The New Republican Hippie

The Peace and Love Sixties changed America forever – people woke up – it was a revolution. Sure, and you’ll be thin and young again, and win the lottery. Pop music changed, as did any number of social norms, particularly regarding women, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 rid us of legally sanctioned institutionalized racism – but the Supreme Court just gutted the Voting Rights Act and the Republican Party is in its third or fourth year of efforts, at the state level, to make it next to impossible for blacks and the poor and the elderly to ever vote again – new special ID requirements and severely restricting voting hours and all the rest will do that. It’s like the sixties never happened. And the hippies never ended the Vietnam War either. For all the turmoil at the 1968 Democratic National Convention – riots in the street and all the rest – the nominee turned out to be the quite conventional Hubert Humphrey. Would he end the war? He said he would, but he couldn’t say how. The antiwar crowd was not happy.

They had no reason to be happy. Eugene McCarthy – Clean Gene – the poet-philosopher of the calmer half of the antiwar left – had withdrawn. Bobby Kennedy, newly reborn as a champion of social justice, speaking out for the oppressed, and obviously opposed to what we were doing in Vietnam, had been assassinated out here in Los Angeles, not long after meeting with Caesar Chavez. Bobby Kennedy never made it to the Chicago convention, and Martin Luther King had been assassinated a few months earlier. What was changing? At the end of the decade Richard Nixon was elected, and the Vietnam War raged on. Early in his second term Nixon resigned in disgrace, and the war went on. Gerald Ford finally pulled the plug in 1973 – we were outta there – and the antiwar hippies had nothing to do with it. Most of them were bankers or dentists or housewives by then.

It was the same overseas. The 1968 Prague Spring was pretty cool – that was a nation playfully shrugging off communism with the sort of irony that only Czechs can manage – but the Russian tanks rolled in in August. That was over. Václav Havel would just have to wait, for a few decades. In Paris, the June student uprising that year shut down everything, and the government met a lot of the demands of the young, but the city, and the country, soon reverted to its usual formal prissiness and was once again a living museum for tourists, and that place where everyone knows how to live well, in elegance, where all the women are thin and the cheese is wonderfully stinky. Everyone still dreams of Paris, but not the 1968 Paris. Woody Allen made a movie about those dreams that doesn’t mention the events of 1968 at all. The sixties never happened. Hemingway is still mocking Fitzgerald in Gertrude Stein’s doorway, while Picasso looks on, or, alternatively, Beckett’s new Godot play is opening this week, and Sartre and Camus are having coffee over at the Flore, and young Miles Davis is playing tonight at that cellar jazz club on Rue Benoit. Choose your decade. It won’t be the sixties.

Perhaps the sixties were a bust, and there may be a reason for that. Perhaps the problem was that those who spoke for peace and love and all that were just too young – they didn’t have that gravitas thing going for them. Why listen to them? Martin Luther King forced change on America, or shamed America into changing, but he wasn’t a young punk or goofy jokester. He spoke from years of experience and careful study, not just from his heart. The antiwar crowd had no such figure. They may have been right about Vietnam, and also right about war in general, both morally and geopolitically, but there was no a priori reason to listen to them. People want to know whether the speaker is worth listening to – what thorough knowledge and hard-won experience he or she brings to the table – before they decided to evaluate what is said in this instance. The antiwar left of the sixties got that backwards. They thought that being right was the only thing that mattered. It doesn’t work that way. They needed someone on the “inside” of things to say what they were saying, perhaps a senator or something. If a few “serious” people had said exactly what they had been saying, then what they had been saying would be taken seriously. Having half a million people march on the Pentagon, and then surround it, hold hands, and chant in an attempt to levitate it, was really cool – but that doesn’t cut it. That was actually a bit counterproductive.

They really did have no one “serious” on their side, and never would have a heroic peace and love and social justice guy on their side. The next Democratic president after Lyndon Johnson was Jimmy Carter, the born-again evangelical peanut farmer who had once trained to command a nuclear submarine. Then it was Bill Clinton, famous for his “triangulation” – do a lot of conservative things, to coopt the Republicans, and just enough liberal things to keep your own base from being infuriated. Clinton was the one who said that “the era of big government is over” – and he meant it. Welfare reform and deregulation were his achievements. The little guy hardly mattered, and now it’s Obama, the careful guy whose most radical achievement is healthcare reform that is market based – everyone now can buy, and soon must buy, what private for-profit healthcare providers are selling. That’s not exactly radical. On the other hand, Obama did end our war in Iraq – but that was set up for him, and he’s also finding it hard to wind down things in Afghanistan. In short, Obama is no get-out-now antiwar radical, and he’s hardly a power-to-the-people socialist either, no matter what the folks on Fox News say. Obama seems to be an Eisenhower Republican at heart. Do no harm, or as little harm as possible, and play some golf.

This is depressing for hard-core Democrats, many of whom are those who thought the sixties would change everything and found out that just wasn’t so. There’s nowhere to turn now, except that might not be true. We left Iraq, the place fell apart, and what’s left of the neoconservatives are screaming that we never should have left and we need to go back in, and while establishment Democrats are trying to figure out what to say about this, we have a Republican senator deciding he will be the establishment antiwar voice, the one that was missing in the sixties. Rand Paul may be with the wrong party, and a Tea Party kind of guy, but he’s saying things like this:

I ask Governor Perry: How many Americans should send their sons or daughters to die for a foreign country – a nation the Iraqis won’t defend for themselves? How many Texan mothers and fathers will Governor Perry ask to send their children to fight in Iraq? I will not hold my breath for an answer. If refusing to send Americans to die for a country that refuses to defend itself makes one an ‘isolationist,’ then perhaps it’s time we finally retire that pejorative.

Damn – Mark Rudd couldn’t have said it better and the back-story is that Rand Paul wrote an op-ed last month opposing military intervention against ISIS rebels in Iraq and then Rick Perry wrote an op-ed of his own calling Paul an isolationist, and then Rand Paul wrote another op-ed responding to Perry – so they’ve been having at it. That’s a sitting governor, sitting right where George Bush was sitting just before he became president, and the rising new Republican star of the Senate. These aren’t long-haired college kids. Cool. And Ed Kilgore tries to summarize the dispute:

Perry, quickly capitalizing on his return to the national spotlight via the refugee crisis on the border, picked the fight with Paul in a WaPo column that could be boiled down to three words: “Isolationist! Isolationist! Isolationist!” It could be taken as an early sign that Paul’s 2016 opponents won’t make the mistake of his 2010 Senate primary opponent Trey Grayson in giving Paul a virtual pass on his heretical foreign policy views at a time when the subject may represent the most important area of genuine intraparty disagreement.

Paul’s response at Politico Magazine was more persuasive because it attempted something more nuanced than pointing and shouting “Unclean!” (About the only substantive argument in Perry’s piece was that we needed a renewed military engagement with Iraq because some Islamic State militants allegedly hold U.S. passports, a strange new twist on the old Bush administration “flypaper” theory). More importantly, it showed his three-pronged strategy for dealing with the “isolationist” attacks he will continue to attract: (1) challenging GOP hawks for the mantle of St. Ronald Reagan; (2) pointing to polls showing the extreme unpopularity of warmongering, thus making foreign policy an “electability” issue; and (3) denying the whole premise that he’s that different from other Republicans, in part by talking tough on national security issues that don’t involve military interventions.

Kilgore is wary:

Paul’s gotten pretty good at turning what would seem to be “isolationist” positions into emblems of truculence, viz. his makeover of a long-time proposal to cut off assistance to the Palestinian Authority into a “Stand with Israel” posture. But for eons Republicans have ultimately measured their presidential candidates’ acceptability on foreign policy and national security in terms of their willingness either to kill foreigners or spend more money, if not both. No matter how much he dresses up his old man’s non-interventionism in camo patterns and how loudly he plays martial music, so long as Rand Paul opposes every opportunity to kill foreigners while calling for lower defense spending, the “isolationist” label will be a problem for him, as the ghosts of both the Cold War and the War On Terror haunt him. I suspect opponents more skillful than Rick Perry will at some point make that plain.

Politico sees this:

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) accused the Kentucky senator on CNN of wanting a “withdrawal to fortress America.” And former Vice President Dick Cheney declared at a POLITICO Playbook luncheon on Monday that “isolationism is crazy,” while his daughter, Liz Cheney, said Paul “leaves something to be desired, in terms of national security policy.”

The preemptive strikes suggest that many in GOP fear Paul is winning the foreign policy argument with the American people – and that that could make him a formidable candidate in 2016. After all, second-tier presidential hopefuls don’t usually get shouted down this way.

Where was this guy in the late sixties when we needed him? He actually got someone’s attention:

“Maybe [the Republican critics] are starting to realize that he could emerge as a leader of the party, and he’d be dangerous for the country,” said New York Rep. Peter King, one of the GOP’s most vocal foreign policy hawks. If Paul’s “views go unchallenged, it’s possible that people will become convinced they’re valid foreign policy views, and they’re not.”

Wait, wait, wait – what if they ARE valid foreign policy views? There’s no point in doing what doesn’t work:

Paul wrote that the governor’s new glasses apparently “haven’t altered his perception of the world, or allowed him to see it any more clearly.” And he argued that Perry’s solutions to the Iraq crisis aren’t really that different than his or even President Barack Obama’s – except that Perry is willing to send troops back into Iraq and Paul isn’t.

Paul’s advisers say his skepticism of military action is more widespread within the Republican Party than the foreign policy hawks wish to believe.

“It’s not isolationism. It’s setting a high bar for sending our sons and daughters overseas,” said Lorne Craner, a foreign policy adviser to Paul who served in the State Department under both Presidents George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush.

Still, there’s fear:

The hawks don’t doubt that there are some Republicans who share Paul’s views. But they’re concerned that, in the heat of a presidential campaign, the coverage will make the foreign policy debate within the GOP sound more evenly divided than it really is. … Others worry that Republican voters who aren’t big on foreign policy have long been presumed to support hawks, but now may be increasingly siding with Paul.

That’s trouble:

Paul’s cautious stance on foreign intervention is just the latest example of the many divides within the GOP, which already has infighting among tea party, establishment and other factions on everything from immigration to the Export-Import Bank.

But, as chaos increasingly spreads in the Middle East (the Israeli-Palestinian flare-up being the latest crisis), Republicans also sense a growing opportunity to take on Democrats in the foreign policy realm.

The hawks, in particular, have been accusing Obama of pulling out of Iraq too early and not recognizing the dangers of the growing terrorist threat posed there by the militant network known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

“I think the very first step … is to recognize that there is a threat,” Cheney said Monday. Yet even he acknowledged that there’s growing public fatigue from always having to watch out for terrorist threats: “You’ve got folks who simply don’t want to be bothered, and it’s been a long time since 9/11,” he said.

Paul, however, says the real problem in Iraq is that “there aren’t that many good choices right now” – and that he’s not about to call for sending the troops back in when, in his view, the Iraqis didn’t fight very hard for their own security.

Now there’s trouble, and Tweety Bird, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews just had to jump in:

Matthews began his show Monday evening by taking on the “big civil war” that’s broken out in the Republican Party, this time between Paul and Texas Governor Rick Perry. He compared the fight brewing in the GOP over the Iraq War to the explosion that occurred in the Democratic Party at the 1968 Chicago convention over Vietnam.

“Just as then, the party that prosecuted the war is the one suffering from the division,” he said. “Back then it was Lyndon Johnson defending himself against Bobby Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy. Today, it’s another Texas hawk defending himself against Rand Paul.”

Matthews quoted Richard Nixon of all people, from Pat Buchanan’s new book The Greatest Comeback, to make his point that Paul would emerge victorious.

“If you ever hear of a group forming to stop X, put your money on X,” Nixon reportedly told the author.

“If Rick Perry is out to stop Rand Paul, then history shows the senator from Kentucky might be the candidate who wins this is thing, the one going up against Hillary Clinton,” Matthews said. “If they are already ganging up on Rand Paul and Perry thinks the smart thing to do is pile on, I say, put a few bucks on Rand Paul. I would.”

Hey, Paul with these words did throw down the gauntlet:

On foreign policy, Perry couldn’t be more stuck in the past, doubling down on formulas that haven’t worked, parroting rhetoric that doesn’t make sense and reinforcing petulant attitudes that have cost our nation a great deal.

If repeating the same mistakes over and over again is what Perry advocates in U.S. foreign policy, or any other policy, he really should run for president. In Washington, he’d fit right in, because leading Republicans and Democrats not only supported the Iraq war in the first place, but leaders of both parties campaigned on it in 2008.

Again, where was this guy in the late sixties when we needed him? No major figure back then would say such a thing, only the gadflies would, and the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza considers the implications:

What Paul is proposing is that he is the Republican candidate willing (and able) to handle the party’s long-delayed reckoning with the war in Iraq. That conflict, premised on the false idea that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, has never been fully litigated within the GOP. President George W. Bush spent his time in office defending this rightness of the effort, and the party’s 2008 presidential nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain, was arguably even more hawkish than Bush on Iraq. In the aftermath of the 2008 loss, the voice that filled the leadership vacuum for Republicans was former Vice President Dick Cheney, who steadfastly defended the policies of the Bush Administration. Four years later, the struggles of the domestic economy pushed discussion of Iraq (or any other foreign policy issues) out of the public’s collective consciousness.

It’s about time:

Even while Republicans were avoiding the debate over whether the party had made a major mistake in its policies toward Iraq, the political consequences were being made plain. Democrats retook control of the House and Senate in 2006 due, at least in part, to Bush’s fading numbers on Iraq. Then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama’s entire candidacy – for the Senate and later the presidency – was premised on his opposition to the war in Iraq. Without Iraq, it’s difficult to see how Obama finds a foothold against Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2008. Without Iraq, the race between Obama and McCain in 2008 is far closer.

The back-and-forth op-eds between Paul and Perry make clear that the debate about Iraq, the mistakes made there and what it means for Republican foreign policy going forward will be a prominent feature of the 2016 Republican primary race. And, there is reason to believe that Paul’s position on Iraq is one shared by a relatively large number of Republicans. In a June New York Times/CBS News poll, 63 percent of self-identified Republicans said that the war in Iraq was not worth it.

