Category Archives: Articles

The Myth of Republican Governance

If your ideology says government can’t succeed, why prove yourself wrong?


Any day now, we are often assured, Republicans in Congress will start to take their jobs seriously. It hasn’t happened yet, but soon.

“I think a lot of people better get serious about governing,” Pennsylvania Republican Congressman Charlie Dent said last Friday, after the House failed to fund the Department of Homeland Security past next Friday. It’ll happen. Any day. Any minute.

Of course, they were very serious about governing during the George W. Bush administration. But nobody — not even Bush’s closest relatives — want to think too hard about those days now.

And then the Obama landslide of 2008 made Republicans almost irrelevant for two years. Suddenly there was no point trying to take responsibility for anything, and Republicans discovered the invigorating thrill of pure nihilism. They were free to propose nothing and say no to everything, even their own ideas from that era we don’t talk about any more.

So when Obama based his healthcare proposal on Romneycare, Romney opposed it. McCain turned against the McCain-Lieberman cap-and-trade plan, and voted against his own immigration reform. Republicans were all mad as hell and they weren’t going to take it any more — whatever it was.

But when the low-turnout election of 2010 made John Boehner Speaker of the House, it was time to get serious and get back to governing responsibly. Wasn’t it? [1]

Then followed four years of playing chicken with the well-being of the Republic. That series of crises culminated in the government shutdown of 2013, when the executive branch was very nearly put in the impossible situation of being obligated to carry out Congress’ appropriations bills, but forbidden to raise the money by either taxing or borrowing. Crazy ideas like the trillion-dollar coin bounced around, because they were no crazier than everything else that was happening.

At the time, Republicans’ poll numbers dropped, and there was some thought that the voters might punish the party in 2014. But in fact the exact opposite happened: The voters gave them control of the Senate too.

But now, with control of both houses, they have something to prove. Don’t they? In January as the new completely-Republican-controlled Congress opened, John McCain expressed the party line:

I think a majority [of Republicans] recognize that we have to govern responsibly. We have to show that we can be a productive party, and that, I think, will have a direct effect on whether we’re able to elect a Republican as president in 2016.

Two months later, DHS is living paycheck to paycheck, because House Republicans are mad as hell about immigration. They don’t have a coherent plan to undo President Obama’s executive actions, and they certainly don’t have an immigration plan of their own [2], but they’re mad! They have to do … something.

Meanwhile, we’re now up to 50 votes repealing ObamaCare, and not a single one on a Republican plan to replace it. Republicans nearly all acknowledge that parts of ObamaCare should be kept. (The part about pre-existing conditions, for example.) But coming up with a plan that actually does that? Making the compromises necessary to pass it into law? You’ve got to be kidding.

Discipline. In years past, the voters played the wait-til-your-father-gets-home role in American politics. A little bit of posturing and headline-grabbing was fine, even expected. But if a political temper tantrum gave the public reason to doubt the basic functions of government, somebody would pay come the next election.

Democrats, media pundits, and would-be grown-ups among the Republicans (i.e., McCain, Boehner, and McConnell) keep trying to invoke that discipline. But think about it: In 2013, for the sake of a plan that never had any chance of working, the Republican back-benchers shut down the government and very nearly broke the full faith and credit of the United States. And 13 months later, the voters gave their party more power.

We live in a new world, where Dad isn’t coming home and there’s no reason the kids should ever finish their vegetables and go to bed.

It’s time we understood how this new world works.

The difference between the parties. A cynical view of politics says that the two parties are just mirror images of each other, rival gangs competing for territory like West Side Story‘s Jets and Sharks.

But there is one key difference between the two: Democrats believe that government can change people’s lives for the better, and that we can do things together that we can’t do for ourselves. Together, we can have parks and libraries and public schools and clean air. We can soften the dog-eat-dog aspects of the capitalist system so that ordinary people have a chance. We can insure each other against disasters from hurricanes to cancer.

Republicans believe that government can only screw things up.

So when Republicans govern well, they refute themselves. If a Republican official solves a problem — like Mitt Romney did with health care in Massachusetts — it just creates an appetite for more government.

And that’s bad. To really prove the point that government can only screw things up, Republicans elected to office need to screw things up.

Turnout, not persuasion. In the old model of politics, there were “swing voters” — voters not identified with either party, who were open to persuasion. Each side had its partisans, but the one that convinced the swing voters would win.

One thing that swing voters found convincing was performance; that was where the discipline came from. If you made the United States look like a joke, they’d vote you out.

But that’s not how it works these days. Overwhelmingly, the people who care about politics enough to vote are identified with one party or the other, no matter what that party does. Today the question isn’t who you’ll vote for, it’s whether you’ll vote. (That’s how, for example, Mitt Romney got zero votes in some inner-city precincts of Philadelphia and Cleveland. Similarly, there were evangelical churches in the South where if you voted, you voted against Obama. So parties don’t bother trying to convince either set of voters, they just get their own to the polls.)

Take a look at how that works out in the vote totals for House races. (Data from Wikipedia.)

year Republican Democratic Total House split
2008 52,249,491 65,237,840 117,487,331 178-257
2010 44,827,441 38,980,192 83,807,633 242-193
2012 58,228,253 59,645,531 117,873,784 234-201
2014 40,024,866 35,626,309 75,651,175 247-188

A few things to notice:

  • Republicans got their biggest House majority in 2014, when they polled the fewest votes.
  • When there’s a big turnout, the Democrats win the popular vote, but when turnout is small, Republicans win. Another way to say the same thing is that the Republican vote is steadier than the Democratic vote. The lowest Republican vote (2014) is still more than two-thirds of the highest (2012), while the lowest Democratic vote (2014) is barely more than half the highest (2008). Conclusion: The people who might or might not vote are overwhelmingly Democrats.
  • Gerrymandering has locked in a certain amount of Republican advantage, so that winning the popular vote in 2012 didn’t get the Democrats control of the House.

Demographics. The big story after the 2012 election was that demographic trends favor the Democrats. The percentage of the country that is white shrinks every year, and Democrats are favored by non-whites. Young voters (who will be around for a while) trend Democratic, while old voters (who won’t) trend Republican. Christian voters (shrinking) trend Republican, while no-specified-religion voters (growing) trend Democratic.

Salivating over those delicious trends, Democrats started trying to predict the date when Texas turns blue. A report by College Republicans said that their party had to change: compromise on immigration and gay marriage, reach out to Hispanics, blacks, and young people.

None of those changes happened in 2014, and yet the GOP won big. How? The rising demographic groups didn’t vote.

Comparing yesterday’s exit polls to those of 2012, the first thing that jumps out at you is a big shift in age demographics: under-30 voters dropped from 19 percent of the electorate in 2012 to 13 percent in 2014, while over-65 voters climbed from 16 percent in 2012 to 22 percent in 2014. That’s quite close to the age demographics of 2010.

Rather than continue its inexorable decline, the white vote increased from 72% in 2012 to 75% in 2014.

And that’s the secret to the lasting Republican congressional majority, and maybe to electing a Republican president in 2016: Don’t try to convince swing voters that Republicans can govern better than Democrats (or even govern at all). Just keep the rising demographic groups from voting.

No hope, no change. A portion of the blame/credit for the low turnout among minorities and youth in 2014 has to go to the intentional voter suppression Republicans have been focused on since 2010. They discovered that you don’t have to formally disenfranchise people to keep them away from the polls, you just have to make voting harder and less rewarding. Make people who don’t own cars (and so have no reason to already have a photo-ID drivers license) jump through an extra hoop. Make college students vote where their parents live. Gerrymander districts so that election results are a foregone conclusion. Shorten poll hours, make sure the lines are long in Democratic precincts, and so forth.

Marginal voters tend to have less slack in their lives than the more established non-urban whites of the Republican base. Getting to the polls is tougher, and standing in line for hours might mean you get fired or the kids are left unsupervised. So sure, each new hurdle in front of the voting booth is going to discourage more Democrats than Republicans.

That all has some effect, and will probably have more and more as it becomes normal and fails to provoke the backlash that motivated blacks (in particular) in 2012. But the real secret to lasting Republican power is motivational, or rather, de-motivational: Ruin people’s hope that politics can change their lives for the better.

People get involved in politics because they believe it can stop a war, save a school, jail the bankers who wrecked the economy, open doors for their racial group, give working people a chance, or secure their future against disasters of all sorts. They run away from politics when it looks like one of those pointless internet flame wars. Life is short and energy is limited. If politics is a waste of time, people who aren’t already committed to it will stay away — especially if their lives are hard enough already.

So when the marginal voters would vote against you, dysfunction becomes a strategy. Republican ideology already says that government can’t do anything but screw up. So if Congress is seen as just a bunch of jokers, that proves their point. If even the most obvious bill becomes impossible to pass, and the federal government lurches from crisis to crisis without doing anything that helps people … what better voter suppression is there?

Democrats need hope and change to motivate people to be active and vote. Republicans need no hope and no change to keep them tuned out. And they’re getting it.

That’s how we have the perverse polling we’ve seen: Just before the 2014 election, National Journal found only 9% approved of the job Congress was doing while 80% disapproved. In a Pew Research poll, disapproval of the Republican Party has been consistently running 68/23 neighborhood, compared to Democrats’ somewhat less unfavorable 60/32 split. And that led to increasing the Republican House majority and giving them control of the Senate too.

Why? National Journal has the answer: Americans wish the parties would co-operate more, but don’t believe they will. So:

More of those surveyed looked outside the political system for changes that might improve their lives.

What next? Whether or not we stop paying FBI agents next Friday, don’t expect Republicans in Congress to stop playing games with the government. And yes, it will drive down the popularity of Congress and of the Republican Party.

But so what? That dysfunction will also convince more Americans to lose faith in politics. More and more, voting will become that pointless thing old white people do. And why would you campaign for a candidate or donate to a campaign, unless you represent a special interest that needs to buy a favor?

Winning the House in 2010 gave Republicans the power to screw things up in Washington. And marginal voters responded to the screwed-up state of politics by staying home in 2014 and giving Republicans control of the Senate as well. Maybe they now have the power to screw things up on a grand enough scale to elect a Republican president in 2016.

But, then, surely, with control of both Congress and the White House, Republicans will have to take governing seriously. Won’t they?

Don’t count on it.


[1] It’s worth giving some thought to exactly what “responsible governing” would mean, so that it isn’t just thrown around as a buzzword.

In general, responsible governing means compromising to find a way forward that can be passed into law, rather than turning everything into a test of ideological purity. Finding a workable compromise is something a politician should be proud of, not a shameful act that can only be accomplished under the threat of a dire emergency.

Responsible governing also means being for something, rather than just criticizing everybody else’s solutions. Don’t like President Obama’s immigration plan? Fine. Tell me yours.

Above all, responsible governing means an end to hostage-taking, i.e., threatening to do something that nobody wants if you don’t get your way. Compromise means weighing what I want against what you want. But when one of us starts threatening to do things that nobody wants, we’re playing a different game entirely. The debt ceiling is the clearest example of a hostage — nobody really wants to see the United States default on its legal commitments — but nobody wants to see DHS shut down either.

It’s weird that the people most committed to ideological purity and most opposed to compromise claim to be representing the point of view of the Founders. The Founders were champion compromisers. The United States wouldn’t exist at all if they weren’t.

[2] Marco Rubio had an immigration plan, but has been making what Bloomberg Politics called an “apology tour” for daring to pass it through the Senate. If it had become law, hara-kari would have been his only honorable option.

The Islamic State: separating insight from stereotype

The Atlantic published a much-discussed article about ISIS.
About half of it was deeply insightful.


What does the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria want? How is it different from al Qaeda? Why does it act the way it does? What are its leaders trying to do? What draws in Muslims from all over the world? And if we understood all those things, what strategy would we use to fight it?

Graeme Wood’s article “What ISIS Really Wants” in The Atlantic touched off a heated discussion of these important questions, and was answered by a flurry of other articles like “The Atlantic‘s Big Islam Lie” in Salon, “What The Atlantic Gets Dangerously Wrong about ISIS and Islam” in ThinkProgress, and many others. Just looking at the headlines might convince you that Wood’s article just touches off another he-said/she-said argument and isn’t worth the investment you’d need to figure out what it’s about.

That would be a mistake, because Wood’s article is a rare combination of deep insight with deep flaws. What’s even rarer, the insights don’t depend on the flaws. In other words, you can learn a lot from Wood about how Islam figures in the self-image and self-definition of the Islamic State, but avoid picking up Wood’s stereotyped view of Islam in general.

Let’s start with the insight. Wood raises two topics that hadn’t gotten much attention previously in the mainstream articles about ISIS, and makes a good case that they are highly significant in understanding the Islamic State:

  • a particular Muslim vision of the end times
  • ISIS’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi styling himself as a caliph who controls territory.

The End Times. Wood writes:

The Islamic State differs from nearly every other current jihadist movement in believing that it is written into God’s script as a central character. It is in this casting that the Islamic State is most boldly distinctive from its predecessors, and clearest in the religious nature of its mission. …

The Islamic State has attached great importance to the Syrian city of Dabiq, near Aleppo. It named its propaganda magazine after the town, and celebrated madly when (at great cost) it conquered Dabiq’s strategically unimportant plains. It is here, the Prophet reportedly said, that the armies of Rome will set up their camp. The armies of Islam will meet them, and Dabiq will be Rome’s Waterloo or its Antietam. … Now that it has taken Dabiq, the Islamic State awaits the arrival of an enemy army there, whose defeat will initiate the countdown to the apocalypse.

