Jan 152010
 

Let’s talk about Cass Sunstein.

For those of you out of the know, Sunstein is head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, a part of the Executive Office of the president of the US. He is informally known as the Information Czar, roughly equivalent to one of the many, many posts held in the UK by Peter Mandelson. It is a creepy competency, and it is perhaps only fitting that it should be filled by a professor of law at Harvard, which Sunstein also is.

The North West LPUK blog flagged him up today as a dodgy customer, and indeed, it looks as if he is one.

For someone expert in constitutional law, Cass Sunstein is all about some bansturbation that would interfere directly with the rights explicitly protected in that constitution, namely the right of free speech.

According to this post at Infowars, in 2008 he prepared a white paper that outlined the responses government might make to the over-prevalence of conspiracy theories (though, alas, their link to the paper does not work):

On page 14 of Sunstein’s January 2008 white paper entitled “Conspiracy Theories,” the man who is now Obama’s head of information technology in the White House proposed that each of the following measures “will have a place under imaginable conditions” according to the strategy detailed in the essay.

1) Government might ban conspiracy theorizing.

2) Government might impose some kind of tax, financial or otherwise, on those who disseminate such theories.

That’s right, Obama’s information czar wants to tax or ban outright, as in make illegal, political opinions that the government doesn’t approve of. To where would this be extended? A tax or a shut down order on newspapers that print stories critical of our illustrious leaders?

And what does Sunstein define as “conspiracy theories” that should potentially be taxed or outlawed by the government? Opinions held by the majority of Americans, no less.

Among the theories identified in the paper as possible targets for censorship are the beliefs that Oswald did not act alone, that global warming is a deliberate fraud, and that sunlight is good for the body. These are all pretty inoffensive ‘conspiracy’ theories. Most of those suspected of involvement in the Kennedy assassination are now dead (or, in the case of Castro, as near as dammit), and it does not seem reasonable to censor conspiracies regarding an event about which we will likely never know the gospel truth. On the other side of the spectrum, whether or not climate change (global warming) is an immediate threat is something scientists predict we will know within 50 years. Why suggest censoring a conspiracy theory that has a built-in sell-by date? And the benefits of sunlight are backed up by numerous studies which show that sunlight is an excellent source of essential vitamin D. As long as people are equally aware of the dangers of skin cancer due to exposure, why attack this claim? [CORRECTION: Sunstein does say that believing sunlight is healthy is false and dangerous, but he does not class it as a conspiracy theory.]

What possible reason could Sunstein have for advising that such innocuous views be suppressed?

One can only presume that Sunstein is deliberately framing the debate by going to such absurd extremes so as to make any belief whatsoever into a conspiracy theory unless it’s specifically approved by the kind of government thought police system he is pushing for.

That seems plausible to me. If harmless conspiracy theories warrant taxation or bans, what do harmful ones deserve? (Remember, many places still have the death penalty in the US.)

Sunstein is also known to have called for the First Amendment to be re-written, to have advocated internet censorship (beyond what already exists, presumably), and to hold the belief that Americans should celebrate Tax Day. This last was so bizarre to me that I had to search it up for verification. In an article for the Chicago Tribune which Sunstein also published on his website at the University of Chicago, Sunstein wrote:

In what sense is the money in our pockets and bank accounts fully “ours”? Did we earn it by our own autonomous efforts? Could we have inherited it without the assistance of probate courts? Do we save it without support from bank regulators? Could we spend it (say, on the installment plan) if there were no public officials to coordinate the efforts and pool the resources of the community in which we live?

Do not get up tomorrow and drape your house in black! For tax day is not a day of national mourning. Without taxes there would be no liberty.

Without taxes there would be no property. Without taxes, few of us would have any assets worth defending.

It may be reasonable, in some cases, to cut tax rates. What is unreasonable and, in fact, preposterous is the all-too-familiar conservative rhetoric that flatly opposes individual liberty to the government power to tax and spend. You cannot be for rights and against government because rights are meaningless unless enforced by government.

If government could not intervene effectively, none of the individual rights to which Americans have become accustomed could be reliably protected.

Most rights are funded by taxes, not by fees. This is why the overused distinction between “negative” and “positive” rights makes little sense. Rights to private property, freedom of speech, immunity from police abuse, contractual liberty, free exercise of religion–just as much as rights to Social Security, Medicare and food stamps–are taxpayer-funded and government-managed social services designed to improve collective and individual well-being.

