After the Tucson Shooting: An Interview with Sarah Palin

My latest cartoon is an attempt to tell Sarah Palin all the things I’ve been thinking since the Tucson Shootings.

Yes, our polarized media obsessively apportions blame to each opposing side, and yes, many astute observers have rightly pointed out that this picture is more complicated than that of an ideologically driven psychopath carrying out a political assassination.

As Charles M. Blow of the New York Times writes, “The only problem is that there was no evidence then, and even now, that overheated rhetoric from the right had anything to do with the shooting.”

But, to Mr. Blow, I would retort, the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.

The fact of the matter is that human psychology monstrously complex. While it seems for now that ideology and/or partisan vitriol was not the primary motivating factor behind Jared Lee Loughner’s shooting spree, we cannot be sure what effect a public discourse rife with fear-mongering and violent rhetoric might have on a conspiratorial and paranoid mind.

And our political discourse is certainly rife with violent rhetoric—from Glenn Beck’s incessant end-of-times ramblings, to the ludicrous chicken-little-esque “death panel” scare, to Sharron Angle’s “Second Amendment remedies“, to all the ways in which guns and politics are poisonously intertwined in our politics, to of course, Sarah Palin’s crosshairs (list shortened for lack of infinite space).

None of this is meant to diminish the guilt that lies squarely on the shoulders of Jared Lee Loughner. Sarah Palin is right to point out, a la Ronald Reagan, that “we must reject the idea that every time a law’s broken, society is guilty rather than the lawbreaker. ” But guilt and responsibility are not always equivalent.

Sarah Palin and the voices that have contributed to our explosive political discourse are not guilty of perpetrating the Tucson murders, but their contribution does carry with it a certain level of responsibility.

In content, implication and reception, we are responsible for what we say. Words are powerful, and have effects that reach far beyond their original conception. In mature public discussion, our opinion makers should ask themselves, “based on my position of power, what part might I have played in this event?” “Have I contributed to the atmosphere of fear and violence which may have influenced this troubled mind?”

As Jeffrey Winbush astutely writes,

“where does Palin take responsibility for the gun sights trained on the districts of Democratic representatives, including that of Giffords? Where was Palin’s concession that perhaps “Don’t retreat — reload!” might not have been the best way to get her point across?…Palin uses loaded words and images and then tries to act surprised when they blow up. No, she didn’t pull the trigger in Arizona, and I wasn’t expecting her to issue a half-assed apology, but she could have expressed a little less of the “Why is everybody picking on me?” whine and a lot more of the “Let’s set aside our differences and come together as Americans to help the victims and start the healing.” She could have done that, but she decided to stick to her guns. As usual, it’s all about Sarah.”

If Mrs, Palin and other opinion makers mentioned in this article had a smidgen of self-awareness, they would realize that what is being asked of them is not an admission of guilt—this is not an issue of hard forensic evidence vs. groundless speculation. What is being asked of them is merely a bit of humility, introspection and the integrity attendant a developed sense of personal responsibility.

Enough Already! I “Get” the Tea Party—I Just Don’t Agree With Them!

The Left supposedly “doesn’t understand” the Tea Party, claims Peter Berkowitz of the Wall Street Journal. But this is patently false. What Berkowitz diagnoses as lack of understanding is rather a simple case of lack of agreement. Thus, in an attempt to show how a “leftist” can both “get” the Tea Party and legitimately disagree with it, here are a few thoughts:

If the Tea Party could be described so simply as voters who “want to reduce the massively ballooning national debt, cut runaway federal spending, keep taxes in check, reinvigorate the economy, and block the expansion of the state into citizens’ lives” then I would be a Teabagger. But this seemingly pure and innocuous ideological statement is not a complete picture of the Tea Party’s public persona. Firstly there’s the issue of ideological consistency, for which the Tea Party does not get high marks, and then there’s the added socially conservative, nationalistic aspect of the Tea Party which is completely incongruous with the fiscally conservative, libertarian side of the movement.

About the ideological consistency, It’s important to recognize that two-thirds of our federal budget is spent on entitlements; if the Tea Party is against ballooning federal deficits and runaway spending, do they plan to trim these programs? According to A recent New York Times/CBS poll “91% of Tea Partiers want a smaller government with fewer services.  Despite this hostility to big government, 62% of Tea Partiers believe that Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are worth the cost”.