That’s why Rand Paul is on safe ground, as long as he uses Ronald Reagan for cover, saying things like this:

Strength does not always mean war. Reagan ended the Cold War without going to war with Russia. He achieved a relative peace with the Soviet Union – the greatest existential threat to the United States in our history – through strong diplomacy and moral leadership.

That’s it, throw Reagan-in-Reykjavik in their face, and Cillizza adds this:

What Paul is arguing is that the war in Iraq was a mistake because his party (and many Democrats) didn’t take the time to think through all of the consequences of it beforehand. And that being the most powerful nation in the world doesn’t mean that always taking the most muscular option when it comes to dealing with other countries is the right thing to do.

Politically speaking, that position leaves Paul open to the attack that he a) doesn’t think America is what it was once and b) is less-than-hard-edged on the war on terrorism. Again, Perry: “Paul’s brand of isolationism (or whatever term he prefers) would compound the threat of terrorism even further.”

This is the opening skirmish in a much broader fight about the future of Republican foreign policy that is coming in the 2016 campaign. Paul is the catalyst of that important conversation.

That is obviously true, but that may be looking at this too narrowly. The future of Republican foreign policy isn’t the only issue here. Rand Paul, if successful, could free up a lot of Democrats, those who always cave to those who scream for more war, now, because those timid Democrats don’t want to be seen as weak and be made to go away in the next election. Now they can vote for alternatives to immediate war and say look, even the rising star in the Republican Party knows better. Heck, we’d have, finally, the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. You know, harmony and understanding, sympathy and trust abounding, no more falsehoods or derisions, golden living dreams of visions, mystic crystal revelation and the mind’s true liberation – all that stuff.

Well, maybe not all that stuff, but John McCain could retire, and Dick Cheney could devote himself entirely to fly-fishing and shooting little quail, when he’s not shooting his hunting partner in the face – and we might find ourselves in fewer wars that do no one any good at all, even us. If this works out, the sixties wouldn’t have been a bust after all. All we needed was a Republican hippie. It seems we got one.

Posted in Antiwar Republicans, Rand Paul, Republican Civil War, The Sixties | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Right of Self-Defense

They’re at it again, and another week of it begins:

Tens of thousands of panicked residents fled their homes in the northern Gaza Strip on Sunday after the Israeli military dropped leaflets from the sky warning those who stayed behind that they were risking their lives because a large, intense operation was imminent.

Residents in Gaza were whipsawed by growing anxiety and frustration. More than 17,000 people poured into makeshift shelters as Israeli commandos entered the coastal enclave early Sunday to knock out a Hamas rocket-launch site. A brief gun battle with Hamas militants ensued and left four Israeli soldiers lightly wounded.

The brief incursion by commandos followed the single deadliest Israeli bombing of the six-day campaign.

Israeli missiles hit a house where Gaza’s police chief, Tayseer al-Batsh, was praying Saturday night. The explosions killed 18 members of his extended family, including six children, and sent the top Hamas law-enforcement officer into intensive care, where he was clinging to life Sunday.

The latest violence in Gaza came as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu indicated that Israel has no interest in halting its assault. Israel’s objective, he said at his weekly cabinet meeting, is to inflict “a significant blow on Hamas” that will yield “the restoration of quiet for a long period.”

This, then, is a matter of self-defense, one that started with the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers by Hamas – except that J. J. Goldberg has discovered that the official story of what happened after those three Israeli yeshiva students were kidnapped was not what it seemed – it wasn’t Hamas at all, and the dramatic and extended rescue effort to find and free those three kids was political theater. The Israeli government knew from the first that the three kids were already dead, but they wanted to be all heroic and whip up new hatred of Hamas, to justify ridding the region of those folks.

It was an opportunity, but when six Israeli kids grabbed a young Palestinian boy, and then gleefully burned him alive, things got out of hand – Netanyahu had to tell the folks running through the streets, cheering about that, that Israel was not that kind of place. The issue was self-defense, but there was dispute about who gets to do what. Grabbing young Palestinian kids and burning them alive is a no-no. That’s the government’s job. Let the government bomb them to death, or take them out with snipers, or invade Gaza, the home of Hamas, and reduce the place to rubble. As for the West Bank, home of the rival Palestinian Authority, that will soon be all Israeli settlements, solving that problem. That too is something that the Israeli government sees as a matter of self-defense. The Palestinians think that’s their land, and the UN and internal laws agrees with them, but all that can be made moot if they’re no longer there on “their” West Bank. Hamas recently sort of merged with the Palestinian Authority but no matter – the government will take care of all this, not patriotic citizen vigilantes.

The principle is clear. Citizens do not get to take the nation’s self-defense into their own hands. The state must have what’s called a monopoly on the use of deadly force – chip in your tax dollars and they’ll create and manage an Army and a Navy and an Air Force, amazingly armed, to protect you, along with a border patrol, also heavily armed, to keep the scum of the earth away from you. Let them do it. You don’t get to take your assault rifle – even if you have the right to own one – down to El Paso and point it south and shoot anyone who looks to you to be a little too Hispanic. That’s the government’s job – or to be precise about it, if you think that’s the government’s job and they’re just not doing it, work to elect those who set policies to shoot on sight and ask questions later. That’s how things work here. When you’re a citizen who is part of democracy, you give up your right to be a patriotic citizen vigilante. There is no such thing. That is what Netanyahu was saying. He was facing a very American problem, citizens who thought they were free to use deadly force. That sort of thing only leads to chaos.

It’s the same with the police and the judicial system. No one, except for Batman and Superman in the comic books, gets to take the law into their own hands. You may be armed, but if you shoot someone who bothers you quite dead, you’ll have to explain that – there was no time to call the police or whatever. Sure, everyone has the right to defend themselves, but the state, to prevent chaos and all sorts of folks shooting each other willy-nilly, has been granted that monopoly on the use of deadly force. Even with all the new Stand Your Ground laws, creating new exceptions to that monopoly, shoot someone who bothers you and you’ll end up in court, like George Zimmerman. You may get off. You may not. Unlike Zimmerman, you might not have the NRA and Sean Hannity on your side. And don’t even think about grabbing some young black kid or gay twenty-something guy and burning him alive. That’s always a no-no. Gunning down doctors who work in abortion clinics is also frowned upon, at least in some circles. Kathy Perkins, the founder of Moms-With-Guns, just posted an item on Obama on her Facebook page and asked a simple question – “Where is an assassin when you need one?”

Kathy Perkins doesn’t get that thing about the state’s monopoly on the use of deadly force. We vote. The state shoots, but there were contradictions about our freedom of action from the start. We all want to be free, but we also want to live in a safe and somewhat orderly society. Those two don’t mix easily. After all, we started out declaring our independence from a king, saying kings don’t matter – there were certain inalienable rights everyone has, to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This was the big radical idea at the time, thanks to John Locke and others. No king, or actually no government, has the inherent right to just take your life, or to toss you in jail and throw away the key, or to tell you that you can’t do what makes you happy or makes you feel safe. The founders were thinking of King George claiming that he had those nasty rights, by divine mandate, but of course all governments should have those rights. They make a safe and somewhat orderly society possible. They make civil society possible. They make civilization possible. The trick is to develop a government that doesn’t abuse its power to punish and imprison and forbid all sorts of pursuits, even if those pursuits make an individual happy.

Representative democracy was the answer. Monarchies and dictatorships were inherently illegitimate. What the government can punish and forbid and take should be determined by the informed consent of the governed. All we had to do was work out the details of that, but this took some time. The 1776 Declaration of Independence was only a statement of general principles. The matter of what the government can punish and forbid and take, and under what conditions, and what it cannot do, was finally addressed in the Constitution, adopted on September 17, 1787, but much of the Constitution addresses structural issues – how the government is organized and which branch has which specific powers. That’s the boring stuff. The good stuff was and is in the Bill of Rights, right up front, fleshing out what freedom means, in a safe and somewhat orderly society. The anti-federalists demanded those first ten amendments – Patrick Henry and Samuel Adams led the charge. If we must have a strong central government, for efficiency’s sake, at least it could be kept on a leash.

They got their way, but over the years what should have been clear got muddied. Freedom of speech and freedom of the press are guaranteed – except that later we all agreed you’re not free to shout FIRE in a crowded theater, and slander and libel are always forbidden, as is publishing anything that endangers national security. That last matter has been in dispute recently, of course. Edward Snowden may or may not have damaged national security, or if he did, a bit, our right to know about such things may be more important to us. It’s complicated. The Fourth Amendment also forbids illegal search and seizure by the government, unless by court order – a warrant based on probable cause. Technology has muddied the waters there too – the metadata about everyone’s phone calls and electronic communications, not the content, may be fair game – or not. That leads to the right to privacy, never mentioned in the constitution but which the Supreme Court ruled was clearly implied. In the matter of Griswold v Connecticut they ruled the police can’t bust down the bedroom door and arrest a married couple they think are using some form of birth control. That was going too far. Privacy is implicitly guaranteed as a constitutional right, but the Griswold ruling led to Roe v Wade – which forbids interfering with a woman’s decision to seek an abortion, at least in the first trimester – an unwarranted invasion of privacy of exactly the same sort. That also led to their ruling in Lawrence v Texas – the police can’t bust down the bedroom door and arrest two consenting adults engaged in homosexual activity, in private. That too is going too far.

Each ruling follows the other, logically, enraging social conservatives and the religious right. That’s why Rick Santorum has long argued the whole problem started with the Griswold ruling – there’s no such thing as a right to privacy. Santorum says that was decided wrongly. He concedes that if we want to live in a safe and somewhat orderly society there have to be rules, but God’s rules, as he understands them, will do just fine. Maybe so, but the First Amendment clearly states that the government should never, ever, make any law that even implies the establishment of religion, so he can’t really go there, but now the Hobby Lobby decision has muddied the waters again. A corporation can now claim exemption from following a law passed fair and square by the representatives of the people, because of that corporation’s religious beliefs, no matter what was guaranteed to individual citizens by the same law. The government should never, ever, make any law that even implies the establishment of religion, but here we seem to have an exception. Some religious stuff, as defined by the Supreme Court as the right sort of religious stuff, trumps the laws devised by the people. The five white male devout-Catholic justices said so. The other four justices disagreed. Everyone saw that coming.

Then there’s the issue of self-defense and the Second Amendment. Citizens have the right to bear arms. Anyone can pack heat, but the business about how that’s because “a well-regulated militia” is important does muddy the waters. That’s the only rationale given in the amendment, and no one knows what that means now. There’s some question of what it even meant then. There was no standing army at the time and a spare force of armed soldiers could be useful, when the Indians attack or something. It couldn’t have meant that everyone should carry a gun. In a safe and somewhat orderly society only the police carry guns, to keep order – using them only when necessary. Trigger-happy asshole policemen lose their jobs and go to jail – or should. You can’t have everyone being an avenging vigilante. The government alone must have a monopoly on the use deadly force, and also be held accountable, by the people, for its use. If every man, woman and child is allowed to be judge, jury and executioner, civilization itself is impossible.

The counterargument is that the police can’t be everywhere and everyone has the right to protect themselves. The guys who hammered out the Bill of Rights didn’t mention that at all, but the argument is that this is the real reason they came up with the amendment. If a right to privacy, never mentioned in the Constitution at all, can be inferred, then this too can be inferred. That must be it, as in common law self-defense has always been a defense when you’ve killed someone. You had no choice. In all states, if safe retreat is possible, you’re supposed to scram rather than shoot the guy – except that in Florida and other states they have new Stand Your Ground laws, written for them by the NRA. You are not now required to retreat, even if you safely can. You can shoot the guy. Although his case wasn’t exactly a Stand Your Ground case, George Zimmerman could. He went free. Everyone at Fox News was happy about that.

No good has come of this, but maybe this is a generational thing. Older white folks, the Fox News demographic, see the world falling apart. Arm the young wannabe cops who volunteer for neighborhood watch, even if they’re flaky and unstable – arm everyone, except young black men. Everyone has the right to carry a gun, or many of them, everywhere, all the time. This is the only thing that will save civilization. We all want to live in a safe and somewhat orderly society.

There’s no point in pointing out how absurd that is. When every single citizen is free to be judge, jury and executioner, a safe and somewhat orderly society becomes impossible. This may not be what those fellows drafting the Second Amendment had in mind. In all those ten amendments that are the Bill of Rights they were just trying to work out the relationship between freedom and public order, and there were contradictions from the start. Those contradictions are still with us. One man’s utterly justifiable act of self-defense is another man’s lawlessness that assures chaos forever.

It’s the same thing in international politics. Benjamin Netanyahu may be trying to contain his overly enthusiastic countrymen, the guys with the matches and kerosene looking for the next hapless Palestinian ten-year-old, but he’s a bit of a George Zimmerman himself. He argues innocent self-defense, but something else may be going on here:

The cycle has come to be known in Israel as “mowing the lawn” – a temporary disruption of Hamas’s ability and will to fire rockets. Pressure is growing in Israel to make sure that this time is different.

“The army should not stop until they wipe out Hamas,” said Avner Peretz, 46, just minutes after the windows in his brother-in-law’s house were blown out by a Hamas rocket attack in the southern Israeli town of Netivot over the weekend. “The last two conflicts, we came out looking like the losers. This time, we need to be the winner.”

So far, there’s no doubt that Israel has inflicted far more damage than Hamas, but that’s consistently true in this deeply asymmetrical fight.

There have been 166 residents of Gaza killed in the current Israeli operation, including 36 children and 24 women, according to the Gazan Health Ministry. The United Nations estimates that three-quarters of the dead are civilians.

Hamas and its allies have fired hundreds of rockets into Israel – including 130 on Sunday – but most have either landed in open areas or been shot down by Israel’s sophisticated anti-missile system, Iron Dome. Several Israelis have been seriously injured by the rocket fire, but none have been killed.

Israel is now relatively safe – all the deaths are on the other side – but Israel will keep shooting, and will probably invade and occupy Gaza for a generation or two. Is that innocent self-defense? The Palestinians think they are engaged in self-defense too, defense from a brutal occupying power. Here too, one man’s utterly justifiable acts of self-defense are another man’s lawlessness that assures chaos forever – except here we’re dealing with countries not individuals, and neither side has a monopoly on the use of deadly force. Each side only wishes they had that monopoly.

This is a case where everyone’s a law unto themselves, and in the Times of Israel, David Horovitz explains where that leads:

At his Friday press conference, the prime minister ruled out full Palestinian sovereignty, derided the US approach to Israeli security, and set out his Middle East overview with unprecedented candor. His remarks were not widely reported; they should be.