This raises some important questions, to be sure. Who decides, in the United States, how to allocate our scarce public resources for the protection of which rights for whom? What principles are commonly invoked to guide these allocations? And can those principles be defended? These questions deserve more discussion than they usually receive, unclouded by the dim fiction that some people enjoy and exercise their rights without placing any burden whatsoever on the public fisc.

In any case, to recognize the dependency of property rights on the contributions of the whole community, managed by the government, is to repel the rhetorical attack on welfare rights as somehow deeply un-American, and totally alien or different in kind from classical or “real” rights. No right can be exercised independently, for every rights-holder has a claim on public resources–on money that has been extracted from citizens at large.

For all rights–call them negative, call them positive–have that effect. There is no liberty without dependency.

‘Without taxes, there would be no liberty.’

‘Rights are meaningless unless enforced by government.’

‘There is no liberty without dependency.’

And there is no tyranny without sophistry. This man is now Obama’s sophist extraordinaire.

Sunstein’s Wikipedia page informs me, as well, that he is ‘known for’ soft paternalism and choice architecture: our old friend libertarian paternalism, advocated in Britain by Sunstein’s counterpart Julian le Grand:

The idea, dubbed “libertarian paternalism”, reverses the traditional government approach that requires individuals to opt in to healthy schemes. Instead, they would have to opt out to make the unhealthy choice, by buying a smoking permit, choosing not to participate in the exercise hour or adding salt at the table.

By preserving individual choice, the approach could be defended against charges of a “nanny state,” he said. “Some people say this is paternalism squared. But at a fundamental level, you are not being made to do anything. It is not like banning something, it is not prohibition. It is a softer form of paternalism.”

Many of Sunstein’s publications appear to have equally sinister connotations:

  • Democracy and the Problem of Free Speech (1995)
  • Free Markets and Social Justice (1997)
  • The Second Bill of Rights: FDR’s Unfinished Revolution and Why We Need It More than Ever (2004)
  • Laws of Fear: Beyond the Precautionary Principle (2005)
  • Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness (2008)

The ‘Second Bill of Rights’ of FDR, by the way, contains the right to education, a home, healthcare, etc: the so-called ‘positive’ rights between which and liberty Sunstein sees no distinction. And according to Wikipedia, another strike against the Tories:

Sunstein co-authored Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness (Yale University Press, 2008) with economist Richard Thaler of the University of Chicago. Nudge discusses how public and private organizations can help people make better choices in their daily lives. Thaler and Sunstein argue that

People often make poor choices – and look back at them with bafflement! We do this because as human beings, we all are susceptible to a wide array of routine biases that can lead to an equally wide array of embarrassing blunders in education, personal finance, health care, mortgages and credit cards, happiness, and even the planet itself.

The ideas in the book proved popular with politicians such as Barack Obama, David Cameron, and the British Conservative Party in general (Cameron is party leader).

I can only assume that Sunstein’s proposed tax on objectionable views is an example of a ‘nudge’ node in his ‘choice architecture.’

Sunstein’s objection to the First Amendment comes as a result of his theory of ‘cyber balkanisation,’ in which growing use of the internet has isolated people from the opinions of those who do not share their views. In his book Democracy and the Problem of Free Speech, he argues:

…in light of astonishing economic and technological changes, we must doubt whether, as interpreted, the constitutional guarantee of free speech is adequately serving democratic goals.

From this it seems clear that Sunstein views freedom of speech not as an end in itself, but as a means to the pursuit of ‘political deliberation and citizenship’.

I would like to note that Sunstein’s calls to ban ‘conspiracy theories’ if necessary are wholly inconsistent with libertarian paternalism, involving as they do not a nudge but an outright prohibition. A tax seems more in agreement with his philosophy of choice architecture, requiring people to ‘opt out’ of not holding objectionable opinions. But one has to wonder: if there is no liberty without taxation, what are we to do about a tax that directly suppresses one of our fundamental freedoms? Is that liberty, too? Is not-liberty liberty?

All of which makes the NW LPUK blog’s opening that much more relevant:

As the LPUK has pointed out to British MPs, George Orwell’s novel 1984 is “…a warning, NOT a blueprint.”

War is Peace. Ignorance is Strength. Freedom is Slavery.

And a tax on freedom is liberty.

UPDATE: A different view of Cass Sunstein and conspiracy theories is presented at the Bleeding Heart Show. I particularly like this analysis:

There are many different explanations for why conspiracy theories form and how they spread, but I think the most important cultural/political aspect is how they’re often reactions from peoples or communities who feel distanced from & distrustful of the establishment. If you reduced that amount of alienation, you’d probably reduce the number and the power of these strange alternate histories. In the end, if you feel so powerless, the government must seem a hell of a lot more powerful than it actually is.

