Radicals, Liberals, and Eric Alterman

Eric AltermanEric Alterman wrote a thought provoking article at Democracy, Why Liberals Need Radicals — and Vice Versa. He has divided the political left into the liberals and the radicals. Basically, they are the pragmatists and the idealists. It’s a good breakdown. And he noted that the liberals need the radicals to show them what they are fighting for. And the radicals need the liberals in order to get things done, because this is America and there ain’t gonna be no stinking revolution. I’m with him on this.

What’s more interesting is an implicit point in his article: there isn’t much remaining of radicalism on the left of the political spectrum. For example, I generally find myself on the left left edge of American politics — and often I find myself quite far to the left of that “respectable” edge. Yet I am incredibly practical. I think that income inequality is the biggest problem that we face. The solutions I propose, however, are things like increased estate taxes and a higher inflation target. These have traditionally been extremely mainstream ideas. It does not speak well of our country that they are considered radical.

But the reason that such vanilla economic remedies have come to be seen as “Socialism! Socialism, I tell you!” is because the conservative radicals, the ideologues, have been so successful at moving the playing field. That isn’t just due to their brilliance, although I will give them high marks on that front. Whereas liberal radicals have to push ideas mostly through force of will, conservatives get billions of dollars to develop and push their ideas. But I still maintain that the biggest reason that conservatives have recently been so successful has nothing to do with leftist radicals. It is rather that conservatives managed to take over the Democratic Party. They had a brilliant idea: they could redefine liberalism as social liberalism. And hence you get people like Clinton (pick one), Obama, and Andrew Cuomo.

Alterman went wrong, I think, in trying to distinguish between constructive radicalism and destructive radicalism. According to him, constructive radicalism is when people on the left start a conversation that moves liberals in a positive direction. And as an example of this, he mentioned Ta-Nehisi Coates’s excellent article, The Case for Reparations. Destructive radicalism is embodied in Ralph Nader’s failed 2000 presidential run. But is this distinction really valid a priori? Isn’t Alterman just looking at the negative effects of Nader’s campaign and saying it was an example of destructive radicalism?

I assume that Nader’s campaign was always meant to push Gore more to the left. I find it hard to believe that Nader thought he might win the election, along with a Congress of like minded people. I think what Alterman is getting at is found even more clearly in his second example, “Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement directed against Israel.” Again, his argument is basically that it can’t work. But I have never seen the BDS movement as anything but a way to get a message out and to highlight the apartheid nature of the situation in Israel-Palestine. I don’t know how I feel about the issue, but it is clear that Alterman thinks it is destructive radicalism simply because he disagrees with it.

I like the prism through which Alterman sees the political left. But breaking down radicals into constructive and destructive is just a way of silencing them. If radicals are not making liberals uncomfortable, they have no purpose. Alterman understands this. But he’s applying an irrational theoretical construct to it. All radical proposals are impossible. Until they aren’t. Each liberal has to decide what radical ideas are useful to them. That’s going to depend on each specific liberal and each specific radical idea. I get it: Alterman doesn’t like the BDS movement. But he is wrong to generalize based upon that.

Obama’s Actions Won’t Change Rep Reactions

Obama CopeOn Friday, Andrew Prokop wrote a great article over at Vox, What Could a Republican President Do With Obama’s Executive Power Theories? It deals with the argument that many people have made to the effect that if Obama can prioritize immigration then a Republican president can decide that he isn’t going to enforce the tax law. This is an argument that Jonathan Chait has made, and Prokop even quoted him, “What if a Republican president announced that he would stop enforcing the payment of estate taxes?” It’s a very frightening idea.

But I have a counter to it: norms are restrained by public opinion when it comes to the president. The reason the Republicans have gotten away with so much norm destruction is that the people (even the media to a large extent) don’t pay attention to Congress. It is all thought to be too technical and not of direct influence on policy — even though it most definitely is. And we see this very clearly in Obama’s decision. Why didn’t he just stop deportations of all 11.4 million undocumented residents? Because there are limits to this power.

