STOP STEPPING ON MY BREAKTHROUGH

Doing his best to sweet-talk electorally-ascendent liberals into hitching their wagon to the libertarian rickshaw, Brink Lindsey offers a list of shared victories in which liberals and libertarians can revel together:

an honest survey of the past half-century shows a much better match between libertarian means and progressive ends. Most obviously, many of the great libertarian breakthroughs of the era–the fall of Jim Crow, the end of censorship, the legalization of abortion, the liberalization of divorce laws, the increased protection of the rights of the accused, the reopening of immigration–were championed by the political left.

If these are victories for libertarians, then this is a better argument for why libertarians should support liberals and leftists – the people who actually won each of these victories – than for why the left should turn libertarian. But it’s worth asking whether these markers of social progress even qualify as “libertarian breakthroughs” or “libertarian ends.”

The Jim Crow regime was undone in part by the elimination of the poll tax, a nasty law which restricts access to a government function to those able to pay for it and rewards those with more money to spend on their politics with more voice in them. What about undoing those laws qualifies as libertarian? The Jim Crow regime was undone in part by anti-discrimination laws that empower government to use regulation to limit the freedom of employers to employ a workforce that looks like themselves. Inflicting government intervention on market transactions is not exactly the libertarian m.o. Neither is government-mandated busing to integrate a public school system that if libertarians had their way wouldn’t exist in the first place.

Many libertarians no doubt break with Barry Goldwater and support the Civil Rights legislation of 1964 and 1965. But their support for good progressive law doesn’t demonstrate a fundamental affinity between liberalism and libertarianism. It simply demonstrates that even its devotees sometimes reject the maxim that “the government is best which governs least” when faced with the liberty-denying consequences of the “free market” whose “relentless dynamism” Lindsey urges liberals to recognize.

Libertarians may support freedom of the press from censorship, but they’re more likely to fret over how to sell off our publically-owned airwaves than how to ensure airtime for grassroots candidates. They may support a woman’s right to choose, but I wouldn’t count on their assistance in ensuring that women have the economic means to choose abortion or childbirth, or the educational resources to make informed choices. They may support the rights of the accused to a trial, but they’re not the first to line up to be taxed to pay for decent lawyers to represent them (then there are the ones who would like to replace the criminal justice system with a system of private torts). They may support allowing more immigrants into this country, but if you expect them to face down employers who exploit the fear of deportation to suppress the right to organize, you’ve got another think coming.

And though the Cato Institute won’t be joining Rick Santorum’s crusade against no-fault divorce any time soon, there’s no need for an earnest Ayn Rand devotee to support a right to divorce at all. After all, isn’t marriage a binding contract that the parties should know better than to get into lightly? Aside from the reality that it presides over marriage in the first place, why should government have any more right to stop consenting adults from entering contracts for lifelong marriage than it does to bar contracts for human organ sales or pennies-an-hour employment?

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DUMP DENNIS

In the wake of Dennis Prager’s furious condemnation of Congressman-Elect Keith Ellison’s plan to be sworn in on his own holy text – a story Prager described this week as more important to the future of this nation than what we do next in Iraq – the Council on American-Islamic Relations is calling for his removal from the United States Holocaust Memorial Council. As M.J. Rosenberg notes, President Bush appointed Prager three months ago to the Council, which oversees the Holocaust Museum.

That appointment demonstrates that George W. Bush has not fully learned the lessons of the Holocaust.

That language bristles no doubt, because there’s an unfortunate tendency to see big, dramatic historical events on whose moral character there’s a broad consensus – the Civil Rights Movement, the Abolition movement, the Holocaust – as somehow beyond the bounds of politics. But these are all political events. They are seismic moments not because they transcend politics but because they both expose and transform fundamental conflicts between different social visions held by different people and advanced through the exercise of power.

The Holocaust was a genocidal murderous enactment of an ideology of racial, religious, and sexual hierarchy and bigotry. It was an act of murder writ large in the name of Aryan heterosexual non-disabled Protestants being more human, having more worth, and possessing more rights than others. There are still those in this country who hold some or all those prejudices. There are some who will say so openly.

History does not interpret itself. But it demands meaning-making by responsible citizens.
That is not and never has been a process divorced without influence from or impact on our politics.

The Holocaust Museum’s “primary mission is to advance and disseminate knowledge about this unprecedented tragedy; to preserve the memory of those who suffered; and to encourage its visitors to reflect upon the moral and spiritual questions raised by the events of the Holocaust as well as their own responsibilities as citizens of a democracy.”

