Let’s Get Down to Business


The Sharpie and legal pad of Presidential dignity.

This post is an attempt to work out an apparent paradox: why it is that any economically struggling Americans would see a champion in a billionaire businessman with a golden toilet most famous before his political career for ritually firing people on a TV game show? Some would say that there’s no paradox, they were never motivated by any economic distress, that their prime motive was racism. There is much to support this idea, but I think the dichotomy – race or economics – misses something. They are inextricably intertwined such that economic plight is blamed on an assumed racial favoritism. Still, though, the catchphrase of The Apprentice: “You’re fired!” Can it really be that any American employee would find a man famous for that phrase to be an economic ally?

To understand why requires understanding the ways in which capitalism and authoritarianism mutually reinforce each other. It’s a theme I’ve written about before, but which has rarely if ever been so blatantly and grossly relevant to our political reality as now.

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Between Jefferson and Sieyès?

I don’t want to dwell on the political argument of this National Review piece arguing that Bernie Sanders’ upholding of Denmark as a model for his kind of socialism is wrongheaded and reflects ignorance of the nation he’s such a fan of. Needless to say, it’s pretty bad. But I’ve returned to posting here with the intention of making this more into a history blog than a politics blog. So, here’s some history according to Kevin D. Williamson:

The American revolutionaries emerged from a Puritan-Quaker culture shaped by the hardships of colonial life with the savage frontier in front of them and the Atlantic Ocean at their backs; the French revolutionaries emerged from a decadent Catholic culture shaped by court life and European rivalries. Both parties cried “Liberty!” but one produced the Bill of Rights and the other produced the Terror. The cultural distance between 21st-century Anglo-American liberals and tribal jihadis in the Hindu Kush is rather greater than was the distance between Thomas Jefferson and the Abbé Sieyès.

I’m also not going to talk very much about the Orientalist musings into which this is awkwardly embedded. I just want to address a few points on the histories of the American and French Revolutions. Williamson has not cited any sources for this brief lesson, and while it’d be unreasonable to expect detailed citations for such an off-hand comment, it forces us to rely on his own personal authority as a “roving correspondent” for the National Review, which does not fill me with confidence. I won’t be citing anything either, relying on my personal authority as a student of history whose research focuses on the influence of the French Revolution on the United States and comparative revolutions, but I’d be happy to do so for any of my claims on request.

So what’s the problem? It may seem too small, too petty, to get worked up about. But that’s what’s so infuriating: this was not a well-thought-out explication of history, which indicates that this is what Williamson comes up with by absentmindedly scraping around the bottom of the history barrel. It’s the thoughtlessness of it that’s the problem, the fact that these kinds of cliches and factoids and mythic narratives are what so many people turn to in order to understand our past and our place in the world.  Where did these ideas come from? Why do they keep plaguing us? And how do we get rid of them?

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“Freedom Industries” and the Freedom of Industries.

Apparently, when most people in my area think about West Virginia, they remember some incident involving a traffic jam. I mostly remember news stories about the trials and tribulations of the people involved in mining the coal that powers our electronic lives: their labor struggles, and the safety disasters which necessitate their struggles. The latest from West Virginia is a chemical spill that affects the drinking water of 100,000 to 300,000 people in the area of Kanawha, WV.

In the midst of this calamity and the human suffering it has unleashed, there is something almost poetic in its sublime rightness: the company responsible is named “Freedom Industries.” Is there any doubt as to what kind of freedom the company’s founders had in mind? If so, this incident is instructive.

Environmental regulators in the state found that the chemical company took “no spill containment measures” to stem the leak, according to the Charleston Gazette.

Regulators say the company violated the Air Pollution Control Act and the Water Pollution Control Act, the Gazette reported. 

State regulators said Friday that the company never told them of the leak, and found out only after residents complained of a strange smell, according to the State Journal.

Health, safety, and environmental regulations, we are often told, are infringements on freedom. They burden job creators with red tape that holds them back from their glorious pursuit of enlightened self-interest. Under the regime of this freedom, taking no measures to contain spills would be a perfectly legitimate business decision, and there would by no “acts” regulating pollution to violate. Anyone affected by the outcomes of any accidents which result will have recourse to lawsuits to resolve the issue; depending on how serious you are about freedom, it might be resolved by a privately hired arbiter! No conflict of interest, no distortion of justice from unequal wealth, could be imagined here.

Experts say there is no way to treat the tainted water aside from flushing the system until it’s in low enough concentrations to be safe, a process that could take days. People across the nine counties were told not to wash their clothes in water affected, as the compound can cause symptoms ranging from skin irritation and rashes to vomiting and diarrhea.

Even as the National Guard made plans to mobilize at an air base at Charleston’s Yeager Airport, many people — told to refrain from using tap water — weren’t waiting for outside help.