Students of Christianity will recognize the parallels to Megiddo, a.k.a. Armageddon, a site in Israel about twenty miles from Haifa. Like Armageddon, whose single sketchy reference in one verse of Revelation gets spun into Volume 11 of the Left Behind series, Dabiq is part of an elaborate projection of ancient prophecy onto current events.

Groups that see themselves playing a role in a prophesied Apocalypse (like ISIS) are different from predominantly political groups (like al Qaeda).

In broad strokes, al-Qaeda acts like an underground political movement, with worldly goals in sight at all times—the expulsion of non-Muslims from the Arabian peninsula, the abolishment of the state of Israel, the end of support for dictatorships in Muslim lands. The Islamic State has its share of worldly concerns (including, in the places it controls, collecting garbage and keeping the water running), but the End of Days is a leitmotif of its propaganda.

Apocalyptic groups have access to a higher level of fervor, but they are also more rigid. When the Americans brought overwhelming force to Afghanistan, Bin Laden could fold his tents and disappear. But if an enemy army really does show up at Dabiq, the Islamic State will have to fight it or face enormous loss of legitimacy.

The Caliphate. Bin Laden’s “franchised” terrorist movement had a highly flexible post-modern organizational structure. He envisioned a restored Caliphate as a distant goal, not something he might hope to rule (or even see) in his lifetime.

The Islamic State, by contrast, controls territory and has (according to Wood) “billboards, license plates, stationery, and coins”. At the moment that territory might amount to slivers of land nobody else wants badly enough to bleed for (see Wood’s map), but the fact that it exists — and that al-Baghdadi has been proclaimed Caliph of it — has enormous significance inside a particular interpretation of Sharia.

Wood quotes an Australian follower (whom the Australian government has been prevented from emigrating to the Islamic State):

Cerantonio explained the joy he felt when Baghdadi was declared the caliph on June 29—and the sudden, magnetic attraction that Mesopotamia began to exert on him and his friends. “I was in a hotel [in the Philippines], and I saw the declaration on television,” he told me. “And I was just amazed, and I’m like, Why am I stuck here in this bloody room?

If there is a legitimate Caliph of Islam — like Popes and Highlander prize-winners, there can be only one — then all Muslims owe him allegiance.

Before the caliphate, “maybe 85 percent of the Sharia was absent from our lives,” Choudary told me. “These laws are in abeyance until we have khilafa”—a caliphate—“and now we have one.” Without a caliphate, for example, individual vigilantes are not obliged to amputate the hands of thieves they catch in the act. But create a caliphate, and this law, along with a huge body of other jurisprudence, suddenly awakens. In theory, all Muslims are obliged to immigrate to the territory where the caliph is applying these laws.

But maintaining control of that territory is part of the deal. A legitimate Caliph can’t just be the head of a franchised post-modern terror network, he has to control land and implement Sharia there.

So al-Baghdadi would lose his claim to the Caliphate if, like Bin Laden, he retreated to some equivalent of Tora Bora and then vanished. More than that: Islam would lose its Caliphate — which true Muslims have a duty to establish and maintain, according to Islamic State dogma — if it no longer controlled territory.

Dogma also puts restrictions on the kind of diplomacy ISIS can practice. In the long term, it is the duty of the Caliph to expand the Caliphate, so any treaties or boundaries established by treaties can only be temporary.

If the caliph consents to a longer-term peace or permanent border, he will be in error. Temporary peace treaties are renewable, but may not be applied to all enemies at once: the caliph must wage jihad at least once a year. He may not rest, or he will fall into a state of sin.

… It’s hard to overstate how hamstrung the Islamic State will be by its radicalism. The modern international system, born of the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, relies on each state’s willingness to recognize borders, however grudgingly. For the Islamic State, that recognition is ideological suicide. Other Islamist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, have succumbed to the blandishments of democracy and the potential for an invitation to the community of nations, complete with a UN seat. Negotiation and accommodation have worked, at times, for the Taliban as well. (Under Taliban rule, Afghanistan exchanged ambassadors with Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates, an act that invalidated the Taliban’s authority in the Islamic State’s eyes.) To the Islamic State these are not options, but acts of apostasy.

This territory-focus also makes its followers less immediately dangerous to the West: Staying in your home country and blowing things up is a second-best option. The higher goal is to move to the Islamic State and live under true Sharia.

During his visit to Mosul in December, Jürgen Todenhöfer interviewed a portly German jihadist and asked whether any of his comrades had returned to Europe to carry out attacks. The jihadist seemed to regard returnees not as soldiers but as dropouts. “The fact is that the returnees from the Islamic State should repent from their return,” he said. “I hope they review their religion.”

What ISIS implies about Islam. Where Wood goes wrong — and gets soundly thrashed for it in a number of articles — is  in his framing of the nature of Islam — not just what it means to al-Baghdadi and his followers, but what it means in a more absolute sense. He begins by setting up the straw-man argument that the Islamic State is “un-Islamic” and then knocks it down like this:

Many mainstream Muslim organizations have gone so far as to say the Islamic State is, in fact, un-Islamic. It is, of course, reassuring to know that the vast majority of Muslims have zero interest in replacing Hollywood movies with public executions as evening entertainment. But Muslims who call the Islamic State un-Islamic are typically, as the Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel, the leading expert on the group’s theology, told me, “embarrassed and politically correct, with a cotton-candy view of their own religion” that neglects “what their religion has historically and legally required.” Many denials of the Islamic State’s religious nature, he said, are rooted in an “interfaith-Christian-nonsense tradition.”

TPM’s Josh Marshall reacted to the straw man with:

The Wood piece is a fascinating read. But did someone read this and think, Damn, these ISIS folks are really hardcore and they are seriously into Islam!

And Fareed Zakaria writes:

Wood’s essay reminds me of some of the breathless tracts during the Cold War that pointed out that the communists really, really believed in communism. [see endnote 1]

Wood’s (and Haykel’s) argument is a slight-of-hand that works by interchanging two meanings of Islamic. On the one hand, Islam is a tradition that begins with Muhammad and the Qur’an and continues through the centuries. In that sense, Wood’s claim that the Islamic State is “very Islamic” is true: ISIS arises out of one strand of interpretation of sources in the Islamic tradition. Few, if any, critics are claiming that ISIS’s religious fervor is simply a false face consciously wallpapered over secular intentions.

But Islam is also the spiritual practice of 1.6 billion people, each of whom has a unique perspective on the true spirit of the faith. When Muslims say that ISIS is “un-Islamic”, they mean that the religion they are in relationship with finds ISIS’s practices abhorrent. (It’s similar to the way you might react if a close friend were accused of a heinous crime: “The Bob I know would never do that.”)

An appropriate Christian analogy [2] would be the white-supremacist Christian Identity movement. Its rhetoric is incomprehensible without a detailed knowledge of the Bible, so it is very Christian in the sense that it grows out of the Christian tradition. But is it in harmony with the true spirit of Christianity? The vast majority of practicing Christians would say no.

And lest secularists think this is all some defect of religion, Soviet Communism is an inescapable part of the Western secular tradition. It billed its view of history as “scientific”, and its underlying philosophy of dialectical materialism was incomprehensible without reference to the secular Western concept of history as linear and conducive to progress.

There’s a lesson here: If you don’t want to take responsibility for everything that grows out of the roots of your own tradition, you don’t get to assign similar responsibilities to people from other traditions.

Seriousness. Wood’s article embodies an attitude I’ve criticized here and here: that only extremists are “serious” about their beliefs. Again he quotes Haykel, who attributes to ISIS “an assiduous, obsessive seriousness that Muslims don’t normally have.”

When you are the victim of this “seriousness” fallacy, the flaw is obvious: Communists are the only “serious” liberals and Fascists the only “serious” conservatives. If Martin Luther King had been “serious”, he would have demanded black supremacy rather than integration. Only the strictest Libertarians are “serious” about freedom. Have you ever based a decision on emotion or intuition? Ever appreciated a work of art or music without being able to explain why? Then you’re not “serious” about rationality. Would you fight against the rape of your daughter or take up arms to liberate Auschwitz? Sorry, but you’re really a war-monger at heart; only absolute pacifists are “serious” opponents of violence.

I could go on, but I hope I’ve given enough examples for you to find one that offends you.

Wood’s defeat of the ISIS-is-un-Islamic straw man leads him seamlessly into the implication that ISIS is where Islam goes if you are “serious” about it. Any tendency to co-exist with the modern world marks you as an un-serious Muslim, with a “cotton candy view” of Islam. [3] From a defense of the obviously true notion that the Islamic State is based on one interpretation of Islam, Wood segues to the dubious implication that it is the only “serious” interpretation.

Well, almost. Eventually, if you read far enough into Wood’s article, you get this caveat:

It would be facile, even exculpatory, to call the problem of the Islamic State “a problem with Islam.” The religion allows many interpretations, and Islamic State supporters are morally on the hook for the one they choose. And yet simply denouncing the Islamic State as un-Islamic can be counterproductive, especially if those who hear the message have read the holy texts and seen the endorsement of many of the caliphate’s practices written plainly within them.

He counters ISIS with another “serious” interpretation: one that also wants to recreate the 7th century, but has a personal rather than political focus.

These quietist Salafis, as they are known, agree with the Islamic State that God’s law is the only law, and they eschew practices like voting and the creation of political parties. But they interpret the Koran’s hatred of discord and chaos as requiring them to fall into line with just about any leader, including some manifestly sinful ones. … Much in the same way ultra-Orthodox Jews debate whether it’s kosher to tear off squares of toilet paper on the Sabbath (does that count as “rending cloth”?), they spend an inordinate amount of time ensuring that their trousers are not too long, that their beards are trimmed in some areas and shaggy in others. Through this fastidious observance, they believe, God will favor them with strength and numbers, and perhaps a caliphate will arise. At that moment, Muslims will take vengeance and, yes, achieve glorious victory at Dabiq. But Pocius cites a slew of modern Salafi theologians who argue that a caliphate cannot come into being in a righteous way except through the unmistakable will of God.

So those are your choices, Muslims: You can go to Dabiq, pledge allegiance to al-Baghdadi, and prepare to fight the Crusader invasion. Or you can spend your life avoiding politics, following sinful leaders, and worrying about the length of your trousers. Or, if you’d rather live in the 21st century, you can refuse to be “serious” and practice “cotton-candy” Islam.

Interpretation. Every useful insight Wood has about end-times prophecy or the Caliphate is compatible with the more common scholarly view that ISIS’s version of Islam is one interpretation among many. One writer who strikes that balance well is Hussein Ibish. As he said in an interview:

Neither is ISIS authentically Islamic, nor is it in any meaningful sense not Islamic. It is a bizarre interpretation of Islam yoked to a political agenda which is very modern. If we just stop fretting about the relationship of ISIS to the religious base of its ideology and accept that it’s a bunch of extremists who come out of a tradition that they manipulate to justify their crimes and their ambitions, it’s not so complicated.

Think Progress quotes Jerusha Tanner Lamptey, Professor of Islam and Ministry at Union Theological Seminary:

[Islamic] texts have never been only interpreted literally. They have always been interpreted in multiple ways — and that’s not a chronological thing, that’s been the case from the get-go.

Such interpretation is necessary, because (like any set of founding texts [4]), taking every line of the Qur’an as a truth that applies to every situation in the most obvious way leads to contradictions. Non-literal interpretation is also necessary for the Islamic State, because the Qur’an contains peaceful, merciful verses as well as violent, cruel ones.

ISIS exegetes these verses away I am sure, but that’s the point. It’s not really about one perspective being literal, one being legitimate, one ignoring things … it’s about diverse interpretations.

The various versions of Sharia — there’s not just one — are themselves interpretations that arose centuries after Muhammad. For example, all the Islamic State dogma about the significance of the Caliphate has to be post-Qur’anic interpretation for a very simple reason: In Muhammad’s day there was no institutional Caliphate; there was just Muhammad. (Similarly, the New Testament contains no mention of the Papacy. The institution-builders came later.)

Don’t give ISIS what it wants. There are two reasons we should try to understand ISIS: so what we can predict what it will do (and maybe even manipulate it to our advantage), and so that we don’t inadvertently give it what it wants.

Here are some things ISIS wants:

  • To be seen as the only Muslims who take Islam seriously. Wood and many others are giving al-Baghdadi what he wants.
  • To be Islam’s representative in an apocalyptic Islam-against-the-infidels holy war. So when Bill O’Reilly announces “The Holy War has begun.”, he’s endorsing ISIS’ narrative.
  • Polarization. An essential aspect of the Apocalypse is that everybody has to pick a side. The worst thing for ISIS is to be viewed as nothing more than one bizarre splinter of Islamic interpretation. We should be encouraging other Muslims to ask: “So how’s that working out for you? Are you prosperous and thriving? Or have you turned your corner of the Earth into a little piece of Hell?”
  • Drama. Jihadists come to the Islamic State looking to fight the ultimate battle. So the more boring we can make their lives, the harder it will be for them. Keeping ISIS bottled up inside its current boundaries may seem like no progress, but it may be the best strategy. The search for drama may lead ISIS to splinter into factions that fight each other over trivial doctrinal differences.
  • To strike terror into the hearts of infidels. Whenever American pundits frame ISIS’ jihadists as the baddest baddies in the history of badness, they’re serving the ISIS propaganda effort. The reason ISIS has to keep racheting things up — from beheadings to burning people alive — is that they need to shock us. We should refuse to be shocked.

Face it on our terms. In the long run, al-Baghdadi can only succeed if he can create an economy based on more than just loot and ransom. That will be hard to do with the territory he has, so keeping him bottled up in it is a good strategy.

The United States military has two major advantages: First, we can bomb the hell out of any army that tries to mass and advance. That’s how we stopped the progress of ISIS towards Kirkuk and Baghdad, and in general how we can hope to keep it bottled up.

