Sunday, May 30, 2010

Not So Enlightened

I try to like David Brooks. I really do.

Almost alone among the columnists of the New York Times, Brooks makes a consistent effort to incorporate serious scholarship into his pieces, and I value that. Sometimes I learn something from it.

The problem is almost always what Brooks does with the ideas he introduces. This past Tuesday's column is a case in point. Most of the column is a reasonable discussion of two branches of the Enlightenment, the French and Scottish (or British, as Brooks also calls it). Brooks explains that the former was more wedded to the supremacy of reason, while the latter "emphasized its limits." Brooks cites a recent dissertation on the subject which highlights Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke as exemplars of the two views. He even nods to the important (but almost unknown among the American public) historiographical debate over whether the American Revolution was a true "revolution," noting that "Americans have never figured out whether we are children of the French or British Enlightenment," and that this question was "a bone of contention between Jefferson and Hamilton and it's a bone of contention today."

All of that is interesting and fairly presented. But then comes the final paragraph, which largely undoes whatever good Brooks has achieved: "The Scots were right and the French were wrong." So much for a reasoned discussion, so much for careful considerations of the strengths of each point of view. For Brooks, it has to be a categorical statement of right and wrong. You can check your shades of grey at the door.

Brooks is certainly entitled to prefer Burke to Paine, and Hamilton to Jefferson, and what he calls the Scottish Enlightenment's resulting "style that emphasizes modesty, gradualism and balance." But in his blanket dismissal of Paine and Jefferson (and everyone else associated with the French Enlightenment) as simply "wrong," Brooks undermines his claims to intellectual seriousness.

Let's take a specific case to show the silliness of this binary simplicity. The great intellectual battle fought between Paine and Burke was over the French Revolution. Paine wrote his classic Rights of Man in response to Burke's equally classic Reflections on the Revolution in France. Conservatives credit Burke with anticipating the radical excesses of the Reign of Terror years before they happened, and see in that perceptive insight a vindication of his general conservatism. Fair enough.

But let's look at other conclusions Burke reached from the philosophical precepts Brooks so admires. Burke supported the established Anglican Church (a status quo that denied Catholics the right to vote or hold office until 1829), as well as hereditary monarchy and aristocracy. In defending monarchy, Burke states: "No experience has taught us that in any other course or method than that of an hereditary crown our liberties can be perpetuated and preserved." Paine responds simply: "Would we make any office hereditary that required wisdom and abilities to fill it?" Burke's reliance on tradition blinded him to the possibility that monarchy was not the best or only system for protecting liberty, while Paine's belief that the fact that "something has existed for ages tells us nothing about its value" led him to apply reason and find monarchy wanting. Whatever Burke's virtues, history's verdict gives this one to Paine.

It is worth noting that Hamilton largely agreed with Burke on this point. At the Constitutional Convention, Hamilton proposed that the president and senators should be elected for life. In private, he wrote that he actually preferred a hereditary monarch: "He ought to be hereditary and to have so much power that it will not be his interest to risk much to acquire more." This side of Hamilton, a product of the philosophy Brooks so admires, is rarely cited by modern conservatives who often act as if Hamilton is the only one of the founders whose political thought is worth studying. In this case, we're lucky there were others like Madison and Jefferson who knew that monarchy had no place in the new American republic.

The point is not that Burke and Hamilton are not worthy of study or even admiration. Both are. But so are Paine and Jefferson. Brooks' blithe dismissal of the latter as simply "wrong" shuts down discussion. The irony is that Brooks is trying in his column to denounce the "polemicists of the left and right practicing a highly abstract and ideological Jacobin style of politics." While I agree with Brooks that there is too much demagoguery today, his conclusion that one branch of the Enlightenment is right while the other is wrong has more in common with the "Jacobin style" he derides than the Burkean "modesty" he extols.

The reason "Americans have never figured out whether we are children of the French or British Enlightenment" is that the answer is not one or the other, but both. If Brooks were truly interested in intellectual inquiry instead of scoring a quick political point, he'd see that the enemy is not so much "abstraction" as the simplistic, binary thinking in which he engages when he dismisses the French Enlightenment as "wrong."

Friday, May 28, 2010

Rand Paul and the Ghost of Richard Nixon

One of the saddest parts of watching Rachel Maddow's interview with Rand Paul was seeing his honest perplexity at the idea that anyone could think that his view of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 indicated any racist proclivities on his part. As I said in my last post, I believe Paul is sincere when he says he has no racial animus. But this is what happens when a political naif and ideologue ventures unthinkingly into America's racial past.

Paul's big mistake was thinking that his libertarian views on the primacy of property rights could be separated from the intent of the Civil Rights Act. In a perfect world, that would be possible. In the fallen world of American political history, it is not.

Paul may not realize it, but in this case he has been haunted by the ghost of Richard Nixon. In 1968, the Nixon campaign subtly exploited the fact that LBJ had made the Democrats the party of civil rights to attract white votes. The so-called "Southern Strategy" became part and parcel of the political realignment that began with the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and it ultimately helped to convert the "solid South" from reliably Democratic to predictably Republican.

But it didn't begin there. The first presidential election after the passage of the act was just months later, between LBJ and Barry Goldwater, the Republican senator from Arizona who voted against the Civil Rights Act. As Sam Tanenhaus notes in a fine article in the New York Times, Rand Paul used almost verbatim Barry Goldwater's 1964 defense of his opposition to the Civil Rights Act. While Goldwater may not have intended people to take his opposition to the act as opposition to civil rights, many people did. In an election when over 60% of the general public voted for LBJ, Goldwater won six states. (By contrast, in 1984, when Ronald Reagan got 58.8% of the vote, his opponent Walter Mondale won only his home state of Minnesota.) In addition to his home state of Arizona, Goldwater also won five states of the deep South: South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana. Interestingly, of those six states, the margin of victory was smallest in his home state (50.4% to 49.5%), while in Mississippi he won a stunning 87% of the vote, and in Alabama nearly 70%.

While it is obvious that this sudden southern support for a Republican was due to his vote on the Civil Rights Act, it is just as obvious that a candidate cannot be held automatically responsible for why people vote for him. Goldwater's personal campaign rhetoric never indulged in race-baiting. But this campaign flyer, which urges a vote for Goldwater, explicitly stokes racial resentment. It shows a grim-faced white man, with the word "Fired" underneath, while a picture of a smiling black man appears over the word "Hired." The flyer falsely claims that the recently passed act means that whites could be fired for no reason and replaced with blacks: "you can lose your job because of Johnson's Civil Rights Bill. This your last chance. Vote to put an end to racial favoritism ... vote to protect your job ... your family ... your home." (The flyer anticipates by 26 years the infamous Jesse Helms "hands" ad from the 1990 senatorial campaign in North Carolina.) It ends with language that evokes what Paul has said: "Employers read this: This is your last chance to save your freedom to run your own business as you choose!"

Four years later, Nixon would more subtly stoke the same fears with the coded rhetoric of law and order, local control and states rights. He and the segregationist governor of Alabama, George Wallace, would get a combined total vote similar to what LBJ received just four years earlier. The Democratic candidate, vice-president Hubert Humphrey, aptly described Nixon as a perfumed version of Wallace. As he had done 16 years earlier with another demagogue, Joe McCarthy, Nixon in 1968 presented a smarter, more respectable face for some some raw and rancid views. And it worked.

This is the political cesspool Rand Paul waded into with his comments on the Civil Rights Act. That a man could rise to the position of major party nominee for U.S. Senator without understanding this history is enough reason to keep him out of the Senate.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Rand Paul, Ideologue

When Rand Paul, son of the libertarian congressman from Texas Ron Paul, won the Republican Party nomination for senator from Kentucky this week, he crowed that his victory was "a message from the Tea Party." I think he was right, but not in the way he meant.

Since he was thrust into the national spotlight Tuesday, Paul has been plagued by comments he has made about the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Because Paul has stated that he has problems with parts of the act, much of the debate this week has been over whether or not he is a racist, or anti-civil rights. This strikes me as fruitless. Paul has said he is not a racist and that he abhors segregation. Unless and until evidence to the contrary emerges, I think one must take Paul at his word.

What he has undeniably proven this week, however, is that he is narrow ideologue who has a tenuous grasp of history and reality. And that matters.

Paul's recent troubles began last month when the Louisville Courier-Journal asked him if he would have voted for the Civil Rights Act. Rather than a simple "yes," Paul explained his support for the anti-discrimination provisions of the bill insofar as they applied to public institutions like schools. The editors, hearing the qualification in his tone, asked "But?" Paul laughed and said, "You had to ask me the 'but'!" He went on to explain: "I don't like the idea of telling private businesses owners--I abhor racism, I think it's a bad business decision to ever exclude anybody from your restaurant. But at the same time I do believe in private ownership."

The clear implication of that statement, though Paul did not actually say the words, is that he does not believe government should have the power to tell businesses that they cannot discriminate.

Last Wednesday, in a Rachel Maddow interview that is well worth viewing in its entirety, Maddow repeatedly pressed Paul to answer that question directly, and he repeatedly refused to do so. Every time Maddow attempted to get a clear answer, Paul changed the subject. He said he was not "in favor of any discrimination." But that was not the question. The real question is this: does he believe businesses have the right to discriminate because their property rights trump a customer's right to be served without discriminatory bias based on race?

This Paul refused to answer. Much of the discussion of Paul this week has presented him as getting in trouble for speaking his mind, and to some extent that is true. But watching the Maddow interview, it is clear that while he did speak his mind initially to the Courier-Journal, now he is both reluctant to retract his earlier statement and determined not to restate it plainly and clearly because it will hurt him politically to do so. It is sad watching Paul's contortions as he tries both to remain true to his beliefs and not doom his candidacy at the same time. It is hard to tell if he is disingenuous or just incoherent.

For example, when pushed by Maddow, Paul tried to muddy the waters by making it a matter of free speech: "Do you want to abridge the First Amendment as well?" But speech is in no way abridged by the Civil Rights Act. A business owner could still legally say racist things. He just could not bar people from the business based on their race. The issue is not speech, but discriminatory behavior. Pressed again, Paul claimed that the same idea could restrict a restaurant owner from prohibiting guns in his restaurant. Paul seemed quite pleased with himself here, clearly thinking he had won the argument, because no liberal would want that. But he fails to see that once again, he is missing the point. No matter how much a person might like to carry a gun, it is not an indelible part of one's identity. A gun owner can leave a gun at home; carrying a gun is a behavior. A black person cannot leave black skin at home. The Civil Rights Act does not say a business owner cannot bar people based on behavior. That simple point is either beyond Paul's grasp, or he deliberately ignored it to try hide the real implications of his point of view.

Paul does not seem to really have the courage of his convictions. When pressed by Maddow on a specific part of our history, the sit-in movement that began when four black college students insisted on being served at a Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, Paul evaded. If he does not believe that government can tell a business owner not to discriminate, then he clearly believes that those sit-in protesters were wrong. But he won't say that. Now, I can sympathize with Paul's dilemma. I'm close to a free speech absolutist. I would hate to be on TV and have an interviewer quote all kinds of hateful speech and ask me to defend the right to say those hateful things. But that's what you must be willing to do if you believe in a principle.

Paul clearly believes that a property owner's rights trump an individual's right to be treated with basic human dignity in a business. He is entitled to that view. But it is a view that is, in my opinion, abhorrent. And since he knows that many voters will find it so, he tries to hide it. Instead he accused Maddow of "bring[ing] up something that is really not an issue." But he couldn't be more wrong.

At root, Paul objects to the regulation of private property for the public good, and no issue could be more relevant to government today. The question, he said, is this: "Does the owner of the restaurant own his restaurant or does the government own his restaurant?" This simplistic, either/or view explains a lot. In Paul's ideology, the moment government tells a business "you must" or "you shall not," the business ceases to be the owner's property. This is absurd on the face of it. Such an absolutist view of property rights is indicative of the libertarian fantasy that we can live in an 18th century style philosophical state of nature.

It is also the id of the Tea Party movement. It is the same silly assumption that lies behind the charge that the recent health care act is a "government takeover" of health care, and the latest lunacy, the claim that the financial reform bill passed this week in the Senate is a "government takeover" of the banking industry. Paul's beliefs represent the sincere expression of the irresponsible rhetoric Republican leaders have been indulging in for the last year and a half. The difference is Paul really believes it.

Rand Paul is truly a radical. While he has now stated that he would not support repeal of the Civil Rights Act (as if that were ever going to happen), it is clear that he would not only roll back the Great Society if he could, he would do the same to the New Deal and even the Progressive era when it comes to property rights. He is an ideologue who places theory above real world consequences. He seems to believe, the evidence of our actual history notwithstanding, that the problems of discrimination could have been solved by market forces because "it's a bad business decision to ever exclude anybody from your restaurant." He believes that government regulation is an unjustifiable restriction of property rights. Also this week, he called the Obama administration's criticism of BP over the disastrous oil spill in the gulf "un-American." Paul's comments on BP come from the same place as his reservations about the Civil Rights Act. And that's why his view of that 46 year-old piece of legislation is a real and relevant issue today.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Where have you gone, Joe Friday?

The Holocaust was the topic in my western civ class yesterday. Due to the prevalence of Holocaust deniers on the internet, I always feel obliged to address their existence and warn students against being drawn into their fantasy world. One student asked how anyone could believe such nonsense, and a good discussion about the difference between historical interpretation and historical fact followed. We can have a serious and substantial debate, I told them, about why the Holocaust happened, or how complicit the German public was in what the Nazis did. But there is no debate over whether it happened. That would be like debating not whether FDR was a great president but whether he ever existed.

The discussion has had me thinking about what makes so many people susceptible to denialism. It seems to be everywhere these days. Despite categorical statements from responsible public officials, millions of Americans continue to express doubts that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii. (You can see a complete debunking of the birther nonsense here.) According to a recent New York Times poll, 20% of Americans do not believe Obama was born in the U.S. and another 23% say they don't know. More than 40% of Americans either deny or express doubts about an empirically verifiable fact. (Among Republicans, 32% deny Obama's citizenship, and the number is 40% among those describing themselves as "very conservative.")

Writing in Forbes, Bruce Barlett points out that Tea Party supporters think that taxes are three times higher than they actually are. A CBS poll showed that only 2% of Tea Party supporters knew that taxes had gone down under Obama, while 46% mistakenly thought taxes had stayed the same and 44% thought that taxes had gone up--the exact opposite of the truth.

It is tempting to dismiss such denialism as pure ignorance, and in some cases, that may be true. But according to the New York Times poll on the Tea Partiers, they are more educated than the general public. Yet, in the CBS poll, they were far more likely than the general public to get the facts wrong about taxes, which is supposedly their main concern. They are also more likely to doubt that Obama was born in the U.S.

Something else is going on, when large numbers of otherwise intelligent people deny the truth of demonstrable facts. Ideology is trumping reality.

The answer may lie in the New York Times poll which shows that nearly two-thirds of Tea Party supporters get most of their news from Fox News, and a majority of them believe that shows like Glenn Beck's and Sean Hannity's are "news," not opinion or entertainment. More than any other media organization, Fox News has blurred (if not obliterated) the line between fact and opinion. Truth is determined not by reasoned analysis based on facts, but on who speaks the loudest, and which "facts" are repeated most frequently.

Though the term "spin" is relatively new, the phenomenon certainly is not. Politics has always involved a degree of selectivity and interpretation and always will. But what we're seeing here is not spin but outright distortion and lies. We've become so accustomed to spin that we dismiss whatever comes out of the mouths of our political adversaries as false, with little regard to reality.

Our distrust of spin has devolved into a nihilistic fear that in politics there are no facts, only spin. Our desire to escape the spin is the appeal behind Bill O'Reilly's self-proclaimed "no-spin zone." We all want a straight shooter, a political Joe Friday who will give us "just the facts." And that's what O'Reilly (and Fox in general, with its "We report, you decide" slogan) disingenuously promises.

A couple of years ago, I watched a segment on O'Reilly's show, as I occasionally do. I forget the issue being discussed, but in the typical "fair and balanced" style of Fox, there were two guests on opposing sides of the issue. O'Reilly, not surprisingly, came down on the side of his conservative guest. When the liberal guest tried to make a factual point, O'Reilly cut him off, saying it's two to one, you lose. That, it seems, is how you determine truth in the "no-spin zone"--you stack the deck for one side and then vote.

Too often, that is what our political discourse has become. Rarely are pundits and commentators held to any factual standard. Back in May 2008, Chris Matthews dismantled talk radio blowhard Kevin James by simply asking him a factual question over and over again when James charged that Obama's foreign policy was "appeasement." Matthews relentlessly repeated: "What did Neville Chamberlain do?" It soon became painfully apparent that James had no idea what appeasement was, just that it was "bad thing" and it would harm Obama by flinging the charge at him. Whether there was any factual basis for the comparison was irrelevant to him.

One of the most common retorts in our political shouting contests has become "you're entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts." Sadly, often that seems not to be the case. We need a renewed commitment to facts. Obama's critics are entitled to disapprove of his policies, but they are not entitled to believe he has raised taxes when he has cut them. There are empirically verifiable facts. We can disagree about what they mean, but not what they are. To abandon the common ground of fact is to descend into the fantasy world of denialism.