I think this is almost certainly accurate. Reducing alienation, however, involves identifying its source and correcting it. A lot of the distance and distrust Americans have for the establishment, and probably Britons too, is a result of feeling that the establishment is unresponsive to their needs and wishes. Protests and petitions have, most of the time, little effect on what the government does (witness the Iraq war protests here in the UK in 2003 and 2004; millions marched but the armed forces were deployed after shockingly little debate in Parliament).

When elections are won by extremely narrow margins, or fought almost exclusively in swing states or marginal constituencies, that leaves many citizens feeling ignored or effectively disenfranchised. And, of course, everyone who voted for the losing candidate or party is going to feel alienated from the incoming winner. The British also have the EU to contend with, in which many positions of extraordinary power are unelected and, to a large extent, unaccountable. There is also the phenomenon wherein the winning candidate/party fails to fulfill its manifesto, and so even those citizens who supported them become disillusioned and distrustful.

In short, the solution for reducing alienation is more transparency in government and more democratic accountability. But to implement this solution requires that those with power in the establishment acquire a little humility and cease to act as if they believe they are smarter, wiser, and know what’s best for people. Unfortunately, ‘humble and willing to accept his own fallibility’ seems pretty much the complete opposite of Cass Sunstein, so I doubt this is a solution he, in his unelected, unaccountable power, will be pushing for anytime soon.

Jan 122010
 

Via CNN I see that President Obama has considerately taken into account the date of the season premiere of LOST in deciding when to hold the annual State of the Union address:

Fear gripped the hearts of fans when it was announced that the president wanted to push back the annual State of the Union address – typically held in late January – to February 2, which everyone should know by now is the premiere of the ABC drama’s final season.

Crazy talk! Doesn’t he know people have been dying to find out what happened to the castaways?

But White House press secretary Robert Gibbs assured viewers Friday he “doesn’t foresee a scenario in which millions of people that hope to finally get some conclusion in ‘Lost’ are preempted by the president.”

This non-news was not, I confess, particularly interesting to me, until I started reading the comments beneath it.

And boy, is America unhappy.

Remarks seem to be conforming to the following general categories:

(1) “Americans are pathetic. I can’t believe LOST is more important to some people than what the president has to say.”

(2) “Obama is pathetic. I can’t believe he’d change the date of his speech to suit a bunch of sheeple LOST fans.”

(3) “Politics and politicians of any stripe are pathetic. LOST will be more interesting and more factual than the heard-it-all-before SOTU.”

(4) “You’re all pathetic. Ever since the SOTU has been televised, presidents have taken into account conflicts with the normal viewing timetable.”

(5) “Everything is pathetic. LOST? State of the Union? Who gives a shit.”

The general malaise and negativity displayed in these 470 (yes, 470 comments) is breathtaking. In full awareness of the fact that this is anecdata, I’m still going to postulate that the Change which Obama hath wrought has been, on the whole, not so good. By far the most illuminating of the comments are the ones that express a deep and weary scepticism about why the date of this regular address is in question in the first place. The State of the Union is traditionally delivered in late January; the suggestion of postponing it until February (and thus creating a conflict with the LOST premiere) has led many people to believe that Obama wishes to be able to extol a successful healthcare reform bill therein. As far as I know, this sort of manoeuvring is rare; the whole point of the SOTU is to describe, duh, the state of the union at regular intervals. It loses much of its impact if the president gets to decide to describe the state of the union whenever he judges that state to be most positive.

Not to mention that Obama has been, not to put too fine a point on it, one of the most speechifying presidents I can remember, having addressed the nation in this way at least three times that I can think of already in his first year of office. I realise these speeches have been topical, rather than holistic, but when you put them all together, we’ve had his words on education, healthcare, and the on-going wars in the Middle East. Possibly the economy as well, though I don’t remember that specifically. I think Americans are pretty up-to-date on the state of their union.

I suspect that much of the negativity and cynicism stems from the fact that Obama has gone about his presidency in entirely back-asswards fashion. Having campaigned on a platform that consisted largely of reversing the mahoosive mistakes of the Bush administration, once in office, he immediately set out to… not reverse any of them. Patriot Act? Still there. Guantanamo? Still there. Wars? Still there. Bailouts and stimuli? Still there. Discontinuing these things, while difficult, would have been popular on both sides of the political divide, as well as with the mythical ‘independent’ voters. Obama would have been seen to be cleaning up the mess and providing himself with a fresh slate, correcting the massive loss of civil liberties and doing his best to get the country back on its economic feet.