Second, our troops can win any pitched battle on open ground. Where we run into trouble is in the kind of guerrilla fighting where we can’t tell who the enemy is.

If the Islamic State doesn’t dissolve into frustrated splinters, we may someday need to fight that pitched battle on open ground. And unlike al Qaeda or the Taliban, ISIS will have a hard time avoiding it.


[1] It’s striking how closely current anti-Islam rhetoric tracks Cold War anti-Communist rhetoric. For example, here’s a Cold War quote from Ronald Reagan in the 1960s (lifted from The Invisible Bridge): “The inescapable truth is that we are at war, and we are losing that war simply because we don’t or won’t realize we are in it.” Compare this to Newt Gingrich discussing our current war with Islam: “You cannot win this war if you don’t admit that it’s a war.”

[2] Whenever people make such analogies, a linguistic problem shows up: Muslims have two adjectives — Muslim and Islamic — where Christians have only the adjective Christian. A Muslim is an imperfect human being who practices Islam. To say that something is Muslim means only that it is associated with Muslims. So Egypt is Muslim country, because you can expect to run into a lot of Muslims there.

But to Muslims, something is Islamic only if it is part of the religion of Islam, and there is a strong implication that it is a true part of Islam, since Islam is the true faith. So it would be inappropriate to say that Egypt is an Islamic country, unless you believe that the current military junta governs according to Allah’s true will.

Hence the controversy over the phrase Islamic terrorism. The Charlie Hebdo massacre was clearly Muslim terrorism, since the people who carried it out were Muslims. But to call it Islamic terrorism implies that the terrorists were faithfully serving Allah when they killed their victims. The terrorists themselves made that claim, but Muslims around the world disagreed. Those who describe the massacre as Islamic terrorism are implicitly taking the terrorists’ side in this argument.

[3] Sam Harris uses serious in a similar way: “There are hundreds of millions of Muslims who are nominal Muslims, who don’t take the faith seriously, who don’t want to kill apostates, who are horrified by ISIS.”

[4] As former Supreme Court Justice David Souter pointed out, the same is true of the Constitution. Interpretation is necessary because “the Constitution contains values that may well exist in tension with each other, not in harmony.”

There’s a whole other essay to write here, but traditional societies tend to govern themselves according to collections of contradictory aphorisms that serve to frame the community discussion of any particular case. (Is this a “look before you leap” situation, or a “he who hesitates is lost” situation?) That’s a system, not a flaw; it’s how timeless folk wisdom mixes with immediate circumstances. Only when you start using Enlightenment-style rationality and treating the aphorisms like Euclidean axioms do the contradictions become a problem.

When Hate Stays in the Closet

answering the most sympathetic and reasonable arguments against same-sex marriage


I found the Marriage Conservation Facebook page when one of my FB friends linked to something “hateful” posted there. And it’s true, you don’t have to read very far to find nasty comments cloaked in self-righteousness.

But that’s not what I found interesting.

In general, I try to discourage my friends from winding themselves up by seeking out other people’s bile. Once in a while I run into some blessedly innocent person who doesn’t understand the depth of irrational hatred in the world, and who (sadly) needs to be disillusioned a little. But I believe that for most of us, the idea that there are crazy, nasty, ugly people on the other side comes to mind far too easily.

What’s harder to hold in mind is all the good, decent, well-meaning people who are trying their best to do the right thing, but happen to believe something different than I do or you do.

There always are such people, and they often form the majority of the opposition. This is true even if you are 100% right. Human beings are fallible, we’re loath to discard familiar attitudes, and the opportunities for rationalization to derail clear thinking are innumerable. (That’s true for me and the people who agree with me, too.) So recognizing the fundamental humanity of your opponents doesn’t mean you have to compromise with them or pretend that their points have more validity than you think they really do.

Failing to see the well-intentioned people on the other side is also counter-productive. Because the more an argument becomes dominated by hate and angry condemnations of hate, the more convinced the well-meaning people will be that they must be right. After all, if the points they find convincing were answerable, surely people would be answering them, rather than tarring them by association with the bigots or the self-righteous types whose best argument is something like “I just talked to God and He agrees with me.”

So let’s consider some of the points that the more reasonable folks who post to Marriage Conservation find compelling. There are basically two types: testimonies and statistics.

Testimony. One kind of article that has been showing up more and more often lately is the testimony of a young adult raised by same-sex parents. Marriage-equality advocates been using such testimonies effectively for some time, and Justice Kennedy (who is likely to be the deciding vote when the Supreme Court rules on this issue later this year) has said:

There are some 40,000 children in California, according to the Red Brief, that live with same-sex parents, and they want their parents to have full recognition and full status. The voice of those children is important in this case, don’t you think?

So naturally, the other side has found its own testimonies: Not every child raised by a same-sex couple believes in marriage equality. A good example is Katy Faust’s “Dear Justice Kennedy: An Open Letter from the Child of a Loving Gay Parent“.

I write because I am one of many children with gay parents who believe we should protect marriage. … I’d like to explain why I think redefining marriage would actually serve to strip these children of their most fundamental rights.

Faust goes on to say that she loves her mother and her mother’s partner, but the debate about marriage shouldn’t hinge on “lessening emotional suffering within the homosexual community”

This debate, at its core, is about one thing. It’s about children.

“There is no difference between the value and worth of heterosexual and homosexual persons,” Faust writes.

However, when it comes to procreation and child-rearing, same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples are wholly unequal and should be treated differently for the sake of the children.

When two adults who cannot procreate want to raise children together, where do those babies come from? Each child is conceived by a mother and a father to whom that child has a natural right.

She then talks about “the missing parent”. In her case she was raised by two mothers, but her parents’ divorce distanced her from her father. The authenticity of that yearning is what gives her testimony its emotional punch. I’m sure that when same-sex-marriage opponents read her article, they come away with a strong desire to protect children like Katy.

But … what does her testimony have to do with same-sex marriage? The problem here is divorce, not gay or lesbian relationships. Children of divorce often miss their non-custodial parent. It’s a sad situation, whether the custodial parent stays single or re-marries someone of either gender.

If you follow Faust’s argument where it logically goes, rather than just to the place that’s politically expedient, you’ll pay no attention to same-sex marriage and instead work to make it much harder for parents to divorce, and to force men to marry women they get pregnant. That would really enforce a child’s “natural right” to both biological parents.

But no one is pushing either of those proposals, probably because you couldn’t even get support for them in religious-right churches (where divorce rates are higher than among, say, atheists) or in Bible-belt states like Louisiana and Mississippi (which have the highest birth-out-of-wedlock rates in the country).

Lying behind Faust’s argument (and many others like it) is an idealistic view of sex and child-bearing that is beautiful in its way: In the ideal world, there would be no unwanted pregnancies. Every conception would result from an act of love between two people committed to each other and to the life they might bring into the world. The parents would be mature enough and self-aware enough to make that commitment and see it through, and Life or God or Fate would cooperate by letting them live long enough to do it.

Unfortunately, though, that vision is disconnected from the world where we actually live — disconnected, in fact, from any world where anyone has ever lived. Selectively imposing pieces of that vision on gay and lesbian couples because they are an unpopular minority is unfair.

It also would be ineffective; there is no reason to believe that banning same-sex marriage would move the children of America closer to that vision in any way. In a world where no one had ever heard of same-sex marriage, Katy Faust’s parents would still get divorced and she would still grow up without her “natural right” to live with her father. And nothing Justice Kennedy does or avoids doing will fix that for future Katy Fausts.

Who redefined marriage? I keep going back to what Dan Savage told Chris Hayes a few years ago: It isn’t that gay people want to redefine marriage, it’s that straight people have already redefined marriage in such a way that there’s no longer any coherent argument for keeping gay couples on the outside.

I am one of those straight people. My wife and I have been married for 30 years, but (though we dearly love some of our friends’ children), we decided not to have a child of our own. For us, as for many childless-by-choice couples, marriage has been about forming a life-long partnership. A strong marriage partnership is indeed a good setting to raise children; but these days, whether a married couple will raise children or not is a separate decision.

Among straights, child-raising has not been the defining characteristic of marriage for at least a generation. To make it the defining characteristic again only when we consider same-sex couples is unfair.

Maybe you want to roll marriage back to the 1960s, before Governor Reagan signed California’s no-fault divorce law (or even to the 1800s, when wives couldn’t own property). If so, be honest about it and go after the people who are really responsible for the changing expectations about marriage: divorced or never-married straights with children, and married straights without children. Try using the law to impose your will on them. See for yourself how popular that would be.

Statistics. Just in time for the Supreme Court’s consideration comes a statistical study comparing children raised by same-sex and opposite-sex parents: “Emotional Problems among Children with Same-Sex Parents: Difference by Definition” by Donald Paul Sullins, a Catholic priest and a sociology professor at the Catholic University of America (the same institution from which he received his masters and doctorate).

Sullins looks at data collected by the National Health Interview Study between 1997 and 2013. His sample includes 207,007 children, of whom 512 came from households where the adults in the household were same-sex couples. (The study has no data on whether the couples were married. Given the legal situation during most of the period in question, the vast majority of them probably weren’t.) He finds that

Emotional problems were over twice as prevalent … for children with same-sex parents than for children with opposite-sex parents.

Mark Regnerus — author of a similar study a few years ago — interprets Sullins’ results to say “Kids do best with Mom and Dad.” In other words, “biology matters”; the more biological parents a child lives with, the better (on average). And since a same-sex couple at best contains only one of a child’s biological parents, it starts out at a disadvantage.

There are, of course, a number of studies that say the opposite: that all other things being equal, children raised by same-sex couples on average do as well or better than those raised by opposite-sex couples.

What the debate ultimately comes down to is what it means for all other things to be equal, because they seldom are in any literal sense. We live in a society where biological parents get the first shot at raising a child. If they are a committed couple who are willing and able to do the job, no one can stop them or even wants to stop them. So when you study children being raised by someone other than both biological parents, you are often looking at a child for whom something has gone wrong. There may have been a divorce, a death, a desertion, a parent in prison, abuse, a series of foster homes, or an involved custody battle — maybe several of those things.

If you are looking at the emotional well-being of those children as a measure of the the quality of the parenting they are receiving in their current homes, you need to compare them to similar children in other homes. If, say, my wife and I were to adopt a six-year-old from an orphanage in Indonesia, a few years later it might be fair to compare our child to other children adopted at a similar age from similar orphanages — but not to children raised from birth by American parents.

Most studies of same-sex parenting do some similar kind of data-normalization, so that, say, children of divorce are compared to other children of divorce, and so on. But Regnerus argues explicitly for not adjusting the raw data to make apples-to-apples comparisons.

You can make the children of same-sex households appear to fare fine (if not better), on average, if you control for a series of documented factors more apt to plague same-sex relationships and households: relationship instability, residential instability, health and emotional challenges, greater economic struggle (among female couples), and—perhaps most significantly—the lack of two biological connections to the child. If you control for these, you will indeed find “no differences” left over. Doing this gives the impression that “the kids are fine” at a time when it is politically expedient to do so.

This analytic tendency reflects a common pattern in social science research to search for ‘‘independent’’ effects of variables, thereby overlooking—or perhaps ignoring—the pathways that explain how social phenomena actually operate in the real world.

What he is arguing, in other words, is that same-sex couples who are raising children ought to be held responsible for how their children got into this situation, whether they had anything to do with it or not.

For example, suppose a husband deserts his wife and children for another woman, and the wife later finds a committed partner who is female. Regnerus and Sullins would assign the emotional baggage of the desertion to the wife who stayed and the woman who took on the challenge of helping her, not to the opposite-sex household of the man who actually deserted. The impact of bigotry on the same-sex household (which might have something to do with why lesbian couples on average make less money than couples that include a man) is also their responsibility, not the responsibility of those who discriminate against them.

I suspect it wouldn’t be hard to do a Sullins-type study about the emotional problems and developmental difficulties faced by children raised by black parents. Blacks parents, on average, are poorer than white parents. They have lower academic achievement, are more likely to live in neighborhoods with bad schools, and so on. Maybe those factors shouldn’t be normalized out of the statistics by which we judge black parents, because they are “the pathways that explain how social phenomena actually operate in the real world.” Maybe they should instead be arguments for not letting blacks raise children at all, or not letting them get married. Maybe solidly middle-class black couples with good educations should be considered suspect because of the statistics associated with their race.

Or not. Maybe if two men find a willing surrogate mother to bear a child for them, and then raise that child from birth to adulthood in a loving household, they shouldn’t have to answer for statistics shaped by divorce and desertion — as Regnerus and Sullins would have them do.

Magic. Lying behind the Sullins and Regnerus studies is the same kind of magical thinking that Katy Faust demonstrates: If only we made same-sex relationships more arduous, then opposite-sex relationships would miraculously improve. Through some benevolent act of God, there wouldn’t be any more unwed mothers or divorces or households so toxic that the state had to intervene. Those things are all the fault of homosexuals, so of course we shouldn’t factor them out of the statistics when we judge the children they are raising.

I’ve never met Sullins or Regnerus or talked to anybody who has, so I have no idea what motivates a person to devote his career to constructing such studies. But the people who are impressed with those studies and quote them to others, I suspect, are mostly well-intentioned folks. And if Faust is some kind of hater, she hides it really well. I can easily sympathize with her wish that her mother and father had done a better job with their marriage, so that Faust need never have gone through the disruption of their divorce.

But the problems of opposite-sex relationships belong to opposite-sex couples. Making life harder for gay people won’t solve them.

