Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Partisan Blindness: A Case Study

Tammy Duckworth at the World War II Memorial

Tammy Duckworth was born to be an American soldier.  Her ancestors fought in the Revolution, World War II and in Vietnam.  She entered the ROTC program in graduate school in 1990 at the age of 22.   In the Illinois National Guard, she chose to become a helicopter pilot because it was one of the few combat positions open to women.  In 2004 she flew over 120 combat hours in Iraq.  But on November 12th of that year, while flying over the Tigris River valley, a rocket-propelled grenade fired by insurgents hit her helicopter directly below her seat.  Her legs were blown off and her right arm was terribly damaged.  During her lengthy and painful recovery, she never lost her spirit and her optimism; she learned to walk on prosthetic legs, and she even hoped to return to her pilot duties.  She didn’t fly again, but she did become a champion of veterans, helping to create a rehabilitation center for wounded veterans and serving as Director of the Illinois Department of Veteran Affairs and the Assistant Secretary of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs for the United States Department of Veterans Affairs.  She is presently a member of the United States House of Representatives from the 8th district of Illinois.  Her determination, professionalism, patriotism, courage, and dedication to duty should make every American proud.  She is a genuine hero.

She recently received attention for her amazing verbally beat-down of a veteran’s benefit cheat.  On June 26, Duckworth sat on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform as it questioned businessman Braulio Castillo as part of its ongoing investigation into whether Castillo had obtained a $500 million IRS contract because of his personal friendship with an IRS deputy director.  But what caught Duckworth’s attention was that the IRS had assigned Castillo’s company that lucrative contract as part of a program of contracts set aside for firms owned by disabled veterans.  Castillo’s claim to disabled veteran status was that he twisted his ankle playing football for a military prep school in 1984.  That’s it; there’s no more to it.  Castillo dropped out of that prep school after less than a year and subsequently went on to quarterback his college football team.  He never served in the military in any capacity and he waited 27 years to make an official claim of any lasting physical injury.  An obscure regulation allows him to be treated as a veteran, since he received his “disability” at a military school.  But he is the Holy Roman Empire of bureaucratic classification: a disabled veteran who is neither disabled nor a veteran (nor much of a human being).  So Duckworth, as seen in this amazing video, just tears him apart.  She reads from a letter Castillo wrote to the Veterans Administration explaining his condition: “These are crosses that I bear due to my service to our great country and I would do it again to protect this great country.”  Duckworth’s follow-up is a masterpiece of outrage and sarcasm:  “I’m so glad that you would be willing to play football in prep school again to protect this great country,” she mocks. “Shame on you, Mr. Castillo. Shame on you. You may not have broken any laws but you certainly broke the trust of this great nation. You broke the trust of veterans.”  Watch the video and you will be gratified to see a genuine hero smack down a callous fraud.

Duckworth is a genuine hero, even a righteous hero, but did I mention that she’s also a liberal Democrat?  That shouldn’t matter in this case, and the vast majority of conservative commentators have either supported Duckworth in this instance or ignored the matter entirely.  But there is a small minority of conservatives who actually have defended Castillo and condemned Duckworth.  Consider a writer from the hard conservative website RedState with the pen-name streiff, whose post on Castillo’s shaming calls Duckworth a “Political Hack, Professional Victim, Schoolyard Bully”.  He spins like a top to avoid applauding Duckworth and condemning Castillo.  First he blames the system:

These special carve-outs in contracting laws are wrong on every conceivable level, other than creating a feel good moment for the Congress, and one can no more be shocked, surprised, and upset when they are manipulated than one should be shocked, surprised, and upset when you are hit by a car when walking across the freeway.

So Castillo has no personal responsibility here, he’s merely the victim of overpowering liberal government temptations.  But, somehow, that same evil liberal government must not be questioned: “Regardless of what ‘Doctor’ Duckworth might think of Mr. Castillo’s injuries, the facts are that he applied for the disability rating and the VA granted him that rating. She doesn’t get a vote on it and no one should lionize her for her asshattery.”  So even a democratically-elected, badly-disabled, war-hero congresswoman shouldn’t express her anger when someone tries to steal benefits meant for genuine veterans?  The VA rules were handed down from on high, those rules have spoken and we can only submit.  We can be sure that the fair-minded Mr. streiff would just as categorically defend welfare cheats and frauds.  According to his genuinely wearing-your-ass-as-hat logic, if a government program follows its own rules then its results can never be questioned.  Anyone who does so is merely being a “hack” and a “bully”; they can’t possibly be a responsible public servant rightly condemning dishonesty and policing a public program.  It’s fascinating that such a self-proclaimed and such a self-congratulatory “firm believer that the government is our servant not our master” makes such an absolutist and appalling argument for submitting without question to those same government masters.

