Wednesday, April 28, 2010

There Are No Moderate Republicans in the Senate

(cross-posted at Dagblog)

The Senate Republicans folded on their filibuster today. This morning The Hill ran an article with this headline:

Republican centrists warn Reid’s tough tactics on reform bill could backfire

Now, at first glance, that article's writer, Alexander Bolton, looks like a fool. But his headline is absolutely accurate. A bunch of Senate "centrists" did tell him that. And Bolton obediently published their claims, twelve or so hours before his sources proved how utterly hollow those claims were. If Bolton is a fool for swallowing transparent spin, without examining its basic plausibility, then there are a lot of fools writing about Congressional politics these days. And the biggest lie he swallows has been swallowed by nearly the entire political press: the lie that there are any GOP centrists left.

There are no moderate Republicans in the Senate any more. There are Republican Senators who were once moderates. There are Republican Senators who might depend upon moderate voters in, say, Maine. There are even Republican Senators who might vote moderately if they weren't actually, you know, in the Senate. But it in actual world, every Republican Senator votes the same way, which means that they are all indistinguishable from Sam Brownback.

When the votes actually matter, Olympia Snowe votes like a hard-line conservative. So does Susan Collins. They're only moderates when nothing real is at stake. If you talk like a moderate but vote like a conservative, that means you actually are a conservative in the only way that matters. Because the votes get counted.

Believing in the mythical "moderate Senate Republicans" requires that the "moderates" not be held accountable for how they actually vote. They are allowed to obstruct legislation through relentless parliamentary maneuvers while complaining that the majority isn't "collegial" enough. Blocking debate on banking reform is acceptably "centrist" and "reasonable," but holding a vote during the dinner hour is unreasonably punitive. (No, seriously.) Lindsey Graham gets treated like a Profile In Courage by people who should know better because he's claimed that he would not filibuster one key piece of legislation, and thereby feels entitled to set the Democrat's legislative agenda, events in Arizona be damned. That Lindsey Graham votes to obstruct Senate business every other time is apparently not relevant to the question who's been cooperative enough.

Key to the myth of the Moderate Senate Republican is the idea that if the Democrats simply compromised with these imaginary people, everything would work out. Also, if the Democrats befriended some leprechauns, we could balance the budget with magical gold. But there are no compromises that would actually lead the non-existent moderates to break with their party whips. They will pretend that there are: they were spinning the "we'd-cooperate-if-we-were-indulged-more" story for Bolton the day before they publicly embarrassed him. But while they would be happy to receive further indulgences, they won't give anything back for them. They will only break with their party leadership when they're afraid of getting hurt at the polls. They are not susceptible to persuasion. They are only susceptible to pressure.

Of course, part of the myth of the Centrist Republican is that compromise is always just around the corner, like the gold at the end of the rainbow. They are always promising that it's just a little way off, if you'll keep following them through the woods, and always expressing disappointment that the Democrats gave up when they were almost there! Of course, the "moderates"will tell you that. They can only gain by telling you that. But there's no reason to trust them. Just ask Alexander Bolton.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Ivy League/Wall Street Connection

cross-posted at Dagblog

Ezra Klein recently tried to answer the question "Why is Goldman Sachs full of Ivy Leaguers?" by interviewing a Harvard/Goldman alum. (h/t to a righteously repulsed DougJ). But Wall Street's love affair with Harvard and Yale isn't just a question of why Ivy Leaguers go to Wall Street (the question Ezra begins with). It's also a question of why Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street firms work so hard to recruit Ivy League undergraduates. And Ezra’s interviewee only deepens the mystery:

Why Goldman thought I'd be good for investment banking is a very fair question. There are a lot of Harvard people at Goldman and they've put a lot of effort into recruiting from the school. They really try to attract liberal arts backgrounds. They say this stuff isn't so complicated, that you'll pick it up as you go along, that it's all about teamwork, that they have training programs. That being said, it would be very hard to get a full-time job there without a previous summer internship.

So, Goldman Sachs is putting forth serious effort to recruit undergraduates with no particular academic preparation for banking, and to train them. The training is relatively uncomplicated. (It's a two-month summer program, over July and August; they give new recruits June off.) The wooing is aggressive ("in your face" in the word's of Ezra's source) and protracted, beginning by the recruit's junior year at the latest. And the pay scale is easily enough to attract smart and talented people from across the country. But clearly, Goldman Sachs attaches a specific premium to the Ivy League degree. And it’s not just Goldman Sachs; an acquaintance who once worked for a hedge fund tells me that the hiring there was driven by an almost obsessive focus on pedigree (not only undergraduate pedigree, in this specific case, but even prep school pedigree).

