Stuck in the Antithesis

Schopenhauer thought the guy was full of crap, that his philosophy was “a pseudo-philosophy paralyzing all mental powers, stifling all real thinking” – and among philosophers those are fightin’ words – but at least Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was thorough:

Hegel developed a comprehensive philosophical framework, or “system”, of absolute idealism to account in an integrated and developmental way for the relation of mind and nature, the subject and object of knowledge, psychology, the state, history, art, religion, and philosophy. In particular, he developed the concept that mind or spirit manifested itself in a set of contradictions and oppositions that it ultimately integrated and united, without eliminating either pole or reducing one to the other. Examples of such contradictions include those between nature and freedom, and between immanence and transcendence.

What? All that is usually summed up as in the thesis-antithesis-synthesis model – the world is always working toward opposites slamming into each other to form some final better thing that actually incorporates those opposites.

That’s an easy enough idea. Someone comes up with a new way of looking at things – say, Obama comes up with a notion of a post-partisan America, where we do things for the common good, and actually use the dreaded and useless government to do those things, because there’s no real reason to dread the government and it was, after all, created by us to be useful. That’s the thesis. Then the reactionaries, or, if you wish, the principled conservatives, do everything they can to prove that the new thesis is absurd. They present an anti-thesis, that things must remain the same, for what they claim are very good reasons. They might even come up with a counter-thesis – say, a well thought-out alternative to Obamacare for example – but sometimes mere ridicule of the new thesis is enough. Both sides then butt heads and shout a lot, and then we inevitably get something new and wonderful, better than both the original thesis and whatever is offered to undermine it. We get a synthesis of ideas from both sides, something far better than either side was offering. That’s how all human progress happens.

Schopenhauer was right. Hegel was full of crap. People butt heads all the time – the new idea excites some and appalls others – but that synthesis thing never happens, or it happens a generation or two later, when all parties to the argument are dead and gone. In a generation, or maybe a bit sooner, no one will remember what all the fuss was about gay marriage. In a generation no one will think that universal healthcare, guaranteed by the government, with standards set by the government, is the most awful thing imaginable – it will just be a given. That happened with Social Security, and that happened with Medicare, after all – even the Tea Party crowd thinks both those are not only just fine, they’re both part of who we are as a people – a given. But the Hegelian synthesis was a long time coming, and there’s no guarantee it will ever arrive. Hegel was an idealist. Sure, people butt heads over new ideas – it happens all the time – but it’s far too easy to get stuck in the antithesis. Sometimes there’s no way to move on. Synthesis never happens.

An example of that is something that Doyle McManus explains here – that Republicans haven’t quite worked out a foreign policy beyond “not Obama” – but of course they haven’t quite worked out a health care reform policy or an immigration reform policy or even a federal budget policy either, other than the usual “not Obama” stuff. It’s just that the foreign policy stuff is so odd:

That’s partly because it’s still early in the campaign and the GOP boasts a bumper crop of potential candidates, some of them governors who never needed a foreign policy until now.

It’s also because one probable GOP candidate, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), has already broken from the pack and argued for a minimalist foreign policy with lower defense spending and fewer military commitments. Some of Paul’s opponents have charged that his views add up to isolationism; the senator prefers “conservative realism.”

But the debate isn’t only about Paul. Ever since President George W. Bush’s long misadventure in Iraq, his Republican successors have been struggling to refashion conservative foreign policy in a way most voters would embrace.

They can’t move toward a synthesis, of the best of Bush and some of Obama, that’s very compelling, because they can’t agree among themselves:

Divisions have emerged over many issues (sanctions in Iran, arms for Ukraine, trade with Cuba) but the crucial question in the campaign will probably be military intervention in the Middle East, the terrain on which the last Republican administration came to grief. If airstrikes alone aren’t enough to defeat Islamic State, should ground troops be deployed? And should the United States do more to dislodge the government of President Bashar Assad in Syria, including aid to Syrian rebels, airstrikes and ground troops?

Three rough camps among potential Republican candidates can be discerned. There are interventionists, who want the United States to do more. There’s the lone anti-interventionist, Paul. And, in between, there’s a big group of straddlers who say they would be tougher than Obama but, when pressed, don’t offer much in the way of specifics.

Here are the real specifics:

The interventionists include Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who has called for more U.S. aid to Syrian rebels. Last week, he dismissed Obama’s request for authorization to fight Islamic State as too limited and suggested he would delete Obama’s proposed prohibition on long-term ground combat. “I think we ought to authorize the president to destroy ISIL, period,” he said, using an acronym for Islamic State.

