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Boston Strong

Do yourself a favor and read the brief, humble, forthright, heartfelt and eloquent statement  from Bill and Denise Richard on the front page of today's Boston Globe  asking the Justice Department not to seek the death penalty for convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzokhar Tsarnaev:

"We are in favor of and would support the Department of Justice in taking the death penalty off the table in exchange for the defendant spending the rest of his life in prison without any possibility of release and waiving all of his rights to appeal.

We understand all too well the heinousness and brutality of the crimes committed. We were there. We lived it. The defendant murdered our 8-year-old son, maimed our 7-year-old daughter, and stole part of our soul. We know that the government has its reasons for seeking the death penalty, but the continued pursuit of that punishment could bring years of appeals and prolong reliving the most painful day of our lives."

A federal jury convicted Tsarnaev last week on 30 counts related to the Boston Marathon bombings and the ensuing week-long manhunt two years ago.  Most locals would agree that nobody has a greater right to cry out for vengeance than the Richards.  That they do not, but instead offer a plea to spare Tsarnaev's life may be shocking to some, but I suspect it's not at all surprising to those who know them, their parish community of St. Ann's, and the Ashmont section of Boston's Dorchester neighborhood in which they live.

Estate tax unpopular not just with rich

The House of Representatives is scheduled to vote this week on repealing the federal estate tax, and while more Republicans favor this repeal than Democrats, I can’t be equally sure the rich favor it more than the poor. The reason is a conversation I had as a reporter in the mid-1990s with the late George McGovern, who lost the presidency so soundly in 1972.

I was interviewing McGovern about his book chronicling his daughter’s tragic death, not about taxes. But when I mentioned that I had cast my first presidential vote for him, we talked a while about national debates that never go away.

Although “income inequality” wasn’t a term then in use, the issue has always been with us. One way to lessen income inequality is the estate tax, designed to ensure that vast fortunes don’t stay wholly within certain families, thereby building up the wealth gap for generations to come.

McGovern specifically brought the estate tax up, not me. During his presidential campaign he had advocated raising the tax, he said, and one of his biggest surprises was the vigorous resistance he encountered among the poor and middle class, people who would likely never have to pay it.

Whether they had money or not, McGovern said, they thought someday they might. And if that day ever came, they wanted their heirs to hold onto every bit of it.

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Just Said No UPDATE

Making my way into the depths of international news, I was surprised to read that Pakistan had said, "NO," to sending troops to back up the Saudi war againt the Houthis in Yemen. The Saudis have been bombing the Houthis trying to stop their advance into the south of Yemen. General opinion seems to be that bombing alone will not do it, hence the call for Pakistani troops since the Saudis appear not to have a serious ground force of the sort that would be required.

The Pakistanis said, no: their president said no, and then the Parliament voted no. Why? It was not entirely clear, especially since Pakistan is the recipient of very significant loans and gifts from Saudi Arabia as well as the Gulfies.

Here are two reports that provide more information and analysis.

Bruce Reidel at al-monitor reports on the Pakistani assessment and vote on the request and offers a brief analysis of the "no" vote.

Patrick Bahzad at Pat Lang's blog offers a more extended analysis and some interesting speculation on how the Iran nuclear agreement may be shifting the geo-politics of the region, including Pakistan's relations with Iran and China.

UPDATE: Another factor that came to light today: the Saudis wanted only sunni, not shiite soldiers from Pakistan. The Pakistani army is said to be 70 percent sunni and 30 percent shiite. Pakistan has enought troubles without igniting a sunni-shiia war on their own territory.

For and Against UPDATE MORE

The Iranian Nuclear Agreement may be the most significant diplomatic event since the collapse of the USSR. Here is a run down on where things stand as forces line up, pro and con.

The Iran political establishment supports the nuclear agreement.

The U.S. political establishment, Obama: Yes; Republicans and some Democrats: Probably Not.

The 51st state:  Bad deal.    "Improvements" to help destroy the agreement.

The 51st state and U.S. Congressional Republicans: Kill it.

MORE 4/10/15: Senate Democrats who are Jewish and/or who have large Jewish constituencies have a complex set of issues to work through. The NYTimes focuses on Senator Charles Schumer (D.-NY) who has never held back from support for Israel: "Schumer is Squeezed on Various Sides Over Iran Deal."  Will he support Obama? Stay tuned.  The Forward has a parallel story with more comment from inside the Jewish community: "Will Chuck Schumer Side with Republicans over President Obama."

Fifty bipartisan diplomatic, military, security officials: Trust and verify.

