Pete Seeger, Stalinism, and decency

Reflections on the anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

Ed Kilgore takes the occasion of today’s anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact to reflect on its effect on left-wing politics in the U.S.:

The Pact caught the Western Allies off guard, and made Hitler’s 1939 and 1940 victories immensely easier. It also produced a psychological crisis among Communists outside the USSR, who were suddenly expected after years of warning about the dangers of fascism to treat the war against Hitler as an “imperialist struggle” in which no genuine progressive should participate.

Critics of the great folk singer Pete Seeger often point to his (and the Almanac Singers’) 1941 antiwar album, Songs for John Doe, as the primary evidence of his subservience to Soviet foreign policy, particularly since copies of the album were suppressed after Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Seeger never hid the fact that he (and Woody Guthrie) “flip-flopped” on the war, and I’m sure he would have argued that it was the strategic situation, not just the Party Line, that changed his mind

Actually, no. Seeger spoke at the Town Hall meeting in support of Solidarity on February 6, 1982. (A meeting made famous by Susan Sontag’s speech in which she asked about the long moral blindness of parts of the left.) As it happened, I was there. I can find no record of Seeger’s remarks, so what follows is thirty-year-old memory, but the memory is clear.

Seeger started by rehearsing his own political journey. In the 1930s, he supported racial equality and an anti-fascist foreign policy. Those were the positions of the Communist Party. (He did not add: And not of either the Democrats or the Republicans, nor of the labor movement.) Seeger became a Communist. And, he said, he remained a Communist even as Party loyalty required him to support one morally repugnant Soviet action after another. I don’t recall whether he mentioned opposing American entry into WWII, but he certainly mentioned East Berlin in 1953, Hungary in 1956, and Czechoslovakia in 1968. Poland, he said, was the last straw. He didn’t say it was worse than the others, just that he’d finally had enough.

So no, I don’t think Seeger would claim that his shift on the war after Hitler invaded Russia had to do with “the strategic situation.”

I grew up an anti-Communist and have seen no reason to change my views. But it’s not hard to see how the calculus could have looked different in 1937, or even in 1960, at a time when the Communists were supporting Martin Luther King while Democrats and Republicans alike were supporting J. Edgar Hoover. (No, King wasn’t a Communist. But yes, he had important Communist support, when white support was otherwise fairly scarce on the ground.)

The best pro-Communist argument – not nearly good enough, in my view, but potent nonetheless – has always been the anti-Communist Republican right wing, from McCarthy and Buckley right up through Cheney and the neo-cons, and the collection of creeps, crooks, tyrants, and torturers they supported around the world, from Franco, Chaiang, and the Shah right up through D’Aubuisson, Pinochet, Savimbi, and Mobutu.

So I’ll live and die a liberal republican egalitarian and an American patriot; I no more regard Stalin as having been merely “misguided” than I do Hitler. Seeger and his fellow misguided Stalin-worshippers, on the other hand, strike me as having been profoundly wrong, but by no means on all fours morally with the America Firsters with whom they were so briefly and disgracefully allied, or even with the neo-cons. If Seeger ever enjoyed thinking about the suffering of his political opponents, he didn’t let it show. Decency matters.

Anyway, Jeane Kirkpatrick couldn’t play the banjo for sour apples:

Something Mitt Romney Almost Got Right

Perhaps the most outrageous part of Romney’s deservedly-infamous speech to the $50,000-a-plate dinner was his assertion that he inherited nothing from his upbringing.  After all, he was only the son of the CEO of American Motors and then the Governor of Michigan, who went to one of the country’s best prep schools and then to Harvard (where, as Andy Sabl has reminded us, he made ends meet by selling stock): how in the world could anyone think that that gave him anything?  He might be as delusional as his running mate, which is saying a lot.

But in that speech he did say one thing that is undeniably true (even if he said it to make an absurd point):

Frankly, I was born with a silver spoon, which is the greatest gift you can have: which is to get born in America.

