Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Carrion birds

You know, say what you will about hysteria-mongering right-wing 1980s clergymen who went around claiming that America was under siege by a vast cabal of murderous Devil-worshiping occultists and tried to blame youth murders or suicides on heavy metal or Dungeons and Dragons, they had this going for them: They usually focused on kids who had actually listened to rock music or played role-playing games. It's a pity that so many American left-of-center commentators, journalists, politicians, and Nobel laureates just can't match the demanding standards of thoughtfulness, rationality, and epistemic rigor that fundamentalists at mass public burnings of fantasy books and Judas Priest records hold themselves to.

Looking back in the aftermath of Jared Loughner's shooting spree, it's impressive just how quickly, eagerly, and ferociously the idea that the attack was the fault of antigovernment political rhetoric was embraced on the basis of nothing whatsoever, aside from liberal desire for some corpses to club critics over the head with, and how tenaciously so many clung to that belief. There was a barely-concealed note of triumph in much of the reaction to the murders of Stephen Johns and George Tiller at the respective hands of a white supremacist and a militant antiabortionist, but the response from liberals in the media- and countless others all over the internet- to the near-fatal shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was little short of orgasmic.

(It's also a rather graphic demonstration of where the average citizen stands in the great chain of being, with Giffords' wounding drawing more horror, outrage, and sympathy than the other twelve people who were wounded and the six people who died, one of them a nine-year old girl, put together. The line dividing the person whose life and well-being actually matters to the media and the political class from everyone else was so stark and undisguised as to seem almost feudal.)

The narrative was established literally before the bodies were cold, and since then we've seen an eruption of condemnations of President Obama's critics for their supposed role in causing the shooting. Some, such as Paul Krugman, are quite explicit in laying blame at the feet of conservatives or libertarians; others contain enough weasel words for the speaker/writer to say effectively the same thing without explicitly committing themselves, or are clearly intended to encourage the belief that critics of liberals are to blame but have some sort of "just asking questions/I'm not saying I know for sure that Obama isn't really a citizen, but..." hedge. The latter sort has grown more common as actual information about the shooter streamed in and the assumption that Loughner was motivated by right wing rhetoric went from being merely baseless to outright falsified.

This assumption was not shaken by the first actual information revealed about Loughner, such as the fact that he had a list of favorite books that included both the Communist Manifesto and Mein Kampf. (The Communist Manifesto is the book that had its Amazon.com sales rank shoot up after Glenn Beck endorsed it, right?). Nor was it shaken by Loughner's own words from Internet postings and YouTube videos- repetitive, nonsensical rants filled with the hallmarks of schizophrenic thought disorder but devoid of any endorsement of right-wing or libertarian politics. The closest anything ever came to actual supporting evidence for the conclusion the media instantly pounced on was the discovery that he supposedly had an interest in the gold standard- which turned out to be part of another set of nonsensical ramblings with no relationship to the ideas of actual gold standard supporters.

(There's also the question of how "antigovernment" many of the designated villains in this farce actually are, of course, partly because of opportunistic use of libertarian-sounding rhetoric by conservative statists and partly because many liberals still haven't mastered complex concepts like "Frederic Bastiat and Francisco Franco were not the same guy.")

When the sheer weight of evidence finally forced liberal commentators to back off from their desperately longed-for "murderous right-wing militant" scenario, the result was an orderly strategic withdrawal to a functionally identical fallback position: Perhaps Loughner was not directly motivated by any recognizable political ideology, but his actions were still caused by overly vehement criticism of the Democrats, or government more generally, that pushed him over the edge.

This back-up argument is also based on nothing, and is further discredited by the fact that Loughner's hostile fixation on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords predates the Tea Party movement's existence and apparently started because of her failure to answer one of his nonsensical questions at a public event in mid-2007. But Loughner exists, people saying nasty things about Democrats exist, and no one has direct access to Loughner's thoughts or exhaustive records of every single moment of his life, so you can't prove with absolute certainty that there isn't a causal connection.  It's still no better supported by actual evidence than the idea that Loughner was somehow motivated by leftist propaganda, or the Rev. Fred Phelps' "divine retribution for insufficient homophobia" hypothesis, but it's good enough for politics.