Instead of pursuing these popular campaign policies, however, he has spent the vast majority of the last year shilling for his Congressional party members and their ridiculous healthcare reform. A task as huge as the overhaul of the nation’s health infrastructure should have been begun cautiously, slowly, and thoroughly, with cost/benefit analyses, input from providers and consumers, multiple scenarios of best practice, and above all, genuine bi-partisan contribution. What Obama has allowed to happen, however, is the creation of a massive, cobbled-together bill based on the barest minimum of research into the health market, the barest minimum of input from the industry as a whole, and containing almost innumerable lines inserted solely to get this or that special interest group onside, or this or that senator. The legislation is a gigantic fucked-up mess that appears designed, not to represent a unified vision of healthcare or emulate best practice elsewhere in the world, but to prove that the Democrats in Congress have done something, dammit, and it looks plausible if you stand back from it and squint a bit.

And Americans are not impressed. Yes, healthcare needed reform. Yes, Obama promised to do it. But did it have to be done so quickly, and in so slipshod a fashion, and at the expense of so much good he also promised?

Few presidents have had as unsuccessful a first year as Obama; even fewer have been almost the sole authors of their own failure. I do not envy the man, but I do not pity him, either. If Americans are unhappy, it is because Obama misjudged them; it is because he believed his initial popularity meant he didn’t have to conform. Ultimately, I think, Americans do not want a cult of personality. They want what they have always liked best: a competent, steady leader, with a sure hand on the helm and an appropriate sense of solemnity for the huge responsibility he bears. Obama has lurched from crisis to panic to embarrassment, and while he’s handled it with fairly good grace, he may at last be discovering that, to Americans, only Mr President deserves respect and confidence. Barack Obama will receive the same when he remembers that they come, not in response to his personal charms, but by grace of the office he holds.

Oct 302009
 

Gangland Julius Caesar offers some advice to President Obama:

And believe me, nothing boosts an imperator’s public approval rating like turning the opposition into lion snausages. Your loyal plebes will love it, and after the games you can hand out free bread. And healthcare.

Shit, I dunno, maybe I’m being to hard on Obamacus. The big problem is that the punk don’t know how to pick a posse. Look at his Senators. Jupiter H. Cripes, I thought that crazyass Caligula was straightup psycho for appointing his horse to the Senate, but that thing had more brains than half these muthafuckers. Combined.

I know you be thinkin’ you’re some kind of stone cold Claudius, layin’ down some phat oratory at the Forum and plowing your enemies’ fields under with salt. But you still a teleprompter punk, and you gotta know what you don’t know…Lesson one: rule first, deification later.

Iowahawk has breathed new life into my Friday afternoon. Go read the whole thing; everybody knows regular blogging on a Friday snuffs out around 2 pm.

Sep 212009
 

The BBC has posted a link to part of an interview George Stephanopoulos had with Barack Obama in the wake of the Jimmy Carter ‘People oppose Obama because they’re racists’ declaration.

In the bit of the video that you can watch, Obama actually says something that surprises me, not because it’s not correct, but because it is – Obama has demonstrated in under two minutes that not only does he understand why so many people oppose his policies, he’s also willing to say so when it would be easier not to:

Obama:Now, there are some who, setting aside the issue of race, actually I think are more passionate about the idea of whether government can do anything right. And I think that – that’s probably the biggest driver of some of the vitriol –

Stephanopoulos: That, are you going to raise their taxes.

Obama: It – well, it goes beyond taxes. Anytime there is a president who is proposing big changes that seem to implicate the size of government, that gets everybody’s juices flowing.

Leaving aside the indelicacy of mentioning flowing juices – whatever he means by that – it’s quite obvious that Obama understands the conservative position vastly better than his supporters, including Stephanopoulos by the way, who are busy ejaculating accusations of racism and greed all over the place rather than taking issue with the fact that many Americans simply do not agree that the federal government has any legitimate role in the provision of health care, however unfair or unworkable the current system might be. When Stephanopoulos opines that such people are only interested in the number on their tax returns, Obama rightly corrects him. It’s not all about taxes.

