Dzhokhar Tsarnaev Dies While America Cowers

Dzhokhar TsarnaevI am breaking form tonight by throwing an extra post in. I just have to say something about Dzhokhar Tsarnaev getting the death penalty. Regular readers know: I don’t believe in it. Not for Pol Pot. Not for Hitler. Not for anyone. I just don’t see the moral or practical argument for it. But there is more to it than my general philosophical opposition to the death penalty.

There really isn’t any doubt that if his brother, Tamerlan, had been captured alive, that Dzhokhar would not be put to death. This is all about a cultural rite. The society feels the need to have a public execution to solemnize the terrorist act. Tamerlan’s death on the street wasn’t good enough because it had no ritual value. I understand that symbols matters. But this strikes me as pathetic, especially since not one in a hundred people understand that this is what is going on.

In addition to this, it really bothers me that people think that the Boston Marathon bombing was some especially vile act. There are plenty of people who raped, tortured, and murdered many others who didn’t get the death penalty. As a matter of fact, if Tsarnaev had been tried at the state level, he would not have faced the death penalty. What kind of “justice” system do we have where someone’s fate depends upon which bureaucratic structure tries you? But I know what the death penalty apologists respond with. They will say something to the effect that it doesn’t matter about justice in those other cases, we have a chance for justice in this case. That is so ridiculous that it shouldn’t need to be countered. But let me just say that random acts of “justice” is an injustice.

I suppose what really bugs me is that most people will cheer this decision. And that means that collectively, we are just as morally bankrupt as the Tsarnaev brothers were. I understand, we think we have justice on our side. But no one has suggested that the Tsarnaev brothers were psychopaths; they too thought they had justice on their side. They thought they were paying America back for something or other. People always have reasons for doing things. And they always justify what they do — most especially when they murder.

Over at The Intercept, Murtaza Hussain noted, “US Attorney Carmen M Ortiz said in her statement today, the execution of Dzhokhar will send a message that ‘we are not intimidated.'” Really?! Is that the message that it sends? The implication is that it sends that message to the rest of the world. But I don’t think the rest of the world really cares. What Ortiz didn’t mean, but which is correct, is that it sends a message to the American people that “we are not intimidated.” And it is necessary to send that message because we are intimidated. It takes almost nothing to cause us to cower in fear. That’s why spending almost as much money on our military as the rest of the world combined is still not enough for us. We are so afraid that we jump when a young man flips off a security camera.

This is a sad day — not especially for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev — but for us.

Update (15 May 2015 11:57 pm)

If Charlie Pierce had managed to publish his end of the weekend post earlier, I wouldn’t have felt the need to write this. He said pretty much what I said. This sums it up:

So the system got what it was aiming for all along. Some day, maybe a decade from now, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev will be killed by the federal government. And Eric Rudolph will still be alive.

Postmodern Politics and the End of Truth

Postmodern PoliticsOver at The American Prospect, Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson wrote a great long article, No Cost for Extremism. It is about the rightward march of the Republican Party. In fact, it is subtitled, “Why the GOP hasn’t (yet) paid for its march to the right.” It’s worth reading in total. But a few things struck out to me. The primary one is dealt with right away: this ridiculous narrative in the mainstream media that in 2014, the establishment (or even more bizarrely “moderate”) wing of the party got control and that is why they did so well in the election. That just isn’t true.

I think three things went on. The first is that the Republican Party did a better job of controlling their message. But they did nothing to change the messengers. As Hacker and Pierson note, the Congressional Republicans are more extreme than they have been in the modern era. The second issue is that the mainstream media was so determined to push the narrative that the “adults” were back in charge of the GOP that it distorted the candidates. Rather than report on Joni Ernst’s well documented record of truly loony beliefs, most of the reporting was on her challenger Bruce Braley’s chicken scandal. If you’re covering a truly scary Republican and you are determined to claim that it is the year of the establishment, you make a big deal out of anything that ever happened to the Democrat.

But by far the biggest reason that the Republicans did so well in the 2014 election is found in one number: 35.9%. That was the turnout for the election. It was the lowest turnout of any election since World War II. There are only three elections with lower turnout in the last 200 years: 1942 (33.9%), 1926 (32.9%), and 1922 (35.7%). So as usual, the Republicans do well when few people come out to vote. Because the two kinds of people who have time to vote — the rich and the old — always come out. That’s not to take anything away from the Republican triumph. They appeal to a more consistent voter, so good for them. But let’s drop this idea that the Republicans did well in 2014 because the Republicans moderated or started acting like adults.

Actually, what’s happening is that what were once considered the extremists in the Republican Party are now just defined as the moderates. Look at John Boehner. He is now considered the very definition of the establishment. Everyone feels sorry for him for having to deal with the extremists in his party. But when he came into Congress in the early 1990s, he was considered an extremist. He was to the right of Newt Gingrich. And it isn’t that he’s mellowed over the years. It’s just that the rest of his party has gotten even more crazy.

