Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Quixotic Opposition, Institutional Conflict, and Elite Disagreement


Paul Jacob, who I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and who has several friends in common with me (including Heather Wilhelm, who I mentioned in my prior blog entry), was the subject of the top editorial in Monday’s Wall Street Journal. He is threatened with up to ten years in prison for the horrific crime of — yes — petitioning against taxes in Oklahoma without having lived there long enough to fulfill the residency requirement. Ten years in prison for petitioning. TEN YEARS. This, I think, is a good reminder that it’s not the hippies getting tear-gassed at some G8 event who are the real rebels.

The state knows its true enemies when it sees them, and they’re not the people pushing some vague cultural agenda, right or left, but the rarer and far more useful people who threaten to “starve the beast” by doing simple, pragmatic things like cutting off the obscene flow of taxes into the state’s maw — or simply getting government agencies to reveal the sordid real details of their laughably outsized and socially useless budgets. You want to make a powerful enemy? Don’t march through Union Square shouting “No blood for oil,” drive to Oklahoma and politely collect signatures. Foul, villainous bureaucrat bastards — this is a reminder that capitalists like Paul Jacob are not complacent defenders of the status quo, but instead (extremely well-behaved) rebels up against the ultimate monster.


I’m not ashamed to say I’m listening to Pat Benatar’s “Outlaw Blues” as I type this (not to be confused with Saturday’s blog entry on “Libertarian Blues”), which is fitting, as I find myself thinking about a topic (more aesthetic and psychological than truly philosophical) that intrigues me more and more as I age, which is how the tone and quality of debate are affected by the relative futility of the underlying crusade (speaking of tone, I’ll offset the Benatar reference with a passage about the Clash’s Joe Strummer below, I promise).

(1) People who see themselves (whether they admit it or not) as doomed rebels (al Qaeda, antiglobalization activists) facing an unstoppable force (such as the whole modern world) tend to sound angry and radical; (2) people who see themselves as one of two roughly evenly-matched “sides” in a mainstream, familiar, institutionalized battle (say, Republicans vs. Democrats) get grouchy at times but know how to politely retire to their corners when the round ends; and (3) people who are (in the grand scheme of things) part of a comfy elite can offer the occasional combative witticism on some nominally-divisive topic without even disrupting dinner or breaking a sweat, quite possibly happily marrying off their children to their ostensible opponents without much concern they’ll be ritually killed or ransomed or anything like that.

Five quick examples of each, since they cropped up recently:


•Love him or hate him, Sander Hicks, who argued the more conspiracist side of our 9/11 debate earlier this month, can now be seen online being bounced from a Rudy Giuliani event, after getting close enough to touch Giuliani’s hand and trying to give him an unscheduled grilling about 9/11. (I ended our debate by suggesting that perhaps the rightists and leftists alike who were present could agree to vote for Ron Paul, but I hope Sander won’t take it personally if I end up voting for Giuliani a year from now if Paul fails to get the nomination.)

•Occasional Lolita debater and fill-in moderator Richard Ryan forwarded a message mocking 9/11 conspiracy theorists in general by reminding people that the official account of that tragic day glosses over this famous cinematic piece of evidence, starring Godzilla and Megalon (from one of only two Godzilla movies I actually saw in the theatre as a child instead of on TV, for those keeping score).

Todd Kruse has come up with an interesting, practical, and no doubt doomed plan for symbolically disentangling the U.S. from the troubled wider world and freeing up some prime real estate: kick the U.N. out of NYC.

•Girlfriend Koli and others make the interestingly econ-like argument that the marketplace is not necessarily a solution (not even a gradual one) for the problem of sexism if men constitute a sort of cartel, instinctually or culturally inclined to pay women less throughout the economy rather than in a few isolable firms. I wonder, though, whether feminism, for all its modern, progressive overtones, is not just an additional layer of that old-fashioned phenomenon, chivalry: perhaps (many) men are more inclined to help out and reward women (as opposed to helping rivalrous fellow males) than women fully appreciate but are now (nonetheless) guilt-tripped anyway, so that feminist complaints, rational as they may seem in isolation, reinforce a double-layer of partly-condescending, partly-solicitous male behavior that (while admittedly hard to alter at the level of individual action, oftimes annoying, and periodically punctuated by boorish or hostile actions) may not clearly redound to male advantage in the end. It’s hard to know where to begin to address such issues, no matter where you stand on such a broad, subtle, cultural matter (on a more feminist note, Jill Friedman recently pointed out this piece on abortion and this argument in favor of even partial-birth abortion, the sort of practice that normally makes moderate, individualistic folk like myself feel less pro-choice).

