Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Abolitionist = Conservative?

Ruth Ann Dailey had a “Why I am a conservative” column yesterday, much like The Office had a flashback episode last week (maybe it is something in the air). The difference between the two is watching flashbacks of Office vignettes is satisfying, while reading Ruth Ann twisting history to suit her own particular cognitive dissonance is not.

She started and finished with descriptions of meeting groups of people who don’t understand her, which we can safely ignore. The meat of her column starts by suggesting that most people don’t think about their political beliefs; those beliefs are shaped by family, either by adopting the views of parents of rebelling against them. She suggests they are “more emotional than rational, more motivated by identity than ideals”. I have to say I agree with her on this point, my own experience bears it out. It applies, in my opinion, equally to liberals and conservatives. She also thinks the effect of the cultural landscape we grow up in shapes our views. She compares people who grew up in the Great Depression and World War II to baby boomers, and not favorably. And she tells us we share ideals – “freedom, justice, equality, opportunity, compassion, self-determination and more”, but how we see current issues depends on how we rank these ideas internally.

I am in agreement, mostly, with her up to this point. At this point she suggests our most important value is to fight tyranny, whether within “Slavery, segregation or big brother government” or without “Nazi national socialism, Soviet communism or Islamic terrorism”. This is, of course, the quintessential American myth. To me however, the timing and manner in which we ended slavery ought to be a national embarrassment (a third of white Americans were willing to kill to continue owning slaves) and the fact that segregation went on for a hundred years after the Civil War kind of indicates how strong our commitment to equal rights really was/is.

I could devote a whole post to dealing with her whole fighting tyranny thing, but I want to go on, because Ruth Ann gets a bit more outrageous. At this point she slams Ellen Goodman, who suggested the people of the sixties were “change agents for civil rights, women’s rights, gay right”. Ruth Ann gives the sixties generation credit for gay rights, but suggests that civil rights and women’s rights movements dated back much further. Ruth Ann further places herself in these past movements (though she wasn’t alive) by suggesting that “for many decades a majority, though by no means all, of those striving for abolition, desegregation and women's suffrage were the evangelical Christians whom today's "progressives" by and large despise” She further links today’s evangelical religious conservatives to the evangelicals of those past times (whom she calls social radicals) and calls them her people.

Now, it is impossible to say what Ruth Ann’s “evangelical Christian social radicals” would advocate today, the cultural divide is too weird. But I want to look at an institution that is over 150 years old, that has a sort of evangelical Christian history as well as a social radical one. It is also my alma mater, Oberlin College.

Oberlin was founded in 1833, by Presbyterian ministers. It started and maintained a strong missionary tradition. It also was the first institution of higher learning to admit African Americans and women, and a “hotbed” of abolitionist activity, including being a stop on the Underground Railroad. Now, I have to say the religious activities at Oberlin have largely faded, but the social radical aspect has not. It continues to have an extremely progressive slant (in 1970 it was one of the first schools to have co-ed dorms, for example).

But I understand where Ruth Ann is coming from, she gives us clues when she says “Beginning in the 1960s, the drive to secure basic constitutional rights morphed into an ever-expanding agenda of extra-constitutional "rights" -- efforts to enforce equality of outcomes at the expense of true liberty.” In her view, the women’s movement ended when women got the vote in 1920. African Americans achieved all they needed when segregation was ended in the sixties.

Now, again I understand what Ruth Ann is saying, even if it is silly in the extreme to say the “Great Society” was about achieving equality of outcomes. In fact, that is the direction from which I would defend the “Great Society”. It was hardly about creating a (theoretical) communist society where everyone has the same income/resources, regardless of effort or ability. Instead, the Great Society was about giving the poor access to dignified (and modern) housing, lots of training and education assistance, and specific sorts of income assistance to help them until they got the better paying jobs (such as food stamps). It was the first attempt, at least at that scale, to help a minority group change their fortunes, and like many such first attempts, it was largely a failure, both in popular culture and in reality. Again I certainly don’t think the Great Society was about equality of the finish line, to me it was clearly about trying to achieve an equality of the starting line. But even though discrimination had essentially been outlawed, racism both overt and more subtle continued and continues today. It does not help that drugs of various sorts have swept through African American communities, along with accompanying crime.