Every now and again, Obama says little things that like this which indicate to me that he may actually be willing to engage with the meaningful criticisms of his policies – that he may actually acknowledge that the size of the state, and the extent to which it interferes with people’s activities and behaviour, is a topic worthy of reasonable debate. And I feel a little bit of this much-vaunted ‘hope’ well within my breast, because I very rarely encounter anyone from the other side of the political divide who is willing to debate that without resorting to calling me an anarchist (‘We need government to rein in people’s baser natures! Hobbes said so!’), a hater of democracy (okay, so this one’s kind of true), or a tinfoil-hat-wearing paranoiac (‘Bitch, please – this idea that governments want to turn us all into serfs is just a crazy conspiracy theory. Run off to your log cabin in the mountains with your shotgun, why don’t you’).

Then I remember that Obama said this, too, and the tiny, fragile, puppy-dog-eyed bit of hope curls up and dies.

Obama: But I don’t want the folks who created the mess – I don’t want the folks who created the mess to do a lot of talking. I want them just to get out of the way so we can clean up the mess. I don’t mind cleaning up after them, but don’t do a lot of talking. [crowd cheers madly] Am I wrong, Virginia?

[crowd shouts ‘No!’]

Sep 082009
 

Continuing with the recent philosophy that learning has to be justified by national utility, President Obama gave a televised speech this morning aimed at schoolchildren. Most classrooms in American schools have television sets (books? why are you asking about books? this is multi-media learning), and so I reckon, though I cannot be sure, that all state schools were required to show this broadcast, on what is for many children their first day of the school year.

As a teacher, I cannot over-emphasise what a massive pain in the backside I would have found it to spend even fifteen minutes of precious class time on frivolous speeches. The curriculum is too vast, and the school year too short in comparison, to give up even a moment of it. For purposes of comparison, consider that, four years ago when Pope John Paul II died, I was a Catholic teaching in a Catholic school and I still resented the single day the school closed for mourning.

But Obama’s speech was not simply frivolous; it was a collection of egotistical bromides couched in terms no child could fail to understand: if you don’t do well in school, you’ll never have a comfortable life, and the nation will be doomed. How do you mean, egotistical, I hear you ask?

I know that feeling. When I was young, my family lived in Indonesia for a few years, and my mother didn’t have the money to send me where all the American kids went to school. So she decided to teach me extra lessons herself, Monday through Friday – at 4:30 in the morning.

Now I wasn’t too happy about getting up that early. A lot of times, I’d fall asleep right there at the kitchen table. But whenever I’d complain, my mother would just give me one of those looks and say, “This is no picnic for me either, buster.”

I get it. I know what that’s like. My father left my family when I was two years old, and I was raised by a single mother who struggled at times to pay the bills and wasn’t always able to give us things the other kids had. There were times when I missed having a father in my life. There were times when I was lonely and felt like I didn’t fit in.

So I wasn’t always as focused as I should have been. I did some things I’m not proud of, and got in more trouble than I should have. And my life could have easily taken a turn for the worse.

But I was fortunate. I got a lot of second chances and had the opportunity to go to college, and law school, and follow my dreams. My wife, our First Lady Michelle Obama, has a similar story. Neither of her parents had gone to college, and they didn’t have much. But they worked hard, and she worked hard, so that she could go to the best schools in this country.

‘I, I, I. I’m you, American schoolchildren. I’m Everyman.’

Except that, of course, if you’re a kid, you’re thinking hmm. The president is telling me he goofed off and got in trouble and wasted time, and yet he still became the president. So clearly there’s no penalty.

And Obama puts the weight of a huge responsibility on these children’s shoulders. They’re not to have an education so they can be open-minded, well-rounded, happy people, oh no. They’re to have it so they can be of economic and civic benefit to the country:

And no matter what you want to do with your life – I guarantee that you’ll need an education to do it. You want to be a doctor, or a teacher, or a police officer? You want to be a nurse or an architect, a lawyer or a member of our military? You’re going to need a good education for every single one of those careers. You can’t drop out of school and just drop into a good job. You’ve got to work for it and train for it and learn for it.

And this isn’t just important for your own life and your own future. What you make of your education will decide nothing less than the future of this country. What you’re learning in school today will determine whether we as a nation can meet our greatest challenges in the future.

You’ll need the knowledge and problem-solving skills you learn in science and math to cure diseases like cancer and AIDS, and to develop new energy technologies and protect our environment. You’ll need the insights and critical thinking skills you gain in history and social studies to fight poverty and homelessness, crime and discrimination, and make our nation more fair and more free. You’ll need the creativity and ingenuity you develop in all your classes to build new companies that will create new jobs and boost our economy.

We need every single one of you to develop your talents, skills and intellect so you can help solve our most difficult problems. If you don’t do that – if you quit on school – you’re not just quitting on yourself, you’re quitting on your country.

