Friday, September 28, 2012

What is Freedom of Expression?

Mona Eltahawy
Even the most ardent devotee of free speech, and I would include myself in that category, will recognize that we do not have the moral or legal prerogative to engage in all forms of expression. I think everyone will agree that I should be prohibited from expressing myself by running over those I dislike with my car. If I try to damage someone’s reputation by intentionally making false statements about that person, I will be subject to slander or libel laws, although those of us who are dedicated to freedom of speech should see these types of laws as dangerous instruments, to be used with extreme caution.
Does the limitation of free expression go beyond doing physical and reputational damage to others? Do we, for example, have the right to enter an auditorium and shout down a speaker?  This is clearly a form of expression, but it is also a type of intimidation and an interference with the freedom of expression of others. Contemporary activists frequently justify censorship by mob heckling by claiming freedom of expression. I think, though, that University of California President Mark Yudof was entirely correct earlier this year when he condemned disruptive protestors at a pro-Israel event, writing “attempting to shout down speakers is not protected speech. It is an action meant to deny others their right to free speech.”
President Yudof also decried other forms of expression. The protestors were not just trying to silence speakers by shouting, they were also engaging in acts of vandalism, including defacing an Israeli flag at a Jewish student organization by scrawling “terrorists” across the flag. I do believe that the First Amendment gives us the right to give vent to bizarre opinions, such as the view that Israelis or Americans or Canadians or the Dutch are all terrorists. It does not give us the right to do that through vandalism.
This brings us to the more recent case of Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy. The American Freedom Defense Initiative has paid to post an ad in the New York Subway. The ad is controversial, consisting of a statement that reads: “In any war between the civilized man and the savage – support the civilized man. Support Israel, defeat Jihad!”  The New York Transit Authority at first did not want to approve the ad, but did so after a judge ruled that refusing the ad was a violation of free speech. Based on that ruling, it is clear that Eltahawy could have countered by raising funds to post her own ad, denouncing that of the American Freedom Defense Initiative and offering a different view. That is not what she decided to do.
Eltahawy announced on her Twitter site that she was going to buy spray paint and deface the offending poster.  This ensured that she had not only news cameras present, but also supporters of the ad. The resulting edifying spectacle is on Youtube.. When one of the supporters attempted to insert herself between the ad and Eltahawy, the angry Egyptian-American continued her self-expression by spray-painting the defender.
The police showed up, handcuffed the vandal, and took her away. She was later charged with criminal mischief and graffiti. Eltahawy’s response to her arrest was remarkable. “I’m expressing myself and I hurt no one!” she shouted. “This is non-violent protest! You see this, America? This is what happens to non-violent protestors in America in 2012!”  No, getting arrested for criminal mischief is not what happens to non-violent protesters in this country. Getting arrested for criminal mischief is what happens here to people who commit criminal mischief. I wonder if Ms. Eltahawy made the curious assertion that there is a Constitutional right to deface property in public places when she took the test to become a naturalized U.S. citizen.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Corrupt Politics

Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption, and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something”
-          Willie Stark, in All the King’s Men

Robert Penn Warren

Nowhere is the space between moral principle and social experience as evident as in politics. Machiavelli, an astute observer of the politics of his day, concluded that the prince who sincerely adhered to the principles of Christian morality would be bound to fail. Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, a meditation on the inescapability of sin in the realm of human action, features a twentieth century politician who is ineffectual as an aspiring leader until he gives himself over to compromise and corruption.  The accomplishments of Warren’s Willie Stark spring from his corruption and when he attempts to return to virtue he brings about his own downfall. The narrator of Warren’s novel, Jack Burden, becomes more than a detached observer and enters the world only when he realizes that there are no morally pure human beings. I don’t believe that Warren meant to advocate the Machiavellian solution and put principle aside, but he did recognize the irreconcilability of our ideals and our lives and he used politics as the illustration of that irreconcilability.
Aaron Broussard
These thoughts occur to me as a local politician, former Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard has decided to plead guilty to charges of conspiracy and theft in office. Broussard is the latest in a long string of Louisiana public officials to face criminal charges, and more prominent figures will follow him, probably very soon. It often seems like campaigns-elections-offices-prison is almost a standard career path in this state.
I don’t approve of Broussard’s wrong-doings, or those of his fellow politicos. But I don’t see him as an evil person and I have sympathy for him. His crimes were the types of moral compromises that many people might make. He created a phony job for his girlfriend, later his wife, and he took bribes from a parish contractor. He probably committed some other crimes, but I’m sure that none of them were vicious or violent. During his 35-years in public life, Broussard acquired a reputation as a man who could get things done, a real-life Willie Stark.
Temptation, of course, is one reason that politicians fall from grace. They find themselves in places in which it is easy for them to divert resources to themselves and their friends. But I think there is more to it than that. The interests of individuals and groups are the raw materials of a politician’s work. Getting those interests to combine depends on negotiating and compromising with the people who hold the interests. Do ut des, I give so that you will give, is the fundamental rule of political action. You have to get the different players on your side, and force alone will rarely work, even in those circumstances in which you actually have power. The more another player has to give, the more you need to give to get cooperation. An effective politician is by definition a compromiser and a deal-maker, and it is often hard to tell exactly at what point the compromises and the deals cross the line of acceptability. The ethical ambiguity makes it all the easier to give in to temptation.
So, I’d say, go ahead impose penalties on politicians who break the law. But let’s recognize that they are just flawed human beings in a world full of flawed human beings. Beyond that, though, I’d take the moral dilemma of political life as an illustration of why we cannot use political means to change our world. There are no leaders who can rise above their own human frailties, no institutions that are not permeated by competing goals and desires.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Fareed Zakaria on the Tension Between Democracy and Liberty

