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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.

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.

Gay marriage and the benefits of (un)democracy

I’m sure it comes as no surprise to anybody that I was pleased by Judge Vaughn Walker’s decision last week striking down California’s Proposition 8 and clearing the way for gay couples to enjoy the questionable benefits of marriage to the same extent as straight couples. As I’ve written in the past, the maid of honor (title by his own insistence) at my wedding was a gay friend of my wife (and an all-around decent guy), I have more than a few gay and lesbian friends, and I see no particular reason why they should be denied access to the many legal niceties, conveniences and (occasionally) pitfalls that come with obtaining a government-issued license recognizing a supposedly private relationship.

Frankly, by allowing the government to tie so many bells and whistles to state-sanctioned marriage, the public made it inevitable that many people beyond the originally intended audience would not just want, but need access to that official seal of approval. Holy matrimony be damned, it’s about inheritance, joint bank accounts, common property and the simple decency inherent in being allowed to make hard decisions after an unexpected summons to a hospital bed. Mixed-race couples wanted (and got) access to state recognition for their marriages first, and now same-sex couples want (and are getting) the same thing.

But I’ve written about that before. For a change, let’s take a gander at the reaction to Judge Walker’s ruling.

Unelected judge” is the critical phrase most commonly leveled at the San Francisco-based Reagan appointee (along with charges that the allegedly gay jurist is just defending his own). Having lost the legal battle (so far), social conservatives have now become rabid majoritarians, advocates of 50% + 1 as the ultimate arbiter of what’s right and proper. Suddenly, National Review’s Rich Lowry is arguing, “let’s stipulate that Judge Walker is right. In that case, he and like-minded people should come up with, say, Proposition 9 overturning the ban and persuade 50.1 percent of Californians to support it.”

Uh huh. And Lowry has the same take on the recent decision in McDonald v. City of Chicago (PDF), voiding that city’s handgun ban, right? Overturning that law was judicial overreach, too, wasn’t it? Or is that different?

Look, a lot of terrible violations of liberty and equality before the law can be very popular, including various types of discrimination, bans and restrictions of all sorts, censorship of speech critical of charismatic politicians, ad nauseum. Pretty much any type of authoritarianism is capable of commanding the support of the majority given the right time and place for a poll.  Care to guess how a national referendum on the Fourth Amendment would have turned out in the aftermath of 9/11? The founders had a lot of faults, but a lack of awareness about the flaws of majority rule wasn’t one of them. That’s why they were so critical of democracy and put in place restrictions on what the people and their representatives can do.

With his decision, Judge Walker exercised a 21st-century implementation of the long-established power of the judiciary to rein-in the power of the state, even when that power is exercised directly by the majority. In truth, individual rights and limits on state power, and the enforcement of those rights and limits by the judiciary, are fundamentally anti-democratic. And that anti-democratic tradition is a good thing.

A majority of California voters tried to ban the extension of the legal rights attached to state-sanctioned marriage to a group they don’t like — an overt exercise in discrimination. Judge Walker said no. Democracy may have lost in that contest, but liberty triumphed.

Now, if you want to discuss why the government is involved in marriage at all …

I’m going a-roaming

I’ll be on the East Coast until the end of the month, escaping the desert heat by stepping into a swamp. I plan to post while I’m on the road, but I’ll be on a whenever-it-happens schedule.

This also means that I may be a bit slow to approve comments. Be patient. I’ll soon be along with a mojito in my hand.

New: My mildly amusing musings about parenthood

At the risk of mixing oil and water, let me announce here the creation of my new stay-at-home-dad blog, King of the Kitchen (any evocations of Oliver Hardy are purely intentional). With my son about to embark on a new phase of life, in kindergarten, it seems like a good time to start a new forum for unleashing my animal howls of frustration at parenthood, marriage and the non-political aspects of the modern world. My political howls will continue to be found here, and I’ll also still write for When Falls the Coliseum.

Why wouldn’t an anarchist cafe eject a cop?

There are good people wearing police uniforms and there are bad people wearing police uniforms. More to the point, however, people in police uniforms have willingly chosen to take a job in which they act, at best, as enforcers of laws passed by government officials — and often as agents of the whims of those officials. So it really shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody that the proprietors of the Red and Black Cafe, an avowedly anarchist establishment in Portland, Oregon, asked Officer James Crooker to take his business elsewhere. If you don’t like governments, why would you want to serve people who willingly work for them?