Under pressure to appear neutral and play up conflict, the news media like to focus on the divide at any moment between the GOP’s right fringe and its more moderate members. But look at American politics as a moving picture and you see an ongoing massive shift of the whole GOP (and, with it, the “center” of American politics) toward the anti-government fringe.

The article goes on to argue (as I do quite often myself) that Republicans benefit from our system of government where no one is ever held accountable. It is rare that one party is in total control in Washington. So when the Republicans make government dysfunctional, all that happens is that both parties are blamed. What’s more, it only adds to public cynicism about government, which helps the Republicans in the long term.

Ultimately, Hacker and Pierson really don’t provide an answer to the problems that we face. The big issue is that there is a truth: the Republican Party gets more extreme by the day. But the media refuses to report this. It insists upon framing everything as Democrats vs Republicans, as though they were a static frame. Also, it reports Republican victories as if they represented the will of the people. So we can’t have a reasonable political debate for the same reason we can’t tackle climate change: because our media have defined the actual truth as a partisan opinion. Our media is postmodern, and the Republican Party was quick to figure out how to exploit that. We can fight back, but I’m afraid we will only win with the help of a crumbling America brought on by Republican policy.

Iraq Was Never a Threat to Us

Ezra KleinThe problems with the war in Iraq went much deeper than the intelligence. Even if the information about Saddam Hussein’s WMDs had been correct, there’s little reason to believe he posed a threat to the United States so severe and immediate that it required a full-scale, US-led invasion. After all, Saddam’s earlier efforts at weapons of mass destruction had clearly been developed with an eye primarily toward Iran, his neighbor and rival.

—Ezra Klein
Jeb Bush Learned the Wrong Lessons From the Iraq War

Ignorant Republican Won’t Go Blind

Luis LangRemember Luis Lang? I wrote about him a couple of days ago, Man Blames Obama for SC Republican Policy. As I noted at that time, it was “truly heartbreaking” that this man would potentially lose his sight. And it didn’t matter that he was a conservative Republican who chose not to get health insurance. And it didn’t matter that if things were reversed and he saw someone else going blind because of their utter irresponsibility, he would have shown no sympathy. So I’m pleased to pass along some good news regarding Mr Lang, SC Man Will Get Sight-Saving Surgery as Liberal Donors Chip In.

Luis Lang is not a very likable guy. I went pretty easy on him before, because I didn’t know much about him. But in this followup article, Lang does not show himself to be either very self-aware or very gracious. If you look on his Go Fund Me page, you will see that the vast majority of the money is coming from liberals. And some of them come with sarcasm. For example, Mary O donated $25, saying, “Dear Mr Lang, I started to give only $5 but realized I was being stingy because of your political leanings and that is wrong. See how that works? (Oops — sorry.)” But others are all kindness. Ryan Graff, who donated $20, wrote, “No one deserves to go blind, and you’ve had enough lectures and jokes by now. Best wishes for a full recovery.”

I’m not sure that Lang has had enough lecturing. He claims that he was ignorant about different aspects of the law like the Medicaid gap. But let’s be honest: he didn’t care. He was making a good income. He didn’t think that it would ever affect him. So he just voted for the party that told him what he wanted to hear: that he was one of the good people and that that they’d go after those moochers — also known as the working poor. In this regard, I think Lang is rather typical of Republican voters: very short-sighted but insulated from the economic realities that poor people face daily.

He now says he sees the problem being the whole government “state and federal.” But I don’t know what more the federal government could have done to help him out. What he seems to have done here is what conservatives do whenever I argue them into a corner: they throw up their hands and say, “Both sides are terrible!” But they haven’t made the argument that the other side is terrible. It is just their way of closing out the argument — saving face without having to question their biases, because all conservatives believe that government is terrible — that’s why they vote Republican. (See: Conservatives Are Not for Small Government.)

But the kicker to all this is that even when asked if he holds himself responsible, he says “partly.” And then he goes on to discuss paying attention to his sugar levels because he has diabetes. So he’s not taking any responsibility for not having insurance. He’s not taking any responsibility for the actual issue at hand. And if this isn’t the prototypical Republican, I don’t know what is. This is like people who don’t want to pay any taxes, but when there is a hurricane, complain that the government isn’t fixing their houses fast enough.

The reason I’m even writing about this, however, is because of how Lang responded to the politics of it. He was surprised at how people responded to the original article, “It turned into a political thing. That wasn’t my intention when I reached out. This is ridiculous.” How could it not be seen as a “political thing”? He spent half the original article complaining about Obama and the Democrats and the “Not Fair Health Care Act.” He made it all about politics: he was suffering because the Democrats did something to help him, he refused it, and voted for people who limited his options after he refused it. This is ridiculous, but not in the way that Lang means it.

In addition to this, he couldn’t even be gracious about all the support that he’s getting from liberals. In response to the fact that it is liberal donors who are giving to him, he said, “I look at a person as a person. People are acting from the heart, just like I have done in the past.” Well, I would like to see some documentation before I will believe that he’s helped people in the past. But let’s be clear, if there were a liberal whining about the government not helping her out, Lang wouldn’t have dropped five bucks in her Go Fund Me campaign. No, conservatives prefer to fund bigoted bakeries and bigoted pizza shops.