As I said in an earlier post, the Tea Party has some ‘splainin’ to do; where were they when George W. Bush passed the Medicare Prescription Drug Plan and launched two massively expensive, unfunded wars? Yes there may have been anger and grassroots stirrings, as some Tea Party pundits have claimed, but only in the last two years has the Tea Party become a prominent force in American politics.

Furthermore, if the Tea Party is truly committed to “block[ing] the expansion of the state into citizens’ lives,” where were they when W passed the USA Patriot Act or initiated a covert operation of warrantless wiretapping of US citizens? These are actual, bon-a-fide infringements of our civil liberties, but instead, the Tea Party decries government death panels and Bolshevik revolutions at the prospect of healthcare reform. Or What about Arizona’s new border security law, in which state law enforcement officials are required to check legal residence status upon circumstantial suspicion—this isn’t an egregious “expansion of the state in the citizen’s lives?”

The list of inconsistencies is virtually endless—prominent members of the Tea Party, such as Sarah Palin continually stress the idea that “real” America is the every-day people you find in small towns, with conservative, common sense values—not the fat cat Wall Street bankers or the big city Liberal Elites. But how is it possible that the Tea Party can paint itself as a populist, everyday, working man’s grassroots movement while at the same time opposing Wall Street reform, which attempts to establish some of the strongest consumer protections since the 1930’s and which curbs the reckless activity of the very fat cats they vilify? The same is the case for health-care reform. They don’t want Uncle Sam in the examining room, preferring instead that insurance companies tell your doctor what services you are and aren’t allowed.

The ideological rigidity of the Tea Party is so intense that any government service or exercise of power, no matter how basic or necessary seems to be in question. Everything is a “government takeover” despite ample evidence that US Auto makers are mostly solvent again and the Federal Govenrnment is planning to sell off it’s majority position in the near future. Despite the fact that most economists agree that the economic situation would have been far more dire without the stimulus, and that the “$700 billion lifeline to banks, insurance and auto companies — will expire after Sunday at a fraction of that cost, and could conceivably earn taxpayers a profit.” The stimulus may end up costing more money that the war in Iraq (which is itself debatable), but we cannot ignore that one was conducted under false pretenses and misinformation and cost thousands of lives despite no hard evidence of a direct threat, while the other represented a clear and present danger to the US and global economy. Isn’t one a slightly more worthwhile expenditure than the other?

But the Tea Party wants to get rid of even some of the most basic government functions despite the fact that they were enacted after a bitter history of abuse and exploitation which called for a federal response. Do they forget that the EPA was created in response to rising concerns over environmental protection and conservation? Do they forget that the minimum wage was first proposed as a way to control the proliferation of sweat shops in manufacturing industries? It seems that the Tea Party has a romantic view of history and a mind state that is far removed from the abuses of the past. Do we like having weekends? Do we like not having toxic waste dumped into our rivers? Then maybe the Tea Party ought to recognize that there is a balance between government overreach and basic government functions.

But all of these inconsistencies pale in comparison the most bewildering aspect of the Tea Party. If the Tea Party is supposed to be the party of fiscal conservatism, where does the socially conservative, tribalist, and xenophobic tendency come from? For a party that seems to emphasize individual freedom so greatly, why the general opposition to gay rights? Why such hatred toward illegal immigrants, Muslims, non-integrated residents who don’t speak English (disagree? Just watch some of this year’s GOP campaign ads)? Why the insistence that America needs to reassert it’s foundations as a Christian nation? Such corporatist, socially divisive, “real” America vs. everyone else, traditional values vs. godless secularism are exactly the kind of stances we find in the ugliest movements of history, be they the Italian Fascists or Al Qaeda, and it’s certainly not appropriate for a pluralist, democratic society.

The Ground Zero “Mosque,” Double Standards and the Limits of Strict Constitutionalism

The Ground Zero mosque controversy has highlighted a fundamental question relating to the nature and shortcomings of our constitutional system–is that which is constitutional always ethical as well?

Consider the following remarks made by opponents of the Cordoba Center project during the talking-head torrent following Obama’s remarks:

“The Muslims have, as everyone else does, the right to practice their religion and they have the right to construct a mosque at ground zero if they wish,” said Rep. Peter King, R-New York, on CNN’s “State of the Union,” “what I’m saying, though, is they should listen to public opinion, they should listen to the deep wounds and anguish this is causing to so many good people.”