No one espousing the view that the “acceptance” of Judaism “as equal” to other religions “signifies the decline of Western civilization” would have a shot at a spot overseeing the Holocaust Museum. But someone who believes such about homosexuals was appointed to the Board three months ago by the President. That’s because the full humanity of Jews is considered a settled question in mainstream American political discourse, and therefore inappropriate to “politicize,” while the full humanity of gays is up for debate, and therefore it’s inappropriate to judge those bravely taking the “politically incorrect” stance.

FAIR POINT

Now that I’ve not endorsed a certain kind of endorsement of Lieberman over Lamont, let me criticize the criticism of one of Lieberman’s criticisms of Lamont. The Lieberman camp caused a stir with this flyer distributed at Black churches contending that Lieberman has a much stronger record on race than Lamont. The flyer plays up Lieberman’s support from Bill Clinton and highlights Lieberman’s civil rights activism four decades ago, of which the Senator has every right to be proud. I’d question the invocation of Bill Clinton, who called Sister Souljah a hate-monger and Charles Murray a social scientist, as an authority on the interests of African-Americans. And I’d say the Lamont campaign is right to point out that it’s Lieberman who’s flirted with fraying affirmative action.

But the centerpiece of the flyer – an indictment of Lamont’s membership in an elite country club – strikes me as a fair point (which isn’t to say that it should change anyone’s vote). While it’s irresponsible to paraphrase Lamont’s statement that he didn’t consider the lack of diversity of the club as saying that he “didn’t pay as much attention to race,” and while the details of the club’s membership remain hazy, for Lamont to say that he resigned from the club because he didn’t want it to “become a distraction” in the Senate race is an uninspiring response at best.

Predictably, Lieberman’s campaign has been charged with “race-baiting,” which is a term which somehow tends to get trotted out with far more frequency in American political discourse to refer to accusations of racism towards Blacks than to refer to appeals to it. It would of course be specious to call Lamont a racist based on his membership in an elite club, and Lieberman’s flyer doesn’t do that. It suggests that Lamont is insensitive to race, and to make that argument, it emphasizes an embarrassing episode for him and makes no mention of the choices he’s made that cast him in a far more positive light. So while I don’t agree with the characterization, it’s hard for me to take seriously the claims that the evidence offered should be out of bounds.

I’m all for voting for politicians based more on their vision on the issues and less on their perceived character. But to the extent that people care about character – especially in primaries, where in most cases there are less stark differences than the ones we see in Connecticut – I think there are worse things to take into consideration than the organizations in which candidates claim membership. It’s a far more reasonable criticism than, say, GOP accusations that Ted Strickland and his wife are closeted homosexuals.

Ned Lamont, of course, has still got my vote. And I have no doubt that as an advocate for a more just and sane foreign policy, and for a domestic policy which keeps the provision of public support a public responsibility and the devices of private corporations where they belong, he will do far more to protect and advance civil rights in the US Senate over the next six years than Joe Lieberman will.

JOBS AND FREEDOM

Martin Luther King called for a guaranteed minimum standard of living for all Americans; a generation later, our political leaders have presided over a bipartisan retreat from this country’s social contract with its most vulnerable citizens. King called for a broad-based movement against bigotry, militarism, and economic injustice; a generation later, the left remains beset by the divisions he worked to overcome, and by the ones he himself failed to critically engage. King called for an audacious, visionary struggle to win the seemingly unachievable; a generation later, we spend much of our energy working to protect what’s been won against further erosion. There was a time when the FBI called King the most dangerous Negro in America. It’s time King was dangerous again.

"A REGULAR THING FOR ME"

“Not an intentional attempt to change the nation.”

That’s Bill Frist’s ahistorical description of Rosa Parks’ December 1, 1955 civil disobedience. I take on this and a few other peculiar gems of punditry on her life in an article for Campus Progress on-line here:

Unfortunately, much of what’s been said by politicians or journalists has been deeply misleading or flat-out false. It’s reinforced the 50-year-old myth that Parks was an apolitical woman who one day ambled into history out of simple physical exhaustion and then promptly ambled back out of it again. Such a myth only encourages needless knee-jerk skepticism of contemporary activists who are public about strong political convictions, work through political organizations, and formulate careful media strategies – all of which describe the real Rosa Parks, not the Rosa Parks most Americans remember.

More on this here and here.

