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Out of Left Field

I know what you were thinking. You were saying to yourself, “Hmm, self, it’s been a while since any of my progressive friends have proposed anything insanely totalitarian. They’ve maybe been a little nanny-ish, but I haven’t heard a hint of secret police or absolute control in a while. I wonder if they’ve lost the faith and loosened up?”

Oh no, dear readers. Fear not. There’s no reason to suspect a loss of faith. Or loosening. Absolutely no loosening.

Actual Facebook wall posts below, initiated by an acquaintance of recent eastern-European extraction whose employment in American academia may be exacerbating her nostalgia for pre-Glasnost days.

Natasha (not her real name): People, stop working! Your productivity is killing the planet.

[Skipped reply]

Natasha (not her real name): What I meant was that “productivity” leads to production of useless products and services (and sometimes absolutely no products and services), that in a long run cost us more than the monetary reward we get. The problem is that nobody deals with that qualitative output of the economy. It’s all about transactions.

Academic with a cat as his profile photo (not his real name): If there were one-fourth the number of people on the planet as currently exist, we’d have a hell of a lot more leeway on every major problem, as well as time to figure out reasonable paths forward. But the human population shot past the carrying capacity of the biosphere years ago. By way of comparison, pretty much everything else is just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

“Productivity” is not a problem, but a symptom of a deeper and more serious societal rot.

[Skipped reply, followed by a post by an American sociology professor at a different university]

Distaff Mao (not her real name): Here’s something for BOTH [cat person] & [other guy]: Every person gets a 0.5-share Reproduction Credit that they may choose to use or trade on the Reproduction Market. Good for the environment, good for the marketeers!

Distaff Mao (not her real name): And then a 35-hour-max work week. Nothing creates jobs like decreasing absolute surplus value!

Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s just a couple of off-the-cuff comments cribbed from a social-networking site. But these were folks talking among friends, so it really is a peek at what they believe.

I mean, honestly, when was the last time you heard anybody seriously proposing legally enforceable limits on reproduction?

Oh .. and it’s a long story as to how I ended up connected to so many Stalinists on Facebook. I’ll try to balance this out with some loony theocratic posts, but I’m not really tapped in to that crew. Do they even use computers?

Is post-partisanship just amoral or outright sociopathic?

There’s a certain hankering in American political culture for governing stripped of arguments and ideology, and dedicated to just getting things done. Of course, that overlooks important questions about what should get done and how it should be accomplished.

The current issue of Esquire contains what initially comes off as a journalistic blow-job titled, “Michael Bloomberg Will Save Us From Ourselves If Only We Let Him.” The piece starts off in the tone of just the latest eruption of can’t-we-just-get-along pining for a world in which people just let the government get on with the business of getting into our business without arguing over the propriety of the micro-controlling fever-dreams of the the sort of technocratic dominants who make the compulsively submissive journalists at national publications cream themselves.

But John H. Richardson’s Esquire piece is much more interesting, and much more revelatory, than that. In an article that continually portrays a politician who has absolute faith in his own rectitude, Richardson hints not just at the core of Bloomberg, but at the problem of non-ideological politics itself: “Bloomberg is the ultimate independent, the calm modern technocrat rooted in metrics and cleansed of ideology, come to drain the swamps of government with his amazing modern business-management techniques … unless he’s actually just an old-fashioned autocrat looking down on us from above and tinkering with our lives like a science experiment, stripping our noisy polis of all its native poetry.”

As Richardson suggests, the problem with pragmatism, technocracy and post-partisanship is that they breeze right by the important truth that all of our messy political arguments are rooted in real debates. These debates aren’t (or shouldn’t be) just cheerleading for Team Red or Team Blue — they’re about the wisdom and propriety of government programs that can massively affect the lives of millions of people. Stripped of fripperies, ideology is, at its core, morality as applied to the use of coercive government power. That means political debates are, or should be, arguments over the morality of political programs. Viewed in those terms, post-partisanship is arguably amoral, if not outright sociopathic.

I think most people understand this point. It’s not enough to put a technocrat in charge of getting that new facility down the road open on time and running efficiently if you haven’t yet had a full discussion over the fact that it’s a concentration camp and that forcing people into it may just be fundamentally evil.

So pining for non-ideological, pragmatic, post-partisan politics isn’t just missing the point, it’s an exercise in discarding what may well be the most important factor in the process.

