Thursday, March 31, 2011

Dim Bulbs, Trivializing Rights

Being of a certain age, I remember when conservatives understood what freedom is and what tyranny is.  They used to talk about “captive nations,” denounce the “gulag,” and declare “Tear down this wall!”  Back in the 1950s, President Eisenhower signed into law a bill declaring the third week in July “Captive Nations Week,” a way of calling for the end of communist governments in Eastern Europe.  You know, the kind of governments that actually denied their peoples freedom.

But in Columbia, South Carolina in the year 2011, freedom isn’t threatened by the secret police dragging dissidents to late-night interrogations.  It isn’t denied via a one-party state (well, at least not officially).  No, in our time, freedom means something else.

Now freedom means incandescent light bulbs.

The South Carolina legislature spent time Wednesday debating what they are calling the Incandescent Light Bulb Freedom Act.  As Dave Barry likes to say when he cites something seemingly too silly to be true, I am not making this up.  These brave, freedom fighter legislators are looking to protect the people of South Carolina from the assault on freedom represented by a federal energy standards law passed in 2007, which mandated greater energy efficiency in light bulbs.

The leading sponsor of this legislation, Rep. Bill Sandifer of Seneca, S.C., argues that this is a matter of rights: “These rights to have the kind of light bulbs we want and need are our rights. They are not given to the federal government.”

Have we really gotten to the point where the right wing in this state defines “rights” as being able to buy the exact kind of light bulb you want to?  I rather doubt this is what John Locke had in mind when he wrote his Two Treatises of Government.

And what essential right is threatened by this electrical tyranny?  Rep. Mike Pitts of Laurens, S.C. tells us: “Did you know that light bulbs that are going to be required by the federal government cannot be used in an Easy-Bake Oven?”  That’s right.  They are trying to preserve the freedom to use an Easy-Bake Oven.  It’s what the Founders would want.

Even when we dismiss this nonsense that our rights are threatened by energy efficiency regulations, the idea that the energy efficiency law is taking away choices is simply not true.  An article from July 2009 points out that the effect of the law will be innovation, not extinction, for the incandescent bulb:

 Indeed, the incandescent bulb is turning into a case study of the way government mandates can spur innovation.
“There’s a massive misperception that incandescents are going away quickly,” said Chris Calwell, a researcher with Ecos Consulting who studies the bulb market. “There have been more incandescent innovations in the last three years than in the last two decades.”

In other words, the very premise of the South Carolina bill is mistaken.  A portion of the AP story (edited from the version printed in the Spartanburg Herald-Journal) explains:

David Jenkins, spokesman for Republicans for Environmental Protection, said the federal legislation is misunderstood. “The government is not actually 'phasing out' incandescent light bulbs in favor of fluorescent bulbs,” Jenkins said. “The law is technology neutral; it merely establishes energy efficiency standards for bulbs -- much like the efficiency standards for appliances that were established during the Reagan Administration.”
While people knock compact fluorescent bulbs, Jenkins said, there are alternatives, including halogen and LED bulbs. He expects the LED bulbs will ultimately win over consumers as prices come down.

What this story shows is how trivial our politics has become.  At a time when people all over North Africa and the Middle East are literally putting their lives on the line for freedom and standing up to actual tyranny, we in South Carolina have our elected representatives making fools of themselves by equating freedom with light bulbs.  They cheapen one of the noblest concepts in human history, one that millions of people have died for, with this joke of a bill. 

Like the light bulbs they love, the sponsors of this bill are both wasting energy and throwing off more heat than light.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The United States, Libya, and the "Arab 1848"

A number of observers, such as Andrew Sullivan, have been calling the events of the last two months in North Africa and the Middle East the "Arab 1848." The reference is to the numerous revolutions that swept the states of Europe in 1848.

I've just recently covered that period of history in my Western Civilization class, so I've been pondering the implications of the analogy, particularly in light of last week's UN resolution authorizing the use of force against Qaddafi's Libya.

The most sobering fact about the original 1848 is the ultimate failure of most of the revolutionary movements. While the wave of revolutions in 1848 showed the enduring power of ideas like liberal ideology and nationalism, most of the early gains were wiped out by a conservative counterattack.