The “National Guard,” eh, comrade? That sounds like some kind of collectivist use of government force. The inappropriate kind, that is, the kind not applied to bombing people in foreign countries and suppressing the poor. Using collectivist government force to help people? When did I agree to pay for these peoples’ water? There are much freer alternatives, after all: perhaps the people affected could have had a bit more foresight and individually purchased various forms of insurance and personal countermeasures to pay for disaster recovery. I can foresee no problems with them being able to afford this, once the government stops sucking them dry with taxes. Private disaster relief companies will provide much more efficient responses than the bloated government.

State Attorney General Patrick Morrisey warned residents about price gouging on water, ice and other items, calling it “just plain wrong” to inflate prices and encouraging those who have seen such practices to report them to his office’s consumer-protection division.

Who let this Marxist radical into office? Doesn’t he understand the clear benefits of so-called “price gouging,” that is, the market at work? It is the most efficient way of rationing now-scarce resources. Those who cannot afford the new, fairer price of water can presumably just “economize” on their daily basic needs. Perhaps in the future they will have the foresight to devote more of their generous disposable income to stockpiling bottled water. In any case, the higher prices are sure to attract more intrepid suppliers, somehow, at some point. There’s no need for the jackbooted thugs of the “National Guard” to interfere, spending your tax dollars to provide the biological necessities of human life.

To step back from vitriolic polemic, there’s one other thing I think of when someone mentions West Virginia: its long history of labor struggle. With “freedom” like this increasingly on offer, I have a feeling that state might someday shock the country in the best possible way.

Quick Note: Should the Government Get Out of the Marriage Business?

Marriage equality is the issue of the day, and it’s been a really inspiring experience to see an outpouring of support from my friends and relations. Even if I admit to a little cynicism about “Facebook Fads,” it’s probably done real good for LGBQT folks to see so many declaring their solidarity with a simple change of their profile picture. As if in response to this, I’ve seen some novel suggestions from the self-declared sentinels of liberty that the whole issue is a sideshow, because the real government oppression is in granting marriage licenses at all! What to make of this?

The general shape of the argument is that marriage should simply be a personal, religious, and emotional arrangement which the government has no business regulating. Straight, gay, poly or mono, it’s just not the state’s business. The most amusing advancement of this idea I’ve seen, and the most telling, asserted that the government’s only proper role in civil society is to enforce contracts.

How someone can weigh in on an issue with such bold claims and so little knowledge, I don’t know, but it’s worth pointing out to these libertines that the government is already “out of the marriage business” in they way they describe. The government will not prevent any church from performing marriage ceremonies. You can take your lover to an oak tree, carve your names on it, do a small dance, and declare yourselves married for all the state cares. That’s not what’s at issue. What is at issue is, exactly, a contract. We care about marriage as a civil right, an institution granting certain legal privileges.

Of course, there isn’t exactly lockstep unity in the gay rights movement about this. On the more radical edge, you will find queer critics of marriage as an oppressive institution, as patriarchal and bourgeois, as a tool of the “straight state” to mold an ideal citizenry, which should be done away with entirely. I can at least see the merits of this critique, and think there’s room for healthy discussion about what marriage even means, or should mean. The major difference between the radical gay rights critique of marriage and the libertarian one is essentially one of nuance: proponents of the former “get it” on a number of levels which proponents of the latter do not. They at least understand what their moderate allies care about.

Those who support marriage equality, by and large, do accept a role for the state in regulating it as a contract. They don’t want the state to “get out of it” because they do want the rights and privileges of marriage legally provided, but provided more equally. The libertarian call for “getting the state out of marriage” is as tone deaf as so many of their stances on “liberty,” and as per usual, is only a superficial veneer of support for civil rights and tolerance. In fact, it effectively cedes the issue to social conservatives. I wish I could say I am surprised at seeing the sentinels of liberty acting as the neoliberal handmaids of a paleoconservative understanding of social relations and “family values,” but it happens far too frequently.

Quick Note: On Republics

How often do we hear the sage formula, with every pretense of nuance, that the United States is not a democracy but a republic? You don’t have to look far for examples of it in action: find any situation where one side complains that some policy proposed by the other violates the principle of democracy, and invariably, the other side will trot out this insight.

The lesson is one straight out of the political thinking of the 18th and 19th centuries: democracies are unstable and will lead to mob rule and (horror of horrors) leveling, etc. And so, there’s nothing for it but to limit democracy somehow, to make a government that represents the people (the Latin res publica), but does not grant them unfettered power (the Greek dêmos kratos). It’s not clear to me how this functions as a defense for any particular anti-democratic policy, but the unacknowledged implications of this line of argument are disturbing.