Recently, the importance of ideological debates have been emphasized by research that shows that people with different political views possess very different moral foundations. So we’re not just arguing over the details, but over fundamentals. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, of the University of Virginia, has profiled the moral thinking of liberals, conservatives and libertarians. Of interest to me is that, in a recent paper, Understanding Libertarian Morality: The Psychological Roots of an Individualist Ideology he and his co-authors write that libertarians like yours truly place great emphasis on liberty as a value — scoring higher on economic liberty than conservatives and higher on social liberty than liberals. “[T]hey endorse a world in which people are left alone to enjoy the fruits of their own labor, and in which nations are not tied down by obligations to other nations. They also exceed both liberals and conservatives (but are closer to liberals) in endorsing personal or
lifestyle liberty.” By contrast, liberals tend to emphasize worries about harm, benevolence, and altruism, while conservatives are concerned with conformity, loyalty, and tradition. There’s overlap among all three groups, of course, but you can’t disregard not just the important differences in values among these three groups, but the likelihood that those values will come into conflict. As the paper states, “Libertarians may fear that the
moral concerns typically endorsed by liberals or conservatives (as measured by the MFQ) are claims that can be used to trample upon individual rights.” Liberals and conservatives may correspondingly see threats in the values held dear by others.

So political debate becomes ever-more clearly rooted in disagreements over the rightness or wrongness of using the power of the state in any given situation. It isn’t just squabbling over who should be in charge, but whether both the ends and means of proposed and existing policies are good, bad, or ambivalent.

Once we see how deep the moral fissures go, Bloomberg’s “pragmatism” becomes, if there was ever any doubt, an intolerance for points of view other than his own. He wants to use government power without entertaining discussions about right and wrong. That’s not non-ideological, it’s authoritarian.

And so it is with other calls for politics stripped of partisanship.

Incidentally, Haidt sees the Tea Party movement as driven more by a passion for “karma” than a desire for liberty. You can participate in his research here.

Great Shafer column on the idiotic calls for post-shooting speech controls

Slate‘s Jack Shafer says it so that I don’t have to:

For as long as I’ve been alive, crosshairs and bull’s-eyes have been an accepted part of the graphical lexicon when it comes to political debates. Such “inflammatory” words as targeting, attacking, destroying, blasting, crushing, burying, knee-capping, and others have similarly guided political thought and action. Not once have the use of these images or words tempted me or anybody else I know to kill. I’ve listened to, read—and even written!—vicious attacks on government without reaching for my gun. I’ve even gotten angry, for goodness’ sake, without coming close to assassinating a politician or a judge.

The only thing I’ll add is that government officials command such vast power — power to bankrupt, imprison, maim and, yes, kill — that refraining from using “vitriol” (as Pima County’s Sheriff Clarence Dupnik puts it) in criticizing people who seek to wield that power borders on the irresponsible.

Update: Liberranter correctly points out that this is an appropriate place for John Green’s (the father of slain Christina Green) moving call to refrain from using this incident as an excuse for more restrictions on our freedom.

Politicians miss no opportunity to exploit Tucson shooting

Let me express, for the record, my contempt for the predictable creatures who see in the Tucson shooting spree and assassination attempt on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords an opportunity to smear people who speak unkindly about the government. It would be bad enough to extrapolate from one actor some sort of false collective guilt for anybody who shares a few political or social views, but that’s an extra stretch in this case, given that the only consistent strain in Jared Lee Loughner’s ravings about mathematics and mind control was whatever was provided by the random misfirings of his neurons. His YouTube page listed favorite books including both Mein Kampf and Communist Manifesto — potentially indicating a catholic interest in totalitarianism, though I doubt that well-connected a thread runs through his thoughts.

Basically, Loughner’s crime can’t be blamed on anybody but himself, and his writings and actions lay quite a solid groundwork for a criminal insanity defense.

But never doubt the readiness of the usual suspects to piggyback favorite pre-packaged authoritarian bills on the emotional reaction to the shooting.

Rep. Robert Brady, (jackass, Pennsylvania), is pushing a pet law “making it a federal crime for a person to use language or symbols that could be perceived as threatening or inciting violence against a Member of Congress or federal official.”

“Perceived as threatening”? That’s great. I have yet to meet a government official who doesn’t “perceive” the slightest criticism as the equivalent of a thrown glove.

Says CNN:

Brady said it is now time to put an end to the hyper-charged language.

“The rhetoric is just ramped up so negatively, so high, that we have got to shut this down,” Brady said, noting that “I’ve had my share of death threats” over his many years in politics.