Or these comments from Republican strategist Ed Rollins on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” , “Intellectually, the president may be right, but this is an emotional issue, and people who lost kids, brothers, sisters, fathers, what have you, do not want that mosque in New York.”

Or finally, the ever eloquent Sarah Palin, who put it succinctly, “We all know that they have the right to do it, but should they?”

They have the right, but do they have the should? Whether you’re stewing in outrage over the Supreme court decision Citizens United vs. FEC or simply watching a popcorn lawyer flick, we’ve all experienced the aggravating reality when that which is sanctioned as legal or constitutional often seems immoral or just plain wrong.

And as the bard says, herein lies the rub inherent in our constitutional system; We only have two possible options from which to choose in solving a social dilemma–legal or illegal, constitutional or unconstitutional. What is lost in this kind of legal structure is the human element; the ability to solve our differences by listening to each others’ stories, pains and experiences and coming to a mutually agreeable common ground.

The kind of listening Rep. King speaks of when he says, in spite of the legality of the Cordoba Center, we “should listen to the deep wounds and anguish this is causing to so many good people” is exactly the kind of listening that is made impossible when one side of the argument is deemed unconstitutional, for is there anything more invalidating and disqualifying to one’s entire belief structure than the label “unconstitutional”? What dignity is left to salvage when ones opinions are so thoroughly judged as ill-fitting to society. Unconstitutionality, it seems, is the modern form of exile.

Thus, the opponents of the Cordoba Center have made a valid point, and one which deserves the respect of audience. The right of Muslims to build a community center and place of worship two blocks from Ground Zero is unquestionable, but before we rush off into framing the issue as one of right and constitutionality, why don’t we slow down and listen to the concerns of the community first. After all, if the Center’s stated aim is to build trust and goodwill between communities of different faiths within the pluralist American society, how can we hope to achieve this aim if our starting point is one of mutual antagonism rather than mutual empathy?

…But there’s still something about this issue that sticks in my proverbial craw– something a bit sketchy and cynical about Conservatives like King, Cornyn and Palin making the argument for empathy over constitutionality in this particular instance. Conservatives have opportunistically applied this standard of judgment at a time when it best supports their ideological position.

Consider Rep. Kings statements once again:

“The Muslims have, as everyone else does, the right to practice their religion and they have the right to construct a mosque at ground zero if they wish. What I’m saying, though, is they should listen to public opinion, they should listen to the deep wounds and anguish this is causing to so many good people.”

Now let’s give it a little makeover:

“All Americans have…the right to right to bear arms and they have the right utilize their second amendment liberties if they wish. What I’m saying, though, is they should listen to public opinion, they should listen to the deep wounds and anguish this is causing to so many good people.”

Where is the Conservative sense of empathetic listening above strict constitutionality when it comes to the cries of victims and families of gun violence? Why is it more permissible to “refudiate” Muslim’s first amendment rights when it comes to the wishes of the victims of Islamic extremism than to abridge second amendment rights in light of those who have fallen by the gun?

Obviously there’s an absurdity here; we can’t disregard the Constitution in favor of bowing to popular opinion without ceasing to be a liberal society of law and order, checks and balances. But we also can’t have a coherent political discourse if our parties are allowed to choose an ethical standard du jour.

The goal of a Constitutional system should be to incorporate within a strict legal framework, a social generosity that, as Romand Coles writes, “elaborates itself…in dialogues torn between different sensibilities and visions of the future; a generosity torn between, on the one hand, the pursuit of what appear to be among the best political directions, principles and practices that have been illuminated thus far…and, on the other…the radical need to listen attentively to the voices and visions that come from places it cannot or has not yet illuminated.”

Such an incorporation might allow our society to find more inclusive ways to solve trenchant social dilemmas; it might indeed allow us to “listen to the deep wounds and anguish” of “so many good people” without necessarily having to appeal to antagonistic legalities. But if all this is just a possibility, one thing is for certain–such a potential will never come to fruition if we use the ethical standard of empathetic listening not for the sake of community strengthening, but for the sake of blind political opportunism.

Obama’s Katrina?

From the instant BP’s subaqueous geyser began pouring its inky poison into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, prominent Conservatives have giddily raced to christen this tragedy, “Obama’s Katrina”. Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh and other perpetrators of Crimes against Sanity, have accused Obama of a variety of missteps, ranging from the somewhat reasonable to the downright outrageous. Of course, It’s easy to disregard some of the more preposterous and conspiratorial accusations hurled at the Obama administration, but by and large, the top echelons of the Republican establishment have adopted the narrative of incompetence, hesitation, and lack of personal responsibility in the spill response at the highest executive level. But what’s most fascinating about the mainstream conservative critique is its complete unawareness of its own hypocrisy.