In earlier posts, I've expressed my scepticism about the possibilities for any system of government that Americans would recognize as democratic emerging from the social upheaval of the nations in the Middle East and North Africa. Fareed Zakaria's 2003 book The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad raises interesting questions about democracy and democratization, asking, in particular, if there is a tension between democracy and freedom  that requires a delicate balance.

The idea that democracy and freedom are not the same thing is a fairly old one. The French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville, author of the 1835 book Democracy in America, was interested in the question of why American democracy had not led to dictatorship, as it had in his native country. Part of de Tocqueville’s answer was that effective democracy must rest on an existing social and legal system that is consistent with popular rule and that prevents majorities from becoming tyrannical. Fareed Zakaria restates this line of reasoning in contemporary terms, and he extends it by arguing that even in relatively successful democratic nations, such as the United States, there can be too much democracy.

Fareed Zakaria
Zakaria identifies the present period in history as a democratic age. He points out that more nations than ever before create governments by popular vote and that the support of the people has become the only basis of political legitimacy in much of the world. The age is also democratic because the broad masses of people have more cultural and economic power than in previous times, as well as more political power.  The word “democracy” has acquired the connotation of something that is always good and always desirable and that will always tend to produce free and just societies. Our news media suggest, for example, that the problems of former Communist societies or of authoritarian nations can be cured if only sufficient democratization can be achieved.

As Zakaria sees it, democracy is not the universal solution. He is not opposed to popular rule, but he does see difficulties with the direct rule of the people. Democracy, he maintains, only maintains individual liberty and works properly when it works within a regulated system of elected representatives with limited, legally defined powers.  Further, protections of individual liberty must generally be created first in order to establish a workable liberal democracy.

He begins to support his argument with a quick and rather breathless look back at the history of human liberty. He argues that liberty in the Western world does not spring from Greek democracy but from the split between the Eastern and Western parts of the Roman Empire, which eventually freed the Roman popes from imperial control and made the popes competitors with the secular rulers of Europe. Liberty, then, began in the space created by the struggle between church and state.  Other struggles, between kings and nobility and between the Catholic Church and Protestantism, expanded this space. Conflict limited the powers of central authorities and this led to greater personal freedom.  Capitalism pushed the cause of individual liberty further by eroding the powers of monarchies and feudal aristocracies and by putting in place a system based on individual and property rights.  While this history might seem peculiar to Western Europe and North America, Zakaria asserts that it contains a pattern that may be applied elsewhere. However, he contends societies must first achieve economic liberalization, with strong protections for property rights, and only afterwards move toward popular rule.

There are at least two conditions for the development of liberal democracy in Zakaria’s view. A country must not only have attained a decent standard of living, it must have attained this through trade and industry and not through the sale of abundant natural resources. In fact, natural resources may often be a disguised disadvantage for nation, an easy source of riches that prevents the development of an active and involved middle class. In addition, a nation must have a strong government that can enforce the laws and regulations necessary to protect the property rights and freedoms needed for efficient markets. Zakaria disagrees with those who see government land reform as denial of property rights. Instead, he maintains that land reform moves the ownership of land away from feudal landlords, who merely hold titles, and to those who actually work the land. This can set the stage for industrialization.