Prokop discussed three areas where we liberals might be concerned about what President Ted Cruz would do: taxes, environmental law, and Obamacare. I was most impressed with the issue of taxes. So what would stop Cruz from prioritizing enforcement of tax law to incomes less than $20,000 per year? Apart from norms, nothing. The problem is that all those taxes not paid by people making above $20,000 per year would still be owed. When a Democrat (Or simply a reasonable Republican; oh, I crack myself up!) got back in the White House, all those taxes would be due — with interest and penalties.

And then there is the issue that Republican presidents have already done this sort of thing. Ezra Klein pointed out two important ones in a recent article, The Best Arguments for, and Against, Obama’s Executive Action on Immigration. Take special note of the last clause:

President George W Bush cut the number of IRS agents auditing estate tax abuses. One estate tax lawyer described the action to The New York Times as a “back-door way for the Bush administration to achieve what it cannot get from Congress, which is repeal of the estate tax.” At another point, the Bush administration evaded responsibility for regulating carbon emissions by refusing to open a legally important e-mail. That’s not to say future Republicans presidents can’t be more brazen, or come up with ways to go further — but who’s to say they won’t do it anyway?

That’s actually the crux of the matter, which I haven’t paid nearly enough attention to. Given the the Republicans are absolutely certain that Obama brought National Socialism to the United States, they are going to push every advantage once they have the White House. Obama doesn’t need to actually do anything; the Republicans have known before he was elected that he was doing things that were totally unconstitutional.

Prokop noted that the problem of later enforcement would apply to environmental regulations. And that Mitt Romney was planning to not enforce the individual mandate if elected in 2012 regardless. I would add to this. The individual mandate is not some liberal conspiracy. It is the most conservative part of the law. It protects insurance companies, not individuals. So if the Republicans want to harm their biggest constituency:

Matthew Dickinson wrote another interesting article over at his blog, No, Obama’s Executive Action Did Not Violate Governing Norms. He started by noting that even people on the right say they like the results of Obama’s executive action, “Instead, they direct their ire at Obama’s apparent willingness to violate some unspoken ‘norm’ that apparently constrained previous presidents from making significant policy change of this magnitude absent an overarching emergency.” Before I get to his argument, I think this is interesting because of course conservatives will not want to admit that they just hate undocumented kids and their families. As discussed in Winner-Take-All Politics, conservatives always resort to process arguments when the policy arguments are too obviously vile.

Dickinson goes on to argue that presidential norms are kind of mythical anyway. The main thing that keeps presidents in check is that other branches of government push back — as they were designed to. As far as I can tell, Dickinson is somewhat conservative. Fundamentally, his argument is the same one made by John Boehner that the executive action will make the Republicans less likely to get along. But I think Dickinson in wrong about this. I suspect that Republicans won’t do much but bluster. They don’t actually care about the issue, but it does give them a lot of political ammunition. And in 2016, the executive action could be a difficult issue with the Democratic nominee having to finesse the question, “Will you reverse the executive action on immigration?”

Ultimately, politics continues on as it always has. And I don’t see any reason to think that what Obama has done is unprecedented. I discussed the biggest issue last week, Obama’s Executive Action Is a Double Win. When Republicans are already certain Obama is Stalin reincarnated, nothing he actually does will affect how the Republican Party acts.

American Policing as Occupying Power

Charles PierceThere is something gone badly wrong in the way police are taught to look at civilians these days. This is the logic of an occupying power being employed on American citizens. Ever since 9/11, when we all began to be told that we were going to have to bend a little bit, and then a little bit more, to authority or else we’d all die, the police in this country have been militarized in their tactics and in their equipment, which is bad enough, but in their attitudes and their mentality, which is far, far worse. Suspicion has bled into weaponized paranoia, especially in the case of black and brown people, especially in the case of young men who are black or brown, but this is not About Race because nothing ever is About Race. Even the potential of a threat requires a deadly response, Dick Cheney’s one-percent idea brought to American cities and towns until Salt Lake City, of all places, winds up with cops who are deadlier on the streets than drug dealers. This is how you wind up with Darren Wilson. This is how you wind up with Michael Brown, dead in the middle of the road. This is how Darren Wilson walks, tonight, for the killing of Michael Brown. This is how you end up with an American horror story.

