Thursday, 29 June 2006

Idolatry: the Symbol over the Referent

Shall we protect our nation and our freedoms, or is our flag more important?

Earlier this week, the Senate came within 1 vote of wasting the time of legislators the country over by advancing the "cause" of a Constitutional Amendment to ban the desecration of the flag. My thanks go out to the 34 Senators who saved us from this nonsense - and shame on the 66 (or most of them) who voted for it.

Mark Kleiman stated it succinctly:
The notion of writing a restriction on freedom of expression into the text of the Constitution ought to offend every patriot. To pledge allegiance to the Flag instead of "the Republic for which it stands" is the political equivalent of the sin of idolatry: confusing a symbol with its referent, to the extreme of elevating the symbol above the referent.

The Bill of Rights is as central to that Republic as anything could be: surely more central than the Flag. So to deface the Bill of Rights in order to defend the Flag is political idolatry at its worst.
Then he goes on to allow that while sullying our Constitution is an offense, a statute against flag burning, if found constitutional would not be so objectionable. I can't agree - it would offend me - but I do see his point, and do agree with him that if the aye votes on the amendment by a few swing state Democrats help them retain their seats, that is probably worth it. Really it's the Republicans that ought to know better and speak sense to the American public. Few have much backbone when it comes to confronting the deep-seated emotional illogic which consumes so many Americans around reverence for the flag.

Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Robert Bennett of Utah, and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky were the lone Republicans willing to defend the Constitution rather than pander to false patriotism. Mitch McConnell's statement shows that there is a way to frame such a vote, and still do the requisite pandering anyway. It also shows that this is not an ideologically tied position. McConnell and Bennett are not among the more moderate Republicans. In fact, I recall that in 1989 when the Supreme Court held that anti-flag burning statutes are unconstitutional, it was arch-conservative Scalia who cast the deciding vote.

So enjoy your Fourths, folks - wave your flags - attend your parades, but watch out for any demagogues who try to impugn the patriotism of any of the 34 who avoided idolatry this week.

Wednesday, 28 June 2006

Turbulence on our Southern Border

Mexicans this weekend face a difficult choice as they try to read the tea leaves as to what a radical change of course would really mean. Those who genuinely long for reforms aimed at supporting the aspirations of the poor and weakening the grip of the wealthy and powerful on the purse strings of the country must be tempted by the populist promises of López Obrador, candidate of the Party of Democratic Revolution. But concerns that his numbers don't add up, and that his programs would wreck the economy, or that his messianic message would usher in a cult of personality damaging to democratic ideals are giving pause to many.

In 2000, Vicente Fox came in and ended 71 years of rule by the PRI, ending an era dominated by corruption. His business friendly policies were hardly welcomed by populists or the left. Felipe Calderón is the standard bearer of Fox's party, PAN, and promises stability. Recent polls show him trailing Obrador, but only by a few points. PRI candidate, Roberto Madrazo, is painting himself as the moderate between extremes on the right and the left, but trails the leaders in the polls by 8 or 9 points. PRI remains Mexico's largest party, but years of corruption have earned them plenty of distrust.

The possibility of an Obrador victory is at once the most exciting outcome and the scariest. Who can reliably predict how such changes will play out? When Robert Mugabe was elected President of Zimbabwe 26 years ago on the strength of a populist message there was great celebrating, but it took very little time for his rule to betray signs of tyranny, and today Zimbabwe stands in ruins while Mugabe lives in walled splendor as was sadly reported on last night's Frontline on PBS. My guess is that Obrador is genuine in his pronouncements now, but is he realistic or would his policies work?

The right will no doubt reflexively pull out the standard repeated failure of socialism meme and declare that Obrador would be a disaster, but as ever it will depend on the details, not on the putative ideology of the leader or his party. For now, anyway, there does not seem to be the fear and loathing from the usual quarters in U.S. politics against Obrador as we have seen against Hugo Chavez of Venezuela or Evo Morales of Bolivia. Of course he hasn't been elected yet.

An additional fear that hangs over this Mexican election is that Obrador is already accusing the ruling party of attempted fraud, so even if Calderón prevails, some see the likelihood of unrest in the wake of such charges.