Zakaria devotes a chapter to the problem of democracy in the Islamic lands of the Middle East. This chapter will probably draw the attention of many readers because of the American occupation of Iraq and stated U.S. Government intentions to establish democracy in that nation. The author maintains that the general absence of liberal democracy in the Middle East is not a consequence of a cultural contradiction between Islam and liberty. It is also not a consequence of property, since many of the region’s problems are results of sudden wealth, particularly in the form of oil.  Islamic fundamentalism, as a challenge to liberal democracy, has been caused by the failure of the political institutions of the region to face rapid social and economic changes.  Zakaria’s prescriptions are economic and political reform. Among the economic reforms, he would seek to lessen the region’s dependence on oil as a source of unearned wealth. He offers the example of the African oil-producing nation of Chad, which was required by the World Bank to deposit its oil revenues in an offshore bank and spend all but a fraction on investments and building up national infrastructure. Without the source of money, the government will have to encourage its citizens to engage in constructive and profitable activities in order to provide tax revenues. The major political reform he recommends is the encouragement of constitutionalism. He identifies this as systems of checks and balances that will prevent any part of a government or society from gaining excessive power over other parts. Zakaria does not say who should enact these reforms or how people in the West can or should nudge the Middle East toward capitalism and constitutionalism.

Although Zakaria has a high opinion of the United States, he sees the tension between liberalism and democracy in this nation, as well as in the developing world.  He cites evidence that Americans had become increasingly alienated from their political system and distrustful of it, in spite of generally rising prosperity.  His explanation, as one might expect, is that the United States had become too democratic. After 1970, Congress democratized itself by moving decision-making power away from closed congressional committees and into open committees, making government more responsive. This responsiveness meant that legislators would have to answer to their most active and informed observers, who were the lobbyists and special interests. Finance reforms, which sought to limit politicians’ reliance on a few large donors and broaden small contributions, ultimately increased the power of fund raisers and made raising money the main activity of political campaigns. Zakaria finds one of the most destructive forms of excessive democratization in the referendum system, which exists in several states, but which has received the most attention in California. The referendum system allows those who gather enough signatures to place specific issues before the voters, rather than have those issues decided by elected legislators.  California’s referendum system, according to Zakaria, crippled the state’s economic and political system by placing most of its budget outside the control of its legislators.

 Zakaria’s prescription for the United States is to accept less democracy and to delegate more authority. He points out that public opinion polls identify three public institutions as particularly worthy of respect. These are the Supreme Court, the armed services, and the Federal Reserve System. The first and the third are appointed decision makers with decidedly undemocratic powers. The second is a hierarchy of authority that operates on entirely different principles from most of American society. He does not, I think, give sufficient attention to the problems posed by too much undemocratic, uncontrolled authority. Appointed judges may become unelected rulers and the Federal Reserve may become a mechanism for economic cronyism.

Zakaria may  put too much faith in the ability or willingness of authoritarian governments to create the economic and political foundations for democratic societies. He cites Chile as an example of an authoritarian nation that became a relatively successful democracy.  It is true that Chile did achieve a fairly high level of economic prosperity under the government of General Augosto Pinochet and that it did establish a stable elected government after Pinochet’s rule. Chile had a long democratic tradition before Pinochet seized power, though, and it could be argued that this tradition formed the basis for the current government.

Russia and China provide Zakaria with one of his favorite comparisons. Russia, according to his argument, democratized first and only after that attempted to liberalize its economic system. China, on the other hand, has kept power firmly in the hands of the Communist Party, while creating a capitalist economy. China stands a good chance of becoming a workable democracy, while Russia is economically troubled and has been under two presidents (Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin) who have used democratic political institutions to increase their own power. There are several problems with this comparison. First, it compares what Russia is with what Zakaria believes that China might become. The future is notoriously difficult to predict, and it may well be that Russia will be a prosperous democracy in a decade and China will find it difficult to move beyond party rule. Second, one might reasonably maintain that Russia’s problems have little to do with a rush to democratization in the post-Soviet era.  These problems could be seen as the historical consequences of a backward empire suddenly plunged into rapid industrialization in the late nineteenth century, torn apart by revolution and civil war in the early twentieth, and subjected to brutal mismanagement under Stalin and his heirs.  Third, by the early twenty-first century, the Chinese economy showed some signs of stalling, while Russia began to recover from the economic chaos of the 1990's.