A few of the details:

Netanyahu began his appearance, typically, by reading some prepared remarks. But then, most atypically, he took a series of questions. And while he initially stuck to responses tied to the war against Hamas, its goals, and the terms under which it might be halted, he then moved – unasked – into territory he does not usually chart in public, and certainly not with such candor.

For some, his overall outlook will seem bleak and depressing; for others, savvy and pragmatic. One thing’s for sure: Nobody will ever be able to claim in the future that he didn’t tell us what he really thinks.

He made explicitly clear that he could never, ever, countenance a fully sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank. He indicated that he sees Israel standing almost alone on the frontlines against vicious Islamic radicalism, while the rest of the as-yet free world does its best not to notice the march of extremism. And he more than intimated that he considers the current American, John Kerry-led diplomatic team to be, let’s be polite, naive.

Operation Protective Edge will go on until “guaranteed calm” was restored to Israel, and if that takes forever and that means never, so be it, and that means this:

Netanyahu has stressed often in the past that he doesn’t want Israel to become a binational state – implying that he favors some kind of accommodation with and separation from the Palestinians. But on Friday he made explicit that this could not extend to full Palestinian sovereignty. Why? Because, given the march of Islamic extremism across the Middle East, he said, Israel simply cannot afford to give up control over the territory immediately to its east, including the eastern border — that is, the border between Israel and Jordan, and the West Bank and Jordan.

And this:

Earlier this spring, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon sparked a storm in Israel-US ties when he told a private gathering that the US-Kerry-Allen security proposals weren’t worth the paper they were written on. Netanyahu on Friday said the same, and more, in public.

Not relinquishing security control west of the Jordan, it should be emphasized, means not giving a Palestinian entity full sovereignty there. It means not acceding to Mahmoud Abbas’s demands, to Barack Obama’s demands, to the international community’s demands. This is not merely demanding a demilitarized Palestine; it is insisting upon ongoing Israeli security oversight inside and at the borders of the West Bank. That sentence, quite simply, spells the end to the notion of Netanyahu consenting to the establishment of a Palestinian state. …

He wasn’t saying that he doesn’t support a two-state solution. He was saying that it’s impossible. …

And in a passage that was primarily directed at Israel’s Islamist enemies, but might equally be internalized by those he plainly regards as Israel’s muddle-headed self-styled friends, he added: “Nobody should mess with us.”

Somehow Netanyahu sounds like this guy:

An activist who is rallying a Bundy Ranch-style militia to the Texas border to address the ongoing crisis there reportedly released a YouTube video in which he said those crossing illegally would be warned: “Get back across the border or you will be shot.”

Operation Secure Our Border, with its own Facebook page, is being organized by members of the “Patriot” movement along with Oathkeepers and Three-Percenters, according to the San Antonio Express News. Those are some of the same militia groups that came to Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy’s defense earlier this year.

The Express News and The Monitor in McAllen, Texas, both reported on a YouTube video featuring Chris Davis, who has been identified as the commander of the militia, in which he apparently explained how the border would be secured.

“You see an illegal. You point your gun dead at him, right between his eyes, and you say, ‘Get back across the border or you will be shot,’” Davis said in the video, according to the reports.

It’s the same thing, except that one man’s utterly justifiable act of self-defense is another man’s lawlessness that assures chaos forever:

Law enforcement, for their part, doesn’t seem interested in the help that the militia purports to provide.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection told the Express News it does not “endorse or support any private group or organization from taking matters into their own hands as it could have disastrous personal and public safety consequences.”

“We don’t need their services on our border,” a Texas county sheriff told the Monitor.

We do have laws that recognize that the state rightly has a monopoly on the use of deadly force, so these guys should go home, or they’ll go to jail. In the safe and civilized world, people have ceded their absolute right to self-defense for the greater good – the absence of perpetual anarchy. One trades unconditional freedom for relative security. We eventually send our sovereign citizens to jail.

It doesn’t seem to work that way with countries. The League of Nations failed. The UN is useless. International law is a bit of a joke. And the Israelis and the Palestinians will be at war forever, because there’s no controlling agreement about managing the competing demands for both freedom and security, save for a peace treaty every decade or so, that both sides ignore after a week or two. They stand alone, and their sovereignty means unconditional freedom, and that means unending war. There, self-defense can excuse anything, and eventually does. Here we’ve spent over two centuries believing that’s just not so, although lately we’ve been changing our mind about that too. We’re still working things out, after all.

Posted in Israel and the Palestinians, Israel's Survival, Self-Defense | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Breaking the Authoritarian Mold

There may be a thousand reasons that CNN, the Most Trusted Name in News, has become the cable news channel of last resort. Viewers turn to CNN when there’s some sort of massive natural disaster or a new war, or when an airliner mysteriously disappears, because CNN is there first and they’re thorough and they stick with the story long after Fox News and MSNBC have moved on to politics, or moved back to politics, with their stories of who is shouting nasty things at whom, at the moment. CNN, however, is the bulldog that won’t let go of that bone, or your leg. That’s hard news. The rest is angry people insulting each other, to no good end, because those arguments never end. Someone passing some important legislation would be hard news, as would be some important legislation going down in flames, but that sort of thing doesn’t happen much these days. The last bit of landmark legislation came up for a vote in 2010, the Affordable Care Act, and it somehow passed – and then in the 2010 midterms the Tea Party cohort of the Republican Party swept to power in the House, and Ted Cruz made it to the Senate, and they put an end to the doing-things nonsense.

That’s a problem for CNN. There hasn’t been any significant legislation introduced since then. There’s no point. In 2013, the Senate passed a bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill, and that would have sailed through the House and been off to Obama’s desk for his signature, if it had come up for a vote on the floor of the House. It didn’t. The Speaker of the House, John Boehner, gets to decide what will be allowed to reach the floor, for a vote, and he didn’t want the outraged Tea Part crowd to lynch him, so he said the House would come up with its own immigration legislation, something far better than the Senate crap.

Everyone knew that was bullshit. John Boehner did nothing, so CNN had no hard news to report. How many ways can you say that today, in Washington, nothing happened, as with every single day since the 2010 midterms? How do you also breathlessly report that nothing is likely to happen anytime soon, or ever? Sure there will be endless House votes to repeal Obamacare, and Boehner has just decided to sue Obama of its implementation, but nothing will come of that, nor will Obama be impeached. There are no impeachable offenses, so that means you can report on the unprecedented gridlock, and discuss its causes, but that’s like reporting that the sky is blue, and why it is. Viewers tune out. CNN needs actual hard news – they’re quite good at covering that – but they’re in a pickle now. The network was designed for the unusual – real news. That’s not the age in which we live.

CNN also failed to recognize that there’s a culture war raging and viewers choose sides. The CNN crew is full of quite pleasant but anodyne people. Anderson Cooper and Don Lemon are gay, but they don’t push it. Fox News’ Shepard Smith, however, seems to have decided to come out of the closet – and Roger Ailes told him that he’d do no such thing.

No one is quite sure that actually happened – it’s only quite believable. That’s because Fox News is the network of young and leggy blond bombshells – but ladylike and submissive – surrounded by angry old white men who dismiss their silliness, or shout them down if they have to, or tell them how pretty they look today. The Fox News women smile shyly at that. They know their place. The drop-dead gorgeous Megan Kelly is, however, still working on that concept. She was a pretty good lawyer who turned into a pretty good journalist and can forget her role in the grand scheme of things. There was that time she told Karl Rove he was full of shit – and proved it – but otherwise she seems to know her place.

Viewers get that. Fox News is where you go to be comforted by entering a world of fifties patriarchy, of male dominance and female submissiveness. It’s like watching the early episodes of Mad Men, or a dark and threatening episode of Father Knows Best, one that they never dared air – where Jim Anderson ridicules and humiliates his daughter, Betty “Princess” Anderson, for a full half-hour, because father knows best. It’s a fifties thing.

MSNBC is a sixties thing of course – assertive earthy ethnic women like Joy-Ann Reid and Melissa Harris Perry surrounded by hyper-intelligent young geeky males of indeterminate sexuality, like Chris Hayes with his boyish enthusiasm and piping little voice. He knows his stuff, but this is a sixties commune, and one of their new hosts is Ronan Farrow – the son of Mia Farrow and Woody Allen. He does have an impressive public service background, in government, and he’s a lawyer too, but it’s hard to remember that, and he still looks like a little kid. The only old hand over there is Chris Matthews, who seems to act as a goofy summer-camp counselor to them all. He gets an idea in his head and just keeps talking about it, listening to no one, thinking his one new odd idea is amazingly insightful. It never is.

That’s not the point of course. You go to MSNBC for your sixties fix, or to check out their resident babe Alex Wagner – but her mother’s Burmese and her father’s from Iowa. That means she doesn’t fit the Fox News mold – she’s too dark and exotic-looking even if she is graceful and open and quite stunning – and she’s now engaged to Barack Obama’s personal chef. That’s quite a crew over there, and quite a different world.

CNN cannot compete with this. They have no “world” to offer their viewers. All they have is the news, when there is any. They’re doomed, but molds were made to be broken, and that just happened again at Fox News:

Megyn Kelly’s interview Thursday with conservative commentator Ben Shapiro veered into wildly accusatory territory, and the Fox News anchor said she had no interest in perpetuating the extreme sentiment.

The most notable moment of the interview came when Shapiro, a columnist for Breitbart and TruthRevolt, offered an incendiary explanation for the Obama administration’s response to the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers.

Their deaths, as well as the murder of a young Palestinian boy, have sparked renewed violence between Israel and Hamas, and Kelly wanted to know if there was “anything we could have done to try to stop this from escalating.”

She shouldn’t have asked that:

Shapiro denounced the administration for not threatening to withdraw aid from Palestine after the kidnapping and condemned President Obama for saying “Israel should act with restraint with regards to the people who had kidnapped and killed these boys.”

(Obama actually said that “all parties must protect the innocent and act with reasonableness and restraint, not vengeance and retribution.”)

“This is an anti-Israel administration. It’s the first administration in American history that is obviously anti-Israel,” Shapiro said. “It is borderline a Jew-hating administration.”

Kelly then forgot that on her news network everything that Obama does in wrong, so we got this:

“Wow,” Kelly said. “That’s strong.”

Kelly pushed back further, pointing out that Israel’s Iron Dome, the country’s air defense system, has been “largely funded in part by the United States, hundreds of millions of dollars, under President Barack Obama.”

“Well, the President of the United States still is going to sign over money to Israel because it’s politically unpalatable not to do so,” Shapiro responded. “But that doesn’t mean that the President of the United States can’t undermine Israel’s ability to take out the people that are going after it.”

Shapiro said that Obama hates Jews. Shapiro had already said that in a column the previous week – The Jew-Hating Obama Administration – without that “borderline” word. That might be why Fox News booked him in the first place, but Kelly then took to social media to say she was sorry she didn’t slap down Shapiro more forcefully. She was upset, but of course the idea is out there now, which was the idea in the first place. Kelly was just a tool in getting that idea into circulation. She seemed a bit confused about that. She forgot her place.

That’s understandable, because the current exploding near-war between Israel and the Palestinians is, like all wars of vengeance, all about dominance and submission. Fifties folks get that. Sixties folks don’t. Fifties folks want Israel to sneer at and then dismiss and then humiliate the Palestinians – Netanyahu knows best – and sixties folks think that the Palestinians may have a point. Each world will see this differently, just as the same two sides saw the Vietnam War long ago. There it was Nixon knows best – shut up, sit down, and ship out – in the days when Roger Ailes was a media advisor to Richard Nixon, long before Ailes ran Fox News. He was on the side of patriarchal authority even then. What do you say to someone who says the other side might have a point, and we could be wrong, and wants to discuss that? America, Love It or Leave It! Megan Kelly didn’t get the memo.

But something strange is going on here. J. J. Goldberg has discovered that the official story of what happened after those three Israeli yeshiva students were kidnapped was not what it seemed:

Once the boys’ disappearance was known, troops began a massive, 18-day search-and-rescue operation, entering thousands of homes, arresting and interrogating hundreds of individuals, racing against the clock. Only on July 1, after the boys’ bodies were found, did the truth come out: The government had known almost from the beginning that the boys were dead. It maintained the fiction that it hoped to find them alive as a pretext to dismantle Hamas’ West Bank operations.

It was a convenient outrage-generating fiction that justified all sorts of nastiness, but there’s more:

It was clear from the beginning that the kidnappers weren’t acting on orders from Hamas leadership in Gaza or Damascus. Hamas’ Hebron branch – more a crime family than a clandestine organization – had a history of acting without the leaders’ knowledge, sometimes against their interests. Yet Netanyahu repeatedly insisted Hamas was responsible for the crime and would pay for it.

Should that bother anyone? No – or sit down and shut up – but that sets off Andrew Sullivan:

So Netanyahu knew that the kidnapping wasn’t by Hamas proper, insisted that it was anyway, withheld the truth about the boys’ deaths in order to sustain a massive process of collective punishment of Palestinians in the West Bank, and then unleashed yet another brutal, lop-sided pulverization of Gaza. This is not a rational regime; and it is not a civilized government. J .J. Goldberg notes the Israeli military’s profound ambivalence about where Netanyahu is taking the country, along with the religious fanatics and racist haters who propel him forward.

One thinks of Shapiro on Fox News, and Sullivan adds this:

And yes, yes, and yes again to the notion that Hamas should not be firing rockets into Israel at all, let alone at civilians directly, even though they have incurred no casualties and have bounced off the Iron Dome when they encroached too far into Israel proper. But in this instance, there is no equivalence. One side deliberately and deceptively instigated absolutely unjustified collective punishment of an entire population, and pre-meditated, whipped up nationalistic and racist elements to back them up. They then went on to bombard Gaza – and many civilians – into another submission – after a period of relative calm and peace. The result is another disproportionate slaughter: around 100 Palestinians dead so far, and no Israelis. If you see nothing wrong with this, your moral compass is out of whack.

That is also what the antiwar left was saying over here in the mid to late sixties, for all the good it dd. Sullivan also notes tha Obama and other world leaders have offered to broker a ceasefire, but Netanyahu has made it clear he’s not interested – not one bit. Netanyahu knows best and Obama hates Jews.