ROSA PARKS, MISREMEMBERED

Rosa Parks died yesterday at age 92. Over the days to come, we’ll hear a lot of very-much deserved prasie for Parks’ refusal to abide bigotry and her courage in the service of a cause. Unfortunately, we’ll also hear a new round of recitations of the stubborn myth that Parks was an anonymous, apolitical woman who spontaneously refused to yield to authority and in so doing inspired a movement. The truth, as Aldon Morris wrote in his book The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement, is that a decade earlier

in the 1940s Mrs. Parks had refused several times to comply with segregation rules on the buses. In the early 1940s Mrs. Parks was ejected from a bus for failing to comply. The very same bus driver who ejected her that time was the one who had her arrested on December 1, 1955…She began serving as secretary for the local NAACP in 1943 and still held that post when arrested in 1955…In the early 1940s Mrs. Parks organized the local NAACP Youth Council…During the 1950s the youth in this organization attempted to borrow books from a white library. They also took rides and sat in the front seats of segregated buses, then returned to the Youth Council to discuss their acts of defiance with Mrs. Parks.

This history is not hidden. But the Times’ obituary describes Parks’ arrest nonetheless as an event which “turned a very private woman into a reluctant symbol and torchbearer…” Parks was certainly reluctant to see too personal valoration of her as heroine distract from the broader movement. But she was not private about her politics. And her refusal to give up her bus seat was nothing new for her. As she would later tell an interviewer, “My resistance to being mistreated on the buses and anywhere else was just a regular thing with me and not just that day.”

The myth of Parks as a pre-political seamstress who was too physically worn out to move has such staying power not because there’s any factual basis but because it appeals to an all-too popular narrative about how social change happens in America: When things get bad enough, an individual steps up alone, unsupported and unmediated, and spontaneously resists. And then an equally spontaneous movement follows. Such a myth makes good TV, but it’s poor history.

Movement-building takes hard work, no matter how righteous the cause or how desperate the circumstances.

The pivotal moments of the 60’s civil rights movement, as Morris recounts in his book, were not random stirrings or automatic responses. Most of them were carefully planned events which followed months of organizing and were conceived with an eye to political tactics and media imagery. There were even some long meetings involved.

That shouldn’t be seen as a dirty little secret, because strategic organizing and planned imagery shouldn’t be seen as signs of moral impurity. Organizations, like the people in them, each have their faults (Ella Baker was frequently and justifiably furious with the sexism and condescension of much of CORE’s leadership). But the choice of individuals to work together and find common cause in common challenges doesn’t become less pure or less honest or less noble when they choose to do it through political organizations. And there’s nothing particularly progressive about a historical perspective in which Rosa Parks’ defiance of racism is made less genuine by the knowledge that she was secretary of the NAACP.

The myth of Rosa Parks as a private apolitical seamstress, like the myth of Martin Luther King as a race-blind moderate, has real consequences as we face the urgent civil rights struggles of today. Seeing acts of civil disobedience like Parks’ as spontaneous responses to the enormity of the injustice justifies the all-too common impulses to refuse our support for organized acts of resistance and regard organized groups as inherently corrupt. Those are impulses people like Rosa Parks had to confront and overcome amongst members of her community long before she ever made national headlines for refusing to give up her seat on the bus.

WHAT IS BARACK OBAMA SAYING?

Friday, Barack Obama wrote a response to blogospheric criticism of his criticism from the Senate floor of advocacy groups which were condemning Senators who voted to confirm Roberts (Obama himself voted against confirmation). He makes some points I agree with, and some I don’t. Most frustrating, though – and all the more so given his gift as a writer – are the arguments which sound nice but whose meanings are difficult to tease out at all. Like this one:

My colleague from Illinois, Dick Durbin, spoke out forcefully – and voted against – the Iraqi invasion. He isn’t somehow transformed into a “war supporter” – as I’ve heard some anti-war activists suggest – just because he hasn’t called for an immediate withdrawal of American troops. He may be simply trying to figure out, as I am, how to ensure that U.S. troop withdrawals occur in such a way that we avoid all-out Iraqi civil war, chaos in the Middle East, and much more costly and deadly interventions down the road. A pro-choice Democrat doesn’t become anti-choice because he or she isn’t absolutely convinced that a twelve-year-old girl should be able to get an operation without a parent being notified. A pro-civil rights Democrat doesn’t become complicit in an anti-civil rights agenda because he or she questions the efficacy of certain affirmative action programs. And a pro-union Democrat doesn’t become anti-union if he or she makes a determination that on balance, CAFTA will help American workers more than it will harm them.