Although one may question Zakaria on these and other issues, the book makes some extremely valuable points.  Democracy may not be an unqualified good.  The rule of the majority does not necessarily lead to harmony and respect for minority rights. A stable and lasting democracy cannot be founded simply by holding elections. Political systems are not products of ideals, but products of concrete social and economic conditions.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism, by Joshua Muravchik

Visions of an ideal, intentionally designed society are at least as old as the writings of Plato, but only in modern times have there been efforts to realize those visions through social movements and political efforts.  Following the French Revolution, socialism developed as one of the most inspiring and influential programs of social and economic planning.  Socialism, as Joshua Muravchik recognizes in this new history, took on several forms but all were united by the ideas that cooperation, rather than competition, could and should be the driving force of human productive activity and that all members of a society could and should share equally in the fruits of production.

Muravchik recounts the history of socialism through a series of biographical vignettes. He begins with François Noël Babeuf, who became known as “Gracchus Babeuf” and who is justly recognized as the father of modern socialism.  Babeuf, a pamphleteer and agitator during the French Revolution, organized a group of plotters known as the Conspiracy of Equals. Their goal was to create a society in which private property and money would be abolished and all people would live in completely equal circumstances. This would not be accomplished merely by changing the social system, but by changing people. Babeuf and his collaborators intended to have the state take control of each individual at birth in order to educate selfless citizens. This plan of re-making society by remaking people, in Muravchik’s view, became central to socialism. It was also, he suggests throughout the book, why socialism fell. Humans beings were not readily re-designed.


While Babeuf began a tradition of social change through conspiracy and violence, the Scot Robert Owen pioneered a more humane and voluntary path to utopia.  Owen, who reportedly coined the word “socialism,” achieved public recognition after he bought a textile mill at New Lanark, Scotland. Reacting against the horrific conditions common in factories in his day, Owen reduced working hours, used authoritarian but gentle methods of evaluating and rewarding works, and attempted to control and direct workers’ lives in the company-owned village. Had he ended his reforming career at New Lanark, Owen might today be regarded as an early paternalistic capitalist, a forerunner of Henry Ford and George Pullman. Instead, he moved to America and in 1825 he founded the famous communal settlement at New Harmony in Indiana. As a model for idealists, New Harmony became legendary, but as a place where people actually lived and worked, it was a failure. Since no one received any special benefit from production when everything was equally shared, community members did not produce what they needed. Since goods were distributed by committees, there were shortages even of the goods that were available.  Muravchik argues that Owen’s failed efforts inspired, rather than discouraged socialism because his goals seemed so lofty. However, the experiences of communes such as New Harmony suggested that utopia could not be created by forming isolated communities within the existing society. Instead, the whole of society would have to change in order to make an environment favorable to the re-shaping of human nature.

Socialists found what appeared to be a practical and realistic program for changing the whole of society in the scientific socialism of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Muravchik’s chapter on Marx and Engels is one of his most interesting because he makes a good case for the argument that Engels was the true originator of most of the ideas known as Marxism and the primary author of The Communist Manifesto.  Whether Marx or Engels deserves the greater share of the credit, though, Marxist theory became the basis of a systematic ideology for change.

As a scientific theory, Marxism offered predictions, as well as interpretation. Predictions can be dangerous, though, because events may not bear them out. Marx and Engels (or, if Muravchik is correct, Engels and Marx) had maintained that workers in capitalist society would see their living standards steadily deteriorate and that entrepreneurs who were continually reduced in number by competition would produce more and more goods that could not be sold to the impoverished majority. As a result, workers would take control of industrial society and establish a new communist order. By the early twentieth century, though, these predictions seemed to be wrong. Workers were better off than they had been in earlier years and most advanced industrial nations showed few signs of collapse into revolution.


Eduard Bernstein, a former colleague of Marx and Engels, argued that capitalism had become less vicious and that gradual reform rather than revolution should be the goal of socialists. This argument angered the true believers, including a true believer living in Russia, who assumed the name of Vladimir Ilych Lenin.  When Lenin managed to outmaneuver the reformists in a Russia thrown into upheaval by World War I , he initiated a new era for socialism, one in which socialism seemed to have finally come to power.


Muravchik describes several versions of socialism in power. One of these was the Soviet system, established by Lenin and taken over by Stalin after Lenin’s death. Another was fascism, under the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. Muravchik argues persuasively that Mussolini did not abandon his early socialism when he turned to fascism, but simply developed a heretical version of the socialist faith. Another branch of socialism was the social democracy of England initiated by Prime Minister Clement Atlee, which attempted to re-make society and its members by means of elected government. Finally, the Third World socialism exemplified by the ideology of Ujamaa, or “familyhood,” advocated by Julius Nyerere of Tanganyika, which became Tanzania after its 1964 merger with Zanzibar.

By the mid to late twentieth century, it seemed that future of the world was socialism in one form or another.  America, though, the world’s most prosperous nation by many measures had never embraced socialism. By looking at the lives of two influential American union leaders, Samuel Gompers and George Meany, Muravchik illustrates the kind of reformist practicality that led American workers to spurn seizing the means of production and concentrate on good wages and favorable conditions. In the Soviet Union, birthplace of the Communist state, socialist inefficiency in production became so serious that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev tried to liberalize the system. As a result, the Soviet Union literally fell apart. China, the other major Communist state, maintained the authoritarian rule of the Communist Party. Under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, though, it adopted a market economy, so that the Chinese system largely became a Communist government without a Communist economy.  In the United Kingdom, the social democratic Labour Party, under the direction of Prime Minister Anthony (“Tony”) Blair, following the reforms of Tory Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, turned away from its program of state ownership and state control and began to forge ties with businesses.

Heaven on Earth departs from its biographical approach in the epilogue, where the book considers an instance of socialism that, in the author’s view, was almost a success. The kibbutz movement in Israel, charged with nationalistic idealism, for a time appeared to be providing models of cooperative, communal living.  But even the kibbutzim have now been shifting rapidly to cash economies.

Two useful appendixes summarize the extent of world socialism in the late twentieth century. The first lists all the countries under communism, social democracy, and third world socialism in 1985, the year in which the largest number of countries was governed by socialists. The second provides a list of all the nations that are or have been under socialist governments, with the dates that they maintained this type of political and economic system

Muravchik’s strategy of telling his story by focusing on selected individuals and events is an effective one for holding the interest of readers, but this approach necessarily leads him to leave out some important parts of socialist history. The lives and work of anti-socialist labor leaders Samuel Gompers and George Meany are relevant to the explanation of why socialism never achieved the organized influence in the United States that it did in many other countries. Still, leaders can only lead where followers are willing to go and the general support of American workers for the market system owes as much to a culture of individualism, to practical and compromising business and governmental leaders, and to the sheer material success of the American marketplace as it does to the ideological preferences of union chiefs. Muravchik largely ignores the anti-Communism of the Cold War, which contributed greatly to the distrust that Americans and many people in other nations came to feel for all shades of socialism.

There are only brief mentions of the Communist Party in the United States.  Major American Communist leaders such as Earl Browder and William Z. Foster cannot be found in these pages. The socialist leader Eugene V. Debs makes only a couple of brief appearances and readers will look in vain for any trace of American socialist Norman Thomas.

Coverage of European socialism is similarly spotty. There is no reference to the French Communist Party, a major aspect of the French political system until the end of the twentieth century. Muravchik also ignores the brief efflorescence of Eurocommunism, an attempt by Communist leaders in Western Europe during the 1970s and 1980s to create a Communism that would be independent of Soviet control and, in theory, democratic. While he devotes two chapters to social democracy in the United Kingdom, where socialism arguably plunged the nation into economic disaster, he gives only passing attention to social democracy in Sweden, widely acclaimed in some modern academic circles as socialism’s success story. Sweden, of course, really has an economy based on heavily taxed private industry, but it would be useful to consider whether this system constitutes socialism and what this means for the lives of its citizens politically and economically.

While it may not provide a comprehensive history of socialism, though, Heaven on Earth is a well-written and thoughtful meditation on some of the fundamental questions of modern political history. It attempts to address the question of how ideas of social organization that seem to be at odds with existing human nature came to be so widely held. It also seeks to say why movements dedicated to creating a better way of life often resulted in brutality and murder.  For Muravchik, these two questions have the same answer. Socialism appealed to people because it offered a faith that could give meaning to life. By the same token, though, commitment to a faith that transcends the realities of the present and the lives of individual people could justify any action. This is not an original observation. Socialism has often been accused of offering a substitute religion. But it is an accurate observation and one worth remembering. Muravchik supports it with a series of persuasive cases.

