Over the Aisle: This You Must Defend

Marie Myung-Ok Lee finds herself conflicted about attending a controversial author’s reading and wonders: what does “speaking up” actually mean?

Source: Politics and Prose

Lee writes a fascinating article that is worth the long read for two reasons.

Most obviously, she is a progressive who is uncomfortable with the Antifa’s Red Guard style tactics. I take that as a positive: the more either side the US declines to align with its most extreme fringes, the more I nurture the hope that we will avoid civil war.

But what I find most telling is the grounds on which she criticizes the Antifa rabble shouting down a speaker: her problem is that the speaker is actually more sympathetic to their point than they realize, and if they listen they would understand. You see, the author they were shouting down was NOT someone like Richard Spencer. Because he was different than Spencer, because his position was closer to those of Antifa, he deserves to be able to speak.

It apparently does not occur to Ms. Lee that there is a greater crime being committed than the failure to recognize the importance of nuance in a political position. What Lee fails to do is to say – or even suggest – that the problem with the Antifa tactics is that they are not expressing their own right of free speech as much as they are denying someone else theirs. Lee – a writer who thrives on the rights granted by the Constitution – is unwilling to defend that right. By implication, indeed, free speech is not a right but a privilege to be granted only to those who agree with you.

I pick on Ms. Lee, and perhaps unfairly. She is not the issue. The problem is that on the progressive left it is okay to listen politely to someone you agree with, but that someone you disagree with does not even merit the privilege of a public forum. The problem is that it has become okay on the American left to suggest that those whose ideas I find repugnant have no right to self-expression; or, indeed, that there are ideas which must not be aired, even in a free society; and to do so without having to worry about being questioned by your fellows.

In so doing, the left runs the risk of sacrificing its opportunity to take political leadership of this country at a time when, even in the eyes of this conservative, the nation needs a liberal opposition capable of credible leadership.

The Democrats will probably take home a great victory in November, a “blue tide” that will give the Executive Branch the opposition it deserves. If it is to get the opposition that the nation needs, the left must make clear that it offers an inclusive vision of the future, one in which there is even a place for people whose ideas they find repugnant. Nothing will undermine that more quickly than questions about whether the left is prepared to uphold and defend the Constitution.

Advertisements

An Economic Issue

In a fascinating London Review of Books essay earlier this Spring, the distinguished historian Peter Clarke engages in a singular attempt to resuscitate the reputation of Enoch Powell, the late British parliamentarian and classicist who became infamous for a xenophobic address in Parliament in 1968 that was later dubbed the “Rivers of Blood” speech.

Acts of political rehabilitation are to me suspect, particularly in the case of a man whose legacy has been hijacked by the lunatic fringe. This one is difficult to dismiss out of hand because it is taken from the perspective of history. Clarke does not attempt to justify or defend Powell’s most odious ideas: if Clarke is an apologist for Powell, he appears motivated not by ideology or ulterior drives, but by a sense that history is ill-served in settling for a one-dimensional caricature of an influential figure.

Let us be clear: Enoch Powell rode into the scrap heap of history at full gallop and of his own free will. But a cursory review of his life reveals at least  two salient truths: first, that artful couching, superb logic, and fine language do not improve a repugnant idea; and second, that the espousal by an individual of one or more bad ideas does not prima facie brand all of the other ideas espoused by that individual as bad.

I will return to that second theme in another post.

One idea that is worth consideration is one that drove Powell through most of his political career: that some government programs, policies, and actions have value that cannot be measured by economic or purely utilitarian means, and indeed that some policies and actions that may appear economically foolhardy are nonetheless good ideas. As Clarke notes:

It wasn’t part of [Powell’s] doctrine to scrimp on the legitimate functions of the state as he saw them; and if a function were deemed legitimate, he made very high claims indeed. Intuition rather than economic logic guided him. For example, he began a speech in 1981 – in favour of public subsidy of the ferry service to Northern Ireland – by stating his premise as the sort of mere common sense everyone would accept: ‘Communication is the essence of all government: it is not for nothing that the mail is the Royal Mail.’ The idea that such conclusions can be reached by treating the royal status of the mail as axiomatic would surprise many latter-day Thatcherites, who argue that the market could sort this problem out more efficiently.