So to step back a second and make some links here, Ruth Ann wants to own the anti-slavery, civil rights and women’s suffrage movements by virtue of the fact that she is an evangelical herself, and wants to claim kinship with past evangelicals her were in these movements. Were it me, I would not be proud of the fact it took nearly a hundred years to end slavery in the US, another hundred for segregation to end, and a hundred and thirty years from the start of the nation for women to get the vote. Then Ruth Ann wants t tell us that the social radicals of more than a hundred years ago, who did care so much about their fellow humans of a different color that they were willing to give their lives for them, that those Christian evangelical social radicals would now tell African Americans that they are asking for too much government assistance. In other words, yesterday’s John Brown is today’s Glenn Beck (actually, considering the two men, maybe that one isn’t so silly).

Surely the word “conservative” itself tells us something about what those who call themselves that believe. Presumably conservatives want to conserve the status quo, because they see change as dangerous and unpredictable (and not benefiting the conservatives). Again, it is silly to make comparisons across time, but wouldn’t the conservatives of 1859 have been the people advocating compromise between the slave-holding South and the North?

Ruth Ann Dailey’s political views seem a perfect topic for a cognitive dissonance post.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Robert Parker is dead

One of my favorite authors, Robert B Parker, died Monday at 77 of a heart attack. He was the author of the Spenser books, as well as at least three other series and several one offs. I would have to characterize Parker's books as a guilty pleasure; when a new one would come out I would reserve it at the library and when I finally got my hands on it I would generally finish it in an evening. Not that I am that fast a reader, they were just that easy to read. I think Parker listed Spenser's age in the first book (36 or so, I think), but stopped referring to it after a while, as it became increasingly preposterous that Spenser was still beating people in fights into his seventies. I believe one reviewer explained this contradiction away by describing Spenser as "timeless". But I very much enjoyed the dialogue in the books.

I find it interesting that in his early Spenser novels (in the 1980's) Parker addressed feminism, in a reasonably intelligent fashion. But after a while the Spenser novels settled into a sort of comfortable groove, not really trying to notice the social issues of the real world.

I'm not sure that Parker's recent work had the same snap of his early writing, although he had branched out, writing a series with a female detective "Sunny Randall", a series with an alcoholic ex-LA detective turned small town police chief "Jesse Stone", and a western series, as well as a one off about gunfight at the OK corral and Wyatt Earp. The first book or two in each of these series were very good, after which they settled into a groove similar to Spenser's. So I won't say that Parker's best writing was behind him, but he would have needed to challenge himself with yet a different character and setting to produce more really good writing.

Still, I, for one, will miss him.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Kelly's latest distortion

I really am beginning to suspect Jack Kelly actually understands the ideas put forward by the smart members of Obama’s administrative team. Kelly understands them and could articulate them if he so chose, and actually help people understand what really happened with the Christmas “underwear” bomber. Kelly could help us understand what this incident tells us about how the government is handling its war/campaign against terrorism.

Yet Kelly has decided to go the route Fox News goes, of distorting the facts and making accusations against Obama that (in my opinion) don’t reflect reality and in fact, if the analysis of some government and news people is correct, could actually push harmful policies. In his column today, Kelly has a smart set of quotes from a senior man in Obama’s counter terrorism team, John Brennan, made during Obama's campaign in March 2008. Those first four paragraphs could have lead to a discussion about how our government is collecting so much information about possible terrorist suspect it is actually drowning in information. This is something I have read elsewhere, and which (I believe) Mr. Brennan himself has said after the underwear bomber incident. It’s not that the employees of DHS and various government agencies weren’t working hard on terrorism, it’s almost as if they are working too hard, collecting too much information, and thus becoming unable to sift through what they do have. It is possible that we need to find ways to be smarter, find those pieces of information that are more important, that will lead to possible terrorist attacks.