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Arab Fall

Protestors in Egypt
This past year, when many were waxing euphoric about the “Arab Spring,” I expressed skepticism about the prospects for anything that Americans would recognize as democracy in the Muslim-dominated nations of North Africa and the Middle East. Political systems, I’ve argued repeatedly, are not produced by theoretical blueprints. The government of a nation exists within that nation’s larger social setting; it rests on social institutions, interpersonal networks, historical traditions, and cultural practices that go much deeper than politics. A liberal democracy, in the classical sense, cannot be created by efforts to reshape a society because this type of governance simply represents the interests that exist in a society that is sufficiently stable to work out its differences through elected spokespeople.
The recent events in Libya and Egypt offer more evidence that these countries do not have societies do not have societies that can give rise to liberal democracy. Obviously, part of the problem is the cultural influence of radical Islam. In both countries, the violent protests broke out in response to a film made by someone known as “Sam Basile,” who reportedly lives in California. I watched part of the film, and I can certainly see why a Muslim would regard it as offensive (I don’t think anyone will defend it on artistic grounds). Still, the violent reaction of the protestors and their demands that the United States ban the film and imprison its maker clearly demonstrate that they understand neither how the American system works nor the basic principles of a liberal democracy. They may be minorities in their countries, but a substantially large rambunctious minority is all it takes to ensure that liberal democratic processes just won’t work.
I argued earlier that the central role of mass movements in the Arab Spring made me pessimistic about the chances for democracy.  Masses are not conducive to democratic behavior. In neither Egypt nor Libya can one find behind the mass demonstrations the types of orderly patterns of community interaction necessary to democratic processes.
Libyan Guards at the US Consulate in Benghazi
The lack of an orderly society to create a government is especially clear in Libya, a collection of tribal groups that is a nation only in the sense that it has internationally recognized borders.  The tragedy in Libya, I think, resulted in part from a failure to acknowledge this. Our State Department has said that the Libyan government had primary responsibility for protecting our consulate in Benghazi. But just as Libya isn’t really a nation, it doesn’t really have a government. If we are going to send an ambassador into a wilderness of warring tribes, we should make sure he’s ringed by heavily armed Marines.
We cannot bring peace and stability to countries in upheaval. What we can do is keep our expectations for those countries realistically low for the near future and prepare to protect our personnel and our interests.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Endless Rights and Endless Obligations

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in late 2005, about 5,000 families lived in public housing. Following the storm, rather than replace housing developments that many argued had become concentrations of crime and chronic poverty, the officials of Housing and Urban Development announced that it would replace those developments with mixed-income housing.  Advocates of public housing staged angry protests, arguing that the government was using the hurricane as an excuse to get rid of the poorest residents. The protestors lost that campaign, though. Today, about two-thirds of those pre-Katrina families now live in public housing.  There are some reports that the lives of those who remain may be better than before. Violent crime, however, has not declined. Some New Orleans policemen have suggested to me that this may be because the displacement of violence-prone young men created turf wars.  We cannot know whether this situation would be even worse if the wards of the state had been moved around while renovating the old developments. But for the protestors, the issue was not whether the concerned agencies made the best decisions about what to do with a dependent population. It was about the putative rights of people to demand that they be given resources.
Loyola Law Professor Bill Quigley, a long-time activist, was one of the leading opponents of housing change. Quigley vociferously maintained that housing is a basic human right and that those who were losing their free and subsidized housing were being denied their rights. I thought this was a puzzling claim. As I look at the U.S. Constitution, I can see no guarantees of a right to shelter. We may want to try to provide homes for the homeless on humanitarian grounds.  We may want to pursue an economy that will give people the opportunity to purchase or rent decent lodgings. But to say that people have the right to housing, regardless of their ability to pay, is to say that someone else must give them housing. Those paying the bills cannot raise any questions about the kind of shelter or how many people will receive the benefits. The recipients have all the rights. The providers have only obligations.
Professor Quigley and his associates are now apparently unwilling to limit this extraordinary extension of rights to our local community or even to our country.  Haiti also suffered a major disaster in 2010. This week, a visiting activist will join with Quigley to demand that the U.S. government not only guarantee housing, as a basic right, to everyone in this country, but also send funding to the government of Haiti to supply this basic right in that sovereign nation.  This is not a call for American religious and charitable organizations to become more involved in helping our fellow humans in the Caribbean. It is an assertion that the right to receive U.S. tax-payer supplied resources extends to people beyond U.S. borders. If so, why stop at Haiti? Surely every person on the planet has the same basic rights. Don’t ask whether trying to guarantee adequate housing to everyone in the world would wreck the American economy.  Rights cannot be questioned.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Obama Ancestries and the Problem of Race Conscious Policies