That gut-level, ideological opposition to the role of police officers likely explains the seeming inability of cafe co-owner John Langley to articulate a clear reason he gave the officer the boot at the time of the incident. Crooker is a cop; in Langley’s mind, that was probably reason enough. Langley’s early lack of clarity has been seized upon and mocked by police supporters — generally in poorly spelled and badly reasoned comments that default to mantras about cops being the thin, blue line that stands between decent folk and howling barbarians, even as they threaten arson against the cafe, urge officers to take their time responding to incidents there, and call for the city to have a politicized look at the cafe’s compliance with all rules and regulations.

If you’re an ideological supporter of government power, it’s easy to fall back on unreasoning support for the state’s servants (and, ironically, validate objections to government power in the process).

Given time to ponder, Langley came up with clearer articulation of his concerns:

I don’t have anything against this particular officer and I don’t know anything about him…A police officer in uniform makes people feel unsafe because of previous experiences…

We’re gonna value the people that have been victims of police violence. Some of them have talked about having their belongings being taken away or sprayed with water. It is exacerbated by the situation in Portland right now. The response to the mental health crisis is shooting people and beating people to death.

The anarcho-entrepreneur didn’t pull his reasons out of thin air. Less than a month ago, after a series of police shotings and complaints about the official response, Portland Mayor Sam Adams booted the city’s police chief and took direct control of the police department. In a press conference, he said (PDF), “Despite the extraordinary efforts of the courageous few who wear the badge, the relationship between the citizens of Portland and their police officers is not what it needs to be. Too many Portlanders express concern about their own safety–not because of crime, but rather fear of their own police force.”

Less dramatically, police are clearly working these days less as a thin blue line against crime than as tax collectors who selectively enforce laws with an eye to maximizing revenue for the government. In 2008, the Detroit News found that Michigan police departments were stepping up traffic enforcement solely to increase the money they collected.

“When I first started in this job 30 years ago, police work was never about revenue enhancement,” Utica Police Chief Michael Reaves said. “But if you’re a chief now, you have to look at whether your department produces revenues. That’s just the reality nowadays.”

Officials elsewhere are equally open about their roadside revenue-enhancement efforts. It’s difficult to see a public safety aspect to the use of laws as means for mugging the public. If there’s a thin blue line, it leads directly to people’s wallets — and tags police as, too often, nothing more than agents of state power, for any purpose, good or bad.

Yes, police can do good deeds and often play a legitimate role in responding to crimes against people and property — maybe the critics will be right and John Langley will someday wish a cop were present to deal with a stick-up artist. But he and his colleagues have good reasons, ideological and practical, to object to the presence of a police officer in their place of business.

At least a few people agree with the Red and Black Cafe’s stance — business is reportedly way up since the incident.

On vacation

I know I haven’t been chatty recently, and now I’ll be even less talkative, since I’m off on a much-anticipated family vacation. I’ll be back to rant and rave on June 7. And, I promise, I’ll  become bloggier (if it ain’t a word, it should be) once a big project ends for me in mid-August.

Since the spambots are so super-eager to have their say here, I’ve been moderating all comments. Unfortunately, that means no comments will publish until my return.

Love America? Not unconditionally — and with an option for divorce

Public discussion in this country sometimes seems to degenerate into a competition to see who can declare the greatest unconditional love for America. Immigrants love America, kids love America, and politicians really love America — sometimes several times, at a discounted rate. But in a land that often says, “America, love it or leave it,” I’ll admit that I’m at least willing to consider heading for the exit.

“Love” America? That’s a tall order, isn’t it? It’s a big and diverse place, so if I “love” the whole thing, does that really have to include rush-hour traffic and midwestern food? Or, more seriously, does it have to include the DEA, the NSA, the IRS and the various factions of control freaks that all-so-often dominate the country’s politics?

I love lots of distinct things about America; among them, backpacking in the Grand Canyon, bourbon, jazz and a long tradition of distrust of government and a preference (imperfectly implemented though it may be) for leaving people alone to guide their own lives and make their own choices. That last point is especially important. My family has a history of shopping for places to live where they won’t be hassled.

My paternal grandmother’s maiden name was “Marano” which supports oral history suggesting that her ancestors converted under duress from Judaism to Christianity and then fled to Italy to escape the Inquisition. I guess they didn’t love Spain enough.

My maternal grandmother told me that her father came to the United States, in part, to escape the military draft in Austria-Hungary. No love there, either.

In America, my family found more breathing room compared to the countries in which they were born. They had reason to be thankful, since they were more free than they had been in the old country. So, after all these centuries, has the migration at last come to an end?