•The plainly noble cause of trying to defuse racial and ethnic animosity has plainly led to some chronic-oppositionist activists taking some very boneheaded positions. This was demonstrated last week by Brooklyn Borough President candidate Barron, a former Black Panther and admirer of the authoritarian government of Zimbabwe (who may yet win the borough prez position, given the dangerous New York City habit of leaving local voting mostly to self-interested public-sector union members). Barron reportedly complained that police were behaving like race traitors by gunning down a young man who was armed “only” with a hairbrush — but that young man was deliberately wielding the dark brush as if it were a gun, saying that he had a gun, approaching armed cops, and refusing to put the object down when told to (having had a long history of emotional instability and self-destructive behavior). If your goal is not merely a world where most ethnic groups can interact and trade peacefully but one where even maniacs who pretend to be attacking cops with a gun are in no danger of being shot at, your cause is truly, and justifiably, hopeless.


•A working stiff, I did not attend the Friday 4pm discussion at Columbia of the new book The Trouble with Diversity by Walter Benn Michaels, but I must say I almost find myself sympathizing more with campus ethnic/identity-politics activists when I hear them being attacked (whether by Michaels or academics like Cornel West) for distracting the left from the ostensibly more important task of combating capitalism to alleviate poverty. If the left would keep its hands off capitalism, I’d be content to celebrate a different ethnic group every day of the week, frankly. The most interesting and compelling variation on the Michaels/West complaint I’ve heard, though, appeared in an Old-Leftish essay in the mostly-hip literary journal n+1, which argued that political correctness is inadvertently conservative, since it encourages us not to overcome differences (including economic ones) so much as to get really good about not mentioning differences in impolite ways. The poor will remain poor, in other words, we just won’t call them “poor” because that might make them feel marginalized. Embarrassing dorm-room culture clash averted!

•Saturday one week ago, I saw a debate about whether America is achieving happiness, with libertarians Will Wilkinson and Tyler Cowen on the “yes” side and U.N. development-guru and dweeb Jeffrey Sachs and a comrade of his on the other, and the libertarians won handily — in part because of Sachs’s droning, Bill Moyers-like insistence on simply listing all the ills of the Bush administration, as if the nation’s entire happiness level — or at least Manhattan’s — is determined by the level of satisfaction with goings-on in the White House. But whether the crowd was just too smart for this thinking man’s demagogue — drawn as they were by organizers from The Economist magazine — or simply put off by his brazen attempts to push their cheer/hiss buttons with references to Iraq, global warming, Katrina, and anything else he could shoe-horn into the topic, the crowd went from being 2/3 on Sachs’s side before the debate to split down the middle by the end, according to the moderator’s show-of-hands poll.

I was struck by the contrast between the audience’s palpable skepticism of Sachs at this event — and his resultant irritability — and the glowing, preacher-like confidence he exuded when I saw him speak (unopposed) at Columbia back in the spring. That speech, I felt at the time, was also pretty vapid, but with the crowd almost all left-leaning and no one to argue with him, he could ooze magnanimity while hitting all the necessary bromides about Third World poverty, the inspiring words of JFK, blah blah blah. An important reminder that the key to perceived greatness is just a receptive audience. Sachs is exactly the sort of guy that economist Donald Boudreaux, who strongly opposes a recent push (here and in England) toward making the government explicitly in charge of gauging and ensuring private happiness, should be having nightmares about. (One happiness sidenote, though: do ideologues, of any stripe, really get less happy when their opponents win, or does it just give them a juicy target for editorializing and fundraising? Are a lot of Rudy-supporting direct-mail fundraisers drooling at the prospect of a Hillary win, and vice versa?)

•I went straight from the Sachs-and-company debate to a Village theatre showing a documentary (The Future Is Unwritten) about Clash lead singer Joe Strummer (by Julien Temple, who also did the swell Sex Pistols documentary The Filth and the Fury, among other things). Not so unlike Kurt Cobain ten years later (it seems longer, considering all the subtle changes alternative rock went through in that time), Strummer struggled with heroin addiction and the awkwardness of his place as a hitmaker in the mainstream music biz — but unlike Cobain, he ended his days happily, organizing rather Burning Man-like art/bonfire outings and touring with a new, less popular, but quite decent-sounding band (but I’d rather be Strummer scowling than Sachs self-satisfiedly smirking, regardless). The weirdest part of the whole trip, though, may have been the opening shot, of Strummer, alone in a sterile-looking recording booth, passionately laying down the vocal track of “White Riot” with big headphones on and no sound but his voice audible to the movie audience. It was like watching Fred Astaire, alone in a parking garage with no music, practice just the left foot’s part of a big dance number.