Sullivan also notes that an unnamed Israeli official tells Raphael Ahrens that the whole point of the bombardment this time is to permanently dismantle Hamas’s ability to strike Israel, which is was like every time before:

“It is quite possible that Hamas would agree to an immediate ceasefire – we’re hitting them hard, they want the situation to cool down,” the senior official told The Times of Israel, speaking on condition of anonymity. Brokering a ceasefire with Hamas would have been possible a week or a two ago, but an agreement that would leave in place the group’s offensive capacities not what Israel wants, the official said.

“Today, we’re not interested in a Band-Aid. We don’t want to give Hamas just a timeout to rest, regroup and recharge batteries, and then next week or in two weeks they start again to shoot rockets at Israel. Such a quick-fix solution is not something we’re interested in.” While refusing to discuss concrete steps the Israel Defense Forces plan to take in the coming hours and days, the official said that the government is discussing a ground invasion of Gaza “very seriously.”

Can we do one damned thing about this? Robert Naiman thinks that perhaps we can:

The United States government has many levers on Netanyahu. Of course the U.S. gives Netanyahu billions of U.S. taxpayers’ dollars a year, but while it would be politically difficult (to put it mildly) to cut off U.S. military aid – the Obama Administration could not bring itself to cut off military aid to the Egyptian military coup, even when clearly required to do so by U.S. law – the Administration has many other, more subtle levers on Netanyahu that it could deploy without giving AIPAC, the ADL [Anti-Defamation League] and their allies a convenient target for counterattack.

The Administration could raise the volume of its public criticism of Netanyahu. The Administration could let it be known that it might refrain from vetoing a U.N. resolution that condemned Netanyahu. The Administration could “leak” that it is deepening efforts to engage Hamas politically, and then issue a non-denial denial when these efforts are criticized. The Administration knows full well that it has all these levers and more. All it lacks is sufficient public political pressure to use them to force an end to the killing.

Sullivan thinks that’s nonsense:

Most of the political pressure will come from those defending this latest slaughter built on a knowingly false pretext. Know despair.

We do tend to get things wrong, but it’s not just Israel. It’s the other wars in the Middle East that we have also generated, and Andrew Bacevich offers this:

No single explanation exists for why the War for the Greater Middle East began and why it persists. But religion figures as a central element. Secularized American elites either cannot grasp or are unwilling to accept this. So they contrive alternative explanations such as “terrorism,” a justification that impedes understanding. Our leaders can proclaim their high regard for Islam until they are blue in the face. They can insist over and over that we are not at war with Islam. Their claims will fall on deaf ears through much of the Greater Middle East.

Whatever Washington’s intentions, we are engaged in a religious war. That is, the ongoing war has an ineradicable religious dimension. That’s the way a few hundred million Muslims see it and their seeing it in those terms makes it so. The beginning of wisdom is found not in denying that the war is about religion but in acknowledging that war cannot provide an antidote to the fix we have foolishly gotten ourselves into.

Does the Islamic world pose something of a problem for the United States? You bet, in all sorts of ways. But after more than three decades of trying, it’s pretty clear that the application of military power is unlikely to provide a solution. The solution, if there is one, will be found by looking beyond the military realm – which just might be the biggest lesson our experience with the War for the Greater Middle East ought to teach.

We didn’t learn that with Vietnam. Why would we learn that now? But much of this depends on where you get your news, from the Fox News fifties or the MSNBC sixties, or from boring CNN that dutifully reports events, over and over, and shrugs? And can we do something to liberate Megan Kelly? She deserves better.

Posted in Fox News, Israel and the Palestinians | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Joy of Having Nothing Left to Lose

That Kris Kristofferson song that Janis Joplin made famous – Me and Bobby McGee – is remembered for one iconic and ironic line – “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” Janis Joplin sang that, and then she died, and that song became the anthem of those who find life absurd without being comic at all, or even very interesting. That captured the smug nihilism of a generation, the generation after the Age of Aquarius sixties idealists. You say you want a revolution? Dream on. In the end, nothing means anything, not even freedom. Deal with it. Move on.

That was a seventies thing, and what followed was punk rock and the wall-of-noise stuff, and then grunge rock and so on. All that was awful stuff, intentionally so, but at least it wasn’t the chirpy over-processed thumping disco crap. The seventies was a rough decade for pop music, starting out with Janis Joplin demonstrating that her freedom from all convention netted her nothing at all. They found her dead from an overdose at her nothing-much place at the Landmark Apartments just down the street here. So much for freedom… and two decades later Kurt Cobain – of the grunge-rock powerhouse band Nirvana – carried on the screw-it-all Joplin tradition. He shot himself in the head. Freedom sucks.

There was something self-indulgent in all of this, because having nothing left to lose can be joyously liberating. When there’s nothing left to lose you actually don’t have to take crap from anyone. You can say what you want, and what you really think. That’s cool, and President Obama just got to that place:

Go ahead, President Barack Obama told House Republicans Thursday. Impeach him.

“You hear some of them: ‘Sue him! Impeach him!’” Obama said in a relaxed, sniping campaign-style speech in Austin, Texas, recounting the resistance he’s run into for signing executive actions. “Really? For what, doing my job?”

He said he was feeling liberated:

“I don’t have to run for office anymore, so I can just let it rip,” he said. And rip he did, after days of Republicans beating him up for not doing anything on the border but refusing to pass the money to pay for what he wants to do on the border.

There was no longer any point in being nice about this:

For months, Democratic polling has shown that when Obama says “Congress,” people hear “Republicans.” Thursday, he made that explicit, saying that while Democrats in Congress aren’t perfect, he believed Americans knew it was Republicans who weren’t on their side.

“The best thing you can say about” the House GOP, Obama said, is that, so far this year, “they haven’t shut down the government. … But it’s only July.”

And then he launched into an extended mocking of them for the lawsuit House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is threatening to bring against him for using executive action. He also offered stats that show George W. Bush signed many more executive orders and pulled in a quote from Mark Wahlberg’s character in Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed.”

“I’m the guy doing my job,” Obama said, getting the line almost right. “You must be the other guy.”

“Think about that,” he told the crowd. “You’re going to use taxpayer money to sue me for doing my job while you don’t do your job.”

Obama here has nothing left to lose, and he knows John Boehner has everything to lose – his speakership and maybe his seat – unless he mollifies his perpetually outraged Tea Party base. Boehner is not free, and all he could manage was this:

House Speaker John Boehner had some harsh words for President Obama on the border crisis, raising his voice and slamming the podium during a press conference Thursday. When asked if Congress needed to approve a $3.7 billion request from the president to help ease a recent surge of unaccompanied minors, Boehner repeatedly said that the House would not grant Obama a “blank check.” The speaker added that the children should be taken care of and then sent back.

Pressed on the issue, Boehner appeared to get heated. “This is problem of the president’s own making. He’s been president for five years! When is he going to take responsibility for something?” he shouted.

Although the speaker praised the National Guard, calling it “uniquely suited” to deal with the crisis, he lambasted the president for asking for more funding this week than he had requested earlier in the crisis.

Boehner seems to be saying that Obama should have asked for this kind of money long ago, not that they would have appropriated a dime of it, and now that the Obama administration needs this money badly, as Boehner concedes, he’s inclined, as House Speaker, to instruct the House to not give Obama a dime of it – to show him a thing or two.

Does that make sense? Maybe not, but Boehner is not a free man. He’s slamming that podium to get his base off his back. They want those kids gone – they’re here illegally. Send them back to where they’ll die, or cutting off all services, let then curl up die here, or something. Boehner isn’t a moral monster, so these angry words about funding are what he came up with, even if they won’t do. The problem is larger than how to rid America of these little kids, alone and frightened. The base – led by Sarah Palin – wants impeachment. Boehner knows that impeaching Obama would be a disaster for Republicans, so he hopes suing Obama will keep his base from ripping out his throat.

David Atkins explains the dilemma here:

Boehner quite likely knows that regardless of what happens in the Senate in 2014, attempting to impeach the President would be a terrible stain on the GOP, make a mockery of his speakership, and practically hand the White House to Democrats in 2016. The notion is all the more politically ludicrous because there isn’t even a shred of a high crime or misdemeanor for which the President could remotely be held accountable (outside potentially 4th Amendment issues like the NSA or [the assassination of the American citizen] Al-Awlaki, and the GOP won’t go there with a thousand-foot pole.)

But unlike when Nancy Pelosi firmly said that impeachment of George W. Bush was off the table, it’s not entirely clear that John Boehner has control of his caucus. If Republicans do take a majority in the Senate, the temptation among the rowdier ultra-conservatives in the House to bring impeachment proceedings could be too overwhelming for them to pass up. Would Boehner choose to side with Obama and the President against his Tea Party insurgents in that case? Would he have the political strength or capital to do so?

No, he has too much to lose, so it will be the lawsuit, and finally America just got to see just what it says:

Resolved, That the Speaker may initiate or intervene in one or more civil actions on behalf of the House of Representatives… to seek appropriate ancillary relief… with respect to implementation of (including a failure to implement) any provision of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

That’s it? Sarah Palin wants to impeach Obama because he lets too many brown folks get into America, and stay – it’s all about illegal immigration – and there’s this one provision of Obamacare that Boehner plans to target, and this is it:

“In 2013, the president changed the healthcare law without a vote of Congress, effectively creating his own law by literally waiving the employer mandate and the penalties for failing to comply with it,” Boehner said in a statement. “That’s not the way our system of government was designed to work. No president should have the power to make laws on his or her own.”

Kevin Drum is not impressed:

Well, Obama didn’t “literally waive” the employer mandate, he just delayed it for two years. But close enough!

Now, there are two sides to this. On the positive side for Boehner, it’s fairly defensible as these things go. It’s not a slam dunk, but you can make a decent case that Obama really did overstep the plain text of the law. However, the downside is that Obama probably doesn’t care much about this. It’s a fairly minor provision of the law, and if he loses the case it doesn’t do any serious damage to Obamacare. In fact, the only damage it does is to the small employers who asked for the delay. So really, Boehner is only setting himself up to oppose the interests of small businesses.

Obama has nothing left to lose, but Boehner has lots to lose, and the whole thing could end up moot:

Boehner is suing over a provision of the law that’s been delayed until 2016. But a lawsuit like this takes a while. It’ll take a while to file the documents, and then a while longer to get on the calendar of a district court – then another while for a hearing and a ruling, and then yet another while for an appeal. Then yet another while if the White House asks for an en banc review – and then finally yet another while as it goes up to the Supreme Court. How long altogether? I’d guess a minimum of a year and a half, and probably more like two years. So the best case for conservatives is that the Supreme Court takes it up in late 2015. By the time they’re ready to rule, it’s moot because the mandate has taken effect and Obama is out of office.

Ah, but that’s the plan:

Boehner is smart enough to know all this perfectly well. In other words, he knows that this is purely a symbolic gesture. Not only does Obama not really care much about it, but it’s vanishingly unlikely that the Supreme Court will ever hear the case. That makes it an almost perfect piece of theater. Neither side cares much, nor will it ever be decided. Boehner gets to say he’s doing something, Obama gets some mileage out of mocking him, and that’s it. The real-world impact is literally zero.

And that might be just what Boehner wants.

That could be, but Palin will be sniping at him, and she’s in a bit of a nothing-left-to-lose Janis Joplin position, as Heather Parton explains:

We see the two strains of populism springing up in both political parties with more and more energy. On the left the Elizabeth Warren wing is gaining steam. Her rousing cri de guerre from the last campaign – “you didn’t build that” – speaks directly to these middle-class anxieties in the language of common good that left-wing populists like to hear. Indeed, she’s been speaking and writing books about it for more than a decade.

But who’s really speaking for the right on these issues? George Wallace is long gone and Pat Buchanan has been exiled from polite company. Under the yoke of their One Percent benefactors and the demographic time bomb of a non-white majority, you have Paul Ryan and other Washington GOP players trying to walk the fine line between Wall Street’s needs and the base’s antipathy toward immigrants. Ted Cruz? Not really. He’s an Ivy League lawyer with a gift for demagoguery but he doesn’t really have that common touch you need to be a true populist.

But someone has nothing to lose here:

There actually is one right-wing populist speaker out there who has no trouble getting right to the heart of the matter: Sarah Palin. Sure, she’s something of a joke to the mainstream and nobody thinks she’ll ever run for anything again. But her celebrity remains formidable as she uses the modern communications technologies to stay in touch with her followers. And she speaks their language perfectly. …

She hits all the right-wing populist hot spots: government debt, crumbling cities (where the “wrong people” live), a healthcare system that’s “overrun” (by people who don’t deserve to use it) an entire public sector that’s being starved because of our “overly-generous” welfare programs. The “leader” (in scare quotes) is creating unsafe conditions on behalf of the bipartisan elites who can buy their own border security and don’t care about the “Average Americans” like Sarah Palin who are broke and feel like “strangers in their own land” (the one stolen from others and settled by immigrants).

She’s liberated, she can say anything. She’s not in the game now, and beholden to no one, but then there’s Glenn Beck, who was never “in the game” at all, and feeling free, he goes the other way:

“I’ve never taken a position more deadly to my career than this – and I have never, ever taken a position that is more right than this,” an emotional Beck said Tuesday on his show on TheBlaze TV.

“Everybody is telling me I’m seeing subscriptions down; I’m seeing Mercury One donations down,” he added. “I’m getting violent emails from people who say, you know, I’ve ‘betrayed the Republic.’ Whatever.”

Beck said he planned on going down to McAllen, Texas on July 19 with a tractor-trailer loaded with teddy bears, soccer balls, and hot meals for some 3,000 undocumented immigrants he repeatedly referred to as “illegals.” He said he’d be joined by Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) and Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX), who has argued that President Barack Obama allowed migrants to flood the border in order to increase the share of Democratic voters in future elections.

The conservative commentator also asked viewers to consider donating to Mercury One, his charity, arguing that sending aid to the migrants wasn’t a political move.

“Through no fault of their own, they are caught in political crossfire,” Beck said of immigrant families. “And while we continue to put pressure on Washington and change its course of lawlessness, we must also help. It is not either/or. It is both. We have to be active in the political game, and we must open our hearts.”

Heather Parton adds this:

It’s interesting that despite his clear objection to the policy of allowing these child refugees from Central America seek asylum in the US – he calls them “illegals” – he’s being lambasted for treating them with human kindness of any kind. Even bringing children supplies of food is engendering violent emails. I don’t think you need to know much more than that to understand what’s really driving this insane hysteria from the right.