But Kelly, after those first four paragraphs, goes in exactly the opposite direction, and accuses Obama of telling his administration to ignore terrorism. Kelly accuses the administration of treating the underwear bomber as unimportant, and Obama himself of deciding to stay three more days in Hawaii when he was informed (three hours after the incident occurred) of the incident.

To demonstrate that I am captive to the liberal agenda, or perhaps just to tell the truth, I will point out that when the “shoe bomber” struck on December 22nd of 2001, George Bush was on vacation. He not only did not return from Camp David, he went on to Crawford. After six days he said something (one or two sentences) about the shoe bomber, but in the atmosphere of huge patriotic fervor following 9/11, no one was willing to say anything against the President, not the cowering opposition Democrats or those paragons of patriotism, the Republicans. Richard Reid was tried in a civilian court. All this only four months after 9/11. It should have been a major event, in fact a sign that even with National Guard patrolling our airports terrorists (even apparent idiots like Richard Reid) could still strike our airliners.

The thing about the underwear bomber is there were a lot of clues. But, as I said before, what I am also hearing is that the government has been pursuing a huge number of clues. What apparently happened is that there are so many clues about everything, it is hard to recognize when something really significant shows up.

But Kelly is quoting people who say that Obama is only paying lip service to fighting terrorism. If Kelly actually does understand why the government couldn’t identify the underwear bomber ahead of time, then his column, with its implication that the government needs to collect much more information, could cause our whole system to develop huge holes that terrorists could crash airliners through, or attack chemical plants, or explode nuclear bombs or nerve gas canisters in our harbors through. It’s hard for me to understand why Kelly would do advocate something he knows will be harmful to the Country. Except that if the terrorists do successfully attack the US again, it is likely the Democrats will lose the Congress in 2010 and the White House in 2012. Could a former marine, sworn to protect the United States, actually think that way? I hope not, but honestly I don’t know.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Well, maybe...

After Pat Dowd was elected and took office two years ago, I was looking forward to watching him take steps to revolutionize city government. He had campaigned on working on resolving the City’s debt, on improving citizen’s access to government, and in general on making government smarter. After he took office, as I recall he started with a pledge signed by the City Council and the Mayor for good government. But not too long after that there was the business with the LED billboard. Strangely, that event started with him opposing the Mayor, but later put him at odds with the progressive members of City Council (I will go into some details below). Now apparently there have been continuing incidents, culminating in the events of New Years. That is when, after the Mayor’s last possible minute veto of the prevailing wage bill, Doug Shields called an emergency meeting of Council. I suspect any Pittsburgher who reads this blog knows Pat Dowd protested the calling of the meeting, refused to participate (to give the needed sixth vote to overturn the Mayor’s veto) and ended up complaining loudly. The historian with a doctorate ended up calling the other members of Council present “fascists”.

So what is Dr. Dowd’s motivation for this behavior? Is he just a contrarian or might there be some other reason. I don’t know the answer, but there have been some ideas nagging at the back of my mind for some time. The first time Dr. Dowd did something that seemed counter productive was after he filed suit involving the LED billboard. He had hired his own lawyer, but at the last possible moment Shields, Peduto, Kraus and I believe Burgess filed their own lawsuit (essentially trying to join Dowd, and also showing the Mayor that a majority of Council opposed his actions). But when they tried to use City funds to pay for the lawyer they hired, Dr Dowd objected. His point was that Council had not asked for a preliminary vote prior to hiring the lawyer to authorize the expense. Now, I don’t remember why those members of Council waited until the last possible moment to hire the lawyer and file the suit. One possibility is they were surprised by Dr Dowd’s move. They may not have had time to take a preliminary vote, but never the less there is one inescapable fact: Dr Dowd is actually right, at least in a technical sense. Should it matter that the Council might not have had time to take that preliminary vote?