They may also include Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who told ABC News, “We have to go beyond just aggressive air strikes…. We have to be prepared to put boots on the ground, if that’s what it takes.”

The straddlers include Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who has demanded that the Obama administration fight its wars more aggressively but has also said he sees no need for U.S. ground troops. Last week, when Obama requested authorization for the air war in Iraq and Syria, Cruz sidestepped the question of limits and said the main defect of Obama’s request was that it failed to identify the adversary as “Islamic terrorists.”

The problem is the names we use to designate the bad guys? McManus suggests it’s something else:

This time, the debate isn’t over how to handle a world transformed by a war the United States and its allies won; it’s about the legacy of the last Republican president, George W. Bush, and a war most people think we lost.

Steve Benen noted a few years ago that this has led to a default strategy of total obstruction, to buy time, and has led to six years of them being the “post-policy” party:

They were more invested in pure politics, just positioning themselves vis-a-vis the president, and they weren’t actually invested in any particular outcome for the country.

I could use the identical phrasing to talk about the debate over health care policy, reducing gun violence, energy policy, infrastructure, the list goes on (and on). Why else would Republican leaders vote 39 times to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and then vow to keep going, indefinitely, just because they feel like it?

Nancy LeTourneau at the Washington Monthly adds this:

So let’s take a quick trip down memory lane and think about what was happening at the time. The policies of tax cuts and de-regulation that were embraced by President George Bush had contributed to our economy careening towards another great depression. Osama bin Laden was still alive while our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan seemed both futile and endless. And so, it should come as no surprise to anyone that the country elected a president who promised to take things in a different direction. Republican policies had turned out to be a disaster – both domestically and abroad.

It was at that point that the GOP had some tough choices to make. They could re-examine their policies and priorities based on these results in order to reframe the conservative alternative politically. Or they could avoid all of that by playing a power game of trying to destruct [sic] the liberal alternatives. Of course well all know that they chose the latter.

In order to make that work, they had to fan the flames of anger/fear/racism in their base against President Obama. Hence, the Tea Party was born on lies about death panels, birth certificates and Kenyan socialists.

Now Republicans have a whole slate of presidential candidates who seem eager to run on the threat posed by “Islamic terrorists.” But they have no idea about how to do that that doesn’t harken back to the disasters created by the Bush administration. So all they’ve got is to suggest that President Obama’s foreign policy is a retreat from our domination on the world stage.

That’s a tough sell. Many Americans would welcome a retreat from our domination on the world stage – they’ve had enough of that stuff and would rather our government worked on fixing things here, even if it’s just the roads and bridges. Ah, but the Republicans had answer to that. Israel! Jesus was born there and he’ll be returning there soon, and Obama keeps ragging on Benjamin Netanyahu to stop building settlements on land that international law says belongs to the Palestinians, making things worse, and telling Netanyahu to back off while all the major Western nations negotiate with Iran about their nuclear program, because it looks like we can get them to agree to not develop nuclear weapons without a major war in the Middle East, if we concede a few other things. Netanyahu wants us to bomb Iran back to the Stone Age now, or they’ll do it themselves. He says their very survival depends on it. There’s no way to talk to these people.

That was the opening, the Republican anti-thesis to the Obama thesis, and anyone who disagrees with Netanyahu is an anti-Semite and probably hates Jesus too, so inviting Netanyahu, the guy who made it clear he wanted Mitt Romney to win in 2012, to address Congress, would be powerful. They’d bypass the White House – they wouldn’t even tell them Netanyahu was coming – and Netanyahu would, at the request of Congress, tell America that Obama is a fool, who probably hates Jews, and certainly hates Israel. Congress would invite our closest ally, from the country that’s almost our fifty-first state, to tell us we elected the wrong guy and no one should listen to him, ever. It was brilliant. What could go wrong?

Plenty could go wrong:

A large majority of Americans believe that Republican congressional leaders should not have invited Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak to Congress without consulting the White House, according to a new CNN/ORC survey.

The nationwide poll, released Tuesday, shows 63% of Americans say it was a bad move for congressional leadership to extend the invitation without giving President Barack Obama a heads up that it was coming. Only 33% say it was the right thing to do.

And as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to simmer in the Middle East, the survey found that a similar majority thinks the U.S. should stay out of that fight altogether.