And whether it would happen in your ideal world or not, same-sex couples are raising children. Some are adopting children whose biological parents can’t or won’t raise them. Some are working with doctors and friends to conceive children that they will raise from birth. And some are keeping faith with the children they had in a previous opposite-sex relationship that failed.

In the vast majority of those cases, if they gave those children up something worse would happen to them. And if you make life harder for those couples, you can’t avoid making life harder for their children. Who would that benefit?

If you think someone would benefit, I don’t automatically see you as a hate-filled bigot. But I can’t figure out who you’re picturing. It can’t be Katy Faust, or any of the other victims of failed opposite-sex relationships. And if not them, then who?

The Individual and the Herd

How the rhetoric of freedom can lead us astray.


The question Governor Chris Christie was asked seemed simple enough:

There’s a debate going on right now in the United States, the measles outbreak that’s been caused in part by people not vaccinating their kids. Do you think Americans should vaccinate their kids? Is the measles vaccine safe?

He could have just said: “The measles vaccine is safe and parents should get their kids vaccinated.” That appears to be what he believes, and the question required nothing more. But instead he decided to expand the context and give a more complex answer:

All I can say is that we vaccinated ours. That’s the best expression I can give you of my opinion. It’s much more important, I think, what you think as a parent than what you think as a public official. And that’s what we do. But I also understand that parents need to have some measure of choice in things as well so that’s the balance that the government has to decide.

In response to follow-up questions, he explained that vaccines for different diseases have different risks and benefits (which is true), so the government should be careful about which ones it mandates and which ones it leaves up to parents (which hardly anyone disputes). “I didn’t say I’m leaving people the option,” he protested. And when asked again whether vaccines were dangerous, he responded: “I didn’t say that.” But he also stopped short of saying: “The measles vaccine is safe.”

In short, if you parse Christie’s words very carefully and give him just a little benefit of the doubt, he didn’t say anything all that objectionable. But the question lingers: Why did he go there in the first place? Why not just give the simple answer, if that’s what he believes? After all, that’s the image Christie works so hard to project: a man who bluntly says what he thinks without a lot of political doubletalk. Why couldn’t “Is the measles vaccine safe?” get a “yes” answer, rather than a long-winded discussion followed by a denial that he was saying it was dangerous?

The obvious implication was that (as he progresses towards an as-yet-unannounced presidential campaign) Christie was trying not to offend some bloc of Republican voters. And many then jumped to the conclusion that the bloc in question is the anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists, who believe the scientifically groundless theory that vaccines cause autism.

The controversy Christie’s remarks started might have died out quickly, if rival presidential hopeful Senator Rand Paul hadn’t jumped in and said explicitly what Christie was accused of implying:

I’ve heard of many tragic cases of walking, talking, normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines.

(He later backed off, claiming that after just means that vaccines and mental disorders are “temporally related”, not that one causes the other. So I’m sure he won’t mind if the media publishes a slew of stories of the form: So-and-so did something horrible after listening to Rand Paul. Or maybe a headline like “ISIS Beheads Hostage After Paul Speech”.)

But here’s the problem with the pandering-to-Republican-anti-vaxxers theory: First, there just aren’t that many anti-vaxxers. [See endnote 1]  And second, they aren’t all Republicans. There’s a liberal version of anti-vax that focuses the conspiracy theory on drug companies rather than government. [2]

So the theory that a Republican primary might be decided by anti-vaxxers casting a single-issue vote is a little sketchy. That’s why as soon as their position got labelled as pandering to anti-vaxxers, other potential candidates took the opposite side of the argument [3] and both Christie and Paul had to back down to a certain extent.

So who were they pandering to? The Libertarian/Theocrat side of my model in “The Four Flavors of Republican“.

Again Paul was the more explicit:

The state doesn’t own your children. Parents own their children. [4]

In other words, decisions about vaccinations shouldn’t be made by the American people as a whole through the democratic process, or by the medical experts that the people delegate those decisions to. Libertarians believe those issues should be decided by sovereign individuals, and Theocrats want them decided by the fathers that God made sovereign over their households.

When you look at the world through either one of those lenses, vaccinations aren’t the point, they just symbolize larger issues about authority. So sure, I’m going to vaccinate my kids, but the decision should be up to me. “It’s an issue of freedom,” Paul said, and when the CNBC interviewer pressed him, he got sarcastic. “I guess being for freedom would be really unusual.”

This ties vaccinations to other “freedom” issues, like your freedom to go without health insurance rather than accept ObamaCare, your freedom to let your kids grow up ignorant rather than send them to a government-approved school (or report their home-schooling progress to an education bureaucrat), or your freedom to take the low wages and poor working conditions an employer offers rather than negotiate through a union. Newly elected North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis defended the freedom of food-sellers to set their own hygiene standards rather than be bound by government regulations:

“I was having a discussion with someone, and we were at a Starbucks in my district, and we were talking about certain regulations where I felt like ‘maybe you should allow businesses to opt out,'” the senator said.

Tillis said his interlocutor was in disbelief, and asked whether he thought businesses should be allowed to “opt out” of requiring employees to wash their hands after using the restroom.

The senator said he’d be fine with it, so long as businesses made this clear in “advertising” and “employment literature.”

“I said: ‘I don’t have any problem with Starbucks if they choose to opt out of this policy as long as they post a sign that says “We don’t require our employees to wash their hands after leaving the restroom,” Tillis said.

“The market will take care of that,” he added, to laughter from the audience. [5]

So in Tillis’ ideal republic, you would have to study the diverse hygiene practices of all the places you eat, so that you can make an informed decision about whether it’s safe to eat there. Because freedom.

Taken to its logical extreme, the freedom agenda says that you should be free to drive on the left side of the interstate. You wouldn’t, of course, because it’s dangerous and you’re not stupid. At least, you wouldn’t most of the time. Most people wouldn’t, most of the time.

But it wouldn’t take many to screw everything up. What if, of all the drivers who would be traveling north during your next trip south down the interstate, you knew that only one would be using his freedom to drive on the left side and come straight at you? How would that change your driving experience?

Here’s what it boils down to: Human beings are simultaneously individuals and members of society, not fundamentally one or the other. Some issues (like free speech) are easier to understand from the individual point of view, while others (like traffic) require a  social point of view. [6]

Public health is fundamentally social. Germs pay no attention to your individuality; they just spread through the herd. You personally may do everything right, but whether or not you get sick also depends on social things like the quality of the sewage system, whether other infected individuals have access to health care or paid sick leave, how well your city controls rats and other vermin, whether restaurant workers wash their hands, and what percentage of people get vaccinated. In extreme cases, it depends on really draconian government interventions like quarantines and travel restrictions.

No matter what kind of intellectual contortions you do, you can’t square all that with a pure individual-freedom agenda. What if a free individual exposed to Ebola doesn’t want to be quarantined in a treatment facility? (Maybe he has his own theory about diseases and doesn’t believe all this germ-and-virus nonsense. Or maybe he was only probably exposed, and he’s willing to risk it.) If your ideology limits you to looking at everything from the individual-freedom viewpoint, your thinking about public health is going to be crippled.

So that’s who Christie and Paul were pandering to this week: people whose thinking about public health has been crippled by individualist ideology. If either becomes president, he may continue to pander to them.


[1] Anti-vaxxers only dangerous because it doesn’t take many to screw up herd immunity, which protects people who can’t use the vaccine. (In other words: Even if you can’t be vaccinated or haven’t been vaccinated yet, you’ll be safe because you are unlikely to come into contact with sick people.) According to the World Health Organization, as reproduced in Wikipedia, the herd immunity threshold for measles is 83-94% vaccinated, so as few as 6% in a local community might be enough to make that community vulnerable to an outbreak.

If you think of this in terms of the free-rider problem, the herd immunity threshold measures how many free riders the vaccination system can stand before it starts breaking down.

[2] Anti-vaccine liberals are sometimes used to prove that in their own way Democrats are just as much at war with science as Republicans who deny climate change or evolution. But here’s the clear difference: Anti-science liberals are on the fringe of the Democratic Party, and elected officials seldom pay much attention to them. Conversely, climate-change denial is a core position of the conservative base, so virtually every elected Republican has gotten in line.

[3] Marco Rubio demonstrated that a Republican presidential contender can give the simple, direct answer: “There is absolutely no medical science or data whatsoever that links those vaccinations to onset of autism or anything of that nature. And by the way, if enough people are not vaccinated, you put at risk infants that are three months of age or younger and have not been vaccinated and you put at risk immune-suppressed children that are not able to get those vaccinations. So absolutely, all children in American should be vaccinated.”

Also Ted Cruz: “On the question of whether kids should be vaccinated, the answer is obvious, and there’s widespread agreement: of course they should.”

But both avoided a direct endorsement of mandatory vaccinations, like Ben Carson’s.

[4] Rekha Basu of the Des Moines Register had the right response:

No, we don’t own our children. From slavery to child sexual abuse, the notion of owning another human has led to nothing good. Legally, we’re responsible for our kids and their care, feeding and safety until they’re old enough to take care of themselves. But they are autonomous human beings, which is why, unlike property, there are laws and standards governing what we can and can’t do to them.

[5] We’ve seen this two-step before. The same politicians who say that a well-informed public can sort things out without government help will also oppose any regulations that inform the public. Today, Tillis says he’d make Starbucks post that sign, but when the time came to vote on it he actually wouldn’t, for exactly the same reason: The market can sort out whether businesses should have to post their hygiene policies.

[6] It’s like the wave/particle thing with light, if that analogy makes sense to you. If not, forget I mentioned it.

The Liberal-on-Liberal Debate Over Political Correctness

A fascinating argument was touched off when Jonathan Chait, a writer I usually like, posted “Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say: how the language police are perverting liberalism” on the New York magazine site.

Chait began by recounting an incident that really is objectionable: A Muslim man at the University of Michigan wrote a column for the campus conservative newspaper of the sort that campus conservatives think is clever, a spoof of someone from a marginalized group looking for things to be offended by. Not my cup of tea (or probably Chait’s either, for that matter) but what upset Chait was the reaction: Four people littered the steps of the student’s apartment building with copies of his column written over with insulting and hostile messages.

Up to that point, Chait was on firm ground; that kind of intimidation isn’t an appropriate response. But from there he segued into a stream of conservative tropes:

Political correctness is a style of politics in which the more radical members of the left attempt to regulate political discourse by defining opposing views as bigoted and illegitimate. Two decades ago, the only communities where the left could exert such hegemonic control lay within academia, which gave it an influence on intellectual life far out of proportion to its numeric size. Today’s political correctness flourishes most consequentially on social media, where it enjoys a frisson of cool and vast new cultural reach. And since social media is also now the milieu that hosts most political debate, the new p.c. has attained an influence over mainstream journalism and commentary beyond that of the old.

Naturally, conservative writers loved watching liberals argue about this. The Federalist‘s Robert Tracinski wrote:

I have observed several times before that the actual essence of the Obama era’s “post-racial” politics is: white people calling other white people racist. The true icons of racial politics in our era are not a fiery Jeremiah Wright or Jesse Jackson or even Al Sharpton, taking the white man to task for keep black folk down. No, it is the average Obama voter—a left-leaning, college-educated white person like, well, like Jonathan Chait, who uses his support for Obama and the Democrats’ agenda as evidence of his enlightenment, which in his mind makes him superior to Obama’s critics, who must be motivated by insidious, secret racism. … So you can see Chait’s dismay at seeing good white “liberals” have their Not Racist credentials challenged by those who are farther out on the left. Don’t they know how the system is supposed to work?

Because that whole “racism” thing is such a scam in the post-Jim-Crow era, when we all have equal opportunities and are treated the same wherever we go.

I thought about writing my own Chait-response article, but other liberals — mostly people Jonathan Korman linked to on Facebook (thanks!) — have been doing a better job than the first ideas that occurred to me, so I’ll mostly just link to them and decide at the end whether I have anything worth adding.

My problem with Chait is simple: As long as we’re not talking vandalism or violence or physical intimidation — and we’re not, in almost all of the cases he mentions other than that first one — saying that somebody’s view is “bigoted and illegitimate” is just as much an exercise of free speech as whatever that person said in the first place.

But wait, Belle Waring said it better:

People like Chait also don’t merely want to be allowed to say whatever they wish about whomever they wish for the sake of debate itself. Because he can already say whatever he damn well pleases! Look at him go! What he wants is the right to both say things which are offensive to some people and remain a liberal in good standing once he has said them. This is a stupid right which no one should have. … Chait wants to say offensive things and not be criticized.

And for Chait to write off such objections as “political correctness” … doesn’t that label represent the same kind of de-legitimization he is objecting to? But Vox‘s Amanda Taub has that covered:

First things first: there’s no such thing as “political correctness.” The term’s in wide use, certainly, but has no actual fixed or specific meaning. What defines it is not what it describes but how it’s used: as a way to dismiss a concern or demand as a frivolous grievance rather than a real issue.

Chait identifies a long list of disputes that he describes as examples of “p.c.” demands that are hurting mainstream liberalism. But calling these concerns “political correctness” is another way of saying that they aren’t important enough to be addressed on their merits. And all that really means is that they’re not important to Jonathan Chait.

Because it’s up to white men (like me and Chait) to decide whether your concerns deserve attention, or if you’re just being too sensitive. We’ll let you know what we decide, but until then try to keep the noise down so that you don’t disturb the neighbors.

Anti-war activist Fredrik deBoer offered a more nuanced opinion: Chait may be full of it, but that doesn’t mean there’s no problem in left-wing discourse. He described a series of situations where he’s seen left-wing groups chase away potential young recruits by coming down way too hard on them the first time they say something that offends a marginalized group — which is bound to happen, because marginalized groups have been marginalized; if you don’t belong to the group, you probably have never been taught how to consider their point of view, and you won’t figure it out until you go through a certain amount of well-intentioned trial and error. In the long run, might it be more productive to point out and correct those errors in a nicer way?