Now, almost all Ivy Leaguers are bright, but they’re not an intellectual breed apart. Every college in America has some students smart enough to thrive at an elite university. What’s different about the Ivy League classroom (or a Duke or Chicago or Stanford classroom) is that it contains nobody but those students. A roomful of Ivy League students and a roomful of students from a more typical university aren't like a major league team and a minor league team, but like an All-Star team and an everyday team. The everyday team has its stars, who could easily be on the All-Star team, but the All-Stars have dispensed with the average players. Goldman could get equally smart and talented newcomers without spending two years luring each new kid from Princeton, Cambridge, or New Haven. And they might get people who were actually interested in the business. So why the Ivy fixation?

I have three thoughts:

1) Investment Banks Are Looking for Aggressive Competitors
Ivy Leaguers are smart, and "hard-working," in the white-collar elite's sense of that word: able to focus obsessively on complicated tasks for long stretches of time. But the things that really set elite undergraduates apart from other student bodies are their competitiveness and ambition. Those are the traits that motivated those students to go to the Ivy League in the first place, and being on a campus filled with other ambitious and competitive people reinforces them. Such students are ambitious in many different ways, some laudable and some not, some of their ambitions exclude investment banking. (Some want to be great artists, or great surgeons, or world-changing philanthropists.) And their competitive drive is expressed (or politely concealed) in many different ways, some more evolved and some not. But the one thing that is true of every Harvard undergraduate, by definition, is that they applied to Harvard College, knowing that it had the harshest acceptance rate in the country. They have an easy time imagining themselves overcoming extremely stiff competition.

Not all of those kids fit into particular stereotype, and some wouldn't be caught dead in Goldman Sachs. But among them is an unusually high concentration of people who will set out to win any competition that is proposed to them, and to pursue any end that it is set as a goal. They might have no intrinsic interest in banking per se, but once you talk them into becoming a banker (because it seems like a safe job, and you're offering), many of them will set out to become the best banker in their recruiting class, or their department, or their firm, simply because they will always try to be the best. And alumni of famous schools are accustomed to competing intensely against challenging competitors; they adjust to cutthroat Wall Street fairly smoothly. Employees who are motivated by their own competitive tendencies are relatively easy to motivate, and they stay motivated even after they have gotten personally rich. Goldman Sachs traders try to rack up more and more enormous bonuses for the same reason pro athletes look for bigger and bigger contracts long after they have any need for more money: because it's a way of keeping score.

2) The Clients Like It
Princeton grads might not be any better at the business of banking than alumni of Inglorious State, but they have more practice talking to other people who went to Princeton. Whether an Ivy League student started out from a privileged background or not, by graduation most of them can get along smoothly with privileged people. They make the same chit-chat, they watch the same movies and read or pretend to have read the same books, they like to shop and eat and vacation in the same places that their bosses and most of their clients do. That tends to make things smoother, both with the Ivy-educated bosses, who naturally tend to hire and promote junior employees who resemble themselves, and with the clients, who are reassured by bankers who have been socialized in very particular ways. More than they should, some clients tend to trust Ivy Leaguers, because of the signs of social class and because of the Ivy League credentials themselves. Clients can't ascertain how good every employee of a firm is at his or her job, but the exclusivity of the firm gives them the sense of dealing with highly qualified people. When even the interns went to Dartmouth and Yale, the clients assume that everyone at the firm is very bright, even though another firm full of CUNY night school grads might get the same results. That impression of brilliance is a marketable commodity.

Goldman Sachs trades on that air of exclusivity and excellence, even when they've deliberately taken advantage of their clients. Here's part of an e-mail from the loathsome Fabrice Tourre, explaining how some Goldman clients responded to being sold junk that Goldman Sachs wanted off their own books:
...I feel very strongly it binds clients even closer to the firm, because the alternative of take ur money to a finn who is an under performer and not the best, just isn’t reasonable. Clients ultimately believe association with the best is good for them in the long run.
In this case "association with the best" is what customers were paying for at the expense of their own portfolios, which their "elite" bankers deliberately undermined. Note the lack of irony with which Tourre describes rival firms which don't profit at their own clients' expense as "not the best." Clearly, "the best" has a very peculiar meaning here.