Absolutely true.  In today’s world, a child’s life chances are pervasively determined by which country she is born in.  Being born in the United States or the rich countries of Europe is tantamount to winning life’s lottery compared to the rest of the world.  Martha Nussbaum a few years ago noted that

A child born in Sweden today has a life expectancy at birth of 79.7 years. A child born in Sierra Leone has a life expectancy at birth of 38.9 years. In the USA, GDP per capita is US$34 142; in Sierra Leone, GDP per capita is US$490. Adult literacy rates in the top 20 nations are around 99%; in Sierra Leone, the literacy rate is 36%. In 26 nations, the adult literacy rate is under 50%.

Suzy Khimm got the numbers last year while reporting on the Occupy Movement’s claim to be the “99%.”  True, but only in the United States:

Those at the 34th percentile of income in the United States are at the 90th percentile globally, and those at the 50th percentile in the United States are at the 93rd percentile globally. Even the very poorest Americans — those at the 2nd percentile of income in the United States — are at the 62nd percentile globally.

And this adjusts for relative price levels.  Recently the United Nations Development Programme estimated that hunger and malnutrition affect more than 900 million people worldwide — the overwhelmiing majority of them in the Global South.

Note, of course, that using Romney’s words in this way shows the absurdity of his message.  Romney was attempting to make the Social Darwinist claim that the distribution of wealth is a function of virtue.  In fact, it is anything but: it is essentially a function of luck. 

If anything, the Republican Party is doing its best to clamp down on any attempts to change that: the egregious farm bill written by the House GOP leadership increases farm subsidies and removes the small measure of food aid reform contained in the last farm bill.  If the “deficit chickenhawks” in the Republican Party get their way, the majority of your food aid tax dollars will continue to go to wealthy US agribusiness and shipping interests, essentially serving as a way to dump food into the Global South and undermine local agriculture.

None of this, of course, should be taken as a reason to stop fighting against inequality in the United States.  But inequalities between countries have grown exponentially in the last hundred years: they are now simply too massive to be ignored.  US aid policies need to be the next frontier of a vigorous progressivism.

Does Barack Obama blaspheme the Founders? Sort of. Good for him. And it doesn’t matter.

George Will, channeling (and hacking to pieces) Charles Kesler, claims that the President’s belief in progress blasphemes the Founder’s belief in natural rights and limited government. He has half a point. But it doesn’t much matter. The Founders’ beliefs deserve to be challenged. And once one jumps outside the conservative bubble, where all that matteres is culture and rhetoric, is to realize that progressive critics of the original constitution won on the institutional level, definitively, about a century ago.

I have to take exception with Mark’s post from last Saturday. In it, he slammed George Will, channeling a book by Claremont professor Charles Kesler, for claiming Barack Obama was part of “a conspiracy against the Constitution embracing Woodrow Wilson, FDR, and LBJ.” Actually, the Will/Kesler thesis has something to it. Obama almost certainly does disbelieve in natural rights and other things (most of the) Founders believed in. But to the extent he does, good for him. And to the extent that Will and Kesler want the original constitution back, they’re a few generations too late.

Kesler is, as Mark puts it, a “third-string Straussian” only in the sense that we’re all third string compared to a scheming genius like Strauss. Kesler is of course extremely conservative, but a very intelligent and serious scholar with whom one can amicably disagree in conversation, as I have. While I haven’t read his book, I would submit that it’s less likely that the book has no argument than that Will, in a 750-word column that quotes a few sentences from the book, fails to do justice to it. And I’m baffled by Mark’s claim that Will is “as intelligent a figure as the Red team has to show.” One could bounce a squash ball off the walls of the Hudson Institute’s conference room and hit a dozen smarter ones.

Even Will’s breakneck summary, though, is not completely implausible. The question is whether it matters, and whether Obama or Will is the real radical here. Continue reading “Does Barack Obama blaspheme the Founders? Sort of. Good for him. And it doesn’t matter.”

If we all built it, who are we and what is it?

Reihan Salam makes a much better case for the Republican view of public goods than the Republicans do. But he still leaves a lot out.

The Republican convention contained a lot of claims, but the claims that were true weren’t substantive, and the claims that were substantive weren’t true. Those hungry for a serious piece of conservative argument should turn to Reihan Salam’s post on what the parties really think, and don’t always say, about public goods and whether the “you didn’t build that” argument really captures the essence of public goods.

