Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Lesson of Jefferson, Hamilton, & 1840

Left-wingers will always claim that America is, at heart, a liberal country, while right-wingers will always claim that America is, at heart, a conservative country.

Both sides are right in their assumption that America has a single philosophy which unites virtually all of its citizens, and they are even correct in their implicit understanding that the philosophy in question is the same now as it was back in 1776, and has remained unwaveringly constant from that point to this one. Where they err is in assuming that that philosophy necessarily manifests itself in the complex ideologies of liberalism or conservatism. In fact, Americans are not, by default, either of these things. What Americans believe in today - and what, as we shall soon see, they have always believed in - is populism.

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary
Main Entry: 1 pop·u·list
1 : a member of a political party claiming to represent the common people

What every major political movement in American history has in common is its ability to successfully draw its given ideology - regardless of what that precise ideology entails on economic, social, international, or cultural issues - back to the basic precept of populism. This fact became clear in the early 19th Century, when the new American republic developed its first two major political parties - the Democratic-Republican party, as founded by Thomas Jefferson, and the Federalist party, as founded by Alexander Hamilton. The principles for which Jefferson's political organization stood, as articulated by the Sage of Monticello in 1776, were very clearly populist:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

The Federalist Party, meanwhile, did not stand for populism, as indicated by the foundational premise given its most perfect articulation by Alexander Hamilton during an early Constitutional Convention in 1780:

All communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are rich and well-born, the other the mass of the people... The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right. Give, therefore, to the first class a distinct, permanent share in the government. They will check the unsteadiness of the second...

If Jefferson thus laid the foundations for American populism, what term could be best used to describe Hamilton's belief system?

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary
Main Entry: elit·ism
1 : leadership or rule by an elite

Our first president, George Washington, refused to affiliate himself with either of these political movements, and so served for eight years as America's only true non-partisan leader. Although his successor, John Adams, did openly associate with the Federalist Party, his election in 1796 was due less to ideology than to his clear status as Washington's heir apparent. It wasn't until 1800 - a year during which the nation's disparate political factions weren't held together by the common leadership of the widely revered Washington, and thus couldn't result in the easy elections of Washington in 1789 and 1792 and his vice president in 1796 - that ideology became front and center in the eyes of the voting public, with Jefferson and his Democratic-Republicans as proud populists opposing Adams, Hamilton, and the openly elitist Federalists.

This didn't work out for the Federalists. After losing five presidential elections in a row, the Federalist Party dissolved completely, inadvertantly ceding to the Democratic-Republicans a decade-long period of unchallenged one-party rule. By the time they rebounded - first as the National Republican Party and then, when that organization also failed, as the Whig Party - an axiom of American politics was beginning to emerge. The only way to win elections was by presenting one's own organization and candidates as being aligned with the interests of the people, while presumably depicting one's adversaries as being in some way elitist or aristocratic.

1840 was when that finally became unavoidably clear, for that was the year in which the Whig Party finally won a presidential election - in 1840, forty-four years since their last legitimate national victory. They pulled off this incredible feat by eschewing any and all discussion of issues, instead focusing solely on how their candidate, William Henry Harrison, had been born in a log cabin while his opponent, Martin Van Buren, was a snob. The fact that Harrison had really been born into a wealthy plantation aristocracy, while Van Buren was the son of a poor family who worked his way up from scratch, proved politically inconsequential; the reality that Harrison supported economic policies which would benefit the wealthy upper class at the expense of America's farmers and laborers, while Van Buren advocated the same Jeffersonian/Jacksonian ideals that average Americans had supported and benefitted from for forty years, was overlooked. Populism in style mattered far more in winning elections than populism in policy substance. It was a lesson that all observers and players of the American political scene, past and present, learned very well. What's more, it is the principle that has fueled the creation of all the major ideo-political coalitions throughout American political history, from the Jeffersonian Era (dominated by the Democratic-Republican Party, 1800-1828), Jacksonian Era (dominated by the Democratic Party, 1828-1860), and Civil War/Gilded Age (dominated by the Republican Party, 1860-1901) of the nineteenth century to the Progressive Era (dominated by liberals in the Republican and Democratic parties, 1901-1920*), FDR Era (dominated by the Democratic Party, 1932-1980), and Reagan Era (dominated by the Republican Party, 1980-2008) of the twentieth.

This brings me to the present. As Barack Obama and the Democratic Party fights against Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and the Republican Party for America's political soul, a great deal of attention is placed on the ideological substance behind the positions taken by each party. While I don't deny the importance of this, I feel that politically, its relevance is grossly overstated. Political success or failure in this country has historically been determined by the effectiveness with which each party and its candidates connects its own image and ideas to the populist roots of American democracy. As the 2010 and 2012 elections approach, this is a factor that we all should keep in mind.

* - There was a brief interlude, between the Progressive Era and the FDR Era, in which a Second Gilded Age came about. This came to an abrupt end with the advent of the Great Depression and the first election of Franklin Roosevelt.

Another Thought on Huckabee

The following news bulletin just appeared on

Mike Huckabee, the former Republican governor from Arkansas who has his own Fox show, told Chris Wallace on "Fox News Sunday" that a 2012 presidential bid is "less than likely" and depends on whether Roger Ailes, the head of Fox News, keeps liking his show.
"The reason I wouldn’t is that this Fox gig I’ve got is really wonderful, " he said, talking about whether or not he would get in the race given that he is a GOP front runner according to most recent polls. "Jumping into the pool, you gottta make sure there is some water in it."
Huckabee said that GOP leaders would be foolhardy to think that President Barack Obama is an easy mark in 2012, given the example of President Bill Clinton's easy re-election for a second term after a bruising midterm in 1994.
And Huckabee said that during his 2008 campaign, he never got the backing of the GOP establishment.
"The Republican Party needs to unite in 2012," he said.

There is a delicious (and politically telling) irony here: The very fact that Huckabee has made it seem like he isn't interested in running is the greatest possible indication that that is precisely what he intends to do. There are several reasons for this:

1) Presidential aspirants have historically made a point of disavowing any interest in their would-be prize this early in the game, if for no other reason than seeming overly-eager for it can turn off many potential supporters. This isn't to say that I doubt his sincerity when he speaks fondly of his current gig with FoxNews; after all, he earned his keep as a pastor and part-time televangelist before being elected Lieutenant Governor of Arkansas in 1994, and no doubt receives genuine joy from preaching. But...