Let’s look at a more clear cut example, the New Year’s Eve veto by the Mayor and the emergency meeting called by Doug Shields. Now these events occur about a year and a half since the LED billboard affair, and Dr Dowd has had conflicts with other Council members and ran against the Mayor in last year’s primary. When the Mayor vetoed the prevailing wage bill on New Year’s Eve, he achieved an interesting tactical victory. By vetoing it then, that particular bill could not have it’s veto over-ridden, since it was after business hours, and the Council that had previously passed the bill (unanimously) would not exist the next day.

However, before going on I want to point out that the Mayor’s was only tactical (small scale) and more importantly, temporary. The new Council is actually likely to be more inclined to pass a prevailing wage bill. But an angry Doug Shields decided to try to over ride the Mayor’s veto anyway, and called the emergency meeting. Except that actually he couldn’t legally call an emergency meeting without 24 hours notice. People like Bob Mayo, Chris Potter and Bram Reichbaum examined the issue, and I believe the consensus (at least between Mayo and Potter) was that the Council’s own rules and the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act were violated. Perhaps Council could have also voted to waive its own rules, but probably not a State law. Maybe the unusual nature of the situation would have been enough that the meeting and the over riding of the veto (had it been accomplished) would have survived a legal challenge. But once again Pat Dowd felt that what Council was doing wrong and refused to participate. This was the point where he tweeted that this was how the fascists had seized power. In fact I suspect he is somewhat wrong in that assessment, but he is correct that the emergency meeting was a technical violation of rules.

Now, I am of the opinion that there are rules and then there are rules. Personally I think the rules of a court of law are in some ways more important the procedures for a legislative body (I say that knowing I risk being accused of possibly allowing the fascists in). The procedures for an American court of law balance the need of allowing both sides to make their case with the needs of the system to protect future defendants’ rights. But legislative rules evolve to make the system as fair as possible, give the public access but also sometimes allow deliberation in secret, and generally promote orderly proceedings. Still, the Mayor has demonstrated that the system in Pittsburgh can be manipulated, that Council’s will can be thwarted. On at least two occasions, a fraction of Council decided to side step its own rules, but only in response to something the Mayor did. Was Council’s breaking its own rules justified on those occasions? I believe it was.

But I can see the other side of the argument. Perhaps when the Mayor does something that breaks rules is the time when Council needs to hold itself to a higher standard. Perhaps that’s the point Dr Dowd has been trying to make.

If so, if that was his intention, he has not been very successful, in my opinion. He has apparently gotten angry in Council sessions, and even heckled during the New Year’s Eve meeting. That is not behavior that demonstrates principle. It does indicate passion, but I am not sure our City Council needs more passion.

I still consider Dr Dowd to be a very intelligent man. He may or may not be the smartest person on City Council, but whether he is or not, he is certainly smart enough to be a tremendous asset to Council (he is, after all, the most educated). However, when he feels Council is breaking its own rules, he needs to find a way to say that and then I think he should quietly say he can’t participate in meetings he thinks are illegal and walk away. People might fault him for doing that, but at least he would be able to command some respect for exercising his principles in a dignified manner.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Can we handle the truth?

Jack Kelly reminds me of the movies in the Dirty Harry series after the first, but before they got really silly (you know, when he got the even bigger hand cannon or was chased by a radio controlled toy car). There was often a sense that criminals manipulated the system with ease, and even if they did go to prison it was like going to a resort. Now, I will admit that money affects everything, so in the past and even still some criminals did have such good legal defenses as to escape justice, while (as we now know) innocent men were sent to prison for crimes they didn’t commit, often because of out and out racism (that’s something Kelly doesn’t mention).

I am referring, in all this, to a quote from today’s Kelly column “"Do you think that most Americans prefer that this guy is a) watching cable TV in a warm cell funded by taxpayers and enjoying his right to remain silent; or b) at an undisclosed location being waterboarded to learn about his little friends back in Yemen and their plans to kill us?" a friend asked Michael Goldfarb of The Weekly Standard.” talking about Umar Abdulmutallab, the man who tried to blow up the Northwest Air flight on Christmas Day.