Madeleine Albright,  Graham Allisonm,  Michael Armacost,  Samuel R. Berger,  Zbigniew Brzezinski,Nicholas Burns,   James Cartwright,   Gen Stephen Cheney, BrigGen  Joseph Cirincione, Chester A. Crocker,  Ryan C. Crocker,  Suzanne DiMaggio,  James Dobbins,  Robert Einhorn,  William J. Fallon,  Michèle Flournoy,  Leslie H. Gelb, William Harrop,  Stephen B. Heintz,  Carla A. Hills James Hoge, Nancy L. Kassebaum,  Frank Kearney,  Daniel C. Kurtzer,  Carl Levin,  Winston Lord,  William Luers,  Richard Lugar,  Jessica T. Mathews,  William G. Miller,  Richard Murphy,  Vali Nasr, Joseph Nye,  Eric Olson,  George Perkovich, Thomas R. Pickering,  Paul R. Pillar, Nicholas Platt, Joe R. Reeder,  William A. Reinsch,  J. Stapelton Roy,  Barnett Rubin,  Gary Samore, Brent Scowcroft, Joe Sestak,  Gary Sick,  Jim Slattery,  Anne-Marie Slaughter,  James Stavridis,  Adm James Walsh, Lawrence B. Wilkerson, Timothy E. Wirth,  Frank G. Wisner,  Anthony C. Zinni.

UPDATE: Iran's "Supreme" leader enters the fray:  does the bad cop/good cop routine? undercuts the neogtiations? works with Netanyahu to scotch any agreement? Which is it? Or is it something else?

Death Penalty: Pope Francis vs. Fr. John McCloskey

As with so many other issues of justice, Pope Francis doesn’t mince words when it comes to the death penalty. Noting that Church teaching allows using force to stop an aggressor, and that such force might sometimes be lethal, he nonetheless stresses that this argument cannot be invoked to defend the death penalty. The reason is simple: with the death penalty, people are being killed not for current acts of aggression, but for something that happened in the past and has already been neutralized.

For this reason, Francis argues that:

“Today capital punishment is unacceptable, however serious the condemned’s crime may have been”. Why? Because “it is an offense to the inviolability of life and to the dignity of the human person which contradicts God’s plan for man and for society and his merciful justice, and it fails to conform to any just purpose of punishment. It does not render justice to the victims, but rather foments revenge”.

The pope goes on to argue the death penalty “loses all legitimacy due to the defective selectivity of the criminal justice system and in the face of the possibility of judicial error”. This rings especially true in the United States, with its horrendous record of racial injustice. Moreover, the evil is compounded by the fact that the suspended period between sentence and execution is tantamount to a form of torture. Again, this rings true with the death row experience in the United States.

In all of this, Pope Francis is walking a path cleared by Saint John Paul II, although he is certainly doing some further clearing himself. He is strengthening the moral case laid down the John Paul, who concluded that cases where the death penalty is licit in the modern world are “very rare, if not practically non-existent”.

Thankfully, we can see some evidence of a turning tide in the United States on the death penalty, at last among Catholics. This issue is finally starting to transcend the partisan divide – as evidenced by a joint op-ed by the editors of four leading Catholic publications, from both the right and left.  

But there are still some noisy Catholic death penalty dead-enders out there. Fr. C. John McCloskey is certainly among the worst of them.

McCloskey crowns his pro-death penalty argument with the following stunning statement:

“Indeed, for any son or daughter of God, it is a great grace to know the time of one’s death, as it gives us the opportunity to get right with the Lord who will judge us at our death. Perhaps many people have been saved in this way by the death penalty. Who knows what would have happened if they had been allowed to linger in this life, one day possibly killing other people?”

This is shocking in its depravity. Taken to its logical conclusion, this argument could be deployed to justify all kinds of barbarous behavior. It’s not that different from Arnaud Amalric’s reputed call to “kill them all for the Lord knows his own” during the Albigensian crusade. Why not just wipe out people in crime-ridden neighborhoods, or in countries with a beef against the United States - after giving them enough warning to prepare for a good death, of course? Even better, why not promote euthanasia after a good confession as a virtuous practice to be encouraged? Or just kill people before they have a chance to commit sins in the first place – making abortion a virtuous practice too?

Yes, these examples are horrific caricatures, but I submit that McCloskey’s position is not far from them. The best response comes, once again, from Pope Francis:

“Life, human life above all, belongs to God alone. Not even a murderer loses his personal dignity, and God himself pledges to guarantee this. As St. Ambrose taught, God did not want to punish Cain with homicide, for He wants the sinner to repent more than to die”.

To repent and live, not to repent and die. 

Any liberals for religious freedom?

Are there still liberals willing to speak up for religious freedom?  I don’t know whether the religious freedom bill passed and signed in Indiana last week—and now reportedly up for revision—is a good measure.  I do know that, however one precisely balances out the pros and cons of the bill, it does involve religious freedom. 

That was not the perspective of the front-page story in Saturday’s New York Times, which framed the bill as one more tactic for discriminating against gay couples.  Conservatives opposed to same-sex marriage were “invoking ‘religious freedom’ as their last line of defense.”

No doubt some conservatives would invoke anything short of global warning as a last-line defense against same-sex marriage.  But is it really beyond imagining that many conservatives and non-conservatives, too, might be genuinely agitated about religious freedom for its own sake?   Certainly beyond imagining by Hillary Clinton, who was quick to tweet, “Sad this new Indiana law can happen in America today.”  Beyond imagining by all the technology, business, and sports and entertainment eminences now bullying Indiana with boycotts, not that these folks ever cared much (or knew much) about religious freedom in the first place.