2) The FoxNews position is too perfect a political instrument for me to believe that Huckabee doesn't plan on using it. By having a weekly show on the television network preferred by his party's politically active base of right-wing ideologues, he is able to maintain constant visibility in the minds of the men and women who will no doubt constitute a great portion of the 2012 primary electorate. At the same time, by avoiding venturing too far out of the waters of the politically safe within the parameters of his program (I have watched a few episodes, and am genuinely impressed with the delicate tightrope he walks between feeding the cravings of the zealots without putting his foot in his mouth), he makes sure that the high name recognition he maintains is a predominantly positive one. This is in stark contrast with Sarah Palin, whose extremism, penchant for faux pas, and media overexposure are likely to cause the public to burn out on her by the time the primaries kick off, and Mitt Romney, whose much lower profile and intent solicitation of support from the party establishment indicates a strategy that fundamentally misunderstands the populist undercurrent that will likely decide which candidate obtains the GOP nomination.

Just a thought.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Prepare for a Coronary

A conservative wrote an op-ed piece with which I am in wholehearted agreement. No, I am not exaggerating, and no, this isn't one of those rare occasions when a conservative has temporarily defected and taken a left-wing position on an issue. Although I fall to the left on policy matters 99% of the time, that still does mean that - on one out of every hundred occasions - I will see myself nodding at the observations of someone who is right-of-center. This is one of those occasions.

Please read the article before looking at my addendum:

Because I agree with every comment made in this piece (and yes, every single one), I am only going to elaborate on the specific point which the author does not address, and which matters a great deal to me as a proud and passionate liberal:

Liberalism, for all of its complexity and nuance, ultimately boils down to a very simple opinion, one best articulated by Thomas Jefferson in 1776:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

When you combine that message with its various elaborations and manifestations, most notably those in the Bill of Rights (James Madison, 1789), the Bank Veto (Andrew Jackson, 1832), the Gettysburg Address (Abraham Lincoln, 1863), the Fourteen Points (Woodrow Wilson, 1918), the Economic Bill of Rights (Franklin Roosevelt, 1944), and the I Have A Dream speech (Martin Luther King, 1963), one gets a pretty comprehensive overview of what the liberal philosophy entails.

In our unending quest to create perfect social justice, liberals have become highly sensitive to the manner in which various forms of bigotry have undermined the freedom and quality of life for countless racial, religious, and sexual minorities. It is from our awareness of this problem, and our consequent desire to successfully address it, that political correctness was born.

Yet even though the instinct which gave birth to political correctness is commendable, it has at times manifested itself in a way that is not only socially unhealthy, but actually contradicts its fundamental objectives. If protecting the reputation of a given minority group means that we have to look away as members of that group violate the human rights of others, then are we not violating the most fundamental beliefs of liberalism? If we allow the fear of being labelled with the giant "b-word", bigot, to silence us when someone in a given minority group, as a result of one of the attributes of his or her group, violates the right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" held by others, then are we not betraying our most important values in a manner only befitting abject cowards?

In my mind, there are two kinds of liberals: "cultural liberals", or those who believe in the left-wing ideology because they wish to identify with the specific larger movement it represents, and "philosophical liberals", or those who associate with the political left because they share the values of its greatest champions (Jefferson, Madison, Jackson, Lincoln, Wilson, Roosevelt, King) and wish to see the dreams of those men someday become one with reality. Because political correctness has become ingrained in the cultural movement that accompanies ideological liberalism, cultural liberals will frequently fight tooth and nail against any effort to roll back political correctness, since the preservation of the accouterments of the subculture with which they identify is far more important to them than the attainment of a social and moral ideal. Ideological liberals, on the other hand, will recognize that when undeniable facts merge with unavoidable wrongs, and lead you to a conclusion that is in perfect keeping with the liberal ideology but in contradiction with the cultural mores advocated by some members of the left, the best thing to do is the right thing to do - be a true liberal and fight for human rights.

In this situation, the evidence overwhelmingly points to Nidal Malik Hasan having been a Muslim terrorist who, based on his interpretation of the tenets of his faith, decided to murder fourteen people. The evidence also makes it painfully clear that the military missed many opportunities to bring him to justice due to its fear of being accused of bigotry. Therefore, the way to prevent future bloodshed such as this will be to create an environment in which ALL soldiers are forced to adhere to a strict code of personal conduct - and one in which any infraction, regardless of whether it treads on the sensitive nerves of political correctness, leads to severe consequences. Likewise, it is important for society as a whole to recognize that there is a middle ground between hating Muslims as a whole and feeling that any criticism of Islamic terrorists is out of bounds. Just as we do not hesitate to condemn the Christian right-wingers who bomb abortion clinics and the militant Zionists who oppress Palestinians, so too should we show no reluctance to vehemently denounce the Muslims who murder Americans and Israelis and Indians, or who brutally oppress women and homosexuals, or who impose drastic censorship laws and kill freedom of speech when it contradicts the tenets of their faith. To do otherwise is worse than hypocritical; it's un-liberal.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Precedential Presidents

In honor of the first Thanksgiving to be held during the presidency of an African-American, I have decided to compile a list of other "Precedential Presidents". Below are the presidents who broke the barriers of prejudice that barred various oppressed groups from serving in the cabinet, on the Supreme Court, and either a heartbeat away from or within the White House. While frequently the men and women chosen by these presidents and presidential candidates are the ones celebrated, I think it is important to remember that it was the courage of the statesmen who selected them that made their advancement possible. Enjoy!

