13 articles Articles posted in politics

And So Goes That Honorable Court

There’s an article going around to the effect that the Democrats are thinking they might not filibuster the first Trump Supreme Court pick, and wait for the second. There are various reactions to this, mostly appalled.

I don’t think it matters. It’s already too late; nothing the Democrats can do is going to make any difference. The Republicans are going to gerrymander the Court for the next generation.

The problem the Democrats have is that if they filibuster the Supreme Court nominee, the Republicans might well enact the “nuclear option” and abolish the filibuster for Court nominees altogether. So the Dems are thinking they might keep their powder dry for the re-aligning pick, not for Scalia’s replacement.

Whatever. There’s no “might” about it. As soon as the Democrats filibuster any Court nominee, the Republicans will definitely go “nuclear”, because they have nothing to lose by doing so.

During this Administration, the Republicans can expect to get two picks, maybe three. Each of them will be an absolutely crazy rock-ribbed fascist robot, and a very young one. (They’ve learned from Souter and from Roberts, whom I still view as a vile right-winger but some in the Grand Old Party of John Birch already see as a betrayer.) The next four years will probably leave behind a 6-3 or 7-2 right-wing court, with all the worst features of the Waite, Fuller, White, and Taft Courts, that will stay that way at least until the year 2050.

And if they can’t prevent Laurence Tribe III from becoming Chief Justice in 2053, who cares? That’s way outside their time-horizon, and it may be outside ours, too. Who knows what will be left by then?

The war for the Court was comprehensively lost last November. The really, really essential thing was that we not elect Trump (or any Republican) to the Oval Office. We did. Now we lose.

If you’re over thirty, you’ve probably already seen the last significant Supreme Court victories you’ll ever see for the rest of your life. From now on it’s only defeats.

It Has Happened

One term of art among political philosophers who study Hitlerism is the ‘deformalization’ of the law – that is, the Leader simply waves away all the forms and processes of legislation, and rules directly, by decree. The Leader declares that the elements of ordinary lawmaking, the legislature, the courts, the bureaucracy, the regional authorities, the press, even elections, are all corrupted, captured by a shadowy conspiracy of monied elites representing an alien peope or a foreign ideology, and names himself the instrument of the suppressed authentic popular will. So doing, the Leader simultaneously claims the mantle of direct popular sovereignty and the actual power and methods of an unaccountable dictator.

Meanwhile the government – especially the military – is purged of the disloyal, meaning anyone who still insists on the prior forms, no matter whether that person has been politically an ally of the Leader or not.

What I’m saying is, while I don’t know where this ends for us, it’s the same process that wrecked Weimar, and it’s going much faster today.

It’s only been eleven days.

Do the courts, the legislature, the federal bureaucracy, the military, the states and municipalities, the press, have the awareness and wherewithal to refuse to be erased, or will conservatives accept what is happening to see a few pet projects enacted, while liberals do nothing in the name of preserving the very forms which are being cancelled, in the name of the ‘peaceful transfer of power’?

Will the people ‘wait and see’, refrain from mass protest, strikes, and direct action, until what they can see is that it is too late?

Because this isn’t a metaphor, this talk of a fascist coup the United States. This is the real thing, in all its particulars.

It is no longer a question, whether it can happen here. It already has.

Suffer not the list-makers

Maybe this is worth stating again. The “FBI terrorist watch list” and the “no-fly list” are ad-hoc aggregations of prejudice and random error with no rules and no oversight. They are not fit for any public policy purpose. (They are not even fit for their declared purposes.)

The line “terrorists should not be allowed to buy guns” implies that the FBI terror watch list is actually a “list of terrorists.” Other than people actually convicted of terrorism, the government maintains no such thing, and indeed cannot. Barring precrime, such a thing cannot exist. If this is your line on the gun debate, you’re plumping for a racist farrago and a huge expansion of ideological surveillance and racial profiling.

And if this, what else will these lists be used for? The Republican nominee is a guy who wants to put big red Xs on the doors of every Muslim. And the Democratic nominee is not far behind in her willingness to pander to the “radical Islam” discourse.

After all, what’s being argued-for here is the expansion of the use of a watch list from one domain into another. So you can’t say it won’t happen, when that’s what you’re already advocating.

And as for the mental-health list: I think many people reading this have taken an antidepressant (or a mood stabilizer, or an antipsychotic, for its labelled purpose or as an antidepressant adjuvant) at one time or another, or gotten a fancy number-coded Diagnosis from a psychiatrist, or even been hospitalized. You know you’re liable to go on the list yourself, right? (Or your loved-ones will.)

It’s not sufficient to say you’ve not been violent, as there is no known useful definition of the “mentally ill person likely to commit violence.” The mentally ill are all capable of violence, as all people are; the greatest majority will never commit a violent act against another person, as most people won’t. (The mentally ill are, after all, just people.) Nobody knows who is going to be dangerous, and there’s no way to construct a list that won’t be used to profile /you/ six ways from Sunday.

Not to mention how utterly politicized the business of mental-health diagnosis is. Can you think of a minority that was wrongly subjected en-masse to mental-illness diagnosis in the recent past? Can you think of one that still is? I bet you can.

This is very dangerous, and it’s surprising to see avowed liberals loudly asking to see themselves and their friends put on these watch lists. You don’t want this. You really don’t.