And he shamelessly misrepresents the cause of Duckworth’s anger:  “Duckworth took umbrage at the fact that Mr. Castillo has a VA awarded service connected disability rating of 30%.”  Actually, no.  She “took umbrage” because Castillo lied about his condition, wasted the VA’s time and resources and received gobs of IRS money that was supposed to go to actual disabled veterans.  Watch the video and that is utterly clear.  She just used Castillo’s 30% rating to make her larger point: Castillo gamed the system without regard for actual veterans.

But streiff must know all that – it’s all there in the video included in his piece!  So why does he twist himself up into such ridiculous logical pretzels to avoid the truth?  Conservatives constantly speak of “personal responsibility”, but Castillo should not be held responsible.  Government is our servant, but we must obey it without question.  It doesn’t matter if Castillo “gamed” or “defrauded” the system.  Really?  It’s not relevant?  Why does streiff recoil in such horror from that most conservative verbal instrument: the moral harangue?  He abandons all his conservative principles in his desperate need to avoid what even most conservatives find obvious: Duckworth’s condemnation of Castillo is exactly the sort of moral clarity that our political discourse is crying out for and she’s just the person to do it.  It would easy to dismiss streiff’s piece as pure partisan misrepresentation, just a shamelessly dishonest attack – particularly from a website and a writer that have in the past attacked Duckworth and defended her Republican opponent.  Clearly, that is part of what’s going on, but I believe there is something more: blinkered inability to accept a liberal Democrat as a moral authority.

In streiff’s world only conservatives are allowed the moral harangue, because only conservatives are moral in essence.  Obviously, there are liberals who believe that liberals are moral in ways that conservatives are not.  And – as the Duckworth episode shows – most conservatives are easily capable of seeing moral authority in non-conservatives.  But the essence of modern American conservatism consists of these notions: that all issues are moral issues, that all social and political problems can only be addressed by the sufficiently forceful application of simple moral principles, that only morally correct individuals have both the moral clarity and the moral strength to impose those principles, and that moral correctness is itself an essential part of an individual.  Put simply, only a good man knows what’s good.  To the kind of moral simpleton such as streiff whose ideology is unqualified by any pragmatism or generosity – that is, to a constricted and thoughtless conservative – moral correctness and conservatism are the same thing.  To be a liberal is to have a blemished and polluted soul and no such degenerate can possibly be a moral authority.  Nothing can redeem a liberal, not love of country, not love of her fellow soldiers, not courage in face of unimaginable pain and suffering.  All of these are superficialities, distractions from the underlying evil essence that every liberal soul bears like the mark of Cain.

This is the ugly, distorted face of partisan hatred.  It fascinates because it’s such a pure specimen.  And it’s in such a widely read venue.  Liberals, of course, are just as capable as conservatives of being shrill rhetorical bullies and hacks – sadly, both sides amply demonstrate that every day.  But conservatives and liberals tend to bully in different ways, each befitting their natural ideological inclinations. When a liberal slips into the deep end he becomes an egalitarian crusader slaying the dragons of privilege and authority, or a captive of anarchic fantasies.  An extremist conservative sees all politics in terms of authority that must be respected; an extremist liberal denies that any authority deserves respect.  And liberalism, with its pragmatism and meliorism, can just as easily slide into anti-ideological extremism; it can become too ready to sacrifice means to ends, too dismissive of principle; it can become relativist and cynical. Excessive avoidance of idols can itself become idolatry.  But all extremism results from the same fault: the overpowering need to purify and simplify.  The fanatic discards mitigating and conflicting principles and facts and reduces the complexity of life to a single conviction; examples abound: “all politics is class warfare”, “the state must enforce God’s commands”, “nothing should constrain great individuals”.  The logic of fanaticism leads inevitably to seeing all dissidents as enemies of the one shining truth.  And when a fanatical American conservative reviles his opponent this is how his ideology demands he do so: he denies them any moral respect, no matter how well earned.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Stupid’s Just Another Word For Nothing Left to Lose