Cabinet Members:
First Jew: Theodore Roosevelt (R) - Appointed Oscar Straus, 1906
First Woman: Franklin Roosevelt (D) - Appointed Frances Perkins, 1933
First African-American: Lyndon Johnson (D) - Appointed Robert Weaver, 1966
First Latino: Ronald Reagan (R) - Appointed Lauro Cavazos, 1988

Supreme Court Judges:
First Catholic: Andrew Jackson (D) - Appointed Roger Taney, 1836
First Jew: Woodrow Wilson (D) - Appointed Louis Brandeis, 1916
First African-American: Lyndon Johnson (D) - Appointed Thurgood Marshall, 1967
First Woman: Ronald Reagan (R) - Appointed Sandra Day O'Connor, 1981
First Latino: Barack Obama (D) - Appointed Sonia Sotomayor, 2009

Vice Presidential Candidates:
First Polish American: Hubert Humphrey (D) - Selected Edmund Muskie, 1968
First Woman: Walter Mondale (D) - Selected Geraldine Ferraro, 1984
First Italian American: Walter Mondale (D) - Selected Geraldine Ferraro, 1984
First Jew: Albert Gore (D) - Selected Joseph Lieberman, 2000

Vice Presidents:
First Native American: Herbert Hoover (R) - Selected Charles Curtis, 1928
First Greek American: Richard Nixon (R) - Selected Spiro Agnew, 1968

Presidential Candidates:
First Quaker: Herbert Hoover (R) - 1928
First Catholic: Alfred Smith (D) - 1928
First Greek American: Michael Dukakis (D) - 1988

First Catholic: John Kennedy (D) - 1960
First African-American: Barack Obama (D) - 2008


1) Roger Taney, as Secretary of the Treasury under Andrew Jackson, was the first Catholic to serve in a presidential cabinet OF WHOM I AM AWARE. There may have been other Catholics who preceded him, though, which is why I did not feel comfortable putting his name down.

2) Although the argument has been made that Barry Goldwater, the Republican presidential nominee in 1964, should be considered the first Jewish presidential candidate, there are several factors leaning against such a judgment. Goldwater's only relationship to the Jewish community was the fact that his father was Jewish by birth and religion. That said, this same father converted to Episcopalianism before Goldwater was born and reared his son in that faith. Goldwater never identified himself as a Jew - culturally, ethnically, or religiously - in public or in private, and in no way participated in activities related to the Jewish community. Although the debate rages on as to what constitutes a "Jew", I feel very strongly that someone who openly proclaims that he is NOT a Jew, and whose only otherwise connection to the Jewish world is through a single parent who likewise severed his ties to the community before the child's birth, should not be considered Jewish.

The American Case for Health Care Reform

As the ongoing debate about health care reform reaches its climax, I often find myself wondering what I would do if I were in a position to be a leading voice on this subject. If I were a Senator from the great state of New Jersey, what would I have to say on this subject? What kind of speech would I deliver to both inspire my supporters and build a bridge to my opponents?

Posted below is the answer.

The conventional wisdom has it that health care reform is un-American.

The thing about conventional wisdom, that I have noticed, is that while it is often conventional, it is rarely particularly wise. Such is the case with the common held belief that guaranteeing health care to every one of our citizens somehow goes against the grain of American values. This is a big lie that, as a particularly infamous propagandist once noted, has started to be taken for granted as true through constant repetition. Yet few of the people who believe in this big lie have bothered asking themselves the most basic of all questions: What is America?

America is not a race or a creed or a set of borders. America is not a collection of institutions, be they insurance companies in Hartford or big banks on Wall Street or lobbying headquarters in Washington. America is an idea – a single, simple idea, one that was given its first and greatest articulation by Thomas Jefferson when he wrote:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

“To secure these rights” – that is, “the unalienable rights” to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” – THAT is the reason why “governments are instituted among men”.

Nowhere in the Declaration of Independence does Jefferson say, “Governments should secure these rights, unless that involves creating a public option”. Nowhere does it say that these rights are guaranteed “except when the president fighting for them is a man named Barack Obama”. Nowhere does it say that these rights are guaranteed to all except those who don’t earn enough money to afford a high cost health insurance premium, or that they are secured except when contradicted by a financially well-heeled interest group and the politicians whose coffers it lubricates.

What Jefferson wrote, once again, was this:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

So to the opponents of health care reform, all over the nation, we ask the following questions:

Is it possible to have life without high quality health care, such as will provide you with the medical treatment you need when you’re sick, and which will assist you in remaining healthy when you are well? If the answer is no, then how can you oppose legislation that will prohibit insurance companies from denying coverage on the basis of previous medical conditions, or from dropping people from their plans after they become sick?

Is it possible to be free when, in order to perform the simple act of staying alive and healthy, one must pay more than one can afford, or else take on crippling debt? If the answer is no, then how can you oppose a bill that would put a cap on how much senior citizens can be charged for prescription drugs and limit the amount of money insurance companies can demand patients pay in out-of-pocket expenses?

Is it possible to pursue happiness if, because you do not earn enough money to afford health insurance, any medical procedure – from a needed visit to the emergency room to a simple check-up with a family doctor – could lead to your ruin? If the answer is no, then how can you oppose a government-run health insurance plan that does not forcibly enroll anyone, but which everyone is allowed to join, so that all citizens can at last have access to health care, regardless of their financial status?

In a very real sense, the debate over health care reform in this country is only a symptom, a fragment of a much larger struggle over the definition of the American soul. On the one side, you have individuals on the right and so-called center who denounce as “socialist” and “un-American” not only health care reform – not only health care reform – but economic stimulus packages that can help out-of-work Americans find good-paying jobs, and financial regulations that can protect homeowners from predatory banks, and legislation that can help Americans form labor unions so that our nation’s workforce can have real power with which to fight for its own interests. Within these circles, it is fashionable to view the government as a malevolent entity to be hated and weakened.

On the other side, you have those who recognize that a democratic government – a TRUE democratic government – is neither a god to be worshipped nor a demon to be feared. They understand that, in a democracy, the government is nothing more than the sum of the people who live within it. The first Democratic president, Andrew Jackson, understood this when – in the midst of a battle he fought against a corrupt and overly powerful bank of his own time – he wrote that “it is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes” because “there are no necessary evils in government. Its evils exist only in its abuses”. Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, also understood this when he famously declared that the government of America is one “of the people, by the people, for the people” – not as an enemy of the people, to be kept separate from and feared by them, but as an instrument owned by the people, one that allows them to control their own lives and which is as good, bad, or indifferent as they themselves choose to make it.

That is the larger battle which we are fighting. Today fifty million Americans suffer because they don’t have health insurance. They need help. Yet there are those who have much to gain – be it money or power or self-affirmation of their ideological dogma – by not helping those people. They will construct all sorts of elaborate arguments and rationalizations to justify seeing to it that these people aren’t helped. Some of what they say is so ghastly that it is meant to frighten you into agreement; some is so idealistic that it’s objective is to seduce you into complacency; some is so complex that it’s supposed to confuse you into ac quiescence, or at least frustrated indifference.

