Saturday, September 18, 2010

Sharron Angle & the Right to be Armed

Tibor R. Machan

It is not an unfamiliar ploy--if you have no arguments, try to ridicule or just be snide, belittle your adversary. This is what has been going on with the messages sent by the Tea Party.

I follow write ups in The New Republic and elsewhere and to this date I have found no arguments advanced against what the Tea Party is saying--for example, that the United States federal government has an impermissibly wide scope; that the government’s debt is a huge burden on future generations which cannot even vote on what they are getting into; that the Second Amendment was included in the U. S. Constitution in part so as to enable citizens to resist tyranny should it come to their having to do so; that coercing people to buy anything, health insurance of sandals, is unconstitutional and certainly immoral; that forcing citizens to pay for policies such as federally funded abortions which they object to as a matter of their religious convictions is also abhorrent, etc., etc. All these snooty people seem to be able to do nothing more about their dislike of the Tea Party is to assassinate the character of the membership and leadership.

I am no great fan of the Tea Party’s style, fancying myself to be more cosmopolitan than nearly all those I associate with it, yet that is irrelevant when it comes to considering political alternatives. We aren’t talking fashion or erudition here but public policy and last I checked members of the Tea Party, like I and most everyone I know in this country, are a significant portion of the public.

Even if you are an unprincipled politician or merely a cheerleader of your candidates and representatives, you must at least pay attention to the fact that Tea Party members are part of the democratic electorate. So in this substantially democratic polity they are entitled to be included in the discussion of the issues even if their message strikes all the sophisticated, snooty bunch at The New York Review of Books and the The New York Times as way off base.

It is interesting to me how morally righteous these people can be when it comes to racial or gender prejudice but how little they care about dismissing a very sizable segment of the American public such as those who are part of the Tea Party. Don’t they even sense how hypocritical it is for them to champion “the people” but then drop almost half of those people from the ranks of those who should matter politically, whose input must be taken seriously? I guess not!

A good case in point is the flack Sharron Angle of Nevada has received for reminding us all that the Second Amendment to the U. S. Constitution had something to do with empowering citizens to resist tyranny, should their government go completely corrupt. As she said on a talk show, “You know, our Founding Fathers, they put that Second Amendment in there for a good reason and that was for the people to protect themselves against a tyrannical government. And in fact Thomas Jefferson said it's good for a country to have a revolution every 20 years.” Never mind the pedigree--The Washington Post and a host of other “liberal” media and politicians tried to discredit the lady for saying what is quite true and not at all weird, except if you think like compliant government subjects across the globe.

Yes, the idea is an utterly respectable one, put forth by the likes of English political philosophers Thomas Hobbes and John Locke and it even makes an appearance in the Declaration of Independence. As the document puts it, “But when a long train abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.” Although in terms deployed by nearly all the people across the globe the American federal government may appear to be but a pussycat, in terms of the American political tradition today’s American government is very nearly despotic. (What else would one consider its brutal prosecution of the war on drugs, for example?)

But never mind, perhaps Tea Party favorite Sharron Angle of Nevada is misguided to think that mentioning this feature of the Second Amendment is relevant today. So then argue it out and do not treat it as if it were the ravings of a lunatic. Cannot the Tea Party opponents mount a good case against the idea instead of pretending it is nonsense? Perhaps not, so they must resort to ridicule and belittlement.

That, in turn, should inform the rest of the electorate just how impoverished are the views of those who wish to hold on to the status quo, who want the federal government to continue moving in the direction typified by Obamacare, massive government bailouts, and the war on drugs! If so, then I say all the more reason to get in line with the Tea Party and “throw off such government”!
Tony Judt’s Last Prevarications

Tibor R. Machan

As a loyal though reluctant reader of The New York Review of Books--too masochistic an experience at times but in my line of work unavoidable--I have read a lot of essays by the recently deceased public intellectual and NYU professor Tony Judt. A skilled and erudite writer, with some subtlety to his viewpoint, Judt has been trying to juggle his social democratic stance with his recognition that socialism itself is no answer to our socio-economic wows. But his hostility to free market capitalism has shown through in most of his political writings. (You really cannot be a writer for TNYRB if you show even a minimal appreciation for that economic system, what with Paul Krugman at the helm of their team of economic pundits!)