I don’t want these kids to be more like Jon Chait. I sure as hell don’t want them to be less left-wing. I want them to be more left-wing. I want a left that can win, and there’s no way I can have that when the actually-existing left sheds potential allies at an impossible rate. But the prohibition against ever telling anyone to be friendlier and more forgiving is so powerful and calcified it’s a permanent feature of today’s progressivism. And I’m left as this sad old 33 year old teacher who no longer has the slightest fucking idea what to say to the many brilliant, passionate young people whose only crime is not already being perfect.

An interesting detail: In deBoer’s examples, the people coming down hard on the newcomers are themselves from privileged backgrounds, which suggests that a cycle-of-abuse thing might be going on: I got hazed when I joined the movement, so I’ll be damned if I let you get away with anything.

Like deBoer, Julian What’s-He-Doing-At-the-Cato-Institute Sanchez starts with an accurate critique of Chait:

For people accustomed to seeing their opinions greeted with everything from dismissive condescension to harassment and death threats, a successful writer complaining from a perch at New York magazine about his friends being “bludgeoned… into despondent silence”—because people are mean on social media—simply sounded whiny.  Chait also moves a bit too seamlessly from real, honest-to-God censorship by public institutions to more informal social pressure in a way that makes it sound like he’s conflating them—claiming that criticism is somehow tantamount to censorship or repression.

But then he goes deeper. Every movement, Sanchez says, needs to watch out for a certain discussion-constraining dynamic: When the group’s extreme fringe takes its good ideas too far, it’s a thankless job for anyone within the movement to say, “Hey, wait a minute.” So instead, that criticism winds up being made by opponents, who just want to shut the group down. And once that starts happening, any insider who raises a similar point is siding with the enemy, and implicitly endorsing the whole ream of bogus criticisms enemies raise.

When teetotalers are the only ones willing to say “maybe you’ve had one too many,” because your friends are worried about sounding like abstemious scolds, the advice is a lot easier to dismiss. Which is fine until it’s time to drive home.

You see this dynamic, in fact, with the response to Chait’s essay: Progressives who think maybe he’s kinda-sorta got a point quickly move on, ceding the field to those who want to revoke his ally card and conservatives eager to welcome him, at least for the next ten seconds, to “their” side. … And this makes it still easier to conclude that nothing interesting or valuable is lost by any self-censorship that may be occurring. We know what the counterargument looks like, after all: It’s the garbage those assholes are spouting. Discourse gets increasingly polarized and, in the process, stupider. Which, again, seems like a bad outcome even if you don’t particularly care whether Jon Chait gets his feelings hurt.


So, do I have anything to add to that? Maybe I’ll just kibbitz a little to resolve the apparent contradiction between two people I think are both right: Taub saying PC doesn’t exist and Waring talking about it as a real thing that has positive value.

Let’s start with the definition I gave in “A Conservative-to-English Lexicon“:

Political correctness. The bizarre liberal belief that whites, men, straights, Christians, the rich, and other Americans in positions of privilege should treat less privileged people with respect, even though such people have no power to force them to.

Removing the snark: political correctness is the attempt to extend to powerless people the same kind of courtesy that powerful people can take for granted.

Just as an example, suppose you work for a large corporation and somehow find yourself talking to the Big Boss. Maybe you’re on an elevator together or standing in line next to him at the cafeteria, hard as that is to imagine. Naturally, the wheels in your head are spinning as you try to imagine his point of view, so that nothing you say or do will accidentally offend him. But if you were in a similar situation with a janitor or some other person of low rank, you probably wouldn’t work your empathy nearly so hard.

Maybe you should. Or maybe you should at least work your empathy harder than most of us usually do.

Extend that to groups. When you belong to a powerful group — say, men or whites or straights or something similarly normative in our culture — you can take for granted that nearly everyone you run into has a general appreciation of your point of view and knows better than to piss you off in obvious ways. Members of marginalized groups can’t assume that. They’re constantly being jostled or hassled or put on the spot; occasionally by haters, but more often by ordinary folks who can’t be bothered to think too hard about them. PC is the attempt to raise the overall level of consideration to the level that powerful groups take for granted.

That, I think, is the PC that Waring sees value in.

Taub, on the other hand, is talking not about PC as it would be defined by its practitioners, but about the undefined negative label that gets thrown around by critics. And she’s right: The most common usage of “political correctness” in the media is to label some issue as beneath my concern, because the people being offended or victimized or insulted aren’t people I care about, and aren’t powerful enough to make me care.

I think maybe I should add that usage to the Lexicon.

Liberal Islam: Is it real? Is it Islam?

Religious fundamentalists and the New Atheists agree on one thing: Fundamentalism is the real religion. Every form of “liberal” or “moderate” religion [see endnote 1] is just some kind of watered-down compromise with secular humanism.

If you’re fundamentalist, you see this watering-down as heresy, a drifting away from the true Word of God. If you’re a New Atheist, it’s either the sheep’s clothing worn by dangerous wolves (who would be theocrats if they thought they could get away with it), or a convenient form of self-deception (practiced by people who are smart enough to realize that their religion is bullshit, but not courageous enough to reject it). In The End of Faith, Sam Harris boiled the thesis down to this:

Religious moderation is the result of secular knowledge and scriptural ignorance—and it has no bona fides, in religious terms, to put it on a par with fundamentalism.

Plenty of Americans — many of whom are anything but ignorant of the scriptures of their traditions [2] — are liberal Christians or liberal Jews, so it’s not hard to find defenses of the liberal versions of those faiths. But the idea that there is no authentic liberal Islam is fairly widespread in this country.

As a result, while almost everyone acknowledges that some Christians or Jews take their religiosity to crazy extremes, craziness and extremism are often attributed to Islam itself. Liberal reform of Islam is something Americans simultaneously wish for and claim is impossible, because the heart of Islam is necessarily violent and intolerant.

In Harris’ controversial appearance on Bill Maher’s TV show (which I discussed in detail at the time), he mapped the Muslim community as a set of concentric circles, with terrorist jihadis like the Taliban or ISIS at the center of the faith. At the far outside fringe

There are hundreds of millions of Muslims who are nominal Muslims, who don’t take the faith seriously, who don’t want to kill apostates, who are horrified by ISIS, and we need to defend these people, prop them up, and let them reform their faith.

So any effort to liberalize Islam comes from “nominal Muslims who don’t take the faith seriously”. Mullah Omar couldn’t have said it better.

But Turkish writer Mustafa Akyol is a liberal and a Muslim who seems passionate about both liberalism and Islam. I can find nothing “nominal” about the faith he expresses, describes, and justifies in Islam Without Extremes: a Muslim case for Liberty. These are a few of the conclusions he comes to:

  • Islam will thrive best under a secular government that neither mandates Islam nor tries to suppress it, because an Islam of the heart cannot be forced. “Had God willed,” says the Qur’an [3], “He would have made you a single community, but He wanted to test you regarding what has come to you.” A society that suppresses either Islam or competing views is trying to invalidate that test, and so is doing what Allah refused to do.
  • The best form of secular government for Muslims would be liberal democracy, where the majority rules but respects minority rights.
  • People of all faiths should be free to practice their religion as they see fit, including the freedom to change or abandon their religious identification.
  • Government should punish crime (offenses against the legitimate rights of others), not sin (disobedience of religious injunctions).
  • Insults to Islam or its prophets should be met with reasoned arguments and non-violent responses like protests and boycotts. “In this free world,” Akyol writes, “there will certainly be ideas that Muslims, including me, will not like. What we need to do is respond to them with reason and wisdom.”

He doesn’t arrive at these positions by saying “We just have to ignore what the Qur’an says and adapt to the modern world.” Akyol never expresses any doubt that Allah is real or that the Qur’an is a revelation that Muhammad received from Allah. Instead, he argues from within the Islamic tradition that there have all along been multiple interpretations of the Qur’an, and that the fundamentalist ones currently popular are corruptions due to unfortunate historical circumstances of the post-Qur’anic era.

In particular, he distinguishes between the Qur’an and the Hadiths — sayings and stories of Muhammad that are not part of the Qur’an, but were told and codified in the centuries immediately after the Prophet’s death. Conservative Muslims regard the Hadiths as authoritative, but Akyol does not, for two reasons. First, some Hadiths were probably put in Muhammad’s mouth by later caliphs who wanted to justify their own policies. And second, the message of the Qur’an is what speaks with divine authority, not the messenger. When he was not reciting what had been told to him by the archangel, Muhammad was a man of his time. Akyol believes he was a good and wise man, or Allah would not have chosen him to be His messenger. But, unlike the common Christian view of Jesus, Muhammad was not himself divine.

The Prophet brought a message relevant for all ages, in other words, but he lived a life of his own age. … In fact, expecting from Muhammad a perfect universal wisdom, totally unbound from his time and culture, would not be consistent with Qur’anic theology.

At least one traditional story makes this distinction explicit: During a military campaign, a general questions whether the spot the Prophet has chosen to camp comes from divine revelation or just war tactics. When Muhammad answers “war tactics”, the general proposes a more favorable camp site, which Muhammad accepts. In other words, in his lifetime Muhammad could be criticized and corrected. So saying “Muhammad did it this way” — even if we could be sure he did indeed do it that way, which is not always clear — does not by itself prove that a practice is best in all times and places. [4]

The status of women is a good example. The early Muslim community treated women far better than the Arabian tribal societies that preceded it. (In fact, Muslim women in India lost their property rights when they came under British rule.) But freezing or exaggerating its practices and applying them today stands out as repressive. Which aspect of Muhammad’s example should today’s Muslims follow: Should they raise the status of women above the practices of their day, as Muhammad did in his day, or should they do exactly as Muhammad did? [5]

Akyol argues that the Qur’an itself contains mostly abstract principles, and does not spell out a legal code or a system of government. Those were added later, often by fallible humans trying their best to be good and just, but also occasionally by rulers who wanted to maintain their power, and by scholars and jurists who wanted to curry favor with those rulers.

For example, the injunction to kill apostates is based on a Hadith in which Muhammad says, “If someone discards his [Muslim] religion, kill him.” But the Qur’an says:

The truth is from your Lord, so let him who please believe, and him who please disbelieve.

The different religions and sects should “compete in doing good”, and trust God to sort it all out in the hereafter.

Such a liberal reading of the Qur’an is not some innovation Akyol came up with himself, but is part of an Islamic tradition as old as any other. He points to an early school known as the Postponers, who taught that ambiguous or obscure Qur’anic verses could not be decisively adjudicated in this life, so Muslims with conflicting interpretations should tolerate each other until Allah revealed the truth to them after death. Another school elevated reason above tradition as a means of understanding the Qur’an. It was eventually suppressed, but its greatest thinkers became known in the West as Averroes and Avicenna, who had a profound influence on Christian rational thought by way of St. Thomas Aquinas. [6]

The 19th-century Ottoman caliphs attempted to liberalize Islam, granting (for a time) equal rights to religious minorities, and expanding the rights of women beyond what was common in some European countries.

Even shariah, the Islamic law code, is not necessarily the draconian system advocated by the Taliban. Like English common law, shariah developed through the legal interpretations jurists used to decide specific cases, and contained multiple schools of thought, ranging from the liberal Hanafi to the conservative Hanbali. The Ottoman code was closer to Hanafi, while the Taliban version is based on Hanbali.

Akyol attributes the failure of these liberalizing movements to a series of historical circumstances, rather than to some inherent flaw in Islam.

  • The temptations of power politics corrupted Islam in much the same way that Christianity was corrupted after the conversion of the Emperor Constantine.
  • In the medieval war of ideas between reason and tradition, reason became associated with the merchant class and tradition with the landlord class. When the landlords won the political/economic conflict, the Islam of the merchants was suppressed. When Europe reached a similar point centuries later, the merchants won.
  • Ottoman liberalization came too late, and the Empire fell before it could finish reforming itself. The post-Ottoman nationalist movements identified liberal Islam with the bad old days, and distinguished themselves either by turning to conservative Islam (as in Wahhabist Arabia) or to an Islam-suppressing secularism (as in Ataturk’s Turkey).
  • Between the world wars, the British and French dominated the heart of the Muslim world. They propped up conservative extremist governments like the House of Saud, while lecturing Muslims about liberal values. As a result, any liberalizing Muslims seemed to be aping the hated West and denouncing their own culture.
  • The vast oil wealth of Arabia was a historical accident that provided near-infinite resources for the spread of Wahhabism. In addition, the oil wealth of other Muslim-majority countries has influenced history in a different way: Economies in which wealth derives from resource extraction rather than enterprise are inherently conservative.

Akyol finds great significance in the history and current state of his own country, Turkey. Turkey is one of the rare parts of the former Ottoman Empire that was never occupied or dominated by the West. The government that rose after World War I was a secular tyranny that did its best to suppress expressions of Islam. (One of Akyol’s earliest memories is of his father being taken away by the secular government.) Ever since, its politics have revolved around conflict between the secular army and the Muslim-majority electorate. So in Turkey, Islam has been the democratizing force.

Democracy seems to be winning in Turkey, so the next conflict is whether the country will be a liberal democracy (in which minority religions are protected from the Muslim majority), or an authoritarian democracy (in which the majority does whatever it wants). That conflict is still playing out, but Akyol feels that the momentum is on his side, the liberal side. [7]

The reason for his confidence is that Turkey is revisiting the merchant/landlord conflict that came out so badly in the Middle Ages, but this time the merchants are winning. The state-dominated economy of Ataturk is increasingly giving way to a market economy, dominated by Muslim businessmen who want closer ties to Europe (and who have never been under the European thumb, unlike the business classes of most other Muslim countries). The everyday experience of merchants favors tolerating others, talking to others, and trading with others. Akyol believes that a Turkey of economic freedom and prosperity will empower both liberal democracy and liberal religion, as it has everywhere else.