This is who Luis Lang is:

And he hasn’t learned a thing.

Conservatives Are Not for Small Government

Conservatives Selective Small GovernmentDigby wrote a very good article on Wednesday, The Daddy State Strikes Again. It’s about the House of Representatives’ vote to ban abortions past 20 weeks. It’s an amazing, if highly fashionable, move. As Digby noted, “Meanwhile, with their hands firmly implanted in women’s vaginas, they went on to denounce big government and federal interference in their wallets.” But it is more than that. And given that most people — especially in the mainstream media — don’t seem to understand it, I think it needs to be repeated as often as possible: the conservative movement is not about individual rights and small government.

Matt Bruenig writes a lot about how the non-aggression principle does no philosophical work. The reason is because who exactly is doing the aggression is dependent upon the rules that we set down. If I don’t accept the existence of private property and you throw me off your land, the issue is our ideas about property. If property rights are valid, then I am the aggressor because I came on your property; if property rights are invalid, then you are the aggressor because I did nothing wrong. The issue is our definition of property rights. You can’t just assume that your property rights are divinely given and so you are not an aggressor even while you manhandle me.

The same is going on with the ridiculous notion that conservatives are for small government and liberals are for big government. The size of government is totally irrelevant. It means absolutely nothing when conservatives claim that they are for “small government.” For one thing, what does “small government” mean? As a point of modern politics, what it means is that conservatives want the government to be as small as possible (even nonexistent) when it comes to the functions that they don’t like. But liberals feel exactly the same way and they don’t go around pretending that they are for “small government.”

Let’s look at the military. The United States spends almost as much money as the rest of the world combined. The last time I checked, the US spent 48% of all the money the world spends on military. So we spend 48% and the rest of the world spends 52%. Yet it is very hard to find a conservative who doesn’t think that we spend too little on the military. Even fake libertarian Rand Paul now wants to increase military spending. So when it comes to that, conservatives are for “big government.”

As the recent vote in the House indicates, the conservatives would make abortion illegal if they could. And once they did that, it would be just like the War on Drugs. There would be a War on Abortion. And the truth is that I doubt there would be any limit that the conservatives would be in favor of in fighting that war. They would certainly pass a law that required doctors to report cases of abortion attempts or botched abortions. I can even imagine them making it illegal to go outside the country to get an abortion. No government is too big when it comes to pushing conservative policy.

And do you know what? I think that’s fine! But let’s fight about the laws. I will give no ground to the conservatives on the issue of being for “small government.” They aren’t. In fact, they are for the kind of government that is most invasive. And that’s what we should be discussing. Conservatives and liberals believe in different things. But neither has any idea of the optimal size of government — except that it should be just big enough to do the things that we want it to.

Morning Music: Commodores

CommodoresThe thing about Disco is that it is fun music. It never took itself too seriously. I appreciate it more and more as I get older. Unlike so much highly polished music that came after it, it doesn’t lack for a soul. There is a profound difference between the flashy indifference of a performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” and the flashy silliness of “Disco Inferno.”

So this morning, we listen to Commodores doing “Brick House” off their self-titled album. There is a very funny — and dare I say feminist — video and remix of the song from the 1990s. It’s worth checking out. But I present the band here live (but I think they’re not really playing), in all their 1970s silliness. It’s mighty mighty:

Anniversary Post: Ad Extirpanda

13th Century Justice - Ad extirpandaOn this day in 1252, Pope Innocent IV issued his papal letter, Ad extirpanda. It was where the pope codified torture in the inquisition of suspected heretics. But as will be familiar to those who watched the House of Representatives pass the USA Freedom Act — it was put forward as rules to limit torture. (In the USA Freedom Act, most sources are reporting it as limiting the NSA’s bulk collection of metadata, but it is in fact codifying it.) Check out these amazing limitations on torture:

  1. No loss of life or limb!
  2. Just this once!
  3. Only if the inquisitor is really really sure!

Let me say that personally, I’m kind of pleased at this. I probably shouldn’t admit this in public, but one of my greatest fears is to have my fingers cut off. Of course, I’m even more afraid of being set on fire, and I’m sure that limited burning was just fine. But mostly, these rules are just ridiculous. Prosecutors are always certain that their targets are guilty. There have actually been psychological tests regarding this, although I’m not going to take the time to dig this up. So this just meant that inquisitors were always going to use torture. And since they could only use it once, that meant they were going to be extreme.

But what is most ridiculous about this is the first rule. They couldn’t kill the heretic with torture. But if they tortured her and she confessed, they could then kill her. It makes little sense. But it isn’t supposed to. It is just what the powerful do to make their oppression of the weak seem just.

Happy anniversary Ad extirpanda!

Afterword

This actually happened a couple of centuries later: