False assumptions about political opponents

During the last two days, I have heard complaints from libertarians that the left is slavishly following Barack Obama and not criticizing his escalation of the Iraq War. I have also heard complaints from the left that libertarians are not condemning police racism and brutality in Ferguson MO. Neither complaint is justified.

Rand Paul, perhaps the leading libertarian in electoral politics, published a strong op-ed piece on Ferguson in Time. Among other things, in which he highlighted the racial bias and involved and went on to condemn the militarization of police in Ferguson and elsewhere. He said, among other things:

When you couple this militarization of law enforcement with an erosion of civil liberties and due process that allows the police to become judge and jury—national security letters, no-knock searches, broad general warrants, pre-conviction forfeiture—we begin to have a very serious problem on our hands.

Given these developments, it is almost impossible for many Americans not to feel like their government is targeting them. Given the racial disparities in our criminal justice system, it is impossible for African-Americans not to feel like their government is particularly targeting them.

                                                                                  — Rand Paul in Time

Similarly, here is left journalist John Nichols calling for Congress to exercise its Constitutional oversight in the case of Obama’s orders to bomb Iraq.

This is partly a matter of everyone’s tendency to paint their political opponents as totally evil. But even more, it is a lack of focus. There are plenty of liberal to moderate Democrats who do support Obama, but they are not the left. There are plenty or right-wing Republicans who always support police action, racist or not, but they are not libertarians. I think it’s important to understand the distinctions.

Who Is to Blame for Dumbing Down of College Education?

I just read a review of  Excellent Sheep by William Deresiewicz in the New York Times. You can find the review at http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/13/books/excellent-sheep-william-deresiewiczs-manifesto.html?ref=arts&_r=0 (until the Times paywall kicks in). Basically, the book argues that higher ed at elite institutions has become narrowly focused on helping students go into careers in finance, and students (and their parents) have, in turn, become obsessed with grades and resume building. All true. Here at Suffolk, faculty are under increasing serious pressure to focus our teaching on specified, measurable learning objectives, and to tell them which readings, assignments, lectures, and other course components should contribute to which objective. Though many of us are resisting, the idea that somehow students would gain something by thinking about the course as a whole, trying to integrate the different parts — and, most of all, should think for themselves — is out the window.

It’s not just Harvard, and certainly not just Suffolk — much of the dumbing down of higher ed is being demanded by the US Department of Education, with the regional accrediting authorities as its catspaws. But those folks would say it’s really coming from the parents, who demand that the education they are paying so much for be more career-focused, and narrowly so. It’s no good anymore talking about the virtues of the liberal arts, they want their kids to learn specific job skills.

Before we blame the parents, though, we need to ask why they feel this way. When I was a student, my parents’ resources (my father was a pharmacist, with his own store in a small town; my mother didn’t work until the kids were all grown) were enough to get us all through college, and we were free to look around the world and think about what we really wanted to do. Today, everything has changed — at least, lots of things:

1. You have to be filthy rich to afford to pay for college on your own;

2. You will therefore have to have a huge burden of debt when you graduate. (When I graduated, I had a debt under the National Defense Education Act, which provided that 10% of the loan would be written off every year I taught.)

3. You will have to earn oodles of money to pay off the debt; and

4. You will have to earn even more oodles of money if your children will have any chance at all of staying out of poverty.

It all comes back to the growth of inequality, in which the one percent make themselves even richer by cutting their own taxes and making the rest of us pay for formerly public services ourselves.

So we can talk about misplaced values and fight to retain the liberal arts and creative education. We will, and we should. But until we go back to public provision of higher education, reduce inequality by taxing the rich and de-corporatizing public life, our fight will be very much uphill.

Justice Here and There

The good news this week is that George Zimmerman, who killed Trayvon Martin, has been arrested and charged with second degree murder. In case you have somehow missed this story (vacationing on Mars, perhaps?), here’s the Christian Science Monitor’s story summing it up.

So we now have justice for Trayvon – not in any cosmic sense, since it’s hardly just that he is dead – but in the narrow sense that his killer is facing the legal consequences of his act.

Across the world, though, much injustice remains. In Bahrain – a close ally of the United States, and the home of the U.S. Fifth Fleet – a leading human rights activist, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, has been in prison for over a year for his part in leading the pro-democracy movement that began February 11, 2011, in that country as part of the Arab Spring. The Daily Beast has the full story here.

