Saturday, November 12, 2011

Free With The Facts (UPDATE)

Whenever George Will puts on his Constitutional scholar hat, right-thinking people cover their eyes in shame. It may well be that the Stolen Valor Act of 2005 is an unconstitutional piece of crap. At the same time, the attempt at both the state and federal level to regulate certain speech-acts as beyond the bounds of Constitutional acceptability does have a certain amount of practical merit. No one should be surprised by Will's opposition to a set of rules and regulations that would disproportionately harm the political opportunities of conservatives. When it comes to slinging piles of poo until they stick, the Republicans are the alpha males of our little primate colony.

All one needs to consider is the following on-going meme - the socialism of President Barack Obama. Real socialists carry on about the perfidy, weakness, and general bag-carrying-for-business-and-banks of Pres. Obama and his Administration. No matter. We'll just repeat it and repeat it, and pretend it actually means something and, voila! There are significant numbers of conservative and Republican voters who believe our business-coddling President is V. I. Lenin in a better suit.

It is a dodgy thing, at best, to talk about regulating speech. It is impossible to look for guidance in these matters to the founding generation of our country, because they honored these things, by and large, in the breach. John Adams supported and signed the Alien and Sedition Act which, among other things, criminalized all sorts of political speech. We still have laws regulating seditious libel, for which truth is no defense (something I cannot fathom; there is no rational reason why truth isn't a defense when going after a public figure, except to protect the status quo, so, uh, duh). The Presidential election of 1800 makes our current politics look like a high school student council election by comparison, and the things said about Pres. Obama only approach the kinds of invective Adams tossed at Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson, being a gentleman, managed to toss far less lethal poo at Adams.

All the same, our current speech-climate certainly favors those who have no scruples. Those who are quite willing to say anything and everything about candidates, about laws and bills before Congress, about the actual effects of legislation or policy preferences. Which means, in recent history, Republican candidates. The year-long campaign against the Affordable Care Act was an object lesson in the effectiveness of lying in politics. With false statements no longer constitutionally protected, we might well have a situation where the playing field between various parties and their policy preferences becomes level. Even more than removing money from the electioneering process through campaign finance reform, what would our politics look like if all parties were reduced to discussing issues knowing they could not, under penalty of law, make a false statement in the negative about their opponents or their policy preferences, nor could they make any false positive statements about themselves?

It would have a devastating impact upon the economy, because there would be a whole lot of people whose livelihood depends upon lying about public affairs who would suddenly find themselves unemployable. It would also be a nice statement about what kind of society we wish ourselves to be. It would set a minimal standard for our public discourse, now suffering from extreme strains of decrepitude.

Heck, Newt Gingrich might actually be asked a question such as, "Mr. Disgraced Former Speaker, if you truly believe that organs of state power are at the heart of so much of our national malaise, why do you spend an inordinate amount of time seeking to lead them?"

Yeah, I see how silly and utopian my position is.

UPDATE: Augh. I had completely forgotten that, yesterday, I saw this. Rather than rewrite the whole thing, I thought I'd tack it on the end here:
Social scientists have known for a couple of decades that, contrary to its national myths, the US is a country with low intergenerational economic mobility, by international standards. Back in 2001, when I reviewed The Real Worlds of Welfare Capitalism by Bob Goodin and others, I mentioned that this was already well known. More recent evidence has shown that social mobility is not only low but declining. Yet until recently, popular discussion in the US seemed impervious to this evidence.
Imagine! An entire society impervious to evidence of a reality that should be all too clear. Like about global warming. Or the positive revenue effects of cutting tax rates.

Right now, the Republicans at pretty much every level and their hired guns and willing stooges carry on that each and every attempt by others to regulate economic affairs is dangerous to the likelihood that economic prosperity will grow like some big snowball as it rolls through time, granting to our children and grandchildren greater rewards than we have received. This, of course, distinguishes us from those horrid socialist Europeans who only work 15 hours a week and make do on government welfare checks, smoking their smelly cigarettes and drinking their horrible coffee, wiping themselves with paper towels.

That the reality is the exact opposite of this caricature is no small bit of important information to have moving forward. One would think. Coddling Americans to believe ours is the greatest and bestest of all in everything is the social equivalent of insistently telling one's children that the Easter Bunny brings all that candy and eggs. When said children are college students. We would fare better as a country if we actually started from a position rooted in the reality of certain situations. You cannot design policies that work from false premises.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Empty Words Flowing From An Empty Head

Ron Paul, a true believer in the racial superiority of whites and the economic superiority of rich people telling the rest of us to suck it up and deal when the world makes lemons out of our lemonade stands, was asked to comment on Elizabeth Warren's recent comments that our social contract demands certain obligations from us even as it offers us opportunities for social and economic betterment. Paul's response - "Socialism!" - was so predictable, and the resulting revision and extension of his remarks so laughably inane, I thought they would make a good drinking game (every time he uses words like "market", "competition", "socialism" participants would have to drink; a ten minute interview would leave a heap of people waiting for the ambulance so they could have their stomach's pumped).

In the course of comments on Charlie Pierce's marvelous post on this same subject, a libertarian entered the fray to defend the idea that public services are socialist.

Things didn't go so well, mostly because the rest of the commenters were laughing at him too loud for him to be heard. That hurt his feelings so he took his toys and went home after telling us that we were mean and stupid and ugly. So there!*

A perennial complaint of mine has been the looseness, the vagueness, and occasional utter vacuity of our public discourse. Words that once meant stuff, words like liberal and conservative, freedom, socialism have become empty vessels, to be defined by whoever is using them. Never directly, of course. We have to guess that, say, when Ron Paul says that public education is socialism, he may or may not be talking about the same thing that Karl Marx or Vladimir Lenin (whose views on what constituted socialism were different, but that's the subject for another post) meant when they used the word socialist.