May God Save the Honorable Legislature of the State of Tennessee

If you’ve read anything I’ve written about Local Issues, you probably thought, “just going by the health insurance situation alone, Tennessee is a state in crisis. Any responsible government would be meeting night and day to figure a way to fix it.”

The legislature has indeed been active, but keep in mind this is a one-party state; the Democrats no longer exist even nominally in many TN counties.

Some of the bills that have gotten press recently:

A bill to declare God our “Creator and Savior” in the text of the State Constitution. Status: withdrawn in committee.

A bill to declare the Holy Bible (version or translation not specified) the State Book of Tennessee. Status: Passed, but vetoed. The veto may be overridden, so the State will have the privilege of spending money on doomed litigation to defend a paradigmatically unconstitutional bill.

A bill to declare the Barrett .50 anti-materiel sniper rifle the “state rifle” of Tennessee. Status: Passed. We are now the first state with a state rifle (as opposed to a mere “state firearm”, because they deliberately left semantic room to declare a state pistol, machine gun, zip gun, whatever). We could have gone for Davy Crockett’s gun or Alvin York’s, but Barrett is a fairly big company here and so we are represented by a modern weapon used to take out engine blocks from a mile away, or reduce a person to a kind of vapor from the shoulders up if a round hits them in the head. Appropriate.

A bill that requires the state to sue the Federal government over the resettlement of Syrian refugees in TN without the TN legislature’s explicit consent. Dealing with refugees is a Federally delegated power, and this question seems unsurprisingly already to have been resolved in the Feds’ favor by the lower appellate courts, but the TN ledge is still fightin’ mad about an issue almost everyone else has already forgotten. Status: passed. More doomed work for the state’s lawyers.

Our version of the North Carolina “bathroom bill” that would, apparently, require teachers (perhaps the ones carrying guns, as authorized by the legislature in previous sessions) to inspect the genitals of suspect children who are using the toilet. Status: died in House committee, resurrected in Senate committee, died again. Will probably be back next session.

A bill to allow social workers, therapists, and other mental health professionals to refuse to treat patients whose “lifestyles they disapprove of” without legal consequence. Status: they’re still talking about this one.

A bill indicating the state officially disapproves of the Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage. Passed. That’ll stick it to ’em.

A bill that would have exempted police body-cam and dash-cam footage from all public record laws, making it inaccessible to scrutiny. Status: died in committee; will be back.

After the kerfluffle about whether fantasy sports betting is “gambling” in New York (you heard about this if you watch John Oliver), the TN ledge noticed we have a provision in our state constitution outlawing gambling too. So they rushed to pass a law declaring fantasy sports betting definitely not gambling, no how no way, not ever, so there would be no interruption in your stochastic rotisserie league fun. Status: passed.

A bill that would have altered the state Constitution to make it forever impossible for the state of Tennessee to levy an income tax, which is already politically impossible, but you can never have too many firewalls against a sane fiscal system, I guess, or too much grandstanding about taxes. Meanwhile, TN’s VAT-style sales tax, levied even on food, is the most regressive in the United States. Status: died in committee because pointless; it’s like making it unconstitutional for the Earth to start turning the other way on its axis.

A very strange bill that would have prevented the use of “road or highway” designated fees, funds, or taxes for anything to do with bicycles, without specific act of the state Legislature: in other words, the Dept. of Transportation and local governments would not be able to use “road money” for anything bike-related, like bike trails or lanes, because “road money is for cars.” Status: Failed. (If you caught that this was really about “Agenda 21”, well done. You’re up on your right-wing conspiracy theories.)

A genuinely terrible bill that would allow previously unincorporated county land that had been historically annexed by Nashville, Chattanooga, Memphis, or Knoxville, to de-accession itself from those cities by majority vote of residents, thus relieving themselves of the tax burden of paying for city services and leaving huge holes in the already swiss-cheese structure of property tax collection, a structure that grossly underfunds city activities, especially the schools. Status: didn’t make it out of committee even though it was popular – the big cities still have some clout.

A not-entirely-unrelated bill that would make it illegal (??) for courts to issue consent decrees about public education funding in the state. Status: I think someone told the sponsor that this makes literally no sense.

Driving “slower than prevailing traffic” in the leftmost lane of state highways of three lanes or more is now a misdemeanor. I know, pretty annoying, right? Status: now law.

Oh, Beth Harwell, likely Gubernatorial nominee, set up some commissions to study some issues. Health care, for example. This the commission will surely do, and write a report. I’ve already forgotten this commission exists.

There’s also a commission on sexual harassment, because it turned out the leader of the One True Party, Rep. Jeremy Durham, was a terrible serial sexual harasser. I’ve already forgotten this commission exists, just like the press has quickly forgotten Rep Durham’s disgrace.

Because of the provocative outrages of student-organized Sex Week at the University of TN, in which students spoke openly, in public, about abortion and sexual consent, without even being prior-restrained by the university administration, as they clearly should have been; and because of a nonbinding suggestion by the University’s Office of Diversity that students might want to use language inclusive of transgender people, the pearl-clutching ledge decided to punish the University’s loucheness by completely defunding the Office of Diversity, the money instead to be used to print “in God we trust” stickers to be affixed to cop cars (I am not making this up). Of course, this kind of line-item meddling in the University’s budget explicitly violates the terms of the University’s accreditation, but no matter. Who needs the University of Tennessee to be accredited? Status: died, but came back from the dead and looks set to pass – there were protests in town and on campus today.