So today, I want to ask you, what’s your contribution going to be? What problems are you going to solve? What discoveries will you make? What will a president who comes here in twenty or fifty or one hundred years say about what all of you did for this country?

‘Your mind exists to serve others. Your talents exist to serve others. Your achievements will go toward serving others. Because the absolute height of existence, the pinnacle of morality, the one necessary and sufficient incentive any human has or should have, is to serve others.’

There is a lot of talk about not ‘quitting on yourself’ in this speech, but no definition, unless it’s that quitting on yourself means you won’t be able to make money (lawyer, architect) or devote yourself to other people’s welfare (doctor, nurse, police officer, scientist, teacher, soldier, job-creator). I’m not saying he’s wrong – it’d be difficult to do any of those things without an education – but there is no talk of the personal satisfaction of setting goals and achieving them; the rewarding of curiosity; the simple joy of learning a skill and putting it to use, whatever the skill, whatever the use; the opening of the mind to ways of finding pleasure in any activity or experience. There is no focus in this speech on how you can use what you learn to give your life meaning – there is only offered the prospect of future usefulness.

And Obama is a bit out of touch with the heroes of today’s youth:

Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team, and he lost hundreds of games and missed thousands of shots during his career. But he once said, “I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

As much as I might find Michael Jordan impressive, he is not even a hero of my youth, seeing as he had retired from basketball before I left high school. He also – let’s face it – is not really the poster child for education; he dropped out of university to play professional basketball and finished his BA in tiny chunks in the years thereafter, finally ending up with a degree in geography. Funnily enough, this little nugget about Jordan’s perseverance comes right after the part in the speech where Obama says:

I know that sometimes, you get the sense from TV that you can be rich and successful without any hard work — that your ticket to success is through rapping or basketball or being a reality TV star, when chances are, you’re not going to be any of those things.

Kids are not stupid. They will perceive the contradiction. On the one hand, Obama tells them they’re unlikely to succeed in those professions where an education is not necessary. On the other hand, he uses as an example of success and a role model one of the very people who did just that. Hmm.

That said, Obama does offer one piece of good sense:

No one’s born being good at things, you become good at things through hard work. You’re not a varsity athlete the first time you play a new sport. You don’t hit every note the first time you sing a song. You’ve got to practice. It’s the same with your schoolwork. You might have to do a math problem a few times before you get it right, or read something a few times before you understand it, or do a few drafts of a paper before it’s good enough to hand in.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. I do that every day. Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength. It shows you have the courage to admit when you don’t know something, and to learn something new.

Unfortunately, he follows it with this:

And even when you’re struggling, even when you’re discouraged, and you feel like other people have given up on you – don’t ever give up on yourself. Because when you give up on yourself, you give up on your country.

The story of America isn’t about people who quit when things got tough. It’s about people who kept going, who tried harder, who loved their country too much to do anything less than their best.

Argh.

May 292009
 

ZOMG, it’s like Israel is Darth Vader and the US is Emperor Palpatine! Only not at the beginning, when he was our loyal slave, but at the end, when the disloyal fucker is about to stab us in the back.

Actually, that’s not a metaphor that works well at all. But goodness – I really, really, truly thought Hillary and Barack would be uniters, not dividers, and that once they put their totally reasonable arguments to the Israelis and the Palestineans, everybody would see that carrying on fighting was really silly and settle down for a shared meal of milk and honey.

I feel so… disillusioned…

May 062009
 

When the recent Bush administration rammed the Patriot Act through Congress, ostensibly to deal with cases of suspected terrorism without exposing the public to unnecessary risk, there were those who said, ‘This is horrible. The Patriot Act makes a mockery of due process. Soon, we’ll see Bush’s political enemies languishing without trial in detention centres all over the country!’

Those same people, who tended to count themselves amongst Bush’s political enemies, breathed sighs of relief audible 4,000 miles away when Obama was elected, and then again when Obama took office. ‘Thank God,’ they said to one another gratefully. ‘No need to worry about terrorism gulags any more.’

So Obama and his enlightened government of Solomons wouldn’t superimpose boot on face, is that right?

From my brother, who has not yet defected, comes intelligence of one such imposition. A 16-year-old boy from East Buddhafuckshire in my home state was dragged out of his house by federal officers on 5 March (for allegedly making prank bomb threats over internet telephone) and removed to a juvenile detention centre half a continent away. No explanation has been given; no formal charges have been laid; no evidence has been put before any judicial figure; there is a gag order on the case – and even now, two months later, this child is still in prison under the provisions of the Patriot Act.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gFVQ0HZz2mc&hl=en&fs=1]

His mother says she feels like she’s living in a Third World country. She never expected to have to protect her children from her own government.