This country was indeed intended to be a republic. And like most good classical republics, it sharply limited the franchise; in our case, despite some local variation, mostly to rich white men. In the south you even had a slave society propping up a leisured upper class, mirroring those liberty-loving slave-owning city-states of Classical Greece. People touting the “republic” talking point never seem to know how right they are, but many Enlightenment thinkers considered Sparta a model of sound governance, and it shows.

What this talking point always seems to elide is that the development of American government since “the Founders'” limited vision of an elitist state is a process of democratization. On the one hand, more and more government functions became subject to the popular vote. The Electoral College, as originally conceived, had nothing to do with any number of regular citizens voting for presidential candidates. Nor were Senators popularly elected. On the other, there was a democratization of what it meant to be a voter: first, classist property requirements fell. Next, slavery was abolished and racist restrictions of the vote to white people were (in theory at least) lifted. Then, the sexist limitation of the franchise to men was abolished. When people drone on about how we are a “republic” because of “the Founders'” vision, what they are doing is repudiating 144 years of progress.

Interestingly, the racial barrier to voting isn’t actually a dead issue, thanks to conservative policy initiatives: from the racist enforcement of drug laws combined with disenfranchisement of ex-convicts; to dubious “voter fraud” reduction laws which, as implemented in the time frame proposed, would have effectively barred many African-American citizens, among others, from voting in the most recent election; to recent attempts to take advantage of gerrymandering to undermine the popular will in presidential elections. Additionally, there is a rising trend of actively rejecting democratic progress with an explicit call for a return to the Founders’ vision in political structure, chock full of all the old tropes about unstable democracies. It seems the “Lost Cause” of the “Old Republic” is still a vital motivating force for the political right.

Hey, Conservative Americans! I Have A Proposal For You.

I understand that right now it’s a confusing and scary time. Not because of all these shooting sprees, no, but because of the inevitable legislative response! Armed with so-called “facts,” from an obviously liberally-biased reality, indicating that your John Wayne fantasies of preventing these incidents with more available guns are, in fact, complete nonsense, the Left is going to take away your guns and leave you prone before the power of the British Empire.

But you know why this is happening, right? No, it’s not an inside job. I’m going to let you in on the secret: the problem with America right now is that we have (culturally and politically) bought into your definition of “liberty,” a definition which is nothing but an incoherent defense of privilege and power. It’s a cumbersome bricolage of the detritus of ideological history, a shotgun wedding of Cold War paranoia and pre-industrial political-economic philosophy. In this ideology, ensuring that people have reliable access to firearms is a higher priority than ensuring that they have reliable access to healthcare. The cost of the former is relatively low, and disabling every legal barrier to purchasing a gun is the appropriate defense of a vital freedom for which shooting sprees are the unfortunate price. The cost of the latter is often prohibitively high, but for the government to address this, rather than leaving it to the price-rationing of the market, would mean dabbling in the dark arts of Socialism. The combination of easy access to firearms with an economically precarious existence where mental health issues too often go unaddressed is not something we’re often encouraged to think about, under your philosophy. That combination is part and parcel of your idea of “liberty,” however, which just goes to show why your definition of liberty is garbage.

It seems to me that it’s time to decide which is more important, your pre-industrial Enlightenment-era love of negative liberty or your Cold War fear of positive liberty. To that end, I’m going to propose a compromise that I think would go a long way towards making “the right to bear arms” more bear-able:

  1. Comprehensive universal healthcare. This means you stop opposing Obamacare because it goes too far, and start opposing it because it does not go far enough. The less economic stress Americans have to face from the fear of losing access to medical care, the more contentment we’ll have, and the less we’ll be on the kind of psychological hair-trigger which makes shooting people seem attractive as a problem-solving technique.
  2. In the above, explicitly including a guarantee of access to mental health treatment. This should be obvious: the fewer crazy people there are, the fewer crazy people can get a gun. Sharp readers may note that the link I posted above refutes the idea that stress or mental health issues correlate with gross levels of gun violence. While that is true, these first two items are specifically about the kinds of dramatic spree-shootings in which these may be greater factors.
  3. A move towards a stronger and more comprehensive welfare state. It is an observed fact of reality that lower economic inequality correlates with safer, saner, and more happy people. Healthcare is simply the first step. If we want less gun violence in a country with freely accessible guns, then we must do everything possible to ensure greater levels of social trust, community spirit, empathy, and childhood stability. This means a real commitment to economic egalitarianism.
  4. Immediately end the war on drugs. I am not even sure how supporting the drug war is consistent with a “government off of my back!” stance (I guess this is one place where libertarians get credit for at least being theoretically consistent), but we don’t have the luxury of wasting vital police resources on making sure people don’t get high (while still allowing them to get drunk for some reason). Even with the advantages of the above policies, there’s still a chance that someone could misuse a gun for mass murder, and anyway, it’s not like mass murder is the only kind we should be concerned about. Not only would this free up police resources to guard vulnerable locations like schools and provide a credible deterrence to homicide, it would break the back of the institutional racism in the enforcement of drug laws, which besides being a travesty of justice, is another cause of economic inequality and social strife.
  5. On that note, get serious about racism. The case of Trayvon Martin demonstrates that the use of violence in our country is racialized, and gun violence did not start being a problem when it started affecting white communities. Stop pretending that having a black president means racism is over, that “reverse-racism” is some kind of actual issue, and for God’s sake, ditch all that “government plantation” insanity. Getting serious about racism is probably the hardest part for folks with a “negative rights” stance on liberty and the role of government, because it requires acknowledging the fact that racism isn’t just about personal prejudices, it’s also in large part about social and economic structures, and thus requires proactive policy solutions. Seriously fighting racism means supporting affirmative action, it means bussing and other strategies to undo the current, greater-than-Jim-Crow levels of de facto segregation in the school system, and it means generally acknowledging that it is right and proper to spend tax dollars, skimmed off a prosperity historically built by racist exploitation, to economically support and build up racially disadvantaged communities.