Yeah, but then you’re not a politician, deciding policy; you’re free to do and say what you want. Obama allowed migrants to flood the border in order to increase the share of Democratic voters in future elections? Yeah, well – whatever. Rock stars do drugs. Beck will do this. He’s rich enough now to take the financial hit. And he’s not running for anything. And he gets to feel good about himself, and tweak his fellow conservative gabbers. It’s fun. Freedom doesn’t suck.

That means that Obama should be feeling pretty good right now, because as Andrew Sullivan notes, Obama has nothing left to lose:

The news narrative of the summer is the floundering of the president in any number of ginned-up stories: he “lost” the Middle East (as if that’s a bad thing); he’s created a crisis in illegal immigration (even though the bulk of the blame goes to a Bush-era law); he’s responsible for total gridlock (as if Ted Cruz did not exist); he’s been snookered by Putin; he’s been humiliated by Netanyahu; he’s the “worst president since World War II”, and on and on.

Everyone has decided. It’s failure everywhere, but Sullivan isn’t so sure:

Let’s revisit last fall when Obama was in his first second term swoon. At that point, with the implosion of, the very survival of the ACA, his signature domestic achievement, was in serious doubt. In the wake of Obama’s sudden bait-and-switch in Syria, when he threatened a strike and then accepted a Putin-brokered deal with Assad on WMDs, his foreign policy skills were about to get systematically downgraded by the American public. The economy was still sluggish, with no guarantee of a robust revival. …

In April of last year, his approval ratings were exactly the inverse of what they are today. And with every passing day in his second term, his ability to leverage his power attenuates. But let’s return to last year’s crises. Less than a year after the ACA was regarded as near-dead, the implementation has exceeded most expectations.

And now there’s a new Commonwealth Fund report that documents that:

The uninsured rate for people ages 19 to 64 declined from 20 percent in the July-to-September 2013 period to 15 percent in the April-to-June 2014 period. An estimated 9.5 million fewer adults were uninsured. Young men and women drove a large part of the decline: the uninsured rate for 19-to-34-year-olds declined from 28 percent to 18 percent, with an estimated 5.7 million fewer young adults uninsured. By June, 60 percent of adults with new coverage through the marketplaces or Medicaid reported they had visited a doctor or hospital or filled a prescription; of these, 62 percent said they could not have accessed or afforded this care previously.

The damned thing worked, and Sullivan also notes that the rate of increase in per capita healthcare costs has moderated substantially – the rate keeps dropping, so Sullivan add this:

Perspective is everything, of course, and politically, the ACA is still (on balance) a loser, especially among the older, whiter Medicare recipients who are over-represented in mid-term elections. But still: isn’t this by the measure of last fall a pretty stunning comeback? And the purist “repeal!” chorus has dimmed to a faint version of replace or fix.

Yep, Obama is a loser, because of Obamacare, but losing is okay, when you’re winning, and Sullivan adds more:

So turn your gaze to Syria, where the entire foreign policy establishment moaned in concert at Obama’s fecklessness last September. We were all told that it was unbelievably naive to think that Assad would ever fully cooperate and relinquish his stockpile of WMDs as a reward for not getting bombed. It was a pipe-dream to think Putin was serious about being constructive as well. Well: a couple weeks back, the last shipment of WMDs was removed from the country, with very limited use in the intervening period, and is now undergoing destruction. I don’t know of any similar achievement in non-proliferation since Libya’s renunciation of WMDs under Bush. No, we didn’t resolve the sectarian civil war in Syria/Iraq, but we did remove by far the biggest threat to the West and to the world in the middle of it. Why is that not regarded as an epic triumph of American diplomacy, backed by the threat of force?

Now look at the economy where Obama has been stymied by the GOP for a very long time – both federally and in the states where local government austerity put an unprecedented drag on the recovery. Well: again, we have an unemployment rate back to where it was before the Great Recession hit. If the momentum continues, we could have an unemployment rate below 6 percent before too long. It’s taken forever – but the hit was deep and the debt-overhang large.

That’s not so good, but our loser-president is doing pretty well, on all counts:

No, there hasn’t been any progress in reducing our long-term debt or our unfunded liabilities in entitlements. But when the GOP refuses to countenance any new revenues, I can’t blame the president. And to have reduced a budget deficit from 10 percent of GDP to just over 2 percent in the wake of a massive recession is something a Republican president would be bragging incessantly about.

Still, there’s a lot that is unresolved:

The critical negotiations with Iran remain as tricky as ever – but that we have a chance of controlling Iran’s nuclear program without war is already a remarkable fact. Again: a function of skilled, relentless diplomacy backed by serious sanctions. The menace of Putin has not gone away – even though a very good case can be made that in that head-to-head, Putin is now licking his wounds a little, after Ukraine has signed that trade deal with the EU, and Ukraine’s military is regrouping. Immigration reform is in limbo. But I’d argue that on the wider political plain, Obama has been winning the strategic war with the GOP.

Look at it from the other side:

The last twelve months have been an unmitigated disaster for Republican outreach to Hispanics; the Republicans have hurt themselves with many more women on the question of contraception, than they have helped themselves with orthodox Christians; the Palin impeachment chorus is poison to the middle of the country; and the Democrats have a clear and female front-runner against a divided and small-bore GOP bench in 2016.

They won big on the Hobby Lobby thing and are having a fine time hammering Obama on immigration and everything else, and Obama’s poll numbers are awful, but this seems to be because Obama seems to like the freedom that comes with having nothing left to lose. That frees you to play what Obama calls the long game, and Sullivan thinks he’s winning that one:

I’m applying the criteria that Obama has applied to himself. Is his long game bearing fruit? So far, it seems to me, the question answers itself.

So, if freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose, then freedom, from the expectations of those who keep telling you that you owe them something, is a good thing, because it’s always you who actually wins, in the end. It’s too late to tell Janis Joplin that, but Obama might have listened to that Kris Kristofferson tune more than a few times, and wondered why it was so depressing. Having nothing left to lose is just where you want to be. As Obama said in Austin, that’s when you can let it rip, and then good things happen.

Posted in Obama's Lang Game | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Longing for Lubbock in the Fifties

The rest of America has long had a problem with Texas – they talk funny down there, and they dress funny, and they keep saying everything is bigger and better in Texas. They’re America’s egotistical rich buffoons, who were skewered in that old prime-time soap opera Dallas – too much money, not enough sense, and no shame. Texas’ current governor, Rick “Oops” Perry, carries on that proud J. R. Ewing tradition of clueless but ruthless nastiness. In return, however, Texas doesn’t think much of the rest of insipid and useless America – they keep talking about how they might secede. They’re only part of the United States because it seemed like a good idea at the time, but they might change their mind about that – so don’t mess with Texas, as they say. They really could leave, and then where would America be? We’d be fine, actually, but there’s no point in arguing about it. The Dallas Cowboys never were America’s Team.

This has played out for years. Jack and Bobby Kennedy, and the whole northeastern apparatus that supported the older brother for president, never had much use for the big Texan, Lyndon Johnson – in 1960 he was useful to balance the ticket, but he was still an embarrassment. Johnson just wasn’t Ivy League cool. When Kennedy was assassinated – in Dallas of all places – they all walked away from Johnson, one by one. Johnson was fine with that – no love lost – and our next Texas president was George W. Bush, the pretend-cowboy. He was pretending. He came from a long line of distinguished New England senators and judges, and his prudent and patrician father had been president, and he himself had graduated from Yale and Harvard Business School. The younger Bush, however, made it clear he had goofed off at Yale and Harvard and thought all that was stupid. He fancied himself a Texas cowboy. He even bought a ranch for himself just before he ran for president. He’d be America’s laconic cowboy, and clueless but ruthless nastiness suited him well. It was as if we had elected J. R. Ewing – but George Bush didn’t get the joke.

That didn’t work out well. For all of Bush’s talk about going out and getting Osama bin Laden “dead or alive” – just like in the Old West as he said – he didn’t do that. The urbane metrosexual hip president from Chicago did that. The cowboy only got us into two impossible long wars in the Middle East, which seem to have made things much worse there, and gave us the collapse of the economy in 2008, and it has been almost impossible to recover from that. Oops. Texans would say that George Bush was “all hat and no cattle” – but everyone else in America would just wonder, once again, if there wasn’t something fundamentally wrong with Texas itself. Who are these people?

One answer to that is that Texas may be real America taken to its absurd extreme. This is what you get when you actually believe the bullshit you tell yourself, about yourself. One way to think of it is to consider Texas Exceptionalism – we could secede if we want, because we’re special – as just a local form of American Exceptionalism – international norms and international law don’t apply to us, because we’re special. It’s the same thing, and that would mean that when we look at Texas, we’re looking at America, distilled. We’re looking at the pure essence of us.

That’s why everyone, way back when, liked Buddy Holly – straight out of West Texas. Everyone likes West Texas music. Buddy Holly was singing for America – simple and plain stuff. It was intoxicating, and that sort of thing still is. Check out the 2003 movie Lubbock Lights – a rock documentary about what is now called the Lubbock Mafia – Butch Hancock, Joe Ely and Jimmie Dale Gilmore. Now that Buddy Holly is long gone they’ll do just fine.

Those guys carry on the tradition – the plain and simple basics – and Butch Hancock is their philosopher-king. He’s not only a singer-songwriter, he’s also the one who explains life in that distilled hyper-American world, with observations like this – “Life in Lubbock, Texas, taught me two things: One is that God loves you and you’re going to burn in hell. The other is that sex is the most awful, filthy thing on earth and you should save it for someone you love.”

Yes, that’s absurd, but that’s what people are saying all across America. That may be what the Supreme Court just said in the Hobby Lobby decision, or at least the Washington Post’s Paul Waldman thinks that might be so:

Politicians are reacting fast. Hillary Clinton condemned the decision, and most of those thinking about running for president on the Republican side have issued statements of support, with one exception: Chris Christie, famous for being a no-nonsense straight-talker, bobbed and weaved when he was asked about it this morning. “Why should I give an opinion on whether they’re right or wrong?” he asked.

You might respond, because you’re an elected official who might run for higher office, and this is an important issue, that’s why. But Christie’s reluctance is understandable. If you look at polling on the case, a majority of the public has consistently said that private companies ought to be required to provide contraception coverage for their employees – not an overwhelming majority (usually in the 55 percent range), but a majority nonetheless.

That is odd. A majority does like this decision, but Waldman implies that a good number of folks seem to be living in Lubbock in the fifties:

I’ll bet that the populations that support this decision are the ones firmly in the Republican camp already, particularly older white evangelicals. And if people understand the Republican position as being not so much pro-religious freedom but anti-contraception, GOP efforts to reach out beyond their base could be hampered by all the attention this case is getting.

For most people, it’s remarkable that in 2014 we’re still arguing about whether a woman who uses birth control is a slut worthy of scorn. But we are. GOP pundit Erick Erickson tweeted, “My religion trumps your ‘right’ to employer-subsidized consequence-free sex.” Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) seemed to agree with a radio host who said contraception is “largely for recreational behavior.”

They are stuck in Lubbock in the past, even if others are not, and this will only end in tears:

If Republicans are trying not to seem out of touch but are unaware that tens of millions of women in “traditional” marriages use contraception every day and express the belief that if you’re single and you use contraception there’s something wrong with you (and you should be made to suffer “consequences” for your sin), then that whole “reaching out” thing is going to be even harder than it seems.

The issue is playing out in at least one Senate race, in Colorado, where incumbent Democrat Mark Udall has been hammering his opponent, Cory Gardner, for months over Gardner’s past support of a “personhood” amendment that would outlaw some forms of contraception. When the Hobby Lobby decision was handed down, Udall’s campaign quickly shot out a press release titled, “SCOTUS Follows Gardner’s Lead, Lets Bosses Dictate Birth Control.” Gardner followed with his own statement in which he praised the decision but reiterated his support for making oral contraceptives available over the counter.

Needless to say, that isn’t an idea too many Republicans are going to embrace (though we should give Gardner credit for it). And as long as the loudest GOP voices are from the sex-is-dirty corner, Democrats will be only too happy to talk about the Republican position on contraception.

The sex-is-dirty Lubbock corner of the Republican Party does have the floor now, however – and they’re not shy about it – and Sian Norris has a few things to say about that:

Greeted with the news that a vaccine would be made available to school girls, protecting them from the sexually transmitted infection HPV that can increase the risk of getting cervical cancer, many expressed worries that the vaccine would encourage promiscuity in teens. They argued that armed with the knowledge that the vaccine protects them from HPV, girls would latch on to the nearest pimply-faced school boy and start having lots of consequence-free sex. As a result, some schools denied girls access to the vaccine – without first informing parents of their decision. These schools decided it was better to ‘protect’ girls from potential promiscuity, than to protect them from cancer.

Similar arguments have been heard about whether girls should be able to take the Pill without parental consent, or how easily women and girls should be able to access the ‘morning after’ pill. When I was at school, my sex education teacher told us that selling the morning after pill over the counter made it “too easy”.

Too easy? What’s wrong with making it easier for women to make informed, consensual choices about sex and their health? The idea that women should be able to make these decisions can only be seen as a problem if you believe women taking responsibility for their sexuality and sexual health is in itself a problem. And that’s what these arguments come down to.

She is even less happy now:

We only have to look at the language commonly used to describe women engaging in consensual sex to understand just what a problem society has with women’s sexuality. Women are ‘promiscuous’ in a way men never are. There’s no male version of ‘slut’ or ‘whore’. It is only women’s sexual choices that are judged. And it is only women’s choices around sexual health care that are continually under attack. The Hobby Lobby ruling has made a legal statement that women’s access to healthcare can be restricted in order to respect another, unrelated, individual’s religious beliefs.

No good can come of this, and Ann Freidman offers this:

There are two competing narratives about the Hobby Lobby case and how big of a deal it is. To hear the all-male Supreme Court majority and many legal analysts tell it, this is a decision of limited scope. It will result in a minor inconvenience for a small number of women who work for certain employers or have certain insurance plans or wish to use certain forms of contraception. It may not even be about women at all – some observers say it is legal maneuvering designed to affect the status of corporations and the fight over Obamacare, not sexual politics.