If that happens, then the Muslim world will have an example unlike anything it saw in the 20th century: a Muslim country where economic, political, and religious liberty developed indigenously, without foreign invasions, imported constitutions, or puppet governments.

An interpretation of the Qur’an that makes such a thing possible might be very tempting.


[1] Liberal religion is not just religion combined with liberal politics. Instead, this is the Enlightenment sense of liberal, i.e. free. The liberal version of a faith tradition is non-authoritarian, non-dogmatic, and respectful of the individual conscience. A typical liberal belief is that religious truth can’t be boiled down to a creed or catechism that covers all eventualities. Instead, the essence of the faith is in abstract principles (i.e., “Love your neighbor”) whose application requires discernment and may change from one era to the next.

Consequently, liberal faiths tend to be open to new interpretations and tolerant of divergent ideas. Though this openness and tolerance does make the religion more amenable to secularism, it arises out of the faith itself rather than through compromise with secularism. In the West, it is easier to make the opposite case: that liberal Christianity and Judaism came first, and secularism arose from them.

[2] By coincidence, Christian theologian Marcus Borg died this week.

In general, arguments with Harris’ followers tend to go round and round the following circle: Why do you think fundamentalists are the most authentic Christians (or Jews)? Because they’re the ones who take the scriptures literally. Why is that the determining characteristic? Because that’s what the most authentic Christians do.

In reality, the idea that fundamentalists are the “true” believers is just a prior assumption, based on nothing.

[3] Over the years, I’ve used many transliterations for the Muslim scripture. In this post it is the Qur’an, because that’s how Akyol spells it. I apologize for any confusion.

[4] A Christian analogy would be to the infallibility of the Pope. The Pope is only infallible when he speaks ex cathedra. But if he says in casual conversation that strawberries are better than watermelons, he’s just expressing a personal opinion.

[5] Christians will recognize this conflict from the arguments over what Paul’s epistles say about women. Was the apostle writing to tell Timothy how women should behave in the specific churches Timothy might found in the first-century Roman Empire? Or was he laying down ideal practices for all times and places? Or was the epistle itself written later and attributed to Paul, to authorize practices already in place?

[6] So if you buy the argument in [1], Western secularism owes a debt to Islam.

[7] He is not claiming that present-day Turkey is a utopia of freedom, which would be indefensible. For a view of Turkey from the point of view of racial minorities like Kurds and Armenians, see another recent book There Was and There Was Not by the Armenian-American author Meline Toumani.

Can We Overthrow the Creditocracy?

In the long history of oppression, where are we today? And what can we do about it?


The simplest, most direct form of oppression is forced labor: Work for me, do what I say, or I’ll beat you. And if no beating short of death will induce you to do what I want, then the example of your demise will at least make my next victim more pliable.

Unfortunately for the oppressor, though, forced labor is also morally simple. The press-ganged victim knows I have wronged him or her. Given the chance to run away, or (better yet) kill me, he or she will feel completely justified.

That’s why history is full of attempts to dress oppression up and make its morality more confusing. If you want to be cynical, you might tell the whole economic history of the world that way: as a series of systems to dress up oppression and shift the guilt of it from the order-giver to the order-taker. In every era, the many work and the few benefit, but those who run away or revolt are the immoral ones. They are ungrateful wretches who bite the hands that feed them and repay their kindly benefactors with violence.

For example, from today’s perspective the slave society of the old South seems pretty stark: Do what I say because I own you and your children and your children’s children down to the last generation. And yet, the literature of the time — written by whites, naturally — often waxes lyrical about the great good the white man has done for his undeserving servants: given them the gift of civilization, saved their souls for Christ, accepted them in his home and fed and clothed them since birth, or perhaps purchased them from an animal-like existence under a slave-trader and bestowed upon them new names and new roles (however lowly) in human society.

How dare the slave forget his obligation and steal himself away!

Freedom without access. Most systems are more subtle than that. The people at the bottom aren’t owned, and in fact their freedom may be a central point of public celebration. But a small group controls access to something everyone needs to survive. To guarantee your own access, you must strike a deal with them — on their terms, usually — and do what they say. And because society frames its story in a way that justifies the access-control, the people who tell you what to do are not your oppressors, they’re your benefactors. You owe them for giving you the opportunity to serve.

Whatever that necessary something is, and however access to it is controlled, tells you what kind of oppressive system you’re in. In feudalism, a small group of lordly families control the land you need to grow food. To get access, your family must swear fealty to one of them, and God have mercy on the traitor who breaks his vows. In the sharecropper system that replaced slavery in the South, whites (often the same whites who had owned the antebellum plantations) controlled access to money and markets. Freedom and even a small chunk of land might be yours, but the wherewithal to survive until harvest had to be borrowed, and then you were obliged to sell your crop to your creditor, for a price he named — usually not quite enough to clear your debt. If you tried to escape this system, you weren’t a runaway slave (as your mother or father would have been), but you were a runaway debtor and the law would hunt you down just the same.

In the North, oppression took its purest form in the company towns immortalized in the song “16 Tons“, where the singer imagines that not even death will get him out. The company controlled every side of the transaction — not just access to productive work, but the scrip you were paid in, and the company store where you could spend it. The system wasn’t quite so obvious in the bigger cities, where many employers drew from the same labor pool, but basic outline was the same: To get access to what Marx called “the means of production” — land, factories, mines, or any other resource that human labor could turn into the stuff of survival — the masses at the bottom of the pyramid had to deal with a fairly small group of employers, who could dictate wages and working conditions.

As on the plantations or the feudal manors, the language of morality had been turned inside-out: The oppressor was the benefactor. Give me a job, the worker begged.

The American exception. Underneath all that oppressiveness, though, something new had been blooming in America from the beginning. Dispossessing the Native Americans of an entire continent had created opportunities for wealth so vast that the old upper classes couldn’t exploit them all without help, so common people were cut in on the booty.

Already in 1776’s The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith had documented that wages were considerably higher in the colonies (where there was so much work to be done and a comparative dearth of hands) than in England itself. The post-revolutionary Homestead Acts codified a system that had been operating informally for some while: For whites, American wages were enough above subsistence that you could build a stake of capital, buy tools and transport, and then set out for the hinterland and establish an independent relationship with the means of production. For one of the few times since the hunter-gatherer era, working-class Europeans could apply their labor directly to the land and live without paying for access.

Post-Civil-War American history can be told as a struggle by the capitalist class to claw back those hastily bestowed opportunities by manipulating markets, monopolizing the new railroads, and generally “crucify[ing] mankind upon a cross of gold” as William Jennings Bryan famously put it. But they never completely succeeded. Hellish as turn-of-the-century mines and factories could be, the vision remained: Capitalism didn’t have to be so bad, if workers had a way to opt out and employers had to compete to hire them.

The early 20th century brought a series of shocks to the capitalist system: the world wars, the Russian Revolution, the Great Depression, and finally the very real threat of Communist revolutions. The devastated Europe of 1945 in some ways duplicated the opportunities of the New World: There was so much work to be done that for three decades (les Trente Glorieuses, as the French put it) full employment and rising wages could be the norm.

In the Cold War competition with Communism, Capitalism had to loosen up to maintain the workers’ loyalty. And so a mixed public/private social contract developed: The means of production would continue to be privately owned, but government would keep the worker in the game. Government would provide education at little or no cost to the student; guarantee a liveable minimum wage; protect consumers from unsafe products and workers from dangerous workplaces; prevent monopolies from forming; create jobs by building public infrastructure; defend the workers’ right to form unions powerful enough to negotiate with corporations on equal terms; maintain a safety net against unemployment, disability, and old age; and (except in the United States) take care of the sick. The political expectation was that a rising tide would lift all boats: If profits rose, wages would rise, and everyone would benefit.

Counterrevolution. But by the late 1970s, the failure of the Soviet system to make good on its economic promises made Khrushchev’s we-will-bury-you threat ring hollow, and Western capitalists started to wonder if they’d given away too much. The theme of their Reagan/Thatcher counterrevolution would be privatization. Wherever possible, get government out of the picture so that the natural power imbalance between worker and employer can re-assert itself.

And that has been the story of the last not-so-glorious forty years: Powerful unions and nearly-free state universities are mere memories. Inflation has pushed the minimum wage down towards subsistence. We are told that the wealthiest nation in the world cannot afford a safety net; if bankruptcy looms (or can be manufactured), the solution is not to commit new resources, but to slash benefits. Consumer and worker protection is “job-killing regulation”, and making up for a job shortfall with public works is unthinkable. Increasingly, even public K-12 education is under fire; if you really want a high-quality education for your child, perhaps a government voucher will defray the cost a little, until inflation eats up that subsidy as it has the minimum wage.

As a result, even as productivity-per-hour and GDP-per-capita have continued to rise, wages have not. Ever-increasing shares of the national income and the national wealth are controlled by the top 10%, the top 1%, the top .01%. Even in the uppermost levels of the economic pyramid, there is always an even smaller class of people just above you whose skyrocketing wealth is leaving you far behind.

Creditocracy. Andrew Ross’ book Creditocracy and the Case for Debt Refusal points out that the goal of the counter-revolution is not just a restoration of late 19th-century capitalism, in which large employers dominate by controlling access to jobs. It’s a subtly different system of oppression entirely: a creditocracy.*

Everything the Cold War social contract promised is still available, you just have to pay up for it. How will you do that? You’ll get loans, and spend the rest of your life working to make payments. Rather than beg “Give me a job”, you’ll beg “Give me loan, so that I can get what I need to get and keep a job.” The bankers will be your benefactors, and then they will tell you what to do.

Education is where this project is most advanced. Probably there will always be some way to warehouse children at public expense while their parents work, either in public schools or in minimal private schools fully covered by a public voucher. But if you want the kind of education that gives a child options beyond minimum wage or welfare, you’ll have to pay up. Some people will be able to cover that expense, but most will have to borrow. If we’re talking about college, we’re already there. Working your way through college was once a realistic goal; it no longer is. The Federal Reserve recently estimated total student debt at $1.13 trillion, with about 1 in 8 borrowers owing more than $50,000 each, and a small but increasing number beginning their careers more than $200,000 in the hole.

If you just want to live somewhere, that won’t be a problem. But if you want to live in an neighborhood where potholes are fixed and police protect you rather than prey on you, you’ll have to pay up. Need a loan?

Public transportation? Forget about it. You can stay home for free, but if you want to work you’ll need a car, and cars cost. Calories are easy to come by, but safe and healthy food? Still available in certain upscale groceries, if you can afford it. Medical care? We’d never just let you die, and we have repayment plans with attractive rates. Clothes? I see you’ve got your body covered, but you’ll never get a job looking like that. Libraries? Parks? There are some you can join for a membership fee, though probably not in your neck of the woods. News? Comes from cable TV or the internet, via the local monopoly. Retirement? You can never be sure you’ll have enough to stay out of poverty, but maybe your kids will co-sign for you if you live too long.

During the post-war Trente Glorieuses, debt was a way to anticipate your rising income and get a few luxuries earlier than you otherwise might. But in the Creditocracy, debt is a necessity; all but the wealthy need to borrow to stay in the game. And once you owe, the onus is on you to toe the line: You’ll never cover your payments working in a field you love, or letting moral considerations control what you will and won’t do for a living. (Are you sure you don’t want to fight in our war? We’re hiring.) You don’t dare stick your neck out politically or socially, if you want to stay employed and keep making your payments. Maybe someday, if you get it all paid off, you’ll live by your heart and your conscience. But until then …

And where does this needed credit ultimately come from? It’s conjured out of the aether by the Federal Reserve, and distributed to the big banks by loans at rock-bottom rates. That’s the controlled access that makes the whole system possible. They have access and you need it, so they can tell you what to do and leave you thanking them for it. And if they ever push things too far and make loans that can never be repaid, then they’ll have the government behind them, bailing them out and sticking ordinary taxpayers with the bill. You may have lost your home, your savings, and God knows what else in the whole mess, but at least the banker will be made whole.

The Morality of Default. On the rare occasions when systems of oppression are beaten, they are first beaten morally. Slavery can’t be defeated until the runaway slave becomes a hero rather than a scoundrel, and the rebellious one can become a soldier rather than a murderer. The company town can’t be overthrown until the worker who refuses to work becomes a striker rather than a bum, and values solidarity with his comrades over the debt he owes his employer for “giving” him a job.

Today, it seems like an impossible dream that debtors could ever take the moral high ground away from creditors. Somebody who borrows and then won’t pay is a deadbeat, a moocher, a loser. It seems hard to imagine a debtors’ rights movement that could win popular support for a repayment strike or the outright renunciation of unreasonable debts.

But that’s what Ross envisions. To get there, we need to develop and popularize moral standards that separate good debts from bad debts. For example, view John Oliver’s piece on the payday lending industry, and then consider the idea that many of these loans — particularly ones where the original principal amount was paid back long ago, but the compounding interest has taken on a life of its own —  should just not be repaid. Similarly, the Consumer Financial Protection Board is suing ITT Educational Services for tactics that seem widespread in the for-profit college industry: using high-pressure sales tactics to push students into taking out loans, when they have little prospect of either getting a degree or paying off the loan. Some of the sub-prime loans of the housing boom were likewise made with no reasonable prospect of repayment, then sold off to investors anyway. The primary fraud came from the banker, not the borrower.