Yet even as they bombard us with these assertions – even as they say, in a thousand-and-one ways, that the government is not to be trusted – what they will have us overlook is the fact that THIS IS OUR GOVERNMENT. It isn’t the politicians’ government, and it isn’t the pundits’ government; it isn’t the corporations’ government or the lobbyists’ government; it isn’t the interest groups’ government or the Tea Party and town hall zealots’ government. It is ALL OF OUR government. Even though those groups claim it as an exclusive property of their own, it is also the property of the uninsured and the unemployed and the disadvantaged everywhere, even though it does not serve them as well as it serves the others. It belongs to us – every single one of us. It was created – instituted among us – deriving its just powers from us – to secure our unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That is the basis upon which our entire political structure exists. That is the backbone upon which our nation was founded. That, in short, IS AMERICA. And it is on America that we, the fighters for health care reform, stake our claim.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Rant of a Royally Pissed Off Jew

Apparently, it is socially acceptable to be anti-Semitic so long as you're fashionable about it, and what could be more fashionable than an essay in The New York Times? The article in question begins as follows:

Despite the fragmented and incomplete historical record, experts pretty much agree that some popular beliefs about Jewish history simply don’t hold up... modern Jews owe their ancestry as much to converts from the first millennium and early Middle Ages as to the Jews of antiquity.

Attacks on whether Jews are truly descended from ancient Israelites have a particularly disgusting pedigree. Not only are they used today by anti-Zionists to challenge the Jewish claim over the State of Israel, but they have frequently been utilized in attempts to disparage Hebrews as a nation, since a shared ethnic as well as religious bond has always been a crucial component of that identity. Indeed, the author admits as much when she admits that the anti-Jewish book which she has chosen to review, The Invention of the Jewish People, was written by a man who:

... candidly states his aim is to undercut the Jews’ claims to the land of Israel by demonstrating that they do not constitute “a people,” with a shared racial or biological past.

In the eyes of a normal critic, this fact alone would at the very least call into question the author's objectivity. The author of The New York Times article, however, quickly minimizes the relevance of that fact by equating those who disagree with the author with those who take his side:

The book has been extravagantly denounced and praised, often on the basis of whether or not the reader agrees with his politics.

Examples of shoddy logic abound in the paper that has all the news which is fit to print. In fact, not a single one of the arguments used to support the "controversial" idea that Jews aren't descended from ancient Israelites has anything remotely resembling decent substantiation. First, there are the opening paragraphs:

Despite the fragmented and incomplete historical record, experts pretty much agree that some popular beliefs about Jewish history simply don’t hold up: there was no sudden expulsion of all Jews from Jerusalem in A.D. 70, for instance. What’s more, modern Jews owe their ancestry as much to converts from the first millennium and early Middle Ages as to the Jews of antiquity.

Other theories, like the notion that many of today’s Palestinians can legitimately claim to be descended from the ancient Jews, are familiar and serious subjects of study, even if no definitive answer yet exists.

Considering that the meat of the article focuses around the question of Jewish ancestry, there is something sketchy about the author's effort to open by challenging the supposedly "popular belief" that "there was a sudden expulsion of all Jews from Jerusalem in A.D. 70". Considering that most historians actually do agree that the Jewish explusion from the ancient Judean state occurred over a period of many years, lumping that largely undisputed fact with two very controversial ones - particularly when it is clear the author has no intention of bringing it up at any other point in the piece - makes it painfully obvious that her motive was to lend a false sense of validity to the rest of her claims.

There is also this choice passage, which is presented with the strong implication that it constitutes strong evidence:

Nearly a century ago, early Zionists and Arab nationalists touted the blood relationship as the basis of a potential alliance in their respective struggles for independence. Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, and Yitzhak Ben Zvi, Israel’s longest-serving president, made this very argument in a book they wrote together in 1918. The next year, Emir Feisal, who organized the Arab revolt against the Ottoman empire and tried to create a united Arab nation, signed a cooperation agreement with the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann that declared the two were “mindful of the racial kinship and ancient bonds existing between the Arabs and the Jewish people.”

Both sides later dropped the subject when they realized it was not furthering their political goals.

Once again, The New York Times mistakes political agenda with verifiable evidence. After all, one can find any number of dubious claims made a century ago about racial and ethnic identities, all of which were intended to promote given ideological or social goals. Are any of them cited as scholarly valid proof today? If so, I can imagine that quacks from phrenologists to Nazi scientists can dance little jigs right now.

I also was struck by this excerpt:

He resurrects a theory first raised by 19th-century historians, that the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe, to whom 90 percent of American Jews trace their roots, are descended from the Khazars, a Turkic people who apparently converted to Judaism and created an empire in the Caucasus in the eighth century. This idea has long intrigued writers and historians (emphasis added). In 1976, Arthur Koestler wrote “The Thirteenth Tribe” in the hopes it would combat anti-Semitism; if contemporary Jews were descended from the Khazars, he argued, they could not be held responsible for Jesus’ Crucifixion.

After devoting so much space to propping up that hypothesis, the author is kind enough to throw in a few words - not even half as many - for the other side:

... experts who specialize in the subject have repeatedly rejected the theory, concluding that the shards of evidence are inconclusive or misleading, said Michael Terry, the chief librarian of the Jewish division of the New York Public Library. Dr. Ostrer said the genetics also did not support the Khazar theory.

Of course, there are the repeated references in this article to the idea that its propositions are agreed upon by "experts", "scholars", or some other form of authoritative majority. There is the ever-so-insignificant fact that the names of these founts of truth are never actually given, save only those who even The New York Times has to admit are of rather dubious dependability. Even so, the general fact that nameless, unidentifiable and seemingly inarguable "majorities" exist in support of the grey lady's position is supposed to be enough to shut up dissenters.

What fascinates me the most, though, is how the article conveniently buries in its meaty mid-section a simple fact that not only contradicts the essay's central thesis, but actually disproves it. Take this quote from a geneticist at New York University named Harry Ostrer, author of textbooks such as Essentials of Medical Genomics and Non-Mendelian Genetics in Humans:

It’s pretty clear that most Jewish groups have Semitic ancestry, that they originated in the Middle East, and that they’re more closely related to each other than to non-Jewish groups.