3) Expectation of Entitlement
Tourre's world view, in which a high-powered firm is worth your business even if it loses you money, exemplifies the value system of Wall Street corruption: one expects rewards not so much for particular results, but for one's elite own status. The clients, like the world, are imagined as owing the bankers a living, and a princely one at that. It's easier to bring young bankers and traders into a corporate culture of outsized entitlement if they had a privileged educational background first. Ivy Leaguers are used to being told that they are the elite, and that their privileges are a reward for their own specialness and brilliance. Not every Ivy Leaguers comes to believe in their own massive entitlement, but most of those who do not either don't go to Wall Street or don't stay. And the Ivy League does make it easy to believe that you are special, and that getting in is a natural route to boundless success. It's easy for the Lloyd Blankfeins of the world, who sold hot dogs in Yankee Stadium as a kid and then got into Harvard, to imagine that once he got to Harvard he was a made man; that's why some people apply to Harvard in the first place. If you're running the kind of shop that Goldman Sachs has evidently degenerated into, where profits are put above everything else, hiring some kids who already think they deserve millions of dollars for getting high SAT scores makes sense. Those kids won't question what the firm is doing; they'll simply fight each other to earn the highest commissions every quarter, schmooze the clients, and take their obscene financial rewards as a reflection of their own wonderfulness.

Of course, not every graduate of Harvard or Princeton or Cornell suffers from such a grotesque sense of personal entitlement; but all the Wall Street firms need is a share of the percentage of Ivy League kids who do. Not everyone with a Harvard degree turns into Lloyd Blankfein. Many other people have used their Yale or Dartmouth education in decent or admirable ways. Those schools give their students enormous opportunities, and their alumni choose how to use them. A fancy college won't make you an amoral and elitist greedhead unless you choose to become one. But if an amoral, elitist greedhead is what you really want to be, the Ivy League will make becoming one easier. And if that's what you want to do with your life, Goldman Sachs might have a job for you.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Patriots' Day Follow-up (Boston Marathon)

2:05:52? You've got to be kidding me! 2:08:41 is only good for fourth place?

That's amazing. Two American men run sub 2:10 marathons, and that gets them fourth and fifth? Tough, tough race.

Let me say congratulations to Robert Cheruiyot the Younger for absolutely smashing the Boston course record set by his namesake, Robert Cheruiyout the Slightly Older. That's an amazing achievement, and a great day for Boston and for sport. Congratulations are also in order for women's champ Teyba Erkesso, in her first Boston ever. Well done!

But at the same time, let me also express my distress that Ryan Hall broke the American record at the Boston Marathon today, and still came in fourth, with Meb Keflezighi behind him in fifth. That's heartbreaking.

Am I being a big jingoistic nationalist about this? Should I just revel in the wonder of the world's greatest marathon, and the incredible heights of competition, without weeping in my Gatorade over Ryan and Meb? Maybe, but today I have to do both. It's Patriots' Day, after all.

Defending the Constitution (from the Birthers)

cross-posted at Dagblog

Today, as everybody who's ever lived in Boston knows, is Patriots' Day, the anniversary of the Battles of Lexington and Concord. That means that it's a holiday in Massachusetts and Maine, and it means that today is Boston Marathon day. (Go, Meb and Ryan! Go!) My beloved Red Sox are playing a morning game in Fenway, and all is right with my world.

It's also a day to honor the Minutemen and what they were fighting for in Lexington 235 years ago. The images of the American Revolution have been used a lot lately, most notably by the Tea Partiers, who claim to be defending the Constitution. But there are a number of important Revolutionary principles, principles that the original Minutemen fought and died for, that the Tea Partiers don't seem interested in.

One of the most important of these is civilian authority over the military. The Founders were very clear about this. Massachusetts in 1775 was under military rule, with General Thomas Gage appointed as Governor. The Founders' experience with military governors, and with state legislatures being overruled by the British Army, taught them how important it was to maintain the supremacy of civil power over military power. The army is meant to be answerable to the politicians, and never, ever the reverse. That's the American way. The Constitution identifies the President as commander-in-chief of the armed forces for this reason, to make it clear that the military are responsible to an elected official, and President Washington took great pains to establish that he held a civil rather than a military office.

This is why it is very important that Terrence Lakin, the Birther Lieutenant Colonel who has refused to deploy to Afghanistan, be court-martialed, even if doing so makes him a martyr for true believers on his side. Lakin claims to be defending the Constitution by refusing to follow the orders of a President whose eligibility he doubts. But nothing could be more opposed to the Constitution than an Army officer exercising a personal veto over the political process. Lakin's perverse reasoning is that since he doubts the outcome of a civil procedure (the election) his oath compels him to disobey. But his oath to the Constitution compels him to do exactly the opposite: it compels him to defer to nation's established legal processes, and to defend them. A soldier who refused to obey his or her orders from George W. Bush because s/he felt that Bush v. Gore was wrongly decided would be an enemy of the Constitution; the guiding American principle is that we make our decisions in the court house and the voting booth, and not by shooting each other. Any military officer who violates that principle needs to be punished, and if that leads to a wider debate, then it's a debate that we have to have.

