionately found among those who are already at a disadvantage, which opponents of minimum wage laws regard as a bad thing- but not everyone has agreed.

As you probably already know,  many leading Progressives were eugenicists. (As were as many of their close cousins, such as Fabian socialists in Great Britain. For the purposes of this post, I'm using "Progressive" in a somewhat broadened sense so that I don't have to write "anti-market, anti-individualist, nominally democratic advocates of extensive government economic planning and social engineering controlled by expert government technocrats" over and over.) They supported government action to control the gene pool by discouraging or preventing people they typically considered inferior and thought America and the world could do with less of- blacks, Chinese, Southern and Eastern European immigrants, the mentally ill, the psychologically abnormal or socially maladjusted, people with congenital disabilities or deformities- from reproducing

As Horwitz and Carden explain it, the problem they faced was that too many of the people eugenicists considered unfit weren't, and were doing too well in the relatively free markets in the United States at that time. They were successfully competing with (the right kind of) white workers, which lowered the latter's wages through competition and- even worse- allowed them to survive and raise families, propagating bloodlines the eugenicists would have preferred to see die out. Restrictions on immigration, while popular among eugenicists, would not solve the problem of the millions of immigrants who had already arrived, the black population, or “defective” persons of more acceptable racial stock who were able to find employment.

Making these things a problem that needed to be solved required some rather extreme liberties to be taken with the English language. This resulted in idiosyncratic definition for words like “unemployable” and “parasitic,” by which Progressive eugenicists meant something like “Not making enough to singlehandedly support a family at a standard of living native-born whites would consider acceptable." (Called, familiarly enough, a “living wage.”) Thus, an itinerant worker with no permanent abode who supported himself doing odd jobs was “unemployable” no matter how much work he did, a “parasite” taking work from the more deserving. If an immigrant family was completely self-supporting but depended on the wages of more than one family member, it was a family of unemployable parasites no matter how much work they were actually doing.

(This also reflected the disapproval of many Progressives for native-born white women working outside the home, something that simultaneously roused conservative- which many Progressives were, in a paternalist, aristocratic way- fear of weakened traditional roles, chivalrous horror at the prospect of subjecting women to the cold, unfeeling world away from hearth and home, and eugenic objections to having the “Mothers of the Race” distracted from their more vital task of outbreeding the mercilessly industrious wolf baying at America's door.)

The industrious and frugality common among immigrant workers was seen not as a benefit for the country, but a curse, because these were seen by eugenicists as inherent racial traits that would allow these groups- considered morally and intellectually inferior to the Anglo-Saxon but better-suited to drudgery, subordination, and squalor- to outbreed their superiors, damaging the gene pool and eventually bringing about the “race suicide” of the higher races. Too many of the unfit were working hard and being productive, and free markets were rewarding that behavior.

It wasn't just a matter of race or ethnicity, of course. The free market was also doing too much to support defective members of the white, Western/Northern European-derived population as well. Many "feeble-minded" or otherwise unacceptable people were still capable of working, taking wages away from the sort of workers the eugenicists liked and- in the worst cases- propagating their own kind. People who are self-supporting are people who aren't desperately crawling into the government's waiting arms, and that was a problem.

Some of the commentary on this issue was amazingly perverse. Consider what Sidney and Beatrice Webb had to say, in their classic Industrial Democracy, on the matter of how "the sick and the crippled, the idiots and lunatics, the epileptic, the blind and the deaf and dumb, the criminals and the incorrigibly idle" and the "deficient in strength, speed, or skill" were best dealt with:

These physical and moral weaklings and degenerates must somehow be maintained at the expense of other persons. They may be provided for from their own property or savings, by charity or from public funds, with or without being set to work in whatever ways are within their capacity. But of all ways of dealing with these unfortunate parasites the most ruinous to the community is to allow them unrestrainedly to compete as wage-earners for situations in the industrial organisation.

Note, again, the perversion of language: A disabled person who supports himself by working for wages in a competitive market, like any other worker, is being "maintained at the expense of other persons."

And yet, if you accept the premise that the class of workers that eugenicist Progressives and socialist considered "fit" favor ought to have a monopoly on wages, without competition from their inferiors, it actually makes sense. In that case, the wages earned by the defective worker actually rightfully belong to his betters, and archaic individualist quibbling about the fact that he earned them with own productive labor for a willing employer doesn't change that.

(It also makes sense if you hold whoever you've identified as defective in such contempt that their attempts to participate in human society as if they were actual people are an unacceptable affront to you, of course.)
That was the problem. Minimum wage laws offered a possible solution. Workers from “unfit” populations were generally less valuable to employers than native white labor on an hour-to-hour basis ,for various reasons, but since they were generally willing to work for less there were many situations where hiring them made economic sense. If working for such low wages became illegal, they would be stripped of their advantage, becoming less attractive compared to costlier higher-skilled workers or, if their value to an employer is less than the minimum, completely unemployable. They can't work, can't earn a living, can't support themselves, can't propagate their kind. It would also, by creating a readily identifiable, economically dependent class of permanent “unemployables,” make it easier to single such people out for stricter control, isolation from society at large, or sterilization.