A bill to prevent the University of TN from raising tuition without the ledge’s approval, even as the state continues to cut their budget. It would cripple the university and create what they call a condition of “financial exigency,” allowing the revocation of tenure. Status: failed. Narrowly.

A bill allowing open-carry of firearms without a permit or training. Died in committee. Will be back until it finally passes.

A bill allowing permit-holders to concealed-carry on public college and university campuses. Status: now law. So you don’t have to take that lefty bias from your profs anymore. Just wave that pocket-pistol around a little and see if your grade doesn’t improve.

A bill mandating mothers who give birth to “drug-addicted babies” be charged with felony fetal assault. Status: sunsetted in committee. Will be back.

Other bills killed: decriminalizing pot, allowing the direct election of the US President, making it a crime to leave a gun out where a child under 13 might find and handle it, and raising the gas tax a few cents to pay for the repair of our utterly destroyed roads.

Oh, we did get a “ban the box” bill, so that’s good.

There was also a secret bill. Gov. Haslam got a bill through authorizing $30 million be spent on…something. We still have open records laws; how this is justified… but anyway, we’re getting a $30 million Thing that nobody knows what it is. I hope it’s nice.

This is all from “the most conservative state legislature in the country” – though not the most conservative Republican governor, so it’s not the worst legislative program in the fifty states. Gov. Haslam sometimes leans a little on the ultra-ultra-right-wing supernuts, because he’s worried they’ll distract from his overall agenda of privatizing services and giving the contracts to his friends. (His current multi-year policy centerpiece is the privatization of all State jobs in physical plant, maintenance, cleaning, driving, etc. – including all such jobs in the University system.)

You’ll note that despite the Republicans having a super-majority in both houses, and the Governorship, they don’t actually get all of this high-profile bullshit through. So much of it is obviously unconstitutional, illegal, unimplementable, or so nonsensical that nobody knows what the bills even mean. I am cheered only by the legislature’s relative incompetence. Of course, most of this stuff isn’t designed to pass, it’s designed to get press, as red meat for the base. And this state is all base.

Oh, how is our budget? Robust. No problems there. We have a multi-hundred-million-dollar surplus. They could actually do something with the money. It was suggested at first the state buy a new fish hatchery, but in the end they just banked it. Clearly the state has no other pressing needs. (Except for the secret Thing.)

(Please note that this sad situation is never going to change. The One Party is going to get to redistrict in 2020, just as they did in 2010, creating the supermajority, so the next opportunity to elect a state government with an opposition party that the Republicans will even have to consult on legislation will be 2032 at the earliest.)

Cooking with the Pols

Following on the dream I once had in which George W Bush was not a politician but had a funny Tex-Mex cooking show, I realized that, for whatever reason, it’s easy to slot politicians into food shows. Especially if they’re politicians I don’t like.

Food shows which I am convinced would really work, and not just ironically:

George W Bush gets a Tex-Mex show where everything he makes is about hot sauce and high-flame grilling.

Hillary Clinton runs a Michelin three-diamond restaurant in France, but not as chef – as owner. I see her firing lots of cooks and busting on sellers in the Saxe-Breteuil market.

Obama is a ruthless food critic. He can drop one review from high above and destroy an incipient new genre of restaurant. (“These new Appalachian-style ramen bars are misconceived from the ground up…”)

Bernie Sanders is the co-host, with Michael Pollan, of The New Sustainable Frugal Gourmet. He and Pollan spend as much time in the fields worrying about conditions for farmers and chickens as they do cooking a moroccan-inflected lentil bolognese.

Trump, with Gary Null, does late-night infomercials about virility-enhancing dietary supplements and the Quantum Diamond Food Wand (‘made with real diamond chips’).

John Kerry is the Brahmin Pepperpot: Exploring New England Cuisines, next on PBS.

Cruz is harder, but I think I see him in a new Victory Garden, raving about aphids on his prizewinning vegetable marrows.

John Kasich is a competitive eater with records in Hot Dogs, Blueberry Pie, and Hoagies.

Sarah Palin is just a one-for-one trade with Rachel Ray. Don’t forget the garbage bowl.

“Fried Force One: Bill Clinton and Diamond Joe Biden Tour America’s Burger Griddles, BBQ Pits, Crab Shacks, and Titty Bars.” On late, after the watershed.

How Three Years in the Obamacare Hole Finally Broke Me

Each year I’ve been on Obamacare – this would be my third year – the Exchange policies have gotten worse and more expensive. Now I’m at the breaking point.

I don’t have insurance with work, so I have to go to the Exchange. (There is no such thing any longer as a private individual policy not negotiated through the Exchange during annual open enrollment, which ends tomorrow.) Exchange policies have high sticker prices: hundreds of dollars a month. The way it’s supposed to work is, up to about four times the household income poverty line, you get a generous subsidy from the government to offset the premium. Except I don’t. I’m in The Hole. I don’t get a subsidy at all.

The way the law was written, below 133% of poverty, instead of buying from the Exchange, everyone is supposed to go into Medicaid, the state health insurance option which works like health care does in every rational country. I’m below 133% of poverty – in fact I’m below 100% of poverty – so rather than buying a policy at all, I’m supposed to just get Medicaid and everything is free (well, hah, not really, but it’s coverage, of a sort, which I would not have to pay to have).