Tuesday, 27 June 2006

Patriotism & Treason

When I wrote of the thin, thin line the other week, perhaps I should have defined it as the line between patriotism and treason. So thin sometimes it practically overlaps. I'm grateful not to have faced such a choice myself, but this is staying near the front of my consciousness. Saturday I chanced to be in a passenger car at the Dupont exit overpass where Thank You Lt supporters held banners over the interstate, and counter protestors nearby equated Watada's refusal with treachery. And in the mail that day I received my copy of Mission Rejected. A generally sympathetic blogger wrote privately
Just one tactical note: if the Democrats start supporting mutinous soldiers, it doesn't matter what we say about he minimum wage; we'll be the minority party forever.
Maybe so, but what constitutes mutiny in a questionable or worse war, and cannot people better understand a human story than an abstraction? I have the advantage of being far removed from the official voice of the Democratic party, but just how much pussyfooting should the official party do?

Stand in contrast, Dems - what you've been doing ain't been working.

Tuesday, 20 June 2006

Remember Muqtada al-Sadr?

Zarqawi is gone, and even I am glad for that. But in terms of influence, Muqtada al-Sadr may be scarier. Unfortunately, his death, I fear would backfire. Read the transcript [scroll down to In Depth: Dispatch From Iraq] of Fareed Zakaria's interview with Nir Rosen which aired two weeks ago on Foreign Exchange. It still chills me. In whose hands are we placing lethal power?

Monday, 19 June 2006

Minimum Wage Must Go Up

If there is any issue that Democrats ought to be able to unite behind without ambiguity, and know that they have a clear huge majority of Americans with them, it has to be insistence on an increase in the minimum wage. Libertarian and Republican arguments exist in opposition to the minimum wage, and I'm not opposed to their being aired and limited exceptions to a new reasonable minimum wage be part of new legislation, but it's a huge failure for the Democrats that they cannot succeed in getting this most fundamental requirement that the American worker be treated humanely written into law. Because unambiguously, paying an adult trying to support a family $5.15 an hour for full time permanent work is inhumane.

One exception I might allow, would be that temporary jobs could pay as little as $6 an hour, to allow for summer jobs for high schoolers, or retirees (such as campground managers). But the law should explicitly prohibit replacement of permanent positions with sequential temporary positions as a means of skirting the minimum wage increase. Courts should provide quick judicial review of such claims, and human judges should be able to quickly discern cases in which a corporation is misrepresenting a job as temporary.

A $9 minimum wage is a modest demand, and industries which rely on cheaper labor must adjust, because they are disrespecting their workers in paying the current minimum wage. $9 ia a large enough shift from the current obscene $5.15, that a phase in over 2 to 4 years is tolerable. Alternatively we could go with Senator Kennedy's proposal for now, and insist on another step later when Democrats control one or both branches of Congress.

I think the only reason Democrats are not strongly enough pushing this issue, is that it is not front and center for the establishment Democrats. Most of these Democrats in higher offices are affluent and sufficiently removed from poverty to be susceptible to the arguments from their libertarian leaning colleagues. They should get a clue. This issue plays well with the rank and file, including many cultural conservatives who left the party for Reagan in the eighties. Lots of these folks are just aching to come back now that the Republican elite has been exposed themselves as the aloof and privileged lot that they are. We don't need elitist Democrats focusing on cultural issues and ignoring the poor.

You will hear the argument that most of the minimum wage jobs are going to people looking for supplemental income who don't rely on it for their living. Whether it is most or some, it is obscene that anyone living in poverty is working full time. Listen to Dan's story. If the law causes two supplemental jobs held by people not relying on them to disappear for every one full time worker that it provides with a living wage, that is a clear net gain.

Others will talk of the inevitable siphoning of American jobs to outsourcing overseas. Yes this is a problem and raising the minimum wage will exacerbate it, but solutions must be found to put all Americans to work who are willing and able to work at a wage which will support them and boost the economy. Raising the minimum wage fixes a clear injustice and is easily understood. Outsourcing is already a problem which needs its own solutions. Keeping a minimum wage which has only been adjusted (and quite inadequately) for inflation since sometime in the seventies is quite simply immoral. The inflation-adjusted value of the minimum wage is 26% lower in 2004 than it was in 1979, and there are real questions whether a minimum raise hike even causes a loss in jobs.

Do the right thing - call your representatives in Washington.


Current state of minimum wage across the country

Boston Globe article

Center for American Progress article


I see now that Ezra Klein posted about this last week.

He references this graph:
Which convinces me that my $9 suggestion is too high - I really ought to research before I post a guess such as that. It looks like Kennedy's proposal was right on the mark.

In spite of its clumsiness, my article drew a lot of good discussion over at Watchblog.

Unfortunately the Senate couldn't muster the will to do the right thing yesterday, and yet this vote suggests that they DID pass it (Required for Majority 1/2; Amendment agreed to) - but then later it was withdrawn?. What's going on here? The CNN article attests to the 52-46 vote in favor of the amendment, and yet says
sixty votes were required because the plan was proposed as an amendment to an unrelated defense bill.

So 80% of Americans want it, and Republican Senators Chafee, Lugar, Collins, Snowe, Coleman, Specter, DeWine, and Warner joined a solid Democratic caucus to give this a majority, but presumably because the majority party controls the agenda, it can only be appended to an unrelated bill causing it to need 60% to pass. Sounds like minority rule to me.

Saturday, 17 June 2006

Mission Rejected

Since my previous post about Lt Watada's refusal to deploy to Iraq, Amy Goodman on Democracy Now has been featuring soldiers' stories and the resistance to serve by those in the military who oppose this war.
She interviewed Peter Laufer, whose new book, Mission Rejected: U.S. Soldiers Who Say No to Iraq covers the subject broadly.

I've long intended to do a bit of research on the topic of military war resisters, but found that information hard to find. Peter Laufer explained in the interview that hard numbers are really hard to come by, since most soldiers who refuse deployment or redeployment are keeping a low profile, and the military is not interested in highlighting the issue.

Those cases we do hear about, many of which are listed here, are really subjecting themselves to harsh scrutiny for the cause which they believe in. Many others simply go AWOL, but whether their reasons constitute a resistance to the Iraq war for cause is not clear.
One early resister was staff sergeant Camilo Mejia, who served in Iraq, and then applied for conscientious objector status after discovering first hand what the war was really about. Those who casually dismiss such examples as simply cowardly are unlikely to have read the words of some of these heroes or to have thought through the issues very thoroughly.

Camilo Mejia, from his statement upon receiving the "Courageous Resister Award", August 2004:
I am only a regular person that got tired of being afraid to follow his own conscience. For far too long I allowed others to direct my actions even when I knew that they were wrong....To those who have called me a coward I say that they are wrong, and that without knowing it, they are also right. They are wrong when they think that I left the war for fear of being killed. I admit that fear was there, but there was also the fear of killing innocent people, the fear of putting myself in a position where to survive means to kill, there was the fear of losing my soul in the process of saving my body, the fear of losing myself to my daughter, to the people who love me, to the man I used to be, the man I wanted to be. I was afraid of waking up one morning to realize my humanity had abandoned me.

Other resources:

Kevin Benderman defense committee

Psychoanalysts against the war

Sir, No Sir
a film

Monday, 12 June 2006

The Thin Thin Line

For most of us, everyday choices present modest dilemmas in which we may choose between two sets of potential outcomes with variable good or bad results.

Military personnel, however, are faced with a duty to follow orders which may have grave consequences. Where is the line beyond which that duty to obey becomes a duty to refuse the order? Certainly there is such a line. No reasonable person would suggest blind duty to obey orders for instance to kill one's fellow soldiers. And yet the military would not work if all orders became optional, and soldiers could disobey any order they thought wrong. Perhaps this is all spelled out quite clearly in the military code, and yet it is hard to imagine there not being circumstances where a soldier might suspect (without being certain) that following an order constitutes a greater crime than disobedience. And then there are cases where one person's certainty counters that of another.

Lt. Ehren Watada has made a very difficult choice.
It is the duty, the obligation of every soldier, and specifically the officers, to evaluate the legality, the truth behind every order — including the order to go to war.
Detractors will point out that Watada enlisted in 2003 after the risk of being deployed to Iraq was quite clear. But since that time the illegality of that war has been made clear to many who did not see it before.
Watada has received substantial support from numerous organizations and individuals who are standing by him, and an online petition supporting his decision is being circulated.

Dan Kirkdorffer, of On the Road to 2008, has been closely following the Watada story here, here, and initially here.

I've long known I never had the right make up to be a soldier. To submit so thoroughly to the authority of others does not come easily when I'm so imbued with notions of independent thought and intellectual freedom. As abhorrent as I find war, I cannot deny the necessity for organizing militaries for the defense of nations, and can see the case for leaving the option of war open as a last resort. I understand the need for a command structure which demands rote loyalty in order for such an enterprise to work. But we must defend a soldier's right to question some orders, including some entire campaigns. Otherwise leaders have carte blanche to engage our troops to their own ends with impunity.

Earlier soldiers such as Kevin Benderman and Carl Webb have been drawing that line. Now a commissioned officer has joined them. America's conscience is being tested, and it will take more than just committed pacifists to bring us around to sanity. When our leaders take us into questionable military adventures, is it any wonder that our military is stretched too thin and morale is low? We risk not having a ready response when the cause is just at some point down the road.

Go here for a military blogger's perspective on this case.

Saturday, 10 June 2006

National Humility

Once upon a time I dreamt that perhaps hundreds or thousands of people would regularly stop by here to soak in my pearls of wisdom, but there are advantages to relative anonymity. It's less of a big deal if I take extended breaks from writing (sorry though, to those of you who wish I would post more often), and I really don't need to worry so much about delivering messages that will backfire, and hence be used against the causes that I care about. I've also come to realize just how many excellent writers and thinkers there are out there, most of whom never get the lucky break to become widely read. It's wonderful that we have this vehicle for sharing ideas, and I'm pleased to see the current widespread outcry from disparate corners of the blogosphere to protect "net neutrality" from undue corporate control.

Recent revelations about the atrocities apparently committed by a few Marines in Haditha got me to thinking about the national humility we need to adopt, a subject which gets far too little attention precisely because any politician approaching it would fear a swift and strong backlash reaction and accusations of being unpatriotic. The mere fact that many such subjects become politically taboo damages our ability to have honest and open dialog, because politicians are constrained to finding popularly acceptable frames within which to make the case for whatever it is they are advocating.

It's quite acceptable for ministers to preach about humility as a virtue, and for individuals to seek an appropriate balance between positive self esteem and humble recognition of their own limitations. But to talk about the need for our nation to find such a comparable balance between marketing the ideas which have made us great and recognizing that we don't have every answer and often have much to learn from other cultures and other experiments in governance is a sure way to be dismissed by many as unpatriotic and unworthy of attention, if not traitorous.

Why can't we celebrate that which is wonderful about our traditions and simultaneously seek to improve on them and recognize our limitations without worrying about drawing such vitriolic scorn? In fact what is wonderful about our system of government is that it attempts to grant great freedom to the individual while providing checks and balances against any one group or portion of government gaining too much control. This brings me back to that wonderful quote by James Madison:
If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.
But people today confuse the greatness of our system with the goodness of our people. While growing up in a democratic context in which respect of our fellows is an inherent value can provide a template for decent behavior, at heart we are no more or less human than anyone else on the planet. In the stress of war, Americans are no different than anyone else, and some will tragically misbehave. Abu Ghraib and Haditha should be wake up calls for a little national humility. The justification of torture, or at least of inhumane and degrading treatment of suspects in custody is born of a misapprehension that Americans can be trusted, simply because they are Americans. If national humility were accepted as a desirable counterweight to our national pride, then we would likely avoid such hubris.

A Google search of "national humility" turns up a few interesting hits, but few American politicians since Lincoln who openly call for it. One exception I found extolling national humility was surprisingly Indiana Republican Senator Richard Lugar, who quotes former Democratic Senator William Fulbright who said:
Power tends to confuse itself with virtue and a great nation is particularly susceptible to the idea that its power is a sign of God’s favor.
I also found a portion of a sermon which acknowledges a practical reason for not extending such a humility too far, but nonetheless to apply some national humility wisely:
We must be careful to extend the analogy of personal humility to national humility with great care, for in many respects the analogy does not hold. Governments have a responsibility to protect that individuals can set aside in a spirit of self-sacrifice. Nevertheless, the American government can conspicuously put others first by making sure that profits on oil, for instance, are fairly distributed in a country before the oil is taken out, and can make sure that poor nations in Africa have the most advantageous condition for the development of their agriculture in a world market.
Finally, I shall leave you with this article in Common Dreams by Thom Hartmann in which we see that Jefferson like Lincoln understood the need for a national humility. It suggests to me that the current taboo against acknowledging that we don't have every answer is stronger now than it was in the first century of our nation's existence. This article was written in advance of our last presidential election in which Hartmann asks whether we will choose the path of empire or the path of democracy. We made a grievous choice, as I've noted before, but it's not too late for humbler choices to follow. Let us recognize that representative democracy by its nature is both noble and humble.