When examining that failure, historians usually emphasize the splits between liberals and nationalists and between the middle and working classes. Starting a revolution can be the easiest part; coming to a common understanding of its goals is often the hardest. Those divisions were exploited by conservatives who sometimes used brutal force to re-establish their power.

But there is one other factor I mention: the fact that Great Britain, the most liberal power in Europe at the time, did not intervene to aid the liberal and nationalist forces.  And that's where the analogy to today kicks in again. The United States now stands in relation to the Arab revolutions as Britain did to the ones in Europe in 1848.

The British Foreign Secretary, Lord Palmerston, was primarily concerned with maintaining the balance of power in Europe.  That had been Britain's chief objective for decades, and all players understood that by weighing in, Britain could tip the balance.  According to The Cambridge History of British Foreign Policy, "Appeals poured in upon him from all sides — desperate cries for help from distressed potentates, insistent demands for aid from struggling patriots."

While Palmerston "iterated and re-iterated with a frequency that became monotonous his exhortations to the dynastic despots to make timely concessions to national democracy," he rebuffed all pleas for outright intervention for liberal or nationalist causes.

For example, when the Hungarian nationalist leader Louis Kossuth begged for British assistance in the face of Russian intervention to re-impose Austrian rule over Hungary, Palmerston resisted, even though "British public opinion ... began to express itself clearly and loudly on the Hungarian side." 

Palmerston was personally appalled by the crackdown against the revolutionaries, writing privately that he thought the "Austrians are really the greatest brutes that ever called themselves by the undeserved name of civilised men."  In the end, however, he contented himself with diplomacy to help save Kossuth's life, not his Hungarian regime.

Up until last week, the United States had been largely able to avoid making any such hard choices about active intervention in the Arab 1848.  The protests in Tunisia and Egypt ended with repressive leaders stepping down, while other protests, such as the one in Morocco, never reached the boiling point.

And then came Libya.

Qaddafi's brutal use of military force to quell the protests and subsequent rebellion raise the specter of  the conservative backlash that destroyed the revolutionary momentum of 1848.

Despite its sympathies, Britain then was not on an ideological crusade, and it remained on the sidelines.  This week, the U.S., prompted ironically by Britain and France, entered the fray.  While the Obama administration has avoided stating that it is now committed to the fall of the Qaddafi regime, that is the reality.  Whether or not that is wise remains to be seen.

In my classes, I always say that the lack of British intervention was, compared to the splits among the revolutionaries themselves, a relatively minor factor in the outcomes of 1848. But we'll never know if a different British response might have produced a different outcome.  Although there is no way truly to replay history, this intervention in Libya may be as close as we can get.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Obama Baffles the Baby Boomers

Andrew Sullivan had a nice post on Friday praising President Obama's restraint and refusal to take credit for what Sullivan is calling the Arab 1848. When Mubarak left office, Obama rightly said "Today belongs to the people of Egypt."  The credit, he made clear, was all theirs.  According to Sullivan, Obama's "willingness not to take credit" is "part of his nature."  While that's true, it is,  I think, only part of the story.  The rest is generational. 

Baby boomers of the left and right have a common trait: they tend to see the United States at the center of everything.  For far left groups like the Weather Underground in the late 1960s, the U.S. was the root of all evil.  For the "love it or leave it" right, America was unquestionably the source of all good.  But in either case, whatever happened in the world, for good or ill, was due to American action (or inaction).

Obama, by temperament and by generational background, eschews such extreme views, and in doing so, confounds his opponents who remain mired in the 1960s political and cultural divisions that shaped them.

Depending on how one dates the baby boomer phenomenon, Obama, who was born in 1961, is either post-boomer or late-boomer.  In my view, he is our first post-boomer president.  The previous, World War II generation, had a long 32 year run in the presidency.  Every president from John F. Kennedy to George H.W. Bush was 18 years old or older during the war.  By contrast, the two boomer presidents, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, only held the presidency for 16 years.