(But weren't the Minutemen at Lexington and Concord fighting instead of voting? Yes, but they were fighting to be able to vote. Their goal was to restore the civil and democratic processes that military rule had overruled. That's the difference between the patriots of the 1770s and the self-described "Patriot" movement today. The American revolutionaries were fighting to restore a set of legal and democratic procedures, to which they owed their obedience and by which they promised to abide. The current Tea Party protesters are enraged by certain specific outcomes that our legal and democratic procedures have produced, and are expressing their unwillingness to accept or abide by the process when it displeases them.)

All of this goes especially for the group known as the "Oath Keepers," a collection of people serving (or having formerly served) in law enforcement and the military, who loudly proclaim their refusal to obey "unconstitutional orders." I would hope that any American would disobey blatantly unconstitutional orders, and that it goes without saying. If a United States President ever orders the Supreme Court Justices arrested, I would expect that President to be disobeyed. But what I fear the "Oath Keepers" have in mind is some right for individual soldiers, police officers, and National Guardsmen to unilaterally nullify lawful commands, to ignore laws and court orders that displease them. (I'm afraid of what the "Oath Keepers" would say if we asked them about the constitutionality of desegregating Ole Miss.) What the "Oath Keepers" appear to have in mind is a flagrant violation of Constitutional principle and a gross betrayal of their oaths. The military are never meant to dictate to the civil authorities. That's what 1775 was about, and 1776, and 1787.

So let's take a moment of Patriots' Day to speak fondly of the Constitutional principles that the Founders handed down to use: a peaceful Republic whose soldiers serve its laws instead of making them, a right to a free and fair trial by jury, the right of habeas corpus, and a commitment to honest, peaceful debate in the town square. Amen.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Why the Catholic Church Will Not Save Itself

Every month, every week, the Catholic Church's scandal seems to deepen. Andrew Sullivan wants the Pope to resign. Christopher Hitchens wants the Pope arrested. Peggy Noonan has a brilliant column detailing the Catholic hierarchy's inability to grasp the problem and calling for "new blood" in the leadership. These are all reasonable desires. But none of that is going to happen.

The Catholic Church, by which I mean the Vatican hierarchy that governs the Catholic Church, is not going to become more accountable because it is faced with widespread public pressure. It is not simply that the current leadership happens to be poor at accountability. It is not the the Vatican organization hasn't caught up to modern management ideas about accountability. It is that the Church leadership considers its lack of accountability a core value. The Vatican believes in being unaccountable. It does not view unaccountability as an obstacle to its mission, or even as a tool on behalf of its mission. It views unaccountability as fundamental to the mission.

Part of this is that the Church is genuinely meant to be counter-cultural, to be in opposition to the secular world and its values. In practice, it hasn't always been so; the Middle Ages, when the Church was at the height of its secular power, was also a period when the Church was most in thrall to the secular values of the feudal society around it. (The Church did not oppose the medieval class system, for example, but actively promoted it.) Maybe it has never been entirely so. But the point is that the Church is meant to speak for divine and transcendent values rather than those of the historical moment. The Church is supposed to speak for Jesus's teachings, no matter how those teachings happen to poll. And they're supposed to stand by those teachings no matter what any king, senate, dictator or morning newspaper thinks about it.

From the Church leadership's perspective, making the Church more responsive to outside influences would represent an abdication of responsibility, and a failure. They see themselves as charged with preserving the Church's independent authority; they are terrified of leaving behind a Church that cannot stand up for its genuine spiritual values when those values are unpopular.

But of course, being answerable to no other Earthly authority is itself a terrible moral temptation, and the Vatican hierarchy has succumbed badly. When one is only answerable to God, it's all too easy and too pleasurable to mistake any number of one's own inner voices for the voice of divine guidance ... and if the God inside is always telling us what we want to hear, isn't that just a sign of our own faithful service? And soon enough, you have a horror show like the Church's handling of pedophiles, and a Church so deeply committed to its own authority that it defends that authority instead of the religious values, such as the protection of the weak and defenseless, that are at the heart of its mission.