That's all that Bobby left me

Busted flat in Baton Rouge, Louisiana’s conservative Republican Governor Bobby Jindal badly needs to take his own advice.  Last year, after the Republican Party’s second big election loss to Barack Obama, after losing the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections, after losing Senate elections they easily could have won, after losing the nationwide popular vote for the House, the party began to wake up and reconsider its program, its message and its attitude.  Did they need to reach out to minorities?  Did they need to present themselves better?  Did they need better get-out-the-vote tactics and technologies?  Did they need – gasp! – to reconsider their priorities and principles?  At the time, Jindal made headlines by telling Republicans that they needed to “stop being the stupid party.  But last week Jindal himself opened up the floodgates of stupid, publishing a truly bizarre column, inundating the nation and his party in a deluge of paranoia, resolute denial and utter foolishness.  Consider that according to Jindal, “the left wants: The government to explode; to pay everyone; to hire everyone; they believe that money grows on trees.”  And it goes on like that.  And on.  And on.  What has happened to Bobby Jindal?  Well the Republican Party and the conservative movement are in trouble and they don’t have a lot of options.  Is this how a frustrated true believer acts out when he’s got nothing left to lose?

Jindal’s winter criticism of the Republican Party was a little less substantive than usually portrayed in the media.  His use of the phrase “the stupid party” – borrowed from the characterization that the great 19th century liberal theorist John Stuart Mill made of Britain’s conservatives – made his advice to Republicans seem more radical and more challenging than it actually was.  But this was a superficial understanding of largely superficial advice.  Jindal’s seven point plan from last November to refurbish conservatism consisted mostly of vague ideas about “modernizing, not moderating.”  That is, it was mostly about message, not content.  When it came to the stupid, he advised:
Stop being the stupid party. It's time for a new Republican party that talks like adults. It's time for us to articulate our plans and visions for America in real terms. We had a number of Republicans damage the brand this year with offensive and bizarre comments. Enough of that.
That is, Republicans didn’t need their Senate candidate from Missouri, Todd Akin, expounding his fascinating theories about “legitimate rape” and they didn’t need their Senate candidate from Indiana, Richard Mourdock, imagining that sometimes “God intends” for rape to result in pregnancy, and they didn’t need their Senate candidate from Pennsylvania, Tom Smith, comparing pregnancy from rape with out-of-wedlock birth, and they didn’t need their Senate candidate from Delaware, Christine O’Donnell, denying being a witch, and they didn’t need their Senate candidate from Nevada, Sharron Angle, talking about “Second Amendment remedies” to the continuing problem of liberal electoral success.  You get the idea.  But it doesn’t seem that Jindal was saying that conservatism needs to disown its loonier voices so much as muffle them.  It needs spokespeople who “talk like adults,” while selling the same old policies.

And he made sure that no one doubted his commitment to conservatism’s “core principles”: low taxes, low government spending and projections of strength abroad. Many of his other points were either uninspired (“stop looking backward”), tactically aggressive and uninspired (“going after every vote”), uninspired re-phrasing of conservative platitudes (“bottom-up government that fits the digital age”),  or even more uninspired re-phrasing of conservative platitudes (“treat all people as individuals rather than as members of special interest groups”).  And amidst all this sloganeering he protested that Republicans had to “stop reducing everything to mindless slogans and tag lines for 30-second ads.”  Well, maybe it’s not fair to criticize politicians for spouting thoughtless clichés; a creative politician is a rare creature indeed.

His plan, however, proposed one interesting change: conservatism should become more consistently “populist”; it should oppose all “big” institutions, including “big business, big banks, big Wall Street bailouts, big corporate loopholes, or big anything”.  The Republican Party “must not be the party that simply protects the well off so they can keep their toys.”  Instead it should grow and protect the middle class.  Actually, it should “make clear” that conservatism was never about bigness and it was always about helping the middle class.  It actually is quite radical in conservative circles to say anything remotely critical of the wealthy and how they got and keep their wealth.  What exactly was Jindal getting at here?  Is it possible he was criticizing the stridency with which conservative media and Republican Party leaders insist on keeping marginal income tax rates low?  Was he saying that such policy is not genuinely conservative?  Not likely.  In practice, Jindal has proposed lowering taxes on rich Louisianans and raising them on the lower orders.  He seems to be interested in merely giving conservatism a populist veneer.  Jindal’s populism sees government as the handmaiden of elitist, dishonest interests and it sees free markets as automatically benefiting everyone, not just the rich.  It’s not that he doesn’t want to let the rich keep their toys; it’s that letting them keep their toys must not be an end in itself; it must be seen as the means for letting everyone else get toys too.  But believing that what’s good for the top 1% is good for the rest of us is a rather odd version of populism.  If that’s all it amounts to, then, ultimately, this is (once again) more about changing the message than about changing the policy.