Medicaid is 50 individual state programs, not one federal program – the feds assist with block grants, but these are not enough by themselves, so the state has to kick in a lot of money. Tennessee has not put in enough. Tennessee has an insane tax structure – no income tax, only sales tax; it doesn’t bring in enough during good years, and the tax base plummets in bad years. The last time TN actually tried to make a go of Medicaid on the basis of its tax revenue, it blew up the budget. TN, like most states, is forbidden by the state constitution from running any deficit, so the Medicaid program was closed. It has remained closed to new enrollees without dependent children (you can’t exclude people with dependent children by federal law) since 2002. Thirteen years.

The new Federal money from the Obamacare “medicaid expansion” would have opened this up (at least partly, though I’m still not clear that it would have been enough money to cover every eligible adult up to 133% of the federal poverty line). I could have gotten in medicaid. But after the Supreme Court ruled that a state could withdraw from the Medicaid part of the Obamacare mandate, most states with Republican leadership did just that. Tennessee’s Medicaid is still closed.

So that puts me back in the Exchange, but because the Exchange subsidies were written under the assumption that everyone with incomes too low for Exchange policies would now be covered by expanded Medicaid, there is no provision for subsidies for people with incomes that low. So none are available. To get an Obamacare policy, I have to pay full sticker price.

If you know what a COBRA policy is, that means I have to buy what is essentially a COBRA policy. They’re not actually called COBRA and they don’t work under COBRA portability rules, but they cost like COBRA, because COBRA is “your insurance from your job, only now you also have to pay the part of the premium your employer was paying.”

The last two years I’ve been able to find policies I could actually pay for, even if they were pretty bad policies. They had high deductibles and high premiums, but not such high premiums that I couldn’t pay them, and the deductibles were low enough not to bankrupt me if I needed surgery, as, it turned out, I did. (That gall bladder isn’t going to be troubling me anymore.) They also covered my psychiatric drugs at affordable copays.

Well, Blue Cross, which administeres the large majority of Exchange policies in TN, about six months ago announced they were going broke on them. The thing about Exchange policies is that if you can pay you can have a policy – the insurance company not allowed to exclude or underwrite you just because you’re terribly ill and therefore expensive. They take everyone. The idea that having so many new people, most healthy, using Exchange policies would offset the cost of not being able to exclude and underwrite policies for the ill, has not turned out to be true. Not at all. So Blue Cross said they had to raise the prices by at least 50% on most policies or they would drop them all and leave the state, which would destroy the TN Exchange. (This is happening all over the country). The state regulator said they could. They didn’t have much choice – if they’d said no, a lot of adults with minors would have been thrown on Medicaid and the state absolutely cannot afford it.

So the premiums this year have just exploded. The absolute cheapest Bronze plan I’m eligible for is about $250 a month. This is literally the cheapest plan available to me. It covers effectively nothing – no coverage kicks in until I satisfy the deductible, which is $6,500: that just happens to be the Federal Obamacare upper limit on out-of-pocket expenses for a single nonsmoking adult. It doesn’t even pay for prescriptions until the $6500 is passed. After that it pays, but unless I get cancer or get hit by an uninsured motorist, I’m not using that.

I get to pay $250/month for a catastrophic plan that otherwise pays for nothing. The whole point of catastrophic plans is they’re supposed to be cheap – but this is not cheap. This one costs three thousand dollars a year just to have, and, if I get sick, another sixty-five hundred before I see a plugged nickel from Blue Cross.

If I want one that actually covers anything below the federal max out-of-pocket legal limit, well, those start in the mid-three-hundreds. Out of the question.

I might – might – be able to pay for the cheapest plan, even though then I have to find a way to pay for every doctor’s visit or prescription drug at retail out-of-pocket rates — fortunately all the drugs I take are generics and are relatively inexpensive (on the order of $150/year per drug, which in the US counts as cheap).

But why? Why should I do this? I go bankrupt if I get sick whether I have this plan or not.

And the other plans are just not going to happen. No way.

Obamacare has a penalty if you don’t have insurance – $695, or 2.5% of your yearly income up to the national average bronze-level annual premium, whichever is greater – but they have kindly waived it in the cases of people like me. If the premium is more than 8.5% of your annual income, you can waive the requirement to have insurance; similarly, if you live in a state that did not expand Medicaid and you fall in the Hole. I qualify on both counts. No penalty for me.

But that still leaves me uninsured.

Well, I’m going to find out what that’s like nowadays, because I don’t have any alternative.

Sundays with Skokie

Jewish Sunday school was traumatic. For a lot of reasons, many personal. I was forced to go by my father after an upbringing of religious indifference, I had no friends there, the kids were cruel, and the teachers rather dim. I’ve had a grudge against it, in my memory, ever since.

Because I intellectualize everything, one way I express that grudge (to myself) is to pick at the ideological commitments of that Sunday school curriculum. To say the Holocaust was an important part of it does not express it. It’s not that we dwelled on the piles of bodies, though at points we did – but as a political problem, it was omnipresent. Other than the weeks we spent memorizing ancient Hebrew prayers – this was a confirmation class, so it was assumed that if you’d wanted to learn Hebrew you’d have already done so pre- bar/bat-mitzvah – it was all Jewish history, and all that was through the lens of the Shoah. Pre-Holocaust history was the crescendo leading up to the Holocaust; everything else was in one way or another about Israel, as the resolution.