Well, I have some messages to deliver.

To the child’s mother: If you really believed you were safe from your own government, you’re an idiot. Who the fuck but the US government could get at you in the redneck-infested wasteland that is Granville County?

To those who supported the Patriot Act: You dangerous, self-righteous, hypocritical lunatics. Let’s see how you like it when Obama turns it against you, as he inevitably will. Why do you think his government has been re-labelling libertarians as domestic terrorists? And you’ll have only your stupid selves to blame.

To those who loathed the Patriot Act until their christus gloriosus seized the helm of the ship of state: You spineless, hypocritical maggots. Civil liberties are evidently not so important once the jackboot is on your foot! Where is your fucking freedom crusade now?

More on the Patriot Martyr here.

Mar 312009
 

Funny that this should come up twice in five minutes as I, in true holiday time-wasting fashion, scroll lazily through my feeds.

First up: Nicky Campbell calls Guido Fawkes a fascist on the radio (then, naturally, apologises). Guido doesn’t seem to mind too much – banter gets out of hand sometimes, no real offence meant, etc.

Next: I see via Megan McArdle that somebody called David Henderson has called President Obama’s administration fascist, and backed it up with a nice long quotation from The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics:

Where socialism sought totalitarian control of a society’s economic processes through direct state operation of the means of production, fascism sought that control indirectly, through domination of nominally private owners. Where socialism nationalized property explicitly, fascism did so implicitly, by requiring owners to use their property in the “national interest”–that is, as the autocratic authority conceived it. (Nevertheless, a few industries were operated by the state.) Where socialism abolished all market relations outright, fascism left the appearance of market relations while planning all economic activities. Where socialism abolished money and prices, fascism controlled the monetary system and set all prices and wages politically. In doing all this, fascism denatured the marketplace. Entrepreneurship was abolished. State ministries, rather than consumers, determined what was produced and under what conditions.

So I’m reading this, and it’s making a fair bit of sense, and then I discover McArdle’s commentary. Usually, I think she’s pretty sensible, but she reacts to the ‘f-bomb’ as if somebody has suggested Obama is a genocide:

How is this helpful? Has clarifying the distinction between fascism and socialism really added to most peoples’ understanding of what the Obama administration is doing? All this does is drag the specter of Hitler into the conversation. And the problem with Hitler was not his industrial policy–I mean, okay, fine, Hitler’s industrial policy bad, right, but I could forgive him for that, you know? The thing that really bothers me about Hitler was the genocide. And I’m about as sure as I can be that Obama has no plans to round up millions of people, put them in camps, and find various creative ways to torture them to death.

Now, I hold no brief for Hitler, obviously (and boy does it irritate me that I have to clarify that), but wouldn’t it be nice if reasonable people could hold a discussion about him or – less inflammatory by far – the concept of fascism without sensitive, politically-correct, knee-jerkers trying to shut down the debate with their hysterical reactions?

This word ‘fascist’ has been so overused as a generalised insult for those with whom the user disagrees politically that it holds virtually no meaning in standard conversation these days except ‘a very bad, mean person.’ Oh, how facile. And when some poor brave soul attempts to deploy it under the banner of its real characteristics – as David Henderson has done – he is accused of comparing Obama to Hitler and therefore stultifying the debate.

I have a different opinion of what stultifies debate and that is: telling people that making a distinction between socialism, fascism, and current economic trends is unhelpful. Refusing to contemplate what fascism actually is because limited minds can’t think past its colloquial usage. And shutting down a perfectly legitimate fucking discussion because obviously the only thing ‘fascist’ means is ‘a mean, bad person like Hitler.’

Well, you know what? We’ve all got something in common with Hitler. Many people like dogs and enjoy contemplating nice watercolors. Many people speak German. Many people dislike smoking and praise the efficiency of the Volkswagen. And just like Hitler wasn’t the only person ever in the history of the world to do those things, he’s likewise not the only fascist.

So can we shut the fuck up about ‘fascist’ meaning ‘bad like Hitler’ and engage the concept on its own terms, please?

Mar 252009
 

…if you will, a piece of legislation that contains the following provisions:

(a) Prohibited Activities- A participant in an approved national service position under this subtitle may not engage in the following activities:

‘(1) Attempting to influence legislation.

‘(2) Organizing or engaging in protests, petitions, boycotts, or strikes.