—Charlie Pierce
Dead of Night: the Ferguson Decision

Don’t Stop at Michael Brown, Kill the Poor!

Michael BrownI don’t have much to add on the grand jury decision in Ferguson. It went exactly as I expected. This isn’t because I thought the process was corrupt, although it certainly might have been exactly that. It was just that police offers are only indicted in the absolutely most egregious cases. So unless there was a photograph of Michael Brown on his knees with Darren Wilson putting a bullet into his head, I would not expect an indictment.

Regardless, none of this is about Michael Brown or Darren Wilson. This is about a “justice” system in the United States that is totally out of control. The police literally have a license to kill. I just saw a couple of minutes of MSNBC and one of their commentators said one of the standard things, “When police go to work in the morning, they don’t know if they are coming home that evening.” That’s even more true of truck drivers and cabbies. But no one holds that up as a reason we should apologize for them acting like Bernhard Goetz. The “police have a dangerous job” is not really true and is no excuse for bad behavior.

So what are we going to do about this? Nothing. We didn’t need the death of Michael Brown to point out that we have a broken system. And that broken system goes far beyond what police and prosecutors do. An arguably even bigger issue is inequality and racism. But in general, we won’t talk about them either. It is considered “class warfare” to do so. Mitt Romney claimed that we should talk about these issues in “quiet rooms,” which is just another way of saying that we should never talk about it.

Meanwhile, people are born into hopeless situations because of their “race” and the economic situation of their parents. But this supposedly is not about class warfare. We have a society in which actual class warfare is defined as just the way things are. There is neither racism nor a lack of opportunity because Daymond John! But bringing up these issues supposedly is class warfare. And the people of the United States — most especially minority groups and the poor more generally — are so beaten down that they just accept it.

And now it has been decades that we’ve been sold a kind of social Darwinian lie. And it all sounds very noble: we must reward the winners! But if you dig down just a little way, you will find fascist dogma: the weak are dragging down the nation so we must let them fail (that is: die). And we must worship the powerful because they are great. Of course, evolutionarily, this is nonsense. What a species needs is diversity. And what is unsuccessful in the current environment might be amazingly successful in a later environment. It isn’t hard to imagine a future where people who are good at trading stocks are useless and people who can predict the tides are priceless.

But fine, let’s kill the weak and worship the the powerful. Because: freedom!

Lope de Vega

Lope de VegaOn this day in 1562, the greatest playwright of all time, Lope de Vega, was born. Of course, most people wouldn’t think that because Lope didn’t write in English and he was not used as the cultural sword of the expansion of a major empire the way that Shakespeare was. But Lope did not only write great plays, he wrote a lot of plays. As Shakespeare scholar Gary Taylor wrote, “We assume that Shakespeare’s thirty-odd plays contain more of humanity than the five hundred plays of Lope de Vega we have not read.” That’s right: 500 plays. In fact, it might be more than that.

The Shakespeare apologists, of course, will claim that this is why Shakespeare is so great. He took his time. He didn’t write so many plays. But this is always the way it is with Shakespeare. However he did something is the best. For example, scholars have claimed that Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors is better than Plautus’ Menaechmi. Why? Because Shakespeare has two sets of identical twins. Of course, if the situation were reversed, these scholars would argue the opposite: that two sets of twins is needlessly silly. So just the same, if a playwright wrote fewer plays than Shakespeare or more plays, it just goes to show that Shakespeare is the greatest playwright ever. Because everything shows that.