Of course, Kelly can escape any negative consequences for saying that because he is quoting a journalist who is quoting “a friend”. But I want to focus on another person’s quote in the Kelly column: “"Despite vast databases crammed with evidence, our leaders -- of both parties -- still refuse to connect Islamist terror with Islam," Lt. Col. Peters wrote.”

Kelly is just quoting, but he did choose the quote.

How many Americans actually know what Al Qaeda actually wants? My understanding is that they want the US to leave the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia, they want the Middle East to be run by one government (a Caliphate) and they want Israel gone (probably destroyed)(http://www.infoplease.com/spot/al-qaeda-terrorism.html). When Iraq was attacking Iran, we supported him as a secular leader (bound to upset very devout Muslims). Our female personnel in Saudi Arabia have walked around in tank tops and shorts, driving and we have generally flaunted an ignorance of Islamic law. So I can see the idea of Al Qaeda wanting us out of the Middle East, although I think most Muslims are simply uncomfortable with our ignorant behavior. But to equate Islam with Islamist terror is like saying all Christians must believe the Earth is only 5000 years old.

I wonder how many people remember that the Nazi’s of Germany were initially an anti communist movement? That in the twenties and even more I think in the thirties communism was popular with the unions, and unions (and probably some of the ideology of communism) were popular with workers in thirties, who didn’t feel much sympathy from management. I am sure the various bosses were alarmed by communists, and so for a long time US foreign policy was at most neutral about the Nazi’s, if not a bit positive. It also puts Joe McCarthy in a somewhat different light (although by the fifties everyone involved were mostly disenchanted with communism). And by the way there is room for debate about how much the cold war was really about stopping the Soviets from taking over the world, or the Soviets trying to defend themselves from aggressive American “containment”.

My point is that Al Qaeda certainly hates us, would be happy to never see another American in the Middle East, but I think the idea that they want to see us destroyed is silly. Iran can not destroy us, much less a terrorist group of a few hundred (even if it is a few thousand people). Iran could hurt us, and hurt us more with nukes, obviously the same for Al Qaeda. But we could obviously pound Iran to dust if we wanted to, and we have been pounding on Al Qaeda for the last eight years (and change). I don’t know why we dropped the chance to get Osama Bin Laden in 2001 (except that if we had Bush would have lost his excuse to invade Iraq), but we still have fumblingly done a fair bit of damage to Al Qaeda.

Obviously Al Qaeda is still a threat to our country, but we need to remain clear about what kind of threat. Certainly Al Qaeda wants to hit visibility targets, preferably with lots of American casualties (particularly important ones) and they are unconcerned if a few Al Qaeda operatives die along the way. Really typical terrorist stuff actually. Could some downed airplanes and/or nerve gas in a subway really be terrible and painful? Absolutely. But could those acts destroy the US, destroy our way of life? I don’t think so, and put that way I am sure you agree. But like the US with the communists, the story conservatives want to tell us is more important than the reality that exists. Thus I guess Kelly’s choice of quotes.

I don’t think the Obama administration has done a great job with our defense against terrorists, but the mess left us by the Bush administration may be impossible to un-entangle ourselves from. It will be certainly impossible if we delude ourselves with the conservative silliness.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Big issues on a small scale ....

Traditionally the Republicans have been the party of business, at least supposedly. Actually, as far as I know the Republicans were born as an abolitionist party. But be that as it may, the stereotype is that Republicans were the party trying to protect the rights/wealth of the privileged. Republicans like to use the language of business and economics to advocate policies that favor the free market, and complain about policies that place restrictions on the market (either to address pollution/global warming or the economic issues of the poor or labor). Now, you would think that sometime in the eight years of the (second) Bush administration or at least in the four years when the Republicans had majorities in both houses of Congress and the White House, the Republicans would have taken steps to address economic issues. In fact, considering there was an announced goal to create a permanent Republican majority, and that Republicans claim that taking the government out of the free market and everyone (including the poor) will benefit, it is surprising that Republicans seemed to go in the opposite direction and expanded government spending. They made some cuts in social spending, cut revenue collection by lowering the taxes (mostly of the wealthy) and ran of course they were running a couple of occupations while borrowing to spend more and reward everyone’s constituents (particularly those of Republican congress persons). But not the supply side revolution we might have expected.