In what is likely to prove to be his final piece for the magazine, published posthumously in the September 30, 2010, issue, Judt once again lashes out against all those who find the free market system a promising way to arrange a communty’s economic affairs. In the piece, titled “Captive Minds”--recalling Czeslaw Milosz 1950s book by the same title--Judt engages in some character assassination directed at anyone who disagrees with his assessment of capitalism. As he writes, “But ‘the market’--like ‘dialectical materialism’--is just an abstraction: at once ultra-rational (its argument trumps all) and the acme of unreason (it is not open to question). It has its true believers--mediocre thinkers by contrast with the founding fathers, but influential withal; its fellow travelers--who may privately doubt the claims of the dogma but see no alternative to preaching it; and its victims, many of whom in the US especially have dutifully swallowed their pill and proudly proclaim the virtues of a doctrine whose benefits they will never see.”

To this Judt adds his demeaning, belittling, and snide comment about how those who find the free market superior to other systems of political economy suffer from a “collective inability to imagine alternatives,” and similar unsubstantiated throwaway lines. Just like so many who complain about how you and I are stuck in a box we must escape, Judt ultimately wants us all to climb into his box mostly as a show of his version of compassion and kindness. (He even brings up Margaret Thatcher, quoting her saying about the free market that “there is no alternative,” missing entirely the instructive fact that the late John Kenneth Galbraith, who shared Judt’s politics, said exactly the same thing in an interview he gave to Alitalia’s in-flight magazine back in the late 1980s.)

For Judt the respectable thing to do is to be “debating genuine competitive social models--whether social democratic, social market, or regulated market variants of liberal capitalism.” Of course. The sole alternative that is verboten is one that spells complete freedom from government intrusion! Where would he and his ilk be if they didn’t have a chance to whisper their instructions to politicians and bureaucrats?

Judt then lashes out, once again recklessly and indiscriminately, at all Americans, by quote Milosz saying “the man of the East cannot take Americans seriously because they have never undergone the experiences that teach men how relative their judgments and thinking habits are.” What bunk! The man of the East has nothing over the man of the West or North or South--what kind of geopolitical prejudice are we supposed swallow here?

Professor Judt (RIP) had some fine qualities, mostly a knack for observing and artfully recording elements of the ebb and flow of contemporary culture East and West, but as to political economy he was no more than a sophisticated sentimentalist (and someone whose elitist thinking fit perfectly with the editorial stance of The New York Review of Books).

Let me end with a personal note about Judt’s slam against those who favor the free society, namely, that they suffer from a “collective inability to imagine alternatives.” Not only have a lot of us who favor the fully free market system managed to imagine alternatives but we also experienced several of them, including Soviet style socialism, market socialism, and, of course, the regulated market.

Most of us have spent a career studying these as well as the free market so as to figure out what would suit human community life best, what would be the most fitting order for men and women embarking upon a successful (economic and related) life. And only after we have done our work reasonably thoroughly did most of us end up championing the system Judt held in such contempt. Nothing dogmatic here and to charge otherwise betrays intellectual laziness, the disinclination to argue things through.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Tea Party Strategy Anyone?

Tibor R. Machan

My involvement in Tea Party matters is virtually nil. I follow the movement’s doings by reading both pro and con comments on its candidates and leaders, as well as listening to what some of the active members say in public forums. (Let me tell you the snooty Left is scared stiff of the Tea Party and rolling out its heavy guns to demean it, with Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin serving as convenient targets whose lack of academic erudition is held against them in massive articles in prominent magazines like The New Republic and The New York Review of Books!)

As far as I can determine, the Tea Party is a kind of Right Wing populist assembly of people who have disparate ideas and objectives but are united in being disgusted with the leadership in Washington. There is among them room for nearly anyone who shows a positive attitude about main street America. Social conservatives, especially, seem to be welcome, what with pretty heavy moralizing as their central pitch; free market champions, too, tend to be accepted but not if they are also committed civil libertarians who might stand up for illegal immigrants and oppose the vicious War and Drugs; certainly members of the religious Right are not only welcome but often take leadership roles; and there are others, including those loyal to the American Founders and their central documents, such as the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. (Sometimes they express themselves in questionable terms, such as swearing loyalty to the U. S. Constitution; but that document is now so watered down, so far from the principles stated in the Declaration, that it scarcely says anything about what the country’s political system and public policies ought to be all about.)

I am no spin doctor and do not have my finger on the pulse of the electorate, although I do try to keep abreast. It occurs to me that if the Tea Party is to have a solid chance at influencing American politics and public policy it will have to pare down its message to certain fundamentals and express this publicly in palatable ways.

The one principle that is truly representative of America as the Founders conceived of it is limited government, limited by the principle of individual liberty. Perhaps turning to this message with a clear emphasis on not trying to impose anything else on the country could be successful. If a Tea Party candidate or leader is pressed for views on matters other than the proper scope of government, the answer should be: “No comment on that since it isn’t a part of politics proper, not in a free country!” Yes, it is judicious, prudent to simply refuse to get caught up in all the issues that people may bring to the political table by teaching the lesson that they really aren’t political, even if they are on the minds of millions of people.