Lope de Vega is the literary equivalent to Mozart. Although born into a working class family (his father was an embroiderer), Lope was writing plays by the time he was 12-years-old. Many people helped him out during his teen years, because his genius was so clear to everyone. But for most of his 20s and early 30s, he was focused on chasing after women. This is an avocation that got him into some trouble: jail, exile, and eventually an assignment with the Spanish Armada, which he was quite lucky to survive.

And then he started to write in earnest. By his count, he had written over 200 plays by the age of 40. By the age of 60, he had written a thousand. There is no doubt that Lope was something of a hack. People wanted a play about X and Lope would spit one back at them in a couple of days. But they weren’t fluff. The average Shakespeare play is about 20,000 words. His comedies are shorter: about 17,000 words. The only play of Lope’s I’ve been able to read, Fuenteovejuna, is roughly 12,000 words. It runs roughly two hours. So it’s shorter, but not terribly so.

In addition to this, Lope wasn’t slavishly committed to holding up the ruling class as the savior of the world. Let me just present three synopses taken from Melveena McKendrick’s excellent Theatre in Spain 1490-1700:

Peribáñez y el Comendador de Ocaña (Peribáñez and the Commander of Ocaña)

[S]et in the fifteenth century, [it] portrays the idyllic marriage and life together of the prosperous and ambitious young peasant Peribáñez and his lovely bride Casilda, and the attempts made by their overlord to seduce her. When Casilda remains impervious to his blandishments, the Commander makes Peribáñez a captain and sends him off to fight the king’s war. He enters his house at night intending to take Casilda by force if necessary, but aware by now of his intentions Peribáñez returns in time to prevent the rape of Casilda and the destruction of their lives by killing his lord. His action is subsequently pardoned though not condoned by the King, he is given a full captaincy and sent off to fight in the Granada campaign…


Like Peribáñez, Fuenteovejuna also deals with the relationship between honour and noble birth by presenting sexual aggression in the context of class relationships. Here, however, the conflict is not the cat and mouse game played by the Commander in Peribáñez, but open confrontation from the start between a brutally predatory overlord and the entire village of Fuenteovejuna which he tyrannizes in the name of his seigneurial rights; the tension is created not so much by how he will be stopped but by whom. The village’s sense of impotence and fear is encapsulated in its name, Fountain of the sheep: the men are emasculated, almost dehumanized, by their overlord’s grotesque abuse of power and privilege and it is a woman, Laurencia, who eventually shames them into action in the play’s major speech. In the name of their communal self-respect the men and women of Fuenteovejuna kill the Commander and, when tortured for the truth by the King’s men, answer only “Fuenteovejuna did it”…

El Mejor Alcalde, el Rey (No Greater Judge Than the King Himself)

The Galician peasant hero, Sancho, does not take the law into his own hands but invokes the law’s majesty by appealing to the King himself for aid. The noble, for his part, don Tello, not only transgresses against the principles of duty and responsibility on which the social contract is founded but defies the King himself, refusing to accept his monarch as ultimate arbiter of law and justice on earth. The play is set in the twelfth century, when seigneurial rights were only just beginning to yield before monarchical power and this gives credibility to don Tello’s reckless anarchy. The King in the guise of a judge travels to the village and hears for himself don Tello’s defiance. Revealing his identity he marries don Tello to Sancho’s bridge-to-be, whom he has raped, and then executes him so that Elvira, now a rich widow, can marry the man who loves her. Justice is done not by meeting force with force but by recourse to the processes of law. The play, therefore, marks in a sense a more mature and a more serene state in Lope’s exploration of the theme of power and its relationship to justice.

Lope de Vega is a writer that everyone should know a whole lot more about. I think we have all seen enough Shakespeare for the rest of our lives. Meanwhile, there are hundreds of plays of Lope’s that have never even been translated into English. It is a shame.

Happy birthday Lope de Vega!