Other debt is perhaps no fault of the lender, but should not be charged against the debtor either. Medical debt — often as clear a case of pay-or-die as any highway robbery — is the best example, but much student debt fits as well. The debt exists because of society’s failure to provide what ought to be public goods. If any debt is going to vanish in the fancy bookkeeping of the Fed, this kind of debt should.

Some debts are legitimate, but there are equally legitimate claims in the other direction, ones that the Creditocracy does not take as seriously. Much of the developing world’s debt to the wealthy countries might be cancelled by fair reparations for colonialism, or by the responsibility that industrialized nations have for using up the carbon-carrying capacity of the atmosphere. Today, the obligations in one direction are considered iron-clad, while the ones in the other are optional. Why should that be?

Probably most debts should eventually be paid. But even they might also be part of a larger debt strike, to force action on the ones that should be renegotiated or just renounced.

In the long run, the infrastructure of the Creditocracy might be torn down and rebuilt into an economic system whose primary purpose is to create useful goods and services rather than profits, a world with more co-ops and credit unions and crowd funding, and less money swirling around in financial derivatives.

But long before that can happen, the moral structure that supports the Creditocracy needs to be challenged and shaken at many levels. Imagine, if you can, a world in which the debtor who does not pay — like the slave who runs away or the worker who sits down on the job — is a hero.

Not a deadbeat, a moocher, or a loser. A hero.


* One reason this “review” is so long is that although I think the ideas in the book are important, I don’t actually like the way Ross makes his case. His style is repetitive, needlessly polemic, and sloppy with numbers. So I’m recasting the ideas in my own way.

One example: While making some point about Google and Facebook, Ross mentioned what each “earned” in a particular quarter. The numbers seemed high to me, so I checked them. He had actually quoted the companies’ revenues, not their earnings.

He was making a qualitative point, in which revenues worked just as well as earnings (i.e., some other number was small potatoes to companies that big). So it seemed to just be sloppiness rather than deception. But I don’t have to hit many such examples before I start to doubt everything.

Am I Charlie? Should I Be?

Let me start by saying what should be obvious, something I hope will provoke no disagreement: Nothing that people say or write or draw should get them killed. Not by a government, a church, a political party, or offended individuals. No opinion or blasphemy or insult or truth or lie, no matter how it’s packaged or delivered, justifies violence.

In almost every case, the proper response to speech is speech, or perhaps a shocked or dignified silence. Truth is the best answer to lies, insight the proper response to fallacy. Sometimes an insult can be topped by a cleverer insult, and sometimes it’s wiser to walk away. If a comedian tells a cruel joke and the audience responds with stunned silence, justice has been served. No violence is necessary or called for or warranted. Say what you may, you don’t “have it coming”. As Hassen Chalghoumi, the Muslim imam of the Paris suburb Drancy said in response to the Charlie Hebdo killings:

We can argue over liberty, but when we’re in disagreement we respond to art with art, to wit with wit. We never respond to a drawing with blood. No! Never.

Even the classic exception — yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater — just calls for someone to put a hand over your mouth and hustle you out the door, maybe to face a misdemeanor charge that underlines the seriousness of the situation. No beat-down is necessary. No lengthy imprisonment. No execution.

Nothing you say or write or draw should get you killed.

My next point isn’t quite as obvious, but also shouldn’t be controversial: Some legal speech should be socially unacceptable. After Mel Gibson went on a drunken rant about the “fucking Jews”, he wasn’t imprisoned or assassinated, but his popularity took a dive. When Duck Dynasty‘s Phil Robertson spewed a lot of demeaning nonsense about gays, blacks, and anyone who isn’t Christian, he was not arrested, but the show’s ratings dropped.

If I started sprinkling words like nigger and faggot through all my conversations, I would be breaking no laws, but people would avoid me. If I talked like that in a workplace, to my co-workers or our employer’s customers, I’d probably get fired. That’s an entirely appropriate response that has nothing to do with free speech.

Free speech has social consequences. If you want to be protected against the nonviolent social consequences of what you say, you’re talking about something else, not free speech.

Free speech also doesn’t require anyone to sponsor my speech or provide a convenient platform for me to say things they find offensive. (That actually isn’t hypothetical; I occasionally get invitations to speak in public, which I believe would dry up if I made a habit of saying racist or otherwise hateful things.) So when A&E briefly decided to separate itself from Robertson (and then reversed that decision), that wasn’t about free speech. Neither were the examples raised by David Brooks Thursday in his NYT column. If the University of Illinois doesn’t want to pay a Catholic priest to preach his doctrine in a for-credit class as an adjunct professor (and then reverses that decision), that might violate academic freedom (depending on what academic freedom means in the tradition of that school), but not freedom of speech. If universities do or don’t want to host Ayaan Hirsi Ali or Bill Maher, that’s a sponsored-speech issue, not a free-speech issue.

If people respond to what I say by calling it “hate speech” or by calling me a racist or sexist or some other name I don’t like, my rights have not been violated. (No matter what Sarah Palin thinks the First Amendment says.) Those words don’t have some magical power to “silence” people. Free speech doesn’t end when I’m done speaking; other people get to speak too — about me, if they want.

So I should be free to say or write or draw what I want without violence, but everybody else should be free to argue with me or insult me or shun me, if that seems appropriate to them. And if your response to me seems over-the-top to some third person, he or she should be free to criticize or insult or shun you too. That’s how freedom works.

So am I Charlie? After 9-11, Le Monde titled an editorial “Nous sommes tous Américains” — we are all Americans. For decades, the French had resented being in the shadow of American power, and had been reluctant allies at best. But in 9-11 Le Monde saw a violation of the civilized principles France and America share, and realized that what had happened to us could happen to them. So they put aside any petty urge to gloat over our misfortune and instead chose to identify with us: In the aftermath of 9-11, we were all Americans, even if we happened to be French.

In the same spirit, the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris has people all over the world saying “Je suis Charlie” — I am Charlie. (Wednesday, it led to a Le Monde op-ed by American ambassador Jane Hartley gratefully recalling “Nous sommes tous Américains”.) But are we really Charlie? Should we be?

There are a lot of ways in which we are all Charlie, or wish we had it in us to be Charlie. Charlie Hebdo is a satirical magazine that refused to back down when it was threatened or even attacked. (It’s still not backing down; the next issue will have a million-copy run.) All of us want to speak freely, and want to identify with people who stand up to intimidation and bullying, even if we don’t always stand up ourselves. Nobody wants to see the bullies win.

To that end, a lot of web sites have been re-posting the Charlie cartoons that offended Muslims (with translations at Vox), and are presumably the ones that 12 people died for. If anybody thinks that murder is an effective way to suppress cartoons, they should find out how wrong they are. Here’s one:

“Muhammad Overwhelmed by Fundamentalists” says the headline, and Vox has a red-faced Muhammad saying “It’s hard to be loved by idiots.” That sentiment would also fit well in Jesus’ mouth, IMHO, and would make the cartoon funny, if that’s what it really said. I could imagine such a cartoon in The Onion.

But something isn’t quite right about Vox‘s translation, because idiot is a perfectly fine French word, and Muhammad isn’t saying it. French has never been my subject, but after a little poking around online, I’m suspecting that cons is actually closer to cunts, which changes the impact considerably. (That’s also the translation favored by Saturn’s Repository.)

Then there’s the cartoon I won’t re-post, but The Hooded Utilitarian did: the one that turns the Boko Haram sex slaves into welfare queens. Is that supposed to be funny?

The American media has been portraying Charlie Hebdo almost as a French equivalent of irreverent American publications like The Onion or Mad, but it really isn’t. Something much darker has been going on. Charlie wasn’t just trying to be funny without worrying who it offended; it was trying to offend people for the sake of offending them, while maybe incidentally being funny. And although you can find examples here and there of attacks on Catholics or Jews, it put special effort into offending Muslims.

Which leads to the next question: If Charlie Hebdo was attacked for baiting Muslims, should those of us who find ourselves identifying with Charlie carry on its mission by doing our own Muslim baiting?

For me, that’s where Je suis Charlie starts to break down. Glenn Greenwald makes the obvious comparison:

[I]t is self-evident that if a writer who specialized in overtly anti-black or anti-Semitic screeds had been murdered for their ideas, there would be no widespread calls to republish their trash in “solidarity” with their free speech rights.

Greenwald (who is of Jewish heritage but was not raised in any organized religion) illustrates that point by posting an ugly series of anti-Semitic cartoons and asking: “Is it time for me to be celebrated for my brave and noble defense of free speech rights?”

Punching down. Humor works best as a weapon of the weak against the powerful. But when the powerful make fun of the weak — like when popular high school jocks trip the new kid into a mud puddle and laugh — it soon stops being humorous and turns ugly.

Sometimes telling the weak from the powerful is tricky. When Rush Limbaugh plays “Barack the Magic Negro” on his show, is he a free citizen lampooning a powerful politician, or a rich and influential white celebrity telling American blacks that even the best of them don’t deserve his respect? I can imagine someone taking the first view, but the mere existence of the second restrains me from laughing.

In France, Muslims are not just a minority religion, they are an underclass. Many come from former French colonies like Algeria, and work low-status jobs for considerably less than the average French wage. Whatever other messages Charlie Hebdo‘s anti-Muslim cartoons might send, they also express the social power that educated white Frenchmen have over their darker-skinned menials. And that makes those drawings considerably less funny.

The Hooded Utilitarian sums up:

White men punching down is not a recipe for good satire, and needs to be called out. People getting upset does not prove that the satire was good. And, this is the hardest part, the murder of the satirists in question does not prove that their satire was good.

Satire, even bad satire or bigoted satire, is not something anybody should be killed for — or arrested or beaten up or vandalized for. I’m not making a both-sides-are-wrong point, because the wrong on one side is completely out of scale with the other. But that doesn’t mean I want to celebrate anti-Muslim bigotry.

So in some ways I want to be Charlie and in other ways I don’t. I hope that if anyone ever tries to intimidate me out of speaking my mind, I will be as courageous as the staff of Charlie Hebdo. I hope their successors remain free to print what they want, and that the people who appreciate their work remain free to buy it. But I can’t endorse what they published. All speech should be legal and free from violence, but some should be socially unacceptable.

Will Republicans Ever Have a Sister Souljah Moment?

Now that he’s under duress, Steve Scalise will denounce David Duke. But when it mattered, he courted Duke’s racist voters. Will a Republican ever intentionally offend extremists in the base to gain credibility with the center?


Louisiana Congressman Steve Scalise is the new member of the Republican House leadership, replacing Eric Cantor, who lost his primary to a Koch-brothers candidate. Scalise is supposed to be the link between the leadership and the GOP’s extreme right wing, a role he appears to be good at.

But a funny thing happened: A blogger* (Lamar White Jr.) did some digging and found out that in 2002, then-state-rep Scalise was “an honored guest and speaker at an international conference of white supremacist leaders.” The group was the European-American Unity and Rights Organization (EURO), a hate group established by KKK-Grand-Wizard-turned-Republican-politician David Duke.

Now Scalise says he doesn’t remember the event (which an aide said it was “highly likely” he had attended), and there’s a complicated version of the story in which it’s all a big misunderstanding; he just happened to be speaking at the same hotel at the same time to a lot of the same people. (Under further investigation, this version is falling apart.) Scalise claims he wouldn’t have spoken to EURO if he’d known what they were. He mentions giving hundreds of speeches with just one staffer, implying that the EURO gig just slipped through the cracks somehow.

But that explanation doesn’t pass the smell test. Duke was not an inconsequential figure in Louisiana politics in 2002. In 1991 he had stunned the state Republican Party by out-polling the establishment Republican candidate in the primary and winding up in a run-off for governor. (In the run-off, a national controversy in which Duke’s Klan-leader past was a major issue, he got a majority of the white vote and 39% statewide. If the Voting Rights Act of 1965 hadn’t enfranchised blacks, Duke would have become governor.)

In his early campaigns, Scalise at times consciously courted Duke voters. A Roll Call article from 1999 reported on a congressional race Duke was considering:

Another potential candidate, state Rep. Steve Scalise (R), said he embraces many of the same “conservative” views as Duke, but is far more viable. … “The voters in this district are smart enough to realize that they need to get behind someone who not only believes in the issues they care about, but also can get elected. Duke has proven that he can’t get elected, and that’s the first and most important thing.”

Three years later, Scalise couldn’t have just not noticed that David Duke was leading EURO now, or not known what that meant.

The New Republic‘s Brian Beutler makes the right point: The problem this incident illustrates isn’t that Scalise himself is or was a white supremacist — he probably isn’t and wasn’t. But (especially in the South) white racists have become a key component of the Republican base, one that a canny politician has to court, even if he can’t publicly endorse their ideology.

if in 1999 you said “the first and most important thing” about Duke was merely that he couldn’t get elected, rather than his despicable racism, it says something important about the voters you were trying not to offend. Many of those voters are still alive today.

In Democratic circles, you frequently hear talk about a “Sister Souljah moment“, which has been defined as “a key moment when the candidate takes what at least appears to be a bold stand against certain extremes in their party”. The paradigmic SSM was when candidate Bill Clinton denounced statements by black rapper Sister Souljah, saying “If you took the words ‘white’ and ‘black,’ and you reversed them, you might think David Duke was giving that speech.”

But SSMs only happen on the Left. (The article I took that definition from discussed Mitt Romney’s missed opportunity for an SSM, when he failed to denounce Rush Limbaugh’s grotesque slut-shaming of Sandra Fluke, saying only that slut was “not the language I would have used“. The substance of Limbaugh’s comments was apparently fine with Mitt; only his language was objectionable.) When the national media gets focused on an issue like Scalise’s EURO speech, conservative politicians can be cornered into rejecting an extremist like David Duke or Cliven Bundy — and can’t be cornered into rejecting Rush Limbaugh, no matter he says or does — but no Republican creates such moments to demonstrate his or her reasonableness to the moderate voter.