I recently ran across a report of a genealogical study that found that President Obama’s mother probably had at least one African ancestor, in addition to her European forebears.  One of Obama’s now recognized distant cousins, who said that he has always considered himself “Caucasian,” had his DNA analyzed and found that he had sub-Saharan African genetic traits in his Y chromosome, indicating an African ancestor in his paternal line.  This has not been as widely reported as Michele Obama’s descent from Irish immigrants, but I think it is just as significant. The complicated White House ancestries suggest just how wrong-headed official racial categorizations and preferences are.
Recognizing the complexity of race does not mean accepting the American Sociological Association’s official dictum that race is nothing but a “social construct” without any biological foundation. If that were true, then the DNA tracing of racial ancestry would not be possible.  Work by geneticists at Stanford University, looking at large and representative samples of hundreds of sites on human DNA, has indicated not only that race has biological meaning, but that the statistical variations among genetic traits are largely consistent with popularly recognized races. The five clusters of DNA differences are linked to continents of origin: Africa, western Eurasia, East Asia, Oceania, and the Americas. (see Noah A. Rosenberg  et al. (2002) “Genetic Structure of Human Populations.” Science 298: 2381-2385. A newspaper report of the results is available here). The problem is not that race has no biological status at the level of populations, but that there is no good way to categorize individuals on the basis of statistical clusters.
As the example of Michelle Obama illustrates, some European genetic background is common among those classified as African Americans. Several years ago, I taught at a university in southwestern Louisiana, where many of my students had family backgrounds that blended so many physical heritages that they could not be readily classified on the basis of appearance. The genealogy of Barack Obama gives us the other side of the story: the phenomenon of “passing” in American history means that some unknown proportion of white Americans could claim to be “black,” if only they would make use of the resources that companies such as now make available.  Would these newly discovered African Americans be eligible for affirmative action benefits?
In order for institutions to make decisions on the basis of categories there must ways of defining the categories and of placing people in them. If the categories are self-reported, job seekers and college applicants would be well-advised to find out what categories are desired and report themselves accordingly.  If appearance is going to be the criterion, who is going to decide who looks right? Or will every applicant need to provide a cheek swab?

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The 50th Anniversary of A Clockwork Orange

Anthony Burgess
Novelist Martin Amis marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of A Clockwork Orange in this week’s New York Times Book Review. I enjoyed reading the Amis article because Anthony Burgess is one of my own favorite authors. I actually liked the Enderby series best, but I agree that A Clockwork Orange is a wonderful work.  I have to disagree with both Amis and Burgess, though, on a distinction at the end of the article. Referring to Burgess’s writing on James Joyce, Amis notes:
Burgess made a provocative distinction between what he calls the “A” novelist and the “B” novelist: the A novelist is interested in plot, character and psychological insight, whereas the B novelist is interested, above all, in the play of words. The most famous B novel is “Finnegans Wake,” which Nabokov aptly described as “a cold pudding of a book, a persistent snore in the next room.” The B novel, as a genre, is now utterly defunct; and “A Clockwork Orange” may be its only long-term survivor. It is a book that can still be read with steady pleasure, continuous amusement and — at times — incredulous admiration. Anthony Burgess, then, is not “a minor B novelist,” as he described himself; he is the only B novelist. I think he would have settled for that.
I’m not going to defend Joyce here. I find Finnegans Wake interesting, but it is clearly not everyone’s idea of a good read on the beach (or even in the library). But even if we agree to reject Joyce’s final work, I don’t think we can say that A Clockwork Orange is the only successful survivor of a type of novel concerned with language.  I believe J.P. Donleavy, best known for The Ginger Man, still has plenty of fans, and verbal acrobatics are essential to Donleavy’s fiction.  More importantly, though, I think that Burgess set up an artificial and unsustainable distinction as a way of making a point.
A Clockwork Orange itself refutes the neat categorization. It works so well as a novel because the sub-cultural idiom Burgess created for his juvenile delinquent protagonist out of Russian, Romany, and bits of London slang supports the novel’s presentation of “plot, character, and psychological insight.” The words create the strange mind of Alex and show us the unfolding of events. Burgess was an “A” novelist and a “B” novelist at the same time.
He was also, I think, a “C” novelist.  In addition to a plot-character dimension and a linguistic dimension, works of fiction also have a dimension of ideas. The British novelist David Lodge, for example, uses fiction as a means of exploring ideas. His Therapy is a fictional application of the ideas of Soren Kierkegaard. Contemporary ideas of consciousness provide the premise for Lodge’s Thinks.  The greatest novelist of ideas may have been Fyodor Dostoevsky. The Russian writer’s biographer, Joseph Frank, described Dostoevsky’s novels as thought experiments, in which the author attempted to consider how ideas about politics, morality, and religion play out in the world of action. Whatever one’s opinion of Finnegans Wake, it concerns ideas as much as words, since its fundamental theme (and maybe its “plot”) is the cyclical form of events in human experience, a perspective derived from the Italian political philosopher and historian Giambattista Vico.
If a “C” novelist is one interested in ideas, then this designation clearly fits Burgess, in A Clockwork Orange and all of his other works. As Amis mentions, Burgess was an Augustinian Catholic.  The problems of evil and of free will at the core of his work are theological issues and Burgess was a deeply theological writer.  Linguistic brilliance is only one of the reasons A Clockwork Orange survives and probably not the most important reason. It is also a profound meditation on how a therapeutic society of rehabilitation that denies evil and denies will threatens the fundamental character of humanity.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Civic Engagement in Weimar Germany