So Obama is on firm ground here, and the poll shows that:

Obama has said he will not meet with Netanyahu during his visit because the trip comes too close to Israel’s elections. A growing number of Democrats in both chambers have announced over the past two weeks that they won’t be attending the speech, prompting some to question whether the Israeli leader should cancel or move his speech.

Though the speech has become a partisan issue on Capitol Hill, even Republicans are split on whether it was a good idea for leadership to invite Netanyahu without alerting the White House, with a slight majority – 52% – backing the move. Just 14% of Democrats say it was the right thing to do, and just over a third of independents support the move.

Being anti-Obama just doesn’t cut it now:

Even Republicans, typically seen as the party offering the strongest defense of Israel, are split on whether the U.S. should officially support Israel in the conflict. Forty-nine percent supports backing the nation while 47% say the U.S. should stay out of it.

And a significant age gap suggests U.S. sentiment may, in the long term, be moving further in favor of neutrality in the conflict. While 56% of those aged 50 or older believe the U.S. should stay out of the Israeli-Palestinian fight that number skyrockets to 75% of Americans under age 50.

John Boehner, who set this up, said that he had intentionally kept his plans secret from the Obama administration, because he feared White House “interference” with the speech – but almost two-thirds of Americans see Netanyahu is the one who is interfering, in our politics, to help the Republicans. Apparently they don’t like that at all. Hegelian opposition to the new thesis can backfire, and the Republicans backed the wrong guy:

European leaders have rejected calls by the Israeli Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, for Jews to migrate en masse to Israel, pledging to ensure their safety at home.

Following shootings in Copenhagen at the weekend, Netanyahu echoed remarks he made after the Paris attacks on Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket in January, saying on Sunday: “This wave of terror attacks can be expected to continue, including anti-Semitic and murderous attacks. We say to the Jews, to our brothers and sisters, Israel is your home and that of every Jew. Israel is waiting for you with open arms.”

But the French prime minister, Manuel Valls – who was speaking after several hundred Jewish headstones were vandalized at a cemetery in eastern France – said that he regretted Netanyahu’s call, noting that the Israeli prime minister was “in the midst of a general election campaign”.

The French president, François Hollande, insisted on Monday that he would not allow people to believe that “Jews no longer have a place in Europe”. “Jews have their place in Europe and, in particular, in France,” he said.

The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, said her government would do everything possible to make sure Jewish sites were secure. “We are glad and thankful that there is Jewish life in Germany again,” Merkel said in Berlin. “And we would like to continue living well together with the Jews who are in Germany today.”

Denmark’s chief rabbi, Jair Melchior, said he was disappointed by Netanyahu’s remarks. He said on Sunday: “Terror is not a reason to move to Israel… If the way we deal with terror is to run somewhere else, we should all run to a deserted island.”

That’s just a taste of it, and then there’s this:

In a scathing report with potential political and criminal repercussions, Israel’s state comptroller sharply criticized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday for excessive spending of public funds in his official and private residences.

The highly anticipated report, which came just four weeks before Israeli elections, faulted Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, for using public funds to spend lavishly on a variety of personal goods and services, including cleaning, clothing, water and grooming, between 2009 and 2012.

There are lots of juicy details – they live large – and this:

A statement from Netanyahu’s Likud party accused the news media of pushing the issue for weeks in a “clear effort to remove the prime minister from office … through a focus on irrelevant minutia.”

The statement added that the uproar was distracting from “the real issue at hand,” which is “who will defend Israel in the face of the real security threats and pressure from the international community” – Netanyahu or rivals…

But for others, money matters are a real issue, and the prime minister’s spending has struck a nerve with some voters who are concerned about the high cost of living and are demanding what they consider a more just distribution of resources.

Housing prices have soared since Netanyahu took office, and with 1.6 million people below the poverty line, Israel has the third highest poverty rate in the 34-nation Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

John Boehner wanted to stand in opposition to everything Obama, but he chose the wrong guy to stand beside him. And if Hegel is right about human progress, it’s thesis-antithesis-synthesis, not thesis-nonsense-synthesis. The whole process stalls at nonsense.

Ah, but some things are going right:

One day before hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants were to begin applying for work permits and legal protection, administration officials on Tuesday postponed President Obama’s sweeping executive actions on immigration indefinitely, saying they had no choice but to comply with a federal judge’s last-minute order halting the programs.

The judge’s ruling was a significant setback for the president, who had asserted broad authority to take executive actions in the face of congressional Republicans’ refusal to overhaul the immigration system. White House officials have defended the president’s actions as legal and proper even as his adversaries in Congress and the states have accused him of vastly exceeding the powers of his office.