Then there’s my own interpretation, which is not that of a legal scholar but is shared by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who knows a few things about the law. It is most accurately expressed as an outraged scream, sort of a combination groan-wail, issued while beating my fists against the desk on either side of my laptop. A more articulate version goes like this: Hobby Lobby is actually a decision of “shocking breadth,” a blow to reproductive rights, and a revelation of the total disregard that a majority of American lawmakers and legal power-brokers have for the lives of women.

She is a bit outraged:

Justice Samuel Alito’s majority opinion, when it acknowledges that women exist, seems to ask, “Ladies, what are you getting so upset about?” Hey, he says, the government could provide birth control coverage – or hand out contraception directly. The thousands of women who work for Hobby Lobby could seek employment elsewhere, at a corporation headed by people who understand the medical science behind contraception. No one’s taking their fundamental choice away.

That’s bullshit, but part of a pattern:

This idea – that women can always find another way to get the coverage or care they need – underpins just about every recent restriction on women’s health. What’s another 24-hour mandatory abortion waiting period? To a woman who lives 25 miles from the nearest provider, it’s everything. What’s one more tweak to a law about the width of clinic doors? To a clinic that can’t afford to remodel, it’s everything. What’s a minor policy change that means you have to pay full price for that IUD? To a woman who makes $14 an hour, it’s everything.

A choice isn’t really a choice when you can’t find another job, or when it’s the end of the month and the checking account is empty and the morning-after pill costs $50 without insurance, or when the only approved birth control methods won’t work for you. For decades, activists have invoked a woman’s “right to choose” – choose when it’s the right time for her to have children and when it’s not, and to choose which contraceptive method to use in the meantime. In theory, women are still allowed to make these choices in America. In practice, though, to choose you must have options. Health insurance is one of the things that guarantees options and access. Freedom, as the conservatives say, isn’t free. For a choice to be a true choice and not a default, sometimes we have to subsidize it.

And she knows where Erick Erickson is coming from:

Erickson’s use of the phrase “consequence free” was familiar. I heard variations on this theme many times over the course of my Catholic upbringing. “I’m pro-choice,” my dad would say. “You have a choice whether or not to have sex. Then you have to deal with the consequences.” Of course, unless you have no desire for sex or a strong desire for dozens of children, that’s not a choice at all – which is why socially conservative columnists like Ross Douthat beat the drum about the need to attach consequences to sex again. You made your bed, now lie in it – ideally, with your husband and children.

This is at the heart of the Hobby Lobby case: Needing a blood transfusion or a vaccine, as the Court sees it, isn’t the consequence of a “choice” you make. It is necessary medical care for you to live your life. You don’t choose to need protection from an infectious disease. You don’t choose to need a liter of new blood. You do, however, choose to have sex – if you’re a woman. And so contraception, the majority of justices say, is different. The implication is that women can freely choose to either abstain from sex or have lots of children, which most of us do understand is not a choice at all.

So it comes down to this:

Hey, the Court is saying, we’re not telling you not to have sex! We’re just telling you that if you do, you’ll find it difficult to maintain a career, gain financial footing, or live a healthy life. You’ll just have to work a little harder, it says. Find the loopholes. Drive a little farther. Pay a little more. You’ll find a way – you women are resourceful.

She knows where Erick Erickson is coming from, Lubbock, Texas, 1959, and Emma Green adds this:

One of the most powerful moments in Ginsburg’s dissent is when she quotes Sandra Day O’Connor in a 1992 case involving Planned Parenthood: “The ability of women to participate equally in the economic and social life of the Nation has been facilitated by their ability to control their reproductive lives.” She also cites a number of critical facts about contraceptive access: Women pay significantly more than men. The cost of an Intrauterine Device, or IUD, is roughly equal to a month of pay for a woman working at minimum wage. Almost a third of women would change their form of birth-control if cost weren’t a factor. In these and other spots throughout her dissent, Ginsburg is undoubtedly correct: Affordable birth-control access is an important economic and public-health issue.

But even if that’s true, it’s also true that certain religious groups regard some forms of contraceptives as morally wrong.

Someone missed the sixties, as shown in excerpts from this timeline on how The Pill changed America:

1951: The Catholic Church remains resolutely opposed to artificial birth control, but Pope Pius XII announces that the Church will sanction the use of the rhythm method as a natural form of birth control. Previously, the only option approved by Rome was abstinence. The Planned Parenthood Federation of America runs 200 birth control clinics. Margaret Sanger has been successful in fighting legal restrictions on contraceptives, and birth control has gained wide acceptance in America. Still, Sanger remains deeply unsatisfied, because women have no better methods for birth control than they did when she first envisioned “the pill” over 40 years earlier. Margaret Sanger, now 72 years old, makes one last ditch effort to find someone to invent her “magic pill.” At a dinner party in New York City she is introduced to Gregory Pincus and implores him to take up her quest. To her surprise, he tells her that it might be possible with hormones, but that he will need significant funding to proceed. …

1959: President Dwight Eisenhower states in a press conference that birth control “is not a proper political or government activity or function or responsibility” and adds emphatically that it is “not our business.” Less than two years after FDA approval of Enovid for therapeutic purposes, an unusually large number of American women mysteriously develop severe menstrual disorders and ask their doctors for the drug. By late 1959, over half a million American women are taking Enovid, presumably for the “off-label” contraceptive purposes. …

1960: May 11 – Searle receives FDA approval to sell Enovid as a birth control pill. Searle is the first and only pharmaceutical company to sell an oral contraceptive and it has a lucrative monopoly. …

1962: With 1.2 million American women on the Pill, Searle’s corner on the Pill market comes to an end. Syntex receives FDA approval to sell the drug Carl Djerassi developed in the 1950s under the trade name Ortho Novum. …

1964: One quarter of all couples in America using birth control choose the Pill. Parke-Davis, another drug company eager for a share of the market, sells its version of the Pill. Despite the competition, Searle earns $24 million in net profits from Pill sales, but neither Gregory Pincus nor the Worcester Institute receive any royalties. Less than a decade after President Eisenhower declared that the government should not get involved with birth control, President Lyndon B. Johnson pushes through legislation for federal support of birth control for the poor. … The Pill becomes the most popular form of reversible birth control in America. …

1965: Estelle Griswold and Lee Buxton take their Connecticut case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. By a vote of 7-2 in Griswold v. Connecticut, the Court strikes down the Connecticut law prohibiting the use of birth control as a violation of a couple’s right to privacy. Just five years after the Pill’s FDA approval, more than 6.5 million American woman are taking oral contraceptives, making the Pill the most popular form of birth control in the U.S. …

1967: Over 12.5 million women worldwide are on the Pill. Massachusetts liberalizes its birth control laws, but still prohibits the sale of birth control to unmarried women.

1972: The U.S. Supreme Court, ruling in Eisenstadt v. Baird that a state cannot stand in the way of distribution of birth control to a single person, strikes down Massachusetts law prohibiting the sale of contraceptives to unmarried women.

1982: The Pill’s impact on women in the work force is significant. With highly effective birth control now at their disposal, 60% of women of reproductive age are employed in America.

There’s no going back to Lubbock, 1959, except in the music, and Dan Savage put that this way:

Why are conservatives fighting so hard to make contraception harder for women to obtain? Because they don’t think people – young people, poor people, unmarried people, gay people – should be able to enjoy “consequence-free sex.” Because it is sex that they hate – it’s sex for pleasure that they hate – and they hate that kind of sex more than they hate abortion, teen moms, and welfare spending combined. Knowing that some people are having sex for pleasure without having their futures disrupted by an unplanned pregnancy or having their health compromised by a sexually transmitted infection or having to run a traumatizing gauntlet of shrieking “sidewalk counselors” to get to an abortion clinic keeps them up at night.

Ah, they’re secret Texans, but there is Ross Douthat in this item saying that it’s time to reframe the debate as “less about whether sex should be consequence-free and more about whether, on a societal level, it really can be” in this world:

This argument would not demand that pre-pill consequences be re-attached to sex, to better return women to drudgery and childbearing. Rather, it would make the point that notwithstanding social liberalism’s many victories, those consequences haven’t exactly gone away; it would question whether more and cheaper contraception suffices to address some of the social problems associated with sexual permissiveness; and it would raise the possibility that a broader reconsideration of current norms and policies might offer more to American women in the long run than strangling the last craft-store patriarch with the entrails of the last reactionary nun.

The social problems associated with sexual permissiveness were all from the sixties. Douthat doesn’t like the sixties. He was born in 1979 – he missed all the fun. Or he might consider that the social problems associated with sexual permissiveness – he cites a study that shows that fifty-seven percent of children born to Millennials being out of wedlock – might be a different sort of problem. Most of those folks are monogamous. Sexual permissiveness isn’t the issue. Association isn’t causation. And no one is strangling the last craft-store patriarch with the entrails of the last reactionary nun, by the way.

Amanda Marcotte, on the other hand, sees economic patrimony at play here:

By claiming women are getting something for “free,” conservatives are reinforcing this myth that women can’t actually be independent – they either need to rely on the government or a husband. That’s what Jesse Watters was getting at on Fox News, talking about single female voters who want the contraceptive benefit, who he called “Beyoncé voters”: “They depend on government because they’re not depending on their husbands,” he argued, ignoring that women are actually demanding the right to the health care they are already paying for.

Rush Limbaugh sounded a similar note this week, denouncing men who support the contraceptive benefit by saying they are “Pajama Boy types having sex, sex, sex,” and that “Today’s young men are totally supportive of somebody else buying women their birth control pills. Make sure the women are taking them, ’cause sex is what it’s all about.”

Yes, men support women’s reproductive rights only so they can have lots of sex while foisting the responsibility of providing for women onto the government, which Limbaugh falsely claims is providing the contraceptive coverage.

It’s complicated, but it comes down to the Lubbock formulation. God loves you and you’re going to burn in hell, and sex is the most awful, filthy thing on earth, and you should save it for someone you love. But Butch Hancock was kidding around when he said that, mocking the Lubbock folks. And J. R. Ewing was an over-the-top comic book villain, not a role model. One can take Texas too seriously. We did that, fourteen years ago. We should know better now. Crank up some Buddy Holly tunes. That’ll do.

Posted in Consequence-Free Sex, Hobby Lobby Decision | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Sarah Steps Up

Abundance is fine, and having endless options is a relief – there’s no need to ever feel trapped by a choice that had to be made, between what you didn’t want and what you wanted even less, but there was that 2004 book by psychologist Barry Schwartz about The Paradox of Choice – which can mess with your head. Choice overload, as he puts it, can make you question the decisions you make before you even make them, and can set you up for unrealistically high expectations, and can also make you blame yourself for any and all failures. Maybe you should have bought the Honda, not the Toyota, or maybe the Mazda or the Kia was a better idea – or perhaps, faced with twenty-seven brands of toilet paper, you shouldn’t have grabbed what was close on the store shelf, because now your ass hurts. You didn’t explore all you options. There must be something wrong with you – a weak character no doubt. That’s why Schwartz argues that America’s current abundance of choice leads to depression and feelings of loneliness, and we may also be paying for our increased affluence and freedom with a significant decrease in any sense of community at all – because life in a thriving consumer society seems to consist of being dazed and confused by all the equally reasonable options available, about anything and everything, all the time, followed by endless regret, all at an individual level. There’s always been what Robert Frost called “the road not taken” – but he was talking about two roads diverging in the wood. He wasn’t talking about shopping at Costco, staring at the endless shelves of everything, wanting to cry.

It doesn’t help to go home and watch television either. Cable and satellite television means you have more than a hundred channels from which to choose at any given moment, if you’re cheap, or up to seven hundred channels or more if you went all in – and you’ll feel like a fool for missing the good stuff over there if you chose to watch what you thought was the good stuff over here. That’s no help, but luckily there’s not that much good stuff. All those channels are desperate for content – for new “product” to fill up all those on-air hours, or old stuff people might want to see again, maybe. At some point anything will do – a Twilight Zone marathon or an endless loop of old episodes of Bonanza. Old movies, and endlessly crappy recent movies, turn up in endless rotation too – every Mel Gibson or Bruce Willis or Meg Ryan movie ever made, over and over and over again. Don’t worry, you’ll miss nothing – there it is again.

There’s not much rhyme or reason to such programing, other than old war movies on the Fourth of July weekend and endless absurdly predictable horror movies in the week leading up to Halloween, and Christmas movies starting a few weeks before Thanksgiving. Themes work, given the season, and that’s why it’s not surprising that HBO just put its award-winning Sarah Palin movie into rotation once again. That would be Game Change – Julianne Moore as Sarah Palin, and Woody Harrelson as Steve Schmidt, the senior campaign strategist who tried so hard to make her candidacy work, even if the task was impossible from the start, and Ed Harris as John McCain – the man who made that one choice he would come to regret. It’s a bit of a tragedy, and unexpectedly nuanced, and this might be the time to put it in rotation again. Politics is heating up again, with the midterm elections coming in November, and in the last midterms, in 2010, the Tea Party won big and ended up taking over the Republican Party, or at least bending it to their will. Sarah Palin didn’t make it past 2008 – that was the last time she ran for anything at all. She, along with John McCain, lost decisively – but HBO might be onto something. Palin’s brash feistiness won big two years later, even if she wasn’t along for the ride, and that is still what animates the Republican Party, for better or worse. Perhaps HBO decided that people might now, once again, want to see where it all started. Sarah Palin was a major player once, perhaps the major player, in a movement that was always saying let’s never compromise on anything, and there’s no point in even thinking about things for another minute either. As she was fond of saying – “I know what I know I know.”

Maybe those exact words were an invention of the screenwriters, but they fit. That’s in the air again. Why not show the movie again a few times a day? Someone will watch, and by an odd coincidence, the woman grabbed the spotlight the very same day:

Former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin called for President Barack Obama’s impeachment in her most direct language yet in a column Tuesday morning.

“It’s time to impeach; and on behalf of American workers and legal immigrants of all backgrounds, we should vehemently oppose any politician on the left or right who would hesitate in voting for articles of impeachment,” Palin wrote in a column published Tuesday on the conservative website Breitbart. “The many impeachable offenses of Barack Obama can no longer be ignored. If after all this he’s not impeachable, then no one is.”

The former Alaskan governor accused Obama of deliberately leaving the border open and allowing undocumented immigrants to come in at will, ignoring American laws and driving the country deeper into debt.