Indeed, the closest Ostrer comes to the idea that Jews have non-Israelite ancestry is in recognizing the historically recent trend of intermarrige, one that does not trace back more than a couple of centuries:

The ancient admixed ancestry explains the blond hair and blue eyes of Ashkenazi Jews whose grandparents and great-grandparents all [emphasis added] lived in shtetls two and three generations ago.

Despite this, the author of The New York Times article uses Ostrer's statements to support the conclusion that it is "clear that many Jews are of mixed descent" in a broader sense, as opposed to only over the last couple of generations.

Of course, this isn't to say that the creator of The New York Times libel doesn't cover her bases to avoid direct charges of anti-Semitism. She makes a point of being "balanced" by giving equal weight to the claims of those who assert that Jews are descended from ancient Israelites as she does those who argue otherwise; she throws in some well-placed criticisms against those who question Jewish heritage, just to make sure no one can say she is their lapdog; and she even makes a statement that will no doubt cause the terminally PC everywhere to orgasm in paroxysms of sanctimony:

"Every generation of Jewish historians has faced the same task: to retell and adapt the story to meet the needs of its own situation." The same could be said of all nations and religions.

At the end of the day, though, the author is playing to bald anti-Semitism. Despite her unsubstantiated - but nevertheless oft-repeated - claim that scholars and historians question Jewish heritage, the reality is that that heritage has only been disputed by those with distinct political agendas. Even as The New York Times makes it seem like Jewish insistence on an ancient Israelite lineage is based on religious faith, the article itself demonstrates how cutting edge science overwhelmingly backs up the veracity of their belief, a fact that would in normal circumstances end the debate before it even began. Should science be swept aside, however (a practice that, with the proliferation of creationists and global warming deniers, is all too common these days), there are still other glaringly obvious facts to consider:

- Although the author of this article claims "There is also evidence that in antiquity and the first millennium Judaism was a proselytizing religion that even used force on occasion" (evidence which, incidentally, she never bothers citing), the reality is that Judaism has if anything DISCOURAGED proselytizing throughout its history. Granted, this hasn't necessarily been for the most noble of reasons; the very fact that Jews placed such a high premium on their racial identity often caused them to be suspicious of having their progeny mix with the bloodlines of other stock. Despite this rather admittedly morally repulsive origin, though, claiming that Jews forcibly converted non-Jews goes against the grain of what any cursory reading of Jewish theology or history will yield.

- Up until relatively recently in human history, the descent of the Jewish people was not called into question. Even during the horrors of the Middle Ages and the Inquisition, or in the midst of the pogroms of Eastern Europe and the death chambers of Nazi Germany, the ancestry of the Jews was not questioned (claims that we came from vermin aside). For thousands of years the fact that Jews were descended from ancient Israelites was taken for granted as true. This was not merely the case among the religious, mind you, but among historians, genealogists, and even the very racists who wished death and suffering upon the children of Abraham, and who could have very much benefited from having such scandalous revelations about their background brought to light.

People may become suspicious of your motives if you openly advocate potentially racist claims. On the other hand, if you say that you are merely asking questions - that is, if you present both the racist baloney and the substantive facts as being on an equal platform, and depict yourself merely as the innocent inquirer of truth between the two - then by presenting both possibilities as equally valid, and yourself as ostensibly neutral, you add de facto legitimacy to a position that, when scrutinized with real objectivity, could never be considered legitimate.

So why does the author claim attempt to lend a veneer of respectability to the charge that Jews may not be descended from ancient Israelites? It's the same reason why pieces are written that construct so-called scholarly arguments about Latino immigrants destroying American culture (I'm looking at you Pat Buchanan and Lou Dobbs) or claiming that African-Americans are less intelligent than white people (such as Richard Hernstein and Charles Murray). The explanation is bigotry, plain and simple.

You may have noticed the great pains I have taken to not mention the name of this article's author up until this point. Now is as good a time as any to let it be known that the piece in question was penned by one Patricia Cohen. Based on her surname, I can surmise that she is Jewish (or at least of Jewish descent). Sadly, such things are by no means a hinderance to being an anti-Semite. Patricia Cohen can now follow in a long, sad litany of Jews, tracing all the way back to Nicholas Donin, who intentionally contribute to the hatred of her own people.

For the original article, please see:

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Thinkin' Lincoln - Part Two

The maelstrom rages forth unabated! For Part One, see:

Main Entry:

Pronunciation: \ˈsō-shə-ˌli-zəm\
Function: noun
Date: 1837
1 : any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods
Goods, in this scenario being health care.

I actually responded to your post more than seven weeks before you wrote it:
Assuming you don't have the time to read that whole article, though, allow me to excerpt the most relevant passage:
"Apart from radical libertarians, virtually every democratic community - including the America envisioned by our Founding Fathers - has recognized that certain social services must be provided by the government, with the only question being where the line should be drawn between what must be guaranteed by the government and what ought to be left to the private sector. The only way to be a socialist or communist is to argue that the government should control the entire economy."
Do you claim that we live in a socialist state because firefighters, police officers, and public school teachers are paid for by the state, or because the Department of Transportation helps build bridges and the FDA makes sure you don't ingest rat feces in your meat?

Back in Lincoln's day, there were millions of Americans who argued that anti-slavery advocates wished to take away the slaveowner's freedom. The idea that one should have the "freedom" to own another human being is rightfully scorned as both logically absurd and morally bankrupt today, but we must not forget that the reason so many intelligent and wel-intentioned people believed it back then was because conventional wisdom held that being pro-slavery was a legitimate point-of-view... and as such, identifying its obvious flaws (as men like Lincoln did regularly) was regarded as gauche at best, and downright tyrannical at worst (remember what John Wilkes Booth shouted immediately after taking Lincoln's life).