While the recent hurricane raged outdoors, I re-read The Coming of the Third Reich, the first volume in the trilogy on the history of Nazi Germany by Richard J. Evans. As a frequent critic of the civic engagement movement in contemporary education (see here, here, here,  and here) I noted the follow passage on page 118:
“People [in the years leading up to the Third Reich] arguably suffered from an excess of political engagement and political commitment. One indication of this could be found in the extremely high turnout rates at elections – no less than 80 percent of the electorate in most contests … There seemed to be no area of society or politics that was immune from politicization.”
As Evans describes the situation of the Weimar Republic, this intense culture of political engagement was accompanied by a commitment to action over thought, a commitment that was especially strong among young people. Clearly, those who maintain that “engagement” is a panacea, and that we can best prepare students for the future by recruiting them to be “change agents” should consider the Weimar example as an illustration of the fact that political and social commitment is not necessarily a good thing.  I suggest that one of the most important goals of a liberal arts education is to promote disengagement, to enlarge the sphere of life and thought outside of politicization so that people can step back from their commitments and examine themselves and their world from the widest possible perspective.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Hurricane's Wake

Photo of Hurricane Isaac from the Times-Picayune (9/2/2012)
Today’s Times-Picayune reports that nearly 200,000 people in Orleans and Jefferson Parishes continue to be without power. Obviously, I’m one of the more fortunate. Otherwise, you would not be reading this now.
Many of the traffic lights don’t work, even on the major thoroughfares, so driving is riskier than usual. The grocery stores mostly have electricity, but lost perishable goods during their outages, so that milk and other refrigerated foods are scarce. Libraries and other public places are generally closed.
The greatest damage from Hurricane Isaac occurred in the outlying areas to the north and south of the center of metropolitan New Orleans. Operating on the principle of weighing costs and benefits, the Corps of Engineers has built up the levee protection around the center. This may have not only left the peripheral region outside the protected zone, but also diverted the waters toward places like LaPlace, largely untouched by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and heavily flooded in this latest storm. The water has to go somewhere.
Further to the northeast, the Boguechitto River has risen, resulting in the evacuation of residents of Washington Parish. Hundreds of people have been evacuated from St. Tammany Parish, where it is feared that floodwaters from the Pearl River will bypass a lock and push 20-foot torrents into the surrounding rural area.
Hurricane Katrina intensified economic activity around the New Orleans area.  This can be expected again in the near future, although to lesser extent. The demand for labor in relatively low-paid work such as dry-wall replacement, roofing labor, and in cleaning and hauling will reinforce a demographic trend begun by Hurricane Katrina. The New Orleans area will not see the same influx of workers of Honduran, Mexican, and Guatemalan origin that it saw in 2006 and 2007, but the numbers of these workers will grow. Moreover, since the existing Hispanic concentrations are now located on the northern fringe of East Jefferson Parish and on the West Bank of Jefferson Parish, between the metropolitan centers and the heavily damaged outlying areas, newcomers will have additional motivations to settle in those suburban concentrations. Neighborhoods in Kenner, in East Jefferson, and in Terrytown and Gretna, in West Jefferson,  will become even more recognizable as Spanish-speaking residential enclaves.
Post-hurricane recovery may well bring a boost to the political reputation of Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal.  The governor is a poor orator, but an efficient organizer. Mobilizing resources and energies to deal with storm damage might give him an opportunity  to focus attention on his talents.