The Times news story devoted almost two thirds of its coverage to these critics, far more than to any supporters or to Indiana’s governor. It did spare two paragraphs for a quote from Douglas Laycock, one of the nation’s foremost church-state scholars. “The hysteria over this law is so unjustified,” he said, rejecting the anti-gay sentiments being attributed to it.

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Kumbaya nervous breakdown (cont.)

In Wednesday's post I asked: what next for U.S.-Israeli ties? 

Among the comments, J.P. Farry posted this grim but perhaps realistic analysis: "The reaction of so many Israelis to Obama's response to Bibi's election eve statement reflects their long-standing expectation that US Presidents are supposed to cut Israeli prime ministers "a lot of slack" given the tumultuous character of Israeli politics.

"We now know that almost every President since 1948 has experienced periods of frlustration with Israeli prime ministers  But past presidents, by either their silence or direct statements, have never questioned the "good intentions" of Israeli leaders in pursuing a 2-state solution. Obama has just said he ls not going to provide this "cover"--even when Bibi offered him a second chance to indirectly and discretely testify to Bibi's "peace credentials."  (At the same time, Obama's Chief of Staff, in addressing the J-Street Convention, referred to the need to end "50 years of occupation."  -- The "O" word is not supposed to spoken in DC.--)

"Israeli leaders since the Oslo Agreement  20 years ago have been realists.  Accepting a 2-state agreement poses security and political risks that maintaining "the occupation"--particularly as it now exists--would not seem to involve. Bibi, in his slip of the tongue on the eve of the election--admitted what no Israeli leader has previously dared to admit--the "status quo" (the "occupation") is the best of all probable world that the Israelis can hope for.

"Why not!  The US has reconstructed the PA security forces so they are more effective in maintaining order on the West Bank; settlements can be incrementally expanded with limited and passing objections; Israeli intelligence agents have effectively infilltrated Palestinian society; and  "international donors" (the US, EU and Arab League) provide over a billion dollars a year to alliviate the harshest economic consequences of the "occupation."

 "At the moment, the Palestinians seem to have only one bargaining chip: the threat of another "Infitada." (It would seem inevitable that such an uprising would be treated as the projection of Islamic State violence and quickly and harshly suppressed by both the Israelis and Americans.)

"If Obama had remained silent--(or if he now agrees to publically sing "kumbaya" with Bibi)--we might be able to retain the tatered "hope" that a     2-state solution is within reach as soon as there is a Palestinian partner who shares Bibi's willingness to negotiate. Bibi's comments (and Obama's response) make it impossible for us to continue with this self-deception.

"Bibi's (and Obama's) candor present the Palestinians (as well as the Europeans and the other financial supporters of the Palestinians) with a changed diplomatic context.  However it is not at all clear that the sudden interjection of candor into this implacable conflict will open up new avenues for the non-violent dismantling of Israeli's "best probable solution"-- the occupation.

"While candor is toxic for self-deception, it may only trigger the creation of new self-deceptions."

And if you're up for more, check out the Forward on what American-Israeli lobbying groups should be doing.... a bit of bury your head in the sand, maybe this will go away.

No kumbaya for the nervous breakdown

Read the editors' sane, balanced and forthright editorial on Netanyahu's election and the fall-out. Then read the comments virtually charging CWL with anti-S. Talk about swarming! [NB: I am not an editor! Didn't write it!]

Then look at Jodi Rudoren in Wednesday's Times about Israelis having a nervous breakdown over the Obama Administration's straight talking about the state of the two-state solution. The nerve of President Cool. "The president’s harsh words have been deemed by some to be patronizing and disrespectful not only to Mr. Netanyahu but also to the voters who rewarded his uncompromising stances with a resounding mandate for a fourth term."  "Patronizing!" "Disrespectful!" Wow. Pots and Kettles!

Then here's a little something "Washington Sits Shiva for the 2-State Solution" from Mondoweiss (somethimes charged with being a self-hating J, akin to anti-S). "Israeli PM Netanyahu’s dismissal of the two-state solution in the last days of the election campaign in Israel is having a huge and beneficial effect on the discussion of the conflict inside the United States. Yesterday President Obama leaped on the PM’s comments at a press conference, stating severely that the two-state solution is not going to happen in the next “several” years, and we have to deal with that reality, and no one’s going to get anywhere by singing “kumbaya.”

What next? Your policy proposals.

Ted Cruz: Ability, will, but maybe no way

Whether Ted Cruz can be president is a different question than whether he will be. The answer to the first is a definitive yes, at least on eligibility. Though Cruz was born in Canada, his mother was born in the United States, which makes him an American citizen. Cruz in this way is like John McCain (birthplace: Panama Canal Zone) and George Romney (birthplace: Mexico): children of U.S.-born parents, and thus able to run for U.S. president.  And like this guy (birthplace: Hawaii).