Today there are many who believe that a moral and logical case can be made in favor of people not receiving the health care they need because of the capriciousness of an insurance company or because of their meager financial circumstances; that it is a greater wrong for the rich to pay more in taxes than for the needy to receive decent jobs; that a fair and reasonable position exists for further deregulating banks and Wall Street firms despite the economic collapse their fatuous cupidity caused. Just like the pro-slavery forces of Lincoln's day, these people are either incapable or unwilling to see through the chimera of conventional wisdom and recognize the horrifying ridiculousness of what they believe. Today we have wolves savagely fighting for their freedom to kill sheep, and many sheep being mesmerized into supporting the very wolves who wish to murder them. The wolves' argument is no better today - logically or morally - than it was in 1864, and I am willing to bet that Americans in 2154 will be just as dumbfounded by the wolf defenders of our time as we are by the wolf defenders of Lincoln's.
For clarification's sake, here is the relevant portion of the Abraham Lincoln speech argued so passionately between Jim and myself.
The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one. We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatable things, called by the same name———liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatable names———liberty and tyranny.
The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one. Plainly the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty; and precisely the same difference prevails to—day among us human creatures, even in the North, and all professing to love liberty. Hence we behold the processes by which thousands are daily passing from under the yoke of bondage, hailed by some as the advance of liberty, and bewailed by others as the destruction of all liberty.

Thinkin' Lincoln

Yesterday I posted the following status update on my Facebook account, little imagining the tempest I was about to unleash:

My opinion on the opponents of health care reform, economic stimulus, and new financial regulations:
"The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep's throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty."
- Abraham Lincoln (1864)

You are just on with the statuses today Matt.

except that he was talking about the war, not government control of our healthcare system. I would apply this statement, much more aptly, to Bush.

Actually, Lincoln was specifically rebutting an argument used by oppressors of African-American rights - namely, that not being allowed to subjugate black people constituted an injustice against themselves. I think this is very much in keeping with the logic used by the wealthy who oppose economic stimulus, by the insurance companies in trying to halt health care reform, by Wall Street companies in trying to halt financial regulations, etc. If you wish for the greater context of the speech, check out "Address at Sanitary Fair, Baltimore, MD - April 18, 1864".
PS: Let it be noted that there were many poor white people in America who, despite not owning slaves and therefore deriving no personal profit from supporting that institution, were nevertheless duped by plantation owners into supporting the wrong cause. I would lump the millions who have thrown their lot in with the superwealthy, the insurance companies, Wall Street, and the Tea Party movement in with the Copperheads of yore.

I've read the address before, and I still say it related to the war, insofar as the war concerned itself with slavery. I don't see a damn thing about plantation owners. Lincoln's legacy was an era that created the first super-wealthy class this nation ever knew, and his triumph the clearing of the way for big business as we know it.

Wow. Let me deal with this point-by-point:
1a) I could be a cynic and argue that, having been clearly caught by your own ignorance regarding the context of that quote, you are now retroactively revising the meaning of your initial statement to cover for your error.
1b) I will be generous and assume otherwise, in which case, your saying that the quote does in fact deal with persecution of blacks essentially concedes that my application of its meaning to contemporary injustices (whether you agree with my conclusion or not) was logically valid.
2) The superwealthy existed in America well before Lincoln's ascent to power, as the existence of the Federalist Party and the presence of men like Nicholas Biddle and the countless Northern industrial magnates and Southern plantation aristocrats attests. Feel free to read any book on antebellum American socio-economics if you don't believe me.
3) Likewise, powerful men in big business have long had a disturbingly strong hand in American political processes. Just look at Hamilton's speech to the Constitutional Convention saying "the rich and well-born" should have "a distinct, permanent share in the government" because "the people... seldom judge or determine right"; check out the vicious fight in the early-19th century to repeal laws that made property ownership a prerequisite of voting, such as the Dorr Rebellion; or look at the titanic struggle between Andrew Jackson and the Whigs over renewing the charter of the Second National Bank.
I can't honestly say whether your points are intended to add up to an attack against Abraham Lincoln or a glorification of plutocracy. Either way, both of those conclusions are not only morally despicable, but entirely lacking in any factual foundation.

Look matt, I have neither the time nor the energy to respond to that. IT WAS A WARTIME ADDRESS that made mention of the war itself and referenced slavery, during a war particularly concerned with slavery. Jeez. I was speaking generally, saying that the wealthy class AS IT EXISTS TODAY was made possible by Lincoln, and no that is not an attack on Lincoln; I'm part of that class. Also, none of this changes the fact that there is no mention in that address of the "super-wealthy". How a metaphor about slavery has anything to do with Nancy pelosi putting people in prison for not buying their neighbor's abortions is unclear.

Wow Jim. Well argued Matt.

Lincoln was using the wolf/sheep thing as a metaphor to describe a situation. I think both the metaphor and the situation--whilst deriving from different issues-parallels the pitched battle between those in favor of healthcare reform and those opposed. Metaphors can be applied to many situations other than the ones they were originally spoken in.

What Jackie said.

"While we do not propose any war upon capital, we do wish to allow the humblest man an equal chance to get rich with everybody else."
That was Lincoln, and so was this:
"Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration... Let them beware of surrendering a political power which they already possess, and which if surrendered will surely be used to close the door of advancement against such as they and to fix new disabilities and burdens upon them till all of liberty shall be lost."
While I do not believe Abraham Lincoln was a perfect man, there were many admirable qualities he possessed that the Republican Party he helped found should try to recapture. One was the ability to construct logically coherent and factually substantial arguments, something that you are clearly either unable or unwilling to do; the other was focusing the efforts of government on improving the lot of the less fortunate, something that both you and other Republicans not only refrain from, but actually dismiss with contempt. Today there are many circles in which it is denounced as "socialist" or "un-American" to talk about using the people's government to protect homeowners from predatory banks, guarantee high-quality health care for all citizens, or help those struck by hard times obtain well-paying and stable jobs. It is fashionable to view the government as a malevolent entity that must be feared and weakened, rather than as an instrument that can improve lives. These assumptions go against the most famous of all Lincoln's declarations - that an ideal government is not one that is separate from and indifferent to the welfare of the people, but is instead "of the people, by the people, for the people".

Why get so vicious, Matt? I've been writing my comments as casual musings, via iPhone, in between classes, so I don't feel like an attack on my argument style is very warranted. I didn't even had italics handy, had to use all caps. I did not enter into a formal debate here, and like I said I don't have time for that. I'm sorry if that disappoints you, but please don't insult me. I stated my opinions, and I'm pretty sure I didn't say anything unsound or irrational.And to restate, I was familiar with that address prior to your posting of it. I would not have chosen to comment on its context had I not been. That would be foolish. I just feel like this radical devotion to healthcare, and intense demonization of all of its opponents by the left is a little unfair, views aside.