This was a tough one for me to get down initially: it flies in the face of good business sense and an approach to policy-making that has been ascendant for at least 160 years. It implies that the Congressional Budget Office brand of economics-based cost-benefits analysis does not always produce the best policy.

My instinct is to argue the opposite: I do not think we give enough consideration to non-partisan cost-benefits analysis when making policy decisions; that programs are born and outlive their usefulness because of ideology, pork-barrel politics, or bureaucratic self-interest.

But Clarke’s article on Powell compels me to rethink my orthodox adherence to that principle.

Here are the questions I am pondering:

  1. If we cannot measure the return-on-investment of a policy, is it worthwhile?
  2. What makes that policy more or less worthy than a policy whose impact can be measured in a material form?
  3. Have we placed too much reliance on economics as a measure? Or do we place insufficient reliance on economics and cost-benefits analysis?
  4. Is it time we recognize that decisions taken by non-commercial actors (individuals, organizations, governments) may and sometimes should be made for reasons that defy economic logic or even pure utility?
  5. Should we identify and recognize other determinants of policy quality?
  6. On what basis do we decide which means of analysis is best for a given policy?

I have been long away from the study of these matters, so I recognize I may have meandered onto well-trod ground. If so, please tell me.

A government run by roving bands of ideologues, self-interested legislators, and nest-feathering bureaucrats is a recipe for revolution.  At the same time, government by abacus taken to its logical end is a tyranny. On a river of hard questions we must navigate our way back to a passage between those two extremes. The alternative is The End of America As We Know It (TEOAAWKI).

Wealth does not make Wise

The time has come for us to abandon the implicit belief that the successful acquisition of deep pools of money or vast power does not confer prima facie credibility or rightness on anyone. That process begins in our daily conversations.

So the next time someone defends a questionable idea posited by a self-made individual with a rejoinder along the lines of “hey, he’s worth $10 billion, so he must be doing something right,” respond with “hey, he’s worth $10 billion, and it is also likely that he got there by doing something very wrong.”

In Re Barr and the Bee

With regards the fact that Samantha Bee still has a job on television while Roseanne Barr does not, I see four possibilities.

1. Some unknown authority has issued a secret decree to the effect that an offensive sexist slur is less egregious than an offensive racist slur.

2. The leadership at TBS lack the courage and conviction of the leadership at ABC.

3. An educated progressive immigrant can get away with things that an native-born high-school dropout cannot.

4. Some combination of the above.

I am no fan of Barr or her politics, and I find Bee’s show rather more entertaining than Roseanne’s ever was, even though Samantha and I roost on distant squares of the political plane.

That said, I find both sets of comments equally loathsome, and if one of these two comedians deserves to be collecting unemployment for her  remarks, both do.

A Nation of Creeds

To those who would make of America a Christian nation, I respond thus: if you succeed in your ultimate goal of having America decreed a “Christian Nation,” you might hold your head a little higher on your way to church. You might eliminate some of the opposition to your practices that have been an irritation for you. Maybe.

What you will have done, and done irrevocably, is to revoke the citizenship not only every Muslim in America, but every Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, Wiccan, Animist, and Zoroastrian, not to mention every agnostic, atheist, and traditional practitioner of Native American faiths. In so doing, you will have made a joke of the First Amendment of the US Constitution. You will have placed us on the road to becoming the kind of theocracy our forefathers rejected. You will, in so doing, have made yourself an enemy of Liberty, of the Constitution, of Freedom, and of these United States.

America is a country of religions, not a religious country; it is a nation made up mostly of Christians, but not a Christian nation. Accepting that fact does not make you less Christian – on the contrary, in your charity and mercy, in seeing to it that America ever remains a country where the granting of liberty and justice for all is what makes up a nation under G-d, have you not lived the very tenets of your faith?