I don’t believe in anything about that narrative, but these days I interrogate my Sunday school less to expose that narrative’s historical deficiencies than to marvel at what a fractal the thing was. Every little piece of the curriculum reflected the whole of that sweep in miniature.

The organizing slogan was “never again”, but given that it’s happened about nineteen times “again” and nothing about this narrative changes, indeed nothing at all changes, I’m curious about why such an obviously universal slogan, a slogan that dovetails so beautifully with Vonnegut’s plainspoken “no more massacres”, ends up being uttered in such a particularized and sightless way. Liberal American Judaism seems fully capable of intoning “never again” without the slightest irony from atop a pile of massacred bodies. As long as – I may as well say it – they’re not Jews.

Somehow it never became explicit, or explicit in the right way, that “never again” didn’t mean just to us. That, in fact, it wouldn’t be us next time. It would be someone else, and it would be the duty imposed on us by passing through the Holocaust to stand up with them.

There was of course that tendency in Holocaust studies, partly owing to Blanchot but being a terrible misunderstanding of him, which said that the Holocaust was a radical historical singular, absolutely unique. Which implies – unrepeatable. Because of its industrial character, because of the special, irreducible nature of Jew-hatred, because, ultimately, of the fearful body count – the Holocaust was not like other holocausts and should not be compared. There will only ever be the one.

Insisting on the absolute historical uniqueness of the Holocaust does make it easier to condone what Israel does in Jewry’s name today. After all, that’s not a Holocaust – it can’t be, we know that to be impossible. I don’t like claims that certain historical nightmares are unique beyond comparison for just this reason. It puts them beyond use as a lesson. There is that shudder at the word “use”, as if six million tortured ghosts were put to work turning the capstan of historiography, but I still don’t see how you can deny the fungibility of the Holocaust without, paradoxically, ensuring its repeatability.

One day they showed us a video of the TV movie “Skokie” (1981), a dramatization of the 1979 Nazi march through the heavily Jewish Chicago suburb of Skokie, IL. Skokie had refused permission for the march; the ACLU sued on the Nazis’ behalf and won.

The movie is a fascinating piece of liberal propaganda, and I think I’ve been haunted by it since, because, like all good propaganda, it makes clear what the proper resolution is; but it does not fail to present – at least its own version – of the essential conflict. I think at the time I swallowed whole the proper resolution – something like, “American rights ask us to bear difficult things, but, in the end, yay free speech!” But something about the film has always made me uneasy.

These days, I can put the movie in more theoretical terms: the ostensible lesson is to insist on the universality and reciprocity of abstract rights, because thereby we are all saved, equally. I think the movie betrays this claim, though – and I think it betrays this claim because the claim is betrayed by its nature; there is something essential about the ideal of abstract reciprocal rights that is paradoxical, in a bad way.

The movie rightly places the Holocaust at the center of the drama. The confrontation is intra-Jewish: on the one hand, Skokie’s Holocaust survivors (who would have still been relatively young and numerous, only 34 years after the event; my next door neighbor growing up was a survivor, so my first association with the term is “that guy next door who mows his lawn and has a number on his arm”, not “those old people, nearly all dead, with their stories of the distant past.”) are opposed to the march, indeed opposed to permitting the existence of out-and-out Nazis, because they experienced the rise of Hitler themselves. Their opponents are liberal Jewish town pols and Jewish ACLU lawyers, who patiently explain that the rights that protect the Nazis also protect the Jews; a universal right must be extended to everyone, no matter how odious, or it is not in fact a right in the first place; pace Niemoller, if we now permit the silencing of the Nazis, can we expect anyone will stand up for us, if the time ever comes?

That’s an appealing story, one that, as Americans, we’ve imbibed all our lives, almost with the tap water. Yet the fact that I can summarize the survivors’ case in a handful of words (they saw Hitler), while the liberal case requires more than sixty, should tell you something: there is a certain ideological contortion going on.

To begin with, the equivalence, between the Jews and the Nazis, as two embattled minorities, is really an extraordinary one. We must tolerate the Nazis, who want nothing more in this life than to kill us, because one day we might need the protection of that very right that they now avail themselves of: in other words, as these Nazis now are, so might we one day be. Actually, that’s not an equivalence only: it’s an affective identification. The correct attitude toward these Nazis is not to fear them, it is to pity them – while one should fear that which the Nazis also fear, the vast, trackless, potent expanse of – simultaneously deracinated and goyishe – America.

In America, it turns out, a safe Nazi is a safe Jew. The survivors do not understand this. They are chained to the past. They see only Nazis, who killed them once, and whom they want to kill. They represent the particularity of the horror of the Jewish experience. The liberal Jews and the ACLU lawyers represent the universal reply. “Skokie” hopes you will chose the universal over the particular, however difficult that may feel.

Yet there is something unsatisfying about the terms of this universal/particular pairing. In fact, I think it’s backwards.

For “a safe Nazi is a safe Jew” to have the appeal “Skokie” says it does, it must be the case that these Nazis are not dangerous, or the survivors would simply be right. Even though as Nazis their whole existence is predicated on killing Jews. These Nazis are neutralized; America’s Nazis are domesticated. It is all right to allow the majesty of Constitutional right to drape these Nazis, to displace the necessary violence of self-protection, because there aren’t really any Nazis at all: there is only this pitiable lot, while the vast, terrifying expanse of America within which the Jew is still an alien, is on our side. It will never permit actual Nazis, only these shambling reminders. In America, the Jew has somehow won – as long as this America persists, the Jews are in charge of their own destiny.