The answer to the second question is almost as definitive: Cruz, who Monday became the first candidate to officially enter the race with a midnight Tweet and a midmorning address at evangelical Liberty University, will almost certainly not be president. The fact that he announced so early in some ways speaks to this: With money already heading to such likely candidates as Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and Rand Paul, Cruz couldn’t afford to wait much longer. Additionally, the GOP’s distaste for its own still-first-term senator, over stunts like the non-filibuster over the Affordable Care Act and his role in shutting down the government in 2013, is well known. Cruz did place in third in last month’s CPAC straw poll (after Walker and Paul), suggesting to some he might have early primary promise, but by many accounts he remains “the most hated man in the senate” and not very much liked in general

Cruz made his announcement at Liberty’s weekly convocation, student attendance at which is mandatory. The ovations he received, however, seemed spontaneous, with applause greeting his calls to abolish the IRS, abolish Obamacare, abolish same-sex marriage…. “It’s time for truth, for liberty … a time to reclaim the constitution of the United States,” he said. “Reclaim the promise of America. Reclaim the mandate, the hope and opportunity … we stand together for liberty…. The answer will not come from Washington but from people of faith and lovers of liberty….” The Aaron Tippin song “Where the Stars and Stripes and Eagles Fly” played when Cruz finished speaking. (Lyric snip: “I was born by God’s dear grace/in an extraordinary place/where the stars and stripes and eagles fly” – something Canadian citizens might be surprised to learn about their country.)

Liberty the university was established by Jerry Falwell, and the school called Cruz’s decision to announce his candidacy there “fitting, as [he] has joked that ‘I’m Cuban, Irish and Italian, and yet somehow I ended up Southern Baptist.’” The university nonetheless noted it is by law prohibited from endorsing candidates, and indeed more from the GOP are likely to stop by in the course of the campaign, just as others have in previous ones. Cruz’s fondness for overheated rhetoric (“your world’s on fire,” he insisted at a New Hampshire speech last week) prompts David Ludwig at The Atlantic to call him characteristic of what Richard Hofstadter identified as the paranoid style of American politics. But that seems to assign more to Cruz than he should be called on to bear. He doesn’t appear to believe in his paranoid claims in the way, say, of Ron Paul, and maybe not even of Rand, whose relatively formidable presence was visible at Monday’s Liberty event: a row of attendees in bright-red “I Stand with Rand” t-shirts, ruining what otherwise might have made fine campaign footage of Cruz and his smiling, waving family (video here, at about the 35:50 mark).

More than just the Ryan budget redux?

Republicans in the House and Senate this week released their respective budget plans, and though they differ in the details they’re similar in their aims – namely, to use the deficit and the debt as justification for tax cuts for high earners and corporations and significant spending cuts in social programs. Leave aside the question of whether the deficit and the debt require such attention (plenty think they don’t, including the Obama administration); what House and Senate Republicans have proposed are essentially reboots of the Paul Ryan (2012 and 2014) franchises.

Which if you liked, then this you might love. Medicare becomes a voucher (i.e., “partially privatized”) program. Medicaid becomes a block-grant program. SNAP (food stamps) becomes a block-grant program. Dodd-Frank restrictions on Wall Street get watered down. And – wait for it – the Affordable Care Act is, finally, once and for all, repealed.

Much of this of course is dressed up in language making it sound sensible, maybe even noble: block-grants give states flexibility and improve efficiency; repeal of Obamacare equates to “patient-centered reform.” Few details are offered, though plenty of figures are tossed about – many of which can only be met with suspicion if not outright incredulity.Though the proposal calls for the repeal of Obamacare, it still counts as going toward the coffers the $2 trillion the law’s tax increases provide. Though the House and Senate plans assume deficit reductions of $147 billion to $164 billion from economic growth stemming from proposed cuts in taxes and spending, these numbers have been generated through the technical sleight of hand known as dynamic scoring. There’s also something in the House proposal being referred to as the “magic asterisk” – a provision for saving $1.1 trillion over ten years “by reducing outlays for mandatory spending other than on health care and Social Security.” No one’s quite sure where those cuts would come from, but they’d have to come from somewhere to meet the goal of $5.5 trillion in overall savings.

Early reviews on the Republican budget proposals: “If the budget resolution released on Tuesday by House Republicans is a road map to a “Stronger America,” as its title proclaims, it’s hard to imagine what the path to a diminished America would look like”; “[This is a] slumlord's budget, an evictor's budget, an auctioneer's budget of a kind that emptied towns all over the Great Plains. It assumes the existence of a propertied class and a servile class, both of them eternal and immutable”; “[I]t lays out a virtual war on the poor and middle class” and as such is “a bracing statement of Republican ideology.”

For his part, the president is disappointed that neither Republican proposal calls for investment in education, infrastructure, or research, and that neither is a “budget that reflects the future.” How much of that the Democratic minority can negotiate for remains to be seen, as does its overall ability to challenge Republican plans that according to Charles P. Pierce “solidify further the burgeoning oligarchy that is devouring the republic.”

Liar and Bully Wins; Business as Usual

The Forward's J.J. Goldberg, an astute and sympathetic observer of Israel, has this assessment of Tuesday's election results. The Jewish Daily Forward.

UPDATE: A sobering assessment by an Israeli journalist, skip the part about polling and media errors and go to: "President Obama allowed Netanyahu to reach the heart of the administration's nerve center and stand there, to deliver a speech to both houses of Congress, as if he was the American president and not the head of a tiny country dependent on the US. Next to Netanyahu, Obama suddenly seemed like Isaac Herzog. He publicly hazed the president, and got home safe and sound. The Americans should have made Netanyahu pay a price, but they did not do this."  True? What would the price be?  It goes on to lay out the shape of the next Israeli government.  Whole thing here.

More: "In his first interview since his re-election victory, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel walked back his rejection of a two-state solution." NYTimes on-line, Thursday afternoon.

Israel: Some Sobering Analysis

While awaiting the outcome of Israel's election and the formation of a new government, the optimists (I would like to be one) need to think about the whole picture. Charles Freeman, former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia and a man with strong views and deep knowledge gave a very long speech (said to have been given on March 10, 2014 by Jim Lobe at LobLog, and published on March 10, 2015. Lobe has now corrected the date: speech given March 10, 2015; PHEW!). Here is the link to the published speech. Here is the link to LobLog.  They are both the same! Equally long!

Freeman's analysis is sobering. As he says, he does not mince words.

Here is his set-up of the current situation. "It is often said that human beings learn little useful from success but can learn a great deal from defeat. If so, the Middle East now offers a remarkably rich menu of foreign-policy failures for Americans to study.

• Our four-decade-long diplomatic effort to bring peace to the Holy Land sputtered to an ignominious conclusion a year ago.

• Our unconditional political, economic, and military backing of Israel has earned us the enmity of Israel’s enemies even as it has enabled egregiously contemptuous expressions of ingratitude and disrespect for us from Israel itself.

• Our attempts to contain the Iranian revolution have instead empowered it.

• Our military campaigns to pacify the region have destabilized it, dismantled its states, and ignited ferocious wars of religion among its peoples.

Our efforts to democratize Arab societies have helped to produce anarchy, terrorism, dictatorship, or an indecisive juxtaposition of all three.

• In Iraq, Libya, and Syria we have shown that war does not decide who’s right so much as determine who’s left.

• Our campaign against terrorism with global reach has multiplied our enemies and continuously expanded their areas of operation.

• Our opposition to nuclear proliferation did not prevent Israel from clandestinely developing nuclear weapons and related delivery systems and may not preclude Iran and others from following suit.

• At the global level, our policies in the Middle East have damaged our prestige, weakened our alliances, and gained us a reputation for militaristic fecklessness in the conduct of our foreign affairs. They have also distracted us from challenges elsewhere of equal or greater importance to our national interests." 

Coffin or Suitcase? Goldberg on Europe's Jews

In the April issue of The Atlantic, several thousand words into Jeffrey Goldberg's deeply reported, timely, and sobering assessment of Euorpean Jewry, he asks whether it's 1933 again.

Anti-Semitic attitudes have increasingly turned into anti-Semitic attacks, and perhaps 2015 is the tipping point. Goldberg was interviewing a group of Jews in a cafe near Sarcelles, a center of 2014's anti-Jewish riots. 

The [town's] synagogue is now also used as a base of operations for the more than 40 soldiers who have been assigned to protect the town’s Jewish institutions.

“We’re very glad for the soldiers,” one of the men, who asked me to identify him only as Chaim, said. “But soldiers in the synagogues means that there is no life here, only danger. This is why I’m leaving.” It is, he said, using an expression common during the Algerian civil war, a choice between le cercueil ou la valise—“the coffin or the suitcase.”

After reading Goldberg's reporting, that stark dilemma does not seem melodramatic. Weaving interviews and synagogue visits with hate-crime data from throughout Europe, he portrays an existential anxiety among Jewish communities from Sweden to France to Greece. In one of history's most macabre twists, the tiny Jewish population of Gemany may have the strongest state support on the continent. Angela Merkel is "among the world's chief defenders of Jews." 

Casual and even well-educated observers of modern European religion can learn much from Goldberg's narrative, so much of which shows a rapidly changing everyday experience for Jews. With the Shoah slipping from living memory -- and its memorials defaced, its museums attacked or empty -- anti-Semitism no longer lies dormant.

A younger generation tells its parents to stop going to their Jewish doctors. Jewish students are afraid to go to school: if to public school, they are individual targets; if to Jewish schools, a collective target. A Swedish rabbi and his wife do not walk in public together, for fear that they might both be attacked and leave their children orphans. 

Goldberg concludes by considering whether emigration to Israel or the United States--the suitcase options--is the best hope for European Jewry. "Do you have a bag packed?" he asked Alain Finkielkraut, a celebrated French intellectual, referencing a classic question in Jewish culture. "We should not leave," he said, "but maybe for our children or grandchildren there will be no choice."