The focus on preserving its own authority has misled the Church badly in the past, too, making some Catholic leaders far too comfortable with traditionalist and autocratic political structures that seem to share the Vatican's institutional means, even when those structures serve distinctly non-Christian ends. The Church's record of support for democracy in 19th-century Europe is depressing. In the twentieth century, groups like Opus Dei, which largely incubated in Franco's Spain, have sometimes seemed more attracted to top-down political arrangements than they seem concerned with the content of those arrangements. And nothing demonstrates the current Pope's clinical wrongheadedness than his dogged defenses of Pope Pius XII. Pius XII is rightfully an example of Church leadership yielding too much, and sacrificing too much of its voice in fear of political pressure; Mussolini and Hitler surely required full-throated opposition. But instead of seeing Pius XII as an accommodationist who harmed the Church, Benedict XVI makes it a point of principle to stand up for Pius, because standing up against outside critics is (to Benedict) defending the Church's autonomy. When criticizing a past Pope for accommodating fascism seems a greater evil than a Pope accommodating fascism, one has lost one's way entirely. And because Benedict recognizes no authority that will speak to him aloud, there is no one to set him on the right path again.

And even if this particular Pope stepped down, there is no one left to replace him that does not share his views. John Paul II did a very thorough job, over his long papacy, of filling the episcopate and the Vatican hierarchy with profoundly authoritarian conservatives like himself, of whom Joseph Ratzinger, Benedict XVI, is only the most visible example. John Paul II and his successor shaped the Church organization methodically and thoroughly. Thirty years on, there are no liberals left, and frankly no moderates. The central Vatican agenda since 1978 has been to undo the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, with its emphasis on modernization and its promise to include laypeople in decision-making. The chief goal of the last two papacies, and of all the Church officials appointed by those papacies, has been to "free" the Church of from modern and popular influences. The thoroughly admirable Hans Kung, with whom Father Joseph Ratzinger once taught, has a beautiful summation of this campaign and its consequences here. At this point, there's no one left in the Church hierarchy who isn't motivated by the conviction that the Church has already become too liberal and open and accommodating.

If Benedict XVI stepped down tomorrow, he would be replaced by a Benedict XVII with just the same disastrous and wrong-headed view of the world. The College of Cardinals who would be charged with electing a successor are now a college of little Ratzingers themselves, and would choose one of their own Ratzinger kind. They aren't going to get it. They would consider getting it as a failing and a sin. It will take another long ecclesiastical generation, at least, for the Vatican to get it, as the "new blood" Noonan longs for rises up the bureaucratic ranks. Even that new blood will be unlikely to gain promotion except through bad faith, as a generation that understands the Church's errors conceals that understanding from powerful elders who are committed to those errors as guiding principles. There's a long road left to walk, and no guarantee of walking it straight.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The One-Two Punch for Wall Street Reform

cross-posted at Dagblog

Some conservatives have accused President Obama of timing the Goldman Sachs lawsuit to make it easier to pass Wall Street Reform. It's not true, but the conservatives' anger at the alleged tactic is a sign of what a good idea that tactic is. It's the right general thing to do, and Obama should do a lot more of it.

The Republicans often give President Obama sound political advice in this way; they just give it in disguise. When they say that he should do something, like "be more bipartisan" or "throw away this bill and start over," they mean that he should do that because that would make it easier for them to beat up on him. It's like saying, "You should give me your lunch money." But when the Republicans start fulminating about some political tactic that Obama hasn't shown any particular sign of using yet, and ranting about how he's going to use it and how terribly wrong it is even to think of doing such a thing, it means that they think it's a good move and they're terrified that Obama will do it. So they raise a fuss, trying to convince gullible journalists that there's something terribly un-American about whatever Obama's optimal strategy is, or even get Obama himself to disavow using such a strategy. So when conservatives go around making up conspiracy theories about Obama personally directing SEC investigations, it means that they're scared more legal action against big Wall Street firms are coming, and that they know how hard financial-fraud trials will make it to keep obstructing bank reform.

Now, obviously the President shouldn't order specific charges brought at specific times, and I'm sure that this Administration did not. (What connects the timing of the SEC lawsuit and the Senate finance reform bill is the slowness of both; the SEC moves with methodical deliberation, building cases so thoroughly that from the outside it seems plodding, and Congress is only getting to around to financial reform after the endless dilation of the health care debate.) And obviously, only well-grounded charges should be brought. But there are almost certainly plenty of well-grounded charges to bring.

Obama has an allergy to crude populism, and hasn't been willing to feed popular anger at the banks with cheap red meat. That might be frustrating to his supporters, from a narrowly partisan sense, but it's probably the right thing for policy. Wall Street reform has to be written well, and carefully, no matter how long it takes. If it's done carelessly, the weaknesses and loopholes will go unnoticed by everyone but Wall Street insiders until the next meltdown. And the law needs to be strong, even if that means a long struggle against Republican opposition. (Digby's advice to play legislative hardball is excellent.) A watered-down bill would be worse than no bill, because once these regulations get written no more will be written until, well, the next market catastrophe. Obama, Reid and Pelosi need to wait the Republicans out and force them to pass a serious bill with serious teeth.