So no Republican presidential candidate — not even a so-called “moderate” like Jeb Bush or Chris Christie — is going to confront conservative extremists with reasonable positions and intentionally get himself booed.** No one is going to tell CPAC that the party needs to move to the center, or endorse background checks in front of the NRA, or defend church-and-state separation at the Values Voters Summit, or confront the Energy Alliance with the facts of climate science, or tell white racists that he really isn’t interested in their support.

Instead, if candidates don’t feel comfortable endorsing extremist views outright, they will dog-whistle to these groups, as Scalise did to EURO in 2002***, or Ronald Reagan did to white racists in 1980. They’ll present their conservative bona fides to CPAC, defend “constitutional rights” to the NRA, endorse “traditional values” to the values voters, identify with “sound science” in front of the Energy Alliance, and talk to white racists about the deficiencies of “inner city culture”.

Everyone in the room will know what those words mean. The extremists will come out feeling that the candidate agrees with them in his heart, but his agreement will be deniable in front of the general public.

Maybe someday there will be Sister Souljah moment on the Right. But not yet. The crazies are too important a constituency, so all serious Republican candidates have to pander to them.


* Can we finally put to bed the canard popular among mainstream journalists that they do all the investigative reporting, while bloggers just bloviate based on mainstream journalists’ discoveries? Bloggers may not have access to anonymous “highly placed sources” and can’t score interviews with Dick Cheney, but collectively we plow through a lot of original source documents. White apparently rummaged through the online archives of the white-supremacist Stormfront group. I doubt he had to elbow any Washington Post reporters out of the way.

** Romney did construct a reverse-SSM when he intentionally evoked boos from an NAACP gathering, thereby proving to extremists in his own party that he would stand up to black leaders.

*** According to a contemporary Stormfront account, Scalise didn’t directly endorse white supremacy at the EURO meeting. (But if Scalise thought he was speaking to some other group, that distinction apparently was lost on the Stormfront commenter, whose subject-line says “EURO/New Orleans 2002″.) Instead, he spoke about a topic white supremacists would appreciate: government favoritism to blacks.

Representative Scalise brought into sharp focus the dire circumstances pervasive in many important, under-funded needs of the community at the expense of graft within the Housing and Urban Development Fund, an apparent give-away to a selective group based on race.

5 Things to Understand About the Torture Report

You don’t have to read the full 525-page executive summary of the “torture report” — officially the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program — to get the gist. The 19-page “Findings and Conclusions” section begins right after Senator Feinstein’s six-page introduction and is very readable.

When something this long and detailed comes out and says things a lot of people don’t want to hear, it’s easy to get drawn off into arguments that miss the point. So here are my “findings”, the main things that I think the average American needs to understand:

  1. We tortured people.
  2. A lot of people.
  3. We gained virtually nothing from it.
  4. It was illegal.
  5. No one has been held accountable for it.

1. We tortured people. Past public discussions of torture focused primarily on waterboarding, but this report makes it clear that “enhanced interrogation” also included beatings, sleep deprivation (“up to 180 hours, usually standing or in stress positions”), ice water baths (at least one detainee died of exposure), threats against detainee’s families (“threats to harm the children of a detainee, threats to sexually abuse the mother of a detainee, and a threat to “cut [a detainee’s] mother’s throat”), and “rectal feeding without documented medical necessity”.

In addition, inexperienced and poorly trained interrogators sometimes made up their own unauthorized torture techniques, and were not punished for doing so.

Compare this to the definition in Article 1 of the United Nations Convention Against Torture, which President Reagan signed in 1988 and the Senate ratified in 1994,* making it “the supreme Law of the Land” according to Article VI of the Constitution:

For the purposes of this Convention, the term “torture” means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.

If you are having any doubt about whether the acts described in the report are torture, imagine a foreign government doing them to an American. John McCain doesn’t have to imagine this, he can remember it, so he has no trouble calling the CIA’s program torture.

2. A lot of people. The public arguments about waterboarding usually led to the claim that we had only done it to three very bad people. But the report says the CIA applied “enhanced interrogation” to 119 people, many of whom didn’t meet the program’s own standards for inclusion.

These included an “intellectually challenged” man whose CIA detention was used solely as leverage to get a family member to provide information … and two individuals whom the CIA assessed to be connected to al-Qa’ida based solely on information fabricated by a CIA detainee subject to the the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques.

And remember: that’s just the CIA. It doesn’t count all the prisoners abused by the Army at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. For an account of that torture, I recommend Fear Up Harsh by former Army interrogator Tony Lagouranis, who wrote:

Once introduced into war, torture will inevitably spread, because ticking bombs are everywhere. Each and every prisoner, without exception, has the potential to be the one that provides the information that will save American lives. So if you accept the logic that we have to perform torture to prevent deaths, each and every prisoner is deserving of torture.

3. We gained virtually nothing from it. Torture’s effectiveness in getting information out of people has been hotly debated all along. Dick Cheney and others claimed it was invaluable, while the sources Jane Mayer and Phillippe Sands talked to said otherwise. After reviewing the CIA’s records, the Senate Intelligence Committee began its findings by calling BS on torture advocates’ effectiveness claims.

#1: The CIA’s use of its enhanced interrogation techniques was not an effective means of acquiring intelligence or gaining cooperation from detainees.

The shocking thing you learn as you get into the history of the program is that there was never any real reason to think it would be effective. The program was not designed by experienced interrogators, but by a consulting psychologist with no experience, based not on techniques that had gotten information out of prisoners in the past, but on a program we ran to teach our own soldiers how to resist torture. In other word, “enhanced interrogation” was designed to be torture, not to get information.

The repeated claims that torture “saved American lives” were based on several types of deception: giving torture credit for everything a tortured detainee told us, even if he told us before he was tortured; giving torture credit for thwarting “plots” that were never more than a few terrorist wannabees talking big to each other; and picking out rare nuggets of truth from a spew of lies and nonsense after we’d gotten the same information some other way.

People under torture will start saying things to make it stop. If there’s a story you want to hear, they will tell it to you; that’s why torture is so good at forcing false confessions out of people. But it doesn’t seem to be a good way to get them to tell you the truth.

In addition to gaining us nothing, the torture program cost the United States a great deal, not just in money, but in our moral standing around the world, and our international relations. The report describes how U. S. ambassadors to various countries were not cleared to know about the secret prisons the CIA had arranged to build in those countries. We can only imagine how the rulers laughed when their U.S. ambassadors pressed them to be more transparent about human rights.

4. It was illegal. The memos written by the Bush administration’s Office of Legal Counsel were already bizarre distortions of the applicable law, ignoring the clear statements of Article 2.2 of the Convention Against Torture:

No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.

and the Eighth Amendment:

Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

These OLC torture memos have been repudiated by President Obama.

But the Senate report now informs us that the CIA was not telling the Bush OLC what their program was really doing, and was lying about its effectiveness.

OLC memoranda signed on May 30, 2005, and July 20, 2007, relied on these representations, determining that the techniques were legal in part because they produced “specific, actionable intelligence” and “substantial quantities of otherwise unavailable intelligence” that saved lives. … The CIA’s representations to the OLC about the techniques were also inconsistent with how the techniques would later be applied.

So the CIA lied to the OLC about what it was doing and whether it was working, and the OLC lied to the President about whether the program (as the CIA had described it) was legal. This was a frequent pattern in the Bush administration, which also turned up in the “evidence” that Saddam had an active WMD program: Some low-level analyst would shade his conclusions to correspond to what his boss wanted to hear; his boss would shade them further for his boss; and so on up the ladder.

What we don’t know for sure is whether Bush, Cheney, or other top officials wanted it this way. Were their underlings out of control and deceiving them about it? Or was this a wink-and-nod arrangement that gave the higher-ups deniability?

5. No one has been held accountable for it. In the early months of his administration, President Obama pledged that he would not prosecute the torturers at the CIA, justifying his position like this:

It is our intention to assure those who carried out their duties relying in good faith upon legal advice from the Department of Justice, that they will not be subject to prosecution.

That sort of made sense: Maybe you realize what you’re doing is dicey under the law, but you’re not a lawyer and the lawyers say you’re OK. It shouldn’t be a crime to trust them.

But now the Senate report makes it clear that at least some people at the CIA were manipulating the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel, feeding it false information about the nature and success of their program, and then doing more than the OLC torture memos authorized. Nevertheless, Obama has shown no signs of changing his position.

Subsequent to his boss’ declaration, Obama’s chief of staff elaborated that the policy-makers who OK’d torture and the lawyers who invented bogus justifications for it would also not be prosecuted. He didn’t explain, but simply said, “That’s not the place that we go.” So the Obama administration ratified what law professor Jonathan Turley had dubbed “Mukasey’s Paradox” in honor of Bush attorney general Michael Mukasey:

Under Mukasey’s Paradox, lawyers cannot commit crimes when they act under the orders of a president — and a president cannot commit a crime when he acts under advice of lawyers.

In other words, if a president orders his OLC lawyers to find a way to justify him doing whatever, they all get off scot free.

But then there’s that pesky Convention Against Torture again, and that whole constitutional thing about treaties being the supreme law of the land. Countries that sign the CAT — like the United States — are obligated to investigate and prosecute cases of torture within their jurisdiction. Republicans love to call President Obama “lawless” and accuse him of failing to “faithfully execute the laws” as the Constitution mandates. I’ve argued in the past that those claims are bogus, but in this case — a case where nearly all Republicans agree with him — Obama really is failing to execute the laws.

University of Chicago law professor Eric Posner offers this argument against prosecution:

When the president takes actions that he sincerely believes advance national security, and officials throughout the government participate for the same reason, then an effort to punish the behavior—unavoidably, a massive effort that could result in trials of hundreds of people—poses a real risk to democratic governance.

Obama’s problem is that if he can prosecute Republican officeholders for authorizing torture, then the next Republican president can prosecute Obama and his subordinates for the many questionable legal actions of the Obama administration—say, the drone strike that killed Anwar al-Awlaki and three other American citizens.

In practice, this honor-among-thieves argument comes dangerously close to Nixon’s adage that “when the President does it, that means that it is not illegal.” Nobody is willing to follow it as far as it would go. A president might order genocide out of a sincere belief that the targeted race constitutes a risk to national security, and underlings might carry out those orders for the same reason. (I suspect most of the world’s genocides can be made to fit that pattern.) Should they get off?

I want to stand Posner’s argument on its head: What endangers democratic governance is the tacit agreement that neither party will prosecute its predecessors (except for Blagojevich-style personal corruption) no matter what laws they break. I’m a Democrat who voted for Obama twice, but I would welcome an investigation of the legality of the drone program. If it’s a war crime, then people should stand trial, up to and including President Obama himself.

Posner may be right that no jury would convict a CIA torturer, or someone like Bush or Cheney — or Obama for that matter. But that’s a jury’s decision to make, and not anyone else’s.

So what about ticking bombs? In the ticking-bomb scenario torture defenders love to cite, you are absolutely certain that

  • a hidden nuclear bomb is about to destroy some city like New York, killing millions
  • a guy you are holding knows where it is and how to disarm it
  • he’ll tell you if you torture him, but not otherwise

It’s worth noting that this was not the case for any of the 119 detainees the CIA tortured. So we’re weighing a made-for-TV movie scenario against 119 real people.

In any real situation, you wouldn’t know any of this. You’d have unconfirmed reports about a bomb, which might or might not work, set to go off sometime. You’d suspect this guy was part of the plot. You’d hope he had the information you need. And maybe torture would get it out of him, or maybe it would just solidify his resolve — which otherwise might have melted at the last minute as the enormity of the crime became real to him. So you’d be acting on a hunch, with the possibility that maybe you want torture this guy out of frustration with your own helplessness rather than because it would accomplish anything.

But suppose you’re convinced that torture will make the difference here and save New York. What should happen? I think you save New York, but then you turn yourself in and throw yourself on the mercy of a jury (hopefully a jury of New Yorkers). If you’re not willing to take that risk, then you’re no hero. You’re willing to make somebody else suffer to save lives, but not willing to risk suffering yourself.

There should never be a process that can give prior approval to torture, or hide it after the fact. Everybody who decides to torture in America’s name should have to face his fellow citizens.

Truth and reconciliation. One suggestion to preserve at least some of the integrity of our legal system is that President Obama could offer formal pardons to the Americans involved in torture, from President Bush on down to the guys who poured the water during waterboarding. ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero explains:

The spectacle of the president’s granting pardons to torturers still makes my stomach turn. But doing so may be the only way to ensure that the American government never tortures again. Pardons would make clear that crimes were committed; that the individuals who authorized and committed torture were indeed criminals; and that future architects and perpetrators of torture should beware. Prosecutions would be preferable, but pardons may be the only viable and lasting way to close the Pandora’s box of torture once and for all.

Jonathan Bernstein agrees, hoping that generous pardons would take the partisanship out of torture, and allow Republicans to condemn it. But he adds:

A final step has to be a truth and reconciliation commission to detail what happened and how counterproductive it was. … The only way to get the truth, in other words, is to make it clear that a commission will treat the people involved generously, even if its investigation shows the horrors of what they did.

Truth and reconciliation commissions have been used in many countries — notably South Africa — to move on after a national moral catastrophe. I have my doubts it would work here (and so does Bernstein). But if the alternative is to do nothing …


* The Convention Against Torture was ratified with official reservations. But none of the reservations mention Article 1 or Article 2.2.

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