As an American Jew whose family left Moldova just before its Jews were exterminated, Goldberg is not optimistic for the future of Jewish life in Europe. He visited what used to be the synagogue in the town of Leova, where his grandfather would have prayed. It is now a gymnasium. "The caretaker tried to sell it to me," he quips. A bid for the future? Goldberg demurs, and leaves us with this:

I am predisposed to believe that there is no great future for the Jews in Europe, because evidence to support this belief is accumulating so quickly. But I am also predisposed to think this because I am an American Jew—which is to say, a person who exists because his ancestors made a run for it when they could.

 

Family issues: 50 years ago

“When Liberals Blew It” was the headline on Nicholas Kristof’s March 12 column in The New York Times.  The headline referred to the moment fifty years ago when liberals treated Daniel Patrick Moynihan as a racist for proposing in a Labor Department report—eventually known as the “Moynihan Report”—that family disarray and the growth of single-parent households among African-Americans were reaching what would now be called a “tipping point.”  The leading factors countering black poverty—primarily male employment—were in danger of losing traction.  National action was imperative.

That Moynihan was right in broaching the delicate subject of the relationship of family breakdown and poverty has been acknowledged all over the place—half a century too late, some might say, but in fact the acknowledgements have come steadily over the decades.  Kristof, one of our best columnists, was condensing a complicated story into a brief column, which didn’t do justice to all the details.  One liberal voice, for instance, that didn’t “blow it” was Commonweal’s. 

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Rich and Poor: Not a Moral Vocabulary?

Fellow dotcommonwealer Anthony Annett takes David Brooks to task for singling out the moral failures of the poor, while overlooking the “beam in the eye” of the rich. Annett rightly notes:

During the postwar era in the United States, there was a fair amount of solidarity between capital and labor. Unions were strong and respected, and the fruits of higher productivity were broadly shared. Top income tax rates were high, and it was considered unseemly for top executive compensation to soar to stratospheric levels. … But the social norms underpinned this model shifted dramatically during the libertarian revival of the late 1970s and early 1980s, heralded by the rise of Reagan. Now, it became acceptable to put self-interest above social solidarity. Top tax rates were cut, unions were attacked, and the financial sector was unleashed. It became acceptable to push wages to rock bottom simply to maximize shareholder returns and top executive compensation. It became acceptable to scrape the bottom of the barrel in terms of ethical standards to make a quick buck. It became acceptable to spend billions in lobbying for your own short term interest, while demonizing the poor, and fighting for your extra tax cut to come from their extra benefit. And it became acceptable to insist on the God-given right to perpetual pollution, planet be damned.

Annett is right that both structurally and culturally, we've shifted from a stance of solidarity to a stance of selfishness. Given that Brooks’s column offers some horrifying anecdotes of the destructive culture of poverty, it is only fair that Annett summon up the horrifying images of the filthy rich. I don’t deny the truth in either of these descriptions, but what bothers me about these kinds of dueling descriptions of our economic situation is the extent to which they have a tendency to fall into and trade on stereotypes. Again, there's truth here, but it is so easy for these generalizations to go too far, become too sweeping, and then impair constructive progress. In the first chapter of my book on luxury, I note that the tendency to lock discussions of economic ethics into structural debates controlled by “the market-state binary” means that

the debates also tend to leave things out and arrive at an impasse. They often neglect significant differences in behavior within the categories “rich” and “poor.” To put it bluntly, they trade on stereotypes of both groups, whether positive or negative, and resort to an anecdotal story or two to reinforce their preferred stereotype. The rich are either rapaciously greedy or noble “job creators”; the poor are either struggling victims in need of compassion or lazy, dependent freeloaders in need of personal discipline and a sense of responsibility. But surely neither group is in fact homogenous! “The rich” and “the poor” are misleading abstractions. Such stories often “explain” complex economic problems by scapegoating this or that subgroup – “Wall Street” or “welfare queens,” “government regulators” or “insurance company executives.” Sadly, this passes for reasoned, public debate.

So, Brooks and Annett both have valid points. There really are characteristic, if stereotyped, vices that afflict both rich and poor in our society. Both in fact tend toward the “libertarian default,” though in different ways. But a prudent discussion would get past the stereotypes and find ways to recover moral language that should be shared by all. I think luxury is a key part of that, a language of reasonably, self-controlled spending that recognizes the responsibility of using excess wealth for the common good. Wealth is there to be shared. There are rich and poor who in fact practice such sharing; there are also rich and poor who are consumed by consumption. The primary moral vocabulary is not “rich” and “poor”; it should be solidarity and frugality.

But a moral vocabulary “shared by all” is important, too. All this stereotyping and scapegoating does serve an important political function, which is a further consequence of the market-state binary: by focusing on groups of great wealth or severe poverty, the discussion tends to exempt “the middle class". If we can blame the Wall Streeters or the dysfunctional poor neighborhoods, then maybe our own lifestyles can get off the hook. But consider a different possibility: maybe the need for norms of solidarity, generosity, and frugality might be most powerful if practiced and expressed by the middle class, and particularly what I call the “39%” – that is, the upper two income quintiles below the 1%. The 39% control a lot of wealth, a lot of votes, and a lot of organizations. Solidarity and frugality could go a long way if that’s what the 39% sought. And of course, some do. Perhaps they are the really important cultural catalysts.