But restraining future bad behavior throughout the financial system with new laws is a task for the legislature, which moves slowly and deliberatively, punishing previous misdeeds by specific individuals is very much the task of the executive branch. And even if many of the problems that led to the 2008 meltdown were systematic, there were also plenty of players who weren't even conforming to the existing laws at the time. (Lehmann Brothers is casework waiting to happen.) Obama should instruct the regulatory agencies and the Department of Justice to make the prosecution of financial fraud a major priority. There are plenty of genuine misdeeds to prosecute, and thorough, fair prosecutions would be a very healthy thing for the country.

If the Administration makes the prosecution of financial criminals a priority, it will help to satisfy the populist anger at Wall Street and free the President and Congress to be more deliberate and careful with reform legislation. It will also make it clear to the public where the Administration's sympathies lie, and make it harder for the opposition to distort and misrepresent the process. It might even make the Wall Street lobby more tractable; accepting legislation that restrains your future behavior is much more attractive than being hauled into court for your past behavior. And the inevitable process of discovery and public trials that enforcement suits would serve to educate the general public about exactly how many of the larger Wall Street firms have been operating; better understanding can only lead to better lawmaking.

We need to have more trials of those Wall Street bankers and traders who crossed even the fuzzy and poorly-policed lines of our deregulated finance industry. It's the right thing for Obama to do politically, but not only politically. It's the right thing to do for the country.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Flat World, Flat Earth, and Flyover States

Julian Sanchez has a very smart argument about epistemic closure among conservatives, and folks around the blogosphere have been linking to it. (h/t Matt Yglesias) Sanchez's basic argument is that rural traditionalists are moving toward "epistemic closure," the refusal to hear or process any information that conflicts with their worldview, because new communication technologies leave them uncomfortably close to less-traditional and less-conservative urban populations. Sanchez hypothesizes that:

You’ve got a local community where a certain set of cultural norms is so dominant that it’s just seen as obvious and natural ...[snip]. Except they’re now flooded with undeniable evidence that a hell of a lot of people don’t see things that way, and even hold their community in contempt for seeing things that way.


Epistemic closure is (in part) an attempt to compensate for the collapse of geographic closure. A function no longer effectively served by geographic segregation—because the digital equivalents of your local hangout are open to invasion by the hordes from New York and London—is being passed to media segregation.

Sanchez's basic insight is excellent, I think. And I suspect his argument is stronger than he knows, because this phenomenon is not new, or unique to the Age of the Internet.

There have been previous backlashes of the country against the city in American history, and some of those other backlashes have coincided with new technologies that made the big city seem much closer. I'm thinking of the wave of rural populism in the United States just after World War I, at the moment when movie theaters and broadcast radio were beginning to bring New York City to every small town in America. Then, too, New York City and its values started to seem too close, and too threatening to traditional values, and there was a pushback. The Scopes Monkey trial didn't happen when Darwin's model of evolution won over university biology departments; that happened in the last decades of the nineteenth century. The Scopes trial happens in 1922, when new media technologies suddenly thrust rural America into daily contact with their urban neighbors and their urban world-view.

More unsettling is the application of Sanchez's basic model to other situations. What is a jihadist, after all, but a person who experiences Western culture as "too close," too threatening, and too much to assimilate? (Let me say that I am not posing any moral equivalence between jihadist terrorism and any strand of American ideology. Countenancing mass murder puts al-Qaeda and their sympathizers beyond any moral pale. I'm trying to trace structural parallels between two ideologies, not to conflate them or treat both as equally extremist.) Jihadism is not fundamentally a traditional movement, but a flight to an artificial "traditionalism" in response to Western culture. Al-Qaeda isn't a movement of nomadic Bedouins, but a movement of highly urban, Westernized and educated Arabs; it recruits from the people who are most exposed to Western ideas and mores. Osama bin Laden is a person who could have lived comfortably in London or New York if he liked, and his rejection of the West is a very deliberate by someone who earlier enjoyed the fruits of Westernization.

What bin Laden's sympathizers evidently want is for the West to go away. The call for a purification of Islamic culture, and the turn toward the re-creation of an imagined and idealized past, is an attempt to reduce the feeling of being under foreign influence. The globalized "flat world" which Thomas Friedman believes will eventually smooth out local differences, is in fact exactly what makes the jihadists angry. In a flat world, whole societies are forced to realize that they are the provinces, and not the center; accepting globalization, for many people, means accepting that someplace else is more important than your place, and that you are a rube. The flat world brings Europe and America too damn close, leading jihadists to retreat into their rigid, epistemologically closed ideology.