I define Obama as post-boomer because he came of political age after the polarizing issues of the 1960s.  He was too young to be a participant in the vehement disagreements over the Vietnam war.  He came of political age in a later time: the post-Watergate troubles of the late 1970s and the Reagan revolution of the 1980s.

Why does this matter?  This past week, Roger Newman of the Columbia School of Journalism gave a talk at Wofford and I was invited to have dinner with him afterwards.  During the dinner conversation, the topic turned to the question of when American politics became so polarized.  Newman, who is of the Vietnam generation, argued that Reagan's election was the turning point.  I argued that it was the Clinton-Gingrich confrontation of the early to mid-1990s that was more significant.  I've been thinking about that disagreement, and I think it comes down to this: For Newman's generation, Reagan represented the conservative enemy of the 1960s coming to power to reverse the gains of that decade. 

But as harsh as the criticism of Reagan was from the left in the early 1980s, I would argue that it never reached the depths of personal vilification that greeted Clinton in the early 1990s.  Reagan was denounced by the left as a man of the past, even a reactionary.  Clinton, on the other hand, was accused of being a draft dodger, a murderer, a drug dealer, a traitor (the last for protesting against the Vietnam war while studying abroad).  These accusations almost always had their roots in the cultural and political divisions of the 1960s.  He came to embody for conservatives everything that they had loathed about that decade. 

Similarly, Newt Gingrich embodied the radical right's rejection of the social and cultural developments of the 1960s.  While condemning the results, he often embraced the extremist tactics of the radical left: he consciously demonized the opposition in an effort to discredit them as un-American.

Beginning with Gingrich, the baby-boomer right in the U.S. developed a consistent campaign theme: their opponents were not merely wrong on the issues, they were anti-American.  With figures like Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and John Kerry, the boomer right employed themes pulled directly from the cultural and political baggage of the 1960s.  These tactics have proven successful enough, at least with the base, that they remain addicted to them, even when the new target, Obama, is maddeningly inappropriate for them.

Last fall, Gingrich said of Obama: "he worked very hard at being a person who is normal, reasonable, moderate, bipartisan, transparent, accommodating--none of which was true ... He was authentically dishonest."  Gingrich is not describing Obama--he is describing what he wishes Obama would be: a mirror image of Gingrich.

Think back to the 2008 campaign and Sarah Palin's favorite line, that Obama "palled around with terrorists."  That of course was a reference to Obama's acquaintance with 1960s radical, Bill Ayers. Obama was too young for 1960s radicalism, so they tried guilt by association.  Last August, boomer Rush Limbaugh, whose rise to prominence coincided with the Clinton administration, called Obama "our first anti-American president."  While hawking his new memoir, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld reiterated another common trope: that Obama "has made a practice of trying to apologize for America," a none-too-subtle suggestion that the president, like the radical left in the 1960s, thinks America is evil.

Last week, Mike Huckabee took this absurdity to new lengths for a supposedly mainstream politician by falsely stating that Obama grew up in Kenya and somehow trying to associate him with the Mau Mau revolution in Kenya.  Huckabee surely knows that for Americans of a certain age, the term "Mau Mau" has a particular resonance.   It was part of the anti-civil rights backlash that helped turn the solid Democratic south into the solid Republican south.  The phrase came from a 1970 book by Tom Wolfe.  "Mau Mauing" meant the intimidation of whites by the "angry black male" of the Black Panther variety.

No reasonable person could describe Obama in that way, and yet we hear the right do it time and again.  He's socialist, he's foreign, he is not "one of us."  They make themselves look utterly ridiculous by trying to fit Obama into their 1960s style preconceptions of what he should be, and yet they persist.  Certainly the first African-American president can not be someone who is the epitome of the values conservatives say they cherish: hard work, education, faith, public service, devotion to family.  So they recreate him in their own perverse mirror image.  The more Obama proves them wrong by being truly reasonable and refusing to conform to the boomer stereotypes, the more they flail about, making increasingly absurd charges, removing themselves further and further from reality.  And the more ridiculous they look, trapped in the debates of the past, the more likely they make it that Obama will be our leader for the foreseeable future.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Walker Tape

Last week, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was punked by a website reporter claiming to be billionaire David Koch.  The tape of their 20-minute phone conversation was posted on the internet, leading to an all-too-brief firestorm around Walker’s comments.