It’s a great post and you should, as they say, read the whole thing. But in summary, Salam makes three main points:

1. If the government’s main business is providing public goods, and the point of taxes is to pay for them, then we should all probably pay a little more for them (and will need to, if the present level of government services is to continue). But political pressures have led Democrats to call instead for higher taxes only on the wealthy. This makes taxes look less like a civic virtue good society-wide household management and more like envy:

Higher taxes can be seen, in this frame, as a way to cut down tall poppies. Note that the valence would be very different if we all, or rather if all of us with jobs, should pay higher taxes to sustain the commonwealth, and high-earners should pay somewhat more than the rest of us. The tone would be very different.

This is one reason why the “You Didn’t Build That” theme resonates: it is a rebuke to the perceived punitive tone of the president’s narrow case for taxes.

2. Smart conservatism is not atomistic but has a broader view of what counts as the social preconditions for prosperity than liberalism does.

2a. It stresses the crucial role of social conventions, practices, and norms

2b. It thinks that state action often undermines those norms—is, we might say, “antisocial” rather than pro-social:

Conservatives and libertarians tend to understand America’s public framework as something broader than the state. Rather they see it as as a system of rules, institutions, and norms. One concern is that the expansion of the state has compromised the effectiveness of our institutions, undermined important norms, and created a “pebbles in the stream” dynamic in which the accretion of rules and regulation has contributed to stagnation.

[That argument actually mixes in 2c: government regulations undermine not only civil society but the market, presumably not the same thing though Hegel glossed it as such.]

3. Most of what government does has little to do with public goods anyway but involves transfers and insurance schemes that can actually crowd out public investment (here, and throughout, Salan cites Matt Yglesias, and seems tacitly to acknowledge Yglesias’ point that the Romney/Ryan economics would slash investment at least as much as it would slash transfers).

Of course, Salam’s points are so reasonable that no contemporary Republican politician (and, he’s right, few Democratic ones) would dare make them.  But they aren’t the final word. Going point by point:

Continue reading “If we all built it, who are we and what is it?”

How Do Democrats Differ From Republicans?


I came across this report from Politico a few weeks ago, and it seemed to sum things up well.  The House Agriculture Committee was debating the farm bill, and particularly Republicans’ efforts to decimate the Food Stamp program.  Rep. Joe Baca (D-California) protested:

As a young father, Rep. Joe Baca had himself relied on food stamps, and during the House Agriculture Committee debate, the California Democrat emotionally invoked the Gospel of Jesus feeding hundreds from a few fish and loaves of bread. Rather than sympathy, this brought a sharp rebuke from Rep. Steve Southerland (R-Fla.). “Nowhere in Scripture did God give instruction to government over us as the individual,” said the Christian conservative. “Read it, sir. He was speaking to individuals not governments.”

I really think that in an important way this sums things up.  Baca says that we have to feed the poor; Southerland attacks him, saying that this has nothing to do with what Jesus said, because Food Stamps are the government, not us.

For Democrats, government is the way that we as a people get together and figure out what “our ” priorities are.  For Republicans, government isn’t an us: it is an it.  It is some sort of amorphous, alien blob, out there.  It has nothing to do with us: it simply controls us.  We might make fun of Republicans saying that “the government should keep its hands off of my Medicare,” but it reflects something important about perceptions.  If it is something we experience, then it isn’t the government, because the government is “out there.”

And as the Medicare example reveals, this is very much a sort of fundamental paradigm: inconvenient facts can be dismissed as outliers, or untrue, or even just ignored.  This will take a lot of very patient, frustrating work to cure: after all, people believed in the Ptolemaic universe for centuries.  And I’m not even sure that it is “curable” because it reflects a moral view, not a scientific one.

A Friendly Debate with a Conservative Colleague

My friend and colleague Steve Bainbridge is out with a new article on “Corporate Lawyers as Gatekeepers,” which, if you are interested in corporate law, you should read (Steve is one of the country’s most distinguished scholars in the field).  But what piqued my interest when he sent it to me was his offhand remark that he is sending it out electronically to “reduce my carbon footprint.”

I couldn’t resist.  I responded, “Your CARBON footprint?  You pinko liberal fellow-travelling wimp!!  Resign your Republican Party membership now!”