Lol, yes because the right CERTAINLY hasnt demonized the left AT ALL when it comes to Healthcare...

What do you consider to be vicious? I won't deny that I have been extremely candid about what I perceive to be the glaring logical and substantive weaknesses in your argument, but I haven't name-called or in any such way directly insulted you. You say that you did not intend to enter a debate, but if that is the case, why did you post your opinions in the first place? Did you expect people to simply note what you thought without responding to it? Did you anticipate that everyone would agree with you? Or did you assume that those who disagreed with you would simply state bald opinions based on their pre-existing ideological leanings (as you did), instead of aggressively identiifying and exposing the inaccuracies and flaws in your own position?
My main goal in all of this was not to humiliate you. It is instead to determine what is true and what is right about issues that have very serious consequences for human beings. In order to do that, all opinions must be held to the highest standard - the soundness of their factual foundations proven, the strength of their logical underpinnings tested, their pragmatic and idealistic objectives made crystal clear. Anything less than that wouldn't just be an insult to the gravity of what we discuss - it would be an insult to you.

1) I said I did not enter into a "formal" debate, as in, I did not intend to go gathering quotes ad nauseam and go much past a you think, I think discussion. Again, via iPhone, between class, not sitting at desk, digging up sources.
2) What pre-exisiting ideological leanings influenced my so-called bald statements? I have leanings, but in this case I read the quote, recognized it, and commented.
3) I'm not humiliated, Matt, not in any way, but please tell me how it has been determined, or even addressed, that is what is true and right about these serious issues (I assume you're referring to healthcare)? From what I can tell, you took a quote uttered 150 years ago from a wartime speech about war/slavery/baltimore and applied it to the advancing of a bill enabling socialist healthcare, and no, I'm not just using a right-wing buzz word there, I'm calling it what it is, without attaching a connotation. You are then somehow implying that this quote touches on class divisions, which it does not, and that these divisions are relevant to a socialist healthcare bill, and then accusing me of a poor argument because I casually stated my opinion on this. You want to talk about healthcare, talk about it, I'll talk all day, but this is not about Lincoln or Andrew Jackson, or the Second National Bank, or plantation owners, it's about Nancy Pelosi's bill.

1) Not to brag, but it didn't take me very long to write those posts. I already knew all of the information that I provided to support my positions, so the only research I needed was to do quick Google searches on key phrases from the quotes so that I could put down their exact wording. I also type at over 80 wpm, so it doesn't take me long to reply.
2) The fact that you kept warping the metaphor used in Lincoln's quote in order to make it so that I couldn't use it to advance a liberal point... that is what suggests to me that you were tainted by ideological bias. It would have been one thing to DISAGREE with the message in that quote, but it was ridiculous to try to claim it meant something other than it did.
3) I was arguing that the metaphor Lincoln used in 1864 to condemn slavery could be equally apropos in addressing a whole host of other issues from our own time. I'm not sure how I could be any clearer on that point.
4) When you say "socialist health care", you are just using a right-wing buzzword. For a more elaborate response, see this blog article:

I'm wondering what your definition of socialism is, because as far as I can tell a public option that you can choose not to accept is anything but socialism. That was directed at Jim, not Matt.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

To Joseph Cao

To Representative Joseph Cao of Louisiana, the only Republican congressman in the nation who had the courage to vote in favor of liberal health care reform... the only prominent member of the Grand Old Party who remembered that that organization was founded on the idea that the rights of the oppressed must always be placed before the wants of the rich and powerful (see abolitionism, the free soil movement, the last five paragraphs of Lincoln's first State of the Union address, the careers of Theodore Roosevelt and Robert La Follette)... a man with the bravery to stand up to the millions of plutocrats, right-wing radicals, and covert racists within his own party, to say nothing of the innocent but scared people they've duped with their self-serving and/or hateful propaganda... and who may very well pay a dear political price for his willingness to think for himself...

To Mr. Cao, I have just one thing to say:

Thank you for showing yourself to be a truly great American. If the notion of gratitude has not been entirely extinguished from the hearts of humanitarians everywhere, a Profile in Courage award will be given to you within your lifetime.

PS: When Cao defeated nine-term incumbent William Jefferson in last year's House of Representatives election, he became the first Republican elected in the second district of Louisiana since 1890, as well as the first Vietnamese-American ever elected to Congress. At the time, House Minority Leader John Boehner sent out a memorandum to the entire party titled "The Future is Cao". For reasons Boehner no doubt never intended, history may prove him right.

Part Two:
"My vote tonight was based on my priority of doing what is best for my constituents."
- Joseph Cao (November 7, 2009)
Here are the thirty-nine Democrats who voted against the health care reform bill. Some of them opposed it because they believe in the policy of ideological appeasement (code named "centrism") advocated by the Democratic Leadership Council; some voted against it because they were afraid of a backlash from conservatives in their constituencies; and some voted against it because, let's face it, health insurance and pharmaceutical companies give nice, thick campaign contributions at just the right moment during a re-election campaign. Whatever their priorities may have been, though, what separates them from Cao is what their priority was NOT - that is, the health and welfare of their constituents.
- John Adler (NJ)
- Jason Altmire (PA)
- Brian Baird (WA)
- John Barrow (GA)
- John Boccieri (OH)
- Dan Boren (OK)
- Rick Boucher (VA)
- Allen Boyd (FL)
- Bobby Bright (AL)
- Ben Chandler (KY)
- Travis Childers (MS)
- Artur Davis (AL)
- Lincoln Davis (TN)
- Chet Edwards (TX)
- Bart Gordon (TN)
- Parker Griffith (AL)
- Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (SD)
- Tim Holden (PA)
- Larry Kissell (NC)
- Suzanne Kosmas (FL)
- Frank Kratovil (MD)
- Dennis Kucinich (OH)
- Besty Markey (CO)
- Jim Marshall (GA)
- Eric Massa (NY)
- Jim Matheson (UT)
- Mike McIntyre (NC)
- Michael McMahon (NY)
- Charlie Melancon (LA)
- Walt Minnick (ID)
- Scott Murphy (NY)
- Glenn Nye (VA)
- Collin Peterson (MN)
- Mike Ross (AR)
- Heath Shuler (NC)
- Ike Skelton (MO)
- John Tanner (TN)
- Gene Taylor (MS)
- Harry Teague (NM)
Most shocking among these names is that of Dennis Kucinich. Apparently he wanted a single-payer bill, and when he was told he couldn't get exactly what he wanted, he decided that he wouldn't support any bill at all (even one with a public option). It is one thing to be an ideological stalwart, and quite another to be petulant.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Broadway and the Siren Song of Cinema

The Wedding Singer. Legally Blonde. Shrek. 9 to 5. Spider-Man.