Virtue among the rich and poor

In a recent column, David Brooks wades into the debate on the huge gaps in income and opportunity that have arisen in the United States. He focuses on the plight of the poor, and his argument is essentially that the problem is not so much money and policies as norms and virtues.

In other words, he blames the poor for their own plight, and Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig immediately pounces. She argues, quite persuasively, that the moral values of the poor do not differ from the moral values of the rich, and that what keeps the poor down is daily grind of poverty and its soul-destroying burden. On this point, Paul Krugman is in complete agreement—he had noted for a while that social dysfunction can be traced to collapse in decent jobs rather than a collapse in virtue.

But I think that Brooks nonetheless makes a good observation. The cause of much of our social and economic malaise is indeed a breakdown in social norms, the habituation of some wholly unvirtuous behavior. He’s right that we need to look at this through the lens of virtue ethics, especially when he asks core questions like: are you living for short-term pleasure or long-term good?

The only problem is, Brooks singles out the poor, when the real culprits are the rich. The real breakdown in social norms over the past few decades has come from the top.

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Drawing a bath for organized labor.

On Monday, Governor Scott Walker made Wisconsin the twenty-fifth state to enact “right to work” legislation. The law is not a jobs program. Neither is it a workers' bill of rights. It permits private-sector workers to opt out of paying fees to unions that negotiate their wages. In other words, it allows such employees to be freeloaders. Federal law already lets employees refuse to join a union, but in states without right-to-work laws employees must pay “fair share” fees to the union that secured their contract. For decades, right-to-work laws have been signed by governors across the South and West. But only recently have Republicans been able to pass them in the labor-strong states of the upper Midwest; Michigan and Indiana adopted right-to-work in 2012, and the new GOP governor of Illinois ran on it. President Barack Obama decried the Wisconsin law as “anti-worker.” The day after Walker signed the bill, the AFL-CIO, along with two other unions, filed a lawsuit challenging the statute—a pro-forma protest. Union leaders know that similar lawsuits in other states have always failed.

Given the Republican dominance of the Wisconsin legislature, the bill’s passage was a fait accompli. But the state senate and assembly held hearings anyway, during which a parade of critics—who vastly outnumbered supporters—voiced their concerns about right-to-work. Union members condemned the measure as an attack on labor. A bankruptcy attorney winkingly begged the legislature to pass the bill because it would be good for his business. And in written testimony the Wisconsin Catholic Conference (WCC) delivered a stirring defense of labor unions, affirming over a century of church teaching promoting their expansion. Or at least that’s what one might expect Catholic bishops to say about anti-union legislation. Instead, Wisconsin’s bishops offered what amounted to an extended shrug.

Quoting from its 2015 public-policy position paper, the WCC insisted that “the economy must serve people, not the other way around.” It continued: “If the dignity of work is to be protected, then the basic rights of workers, owners, and others must be respected.” Those are the kinds of noises one expects to hear from bishops of a church whose popes have promoted labor unions for over a century. “There are not a few associations of this nature,” Pope Leo XIII wrote in Rerum novarum (1891), and still “it were greatly to be desired that they should become more numerous and more efficient.” Leo’s wish has not been granted. In Wisconsin, for example, the percentage of employees who belong to unions has dropped from 14.2 percent in 2010, before Walker became governor, to 11.7 percent last year. Yet, reading the WCC’s testimony, it’s not easy to tell whether the bishops think that’s a bad thing.

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The Impeachables

Forty-seven Republican Senators have written to the "leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran," warning them that whatever agreement President Obama and Secy. of State Kerry might come to on Iran's nuclear progrgam, there's a good chance it will be dumped in a new administration. (Wonder which new administration?)  Here's the NYTimes story with over 3500 comments.

Is this an Impeachable offense? Oh wait! Would these 47 have to bring articles of impeachment against themselves?

The Iranians seem to know enough about the U.S. government to call it a "propoganda ploy"; that's a little stronger than the President's observation calling the letter "somewhat ironic," putting the Senators on the same side as Iranian hardliners. Here's the letter; check out those signatures! From satirist Andy Borowitz: "Iran Offers to Mediate Talks Between Republicans and Obama."  Amy Davidson at the New Yorker  points out that the senator who wrote the letter has been in the Senate for two months. Marking the fence posts? Jim Pauwels points out below that they may have all used the same blue pen to sign.  Even the Daily News!!  And The Logan Act (1799) (text below) HT: Pat Lang.

March 11 @10:33: Having just finished reading the paper, I am thinking maybe this mess could prove a turning point. 1. The Democrats are backing away from new sanctions legislation; 2. Herzog and Livni running against Netanyahu are pulling up in polling; 3. Tom Frideman does a fact-filled column on how Sheldon Adelson is buying U.S. and Israeli politics.  (Cites below in comments @10:44). Too pollyannish?