In short, if making a living was especially hard for you, the goal of many Progressives was to make it even harder -ideally, impossible- until they had forced you out of the labor force entirely and stripped you of whatever income, autonomy, and dignity being able to work had given you. This would raise wages for the workers who were left, redistributing resources upwards. The fact that minimum wages are disproportionately harmful to the employment prospects of the most disadvantaged members of society was a benefit because it was the most disadvantaged members of society that eugenicist Progressives wanted to harm.

The “problem” that the minimum wage was supposed to solve for many of its supporters was that a free market in labor was too good for the people on the bottom. Even in an only relatively free market operating in a society where racism was rife in both law and culture, there was still too much money being made by the poor, too much opportunity for outsiders, too much of a tendency to reward people for their productivity instead of irrelevant characteristics, too much acceptance of difference, too many chances to gain experience, skills, or savings that might allow the people so many "reformers" despised to make better lives.

The advocates of this were not fringe figures. Eugenics was a recurring theme of the still-extant and eminently respectable American Economic Association, a progressive institution through and which proclaimed at its birth that “the doctrine of laissez-faire is unsafe in politics and unsound in morals.” Proponents of the idea included: Richard T. Ely , the Progressive leader and Social Gospel leader who was a founding member of the American Economics Association and the Christian Social Union, served as AEA president, and actually has a feast day on the Episcopalian liturgical calender. Henry Rogers Seager, another president of the American Economics Association and one of the country's most influential proponents of social insurance- his entire book on the subject is available at the Social Security Administration's official website, in honor of his memory. Sidney Webb, pillar of the Fabian Society, Labour MP and author of the original version of Clause IV of the Labor Party's constitution. And many more.

(If this post seems especially acerbic and unpleasant, I imagine that's why. Spending hours immersing yourself in the thoughts of people who despised you and what you are to the point of making ridding the world of your kind an integral part of a political philosophy to which they dedicated their lives can do that, particularly when the people in question are widely hailed as moral visionaries and their efforts to create a world that nobody would have to share with anyone like you are considered a noble struggle for decency, humanity, and "social justice.")

It's bitterly amusing to think that Herbert Spencer- a libertarian who endorsed charity and mutual aid, and believed that a free society based on voluntary interactions would lead people to develop greater and greater sympathy for others by making fulfilling the needs and desires of others essential to your own economic self-interest- is slandered so often by people on the Left for supposedly believing that the "unfit" should be abandoned to their fates so that they would be removed from the gene pool. Slandered, in other words,by people whose own recent ideological forebears would in many cases have considered even the position falsely attributed to Spencer to be too kind, and wanted the state to actively prevent the "inferior" from being able to support themselves out of the fear that they wouldn't die out if left on their own.

I should note that I certainly don't think that the typical American left-liberal or self-identified progressive today would endorse the sort of program that originally accompanied and animated some of their ideas, or is driven by the same  motives. Instead, it's an example of how incredibly flexible justifications for statism can be: Liberal/progressives support for the minimum wage is rock-solid a century later despite the fact that the arguments given in its support have not merely changed but actually inverted.

Still,  the fact that so many early Progressives were both economic statists and eugenicists was not an aberration or a fluke or an incidental result of the fact that racism in general was more acceptable at the time. Why would someone who had a strong confidence in the desirability of “rational” government management of society under government-appointed intellectuals, trusted in the mainstream science of his times as a guide for his country's technocrats, and rejected the classical liberal/libertarian conception of rights have been anything else? The eugenicists were more consistent thinkers than most people are today; they did not declare that coercive government management of human life was better than the chaos of laissez-faire, reject individualist objections to using state coercion to interfere in peaceful people's lives, and then arbitrarily declare that the gonads were off-limits just because. Coercive eugenics was simply Progressivism applied directly to the human body.

What I hadn't previously appreciated was the way in which Progressive support for eugenics not only sprang from the same basic philosophical roots as Progressive economic statism, which is immediately obvious, but helped motivate it. Makes sense, in retrospect, but it's still a bit jarring to learn; residue of public school propaganda about American history that still hadn't been scraped out, perhaps. (I recall once saying to someone that the purpose of liberal economic interventions like minimum wages seemed to be singling out people with almost nothing and taking it away from them, but it was supposed to be a joke.)

Of course, the fact that many of some form of market intervention's biggest intellectual advocates happened to be despicable assholes with appalling motivations who supported the law precisely because they knew that it would serve the appalling motivations that made them despicable assholes in the first place does not, in itself, prove that the intervention is a bad thing. But a huge amount of economic statism's persuasive appeal, at least in the United States, is built less on the arguments for individual policies than it is on the popular mythology of the noble, righteous reformers who fought to create the modern interventionist state and saved us from the horrors of laissez-faire, and one of the most pervasive and pernicious effects of that mythology is that it encourages the presumption that greater government interventionism in the economy is something that favors the weak against the strong.