“His unsecured border crisis is the last straw that makes the battered wife say ‘no mas,’” she wrote. “President Obama’s rewarding of lawlessness, including his own, is the foundational problem here.”

Native-born citizens and legal immigrants, she said, are the ones “getting screwed” following the rules while undocumented immigrants are exempt.

That’s a bit general, and those two words in Spanish are mighty odd in there, and the battered-wife thing is even odder, but she is who she is – not one for detail and often incoherent – but the key to all this is here:

“I sense not enough guts in D.C. to file impeachment charges against Team Obama for their countless documented illegalities, so the way to stop this is at the ballot box,” she wrote.

Yeah, she called for Obama’s impeachment, and said it would never happen, so he needs to be stopped at the ballot box, but he’s not running again – he can’t – but someone has no guts, and it’s not her, it’s her party – so this was a challenge, one she’s sure her party will not meet, but they should. Got it?

At the Washington Post, Aaron Blake thinks he does, and sees this as bad news for the Republican Party:

Mixed/careless metaphors aside, this is nothing but bad news for Republicans – especially four months until the 2014 election.

Palin is hardly the first GOP politician to raise the issue of impeachment over the past couple years. Others include Sens. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.), Reps. Blake Farenthold (R-Tex.), Kerry Bentivolio (R-Mich.), Michael Burgess (R-Tex.) and Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), former congressmen Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) and Allen West (R-Fla.), and the South Dakota Republican Party. Not all of these folks called for Obama’s impeachment directly, but all of them suggested that it is or should be on the table.

What none of these folks have, though, is a national following. That’s where Palin comes in. She’s the first Republican of any significant national stature to make this call. And she’s the kind of figure who could potentially recruit others to the cause – people who will want to be heard. Palin surely doesn’t carry the kind of weight she once did in the GOP, but she still has a significant tea party following and is highly popular among the conservative base.

If a significant pro-impeachment portion of the conservative base does materialize – and that’s a big “if” – it will put Republican lawmakers in the unenviable position of responding to questions about whether they, too, agree with the idea of impeachment.

Blake says that leaves them three options:

1) Oppose impeachment and risk making yourself a target in the 2016 primary

2) Try to offer a non-response that doesn’t really support or oppose impeachment

3) Support impeachment and, while likely saving your own hide from becoming a target, exacerbate the problem with the larger Republican Party.

Options are cool, but not those, and Blake maintains that Palin’s challenge screws up everything over there:

As we’ve said before, it throws a sizable and unpredictable variable into what was already shaping up to be a good election year for Republicans. That same could be said for the Benghazi investigation (though that effort appears to have the support of the American people). The name of the game for the GOP right now is maintaining their edge and trying to win back the Senate. Everything else is noise.

Secondly, it lends credence to Democrats’ argument that Republicans are controlled by the extreme wing of their party. And to the extent that Democrats can make the 2014 election a referendum on the GOP’s conduct in Congress (see: government shutdown), it’s to their benefit.

Lastly, impeachment is a very difficult issue to press. Even in the late 1990s, when an American president had an affair in the White House and then lied about it, support for impeachment was still well shy of a majority – as low as 30 percent.

Maybe she’s actually working for the Democrats, but Steve Benen doesn’t think so:

The standard rules haven’t changed. Sarah Palin, the former half-term governor of Alaska, remains a deeply silly person whose opinions are not to be taken seriously. When news organizations routinely make a fuss about her random missives, they’re lending credence to a former officeholder who doesn’t deserve it.

That said, once in a great while, there’s a broader significance to Palin’s nonsense that adds relevance to her tirades.

That might be this time:

Not that it matters on a substantive level, but Palin’s case for impeachment, unlike so many of the other Republicans who also want impeachment, seems to rest almost entirely on immigration. She argued, “Opening our borders to a flood of illegal immigrants is deliberate.” …

Obviously, it’s a ridiculous argument, but that’s not what makes this interesting.

First, for a prominent Republican figure to use immigration as a rationale for presidential impeachment – just four months before the midterm elections – is pretty much the opposite the message the party establishment wants to convey. GOP lawmakers have already killed a popular, bipartisan immigration bill, alienating Latino voters nationwide, and now Sarah Palin is making matters worse, largely because her contempt for the president is unrelated to any kind of sensible electoral strategy.

Second, the more the party’s highest-profile personalities raise the volume on impeachment talk, the more it motivates the Democratic base to actually get in the game this fall (look up “1998, midterm elections”). Put it this way: who do you think is more excited about talking up Palin’s harangue this afternoon, the RNC or the DNC? I’m guessing the latter.

And finally, Palin’s rant takes that important step of saying the far-right should “vehemently oppose any politician” who “hesitates” on the need for impeachment.

There’s no hiding now, and Obama may be impeached after all:

Boehner almost certainly doesn’t want to take impeachment talk seriously, but let’s not forget that House Republican leaders, including Boehner, have been pushed into doing things they did not want to do many times. The Speaker didn’t want to create a debt-ceiling crisis, but the far-right insisted and Boehner went along. The Speaker didn’t want a government shutdown, but the far-right insisted and Boehner went along. The Speaker didn’t want to hold several dozen “repeal Obamacare” votes, but the far-right insisted and Boehner went along. The Speaker didn’t want to kill immigration reform, but the far-right insisted and Boehner went along.

Now the far-right wants presidential impeachment for reasons that don’t make any sense at all, and the chatter from within the Republican Party is growing louder. Party leaders may want to nip this in the bud, but they can’t – if they try to tell their unhinged factions to quiet down, it puts their careers in jeopardy.

And so, with 118 days to go before the midterms, Republicans are increasingly positioning themselves as the anti-immigrant, anti-contraception, pro-impeachment party that shut down the government last year for no reason.

Sarah Palin lost in 2008, but she actually won. She can still call down the hounds of hell on any Republican that doesn’t get it:

The federal government is trillions of dollars in debt; many cities are on the verge of insolvency; our overrun healthcare system, police forces, social services, schools, and our unsustainably generous welfare-state programs are stretched to the max. We average Americans know that. So why has this issue been allowed to be turned upside down with our “leader” creating such unsafe conditions while at the same time obstructing any economic recovery by creating more dependents than he allows producers? His friendly wealthy bipartisan elite, who want cheap foreign labor and can afford for themselves the best “border security” money can buy in their own exclusive communities, do not care that Obama tapped us out.

Andrew Sullivan offers this:

Look: don’t ask me. Nothing she says has ever made much sense to me. But the obviously potent issue she is referring to is illegal immigration, the issue that took down Eric Cantor, and the issue that truly riles up the Fox Nation. …

And so a gauntlet has been laid. A vote for the Republicans this November is a vote for the impeachment of Obama. Any Republican Senate candidate who does not back impeachment will now face growing Tea Party backlash. And every single Senator will now be asked if they support impeachment or not. That seems to me the import of Palin’s endorsement of the most radical action that can be taken against a sitting president. The November elections have just become a vote on the question of impeachment.

This should be interesting:

Are the Republicans aware of the implications of this? There are plenty of voters who might have voted Republican this fall who will hesitate if they think it means subjecting the country to the kind of spectacle we saw the last time a Democrat dared to win a second term in office. There are many African-American voters who might have sat out this election – but now will see the president beset by the same forces that tried to take down Bill Clinton and may well show up in force. There are, for that matter, many women voters who, before Hobby Lobby, might have felt apathetic this fall and may not now.

What I’m suggesting is that, not for the first time, the Republican Party’s most treacherous opponent … is the Republican Party. And McCain’s Frankenstein leads the way!

Some choices really do come back to haunt you, and at Salon, Emmett Rensin looks at the current choices:

Last week, Speaker of the House John Boehner announced his intention to launch the first congressional lawsuit against the executive branch since United States v. Nixon. Days later, the Republican Party of South Dakota became the first state-level party organization to formally call for Obama’s impeachment.

If some Republicans are to be believed, the only rationale behind Congress’ tamer lawsuit route is feasibility: “If we were to impeach the president tomorrow, you could probably get the votes in the House of Representatives to do it. But it would go to the Senate and he wouldn’t be convicted,” congressman Blake Farenthold told BuzzFeed last year.

The occasional call is nothing new. Presidents from Abraham Lincoln to Franklin Roosevelt have faced the fringe demand for congressional removal, and despite two successful efforts in the House (against Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton), none has ever seen the bad side of a subsequent Senate trial. President Obama will not be impeached; despite their bluster, the GOP-controlled House will never even propose a trial in earnest. The Clinton years taught them well enough what happens when such an effort backfires and you become the guys who just wasted a year of the country’s time.

They know better, but oddly, that presents a larger problem:

What ought to concern us is not the serious possibility of the president being removed from office, but the sense of what – in a world where such a conversation occurs at all – suddenly seems reasonable by comparison. Consider an interview earlier this year, in which Fox News host and Santa Clause ethnicity specialist Megyn Kelly asked Mitch McConnell why he and the rest of the congressional GOP hadn’t seriously explored the “meaningful option” of impeaching President Obama for vaguely defined “abuse of power.”

It doesn’t matter that McConnell said they wouldn’t: That the question was even asked on a major television network by a prominent (if not necessarily respected) member of the press to one of the most powerful figures in the federal government reflects something more than just fringe lunacy. It is indicative of a broader trend in our civic culture, one more subtly (but perhaps tellingly) betrayed in Senator McConnell’s then-contention that simply defunding every executive initiative and refusing to let the country function while President Obama remains in office would be a comparatively reasonable, “less dramatic” option.

Ah! Don’t impeach the guy. Don’t sue the guy. Refuse to let the country function until he just up and quits, for the good of the country – that’s less dramatic. There are lots of choices, but this is nutty, and also what Rensin sees was inevitable:

We’ve gotten into the habit of delegitimizing our presidents – not just contesting their election or pushing back against their policies, but denying their very claim to the White House. From the farcical (birthers) to the faux-serious (“anti-American socialist!”), we’ve moved beyond mere opposition and into a deeper civic sickness, where casting aspersions on the policies of an opposition president has given way to challenging his very right to implement those policies.

It’s just one more choice, but a problematic one:

The impulse to delegitimize the president serves as a useful solution to an old dilemma in American politics: How do you respond to a leader who is at once enemy and ally – someone who was bitterly opposed in his ascension, but having nonetheless prevailed, is now not just their candidate, but your president, as well?

That gets tricky:

As cynical as we’ve become, Americans still retain a certain reverence for the presidency. Watergate eroded it some, sure; and the ensuing soap operas – from Iran-Contra to Monica to Tallahassee 2000 have certainly tarnished the brand. But within our civic consciousness, the presidency retains a transcendent air, an office occupied by a politician, but still not entirely political. The president is the commander-in-chief. He is the head of government, yes, but he is the head of state as well. The office still retains that luster, and across table from prime ministers and kings, he speaks for all of us. There is a reason we still don’t tolerate his challengers attacking him when overseas.

But pressed by a modern world into an unprecedented form of zero-sum politics, the tension between “our guy abroad” and “their guy at home” proved more difficult to sustain. So the delegitimizers found a work-around: If you can’t strip the presidency of its protective insulation, you can strip it from a chief executive by insinuating that he isn’t really the president in the first place. And that’s when the loyal opposition becomes a crusade against occupation, poisonous to a functioning government.

This is a dangerous choice:

When the “grace of God” gave way to “the grace of an electorate,” it was vital – if people were to be governed by consent – then that consent, once given, be respected. When we allow ourselves to start believing that consent is counterfeit whenever we disagree with our leaders, the national experiment breaks down. The well is poisoned. Wars against usurpers involve no compromise, and so we see endless gridlock. We see politics as trench warfare. We see a polity where reaching across the aisle is a betrayal and defunding every initiative is the “reasonable” response. We see a system in which every year is little more than a battle to reclaim the throne from a fraud – the very thing we broke with Britain to avoid.

We didn’t have to make that choice, but we did, or the Republicans will soon. But they had lots of choices – sue the guy, or defund everything and stop the government from functioning, or impeach the guy, or work with him, admitting America elected him to that office twice, by a reasonably wide margin each time, and get what you can in negotiation – or quit politics and open a bed-and-breakfast on the Oregon coast, or join the circus. There were always lots of choices, but that’s the paradox of choice. Having too many options can mess with your head and then cause nothing but regret and ruin. Maybe there should be fewer of them.

Posted in Impeachment, Sarah Palin | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Disputed Revealed Truth

“I bet you’ve seen the fundamentalist bumper sticker that says, ‘God said it! I believe it! That settles it!’ That must be a typo because what the driver really means is, ‘I said it! God believes it! That settles it!’” ~ Robert M. Price

There’s a distinction there, about just who is saying just what, and when, but that oddball American theologian Robert Price has long been fed up with Biblical literalism – study the core texts carefully enough and you find all the contradictions, the three or four somewhat contradictory creation stories and the stuff thrown in by random parties here and there with an axe to grind about this and that. Price, a former Baptist minister with two separate doctorates in theology, finally decided he was a Christian Atheist – not at all sure about the God thing but in awe of the moral teachings of Jesus, whoever He was.

That may seem odd now, in today’s hyper-religious America, but that wasn’t odd not so long ago. Anyone who was ten years old in 1957, when the Soviets put Sputnik up there, the first satellite to orbit the earth, round and round, over and over again, remembers how that scared America shitless. What was wrong with us? We had fallen behind, and that meant school would change for all of us – from that point forward it would be lots and lots of math and science. The odd thing is that a few years earlier, on June 14, 1954, the words “one nation under God” had been added to Pledge of Allegiance which had opened each school day back then – added to show we were not like those godless communists. As President Eisenhower said at the time – “From this day forward, the millions of our school children will daily proclaim in every city and town, every village and rural school house, the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty… In this way we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America’s heritage and future; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country’s most powerful resource, in peace or in war.”

Yeah, well, that transcendence of religious faith hadn’t done us much good in the Space Race, as it was called back then. Three years later no one was bitching about schools teaching about the principles of evolution, in those days of fear and humiliation, or bitching about teaching the science that underpinned it all. Those godless communists had been onto something, damn it – so things shifted. God and the teachings of Jesus were not the nation’s business. That was your business, a private matter, and if you were a strict fundamentalist, who saw science as simply wrong about life, because God said something else way back when, you were a bit odd. The big hit film in 1960 was Inherit the Wind – Spencer Tracy as Clarence Darrow at the Scopes Trail, masterfully demolishing the arguments of the fundamentalists. But he did that gently, with warm humor, because those God guys were actually quite good men – just stuck in the past. That movie was emblematic of the times – Spencer Tracy was the nation’s gentle but firm Christian atheist, showing how it’s done. It was perfect casting. Everyone loved the kind and insightful Spencer Tracy. William Jennings Bryan might rant on and on about God’s word, but God’s word was courteously and respectfully set off to the side, for the good of the nation.