So, again, again, why not? Republicans and conservatives (including conservative bloggers and on-line commenters) tell us that only if government would leave the market alone, life would be better even for our poorest. Yet when they had the opportunity to actually implement these ideas, they failed to move forward. No courage of their convictions? Or perhaps despite the fact the speak the words, they have no idea what the actual theories are? At least Reagan did some tax trimming, some of which might have even been targeted according to supply side principles. Of course, we may lay some of our current problems in the financial sector (and perhaps others in government) at Reagan’s feet.

Now this debate is being played out once again, in sort of miniature form, and mostly between liberal and conservative City Democrats. There are some suburban conservatives piping in and mostly taking the opportunity to tell the City that unless it wises up and starts oppressing African Americans and other poor City residents, the City will fall (further) into the economic abyss. But mostly it is progressives (and perhaps union leaders) advocating a prevailing wage and the Mayor (perhaps behaving true to form) complaining that such a policy will hurt development. To be fair, does he have a point?

Business getting money (a hundred thousand for most, thirty thousand for grocery stores) from the City would be expected to pay their employees whatever an average wage is within a particular geographic area for each particular job position. Does that disadvantage potential City developers so much as to assure their ventures will fail? If these potential developers need to offer lower wages to succeed, who will they hire? After all, to attract good employees, you need to offer a good wage. If you offer grocery store employees minimum wage, you will get only new employees, and those who were turned away from higher wage jobs. Of course, if you are locating businesses in disadvantaged neighborhoods, (the snide suburban Republicans say) all you will get in applicants are those who have never been hired or can’t be hired in the suburbs. The implication is that City businesses will only be able to sell to City residents (probably because of the inferior products they will sell) and because of the theft associated with City residents and the stupidity associated with City business people, will only survive if they pay poverty wages. Of course, that’s ok because we don’t really want the residents of poor City neighborhoods accumulating enough money to move to the suburbs.

Well, that might not be the Mayor’s articulated argument. In fact, I will be interested to hear the Mayor’s arguments. His 11th hour veto of the prevailing wage bill seemed clearly designed to tweak the noses of the current council. Yet I doubt he did himself or whatever cause he is trying to advance much good. If there are problems with such a bill (and I can see that there might be, although I believe several other cities have passed such laws), giving Council the opportunity to rewrite the bill might strengthen it against a court challenge. Ricky Burgess may have lost some support for the Council Presidency, mostly because of his connection to Pat Dowd. Dowd during his term has repeatedly chosen to take technically legally correct plans (such as saying his fellow Council members could not hire a lawyer during the whole LED billboard dust-up). But Dowd expresses these positions in a less than diplomatic manner. His argumentative style, frequently directed towards his fellow council persons (possibly more than towards the Mayor) have made him no one’s friend.

There’s talk that if Burgess doesn’t make it, and Peduto can not muster the votes to become President, maybe Theresa Kali-Smith will be advanced. I so far have seen no reason to think she would be anything but a puppet for the Mayor (Burgess similarly seems like he might be that too). I have also heard Kraus might be an option, and I suspect he might be a superior one. He has worked hard in his position, but he has acted diplomatically and made few enemies (except for those who naturally hate him for his sexual orientation). He may be the City’s best hope.

Meanwhile, just like with healthcare/insurance, there is no real debate on the economic effects of the prevailing wage bills, only shallow arguments from different ideologies, or perhaps just different political camps. The end seems inevitable, yet we may yet be surprised by the power Ravenstahl might yet wield.