I strongly encourage you to read the entire article, available at The Freeman. There are several papers written or co-written by Thomas C. Leonard available online, Economics and Eugenics in the Progressive Era, Excluding Unfit Workers: Social Control versus Social Justice in the Age of Economic Reform, and More Merciful and Not Less Effective: Eugenics and American Economics in the Progressive Era, that are also worth checking out.

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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Compassion grows out of the the barrel of a gun

Via Don Boudreaux at Café Hayek, I came upon this Washington Post editorial by Eugene Robinson, "Where are the compassionate conservatives?", that nicely illustrates the core assumption of so much of American politics. Discussing the recent Republican debate, Robinson says:
The lowest point of the evening — and perhaps of the political season — came when moderator Wolf Blitzer asked Ron Paul a hypothetical question about a young man who elects not to purchase health insurance. The man has a medical crisis, goes into a coma and needs expensive care. “Who pays?” Blitzer asked.

“That’s what freedom is all about, taking your own risks,” Paul answered. “This whole idea that you have to prepare and take care of everybody. . . .”

Blitzer interrupted: “But Congressman, are you saying that society should just let him die?”

...Paul, a physician, went on to say that, no, the hypothetical comatose man should not be allowed to die. But in Paul’s vision of America, “our neighbors, our friends, our churches” would choose to assume the man’s care — with government bearing no responsibility and playing no role.
Robinson, needless to say, considers this monstrous, lamenting its lack of "Christian kindness."  A bit later, after criticizing Michelle Bachmann (who is hardly a libertarian, but who also has shown an unseemly interest in people helping others without the government's sanctifying threat of violent compulsion) for her opposition to Obama's health care policy, he contrasts what he imagines the philosophy of Paul and Bachmann (and the other candidates, but its Paul and Bachmann who get the spotlight) to be with his own:

Government is more than a machine for collecting and spending money, more than an instrument of war, a book of laws or a shield to guarantee and protect individual rights. Government is also an expression of our collective values and aspirations. There’s a reason the Constitution begins “We the people . . .” rather than “We the unconnected individuals who couldn’t care less about one another. . . ”
And later:

I believe that writing off whole classes of citizens — the long-term unemployed whose skills are becoming out of date, thousands of former offenders who have paid their debt to society, millions of low-income youth ill-served by inadequate schools — is unconscionable.
The depressing thing is that Robinson probably honestly believes that he's provided an accurate, reasonable characterization of the views of people who don't share his vision of government. If nothing else, a man who was willfully trying to trick people into believing nonsense would not write an article in which he himself provides explicit reputations of his own falsehoods mere paragraphs away from them.

Note that Robinson is making a very different criticism from the- still wrong, but not outright nonsensical-  idea that the government's involvement in these matters is indispensable because noncoercive mechanisms would fail and leave the streets choked with the corpses of the cast of Oliver. That would be a purely practical criticism that would have nothing to do with anyone's supposed lack of "Christian kindness" or support for a society of "unconnected individuals who couldn't care less about one another." Such a criticism would directly contradict the one Robinson makes here, since arguing for the inadequacy of voluntary efforts would put Robinson in the position of claiming that Ron Paul's belief in the power and importance of people's concern for one another in our society was too strong, rather than too weak.

Robinson characterizes the philosophy of Paul and Bachmann as one of a country composed of "unconnected individuals who couldn’t care less about one another." He says this in response to Paul's statement that assisting people in need should be done by "our neighbors, our friends, our churches" rather than the government. He describes the idea of helping people through non-coercive means as "writing off" those people.

If Paul had said that he was opposed to compelling people to serve in government breeding camps, I suppose Robinson would be rebuking him for his desire to doom the human race to extinction with this generation.

Now, it's common enough for liberals to fail to grasp the difference between rejecting a particular means for achieving a goal and rejecting the goal. (It's typical of ideologies that focus on whether a proposed response to a problem displays the proper emotions and mindset rather than on whether the proposed solution is likely to actually work. A similar phenomenon can be seen among many drug war supporters, or in the focus on "will" or "resolve" among "War on Terror" hawks.) But the disconnect between Robinson's description of Paul's position and the stated position of Ron Paul that Robinson himself just quoted- and Robinson gives no suggestion that he thinks Paul doesn't mean what he said- is still quite striking. I smoke cigars, but don't smoke cigarettes, so it follows that I never smoke tobacco products of any kind..