I think this provides a good set of counter-balances to the corrosive effects of widespread gun ownership. I see you out there shaking your heads sadly at the senselessness of it all, the tragedy, saying a little prayer, and then condemning the “politicization” of these shootings while at the same time continuing to promote your gunslinger heroism solution, that this would not happen if more people had guns! Fine. I’m going to meet you part-way and agree that we’re not getting rid of guns in this country, but only if you meet me part-way in committing yourself to eradicating the large-scale institutional social and economic forces that make the misuse of your beloved guns more likely.

Correcting “Media Narratives” the White Supremacist Way

You're missing out on a fake meme from Stormfront, how disappointing!

Before today, I never knew how satisfying it was to sarcastically congratulate people for successfully propagating a fraudulent exposé made by Neo-Nazis. However, I think it would be a shame if this amazing reversal of fortune obscured the fact that even if the Aryan culture warriors responsible for this image macro weren’t using a photo of the wrong Trayvon Martin, that is, if the boy on the right were the boy who got shot, it would still be a bunch of idiotic racist garbage.

Let’s examine the original set of photos supposedly betraying some media bias:

A biased depiction??

Wait, hold on, I’m not sure I’ve got that right, this doesn’t look very unbalanced at all, does it? Both victim and shooter with blank, neutral expressions, similarly composed, there’s not much to complain about here, is there? Well, I didn’t get it from some lamestream media source like ABC News so maybe that explains it. Let’s see…

The horror...

…yes, that’s more like it, this is the side-by-side that seems to have gotten the sensible middle ground up in arms. On the left, a teenager who was shot to death, on the right, a grown man who shot and killed an unarmed boy. I can tell you right now, if it wasn’t for that orange (prison?) shirt and (comparative) frown on George Zimmerman and the sunny smile on the face of Trayvon Martin, I wouldn’t know who to root for! Clearly, the way to restore the balance upset by the insane, politically correct, liberal media is to compare a picture of a smiling grown man who shot and killed an unarmed boy with a teenager who was shot to death depicted in a tough guy pose and flipping the bird. That changes everything around.

I’m pretty sure that teenaged boys who have never done anything as immature and stupid as striking macho poses and making obscene hand gestures to be “edgy” are in the minority. So really, even if that were a picture of the “right” Trayvon, it doesn’t actually reflect poorly on him. He’s a 17 year old boy, stuff like that is par for the course. Actually, this specific form of goofy posing seems to be popular with people of all ages and races, if a quick review of ImSoGangsta.org is to be believed.

Some scary stuff is missing here!

Another picture you won't find in the MSM!

But here I’m kind of giving the game away, aren’t I? It’s not that “Trayvon” is just puffing up like an adolescent, it’s that he’s doing so like a gangsta. He’s embodying Thug Culture. Now, why does comparing a smiling, composed, suit-wearing Zimmerman to a “thugged-out” Martin restore a balance that was lost in a side-by-side depiction of a smiling, well-behaved Martin and a glowering Zimmerman mug shot? What sympathies are supposed to be reversed? What viewpoint would I have to assume to actually find the shot of “Trayvon” repping his set threatening enough to feel, if not good, then at least not disturbed by the thought of Zimmerman shooting and killing him?

It’s hard for me to see that pose as anything but funny in a childish way, but I’m going to take a guess at the counter-narrative this meme is supposed to present. It’s the one where black men and boys are all potentially violent criminals and respectable white men carrying guns are the protectors of civilization. So even if that image macro up top weren’t a fraud, if you posted it or passed it around like it was some mind-blowing revelation, you’d still be a dope spreading racist bile.