Well, why not take advantage of a brutal crime to clamp down on antigovernment language and harsh words directed at agents of the state who command police forces and armies that rack up a body count the nation’s nuts will never equal? Yes, it’s an excellent moment to crack down on free speech that makes wildly powerful officials uncomfortable.

Hey, Brady, how’s this for rhetoric?: You’re an un-American thug.

And Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (one-trick pony, New York) is at it again with … oh guess, would you? Yes, it’s an anti-firearms measure. She, again, wants to ban high-capacity magazines and clips.

Hey, McCarthy, how many innocent civilians killed by police would be saved by such a ban? Oh, that’s right, the ban would apply only to civilians.

This is from a quick scan of news headlines, by the way. I’m sure that more fun laws are coming.

On a milder, but sadder note: Special condolences to the family of Christina-Taylor Green. Nobody should have died on that Tucson street, but the death of a child is always especially horrible.

Update: Christina-Taylor Green’s father says her murder shouldn’t be used as a justification for more restrictions on liberty.

‘Last Call’ delves into Prohibition — and the long hangover it left behind

I’m reading Last Call by Daniel Okrent, an interesting history of the rise of the prohibitionist movement in the 19th century, its culmination in the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act, and the inevitable (and gratifying) failure of the once-popular effort to ban the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages. The book is of special interest to me not only because of my strong thirst for bourbon, red wine, microbrews, port, gin and, in a pinch, Sterno squeezed through a handkerchief, but also because I’ve long believed that, with all due respect to the folks obsessed by the Civil War/War Between the States/War to Fuel All Overwrought Historical Novels, Prohibition was the defining moment in terms of a shift in the relationship between individuals and the state in this country.

Among the interesting details supplied by Okrent’s book is the degree to which prohibitionism intermingled with, energized, and was powered by connections with other “reform” movements. Specifically, the early “temperance” movement overlapped with abolitionism, then developed major ties to the women’s suffrage movement — to the point that it’s credited with making early feminism politically viable. Religious fundamentalism, unsurprisingly, played a huge role along the way — prohibitionism was overtly a Protestant-Christian eruption, with the Anti-Saloon League calling itself “the church in action against the saloon.” Nativism, of course, figured in the movement against alcohol, with reaction to hard-drinking Catholic and Jewish immigrants (the myth possibly not out-stripping the reality) fueling much of the desire to ban saloons, beer, booze and fun; Frances Willard, long-time leader of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, favored immigration restrictions on “the scum of the Old World.”

What is new to me (though it makes sense) was the degree to which then-new brands of ideological collectivism played a role. Willard, who often referred (approvingly) to her followers as “Protestant nuns,” was not by any means the only prohibitionist to identify as a “Christian socialist.” The WCTU and the Prohibition Party endorsed a grab-bag of statist policies, including nationalization of major industries.

Prohibitionists, by and large, didn’t seem to be huge fans of sex, either. No surprise, really.

Basically, aside from women’s suffrage (abolitionists may have often been anti-alcohol, but they prevailed on their on merits), prohibitionism was a major player up in a mutually reinforcing whirlwind of statism and intolerance that has done vast damage to the cause of personal freedom and limited government in the United States. Several seemingly unrelated political/cultural tendencies gained energy from one another and went on to transform the country in very important ways.

I haven’t finished Last Call, but it’s already worthy of recommendation. And it will, almost certainly, drive you to drink.

Wikileaks battle tests state vs. individual power on the Internet

I can’t be the only person who grins every time I hear that Wikileaks has released yet another batch of U.S. diplomatic cables as an in-your-face to the governments trying to shut the organization down. Or beams as the government leans on corporations to cut ties to the organization, only to see one Website turn into 1,000 (you, too, can mirror Wikileaks). And I’m sure I’m not alone in endorsing Dilbert-creator Scott Adams’s sentiment that, “The one thing I know for sure is that I’m a fan of the hackers who are dispensing vigilante justice.” Those are the hackers targeting the government agencies and their allied corporate partners who have been trying to isolate Wikileaks, of course.

It’s not that Wikileaks or its creator, Julian Assange are perfect. Assange seems to seek notoriety — though, would any other type of person take on this job? And, as Adams also noted in his blog, the revelation that the much ballyhooed sex charges against Assange are apparently rooted in weird Swedish laws about condom use and jealousy over bed-hopping “turned Assange from a man-whore publicity hound into Gandhi.”

Well, maybe not “Gandhi,” but the charges look like a bullshit effort to discredit the man.