I say "functionally identical" because the lesson everyone is supposed to draw from it is unchanged: The only legitimate, responsible form of "debate" or "dissent" is that which takes the goodness of the state's existing powers and the desirability of further state expansion as given, and anybody who doesn't accept that starting point needs to shut the hell up before their deviance from center-left statism causes another horrible tragedy.

Still more disingenuously, some have taken up a third line of defense: OK, so maybe there's no reason to believe that people who criticize liberal policies more vigorously than liberals would like had anything to do with this, but isn't the ferocity of (the other side's) political rhetoric still a cause for concern and something we should condemn? So, why not discuss that now? This is an especially repellent ploy because it tries to continue to encourage a mental connection between violence and hostile political rhetoric without even trying to argue for any link between them.

Well, perhaps the state of political discourse is worth discussing. We could also use this as an opportunity to talk about the ongoing war in Afghanistan, or gender discrimination in the provision of government services to victims of domestic violence, or occupational licensing laws, or American society's stigmatization of introverts. What relevance do any of these things have to what happened in Tuscon? The same relevance as the harshness of antigovernment political rhetoric: None whatsoever, aside from the fact that I could probably make a more emotionally compelling case discussing them if I had a few bullet-riddled bodies to use as stage props.

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Saturday, January 08, 2011

Walking out your front door is a privilege, not a right

Among all the other reasons they're appalling, the Transportation Security Administration's new "enhanced pat-downs" and the willingness of many people to defend them are another example of how quickly a scenario that used to seem like an intentionally ridiculous reductio ad absurdum can become reality. If anyone in 2001 had suggested that in less than a decade the expansion of the national security apparatus would've brought us to the point where having one's privates manhandled by government agents would be a common, unexceptional procedure for getting on a plane, it would've been held up as proof of how silly, hysterical, and unreasonable civil libertarians were in their opposition to even the most reasonable, commonsensical, Serious People-approved measures to protect the American people in the post-9/11 world. If something like this appeared in a book or movie or TV show set in some dystopian future America, it would seem like bad writing- too implausible, too hamfisted in the way it pushes at people's sense of revulsion to make the bad guys seem like cartoon caricatures, too obviously a cheap attempt to manipulate the emotions of the audience rather than thoughtful speculation about what the future might hold. (Even the name of the company that makes the machines that scan through people's clothes, "Rapiscan Systems," sounds like something some especially lazy and unsubtle dimestore hack would come up with.)

And yet here we are, with precisely that happening and no shortage of people lining up to defend it. Many valuable lessons can be learned from all this- about the mainstream media's revolting combination of sycophancy towards the government and smug, sneering condescension towards any dissent among the peasantry, the tribalism and authoritarianism of so many liberals/progressives even on the civil liberties issues they're supposedly "good" on, the bigotry and intolerance of many of the same people who pride themselves on how accepting and live-and-let-live they supposedly are. What's most interesting to me, though, is just how implicitly totalitarian some of the more popular justifications are.

(This primarily applies to the honest defenders of the TSA's current methods.  The loathsome "As a liberal I nominally disapprove of degrading attacks on people's privacy and dignity, groping little kids, turning air travel into a potentially nightmarish ordeal for rape survivors, autistics, and anyone else who has issues with being manhandled by strangers, and leaving cancer sufferers humiliated and/or spattered with their own urine, but I disapprove of people who actually speak out against it or challenge it far more" subspecies is a separate case.)

Quite typical are arguments along the lines of, “You consented to this when you bought a ticket. No one is forcing you to fly.” The rather creepy similarity this argument shares with the sort of "You knew you what you were getting yourself into" abuse directed at victims of rape and sexual assault has been ably discussed by others, so I'll stick to the more general libertarian point about the abuse of the concept "consent." These procedures are mandated by the government. They are not the result of property owners freely choosing to set particular conditions to be allowed on their property. If you wish to engage in a consensual commercial exchange with an airline, you are forced to submit to the government's procedures. This is obvious, but when dealing with such elementary mistakes it's necessary to restate the obvious.