In other words, the liberal Jews rely on one of the necessary but unstated paradoxes of liberal democracy: we can be confident that liberal democracy will not permit the rise of a movement that will abolish the protections of abstract civil rights, even though how to prevent this is impossible to specify from within the principles of liberalism. Liberal democracy is evenhandedly protective of the rights of all within it, yet there will come a time when it will have to act against a specific political tendency within itself and destroy it, to save itself. This is the vital moment of illiberalism within liberal democracy. Every political persuasion is treated with all the unjudging serenity of mere political procedure – every tendency is permitted everything any other is permitted, no matter what it actually is. There is no legal or constitutional principle that specifies when liberalism must step outside the framework of equal protection and put its foot down. “Straying into violence or criminality” isn’t it. It is quite possible, after all, for an undemocratic movement to attain power while obeying all liberal democratic rules regarding violence and criminality, as long as enough people approve of it. It is then in a position to abolish the whole thing. Yet this does not happen.

Except – it manifestly does happen. Of course it does. The unspecifiable moment when liberalism translates itself from a procedure to an ethos and suppresses internal, existential threats to itself, which is to say, to its universal extension of rights and protections to all citizens, never arrives. Liberal democracies are subverted and abolished, as Germany was, and even when this does not happen wholesale, they permit within themselves every imaginable mode of particularized exploitation, degradation, and oppression. It’s how liberal democratic America has been at the same time constitutively white supremacist America.

The provision of liberal abstract rights in fact guarantees nothing. And this is obvious. All you have to have is the memory of a Holocaust survivor. All you have to do is drive from Skokie to the Chicago south side.

Realizing this, what is the real content of what the liberal Jews and the ACLU lawyers say to the survivors? It’s not “we have rights.” It can only be this: “It can’t happen here.” The one slogan that every Jew is taught from birth not to trust. If it does not rest upon liberal abstract rights, it can only be mere historical triumphalism, easily reversed: Here, we won. America likes us. We can get in all the clubs and schools now. We’re in no danger.

I’m less interested in how foolish this claim is on its face, than in how a movie like “Skokie” makes it possible for the American children of Holocaust survivors to hear it and believe it. Because once you scrape off the ideological trappings, it’s completely threadbare. It’s completely particular. Here, now, we Jews are okay. Others are not okay, but we are okay. Just keep playing along.

In this way, the reliance on the polite fiction – among the privileged – of universal liberal rights, becomes a striking defense of the status quo. It is the alchemical transmutation of mere Jewish self-regard into a political philosophy of complacency. We – we Jews, triumphant in America – let the Nazis march; from this we know that the promise of American universalism is untrammeled. That is the proof. (Don’t get off the Dan Ryan on the South Side.)

If the liberals are particularity in disguise, it’s the survivors, who’d been portrayed as (understandably) tribal, clenched to history, who make the properly universal claim: Nazis are everywhere dangerous; Nazis must everywhere be fought and destroyed. The Danny Kaye character in “Skokie” – Kaye uses his trademark evocation of manic hysteria to excellent effect – was the only sane one. The survivors are not interested in even-handed proceduralism; they know what Naziism is, and they know there is no way to make peace with it.

“Skokie” is topsy-turvy. “Skokie” is liberal propaganda. Yet “Skokie” cannot abolish the universal claim hiding in the smokescreen of liberal proceduralism. I could never get past that fear that it left me with – that, in pointing at the pathetic false Nazis, its gesture of genuine terror past them and towards the immense fields of American possibility, was dead right all along.

The universal lesson of the specificity of the Holocaust is always clear: what has happened to us, is what can happen. As the philosophers say, actuality is the best proof of possibility. Nothing prevents it from happening here. Because it already has, and still is.

I voted. I think I voted. But it was a mess.

I know we’re all “rah, rah, you’ve got to vote!”, and I did vote, because there’s a dreadful anti-abortion state constitutional amendment on the ballot and the polling on that was at least close enough that I had to. I live in deepest red America. Nothing else I voted for mattered in the least, and without the constitutional amendment arguably it would be politically and ethically better not to have participated in what is obviously a rigged and lousy system.

Nearly all the races were unopposed outright, like some kind of imperial satrapy where the incumbent gets 99% of the votes cast. Or, if there was someone on the ballot nominally in opposition, there wasn’t really – the (D) was a sacrificial candidate, present to assure us that the forms have been obeyed. (I voted for the hopeless third-party candidate in most of those races, at least where there was a third-party candidate who wasn’t some kind of straight-up-fascist numbskull, for whom the local Republicans aren’t right-wing enough.) Or worse: in one case, as seems to happen every year, the (D) primary was so disorganized that a conservative Republican with a last name beginning with a letter early in the alphabet crashed the (D) primary and actually carried off the nomination. An explicit shuck.

I voted (in fact I voted early), but I left more than half of the ballot blank.

Or whatever the equivalent of ‘blank’ is when you’re using a Diebold electronic voting machine with no paper trail. “Unselected”, I guess, except I don’t even trust that. Who knows what that machine really registered. On my “I voted” sticker, I added “think” in pen, so it said, “I think I voted.”

So spare a thought for those of us for whom this civic ritual is so calamitously messed-up that it’s easy to wonder whether participating in it is the right thing to do in the first place.