Lay to rest, I implore you, this idea of declaring America a Christian nation. Raise high the banner of religious freedom, and show the world that America will live under the law of men under G-d, not the Law of God under Men.

The Sharks are Coming for Fat Albert

I grew up with Bill Cosby. I watched iSpy with my parents. I watched Fat Albert on Saturday mornings (“Nah nah nah, gonna have a good time!”) I saw Mother, Jugs, and Speed at an age when technically the theatre should not have let me in without a parent. The first comedy album I owned was To My Brother Russel, Whom I Slept With. Willie Sobel and I had the album memorized in 7th grade and we would recite entire passages, complete with sound effects. I saw Bill perform live at Concord Pavilion, watched The Cosby Show. And when he took to the page and the stage and challenged young men to be better dads, I listened to his advice and resolved to be a father of whom Cos and my own dad would approve.

I was white, male, and Jewish, and Bill Cosby was my role model. He transcended race, creating a post-ethnic space that made it possible for young white men to have black role models who weren’t athletes. Equally important, he became a stepping stone into a world where black voices were not just speaking to blacks, but were speaking to all men. Malcolm X died when I was a toddler; Dr. King died when I was in pre-school. They never meant to me what Cos did. Cos arguably opened the door for Morgan Freeman and Samuel L. Jackson, but in some respects, he did the same for  Colin Powell, Thomas Sowell, and Condoleeza Rice. In short, he was proof that the future of America would be integrated and diverse, and that for it to be anything else was foolhardy.

He was an icon. And for that reason, I wanted to believe the best about him. When he admitted in a paternity suit in 1997 that he’d had an affair with Shawn Upshaw of Las Vegas, I believed that it was an isolated transgression in an otherwise ideal marriage with his wife Camille. When questions arose about whether or not he deserved his Doctorate in Education, I believed them to be the jealous sniping of academics trying to score points on each other. And when he stood up and criticized young black men for not being better fathers, I believed it was tough love from a man who had wrestled with his own parenting challenges and won.

I will leave questions of his parenting for his children to answer, but the glow of the rest has faded. The award of his doctorate and possibly his Master’s degree appear less justified than first glance, not only because he never completed an undergraduate degree, but because of an allegedly weak thesis, spotty academic work, his strong-handing of both the university and his doctoral committee, and the fact that he was given academic credit for appearing on “Fat Albert” and “The Electric Company.”  And now it appears that the L’affaire Upshaw may not have been a once-in-a-marriage misstep, but the leading indicator of a long love life lived away from the marriage bed, and allegedly under extremely unsavory circumstances.

I am trying, however, to reserve judgments on each the crimes of which he is accused. Having spent most of my adult life living in a land where a person is guilty until proven innocent, I am enjoying the luxury of sustaining a reasonable doubt about Cosby’s guilt of each accusation until a jury of his peers has had their say. I suspect that not many will join me in that. Cosby has been tried and convicted in the court of public opinion, and many view his court proceedings as a formality.

That is a shame, not for Cosby, but for us. If we truly believe in our system of justice, it is our obligation to remember and remind ourselves that we are obliged to hold a man innocent until he is proven guilty in a court of law as judged by a jury of his peers. When we stop doing that, we undermine the monopoly our system of justice has on punishment. In a day when a man must live or die by his public reputation, participating in a trial by public opinion is the moral equivalent of vigilantism.

Let us allow justice to be done. And then let us pass our own verdicts.

Agriculture

It is a mistake to tar our entire modern agriculture and food distribution system with the worst behavior of its meanest participants.

The proper response to the excesses of industrial agriculture is not to destroy it in favor of small scale farms and locovore culture, but to punish the miscreants, remove perverse incentives, and generally to redress the problems in the system.

Fix big ag. With a hammer. And the threat of an alternative.