And neither could he, responding:

It is possible to believe in anthropomorphic climate change AND believe that it is not an excuse for blowing up the size of government. To the contrary, it’s an argument for eliminating both the market AND the many regulatory distortions that mean people don’t pay a carbon price that includes all relevant externalities. Government’s role should be to eliminate any true externalities that rise to the evel of causing a market failure and then get out of the way and let the market solve the problem.

Here’s where it gets interesting.  Steve is completely right: it is indeed possible to have a coherent and realistic conservative policy on climate change.  (I wouldn’t agree, but that’s a different issue).  The problem is that the current Republican Party refuses to have one.  I wrote back:

That’s a totally fair position.  Now all you have to do is persuade a single member of the House Republican Conference or the Senate Republican Caucus, or any Republican power broker, of that…
And here’s where it gets really interesting.  Steve’s response:
When you convince any leading national Democratic politician that life begins at conception and that the law ought to at least take that into account in balancing the interests, I’ll take a crack at it.

Foul!  Belief in the existence of anthropogenic climate change and belief that human life begins at conception are two different categories.  I responded:

It seems to me that there is a fundamental difference between a scientific fact (anthropogenic climate change), and a philosophical position (human life invested with human rights begins at conception).  Now, you could say two things about this:

1) Scientific “fact” is itself a philosophical position, and that is true.  And if someone wants to take the view that scientific determinations concerning the natural world have no more reason to be called “facts” than any other philosophical position, then they can do that.  Postmodernists do that.  I don’t, and I would be very surprised, to put it mildly, that you do.

2) The better analogy, I would think, is for you to say, “I will take a crack at persuading a single member of the Republican Caucus that anthropogenic climate is true if you will take a crack at persuading any leading national Democratic politician to support a revenue-neutral carbon tax.” Your position is that there is such a thing as a genuinely conservative climate policy, and I agree.  But I think that I would win that one going away, because I could find lots more Democrats to support a revenue-neutral carbon tax than you could find Republicans to support the existence of anthropogenic climate change.

But Steve wasn’t buying it.  He counter-offered with another challenge:
How about this: You agree to try persuading Obama, Pelosi, and Reid to unconditionally support renewing the Bush tax cuts for people earning > $250K per year. No deals, no quid pro quo. And you only have to persuade 3.
This last one was something of a joke, obviously.  But it does point to a real problem for modern conservatism, and thoughtful conservatives like Steve.  Their party simply rejects the overwhelming scientific consensus on the greatest environmental problem that the planet has ever faced.  Nothing comes close to that.  And while there may be profound differences between the parties on philosophical issues, off the top of my head I can’t think of any issue, at least since the Second World War, where one major party has made it an article of faith that it simply rejects on principle such an overwhelming scientific consensus.  The only thing close is evolution, and once again, it represents the Republican position that as a matter of principle, it simply will not listen to scientists.  Note that I stacked it against myself: I offered that he could persuade any member of the House Republican Conference, and he could only counter with “any national prominent Democratic politician.”  And he still couldn’t do it.
The only things that Steve could respond with were, well, issues of moral belief: 1) human life invested human rights begins at conception; or 2) cutting taxes for people making more than a quarter of a million dollars a year is the right thing to do or will cause economic growth (the latter really being an article of faith: in my view, it’s really more a philosophical position concerning just distribution of social wealth).
Now, to be clear, like any intelligent person, Steve does believe in the existence of anthropogenic climate change.  But he could not respond with an example of equally anti-empirical belief from Democrats.  That tells you a whole lot about the differences between the parties.  No wonder Steve is such a curmudgeon.

No! he explained

Neither Chik-fil-A’s zoning permits nor the tax exemption of the First Baptist Church of Crystal Springs should not depend on whether they behave decently. Do the phrases “freedom of speech” and “free exercise of religion” ring any bells?

The anti-gay political activity of the Chik-fil-A chain is ample reason for individuals and other businesses to boycott the chain.

But it’s not a reason for public officials in Boston or San Francisco or Chicago or Washington DC to threaten to deny it the permits it needs to expand. That’s called “freedom of speech.” It’s in the Constitution, right there in the First Amendment.

The refusal of a church in Mississippi to marry a black couple is ample reason to make fun of the church and its members.

But it’s not a reason to call for the IRS to revoke the church’s tax exemption. That’s called “the free exercise of religion,” and it’s also in the First Amendment.

