In Defense of Adverse Opinion

April 6th, 2014

The McCutcheon decision handed down last week by the Supreme Court has generated considerable criticism.  The general consensus in the liberal media seems to be that the decision will make it easier for rich people to buy elective office for preferred candidates.  It’s hard to see how it could get any easier than it is now, with most elected officials already realizing their richest contributors’ fondest wishes.  It’s worth recalling that the arms industry, the health insurance industry, the oil and gas industry, and the banking industry, among others, routinely receive favored treatment by government officials, regardless of party.  Their lobbyists have few adversaries in Congress or the executive branch, and state governments compete for these interests’ goodwill.  The absence of an aggregate limit on political contributions isn’t going to do much to change any of this.  Personnel shifts among lawmakers and policy-makers haven’t yet altered the bias in favor of big money.        

It’s a bit ironic that we are suddenly so upset that rich people can use money to convince us to vote for one or another candidate.  We don’t seem especially concerned that rich people already use vast sums to convince us that burning fuel is harmless, that bankers should decide how much money there will be, that we can tolerate a permanent state of war, that we should work harder for less, and that we should buy what they’re selling.  In the realm of toxic advertising, political advertising is almost benign, especially when you consider the quality of candidates (low) we are routinely offered by the people who buy the ads.

I don’t often agree with the chief justice, but he’s on target in his assessment that the current limit on the aggregate amount that a rich person can use to buy elections hasn’t stopped corruption.  In fact, since the 1970s, when the first of the campaign finance laws was passed, we’ve had the most corrupt leadership in the history of our country.  The rich improved their status and increased their numbers as never before, all at the expense of working people and all through the manipulation of public policy at every level of government.

It’s not the Constitution or John Roberts that’s at fault here.  It’s the complacent, deluded, altogether stuporous masses that refuse to govern this nation responsibly.  Hollering for constitutional restrictions on speech is something we can do instead of anything at all.  All this clamor for an amendment to the Constitution ought to be channeled into a demand for the taxation of excessive wealth to limit the influence of money on public opinion.  The Constitution gives us the power to do this, and we don’t have to gut the Bill of Rights to accomplish our purpose.

Rootin’ for Putin?

March 1st, 2014

If we go to war with Russia, do I have to be on our side?  With our commander-in-chief in sore need of a dressing-down–strutting the planet as he has with his body-armored soldiers, thuggish special forces and robotic attack vehicles–I’m tending to support anybody that can cut him down to size.   

Plus, I don’t feel a lot of solidarity with my comrades in uniform.  In the 20th Century army, we were citizen soldiers, drafted from working families across the country.  The modern army is a tiny fringe of poor, drifting, unloved young people who were persuaded to join a brotherhood of warriors.  Russia still has an army of conscripts, so my sympathies would tend to lie with them.

Russians face real danger from conditions in Ukraine, which lies on their western frontier. More pressing than the risk presented to Americans at the hands of Afghans, Iraqis, Pakistanis, Venezuelans and citizens of other sovereign states in whose affairs the US meddles.  Hard to be on Obama’s side when he has less reason to occupy Afghanistan than Putin has to invade Ukraine.

And shouldn’t Obama be hesitant to take the side of armed anti-government protesters?  Isn’t he inviting dissidents here–people like me–to hurl Molotov cocktails at cops, following the lead of our new allies on the streets of Kiev?

Is it disloyal or treasonous to desert your elected commander-in-chief?  What if he goes nuts on you, or simply becomes drunk with power?  Do I owe his palace guard any duty?  Should I grieve for the first American soldier to die for the freedom of Ukrainian neo-Nazis?  Shouldn’t I hope for a quick American defeat if the US commander chooses to wage war on Russia?

Policy of Defiance

September 25th, 2013

Threats of armed force by national leaders against nations that might interfere with those leaders’ national objectives have been uncommon in recent years.  For one thing, they’re illegal. The United Nations charter forbids warfare and threats of warfare without UN approval, except in self-defense. Most nations seem to have taken a lesson from what happened to the war-loving peoples of Europe in the last century. National leaders  have mostly been restrained from threatening armed force.

There was a time when military conquest was part of our value system. Might makes right, as we used to say, and as some still claim to believe. Despite the proof of history that conquest is impermanent and injurious in modern times, there seems to be a fringe of Americans who crave organized violence. Arms and threats of violence are tools of virtue in their view. It worries these people not at all that every conflict launched by the USA and other military powers over the past 40 years has succeeded only in killing and maiming lots of people and destroying their property.

It’s a shrinking minority that subscribes to the old view, as more and more people push aside the veil that masks recent history. Today, the general consensus among peace-loving people is that aggressively militaristic leaders should be removed if possible and eliminated if necessary. We recognize that they have been extremely destructive over the decades and centuries, and we suspect that the world might have been a better place but for their brutal and self-glorifying adventures. People who issue threats of military force to advance national interests are now  considered armed and dangerous.  Restraining them is a matter of life and death.

That’s why many of us are shocked that the US President, a lifelong civilian, should publicly threaten military force against any and all members of the United Nations that might stand in his way. His words were unambiguous: “The United States of America is prepared to use all elements of our power, including military force, to secure our core interests in the region.” With that chilling declaration, he’s made himself an enemy of all humanity, and he’s taken us with him. Any soldier of just about any nation might kill him or his subordinates and claim the justification of self-defense. Even his own people have a powerful incentive to remove him by all possible means, simply to save human lives.

What motivates this man, our national leader, to embrace such evil?  Does he speak for us?  Have our values changed so radically that we reject laws and standards of decency? Or is he speaking only for himself, drunk with glory in the knowledge that decent, ordinary kids are willing to kill and die at his command? If it’s personal ambition that motivates him, what’s our obligation to the world, to our nation, to each other?

Scared Silly

September 4th, 2013

People ask what possible motive our leaders could have for another military adventure. The nation has achieved nothing from any engagement since 1945, and it’s lost plenty, both in dollars and in moral standing. The only thing we’ve gained has been enmity. Our enemies are everywhere. Often, they have been enemies of our own creation, as in Afghanistan and Panama. Could it be that enmity and the insecurity that goes with it are the whole point of all this strife?

Insecurity, anxiety and fear are useful tools for manipulators of mass behavior. Scared people tend to be compliant and needy, and so they resist less and buy more than they would if there were nothing to be afraid of. The more fearful they become, the more they have to fear, because insecurity puts them in fierce competition with one another and makes them dangerous. Close ties tend to disintegrate, and this colors their anxiety with anomie.

Intense anxiety makes us compliant at work, compliant at school, tolerant of malfeasance, obedient to corrupt authority and insatiable consumers of palliatives of all kinds. If Americans ever stopped being scared, our dementia-inducing consumer economy would probably take a steep dive. Maybe the proprietors of the United States of America, the rich and powerful people that control commerce and government, must keep us in a state of terror to retain their dominion. Mass imprisonment, unemployment, violent entertainment, and corrupt administration can put us off balance, but the thought of hosts of dark-skinned enemies can leave ordinary people in a state near panic.

The pliancy of terrorized people could explain why we must have a permanent state of war. The alternative is rebellion. Enemies divert our attention from what the proprietors are doing to us, between debt, unemployment, pollution, bad food, worse drugs, maldistribution of resources, and the excesses of government. If there were no foreign enemy, we might discover that our true enemies lurk in our own institutions.

Will the attack on Syria really be over conditions in Syria, or will it be to remedy a very specific condition here? With peace on the horizon in Afghanistan, we need new enemies. Syria’s government is as good an enemy as we can find, especially in view of its security arrangements with scary allies in Iran and Russia. We’ll have something to be afraid of again, and so we’ll wave flags and buy stuff instead of confronting our employers, our banks, our manufacturers and our elected officials.

Fair Inferences

July 15th, 2013

Americans are just beginning to deal with new, shocking disclosures about government intrusion into private communications.  At this writing and for several years now, the National Security Agency has been sifting through billions of telephone calls, recording the details of each contact and archiving the contents of the calls for possible examination later on.  The federal government had to upgrade the wiring at Fort Meade to accommodate NSA’s computers, and they’re just finishing a vast complex in Utah to store some of the data.

We have the testimony of more than one signals intelligence analyst that the monitoring is all-inclusive and largely contracted out to private business, giving thousands of people in and out of government free access to the communications of each and every one of us.  One analyst has said he personally handled information collected from the telephones of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, General David Petraeus, and other highly placed officials and commentators, and he became aware of intercepts directed against less well-known people, including up-and-coming Illinois senatorial candidate Barack Obama. High government officials, including the President himself, have lied when questioned directly about the surveillance.

Many people say, “I ain’t got nuthin’ to hide.  No harm done.”  People who say that are idiots.  In the first place, everybody has something to hide.  Every adult–excepting only the most solitary people–hears something in confidence and is bound to secrecy.  Maybe it’s your child or your parent that confides in  you, or maybe it’s your boss or your friend or your sister.  Somebody has told you a secret that you are obliged to keep, even if you have no secrets of your own.

In the second place, we don’t accord people a right to privacy so that they can hide crimes and plot wrongdoing in private.  We do it protect trade secrets, personal confidences, strategies, plans, ideas, and the security of personal property generally.  When the protections are abridged, all commerce is endangered.  Anybody who thinks there are no consequences to Communist-style monitoring should take a look at what happened to the nations that were doing this sort of surveillance in eastern Europe.  Their institutions failed, and their governments were overthrown.

We can and should draw some inferences from the facts now on the record.  A fair inference is that the information archived, ostensibly, for reasons of national security will also be used to force individuals to comply with demands of at least some of the archivists.  We know that the free market assigns a price to everything, and bits of information are no exception.  Secrets, especially guilty secrets, can be exploited for gain, and, as a corollary of Murphy’s law tells us, anything that can be exploited for gain will be. It’s a fair inference that some of the information gathered will be used for blackmail, especially when the entire data collection process is conducted in secret.

The demands of blackmailers typically take the form of quantities of money, but when the secret involves an influential person–a public official, for instance, or an opinion leader–the blackmailer might demand advocacy of a particular kind or forbearance on some issue.  We should infer that critical decisions are made and positions advocated to avoid disclosure of guilty secrets about the decision-maker or advocate.

It’s also reasonable to infer that the spying has been going on long enough to enable proactive blackmail.  Archivists in and out of government have the capacity to identify promising candidates for manipulation from among a vast pool of people with guilty secrets.  They can recruit for espionage, assassination, leadership and public service, and we should infer that they do that.  The potential political attraction of a man like Barack Obama, for instance, might be identified early, and he might be targeted for leadership and financial support, along with many others, once he’s survived the vetting process.  It’s a peculiar form of vetting, because it selects those who have committed acts of misconduct and are vulnerable to blackmail.  Somebody like Obama might not even know he’s owned until he’s advanced to high office.

Finally, it’s reasonable to infer that the vetting process has been going on long enough to infest the highest echelons of power and influence with venal, blackmailed people, and that spies and their customers in private enterprise control public policy through these corrupt cadres.  It would explain why public policy so rarely reflects the public interest.  There is no evidence to refute this inference, and public opinion polls seem to confirm it.  The average American now believes that politicians are thugs, businessmen are cheats, and the mass media are liars.

If it’s true that corrupt people control public policy, reform could prove difficult.  Somehow, ordinary people would have to repudiate their leaders and turn against the monopolies that feed, clothe and shelter them.  They might be able to stage an election in which incumbents were dumped wholesale, but would the replacements be able to govern?  They might be able to enact confiscatory taxes, but could the officials with power over the seized assets be trusted to act in the public interest?  They could take to the streets, but their every move would be anticipated.  Leaders would be harassed, and potential participants would be intimidated.  It’s a daunting project, but fair inferences dictate that it should be the top priority project for the remainder of this century.

YFIYSS

July 3rd, 2013

My upcoming book, You Fucking Idiot!  You Stupid Shit!, is a compendium of 21st Century inanity.  I’ve taken to abbreviating the title, which turns out to be a fitting response to most of the stuff I witness from day to day, from petty episodes of foolishness to the wholesale abandonment of values and standards by vast swaths of humanity.  

Whether I’m driving or listening to the radio or watching TV with my grandchildren, I keep the expression at the ready.  I need it all the time.  Instead of my ordinary profanity, which is mere expletive, YFIYSS is a paradigm.  It explains everything.  It doesn’t make things any better, but it’s useful as a palliative.

Got a problem understanding why people get all worked up over their favorite sports team but couldn’t give a crap about the honesty or decency of their leaders?  YFIYSS.   No need to fret over why a motorist risks life and limb to gain a car length on you.    YFIYSS.  Maybe you wonder how two skyscrapers could be demolished in New York with people in them and the guys who did it walking the street.  YFIYSS.  I say “depression,” but the embedded mass media say “recovery,” and people seem to believe them.  YFIYSS.

Television emerges as the principal culprit in tne dumbing-down.  The programming is for idiots.  The ads treat you like a moron.  It’s embarassing to be caught in front of a TV.  What’s on says everthing about the audience.  Television has put us in a reeking stupor, so that we can’t distinguish what’s real.  We abandoned a whole system of useful values in favor of “I’m worth it” and “Win/Win” and the rest of the ersatz principles that infect television.  YFIYSS.

It would be impossible to document every moronic move made by every person, and so I’ve had to confine this book to only the most grievous idiocies.  Even at that, YFIYSS is running to about 250 volumes, and the inanities keep on coming.  Obviously, the book’s not quite ready for the printer.

Move to Amend?

May 14th, 2013

I got an email today asking for money to spread the word about sudden climate change. I didn’t have anything to contribute, but I’m glad that people are pooling their money to influence public opinion and, maybe, public policy in this area. I consider us lucky to have a law protecting our right to do that.

It’s the First Amendment to the Constitution, and it says Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of speech. Keeping in mind that it’s just words on paper, we understand that those words have awesome power. They’re not phrased to create a right but rather to impose a prohibition. There’s no ambiguity about them. All manner of speech is protected from government censorship, regardless of the source. It’s given us a remarkable range of opinion on every conceivable issue.

There’s a movement to carve out exceptions to this critical prohibition. Concerned about the ability of money to influence elections, the amenders want to exclude corporations from the protections of the First Amendment. It’s not clear why corporations are singled out for exclusion, except that they’re a convenient form of shared ownership in today’s world. If they become inconvenient, rich people will find other ways of pooling their assets to control us.

The amenders have nothing to say about  whether people who can’t resist political advertising should be trusted to amend their charter. Nothing to say about these same people’s plenary power, under the Constitution as it stands, to separate rich people from some of their assets for the good of the country. Nothing to say about the possible consequences of government regulation of a category of speech or about the ineluctable pressure to expand such regulation and curtail mass expressions of opinion.

Try writing an amendment that abridges the right of Bank of America or the National Rifle Association to criticize a candidate or policy without also abridging the right of your club or interest group to do the same thing. It’s an impossible task, and the people who are concerned about the influence of money over politics could spend their time more profitably devising ways to separate the 1 percent from some of their holdings and inventing a school curriculum to teach kids to resist advertising and understand politics.

Pro Hac Vice

April 23rd, 2013

Lawyers like to come up with trial strategies for people they don’t represent. Best practice in this sort of exercise is to write your closing statement first. Here are a few of the high points of my hypothetical closing statement on behalf of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

My client may have told you he was following a higher law than the one we live under when he undertook this attack, but the fact is he was bound by no law at all. He has done nothing contrary to any obligatory law, and he has done nothing that you jurors haven’t implicitly endorsed.

It is an acknowledged fact and a part of the record in this case that officials of our government claim a license to kill those they deem enemies. There is no legal proceeding, no appeal, no escape for the enemies of these officials. Not only do these officials claim a right to kill enemies, they claim a right to use means so lethal that they kill innocents who happen to be close by.

Even though there is no law authorizing any public official to kill anyone, none of these officials has been held accountable for any of these killings, and none ever will be. Our president–who is charged with the execution of the laws and who is one of the officials who claim a license to kill–has pledged not to hold himself or anyone else accountable for killing of this kind. Logic dictates that if there is no obligatory law prohibiting those killings, there is no law prohibiting the killings at the Boston Marathon.

It’s not just laws that have been abandoned in the new order we have chosen for ourselves. Values have had to yield along with formal laws. We citizens have had ample opportunity to reject all this killing, and we haven’t done it. Morally, acceptance of murder makes us all accomplices. Our baby-killings are no secret. Our forces have bombed weddings, religious observances, funerals, rescues, and hospitals, all documented in bloody detail.

These acts amount to murder under any civilized code of values, and when the president of a republic like ours forbears to hold murderers accountable and engages in murder himself, and we do nothing, we abandon our values and make ourselves partners in crime. And so I challenge each of you jurors to ask, in conscience, how the killing of innocents at the Marathon differs from the killings of innocents we sponsor in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan and elsewhere? Can you condemn my client without also condemning yourselves?

My client is not unrepentant. He repents as a soldier repents for the wounds he’s inflicted. He mourns the dead and he commiserates with the injured, but he maintains that their sacrifice and his were in a good cause. You may have heard the expression, bringing the war home. Soldiers talk about it. If only people could see what killing is like, they wouldn’t do it. My client brought the war home. If you want to know what’s it’s like to live under the conditions we impose in parts of Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and Yemen, remember Boston on Patriots’ Day 2013. Suddenly, without warning, there’s an explosion and people are dead, blood and body parts scattered far and wide. Happens every day in some parts of the world, and you jurors and the rest of us provide the explosives. If this atrocity brings us any closer to ending our own atrocious misconduct, the price in lives lost and ruined in Boston will be modest.

You jurors may want to ask, when you consider retribution on behalf of the three people martyred for this cause, you may want ask yourselves how many more could have died in this attack. The bombs were placed where they would get attention but where they would cause the least injury. How bad was this crime, really? Three dead; two hundred hurt. People’s fun was spoiled. In the book of atrocities, this one ranks as relatively humane, and my client is as much responsible for restraint as for bloodshed.

My client’s acts were meant to send a message to us about us. He says his acts were the quintessential expression of our national character, and who on this jury can rebut him? He was made a citizen only a few short months before he committed these acts, and he committed them as a citizen, for his country, as he has said. Lives were lost, but that may be the price of change in times like ours. Waking our nation from our violence-induced stupor is a dirty job, but somebody had to do it.

Revolution of Values

April 6th, 2013

“I am convinced” declared Dr. Martin Luther King on an April day 46 years ago in a compelling critique of the war in Viet Nam, “that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.”

Over the intervening years, we did undergo a revolution of values, but not of the sort King envisioned. Repudiating his plea for a “shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society,” we made greed a sacrament and allowed corruption to infect every aspect of life. When King made the speech, America could have been on the threshold of an age of peace and enlightenment, but we didn’t step through the entryway. Instead, we assented to a radical transformation of values that casts the national character of the 1960’s in an almost virtuous light.

It’s not that values were debased. Much worse, they were abandoned wholesale. We opted for a feral existence, with predation by the brutal upon the rest. We still pay lip service to such values as tolerance, honor, peacefulness, thrift, and charity, but they no longer play a part in the life of our nation.

The motives and processes behind the revolution were altogether commercial. Nothing sells like the gratification of basic, instinctive drives. The natural compulsions to eat, stay warm, have sex, and avoid pain have vast commercial potential, as every merchant knows. Values, being the lubricant that makes social interaction possible, always involve the postponement of gratification, and so they interfere with commerce.

Luckily for gratification-mongers, there’s television. The lions of commerce own all the broadcasting systems, and so they use television almost exclusively to sell stuff. The advertising usually highlights personal gratification, achieved by products ranging from perfume to paper towels, while the non-advertising “content” almost always portrays life as a quest for personal gratification, punctuated by conflicts and frustrations. The lives of real people usually center on the care and protection of others, with little to spare for personal gratification. But narratives in which sacrifice is rewarded tend to reinforce values that undermine sales, and so they can’t be told. This leaves us viewers with self-serving characters who would be rapidly consumed by real life but who emerge strong and happy in TV fiction. We imitate them as if their fictitious “value” system were real, and this forces us to abandon the values that have allowed us to function in groups.

The valueless life is now a social imperative. When your boss says, “Tell him I’m not here,” you damn well do it, and maybe you grind your teeth a little. When your pastor says, “God needs you to put more in the basket,” you cough up, and maybe you emit a sigh. And when your fourth-grader asks whether the glaciers really will disappear in her lifetime or whether it’s fair to kill people by remote control, you tell her everything will be fine, and you don’t regret it for a second. Conscience turned out to be a burden too heavy for life in the third millenium.

“When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people,” King argued in that speech, “the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” The 21st Century sees his bleak prophesy fulfilled.

Shaken, Not Stirred

December 18th, 2012

The slaughter of 20 schoolchildren in Newtown should be seen as the quintessential expression of our national character. We feed ourselves and our children a diet of violence that ought to nauseate us, and we allow our leaders to push the rest of the world around with lethal force, and we’re surprised when this happens?

I don’t believe anybody is surprised. Life is so cheap for us now that our newsmongers discuss remote-controlled warfare and government assassinations as issues of public policy. To mark the birth of Jesus, countless teenagers will soon receive games that simulate almost unimaginable violence and bloodshed, and we see no irony there. All this mock sympathy for the latest round of mayhem might be a little hard for some of us to stomach.

My experience of the weekend, festive as December weekends are, was that people were able to put out of consciousness the vision of children being killed one-by-one in front of each other and party on. Baby-killing wasn’t discussed at any gathering I attended. Nothing surprising there.

What surprises me is the amount of dissonance people are able to tolerate. The news coverage–including so-called progressive news outlets–has so far censored out all discussion of the social forces that make this sort of atrocity inevitable, even as images of video-game-blooshed and dead Arab babies popped into our news-deprived heads.

Newsmen aren’t asking how Newtown’s dead babies are different from the ones our ordnance kills every day in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and the Gaza Strip, but we seem to be OK with that. Most of us seem able (with the help of the right drugs) to square a deep commitment to bombs and bullets with disapproval of violent crime. Seems as if logic and history should compel us to admit we’re a nation of vicious bullies who should expect this sort of thing from time to time.

I don’t need a police investigation to tell me what Adam Lanza’s motive was. It’s always revenge in cases like this. This killer wanted to exact retribution from everyone for whatever bullying he was subjected to. Bullying that he blamed on everyone, maybe with some justification. He did the worst thing he could think of, and we were all punished. He probably thought he was doing his victims a favor, as baby-killers often do, sparing them the suffering he had to go through, but he mainly wanted to ruin the lives of their survivors, his enemies. We can only guess what went through his mind, but we do know vengeance has become a sacrament of American culture. Couple that with a national craving for violence, and you’re going to suffer atrocities every so often.

Don’t hold your breath for a public discussion of the role of America’s malevolent streak in the crime that killed so many kids. People seem to be shaken by this event, but not stirred to abandon their love of violence.