The reaction that interests me is this one, from Tim Carpenter, a Wisconsin State Senator, who wrote: “Governor Walker, this tape would make Richard Nixon blush.”

Carpenter evidently has not been listening to the Nixon tapes.

Whenever a politician is caught on tape, the Nixon analogy is the easy one.  But there’s a danger in it.  We have a wealth of material, thousands of hours of Nixon.  What they reveal is a singularly unappealing portrait.  No one tape, not even Walker’s, can live up to that record.  As a result, whoever is compared to Nixon fairly comes off looking, at least comparatively, not so bad.

Nixon’s White House tapes are infamous for their revelations of Nixon’s prejudices.  There are many examples, but just last December a new crop of tapes was released that included the following gems:

“Virtually every Irish I've known gets mean when he drinks. It's sort of a natural trait. Particularly the real Irish."  

(I can’t help wondering if my German ancestry would disqualify me from Nixon’s concept of “real Irish.”)

"The Italians, of course, just don't have their heads screwed on tight. They are wonderful people, but . . ."

"The Jews are just a very aggressive and abrasive and obnoxious personality." 

“The Jews are born spies.”

But it isn’t just prejudice that Nixon reveals in his tapes, it is his criminal proclivities.

Over the years, one of the most common red herrings of Nixon defenders has been the claim that there is no documentary proof that Nixon ordered the Watergate break-in.  That is true.  But we do know that he ordered a break-in of the liberal think tank the Brookings Institution: 

“I want the Brookings Institution cleaned out and have it cleaned out in a way that has somebody else take the blame."

It’s hardly a stretch to think that the man we know was capable of ordering the one was also capable of ordering the other.

Now, nothing like that is present on the Walker tape.  And that’s precisely the problem with Carpenter’s analogy.  By using rhetoric that compares Walker’s comments to the depths of Nixon’s depravity, he gives Walker an easy out—because Walker on this tape is demonstrably not as bad as Nixon on his.

What is there in the Walker tape, however, is plenty bad enough.

Start with this simple fact: while Walker complained about a “group of protesters almost all of whom are in from other states,” he spent 20 minutes talking freely with a major campaign donor from out of state.  Hardly surprising, but telling.

Also telling is Walker’s eagerness to share his strategy with the caller he believes is Koch.  According to his office, Walker has never met or spoken to Koch.  But the fake Koch asks one question and Walker is off to the races.  A look at the transcript shows no reticence at all on Walker’s part.  And what he so freely shares is revealing.

We learn that Walker intended to trick the Democratic state senators who have left the state to prevent Walker’s union busting legislation from passing.  He said he intended to tell the Democrats that he would “talk” to them, get them to come back to Wisconsin, and then refuse to actually negotiate.  In the meantime, the senate would have gone into session and he could get his legislation passed.  In other words, he revealed that he is not to be trusted.

That, sadly, is just politics.  What’s more disturbing is Walker’s reaction to the fake Koch’s suggestion of “planting some troublemakers.”  Walker responded: “we thought about that.”  He goes on to explain that he decided not to, but only because it might backfire politically.  At no point does he offer any suggestion that deliberately provoking violence for political gain is an inherently bad idea.

Now, one of two things is true.  Either Walker really did consider doing so, in which case he should resign right now, or he lied when he said he considered it.  In other words, the best-case scenario is that Walker never thought about it, and merely lied to the fake Koch to avoid contradicting the rich and powerful man at the other end of the phone.

In either case, Scott Walker is no leader.  He either is truly amoral and somewhat Nixonian in the tactics he considered, or so beholden to powerful interests that he will not tell them that their suggestions are both illegal and immoral.

Admittedly, pretending to agree with the criminal suggestions of a wealthy campaign contributor does not rise to the level of Nixon’s perfidy.  But shouldn’t our standard for those who purport to lead us be higher than that?