But it makes perfect sense once you've accepted one of the central but unstated premises of modern American liberalism: government action is the only thing that has or is capable of having moral value, because there is no alternate means of accomplishing anything worthwhile. It's a vision of society and human life is so state-centric that adherents honestly can't tell the difference between "X should be done, but not by the state" and "X should not be done." (Think of all the dribbling idiocy about the "nihilism" of Obama's critics in the past few years. See also my own previous post.)
Without that assumption underlying his arguments Robinson's description of Paul and Bachman is not merely unconvincing but incoherent, built around claims that Robinson himself repeatedly and explicitly demonstrates to be false.

Fortunately, most people who adhere to beliefs like this in politics compartmentalize it pretty well. Just as very few people go around abducting young men to use as slave labor or forcing people whose productivity is lower than the value of a "living wage" to quit their jobs or stealing wallets so they can send the money to Goldman Sachs, even when their political philosophy endorses those things,  most people with this sort of mindset usually understand the value of benevolence towards others in private, nonpolitical life while they're in the process of actually living it.

Robinson himself demonstrates this when he acknowledges that Michelle Bachmann and her husband have cared for a number of foster children over the years- mere paragraphs before describing her as someone who supports a society where no one cares about or connects with anyone else. Michelle Bachmann is uncaring because she went to extensive personal efforts to help vulnerable people in need but is not trying to force other people to do so; this constitutes an endorsement of "writing off" disadvantaged youths. Actions that were recognized as good and meaningful when Robinson briefly discussed Bachmann's non-political life abruptly become meaningless because they were done willingly by people acting on their own initiative and not by government command. Again, the assumption that only state action matters is fundamental- the article makes perfect sense with it and reads like something written by multiple, mutually hostile authors without it.

So, it's no surprise that Paul's remarks would inspire such revulsion. Ron Paul advocated a society where the needy are aided by the voluntary actions of others, and not by the government- but if you've bought into the idea that a country's "values and aspirations" are expressed not by what its people choose to do but by what their rulers force them to do, "aided by the voluntary actions of others" is just so much meaningless noise.

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Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Open season

Please note: This post concerns a sexual assault, and discusses it in some detail.

I'm opposed to the existence of sex offender registration lists, such as those created by what's commonly called "Megan's Law" legislation. They do an end run around due process by allowing governments to decree onerous new penalties  at will for crimes someone has already been convicted and sentenced for. They devastate the lives of people who have harmed no one or committed some extremely petty crime like public urination. They have far more to do with appeasing public hysteria by showing that the government is Doing Something then with actually protecting the public.There are very good reasons to be against these laws.

I'm not opposed to them because I think holding elementary school children down against their will and shoving your dick in their faces is harmless schoolyard tomfoolery.

A few days ago, there were a number of postings at various places online about 2 14-year-old boys in New Jersey who, after a decision by a New Jersey appellate court, had been permanently placed on the state's registered sex offender list due to a conviction for criminal sexual contact. The predominant response, including some from people I generally think quite well of, seems to be that it is not merely wrong that the boys would be put on a lifetime registry of sex offenders for this but silly or outrageous (scroll down a bit to the comments) that it is even being treated as a serious criminal matter at all, much less “criminal sexual contact.” The action for which the boys were convicted of a crime was, we're told again and again, something trivial, just a "prank" or "horseplay" or- in some cases- the sort of youthful character-building experience that, like vitamins and minerals and fresh air, is something a growing boy needs so that he doesn't grow up to be a complete pussy. The dominant view seems to be that's its the sort of thing that warrants a stern talking-to from dad, or at most some very minor legal slap on the wrist, not something that should be regarded as a genuine crime against the victims.

One of the things conspicuously absent from most reporting and commentary on the case is a thorough description of what actually happened. So, imagine this scenario.
(The actual written decision by the court, which describes the complete incident, can be read here.)

You're in front of a local store when someone significantly bigger than you, who you have  never met, shoves you against a wall. He and his three friends then pick you up, forcibly carry you across the street, and threaten to beat you up. You attempt to flee but aren't fast enough, and they quickly catch you again. They pin you to the ground and hold you down while one of them beats and head-butts you. Finally, while you're still held immobile and helpless, one of them removes his pants and, nude below the waist, rubs his bare buttocks against your face while his penis presses against your lips.

That's the “horseplay” in question, except that in the real version it was done to two sixth-grade boys instead of an adult.

I agree that children today are frequently overprotected, though I think it would be more precise  to say that children  are overly “protected” from relatively uncommon or outright imaginary perils so that adults can feel good about how much they care without bothering with the more burdensome task of addressing actual or likely sources of harm. I also agree that there is a bias against boys in the educational system and much of the culture that treats perfectly healthy, harmless behavior and traits common among boys as if they were immoral, dangerous, destructive, or pathological. (Though, as we see here, the conservative Real Men contingent and I tend to differ somewhat on which category “elite group based on superior charisma, physical strength, social status, aggression, and adherence to gender norms intimidates, humiliates, and physically and psychologically abuses lower-status boys with the tacit or explicit approval of adults” goes under.)
And I'm opposed to "Megan's Law" registration, for the reasons described above. So I'm sympathetic to some of the concerns raised by many of the people I'm talking about here.