‘(3) Assisting, promoting, or deterring union organizing.

‘(4) Impairing existing contracts for services or collective bargaining agreements.

‘(5) Engaging in partisan political activities, or other activities designed to influence the outcome of an election to any public office.

‘(6) Participating in, or endorsing, events or activities that are likely to include advocacy for or against political parties, political platforms, political candidates, proposed legislation, or elected officials.

‘(7) Engaging in religious instruction, conducting worship services, providing instruction as part of a program that includes mandatory religious instruction or worship, constructing or operating facilities devoted to religious instruction or worship, maintaining facilities primarily or inherently devoted to religious instruction or worship, or engaging in any form of religious proselytization.

Pretty fucking horrifying, no? What on earth, I can hear you wondering, is an ‘approved national service position,’ and what about it makes it necessary for law-makers to remove from its holders freedom of association, the right to petition the government, the franchise, and the right to practise a religion?

Well, my dears, I shall tell you: it’s our old friend Compulsory Volunteering, passed in the US House yesterday in a bill called Generations Invigorating Volunteerism and Education Act, or, cutely, simply GIVE.

The text of this bill is, like all the pieces of loo roll that pass for legislation in Washington DC, so abstruse that in my current germ-weakened state, I can make neither head nor tail of most of it. The bit quoted above, however, seems pretty straightforward. How, in the name of all that is holy, can Congress justify denying FOUR fundamental, Constitutional rights from people who are taking part in national ‘service’?

And please, no bombarding me with reasonableness. I’m sure that ‘activities designed to influence the outcome of an election to any public office’ isn’t intended to mean voting, but fuck me if I can think of a more archetypal example of an activity designed to influence the outcome of an election.

As it happens, the GIVE Act (what a stupid fucking name) is something of an amendment to other national ‘service’ acts passed in other decades by other asshat Congresses, and there is already an organisation, the Corporation for National and Community Service (its website has a .gov domain and everything!) that administers this crap. They’ve been really quick on the ball to express an opinion of GIVE (something the MSM, I note, have largely overlooked):

The U.S. House of Representatives today passed the most significant overhaul and expansion of national service programs in 16 years, acting on President Obama’s call to increase service opportunities for Americans of all ages to help address the economic crisis and usher in a new era of service and responsibility for our nation.

“Service is a fundamental American value, in every neighborhood and every community,” said U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-CA), Chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee and a co-sponsor of the bill. “With President Obama’s leadership and support, today the House took a key step toward launching a new era of service that will rebuild and strengthen our country for years to come.”

“The American spirit is one of giving back – to our neighbors, our communities, and our nation. All across this country, citizens are devoting their time, skills, and resources to make our country a better place. And through the GIVE Act, we can nurture that spirit of selflessness, leveraging both individuals and organizations to achieve national goals,” said Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, the House Education Committee’s Ranking Republican member.

“At this time of economic crisis, there is a convergence of a great need to help our neighbors and a great appetite by Americans to serve,” said the Corporation’s Board Chair Alan Solomont. “Service can be a solution to many of our nation’s toughest challenges. We are grateful to the House for passing this bipartisan legislation to expand high-quality service opportunities for Americans of all ages.”

Is this some kind of bad prank? On the one hand, we’ve got Reps. George Miller and ‘Buck’ McKeon (may their loins rot) claiming service as a fundamental American value (since when?); on the other, we’ve got Alan Solomont praising the House for offering Americans more ‘high-quality service opportunities.’ What the fuck? Replace the words ‘service opportunities’ with the word ‘toaster’ and you get a sentence that makes a hell of a lot more sense.

I suppose my main points are these: (1) this Act has a stupid name, (2) this Act cancels out fundamental freedoms in the name of service to the common good, (3) this never would have passed if it weren’t for the fucking joke of a community organiser running the nation these days, and most importantly (4) what the US does, Britain quickly imitates. We go to war in Iraq – you go to war in Iraq. We pass illiberal laws to ‘deal with’ the ‘terrorist threat’ – you pass illiberal laws to deal with the terrorist threat. We stimulate our economy with fuckloads of debt – you stimulate your economy with fuckloads of debt. Our mad leader thinks he’s the Second Coming – your mad leader thinks he’s the Second Coming. We press our citizens into rightless compulsory voluntary servitude… you get the idea.

I shouldn’t wonder if there’s not something similar knocking around in Parliament right now, waiting for its five minutes’ worth of debate before being rammed into law by a maniacal, overpowerful, unelected, self-important, self-destructive executive.