Now, obviously, one of the purposes of public rhetoric is to persuade, and persuasion is very often accomplished better when there is a confusion of terms. Folks who toss around words carelessly in order to get people to nod their heads and agree with them have accomplished their goal - "You like me! You really like me!" - but have made it that much harder to have a serious, honest discussion about matters or real importance.

When Ron Paul speaks, the English language dies a little bit. Language needs to have substance, referents, a common stock of mutually-agreed-upon definitions in order to be effective. Communication can only take place when all parties have at least general agreement that the words they are all using mean the same thing. Calling public education "socialist" fails utterly. Sitting and blabbing about home-schooling and vouchers and choice and competition are meaningless beyond stating one's personal preferences. Because there has yet to be a study conducted on the alleged benefits of competition in education that has borne out the claims of its proponents, intellectual honesty should, in a perfect world, force them to admit they support ideas that are about as useful as leeches in treating fevers.

The Constitution, for all its flaws, both originally and on-going, is a remarkable document. It is even more remarkable because it means none of the things Ron Paul thinks it means. Born from the minds and hard work and politicking of men steeped in an understanding republican ideals and virtues gleaned from reading Montesquieu, Locke, and other commenters upon the benefits of mutual obligation in human society, the Constitution is chock-a-block with references to the common good because that lies at the heart of the social contract represented by the Constitution. American society is not an experiment in economic freedom. It is, rather, an experiment in republican governance, which needs active participation among its various factions (to borrow a word from the Federalist Papers) always with an eye toward achieving certain ends for the benefit of all. Sometimes this is best done by voluntary organizations (De Tocqueville was a big pimper of the idea that, in the United States, voluntary associations worked to flesh out the social contract; he was conservative in the classical sense, wavered between an allegiance to monarchy and a kind of grudging admiration for American republican institutions without being blind to their flaws). Sometimes, the state in some form - local, county, state, or federal government institutions - has to intervene to achieve the ends all see as beneficial to the nation as a whole.

This language of republican civic virtue is dead, slaughtered by mindless blathering from people like Ron Paul whose minds are like old Commodore 64 computers, limited in their capacity to respond to inputs because their programs only contain certain programmed responses. I am underwhelmed by arguments of libertarians not because of any reflexive ideological principles. I am underwhelmed because they are vacuous, ignorant, and, when even partially implemented, corrosive upon our common life.

It is nice on occasion to laugh at the stupidity of Ron Paul, and to make the uninteresting and unremarkable observation that the things he says are without any political, historical, or intellectual merit whatsoever. It would be nice, however, if we had more people who insisted that recovering at least some of the language of republican virtue, of this sense of mutuality that lies at the heart of the American social contract, was necessary to heal the wounds inflicted by so many decades of stupidity.

*If you scroll down and read through all the comments and replies, you will see my Facebook avatar - a tarsier. I have decided, rather than use various pictures of myself or my family, that this tiny primate is the best representative for me in public discourse.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Rick Santorum Is A Horrible Human Being

I wasn't going to write or say anything about the spreading scandal at Penn State. At the heart of the scandal is the now established fact that former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was caught, on at least one occasion, performing a sexual act with a child. Along with Sandusky, who should wear his testicles in a bag around his neck without actually severing them from his body, the scandal has brought down the athletic director, a vice-president and, today, legendary head coach Joe Paterno.

I wasn't going to say anything because . . . well, good Lord, what is there to say? Hooray they caught a pederast? Hooray the people who covered up the fact he might well be a serial pederast have lost their jobs (cold comfort to the molested children that some rich people have to live off their savings . . .).

Then, I read the following:
Nine years ago, it seems, Rick [Santorum] sponsored, for the honor of "Congressional Angel in Adoption," Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State assistant football coach who is presently accused of multiple acts of child molestation and rape, and whose long career as a predator may well bring down the whole football program at Santorum's alma mater. Obviously outraged, Santorum reached deep into the well of his anger and pulled up this bucket of mealy-mouthed slop:
"Look, I pray and hope that he [PSU coach Joe Paterno] didn't do anything he shouldn't have done, but it certainly looks horrible for the university, horrible for the football program and obviously people were fired, should be fired."
Of course, as the report above says, since the Penn State scandal broke, Santorum "has been circumspect in his comments about it. (He is not implicated in any way.)"
By contrast, here's what he once said about gay marriage:
"This is an issue just like 9/11. We didn't decide we wanted to fight the war on terrorism because we wanted to. It was brought to us. And if not now, when? When the supreme courts in all the other states have succumbed to the Massachusetts version of the law?"
All these phony family values jerk-offs are now revealed to be nothing more or less than the moral equivalent of parasites, sucking the life-blood from our country even as they grow fat. Santorum doesn't even have the fortitude to mention that, you know, there might have been some children whose lives were ruined by this "Angel" Sandusky, and gee, it might be more horrible these kids have to live not only with this trauma but that it was covered up by people who had a legal responsibility, years ago, to report it to authorities?

These were children who were raped, Mr. Santorum. The tragedy here isn't what's happened to Penn State athletics. The tragedy is what Penn State athletics, in the person of Jerry Sandusky, and later the others higher up the food chain who tried to shove it under whatever furniture was lying around, did to those children. That's the tragedy.

Even an immoral liberal like me understands that. Why can't a sanctimonious pus-bug like you?

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