Obviously, this is not to say that jihadists should be given what they want. They shouldn't, and they can't. The West is not going to go away, the global economy is not going to dissolve, and the Islamic Middle East is not going to influence Western culture as much as it is influenced by it. The jihadist vision of the world is fundamentally a rejection of the world as it is; even if Osama bin Laden got the things he allegedly wants (and which he understands perfectly well he cannot get), such as U.S. troops withdrawn from Saudi Arabia, he would still not be happy. Western culture and Western influence would still be there. He simply can't get what he wants, and on some level probably knows it.

But while the actual membership of Al-Qaeda are implacable and beyond any negotiation (because their key demands are impossible), it's important to think about how the West deals with potential jihadist sympathizers, with the teenagers whom the jihadists want to recruit and with the non-combatant civilians who might donate money to jihadist causes or support jihadist candidates.

As I understand it, lot of our current PR and propaganda aimed at Arab youth tries to trade on their affection for Western culture; your average teenager in Egypt or Jordan or Saudi Arabia may hate the U.S.'s policy on Israel, the thinking goes, but they love Michael Jackson. So our outreach strategy tries to leverage their attraction to Western music and pop culture. But they were always into Michael Jackson; the magnetic pull of our pop culture has always been part of the problem that jihadism purports to answer. Western pop culture raises questions about cultural identity and loyalties that jihadism (however dishonestly) promises to simplify. Western movies and music and fashions make young people feel like yokels, far away from where the cool stuff happens; jihadism offers them a rigid nativist pride, and tells them the world around them is all the world they need. I can't say that wooing the Muslim world with the most attractive parts of our culture is the wrong strategy, but the jihadists' appeal is designed to exploit our very attempts at wooing. Maybe this will simply take a long time, as love for the West and for the East wrestle in Arabic hearts. But if so, it will have to take as long as it takes.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Role Models Don't Golf

cross-posted at Dagblog

The public shaming of Tiger Woods is apparently never going to end. Too many people are drunk on the feeling of moral authority they get by scolding him. The chairman of the Augusta National Golf Club decided to dress Woods down during the chairman's annual speech, complaining that the golfer “disappointed all of us, and more importantly, our kids and our grandkids.” Meanwhile, a columnist from the Washington Post is arguing that Woods "doesn't deserve to win" the Masters, apparently because the columnist feels more penance is in order. How much more? Stupid question. It will never end. If Woods doesn't win, they'll say he needs to "give the fans" a championship. If Woods does win, they'll say it was "too soon."

None of these people have anything to say. It was all said months ago: adultery is wrong. There's really nothing else to add, except for the unholy joy of piling on. The fact that the rest of us are uninvited third parties, butting in on someone else's marriage, only makes the fun easy; the scolds have no skin in the game. The fact that Woods repeatedly grovels and apologizes for the cameras doesn't keep people from unloading on him. Quite the reverse: this is now about bullying, plain and simple, and Woods's public repentance just signals to the bullies that he won't or can't fight back. The Post columnist, Thomas Boswell, notes that Woods "still has to eat crow 24/7 in front of every microphone," and shoves one more feathery helping down the man's throat. The golf club chairman, Billy Payne, made his scolding speech in a public forum that allowed Woods, who is after all the club's guest, no chance to reply. And that's the satisfying part: that Woods just has to take it, and keep taking it.

The gratuitous and increasingly disproportionate scolding has actually started to reveal the scolders' own poor character. But the sudden elevation of the pro golf establishment to oracular moral authority made me wonder how on Earth anyone could associate golfing with moral authority. What is moral about golf? What is right or good or just about golf? If we're being all judgmental, how should we judge pro golf itself?

Golf is an expensive, elitist and exclusionary pastime. It hogs large swaths of prime real estate for the exclusive use of well-heeled hobbyists who have both the money to waste on expensive clubs, fees, and paraphernalia and the enormous stretches of leisure time to waste playing nine (or even eighteen) pointless holes. As a sport, it takes up the maximum time possible for the minimum cardiovascular benefit; you'd be better off just walking the course. Unlike basketball, football, soccer, boxing, or baseball, unlike wrestling or track and field, it has never been any athlete's route out of poverty. It is too prohibitively expensive for a poor young player to take up, and golf scholarships are for people whose parents bought them golf lessons (and clubs and cleats and endless practice balls and, and, and ...) Golf doesn't get anyone out of the projects; it takes people from Grosse Pointe and keeps them there. It might help some people up the career ladder after they've already gotten adult middle-class jobs, but that's not really a social justice project. Golf doesn't even teach basic athletic virtues like teamwork and unselfishness; even team golf is basically an individual endeavor done in tandem with someone else. You never pass to give someone else the glory, you never sacrifice yourself with a bunt, you never protect a teammate by blocking a hit with your body.