In criticizing Obama’s slow and ineffectual response to the crisis, Sarah Palin argued that the administration “failed to utilize legislation passed after the Exxon-Valdez disaster that gave the federal government ample power to respond to oil spills”. Mitch McConnel, the Senate Minority Leader, even suggested that the regulatory structure needed to respond to the spill wasn’t sufficiently robust. Thus we have what seems like a basic admission of the necessity of regulatory reforms in the oil industry. But in a truly mystifying twist, Palin and McConell proceed to criticize the regulatory framework which they endorsed just moments prior; “You get the impression [Obama] is continually surprised by the inability of various centralized government agencies to get more involved and help solve problems,” said Palin, “until this leak is plugged, they’re [the American people] not in any mood to hand over even more power in the form of a new national energy tax to a government that, so far, hasn’t lived up to their expectations in its response to this crisis” said McConnell.

I can almost imagine the boxing match that must be going on in their heads:

Ladies and gentlemen, may I present to you a spectacle for the ages! Here in the ring tonight is a match for the history books—two ideologies, mutually exclusive in their own right, fighting for the same ideological space. For the first time in the history of political theory boxing, you will see same the boxer fight himself!

In this corner, wearing the red-shorts we have the heavyweight champion of the Right, the “Limited-Government, Unencumbered Private Industry Slugger”, and in that corner, also wearing the red shorts, we have a hesitant admission, the “Regulate Private Industry, Robust Federal Catastrophe Response Basher!”

 And here’s the bell, Slugger goes in for a quick right jab (“government get out of healthcare, the insurance industry and all private enterprise”) followed by a crushing left hook (“deregulation, deregulation, deregulation”). And Basher is stunned; Slugger seizes the moment for one hell’uv’an uppercut (“government is always less efficient than private industry”). Mad as hell, Basher bounces back to life with a flurry of punches (“why didn’t the Obama Administration respond quickly enough? Why aren’t they taking a more active role in determining the best strategies to plug the gusher? Why haven’t they ensured construction of more mileage of booms? Why aren’t there more stringent regulations on deepwater drilling operations to begin with?)…Round and around the ring they go, how many times can one boxer punch himself? Nobody knows!

The fact is that if the conservative establishment wants to criticize Obama for executive ineptitude, they cannot do so without acquiescing one of their central ideological tenets—limited government. Perhaps the Obama administration was unprepared for this catastrophe, and ineffectual in its response efforts, but isn’t this exactly the magnitude of response we would expect from a scaled down federal government were scaled down?

This, then is the oily situation the American Right must face; if they want to stick to their limited government guns, they have to come to terms with the near certainty of such catastrophes occurring in the future with little or no federal mitigation. But if the heartbreaking images of devastation in the Gulf sit uneasily with them, and if the idea of business as usual, continued deregulation of private industry doesn’t seem quite so smart anymore, then perhaps it’s time the American Right thought a little bit about hanging up their ideologically rigid boxing gloves.

A thought on Capitalism and consistency

 

Liberalism—a term that has taken quite a winding path in its usage and definition. I would define classical liberalism as closely aligned with modern day libertarianism. Classical liberalism, in its advocacy of individual rights, the free market, and a more egalitarian political order puts itself at odds with classic conservatism, an ideology wary of radical social change and distrustful of an unchecked economic order, and suspect systems of government that devalue political arête. Classic conservatism is at best a reticent bedfellow of democracy; government is best left in the hands of excellent individuals—those who have devoted their energies towards studying the art of politics(the liberal arts, funnily enough). On the other hand, the average person, has had neither the relevant education, nor any exposure to the classics, nor the guiding experience of august, elder statesmen. Hoi Polloi are simply not fit to steer the ship of state; best leave that to those who can do the finest job. 