All this wasn’t an anomaly, really. Don’t let the Tea Party crowd tell you otherwise. Jill Lepore, a professor of American history at Harvard, has a new book explaining why, as in this excerpt from her book:

Precisely what the founders believed about God, Jesus, sin, the Bible, churches and hell is probably impossible to discover. They changed their minds and gave different accounts to different people: Franklin said one thing to his sister, Jane, and another thing to David Hume; Washington prayed with his troops, but, while he lay slowly dying, he declined to call for a preacher. This can make them look like hypocrites, but that’s unfair, as are a great many attacks on these men. They approached religion more or less the same way they approached everything else that interested them: Franklin invented his own, Washington proved diplomatic, Adams grumbled about it (he hated Christianity, he once said, but he couldn’t think of anything better, and he also regarded it as necessary), Jefferson could not stop tinkering with it, and Madison defended, as a natural right, the free exercise of it. That they wanted to preserve religious liberty by separating church and state does not mean they were irreligious. They wanted to protect religion from the state, as much as the other way around.

That obviously creates problems for those who take what the founders said literally:

Originalism as a school of constitutional interpretation has waxed and waned and has always competed with other schools of interpretation. Madison’s invaluable notes on the Constitutional Convention weren’t published until 1840, and nineteenth-century constitutional theory differed, dramatically, from the debates that have taken place in the twentieth century. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Supreme Court rejected originalist arguments put forward by southern segregationists, stating, in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, that “we cannot turn back the clock” but “must consider public education in the light of its full development and its present place in American life throughout the Nation.”

Those were the days when the nation also decided to sideline the God stuff for a bit, but things on both fronts changed:

Constitutional scholars generally date the rise of originalism to the 1970s and consider it a response to controversial decisions of both the Warren and Burger Courts, especially Roe v. Wade, in 1973. Originalism received a great deal of attention in 1987, with the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork. Bork’s nomination also happened to coincide with the bicentennial of the Constitutional Convention. “Nineteen eighty-seven marks the 200th anniversary of the United States Constitution,” Thurgood Marshall said in a speech that year. Marshall (who went to Frederick Douglass High School) had argued Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 and, in 1967, after being nominated by Lyndon Johnson, became the first African American on the Supreme Court. In 1987, contemplating the bicentennial of the Constitution, Marshall took a skeptical view. …

Marshall was worried about what anniversaries do. “The odds are that for many Americans the bicentennial celebration will be little more than a blind pilgrimage to the shrine of the original document now stored in a vault in the National Archives,” rather than the occasion for “a sensitive understanding of the Constitution’s inherent defects, and its promising evolution through 200 years of history.” Expressing doubts about unthinking reverence, Marshall called for something different…

That wasn’t to be:

Even as Marshall was making that speech, the banner of originalism was being taken up by evangelicals, who, since joining the Reagan Revolution in 1980, had been playing an increasingly prominent role in American politics. “Any diligent student of American history finds that our great nation was founded by godly men upon godly principles to be a Christian nation,” Jerry Falwell insisted. In 1987, Tim LaHaye, an evangelical minister who went on to write a series of bestselling apocalyptic novels, published a book called The Faith of Our Founding Fathers, in which he attempted to chronicle the “Rape of History” by “history revisionists” who had systemically erased from American textbooks the “evangelical Protestants who founded this nation.”

Documenting this claim was no mean feat. Jefferson posed a particular problem, not least because he crafted a custom copy of the Bible by cutting out all the miracles and pasting together what was left. LaHaye, to support his argument, took out his own pair of scissors, deciding, for instance, that Jefferson didn’t count as a Founding Father because he “had nothing to do with the founding of our nation,” and basing his claims about Benjamin Franklin not on evidence (because, as he admitted, “There is no evidence that Franklin ever became a Christian”), but on sheer bald, raising-the-founders-from- the-dead assertion. LaHaye wrote, “Many modern secularizers try to claim Franklin as one of their own. I am confident, however, that Franklin would not identify with them were he alive today.” (Alas, Franklin, who once said he wished he could preserve himself in a vat of Madeira wine, to see what the world would look like in a century or two, is not, in fact, alive today. And, while I confess that I’m quite excessively fond of him, the man is not coming back.)

Those are the roots of what we have now:

Set loose in the culture, and tangled together with fanaticism, originalism looks like history, but it’s not; it’s historical fundamentalism, which is to history what astrology is to astronomy, what alchemy is to chemistry, what creationism is to evolution.

The framers would have none of it:

Following the faith of their fathers is exactly what the framers did not do. At a time when all but two states required religious tests for office, the Constitution prohibited them. At a time when all but three states still had an official religion, the Bill of Rights forbade the federal government from establishing one. Originalism in the courts is controversial, to say the least. Jurisprudence stands on precedent, on the stability of the laws, but originalism is hardly the only way to abide by the Constitution. Setting aside the question of whether it makes good law, it is, generally, lousy history.

There’s a parallel here. God said it! I believe it! That settles it! That hadn’t worked out well for us, and that wasn’t even the idea in the first place. The framers of the Constitution said it! I believe it! That settles it! That too is not working out all that well, as the Washington Post’s E. J. Dionne explores here:

You cannot talk for very long to a conservative these days without hearing the words “constitutional” and “constitutionalist.”

Formulations such as “I am a constitutional conservative” or “I am a constitutionalist” are tea party habits, but they are not confined to its ranks. Many kinds of conservatives contend that everything they believe is thoroughly consistent with the views and intentions of our 18th-century Founders.

Wielding pocket-sized copies of the Constitution, they like to cite it to settle political disputes.

In fact, Dionne cites Ramesh Ponnuru arguing that there is a new and valuable “popular interest in constitutionalism” that’s taking the nation by storm, although Dionne is skeptical:

“Instead of treating the Constitution as the property of lawyers and judges,” [Ponnuru] notes, “it proposes that legislators, and even citizen-activists, have an independent duty to evaluate the constitutionality of legislation.”

One plausible progressive response is to see Ponnuru’s exercise as doomed from the start. The framers could not possibly have foreseen what the world would look like in 2014. In any event, they got some important things wrong, most glaringly their document’s acceptance of slavery.

Moreover, because the Constitution was written primarily as a foundation for government, it can answer only so many questions. David Strauss of the University of Chicago Law School authored a book called “The Living Constitution” to make plain that there is a lot more to this concept than its detractors suggest. He notes that “a great part of the framers’ genius lay exactly in their ability to leave provisions general when they should be left general, so as not to undermine the document’s ability to serve as common ground.”

The problem with “originalists,” Strauss says, is that they “take general provisions and make them specific,” even when they’re not.

The Constitution does give the federal government the specific power to raise taxes – “The Congress shall have Power to lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defense and general Welfare of the United States…” – but there’s nothing specific about an income tax, which required the Sixteenth Amendment in 1913, and there’s still nothing in there about gasoline taxes. Maybe the federal gasoline tax is unconstitutional. Ponnuru might imagine tens of thousands of American citizens waving their pocket-size copies of the Constitution at each other, arguing about that, but that would be like William Jennings Bryan waving his Bible at Clarence Darrow back in 1925 – a bit pathetic.

Dionne has a better idea. Two can play at that game:

Progressives should take Ponnuru’s proposal seriously and think constitutionally themselves. In doing so, they would challenge conservative claims about what the Constitution really demands.

In the May issue of the Boston University Law Review, Joseph R. Fishkin and William E. Forbath of the University of Texas School of Law show that at key turning points in our history (the Jacksonian era, the Populist and Progressive moments and the New Deal), opponents of rising inequality made strong arguments “that we cannot keep our constitutional democracy – our republican form of government – without constitutional restraints against oligarchy and a political economy that maintains a broad middle class, accessible to everyone.”

Their article is called “The Anti-Oligarchy Constitution,” though Forbath told me that he and Fishkin may give the book they’re writing on the topic the more upbeat title “The Constitution of Opportunity.” Their view is that by empowering the wealthy in our political system, Supreme Court decisions such as Citizens United directly contradict the Constitution’s central commitment to shared self-rule.

“Extreme concentrations of economic and political power undermine equal opportunity and equal citizenship,” they write. “In this way, oligarchy is incompatible with, and a threat to, the American constitutional scheme.”

That would mean anything that increases income inequality might be unconstitutional, which is a pretty cool idea, and one could go further:

While their overarching vision contrasts sharply with Ponnuru’s, they make a similar critique of what they call an excessively “court-centered” approach to constitutionalism. “Constitutional politics during the 19th and early 20th centuries” was very different and the subject of democratic deliberation. In earlier eras, they say, the Constitution was seen as not simply permitting but actually requiring “affirmative legislation… to ensure a wide distribution of opportunity” and to address “the problem of oligarchy in a modern capitalist society.”

The authors remind us of Franklin Roosevelt’s warning that “the inevitable consequence” of placing “economic and financial control in the hands of the few” would be “the destruction of the base of our form of government.” And writing during the Gilded Age, a time like ours in many ways, the journalist James F. Hudson argued that “imbedded” in the Constitution is “the principle” mandating “the widest distribution among the people, not only of political power, but of the advantages of wealth, education and social influence.”

If you want to go back to the original idea, maybe that was it, so the other side should go for it:

For too long, progressives have allowed conservatives to monopolize claims of fealty to our unifying national document. In fact, those who would battle rising economic inequalities to create a robust middle class should insist that it is they who are most loyal to the Constitution’s core purpose. Broadly shared well-being is essential to the framers’ promise that “We the people” will be the stewards of our government.

That would be like telling an angry evangelical, itching for another war or two, to prove once and for all that we’re the good guys, that Jesus was serious about “that turn the other cheek” business, and in this case that would mean telling the constitutional “originalists” that “We the People” might actually include gays and Hispanics and the poor and whatever hippies are left these days, and atheists too. What else could those words mean? The Declaration of Independence posited, as a given, that all men are created equal, with basic inalienable rights. The Constitution was an attempt to operationalize that.

Ed Kilgore, however, has a few qualms about Dionne’s bold idea:

Truth is, “originalism” as we understand it today is a relatively recent doctrine. When I was taking constitutional law back in the late 1970s, “progressive” approaches like those endorsed by Dionne were far more prevalent than “originalism.” So this subject is inevitably (and has always been) an ideological battleground, and not the paradise of settled doctrine recently upset by “radical” progressives that “constitutional conservatives” tend to project.

But while I offer best wishes to those who wish to argue for “constitutional progressivism,” I do think it’s important for progressives to raise an occasional objection to the general idolatry of the Founders and their work before competing for the allegiance of their acolytes. Yes, the basic constitutional framework has held up relatively well, and probably better than the Founders themselves had any reason to anticipate. But it still required a bloody civil war and significant amendment (not to mention judicial interpretation) to function effectively at all.

There’s no point in another civil war:

“Constitutional conservatives” engage in making a Golden Calf of the constitution (as amended even before its adoption by the Declaration of Independence, of course) because they are interested in preserving eighteenth and nineteenth century governing norms against both democratic demands and more contemporary necessities. So they ignore the document’s imperfections and deem it blessed perpetually by Nature or God Almighty – so long as it serves their reactionary purposes. I’d prefer to stay well clear of that sort of obscurantism.

Likewise, Jonathan Bernstein says let the framers rest in peace:

We should use the Constitution with eyes wide open, aware of its problems and limitations. That’s true regardless of whether we believe “originalist” interpretations of the Constitution should be binding for us.

It’s complicated:

When it comes to our views of the Framers and the Constitution, there are a lot of judgments to keep separate. Begin with our views of the Framers, individually and collectively, as political actors. Then add how we feel about them as political theorists. Next are our views of what the Constitution of 1787 said and meant, and then our views of what the Constitution of 2014 says and means (given that even the strictest originalist must include the Amendments). And our views of what democracy really is, and what the Constitution does or doesn’t do to fulfill it. We also should be careful not to conflate what we believe the Constitution allows with what policy choices would be best.

There’s nothing wrong with using these separate things to inform one another – by consulting Madison, for example, to develop our own views on democracy. We get in trouble when we look for a straight line: Madison thought such-and-such, so that’s what the Constitution meant then, which is unalterably what the Constitution means now, which tells us what policies we should follow.

Bernstein sees danger there:

More broadly, I’m no fan of any outcome-based justifications for democracy. That is, democracy isn’t a good system because it produces policy outcomes we like, or because it makes winners of groups we want to win. Democracy, self-government, involves giving everyone the ability to do politics, and that means the outcomes are unpredictable because politics is inherently unpredictable. So neither conservatives nor liberals nor anyone else should support democracy because they believe it will yield the policy results they want. Nor should anyone assume that a system that produces policy outcomes they oppose must be less democratic than one that produces outcomes they support.

It doesn’t work that way:

The Framers were brilliant, and deserve praise. But inserting them into today’s policy fights, or even ideological fights, is a mug’s game. The fight over who owns the Constitution is fundamentally flawed. It either belongs to every citizen, or to no one.

It is a mug’s game, but that won’t stop the originalists from arguing that the Constitution says only what it says, specifically, and no more than that. What’s not there is not there on purpose. The framers decided not to say one word on the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, and they thought long and hard about it and decided not to say anything at all about regulation of the internet because of the massive bandwidth required to stream first-run movies. If they wanted to say something about things, they would have said something about such things. Others will point out that our perfect and complete Constitution started out with ten amendments in the first place, the Bill of Rights, so it was always a work in progress, a framework rather than a set of specific rules, and specific rules that were purposefully excluded. The framework is what matters.

Oddly enough, that’s how Robert Price came to see the Bible too – a framework, periodically amended. Consider the New Testament, the Jesus stuff, an amendment to the Old Testament with the stuff in Leviticus about how you’re supposed to stone your disobedient child to death and all the rest. The general principles are nifty, but the specifics aren’t terribly useful – as Clarence Darrow tried to explain to William Jennings Bryan long ago. Why do we keep having the same argument?

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