On the other hand:

Judge Hanen, who was appointed in 2002 by President George W. Bush, has excoriated the Obama administration’s immigration policies in several unusually outspoken rulings… At a hearing on Jan. 15, Judge Hanen said Brownsville, which sits on the border with Mexico, was an appropriate venue for the suit because its residents see the impact of immigration every day. “Talking to anyone in Brownsville about immigration is like talking to Noah about the flood,” Judge Hanen said.

In a long and colorful opinion last August, Judge Hanen departed from the issue at hand to accuse the Obama administration of adopting a deportation policy that “endangers America” and was “an open invitation to the most dangerous criminals in society.”

The case involved a Salvadoran immigrant with a long criminal record whom Judge Hanen had earlier sent to prison for five years. Instead of deporting the man after he served his sentence, an immigration judge in Los Angeles ordered him released, a decision Judge Hanen found “incredible.” Citing no specific evidence, he surmised that the administration had adopted a broader policy of releasing such criminals.

While acknowledging that he had no jurisdiction to alter policy, Judge Hanen said he relied on his “firsthand, in-the-trenches knowledge of the border situation” and “at least a measurable level of common sense” to reach his conclusions about the case.

At Mother Jones, Kevin Drum is not impressed:

Judge Andrew Hanen so obviously hates both Obama and his immigration actions that no one is going to take his decision seriously. It’s a polemic, not a proper court ruling. The case will continue its dreary way through Hanen’s docket, but I imagine an appeals court will stay the injunction pretty quickly, and then overrule his inevitable final ruling in short order. The right-wing plaintiffs in this case may have thought they were being clever in venue shopping to get the case before Hanen, but it won’t do them any good. It might even backfire, given just how transparently political Hanen’s ruling is.

This story makes for a good headline, but it probably means little in real life. At most we’ll have a delay of a few weeks in implementing Obama’s immigration orders.

And there’s this at the National Journal:

A federal judge’s stay of President Obama’s executive action on immigration could give congressional Republicans a lifeline to avoid a partial shutdown of the Homeland Security Department. But it’s not clear yet that they’ll take it.

With funding set to lapse at the end of the month, and a House-passed bill stalled in the Senate over provisions rolling back Obama’s executive action, some Capitol Hill sources began speculating privately that the temporary injunction could give House and Senate leaders cover to pass a clean DHS funding bill – either one that covers the remainder of the fiscal year, as Democrats have demanded, or a short-term measure that would set up another looming deadline.

It’s unclear if Republican leaders want to seize the opportunity…

But, but, but… there is now a way out of this. Take it. Or don’t:

If Democrats continue their refusal to vote for a bill undercutting Obama’s executive action, Republicans could remain equally unflinching, and the result would be a funding lapse for DHS (although more than 80 percent of the agency would remain operational because it is considered essential). But there are signs that it is the GOP who would lose the most politically in such a standoff. A CNN/ORC poll released Tuesday found that 53 percent of Americans polled would blame Republicans in Congress if the department shuts down, while just 30 percent would blame the president.

Given those numbers, Republicans could call Monday’s decision in Texas a victory and pass a clean funding bill to keep the Homeland Security Department running at full capacity. But, given the party’s victories in 2014 despite a full government shutdown one year earlier, many members continue to believe that a short-term DHS shutdown would not harm them politically in the long-run, which could make a clean bill a tough sell in the GOP Conference. Outside groups, such as Heritage Action and NumbersUSA, meanwhile, keep urging members to stand firm, noting that the court decision only reinforces their constitutional high ground.

As they discuss strategy, Republican leaders will have to keep an eye on the courts. The Obama administration is already pursuing an appeal, which could overturn the judge’s decision, leaving GOP members empty-handed. That uncertainty over the judge’s stay has some members cautioning that Republicans should not cede their leverage over DHS funding until an injunction is upheld in an appeals court.

Damn, the Hegelian synthesis was right in front of them. Not the one thing or the other, but a way to move forward – and they won’t move forward. They’ll only get to grin and say that they really stuck it to Hispanics this time. Now they’ll know not to mess with white folks. Obama will know that too.

Was that their intention? Who knows? But clearly Hegel was wrong. Things do not move inevitably from thesis to antithesis to synthesis. Sometimes things get stuck forever at the second step. Or maybe that’s just with Republicans.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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