Let’s face it, whether you’re a democrat or a republican, a liberal or a conservative; if you’re American, you’re for government for the people, by the people. Both political parties are engaged in an endless tussle to assert their democraticness—that they are for the people; real, everyday Americans, not the good ol’ boy, business as usual, inside the beltway, and all other overused and asinine euphemisms for the powers that be. Modern day liberals show their populism by advocating for social programs, such as healthcare reform, poverty initiatives, etc. as well as human rights, exemplified by left-leaning organizations like the ACLU. Modern day conservatives do so in both similar and different ways; for those in the libertarian camp, individual civil liberties are also a high priority, but libertarians are certainly not the dominant sector of influential conservatives today. Mostly, conservative populism is found in its rhetoric—politicians like George W. Bush assert their “everyman” status by continually reminding us that they were C students. Sarah Palin is highly adept at painting conservative ideology as the heart of “real” America—hard working, small town people, guided by religious values and wary of big city intellectuals and big government bureaucrats. Both political camps today have this similar thread in common; whether or not they practice what they preach in smoky backroom dealings, both profess that government is ultimately the provenance of the people. Both thus reject the classical idea of political arête—that those who should lead are only those elite ones who can, by virtue of their excellence do the best job. 

Given this context, I find the modern conservative position on laissez-faire capitalism somewhat contradictory, for what does the advocate of unfettered capitalism profess but that the financial system should be left to those with the talent, the experience, the excellence—the arête; that the economy should be left to those who can do the best job. How does this shed a contradictory light on conservatism specifically? In some ways, modern day liberals adhere to this ideology and in some ways they renounce it. Liberals are advocates of the free market, but to a much larger extent than conservatives, government regulation. Why is it, they ask, that every other arena in society should have laws and regulations governing its power and scope except for the economy? What if powerful economic forces come into conflict with the environment? What if globalizing forces outsource American jobs and dodge American taxes? What if corporate forces lower the living standards of their workers? What if gargantuan financial institutions play no-holds-barred Texas hold ‘em with our 401ks? To some extent, liberals embody the democratic ideal by demanding that government by the people have ultimate authority over powerful social actors—that the body politic reign in the economy if it grows too unwieldy. Thus, our elected officials and their appointees have the mandate to regulate the economy in the public interest. Hopefully they do so. This model of governance seems to embody an understanding that unfettered capitalism in its modern day form is not naturally democratic, for how can the people exercise power over the multi-national corporation with all its financial power and political influence? In the absence of government regulation—an institution which is, though convolutedly, ultimately accountable to the populace—powerful economic forces with no national ties or accountability to the communities of its clientele operate with impunity. If we the populace doesn’t have control of these economic forces, these economic forces will determine the direction of important parts of our lives, without our consent, ability to protest, and even awareness. Thus the modern day liberal value of government regulation of corporations and the financial system represents a democratization of the economy, for if the government is ultimately accountable to the people, and not just some of the people, namely the elite, excellent individuals, but all the people, and if our government exercises control over the economy, then we will have a social order that is true to its egalitarian principles. 

In some ways, modern day conservatives embody this ideal as well. When the Sarah Palins and George W. Bushes of the world shout their rallying cry to take government hands off the economy and instead leave it in the hands of those that are best fit to lead it, they are talking about the people—the entrepreneur, the small businessperson, the individual innovator. In this sense, the ideal of leaving the economy to only those excellent individuals rings true to democratic principle, for this arête which is not a fancy education or access to elite outlets of power, but rather nothing else than individual self interest—and who is a better judge of one’s self interest than every man himself? 

But this in nothing new. Then how is it that modern day conservative ideology is inconsistent regarding the economy and its actors? When conservatives oppose regulations such as those Obama recently proposed mandating that Banks cannot invest in anything not expressly in the interest of their clients, or demanding stricter rules on risky investments, they are essentially wresting control of powerful social forces out of the hands of the people, and into the hands of a few privileged individuals vested with an obscene amount of power. Funny, a conservative would probably see in my last sentence “the people” as the CEO and the “individuals vested with obscene amounts of power” as the Fed and Obama’s economic team. But in response I ask these questions—to whom are the CEOs accountable? Are they elected? Can we choose not to elect them if we disagree with their politics/ideologies/motivations/actions, etc? Can we impeach them? What if they cause harm to our communities? What authority can chastise them for such actions except the government? Given that the powers of a corporation represent such a monumental externality—that is, their decisions affect many not directly involved in their decisions/transactions (think of what would happen to the country if Nokia left Finland)—and given that conservatives continually oppose reforms that grant the government (a.k.a. the people) power over these forces, is it not safe to ask whether conservatives of this ilk have forgotten their egalitarian beginnings? Have they crowned a new class of elite, excellent individuals above the common fray?