C’mon, folks, is this stuff really that hard to figure out?

Footnote Note that the claim that churches could lose their tax-exempt status for refusing to marry same-sex couples was one of the obviously false, but politically potent, charges made by the Mormon Church and the Knights of Columbus to pass the anti-gay-marriage Proposition 8 in California.

Of course it wouldn’t violate anyone’s religious freedom if the Southern Baptist Convention (having long abandoned its tradition of congregational independence in order to purge non-fundamentalists) were to step in and force a change in the offending church. If the SBC doesn’t step in – in the face of, for example, the Parable of the Good Samaritan and St. Paul’s proclamation that ethnicity and social status don’t matter within Christianity – then it  would be fair to question the SBC’s Christian orthodoxy: but not its tax exemption.




Why Have Progressives Abandoned Gun Control? A Really Boring Answer

In the wake of the Colorado horrors, lots of people want to know why gun control is not on the national agenda, with the usual responses about feckless liberals.  While I certainly never hesitate to castigate the invertebracy of progressives, I think that there is a simpler answer:

Violent crime went down.

Crime rates are at lows not seen since the early 1960’s.  Even in the era of shrinking police budgets, violent crimes are sharply down from their heights in the 70’s, 80’s, and early 90’s.  It makes sense to try to solve the problems you have, not the problems that you used to have.  (I should quickly add that this in no way should be taken to undermine Mark’s crime control research agenda, which I think is superb and should be immediately and lavishly funded!)

I think that this really highlights the often-mentioned difference between American progressives and conservatives.  Progressives are basically pragmatists, trying to solve public policy problems.  Conservatives see everything as a matter of High Principle, even when the principle itself is obscure (e.g. foaming at the mouth about “liberty” in the health care context but not caring one whit about it when it comes to surveillance, state secrets, or other civil liberties).  Progressives began to support gun control because it seemed like a useful way to reduce violence.  Despite the fantasies swirling around the fever swamps on the Right, there was no conspiracy.  Many progressives might not understand or take to gun culture, but they — we — don’t have a problem with it as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone.

Note how this turns one of traditional calumnies against liberalism on its head.  American progressives actually don’t have abstract utopian dreams of how to engineer society.  They — we — see a problem and say: okay, how can we fix it?  It is conservatives who actually revel in abstractions, whether it was the “activity/inactivity” distinction made famous in the health care cases, or the “free market” that exists nowhere but in the imagination of the Cato Institute, or the “policy of strength” that now animates right-wing foreign policy “thinkers” totally untethered from any actual facts about the world, or even strange fears of same-sex marriage undermining traditional marriage with no notion of how that would actually work.

Of course, sensible gun controls like limiting high-capacity magazines (which might have saved lives in Colorado) or closing gun show loopholes are clearly good policy.  But they aren’t as salient because of the reduction in violence.

I wish that conditions warranted caving on all issues.  If conservatives have an actual plan to cover the uninsured, and it could actually work, I’m sure progressives would join them.  The Right would then abandon their policy.  Oh, wait: that already happened.

American Elites: Distant from some problems, but not others

First thoughts on Christopher Hayes’ new book,

I am reading Christopher Hayes’ Twilight of the Elites—well worth the $26 I paid for it. Hayes’ book strikes several chords with me. One simple point concerns the pernicious consequences of elites’ great and growing social distance from ordinary people in American society. When less than two-percent of fighting-age adults serve in the volunteer military, most policymakers are personally insulated from the consequences of the ill-fated venture in Iraq. This matters, too, for our policies regarding the continually grinding low-level engagement in Afghanistan.

Something similar might be said regarding the millions of Americans affected by the foreclosure crisis. Members of our nation’s various elites are genuinely saddened by the accompanying human costs. Yeah, white papers are written. Hearings are held. Yet our society’s lack of urgency is abetted by the great social and economic distance between the families losing their lifesavings and the key public and private actors who will decide their fates. Too many of our national leaders behave rather as I’ve done, passing several empty houses on my street. I feel terrible for the affected families. I still scurry home, hit the web, and take solace in the ballooning value of my 401(k) supported by my tenured professorship. Pretty soon, I’m pondering other things. Continue reading “American Elites: Distant from some problems, but not others”