The continuing survival of Wikileaks and its championing by the pro-information-freedom Anonymous hacker group are an ongoing demonstration of the ability of decentralized organizations and grassroots movements to not only prevail against governments, but even to retaliate against state agencies. As the Washington Post notes, “WikiLeaks is now stronger than ever, at least as measured by its ability to publish online… the Web site’s resilience in the face of repeated setbacks has underscored a lesson already absorbed by more repressive governments that have tried to control the Internet: It is nearly impossible to do.”

Which means that all the Internet evangelists who hoped new online tools would help close the power gap between individuals and governments are now seeing some vindication.

Wikileaks apparently not welcome around these parts

I don’t really fear that the apparent abandonment of Wikileaks by U.S.-based host Amazon.com — presumably under government pressure — really means the end of the excellent anti-state, whistle-blower organization. Truthfully, the sudden denial of hosting services seems like a petulant playground kick in a world of potential alternatives, many of them far beyond the reach of embarrassed American politicians (apparently, the group moved back to Sweden, according to NPR).

Isn’t that telling, though? Governments are reduced to symbolically shuttering Websites for a few days, leaving the actual whistle-blowers and their desire to expose information otherwise untouched. Supposedly, Julian Assange and company have a stash of bank-related documents slated for their next expose. In the unlikely event that they can’t get the Website up and running again, what’s to stop them from zipping and emailing the data to media organizations and bloggers, just as they did the U.S. diplomatic cables? Or I suppose they could go so far as to print the juicy data or save it to thumb drives and physically hand it to people likely to spread the information further.

Ultimately, Wikileaks is about the desire to expose compromising secrets, not about maintaining Websites. And Wikileaks is just one incarnation of that push for transparency — taking the Website, the organization or its leader out of the picture only shifts the action elsewhere.

If you don’t like it, don’t fly

The police-state fan boys are quick to tell us that if we don’t like the new and ever-more intrusive security measures at airports, we should just stay on the ground. What they don’t add is that the be-gloved objects of their crushes aren’t content to confine their peeping and groping to the realm of air travel — they want to take the show on the road. Check out the news report below on a checkpoint set up at a Tampa Greyhound bus station by TSA, Border Patrol and local police.

I’ve been stopped at Border Patrol checkpoints within that magic 100-mile Constitution-free zone that runs around the perimeter of the United States, so I suspect that the same Constitutional leeway is being used to justify the Tampa incident — meaning that you might not (yet) encounter such checkpoints in the heartland. But does anybody doubt that it’s only a matter of time?

We miss you, Frank Drebin

I didn’t know this until very recently, but the late Leslie Nielsen’s breakthrough comic movie, Airplane!, made laugh-riot history through spoofing 1970s air disaster films by effectively making a twisted version of 1950s cinematic disaster dud, Zero Hour.

(Hat tip to S.M. Oliva)

Update: Err … To clarify: I knew about Airplane!. I didn’t know it was a spoofy remake of a ’50s flick.

Beat the crap out of him, Danno

Am I the only one who tuned into the the new Hawaii Five-0 to see Grace Park in a bikini, only to be creeped out by the Gestapo-ish, thuggish, statist undertone to the whole cops-under-the-sun enterprise?

The tone was set in the first episode when the elite police unit headed by former Navy SEAL Steve McGarrett was essentially handed carte blanche by the governor of Hawaii (played by Jean Smart) to solve crimes. How could that go wrong? Since then, McGarrett, Danno and the crew have engaged in such interesting means of inducing cooperation in suspects as dumping a man in a cage surrounded by sharks far out in the ocean. In the same episode, McGarrett helps Danno prevail in a custody fight by getting the governor to lean on the new husband of Danno’s ex-wife.

Yeah. Using political connections to intervene in courtroom family disputes is just so cool.

And I just watched an episode (on DVR) in which McGarrett and company sidelined a team of kidnapping and ransom specialists hired by an American diplomat whose daughter had been kidnapped, just because. They then arrested the chief specialist (after rescuing the daughter, of course) because … he’s a competitor? I’m still not really clear on that point.

Grace Park still looks awesome in a bikini, but every time the show theme music cranks up, I find myself bracing to see the team whip out thumbscrews or steal a box of doughnuts — because nothing can stand in the way of suntanned justice!

Yeah, Dirty Harry did it, but there was always a big issue at stake. Not just the intimation that people who tangle with cops in even the pettiest way deserve to get stomped.

No, really. Hawaii Five-0 has turned into an ongoing abuse of power amidst nice scenery. With Grace Park (well, I guess “scenery” could cover her, but she deserves a specific mention). I guess I could just turn off the sound, but isn’t that what Internet porn is for?