•Weirder still, though, was the short film that IFC theatre chose to show just before the Strummer documentary: as amazing and self-parodic a bourgeois mid-century artifact as one could ever hope to see: House in the Middle, a civil defense preparedness film in which a stentorian narrator, as if sent by God to enforce suburban norms and Cold War anxiety in one fell swoop, explains, with striking visuals, that having a well-maintained, freshly-painted home may increase your odds of surviving a nuclear blast. Says Wikipedia: “The film was actually produced by the National Paint, Varnish, and Lacquer Association. The likelihood that repainting a house would be effective in protecting it from the extreme heat and blast force of a nuclear explosion is questionable.”

•Since all institutions need to manage conflict within, it was no great surprise when the Mafia’s Ten Commandments for maintaining internal order were recently discovered by Italian police and made it into the news, but it’s surprising how nice the rules make the Mob sound: they actually include not coveting others’ wives, not hanging out in bars, never being late for appointments, telling the truth, refraining from stealing (presumably within the Mafia), and avoiding accepting into the Mafia anyone who “behaves badly and doesn’t hold to moral values.” Are there no bad guys anymore? Is there only honor among thieves? Like economist Peter Leeson’s work on the elaborate constitutions created by pirates, I suppose this is an encouraging sign that some semblance of good behavior will always emerge one way or another if a social system is to be sustainable.


•Another important social institution is having your mom spring to your defense, but more subversive and socially dangerous is having a mom as hot as John McCain’s. Sure, Roberta “Buick” McCain is ninety-five, but we should all be so lucky as to look that good at her age (adjusted for age, she is arguably even more impressive than Lefty Leibowtiz’s ex-fashion model mom, if such a thing is possible). She could give that sassy young Lauren Bacall a run for her money. Hard to feel like her son’s going to suffer terribly if he loses the presidency, though, with Mom clearly already on hand to console him.

•Also hard to feel sorry for Stephen Colbert not being able to get on the South Carolina presidential ballot as he’d hoped, since being a TV host is no doubt far more fun — but I’m disappointed that the one friend I have who is all three of the following — (a) libertarian and thus perhaps willing to vote for an outsider candidate like Colbert, (b) a former professional comedy writer, and (c) living in South Carolina — namely, Christine Caldwell Ames (described in my most recent Retro-Journal entry) will not get a chance to vote for him. Perhaps she’ll offer a Response below telling us who she’d prefer between the the Dems, GOP, and Colbert.

•Dopey as the GOP may sometimes be, by the way, I can never vote for the Dems as long as they keep doing things that are boring to the masses but terrifying to those paying close attention, like recently attempting, in piecemeal fashion, to outlaw arbitration so that all disputes must be solved by lawyers and/or government courts. As with the anti-tax petition mentioned at the top of this entry, the government knows real threats to its monopoly on resources and legal power when it sees them, the greedy devil.

•Indeed, for someone who’d rather see disputes solved privately (especially a full-fledged anarcho-capitalist like me), attempts to outlaw arbitration are about the most frightening domestic policy since — well, since the Clintons vowed to ban insurance “discrimination” (which is to say, insurance, since the whole concept of insurance is based on differential probabilities). I won’t vote them back into the White House. In good conscience, neither can you.

•But then, maybe I’m a hotheaded, boycott-prone kind of guy — I know I’ve reached the point where I’m too busy to see preachy left-wing movies when there are other things I could do with my time, however narrow-minded that may sound. And given the unapologetically anti-Republican ads they’ve been running, I can’t be the only person whose business Manhattan Mini-Storage has written off, though I’m sure they’re doing just fine without me. That’s the beauty of capitalism.


Jacob T. Levy said...

“the interestingly econ-like argument that the marketplace is not necessarily a solution (not even a gradual one) for the problem of sexism if men constitute a sort of cartel, instinctually or culturally inclined to pay women less throughout the economy rather than in a few isolable firms.”

This is closely related to established economic arguments about discrimination.

If *consumers* have actual preferences about the employees and employment conditions of the firms with which they do business– white customers don’t want to be served by black waiters, or actively prefer firms that they know have separate bathrooms for white and black employees, or whatever– then the market doesn’t tend to undermine discrimination. And when a prejudice is sufficiently widespread that members of group A can derive a sense of well-being and superiority from their membership in that group– which is to say from not being members of group B– then they have a strong reason to have such preferences. The so-called “psychic wages of whiteness” in the Jim Crow era south meant that white consumers derived utility from the enforcement of a strong wall of segregation– utility that offset the added monetary costs they had to incur. And free-riding was kept to a minimum, because the preference applies in each case (the racist white customer really doesn’t want to be served by a black employee), so the individual and collective incentives were mutually-reinforcing.

AlphaDog said...

You failed to explain what about the partial-birth abortion article made you feel “less pro-choice.” It’s hard to see why any pro-choice person would find complaint with it.

Adam4Adam said...

This is, I agree, an annoying rhetorical tic!