Yes, you can choose not to fly. If I assembled a gang of club-wielding hooligans, lined them up by the door of your local supermarket and forced shoppers to run the gauntlet as they entered, you're free to buy food somewhere else, or grow or hunt your own. If I announced that I would kill anyone who tried to go out with my sister, you are free to not date my sister. If you think the TSA rules are supposed to be more legitimate because they're from the government, fine; suppose that the duly elected legislature has decreed that supermarket shoppers must run the gauntlet or that dating my sister is a capital crime. (Yes, the latter is effectively a bill of attainder, but if we're already reducing the 4th Amendment of the Constitution to a meaningless blot of ink I don't see a minor creative reinterpretation of Article 1 doing much harm.)

This sort of argument based on “consent” is among the most commonly used defenses of state power in general, of course-the state is legitimate and thus has the right to make you do/not do X because you supposedly consented to it by choosing to remain within the territory the state claims jurisdiction over rather than leave. (And the state has the right to claim jurisdiction over the territory and demand obedience within it because the state's power is legitimate. And that power is legitimate because, of course, you've consented to it. It's never a good sign when the justification for your political ideology resembles the episode of Futurama where the cast accidentally travels back in time and Fry discovers, to his horror, that he's his own grandfather.) But hearing this kind of reasoning used to justify and whitewash coercion in the course of an abstract discussion about the government's power to use force in general doesn't have the same visceral punch as seeing it used in a more concrete scenario, especially when that scenario is “If you enter a voluntary commercial transaction with a private business, you have no grounds to object when some third party gropes your genitals against your will.”

Similarly with the common and supposedly important point that flying is not a constitutionally guaranteed right, and that the government is therefore justified in setting onerous conditions, including waiving basic constitutionally guaranteed rights, on people who choose to fly. Or, as it is often put,"Flying isn't a right, it's a privilege." It's certainly true that the Constitution says nothing about a right to airplane travel. It also says nothing about any right to travel by any means, including your own legs. It says nothing about the right to buy food, or walk down the street, or go to a doctor, or to have a job, or to not have a job. There's no constitutionally enumerated legal right to perform basic biological functions like eating and drinking. I suppose a right to breathe is implicit in the right to freedom of speech, so at least we've got that going for us.

If the TSA search is voluntary, anything done to a person is voluntary provided that they are warned beforehand what will be done to them and under what circumstances it will be done. If subjecting unwilling flyers to degrading intrusions on their person and depriving them of their legal rights under the Fourth Amendment is excused because there's no constitutionally enumerated “right to fly,” then the government can legitimately place all sorts of onerous conditions on almost any activity imaginable.

Having accepted these premises, if some government agency decreed that anyone who entered a shopping mall could be required to submit to a police strip search at any time, or that anyone who traveled by car/taxi/train/boat/whatever had thereby waived their First Amendment rights, or that anyone who worked in the skilled trades was required to perform sexual favors for government licensing officials and their pals, what objection is possible? You could still criticize such requirements on the grounds that they're not effective for whatever their supposed purpose is, but you couldn't reasonably say that they were somehow oppressive or unjust. These things aren't rights, after all, and no one is forcing you to do any of them.

(It's especially amusing how often, now that Bush is out of office and many of his critics on the Left have dropped their pretense of caring about civil liberties, these argument are so often coming from the same quarters as arguments that consensual economic transactions are really coercion because of unequal bargaining power between the parties to the exchange or an insufficient number of available alternatives.)

A lot of people likely would regard this as a feature rather than a bug, to be sure. The standard pattern in American politics for any respectable political ideology is to regard almost every aspect of life as a legitimate area for technocratic government control, aside from a few exceptions set aside as more-or-less immune. Your right to talk/pray/copulate as much as you want is sacred; anything else you choose to do or not do in your life is a privilege, and you'd damn well better be grateful for it.

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