The Use of Lupita Nyong’o as Hollywood Success Story

I like Lupita Nyong’o. Everyone does, right? She’s great.

This is not about her.

It’s about what you might call the white liberal construction of Lupita Nyong’o.

In this construction, Lupita Nyong’o was an attractive nobody who was from “Africa” in some dim sense — probably from some village. That’s what they have in Africa, right? Villages? And also somehow from Mexico a little, too. They have slums there, probably. Whatever — she might as well have been from the poor part of the Moon.

Then she somehow got “discovered”. That’s what happens to beautiful women from faraway villages and/or slums who get famous, right? They get “discovered”? “Plucked from Obscurity”, as the Daily Beast put it.

So she’s from some kind of remote, romantic favela — one has the mental image of her standing alone, barefoot, in a dirty Mexican street, or in a baked dusty Saharan hardpan, when suddenly the disembodied camera-lens of white approval lands on her. And the rest is history.

The real story is more prosaic and more rich. Lupita Nyong’o’s background is one of enviable privilege. Her father is a political scientist with a University of Chicago PhD, one of the most important people in the Orange Democratic Movement — the ruling party of Kenya — and a high minister in the current Kenyan government; at a rough estimate he earns thirty thousand times as much money as the average Kenyan. Having him as a dad would be like being John Kerry’s kid. Lupita grew up in Mexico, New York, and Nairobi, and speaks four languages. She went to Hampshire College and Yale Drama and did PA work in Hollywood. Her life trajectory is full of the kind of experience that money very definitely can buy.

She’s obviously brilliant and beautiful and a great actress with a huge career ahead of her, and that’s all to her credit. She wasn’t “plucked from obscurity”, she went to a really famous, elite drama school and then went to Hollywood and worked her way up. That she comes from money and influence and has a gold-plated acting education separates her not at all from the rest of the Hollywood nomenklatura.

What’s interesting to me is that apparently white liberals simply can’t relate to her unless she had a ‘slumdog’ upbringing, with her life a redemptive story that flatters contemporary whiteness. We’re not racist anymore! We’re not classist anymore! You can be anyone from anywhere — talent, beauty, and moxie are all you need.

But remember, the slumdog kids got tossed back where they came from. The camera loved them and audiences did too, but they were still disposable. Alterity always is. White Hollywood has always seen non-white Others as essentially interchangeable. 

Lupita Nyong’o’s staying power in Hollywood isn’t guaranteed by her tremendous talent, or her beauty or moxie. In Hollywood, being a talented, beautiful actor with moxie who is also a dark-skinned outsider gets you stuffed back in the bag when they no longer need you around to flatter themselves that they once gave you a job or an award. Lupita will be able to continue because she’s not really an outsider — or, she is one only partly. The money, the privileged upbringing, the elite education — that’s the kind of currency it’s still essentially impossible to get along without.

But the prominent role of privilege in her story is a secret that white liberals keep from themselves. We need to; it helps us feel good about ourselves for feeling good about her. To us, Lupita was from nowhere and nothing, and used her past as a nobody to inform her blazing performance as Patsey the slave, the brutal honesty of which surely makes redneck racists feel abashed, and makes white liberals feel proud. We enjoy the daring of our approval of Lupita, and the bravery of our disapproval of chattel slavery.

White Hollywood is now ready to face that past, the past of slavery and vile racism, and put it behind us. White Hollywood feels good about facing that past, as past. It wants you to watch the Oscars, and feel good about it, too, as a white liberal in flyover country. Hurrah for us, the white liberals! …What? Of course it’s all in the past — look at Lupita! She came from Black-nowhere and we let her be a star.

Obama’s president and Lupita has an Oscar — things are great.

Fruitvale Station? Never heard of it.

Duck Dystopia

So Phil Robertson, whose tangled beard and folksiness until yesterday graced A&E’s “Duck Dynasty”, doesn’t like gays, and isn’t too clear that he likes African-Americans either.

It’s a shock, of course. Nobody thought that if we kept cramming doltish shitheels onto the airwaves, that one or two of them might turn out to actually mean it. Two days ago we thought Phil was a role-model; now we know he’s not. It’s a loss, to which we all feel called to respond.

As usual, it was Sarah Palin who was loudest — perfectly enunciating the ideological incoherence of the right. “Intolerants!” she cried. Meaning those who are intolerant of Phil’s intolerance. The word is already a meme.

This, of course, is another signal contribution of the “liberal fascism” discourse, the discourse of the oxymoron. Intolerance of intolerance is hypocritical, the line runs. If liberals really meant their liberalism, they would be tolerant of intolerance in the same way they are tolerant of difference in gender, race, and sexual orientation.

Even if the accusation were true, it would mean only that the right and the liberal left were morally equivalent; it would mean only that the left is sometimes intolerant, just as the right proudly already is. The accusation amounts to no more than the basest possible tu quoque: “at least we know we’re scum.”

But, of course, it’s not true. It’s neither hypocritical nor incoherent for an opponent of intolerance to be intolerant of intolerance: that’s what it means to oppose intolerance.

Tolerance is the basic value of liberalism that allows for difference in gender, race, or sexual orientation: to tolerate on equal footing its own opposite, intolerance, would be to undermine itself, to prefer exclusion of, and damage to, the very system of differences the existence of which tolerance was meant to enable. Intolerance of intolerance is tolerance. The accusation that liberalism is hypocritical when it does not tolerate intolerance literally cannot be true: it is purely illogical. Liberalism is at its most consistent and true when it is intolerant of the intolerant.