But it was dismaying to see so many people on the same side as myself on the issue of sex offender registries make their case against offender registry laws by trivializing the violent degradation of a child.

And that is what this was. The fact that so many people are shocked at the idea of even making this a legal matter, much less a serious one, is a testament to just how normalized some types of violence are. Replace the 12-year old boy in the story with someone from a more protected group and this becomes immediately obvious to virtually everyone.  If 14-year old boys had done this to a sixth-grade girl- or to a grown woman, for all the hot air blown about protecting kids- that they had run into in front of a local store, virtually no one would have any trouble recognizing that such an act was an actual crime, and not a trivial one.
I sure as hell don't think Radley Balko would be saying that the prosecutor should be fired for charging the perpetrators in the first place.

(Some people would object to charging the perpetrators as adults, arguing that they were too young and immature to understand the seriousness of such an act, but that's very different from the notion that there is nothing serious here to understand.)

The online tough guys in various comment sections bitching about how actually prosecuting this is a dismaying example of “political correctness”or the wimpiness of the modern age would be baying for blood louder than just about anyone. Cackling about the sort of “horseplay” the perpetrators might encounter in the American prison system would abound.

Opponents of registration like myself would still disapprove of it as a matter of principle in such a case, but I certainly don't think many of us would be holding such a case up as an obviously absurd and outrageous miscarriage of justice in the same category as branding a 16-year old boy as a lifelong "sex offender" for having consensual sex with someone a few months younger or prosecuting him for producing “child pornography” by photographing himself nude.

Now, part of that would be for strategic reasons- if you're trying to convince people on the other side of the issue to reconsider their position, "Registration laws can severely interfere with the lives of teenage boys who get their kicks by forcing their anuses and genitalia into the faces of frightened, struggling elementary school girls" is just about the least compelling argument imaginable. But it would also be sheer moral repugnance- the idea of a teenage boy chasing down a fleeing sixth-grade girl, pinning her to the ground, beating her, and shoving his privates in her face while she struggles is so clearly and repulsively not analogous to the sort of victimless crimes usually cited as examples of sex offense laws run amok that virtually everyone would recoil from the comparison.

None of this is surprising; violence against males in general simply don't bother most people the way  harms suffered by females do, and this is doubly the case if someone's genitalia is somehow involved. But in this case, a crime against adolescent boys isn't just taken less seriously then the same crime would be against girls or women; it's taken less seriously then the same crime almost certainly would be if it had been committed against a mature man. If a band of teenage boys had somehow seized men in their 30s or 40s off of the street and forcibly did to them what was done in this case, that would be considered- in the probably-unlikely event the victims reported it-  shocking, predatory behavior. The men they targeted would  probably receive more ridicule and contempt than sympathy, but no one would be suggesting that this was a case of normal, basically harmless boyhood hijinks gone a bit too far.

My guess- or at least my hope- is that a lot of this response is a knee-jerk reaction from people who didn't research beyond the initial news articles, which didn't describe the actual offense in detail and were laden with the sort of minimizing language common in media coverage of events like these. However, even the bowdlerized account in most of the media describes an incident that nearly everyone would have considered seriously criminal- and yes, sexual- if the victim had been anything other than a young boy.

(Yes, it's almost certainly true that the motive for the attack was not sexual gratification. The same can be said for many sexual crimes much more extreme than this one.)

If it had been, I'd like to think most of my fellow registration opponents would be able to make a cogent argument for why Megan's Law is not the solution by talking about issues such as due process, unexpected consequences, disproportionate punishment, the rehabilitation of juvenile offenders, or the dangers of public panic in the face of relatively uncommon but highly mediagenic crimes, instead of focusing on waxing indignant about how outrageous it is for people to claim that these poor, victimized fellows committed a sex offense when all they did was chase down, beat, and forcibly restrain a young girl so that they could drop their pants and rub their privates on her face.

This sort of thing has particular relevance to me as a libertarian, for reasons- which I might get to some other time- above and beyond the fact that it's a form of aggression that would be quickly recognized as criminal in other circumstances but is instead accepted or ignored. Popular attitudes concerning violence against men and boys are also, as people who've been reading this blog for a while know, a recurring focus of mine. But putting all that aside, the notion that a 12-year-old boy should have as much legal protection against being seized in the street, beaten, and forced into contact with his assailant's sexual and excretory organs as other people should not be an idea that one must be some sort of radical in order to accept.

I'm always tempted, when the issue of violent bullying comes up, to ask people if they think bands of hooligans should be allowed to storm their workplace or just grab them off the street and smack them around for a while. Nothing lethal or disfiguring or crippling, no guns or clubs or blades, just a mild beat-down that probably won't even break any bones- and, in this case, a few more exotic elements  Doing that to you should be legal, or at most warrant a few hours of community service and some harsh words, right? Simple self-respect ought to make a grown man recoil at the prospect of hiding behind the legal system's skirts when faced with something he considers so trivial that he expects elementary school-age children to take it.

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Thursday, July 07, 2011

Cory Maye

I'm a few days behind the curve, as usual, but I'd just like to add my voice to those celebrating the news of the impending release of Cory Maye.  The end result can hardly be called justice- an innocent man spent nearly a decade in prison, and will spend the rest of his life with a criminal record, for the crime of defending his home and his daughter from violent, unidentified intruders because the intruders turned out to be government employees.

But, until very recently, he was serving a life sentence. Until 2006, he was on Death Row. Without Radley Balko's years of work, it is very likely that he would still be there awaiting death by lethal injection, or else dead already. Instead, he's going home.

I wish Mr. Maye all the best. Take care.

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Monday, June 27, 2011

The worst people in the world, then and now

Because I'm nothing if not eager to brood resentfully about the past, I've been thinking back, recently, on the aftermath of the Jared Lee Loughner mass shooting in Arizona. (See my previous remarks here.) It's impressive how quickly that seems to have gone down the memory hole once the accumulation of actual information about Loughner and his motives meant that the  “anti-government nut driven to mass murder by those horrid people saying mean things about Democrats” fantasy so many media figures and rank-and-file progressives were luxuriating in was no longer tenable. So frustrating, when reality interrupts a good wet dream that way.

After I published this post last November, I had started to wonder if I'd been overly harsh when I'd referred to the mainstream Left's "fascistic true colors" and described its predominant attitude towards dissent as “berserk, hysterical rage and hatred.” That was then. Now I'm just wondering why I beat around the bush with that milquetoast "-ic" suffix. Many rank-and-file progressives no doubt mean well and would recoil from things they currently accept or support if they fully understood them- but, to paraphrase what I said in that post, a successful statist ideology needs to be good at making sure it isn't understood too well.

The response to the Jared Loughner shooting didn't show me anything that I didn't, at least in broad outlines,already know.  The frenzied, triumphant eruption of demonisation and hatred directed by so many liberal commentators, politicians, and everyday folks at anyone with an unkind word to say about Obama, Democrats, or the sacred federal government after the Loughner shooting, before anyone had gone through the formality of actually finding out what the shooter's motives were was the natural evolution of liberal/centrist discourse, and the message is what it always was: Shut up. It has been readily apparent for some time that mainline left-liberal opinion-makers and political figures consider any meaningful dissent to be utterly beyond the pale. If you're on board with the existing state and its continued expansion and want to suggest some tweaks while you're submitting, that's fine, and that's as far as legitimate, responsible “differences” can go. That's been the consistent pattern since Obama took office; at a (usually) less hysterical/gleeful level it's been an ongoing theme in American politics for at least half a century.

(All three of those links are to articles by Jesse Walker that I recommend very highly.)

When attempts to use the Jared Loughner shooting to demonize dissenters into silence were at fever pitch, some people rebutted that all this liberal caterwauling about “civility” and right-wing “hate” was grossly hypocritical in light of the sort of things many liberals were saying during the Bush years. That's true enough, but it wrongly implies the existence of some radical discontinuity between the Bush era and the years preceding it.

I came of political age in the Clinton years, and- unlike the significant percentage of the population that was apparently sent into some sort of amnesiac fugue state by the shock of 9/11- I remember them.  As much as the state of pro-war conservative rhetoric during the George W. Bush years repelled me, liberal complaints about being called “anti-American” or the like were always ridiculous to me. I certainly agree that the accusation was rarely if ever true, and that a large proportion of right-wing political speech after 9/11 consisted of shrill, hysterical insults based on nothing but the fact that you had the temerity to disagree about the war in Iraq or the PATRIOT Act or whatever. I was subjected to it myself on more than one occasion.

(There was the time I was accused of wanting "Islamo-Fascists" to conquer America, have women stoned to death, outlaw liquor, and send everyone to gas chambers, for instance.)

But to have taken liberal outrage over the likes of David Horowitz calling people “traitors” or “America-hating” seriously,  I'd have to have believed that relentlessly  accusing people of being cruel, heartless, greedy, selfish, hate-filled, fascist, racist, misogynistic, violent, or dangerous for daring to disagree with you is just fine, but that calling someone unpatriotic is somehow beyond the pale. I would have to forget the militia scare, when people with much louder megaphones than the likes of Ann Coulter were talking about the ominous, dangerous “extremism” of folks like me, who didn't like the vast power wielded by the national government or thought that things like the government-instigated bloodbath at Waco or the cold-blooded murder of Vicki Weaver were worth being mad about. I'd have to imagine that the shocked, hysterical whining of a spoiled bully outraged to discover that someone was actually willing and able to hit him back somehow deserved my respect.

I also think the extent to which the political Left got nastier during the Bush years is somewhat exaggerated- they were quite fierce, certainly, but the previous baseline was already quite high. There was a genuine increase in liberal acrimony, but the chief difference is that the most hated opponents of liberals during the Clinton years were a more diffuse target, and after a while liberal demonisation of them became the political equivalent of white noise from an air conditioner- loud, but so uniform that after a while you stop consciously noticing it unless you specifically decide to think about it. The Bush administration provided conspicuous specific personalities like George W. Bush and Dick Cheney who drew much more concentrated and thus more attention-grabbing hostility. It's like replacing four 50-watt light bulbs lighting a room with two 50-watt light bulbs lighting a room and a 100-watt laser burning someone's face off- getting attention isn't just a matter of raw output.

More importantly, however,the Bush era is much less revealing than the state of liberal and centrist rhetoric after Bush, during the same period when critics of the Obama administration were supposedly being whipped into a murderous rage by antigovernment rhetoric and the ensorcerelled bullseyes on Sarah Palin's evil hypno-map. What has characterized the speech of the Left and the "vital center"? For fairness' sake, let's limit it to mainstream figures and publications.

Mindless, reflexive, sweeping condemnations of dissent as "racism." A litany of accusations that people who oppose a government takeover of healthcare are insurance industry shills and/or causing the deaths of hordes of fellow Americans out of sheer greed or callousness, . Blaming opponents of the new administration for inciting the "murder" of a government employee that, awkwardly, turned out to have never taken place. Comparisons of people at peaceful rallies to StalinDescription of the Tea Party movement as "small-scale mimicry of Kristallnacht." An apparent Jack Chick-like inability to even conceive of someone who's heard their program and yet rejects it for reasons other than bigotry, greed, or sheer wickedness.

Declaring criticism of or opposition to liberal politicians, their polices, or the power of the federal government to be sedition- that is to say, criminal.

And, of course, a seemingly endless series of claims that widespread, significant opposition to Obama's policies represent some sort of rising tide of "fascism" or sinister "extremism" that threatens an imminent explosion of violence. Calling actual, significant expansions of government power instigated and controlled by people who actually hold power "fascism" is absurd, paranoid, extremist, and irresponsible, whereas calling peaceful political speech by private citizens opposed to such expansion of state power "fascism" or "terrorism"is perfectly reasonable.  This is probably where liberal hypocrisy about "civility" is most glaring- if anti-Obama groups ever managed to pull off something half as disruptive and noisy as the liberal response to Scott Walker's attempts to weaken government employee unions in Wisconsin,  they'd probably be screaming for the President to declare martial law.The overwrought hysteria and terror so many liberals in the media and government display at the prospect of non-liberals daring to actually organize and protest would be hilarious if it weren't so  ominous.

In fact, in my experience liberal commentators have been far more vitriolic and eager to demonize opposition since Bush left office than while he was in it. Even if you don't share my assessment that it's actually gotten worse, it's still rather curious considering what it's in response to.

During the Bush administration, Bush and other Republicans (and many Democrats, like Obama's current Secretary of State) launched a pointless, costly, devastating and highly controversial war due to what was at best terrible judgment and at worst consciously perpetrated fraud, severely attacked civil liberties, and assumed office through an extremely controversial election victory that many liberals considered fraudulent or corrupt. Whatever  else I may say about liberal discourse during the Bush years, which rarely dared to question liberal statism and put too much emphasis on a few figures like George W. Bush and Dick Cheney while giving short shrift to the decades of accumulated precedents leading up to them, the sheer fury directed towards men like Bush made sense given the situation.

(If not always the reasons for it- in terms of the animosity it generated, Bush's failure to speak with a proper General American Walter Cronkite accent was probably worth at least a few tens of thousands of dead Iraqis.)

The targets of liberal ire during the Obama administration, on the other hand, have been rather less accomplished. Criticism of federal spending has become fiercer and more common than it was during the Bush years.  Republican congressmen- some of whom are apparently under the impression that winning the Presidential election only gives the winner the powers of a President and not a Roman dictator- wouldn't vote for Obamacare, causing it to be passed slightly later then would have otherwise been the case. There's a cable network with programming that often portrays President Obama and other Democrats in a hostile light, and many talk radio shows do likewise. Non-liberals have had the temerity to hold peaceful public rallies, lawfully exercise their right to bear arms in public, and even mouth off to their betters during what were supposed to be carefully managed propaganda events.

Even if you don't approve of these things, they still seem rather unimpressive compared to the reasons for liberals to be angry during the Bush years, and yet they produce at least as much rage and loathing as the outrages of the Bush administration. The sheer scale of it has certainly grown since the Bush years, from something directed predominantly at relatively prominent, influential figures such as politicians and media personalities to a more democratized sort of  demonisation of far larger groups of people.