What's Changed Since Selma?

Saturday marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Freedom March across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. On hand for the jubilee celebration will be Barack Obama. Last November, on the night it was learned that Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted for the shooting death of Michael Brown, the president spoke briefly on the rule of law and the need for peaceful protest. He went on to say: "What is also true is that there are still problems, and communities of color aren't just making these problems up. Separating that from this particular decision, there are issues in which the law too often feels as if it is being applied in discriminatory fashion. I don't think that's the norm. I don't think that's true for the majority of communities or the vast majority of law enforcement officials. But these are real issues. And we have to lift them up and not deny them or try to tamp them down." 

What would seem a blow against entrenched denialism was struck earlier this week when the Justice Department released its report detailing civil rights abuses by Ferguson's police force and municipal officials -- practices that Conor Friedersdorf likened to the kind of criminality favored by the Mafia. The repugnance of the behaviors documented (including taser attacks, canine attacks, physical and verbal intimidation, unlawful detainment, and implementation of an extortionate system of compounding fines for minor traffic violations, all targeting people of color) support the analogy. Not all municipalities resemble Ferguson; the problem is that any do. “What happened in Ferguson is not a complete aberration,” the president reiterated Friday. “It’s not just a one-time thing. It’s something that happens.” Meanwhile, criticism of the Justice Department's report from certain quarters as politically motivated isn't just off-base, or offensive; it also simultaneously reflects and reinforces what's illustrated by the findings.

Last year, which in addition to the police-related death of Michael Brown also saw those of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Akai Gurley, marked as well the twenty-fifth anniversary of Spike Lee's film Do the Right Thing. The 1989 release was preceded by a stream of ugly commentary masquerading as criticism from nominally reputable pundits and reviewers who took issue with the movie's climactic depiction of a riot. David Denby: "If some audiences go wild, he's partly responsible." Joe Klein: "David Dinkins [then running for mayor of New York] will also have to pay the price for Spike Lee's reckless new movie about a summer race riot in Brooklyn, which opens June 30 (in not too many theaters near you, one hopes)."

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More on Relativism and Politics

As a moral theologian, I often think that claims about “relativism” infecting our society are overblown. Most people, most of the time, do not act as consistent relativists—at most, they view particular issues as relative, and even in these cases, their actual practice suggests implicit moral convictions. However, a recent New York Times piece about teaching a supposed “fact/opinion” distinction to second graders worried me. Domimic Preziosi also noted this piece, connecting it to the problems of artificial intelligence. But my worries are a bit more immediate and political.

The article makes some disputable particular points, but overall, the author rightly shows that a strong distinction between fact and opinion is not coherent. A supposed “fact/value” distinction was in ascendancy in some philosophical circles a century ago, but has been cogently criticized for at least fifty years. Innumerable examples can be adduced to suggest fluidity in both directions: one can have a difference of opinion about who is the best baseball player, but such opinion is itself constrained by facts—there may not be one right answer, but there are very many clearly mistaken answers. From the other direction, how one construes what “the facts” are (or at least what their significance is) is affected by what we value, the moral commitments we have. Again, from this side, we can’t completely “make up” facts, but even contemporary neuroscience affirms that what we actually “see” is affected by our commitments.

Oftentimes, it is good practice to ignore comment boxes (except at dotCommonweal, of course), but my concern was amplified by the comments that followed. The Times curates the comments, and so its “picks” rise to the top—and, astonishingly, most of the picks represent quite sane and rational responders who strongly reject the author’s claim, and who want very strongly to adhere to this distinction. As one commenter put it:

After reading many of the comments, it seems as though the great majority of the adults reading this blog don't believe in moral facts. And yet, many of them express this by vehemently claiming that McBrayer is WRONG to impose his view on others (implying that it is a moral fact that one shouldn't do this). Believing in moral facts allow us to call certain practices wrong. I believe slavery was and is wrong and that those who ever thought it was permissible had false beliefs—not just that we happened to change our feelings about it. One can believe in moral facts without being the moralistic monster many are claiming Professor McBrayer is (a judgment that seems to be based on the fact that someone apparently noticed he teaches philosophy of religion—an ad hominem if I've ever seen one). The extreme reactions here astound me.

Count me astonished, too. It is well-known that, with a depressing frequency, those on the far Right abandon reasoned discourse about what we should do; it is a supposed virtue that the political Left is more careful about these matters—say, on the economy or the environment. Yet here we have apparently well-educated Times readers displaying very fundamental irrationality. The great achievements of the Progressive Left in the last century—the New Deal, unionism, and civil rights—all sprang from quite firm moral convictions. And indeed, I still think many of these commentators in practice retain these convictions. What is alarming is that they reject a public discourse that could appeal to these moral commitments…at least as anything other than majoritarian preference.

What is going on? Another comment on the McBrayer piece might illustrate the problem:

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