It is of course deeply strange to see conservatives coming out against intolerance, as it always is whenever they find a racist, sexist, or homophobe whom they think they’re not hearing enough from. “Intolerants!” is an utterance of hilariously pure psychological projection. But Sarah Palin is a professional yahoo; riposting her arguments argumentatively is not the point, as they are intended for people who either do not know what an argument is, or do not care.

More interesting is the form which the liberal intolerance to intolerance is currently taking. Phil’s conservative supporters have asked that he receive “freedom of speech.” Give Phil his First Amendment freedom! they say. Well, Phil has his First Amendment freedom, because that is a freedom secured only against the government. The First Amendment does not much govern our interactions with our employers. Those are governed more by the freedom of contract that exists in American capitalism — and that is exactly the reasoning under which the right wing has argued for the firing of Martin Bashir from MSNBC and the right of Hobby Lobby not to pay for insurance that covers abortion and contraception.

So it’s a little surprising to me that the liberal reply to Phil’s conservative backers has amounted to: “Phil is free to say what he likes in GQ, and A&E is free not to employ him.”

Legally, this is true. That is a correct statement of the actual status of the First Amendment and the freedom of contract in America. But it’s still an uncomfortable thing for anyone nominally on the left to advocate. Phil Robertson is, of course, a public figure, and with public figures, all bets are off — but there is still something to be said for the general freedom not to be fired for speech not directly connected to your job.

It’s not clear that, as such a public figure, Phil Robertson enjoys any speech not directly connected to his job, just as Martin Bashir didn’t: Phil’s job is to be a body of free-floating redneck signifiers that can be plastered on camo hats, t-shirts, and christmas wrap sold at Wal-Mart. But let’s generalize the case. It is surprising to many, but in most parts of the country you can be fired for most any “protected” speech, if your employer takes exception to it. The same reasoning being applied by liberals to Phil allows your asshole boss to fire the person down the hall for putting an Obama or Planned Parenthood sticker on their car. (Yes, people have been fired for that, and yes, the courts have said it’s okay.)

Most people can’t risk losing their jobs, and if they know their boss is likely to retaliate against political speech, their political speech is effectively constrained. In this way, freedom of speech is a version of the mere freedom to starve.

And who most suffers in this way for their political speech? It’s not rich, white, Christian conservatives.

Liberals are supposed to like freedom of speech. Indeed, it’s one of the arenas in which the unproblematic differences of which they are so tolerant are supposed to be allowed to manifest themselves. Thus, I find it quite strange that the liberal argument against Phil Robertson has so far taken the form of an appeal to the freedom of contract that directly cuts against the actual freedom to speak.

Conservatives are wrong to demand that Phil needs to be given his “First Amendment” rights — he’s got them. But there is an important intuition inside all the ignorance: if you don’t have any rights of free speech against an employer, your right to free speech doesn’t mean much. If your right to free speech is trumped by your employer’s commercial concerns, your right to free speech doesn’t mean much. Profit is what matters.

That’s the only principle which is ever enhanced in these controversies. The Chick-fil-A kerfluffle was paradigmatic. The matter was framed as a conflict of two ideological positions: one favored by the owner of the restaurant chain, the other favored by people who boycotted it. Bigotry and anti-bigotry were both placed as “controversial” positions in equal contention; the only principle that seemed to be agreed-upon by all parties, even to the extent that it hardly needed to be stated, was commercial freedom, the freedom of contract. The owner of the restaurant could do with his money what he wanted, and give to homophobic groups; his opponents could do with their money what they wanted, and eat elsewhere. Contractual freedom was the point of ideological agreement that created the terms of the debate for everyone.

But for anyone on the left, that is a desperately retrograde premise. It atomizes and commercializes the basis of communal action against a sick status quo. It rules out precisely the notion that some questions of value ought not be merely fiduciary, that they should be subjects of a more concerted and deeper debate on a political level. This is something the right today may understand better than the liberal left.

Given that liberalism is, and has to be, intolerant of intolerance, it might be both more consistent and more forthright for liberals to claim that hate speech — and let’s face it, what Phil said was not just an abstract statement of disapproval, it was nothing but revulsion and hatred — ought not enjoy social and legal sanction in the first place. The “marketplace of ideas” is a threadbare fiction: in a sphere of contending memes in which nothing is taken to be of greater or lesser inherent value, all that stands firm and invariant is the ideal of the marketplace itself, the locus of one-to-one contractual, commercial relations, that leaves out precisely solidarity, ethics, and robust politics.

In fact, our reified ideal of the marketplace omits the regulatory requirements necessary to the proper functioning of an actual marketplace: there are rules against false advertising and fraud in real markets, because those destroy the basis of commercial trust necessary for a market to work. But in the “marketplace of ideas”, we hear that the only remedy to bad speech is more speech. Even when the bad speech is of a sort that distorts, erodes, and ultimately destroys the liberal polity itself, we are told that the only thing to do is to close our pocketbooks or post to twitter. To behave this way is all too tolerant of intolerance. It is an idea of politics drained of all blood, but not drained of all import.

Its prevalence explains why we find ourselves inhabiting a dead politics whose carcass is being picked clean by sand fleas like Sarah Palin.

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