There wasn’t much real substance to Jindal’s winter criticism, but what it lacked in boldness it made up for in bland circumspection.  Who could disagree with sounding less stupid?  But with his recent column Jindal jumps on board the stupid train and runs it completely off the rails.  He enlightens us as to what liberals really want:
The government to explode; to pay everyone; to hire everyone; they believe that money grows on trees; the earth is flat; the industrial age, factory-style government is a cool new thing; debts don’t have to be repaid; people of faith are ignorant and uneducated; unborn babies don’t matter; pornography is fine; traditional marriage is discriminatory; 32 oz. sodas are evil; red meat should be rationed; rich people are evil unless they are from Hollywood or are liberal Democrats; the Israelis are unreasonable; trans-fat must be stopped; kids trapped in failing schools should be patient; wild weather is a new thing; moral standards are passé; government run health care is high quality; the IRS should violate our constitutional rights; reporters should be spied on; Benghazi was handled well; the Second Amendment is outdated; and the First one has some problems too.
What the what?  Will Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock now denounce Bobby Jindal for being stupid?  That’s quite a grab-bag of conservative crack-pottery, especially for an elected official, especially for a governor, especially for a potential presidential nominee.  His tirade includes McCarthyite paranoia (“they want the government to explode”), moralized gold-buggery (“money grows on trees”), simple crazy (“red meat should be rationed”), sexual constriction (“pornography is fine”), cultural populism (“people of faith are ignorant and uneducated”), blinkered cultural jingoism (“the Israelis are unreasonable”), deliberate obfuscations (“the Second Amendment is outdated”), extreme exaggerations (“32 oz. sodas are evil”), and damnable lies (“the IRS should violate our constitutional rights”).  This is just a wonderful exposition of the darkness lurking in the American conservative unconscious.  When the fever dream speaks, this is how it sounds.

And it confirms what we already knew: conservatives see themselves as fighting to protect American moral purity against liberal corruption; all issues are moral issues and they demand ironclad commitments to the right moral principles and the policies those principles express.  Liberals are bad because they don’t know what’s good.  That’s why they so foolishly support sexual corruptions such as gay marriage, pornography and abortion.  That’s why they oppose such obviously righteous policies like a balanced budget and a strong dollar.  And it’s moral blindness that delivers liberals to that ugly statism that so hungers to control our economics, our religion, our media, our guns, even our food!  Here we see the real source of that foolish, misguided, destructive philosophy called liberalism: liberals think “moral standards are passé,” that reason and individual choice can substitute for moral correctness.  But conservative misapprehension is understandable: to a simplistic moralist, letting people make independent moral judgments is indistinguishable from relativism.  But conservatives actually have a point here: liberal tolerance may prove to be only the half-way stopover between the starting point of conservative moralism and the final destination of post-modern relativism.  Once you begin emancipating individuals from external constraints it’s hard not to see the notion of objective morality itself as just one more arbitrary constraint.