There are several ways to read this argument:

One is that what matters is a politician’s values, and not individual votes, and so it’s wrong to call a politician “anti-civil rights” for casting votes which hurt the cause of civil rights. The problem with this argument is that we elect representatives to cast good votes, not to personally sympathize with us and our values.

Another is that none of us has the right to decide what these labels mean – that it’s arrogant and inappropriate for pro-choice activists to tell politicians what it should mean to be pro-choice. The problem with this argument is that there’s no point in working to advance the cause of “choice” in general if that excludes advancing a particular understanding of what is and is not pro-choice policy. While it’s arguable whether or not the movement would be served by more politicians claiming the pro-choice mantle without changing their policy positions, but it certainly be insufficient.

Another argument which could Obama could be making here is that is that immediate troop withdrawl from Iraq, opposition to parental notification laws, defense of affirmative action from “questioning,” and opposition to CAFTA are not in fact serving the goals of the anti-war, pro-choice, civil rights, and labor movements, respectively. In other words, he could argue against the positions he thinks Democratic senators are wrongly being held to on the merits. But if there’s any such criticism here, it’s only implicit (Obama, for the record, voted against CAFTA in the Senate, voted against parental notification in the Illinois Senate, and is not calling for an immediate withdrawl of all US troops).

Given that Obama seems not to be articulating that argument, he could be arguing that these particular issues are just not important enough to make a big deal of. But it’s hard to imagine the groups he names not putting up a fight over these issues, and it would be hard to believe that Obama would expect them not to. CAFTA was the first comprehensive trade deal to come before the Congress under Bush, crafted to erode worker protections which accelerating the race to the bottom. Parental notification policies are, along with denial of government funding, one of the major policy impediments to women’s substantive exercise of their right to choose.

A more spurious argument which Obama seems implicitly to be making through questionable word choice is that the problem with these left-wing advocacy groups is that they’re out to restrict elected officials’ freedom of expression by punishing them for not being “absolutely convinced” on parental notification or “making a determination” they don’t like on CAFTA. To the extent that advocacy groups criticize elected officials for critical public statements, they’re not chilling speech – they’re responding to it, and I’d say there are some criticisms which are deserved and others which aren’t. But phrases like Obama’s here aren’t really about speech – they’re about votes. To describe a pro-choice group as punishing a legislator for not being convinced of something conjures up Orwellian images, but what pro-choice groups are taking legislators to task for isn’t private thoughts – it’s how they legislate.

The final argument that I think could reasonably be read from this paragraph, is that advocacy groups shouldn’t expect politicians to vote the way they want all of the time. But why not? Certainly, it would be a poor tactical choice for such groups to predict that everyone they want will vote however they want all of the time. But given the premise that their positions are the right ones (and with the exception of immediate and total withdrawl, I believe they are, and Obama seems to as well), shouldn’t support of all of their positions be the standard against which they judge elected officials? Does Obama really expect the National Council of La Raza to make public statements like, “Sadly, the Senator is only 85% of the way to casting votes to extend rather than restrict civil rights at least 60% of the time”? Elected officials, locally as well as nationally, often revel in disparaging “activists” for failure to understand the necessity of compromise. The first problem with that critique is that too often, the compromises are bad ones. The second is that the way we get good compromises is by having leaders on our side who are willing to take strong stands in the face of opposition. Obviously, writing a politician off as not worth working with in the future because of a vote on a particular issue is just bad politics – if you’re not organizing them, someone else is. But there’s a difference between writing off politicians who cast bad votes and being willing to publicly point out that those votes are bad. Voting for CAFTA may not make an otherwise pro-union legislator anti-union for good, but those of us who believe voting against CAFTA is the right vote and the pro-union vote to cast are, it seems to me, obligated to regard a politician who votes for CAFTA as less pro-union than if she hadn’t. Otherwise, we might as well pack up and go home.

Or maybe all Obama was trying to say was that left advocates should soften their rhetoric. I don’t think describing a Senator who votes to confirm a nominee for Chief Justice as in some way “complicit” in particularly aggregious decisions that Justice makes on the court is in any way out of bounds (and yes, that means Russ Feingold, of whom I remain a big fan, bears some degree of responsibility for what Justice Roberts does on the court). And I don’t think the left or the country are well-served when advocacy groups whose fundamental mission is an ideological one, not a partisan one, hold their fire in taking politicians of one party to task for actions for which they would condemn members of the other. Is there some exaggerated, over-the-top, nastily personal rhetoric out there? Of course. But if that’s what Obama takes issue with, he could have found a clearer way to say it.