Golf is best understood as an elaborate excuse for spending as much money as possible; it is competitive self-indulgence. Players focus on more and more expensive clubs, more and more expensive and exclusive courses, more and more time spent "working on their games," rather than, say, working. Top hobbyists, like the Fortune 500 types who make up Augusta National, can spend tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars on the game. That is in fact the game's chief purpose. And even charity tournaments, I'm told by a friend who does non-profit development, tend to be money-losers for the charity, because providing the golf itself is so expensive. Really, you only hold the golf fund-raiser to keep your donors happy: in short, to indulge them.

Is golf a terrible thing? Is it wrong? No. It's a fairly harmless pastime, and people looking to consume conspicuously can always find much worse ways to do it. It would be a pretty great world if golf represented one of the major injustices. But neither is it a good thing, really. It is not something that makes the world a better place, nor was it meant to. It is primarily a vehicle for expensive self-gratification.

Tiger Woods plays this magnificent self-indulgence magnificently. For that, and for endorsing a wide range of gratifyingly expensive luxury goods, he has been made rich in a way that cuts him off from the basic condition of most of humanity. And then, made fabulously wealthy for excelling at a self-indulgence, Tiger turns out to be "a selfish 30-something adolescent" in the Thomas Boswell's words: immature, self-centered and self-indulgent, enormously entitled and focused on gratifying himself. Yes, yes, it's all true. Tiger Woods is those sorry things. But where's the surprise? Those are the things big-time golf is about, baby.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Who Can't Get a Gun in This Country?

Norman Leboon, who has threatened to kill Congressman Eric Cantor, has been found unfit to stand trial for psychiatric reasons. This is not a big surprise; last year Leboon was arrested for threatening to have the Archangel Gabriel kill his roommate. But on the other hand, that wasn't enough to get Leboon's license to carry a concealed handgun canceled. Of course, when Norman got really crazy his brother came and tried to confiscate the gun. He just couldn't find it.

Charles Alan Wilson, who has been arrested for threatening to murder a United State Senator, also has a concealed-carry permit, and a .38 handgun to conceal. He told the FBI all about it.

On the other hand, Jacob Ward of the Hutaree militia had his guns taken away by his mother. This made him so angry that he asked the police to arrest his mother, "and was irate when the cops refused":
Police reports indicate Ward wanted his AK47 and .45-caliber pistol back because an Ohio crime family was after him for trying to marry a Macedonian woman who had been held captive on an island in Lake Erie by another crime family.
Fortunately, the police can't make you give a delusional relative his guns back. But they can't stop you from giving them back, either. And it's apparently up to you, and not the cops, to take the guns when your family member becomes a menace.

All irrelevant in the case of Huntsville shooter Amy Bishop, of course, whose husband bought the gun she would someday use in Huntsville back in 1989. (If you remember her husband claiming that he didn't know where she got the gun, because the family didn't have one, it's because he said that in public. He was just lying.) This is one family member who wanted to make sure that Amy had access to a gun, which is odd considering she'd killed her brother with a gun in 1986. Now, her husband likely doesn't believe that Bishop murdered her brother, and Bishop was never charged or even fully booked. But even if you grant Bishop's version of the story, why should anyone who's killed someone through incredible carelessness with a firearm have another firearm? If you can't load and unload a gun without committing fratricide, you just shouldn't have guns. Really.

And of course, the people who sold Virginia Tech killer Seung-Hui Cho his two handguns couldn't have known that he would use them to kill 32 people before he killed himself. There was nothing in his past that predicted he would become a mass murderer. His psychiatric history only suggested the suicide part. And though we worry, or pretend to worry, about selling guns to murderers, nobody ever complains about people selling guns to people who might kill themselves. Think about how cold that is.

So my question is: who can't get a gun in this country? People suffering paranoid delusions can have handguns and assault rifles and concealed-carry permits. People who've been arrested for threatening other people can have guns. Suicidal college students can have guns. People who've killed other people with guns can have new guns. Seriously, who the hell is not allowed to have a gun? I'm not proposing any draconian new gun laws here. But how on earth can it be this easy for people who are obviously a menace (one way or another) to get semi-automatics?