Tea Party members, leaders, candidates and the like may well succeed by adhering to this strategy of not allowing their detractors to involve them in everything. They could point out that this country isn’t supposed to be a totalitarian system in which politics takes over everything, addresses all issues on the minds of the citizenry. No, one need not have an opinion on creationism, intelligent design, child reading, drug use, and yes, even abortion. Let most of these topics be part of our social discourse, not our political thinking. That way the central Tea Party theme of reigning in the scope of government is kept in focus and the pluralism of the movement can also continue to flourish but within its proper domain, namely, the variety of social positions the huge tent of those who love liberty makes possible.

Yes, this way of going about things might link the Tea Party too closely with its libertarian faction but that could be a political asset if intelligently put (during interviews, press conferences, etc.). Do not permit the detractors to draw Tea Party people into discussions about matters that are not the proper concern of politics and public affairs. Therein might lie a way to victory, especially now that suspicion with governmental meddling is rife throughout the citizenry.

And this attitude can easily be linked to the central, crucial tenets of the American political tradition, the founding documents and the thinking of the Founders. That they may not all be entirely palatable in our age will not matter if discussions and proposals are kept to essentials. What is exceptional about America is its limited government tradition and moving away from this is wrong, inefficient, and, yes, un-American.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Does the General Understand Freedom?

Tibor R. Machan

Here is the relevant exchange:

“[ABC News'] Martha Raddatz: Is this [the public and widely publicized possible burning of the Koran] something that could have a long-lasting effect on soldiers here?

General Petraeus: We fear it could. This could provide indelible images, images that in an Internet age will be non-biodegradable. They will always be in cyberspace and available for extremists to use to incite and inflame public opinion against our troopers and civilians.

“My job as a commander is to be concerned about the safety and security of our troopers. I think it’s important to provide an assessment of an incident that could jeopardize that safety, I think that’s very important. I think I have a moral obligation in fact to speak out on an issue like that....”

So this reminds me of how, in contrast to the general’s words, many sensible people reacted to the Danish cartoon episode: They thought it was perhaps unwise, unnecessarily provocative to publish them but once published, the issue became whether the newspapers had the right to do so. They did and this right needs to be defended, even while its particular exercise could be judged ill advised, even outright offensive.

Why not the same attitude about the prospect of burning the Koran? The fact that certain people may respond to it by violently lashing out against innocent individuals is lamentable. When one deals with people with a tribal mentality who lump everyone in a country or those of a certain religion or nationality or ethnic background together, never considering that these are different individuals whose deeds are their own, not those of the others in the group, one must realize that such reactions are possible even if totally irrational. Yet not by any means excusable. Muslims who join in are guilty of violence against innocent people, even if some other people who look like those innocent people have insulted them by burning the Koran.

Indeed, while it is an affront to burn what some billions of people regard as a holy book (to those people), it is not an attack on them but on their beliefs. Well, get used to it.

In a pluralistic world millions of people constantly denounce millions of other people, including by way of insulting the books they deem important. Millions of people have denounced the US Constitution and Declaration of Independence, various examples of important literature, and so forth. Books by Karl Marx, by Harriet Beecher Stowe (who wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin), Ayn Rand and by thousands of others have gotten condemned as well as praised. But, as that wise saying has it, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” Indeed, denouncing people is something acrimonious but peaceful, as is offending them, and in a civilized world one is free to do what is peaceful however offensive it may be.

This, unfortunately, has been overlooked, even implicitly denied, in many regions of the world, including in the West where politically incorrect language is often deemed to be legally actionable. When the thought someone has while committing a crime, a so called hate crime, is punishable, then it is difficult to reject the thinking about offensive albeit peaceful language and deeds in evidence among many, many Muslims. It is wrong, but so is the thinking that supports punishing more severely a crime deemed to be motivated by hate than the crime without that motivation or motivated by something else. Such is the result of faulty thinking--one cannot cherry pick what inconsistencies one will accept and which are those one will reject. They must all go!

General Petraeus sadly got it wrong when he wants to shut down the Koran burning on the grounds that some will react to it irrationally. Sure, the burning should not happen because it is a needlessly provocative deed but no one should be forcibly stopped from uttering even the most provocative, blasphemous words or carrying out even the most insulting but peaceful deeds. One has a right to be wrong in a free society and public officials may have to cope with the results, including the perpetration of irrational reactions from people who don’t get it, who don’t understand what freedom entails.