Al-Khawaja has been on a hunger strike since early February, protesting his imprisonment, his mistreatment, and the continuing brutal oppression of the government of Bahrain – a supposedly “constitutional” monarchy, but in reality an absolute dictatorship of the self-styled “royal” family.

Activists, human rights advocates, and governments around the world have demanded al-Khawaja’s release. He is a Danish citizen, and Denmark has asked that he be repatriated, but Bahrain has refused. (The law says they should agree, but they have simply stated that the law does not apply in this case.)

Last week al-Khawaja seemed to be near death. He has now been moved to a military hospital and is being fed by an IV tube. Perhaps that will keep him alive – I hope so – but his condition continues to be critical. And the injustice remains. He should be released unconditionally.

Public outcry brought justice for Trayvon. Let’s hope it brings freedom for Abdulhadi al-Khawaja.

How Not To Negotiate with Iran

Yesterday, the US and its European allies issued this ultimatum to Iran: the latter must stop enriching uranium to 20% U235 (note: everyone agrees that they are not enriching it to weapons grade, which is 90%) and dismantle its underground enrichment plant, with strong hints that the alternative is war.

The problem: neither the US nor, more to the point, Israel is offering to do the same. Since Israel actually has nuclear weapons, and announces over and over again that it wants to bomb Iran, it’s hard to see why it would make sense for Iran to abandon a bomb-resistant facility – unless the quid pro quo is that Israel gets rid of its nuclear weapons.

More broadly, the US cannot reasonably expect any other country to get rid of nuclear weapons, or to refrain from trying to obtain them, unless we adopt a sincere plan to get rid of our own. Without that, these negotiations are not negotiation at all, but attempted dictation. This attempt is bound to fail.

Pundits Missing the Point in Trayvon Martin’s Killing

I was going to move on to something else, but so much of the talk about the killing of Trayvon Marting by George Zimmerman, and the state of Florida’s unwillingness to prosecute Zimmerman, is so messed up that I just have to say something.

First example: in today’s (April 2, 2012) New York Times we get this long op-ed piece by Bill Keller about Trayvon and hate crimes. Keller argues that it would be wrong to punish Zimmerman more severely because his action was racially motivated.

Huh? Who’s arguing that? Progressives aren’t saying that Zimmerman should be charged with a hate crime, instead of plain murder. We are arguing that he should be charged! At the moment, he is free as a bird.

To put it another way, the point at issue is not “Is Zimmerman a racist?” — in other words, whether he would have killed Trayvon if Trayvon had been white. The argument is that the law-enforcement system is racis — in other words, that if Zimmerman had killed a white teenager he would probably be sitting in jail now, awaiting trial.

Second example: in today’s Boston Herald, Joe Fitzgerald argues that “history teaches caution.” Fitzgerald reminds us of Charles Stuart, a white man who killed the white woman he was married to, but convinced the police and the media (temporarily) that she had been killed by a roaming black hoodlum.

Again, huh? That was a case where racial stereotyping caused police to arrest the wrong guy. Is Fitzgerald saying that maybe Zimmerman didn’t really kill Trayvon? But – he says he did! There’s really very little doubt about that – so what is history supposed to be teaching us here?

I think what’s happening is that race arouses such strong emotions that this case has ceased to be about the facts, or about guilt and innocence. Instead, it has become something like “what do you think of black people?” For the sake of justice, it needs to be brought back to the facts.

Human Rights and the New Cold War

I saw a comment on Twitter this morning from some Syrian revolutionaries. They said that they consider themselves Syria’s link to the West, and that they reject any contact with Russia and Iran.

I don’t know how widespread that attitutde is among the Syrian revolutionaries; but if it is widespread, I think it will make it harder for them to improve the human rights situation in Syria. Human rights is a just cause, and gets a lot of support from people everywhere; but if the issue is seen as taking one side or another in international politics, that support will drop.

For example, the US opposes human rights movement in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia because the foreign policy establishment sees those movements – incorrectly – as linked to Iran. Russia and Iran do oppose the human rights movement in Syria, because they see it linked to the US. If it really is linked to the US, they will oppose it even more.