That’s hard to believe. After all, this column focuses on violations of personal freedom by government agents, and I rarely have to wander across the border in order to find issues to cover. The inclination toward personal freedom that so attracted immigrants to American shores is continuously under attack from politicians from both major political parties. Those officials often proclaim their love for the country, but they seem to want to love it out of all recognition, into a place where travelers are stopped and scrutinized and homes are invaded by armed men over a choice of intoxicants or a taste for games of chance. They love telling us what we can eat, where we can smoke and when we can drink. They whisper their affections while they pick our pockets, constrain our business ventures in red tape (to the tune of $8,164 per household (PDF) in 2000, just to comply with federal regulations) and generally threaten us with laws and regulations we may not even know about.

This is not to say that the United States is especially bad when compared to other countries, which generally suffer under abusive governments of their own. And some things have definitely improved over the decades, such as equality before the law for women and racial minorities, and respect for sexual diversity. But the United States is, perhaps, no longer such a standout performer when it comes to respecting and defending individual liberty. That is, it’s no longer so uniquely enticing if you’re shopping for a place to live based on the local willingness to let you live your own life. To tell the truth, maybe America still looks as … well … OK-ish as it does not by an absolute standard, but only by comparison with the equally flawed competition.

No wonder there’s such an emphasis on unconditional love for America! Frankly, though, unconditional love is appropriate only for babies and puppies. If we stop and think rationally, we may someday decide that the place we now call home is no longer as loveable as it once was, and go shopping for a new address that puts more effort into earning our affection.

Pit bull breakout

I’m a big-time dog lover, just a tad anti-authoritarian and sufficiently well-informed on the subject to reject the demonization of pit bulls as some sort of super-vicious devil dogs, so I find the following very amusing:

Max, a 70-pound pit bull that bit two people earlier this year, cheated death Wednesday and is on the run – with some human help.

The 3-year-old red nose pit bull was stolen from the Alameda Animal Shelter, just hours before he was to be euthanized for being a dangerous animal.

Note that Max does have a history of biting people, which may be a temperament issue, or else a matter of training and circumstance. I sincerely hope there are no further biting incidents, no matter who freed the dog and currently has him in their care. But I applaud the rescue of the dog from an imminent death, and his chance for a new life.

Run, Max, run!

By the way, while there’s not really a standard definition of “pit bull,” a couple of breeds and associated mixes are usually included in that category. Of those breeds, the American Temperament Test Society, a national not-for-profit organization that uses uniform standards for evaluating the temperament of dogs and then breaks the results out by breed, reports that 85.3% of American Pit Bull Terriers and 83.9% of American Staffordshire Terriers have passed its tests.

And no, their jaws don’t “lock.” (PDF)

http://www.atts.org/stats5.html

Now the know-nothings are chasing citizens out of Arizona

My wife — a pediatrician in rural Arizona — is about to lose a valued employee because of the state’s new and brutal immigration law. The employee isn’t Hispanic, but a close member of her family is. With nativist sentiment festering in the state and people with brown skin increasingly being harassed by law enforcement (even legal residents), it’s becoming increasingly attractive for people who fear they’ll be targeted by the police to head for the exits with their loved ones. That means fewer workers and customers for those who stay behind.

The bulk of the enforcement activity is in the Phoenix area where Maricopa County’s own Sheriff Joe Arpaio combats his legal problems by playing to the know-nothing yahoos eager to pledge him their votes so long as the police state he’s building targets dusky furriners. Even before the new law — often referred to as “SB 1070” in shorthand — was signed by Governor Jan Brewer, my wife had Hispanic patients afraid to go to Phoenix to see medical specialists. That’s a problem because our area is too sparsely settled to support highly specialized physicians, and the situation is only a little better in Flagstaff and Prescott. That means a trip to or through anti-immigrant Maricopa County to see specialists in Phoenix and Tucson. Some families swallow their fear; others get lesser care for their children.

But immigrants are also being hassled beneath the radar elsewhere, in smaller communities like Sedona and Prescott, where much of the hard labor is done by Mexican illegals who are welcome in good times but vulnerable to police action when public sentiment turns nasty — like now. Largely unreported by the news, the small-scale efforts of the past in these towns have turned into larger sweeps with more, and more-serious, agents.

For good reason, many of my wife’s Hispanic patients, and at least one employee, now plan to leave the state. At least 100,000 have fled already. And because many people are more willing than the average Arizona voter to cross ethnic and linguistic lines, they’re taking with them perfectly legal, English-speaking relations who don’t want to be separated from loved ones.And all of those people are taking with them their skills, their demand for goods and services and their money.

My wife can probably replace one worker, but with her patients leaving too, that may not be necessary. That doesn’t bode well for the future.