OK, so liberals really, really suck.  What else has Jindal got?  Boatloads of denial.  The time for conservative self-reflection is definitely over.  The new Jindal rages against “excessive navel gazing”, that is, against the very sort of self-reflection the old Jindal advised.  He now says, “No more self-analysis; we’ve had our catharsis. The season for navel gazing has passed.”  Huh? Did anyone understand the need for conservative re-appraisal as merely therapeutic?  Wasn’t it meant to address the widespread perception of structural Republican failure?  Apparently not, because, according to Jindal there’s been little real failure:
Let’s remember a few things:
1) We have 30 Governors
2) We took control of the House in 2010 and held it in 2012
3) Obama ran a tremendous campaign in 2008, and our outgoing president was unpopular
4) The just completed presidential campaign strategy of playing it safe and assuming a poor economy would win it for us was an obvious mistake.
There is some truth in this analysis, of course; Republicans are not dead yet.  Yes, presently 30 governors are Republican (and actually govern roughly 60% of the population); Republicans did clobber the Democrats in the 2010 elections for the House of Representatives and they did hold the House in 2012; the 2008 Obama campaign was very good; Romney’s 2012 campaign was quite bad.  But there are unnerving responses to all these reassurances: Democrats won 52% of the votes cast in the 13 gubernatorial elections that took place in 2012 (only 4 of which took place in blue states); Democrats won about 1.4 million more votes nationwide in the 2012 House elections (Republicans won more House seats only because of skewed districting); the outgoing president in 2008 was indeed unpopular, but so was the party that faithfully supported him on his most egregious failures (Iraq, the deregulation of Wall Street that caused the recession); Obama is the only president to win re-election with the unemployment rate as high as it was.  Obviously, part of Jindal’s job is to spin.

But the GOP has real problems, and they boil down to one word: demographics.  Conservatism may not be dead, yet it withers before our eyes.  The current conservative movement is essentially the institutional vessel for all the cantankerous, old, straight, white, Christian, male prejudices and resentments that Jindal’s column so well expresses.  Meanwhile the country becomes younger, less sexually constricted, browner, more secular, tolerant and experimental, less patriarchal.  We become more liberal every day, more accepting of gay marriage and recreational marijuana, more open to government intervention in the economy, more open to non-traditional sex and religion.  But as the country moves, the conservative rump refuses to budge.  They isolate themselves and polarize the country.  Their passionate conviction, their natural and well-rehearsed cohesion, their ideological inflexibility – all these allow them to continue to exert influence beyond their numbers.  This is how they came to dominate American politics from the late 60’s till just a few years ago.

But the traits that served conservatives so well in their ascent now only hasten their fall.  They really only have two choices: change or double down.  And despite hopes to the contrary it’s pretty clear which path they have chosen for now.  Conservatism may not be dead, yet it decays before our eyes.  And Jindal has decided his job is to make sure no conservative perceives the decay.  He aims to stamp out conservative doubt.  And the putative political strengths of American conservatism – the passionate conviction, the natural and well-rehearsed cohesion, the ideological inflexibility – make Jindal’s job all too easy.  Those traits readily inhere in anyone who believes that all issues are moral issues, that all problems surrender to the stern application of clearheaded righteous force.  It’s such conviction that makes conservatives notoriously resistant to unwelcome facts and reasoning (consider the furor over the debt ceiling).  Conservative incapacity for self-doubt isn’t incidental, it’s of the essence.  In the past conservatism sometimes actually contributed to the American discourse: it proposed reasonable critiques of the welfare state, it provided fortitude for fighting the Cold War.  There used to be more to conservatism than just its id; there was intellect and even conscience.  Sadly, the latter have faded in recent years to irrelevance and ineffectuality.  They are utterly absent from Jindal’s angry discharge.  To Jindal and his audience, self-analysis, the reconsideration of received truths, self-doubt, etc. are not just inherently threatening to conservatism, they are vaguely un-American, even un-masculine!  “Stop the bedwetting,” scolds Jindal and “put on your big-boy pants.”  Yes, put on your pants and put on your blinders.  Self-doubt may be the prerequisite to self-awareness, but self-awareness is for liberals and sissies.
When a prominent conservative worries that conservatives are losing the religion, it’s noteworthy.  Jindal hates liberals – clearly! – but he’s disappointed in conservatives.  His rage is really directed at them.  And his rage has obscured his perception and his judgment; it has made him as stupid as the Akins and the Mourdocks.  Jindal comes home; now he endorses the stupid.  The problem for conservatives is that they’ve got nothing left to lose.  They thought they owned the soul of America, the “real America” as Sarah Palin called it.  For decades they won elections by portraying their opponents as enemies of American values and subverters of American prosperity and betrayers of American security.  But, inexplicably, those tactics have stopped working and the temptation is to turn up the volume even louder, to just shout the accusations that much more vehemently.  The country is changing under their feet, and they are in real trouble, but many of them seem incapable of doing much more than merely shouting louder and louder.  But now they’re not just shouting at liberals and independents and moderate Republicans; now they’re even shouting at themselves.