The difference between the US on the one hand, and Russia and Iran on the other, is that the latter restrict the human rights of their own citizens, while the US, aside from the occasional assassination, focuses its attack on human rights on the rest of the world, from Bahrain to Nicaragua to Honduras to …. well, you get the idea.

During the old Cold War, the US and the Soviet Union not only allied themselves with dictators, but encouraged those allies to be more repressive (e.g., in Chile for the US, Hungary for the Soviets). If a new Cold War escalates, that will happen again. The best way to get human rights is to be non-aligned.

Democrats: Be Careful What You Wish For

There are convincing reports that Democrats in both Michigan and Ohio took Republican primary ballots in order to vote for Rick Santorum, who had solicited their votes in Ohio. Since it seems unlikely that many Democrats actually prefer Santorum to Romney, they were probably being mischievous – trying to stick the GOP with a weaker candidate in order to make an Obama victory more likely.

What a high risk strategy! Just suppose it works, that Santorum becomes the Republican nominee for President. Then suppose that, as seems very likely, Greece defaults after all, and the European economy collapses, bringing on a second wave of the Great Recession. We might well find ourselves looking at President Santorum and several steps closer to authoritarian rule in America.

Democrats, be careful!

Iran: Not Only Is War not the Answer, but It’s the Wrong Question

Sadly, Barack Obama seems to be just as crazy as his predecessor when it comes to the Middle East; witness all his tough talk about war with Iran. So let’s be clear:

  1. All intelligence agencies agree that Iran does not have a nuclear weapons program, and does not plan to have one.
  2. The US, on the other hand, has thousands of nuclear weapons.
  3. Israel, which has a much more aggressive history of making war on its neighbors than Iran, has nuclear weapons but Obama won’t even talk about them,
  4. Eight years ago, the US went to war with Iraq based on a lot of lies; the result was disastrous. Now they’re telling the same lies and trying to go to war again.

From all this, I’d say that the question is not how to keep Iran from getting nuclear weapons – it is why the national security establishment is so eager to destroy Iran.

Sandra Fluke, Birth Control, and the Catholic Church

I’ve never heard of Dan Mitchell before, but apparently he’s a libertarian blogger. He’s also, apparently, an idiot. In this post he characterizes Sandra Fluke as wanting the government to pay for her birth control.

That might be a good idea, but it’s not what this controversy is about. Anuone who thought for 10 seconds would realize that this has nothing to do with the government’s paying for birth control. To sum up the obvious:

  1. Sandra Fluke is a student. Students are required to pay for health insurance as a condition of enrollment. That’s true today in Massachusetts, under Romneycare, and it will be true for the whole country once Obamacare is fully in effect.
  2. The Catholic Church, which owns Georgetown University, wants to take Sandra Fluke’s premium money, but deny her birth-control coverage. Note that this does not lead to a premium reduction, since covering birth control lowers health care costs rather than raising them.
  3. So what the church is saying is that it should be able to force its own beliefs on the students and employees of the universities (and hospitals) it owns, and should still be subsidized by our tax money (and universities are heavily subsidized – not just by grants, but federal financial aid and tax exemption for all their real estate).

A more intelligent libertarian view would be that our tax dollars should not go to subsidize sectarian institutions. If Catholic (or other religious) universities want to get all that federal aid, they should follow the same rules as everyone else.

Fukushima – Eve of Destruction?

I’ve always said the real problem with nuclear power is the radioactive waste. Nuclear plants produce tons of highly toxic, hard to contain materials that remain intensely radioactive and dangerous for about 250,000 years, and nobody knows what to do with it. Let me repeat that: no one has any idea how this waste can be dealt with safely, yet we continue to produce it, and governments have plans to produce even more. That’s insane.

I guess I still think that; but today’s release of an investigative report on the Fukushima meltdown in Japan has to make anyone stop and think. The report condemns the lack of preparedness of the company running the plant and the blunders of both company executives and government officials in trying to handle the disaster. But the scary point is that we came very close to an unthinkable catastrophe, “a series of massive chain reactions” that would have destroyed the heart of Japan. Officials considered an evacuation of Tokyo – a city of 35 million people.

In this case, the determination of the heroic Tsukushima 50, who continued working far beyond their safe radiation allowances, and a few lucky breaks pulled us back from the brink on that one. But what will happen next time? As I said, this is insane.