The mere existence of significant, outspoken dissent against liberal domestic politics- dissent which was ultimately unsuccessful, since it didn't stop the Democratic majority in both houses of Congress at that time from passing the health care bill, or the bailout of the automobile industry and its associated unions, or hundreds of billions of dollars in “stimulus” spending- provokes at least as much rage and loathing as a pointless war that has killed hundreds of thousands of foreigners and thousands of Americans, the squandering of hundreds of billions of dollars and much of America's international reputation, all sorts of outrageous attacks against civil liberties and due process, and a possibly stolen election.  During the Bush years- and still today,  occasionally- some liberals, usually those of a more radical sort, advocated prosecuting Bush as a war criminal for starting a war of aggression that killed thousands. Now we've got mainstream liberal figures and publications like The Nation talking about prosecuting people for criticizing politicians.

I used to find this counterintuitive. I no longer do.  For all the condemnation he received, George W. Bush was never a threat to liberalism/progressivism's core principles.

The near-total evaporation of the anti-war movement has been remarked upon many times, so I won't belabor it here. In addition to that, I would remind everybody that  President Bill Clinton's enforcement of UN sanctions against Iraq during his 8 years in office killed  hundreds of thousands of people.  Aside from libertarians, some paleoconservatives, and the sort of leftists who probably find Democratic Party fund-raising letters in their mail and think “I should see if my parakeet's cage needs to be cleaned,” most people didn't care much. Stacks of dead foreigners simply aren't that big an issue.

Bush's attacks on civil liberties and due process at home drew plenty of heat while he was in office. There are still outspoken people on the Left, such as Glenn Greenwald, who haven't let up on the issue.  As we've seen since Obama took office, however, most liberals treat those issues as at best a minor sideshow when a Democrat is in the White House. They don't necessarily like or advocate them- I'm sure many devoted liberals would, all else equal, prefer it if the government wasn't claiming the right to assassinate American citizens at will or groping children's pubic regions at airports- but things that Bush was excoriated for, or would have been if he had actually dared to do them, barely register now.

And of course, there's no shortage of  liberals who will actually defend these things. (Or, more cleverly, claim nominal disapproval and them and go on the attack against people who demonstrate actual disapproval, a la Mark Ames and Yasha Levine.) If there is an assault on people's freedom, privacy, or dignity so grotesque that large numbers of liberals won't rally to defend it, it has yet to be discovered.

The most conspicuously objectionable things Bush did simply aren't things most mainstream liberals actually oppose all that strongly, if at all.The lie that Bush was some sort of radical free-marketeer has become firmly established now,  but when he was in office Bush barely even pretended to have interests in that direction. He was a “compassionate conservative,” not one of those scary anti-government types; he had disputes with liberals about the precise implementation of the welfare and regulatory state, and about the specific areas and rate of its future expansion, but he didn't even pretend to take the anti-statist rhetoric of the Clinton era seriously.

And here we run into a striking difference between Bush and the sort of people that some of the folks at America's oldest and most venerable journal of left-of-center political opinion wants imprisoned for sedition. The tea party movement defines itself by its hostility to domestic statism, or at least economic statism. Many politicians who've associated themselves with it are no doubt just opportunists, and many rank-and-file supporters are no doubt not terribly consistent. Still, I think there clearly is a lot of genuine hostility to domestic statism in the movement, though I remain cautiously pessimistic about the prospects of any long-term effects.

(My default stance is to assume that any seemingly positive development is either a mistake, a trick, or unstoppably careening towards a catastrophic plunge over the side of an unseen cliff, so “cautiously pessimistic” is actually fairly high praise.)

In any case, their harshest detractors usually seem to consider them a genuine menace to the modern welfare/regulatory/cronyist state. Unlike George W. Bush, the Tea Party movement is avowedly hostile to liberal principles that, unlike privacy or not immolating foreigners for no good reason, are not negotiable:welfare statism, interventionism, ever-greater management of the economy and society by government technocrats. Tea Party rhetoric is anti-government, whereas he great bulk of what the loudest right-wingers during the Bush administration had to say was merely anti-Left- and the venom of liberalism's harshest critics during the Bush years was primarily targeted at things that have now been shown to be disposable appendages of American liberalism rather than vital principles. Here there is a strong parallel with establishment conservatism, which forgives virtually any amount of contempt for its supposed principles of free markets and “limited government” if you're sufficiently supportive of the warfare state and is indifferent to any amount of support for them if you're not.

Sincerely or not, consistently or not, the ideas being expressed by people like the Tea Partiers strike at the very heart of mainline American leftist/liberal and centrist values in a way George W. Bush never did. And so it's perfectly natural that peaceful people ineffectually protesting bailouts or health care mandates cause as much rage and horror as government-sanctioned torture, the destruction of habeas corpus, and hundreds of thousands of senseless deaths. Gotta keep your priorities in order.

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