What do an Adam Sandler comedy from the '90s, a Reese Witherspoon chick flick, a popular animated film franchise, a feminist parable starring Dolly Parton, and a Marvel comics superhero portrayed on the big screen by Tobey Maguire all have in common? Simple. Each one either has been or is slated to be turned into a Broadway musical.

This isn't to say that adapting movies for the stage is always a bad idea. From the lush family epic The Lion King and poignant period piece Grand Hotel to the charmingly breezy Hairspray and raucously hilarious The Producers, examples abound of the world of celluloid being theatrically metamorphosed to outstanding effect. There is a key difference between these shows, though, and the ones that keep cropping up today - whereas the fundamental genesis behind each of those productions was a larger artistic vision, one cannot avoid the feeling that the primary motivation behind contemporary film adaptations is more mercenary. In short, while it used to be that great musicals and plays were staged because their creators had stories they wished to tell, today far too many are bankrolled because someone recognized a valuable property to exploit.

One of the great joys of theater is that it offers performance-based storytelling at its purest. We live in a time when Hollywood spends a vast bulk of its time and treasury stuffing high-priced special effects and sexy stars into profit-obsessed vehicles like so many crude meat parts into a sausage grinder. In such an environment, it is easy to understand why the quality of the actual tale being told is often considered to be of minimal importance. Directors and screenwriters are flipped around from production to production like baseball cards being swapped among fourth grade boys, while basic factors like decent writing and interesting narratives are disregarded in favor of the safety of committee-produced boilerplate plots. The end result of this is that the movies churned out by major studios are far too often tales told by idiots, full of sound and fury but signifying nothing.

In contrast to this there is the world of theater, which by virtue of its comparative simplicity and physical limitations must demand more of itself and of its audience. While it is still possible to use a stage to awe an audience with spectacle (and while many musicals and plays have done this to great creative effect), it is ultimately the power of the story itself - as conveyed through the writing, directing, acting, and in the case of musicals, the songs - that determines whether a staged show is deemed successful. No spectacle that can be put on a stage can match that which a well-moneyed studio can cook up in an FX laboratory; there are no slick cinematic cuts or extra takes to compensate for poorly delivered lines or gaping flaws in the plot; and no matter how gaudy the costumes or elaborate the sets, the sheer physical proximity of the actors to their audience creates an intimacy that is as demanding as it is potentially rewarding for all parties involved. While this doesn't mean that musicals and plays are any less incentivized by the almighty dollar than their big screen counterparts, it does mean that, thanks to the nature of the medium, the big draw for a theatrical show has to be its storytelling fundamentals.

And yet, against all odds, this asset is now in jeopardy. The trend of turning well-known movies into stage productions simply as a means of capitalizing in on their popularity draws people to the theater not on the basis of the unique art form of theatrical storytelling, but instead as a means of bearing witness to glorified mimicry. While this is similar to the same mentality that causes people to flock to Disney on Ice shows and Comic-Con conventions, the difference is that those venues were by-and-large created for the sole purpose of promoting pop culture products. What American theater has to offer is not only distinct from that, but far more valuable.

The trend of capitalizing on movies into plays and musicals not only ignores what theater can offer, but could ultimately cheapen the way our culture views that institution. This is the forum that gave birth to some of our country's greatest voices, and those voices still have something to offer in those venues that could be of great value to America and the world. What a tragedy it would be if Broadway, in the name of profit, abandoned its legacy of innovation and storytelling mastery to become just another mediocre echo of Tinseltown.

Letter to Barack Obama

I decided to send this letter to President Barack Obama via the White House website. Who knows? Maybe he'll actually read it.

A great political thinker once penned the following words:

"It is assumed that labor is available only in connection with capital; that nobody labors unless somebody else, owning capital, somehow by the use of it induces him to labor... Both these assumptions are false, and all inferences from them are groundless. Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration."

As a playwright, I can appreciate if and when words are especially significant, which is why I feel comfortable saying: President Obama, those are words to which you must listen.

As I am writing this, the severe suffering felt by millions of unemployed and underemployed Americans is worsening. Those of us who don't have jobs are finding it increasingly difficult to obtain them; those of us who are employed either struggle to make ends meet due to inadequate wages or live in constant fear that a pay cut or pink slip is just around the corner. Increased profit margins for Wall Street and Fortune 500 companies, though comforting to the acolytes of Ronald Reagan and the DLC, do nothing to put money in the bank accounts of average Americans; technocratic explanations about how unemployment is always a "lagging indicator" during a recovery, though met with approval by economists who earn their keep by hawking abstract theories, are met with scorn by Americans who have yet to find work. What this country needs is meaningful action. Anything and everything else is a waste of time and political capital that, quite frankly, you cannot afford to lose.

One such substantive action would be the passage of a strong Employee Free Choice Act. Although you admirably sponsored such legislation back when you were a Senator, and while you continue to fight for it as president, the kind of bill we need remains imperiled. In part this is due to a lack of attention from the media, which always emphasizes the sensational to the neglect of the substantial. A greater cause, though, is the ever-growing power of conservative Democrats who, in cahoots with Republicans, work to weaken and/or kill the EFCA bill, thereby increasing the profit margins of big business at the expense of the ability of the American working class to economically empower itself.

Another important measure would be to defy conventional wisdom (which these days is far more about "convention" than it is about anything wise) and push for a second stimulus bill. Rather than elaborate on the need for this myself, I will instead refer you to an article from Robert Reich, who succeeds in making the case for stimulus far better than I ever could:

Finally, you should deliver a nationally televised address to the American people. In trying times such as these, stating that rhetoric constitutes substantive action may seem counterintuitive, but until things pick up again, every American needs to know that their leaders are actually leading them. Right now we are a nation in despair, and despair - when able to gestate for too long - eventually becomes anger. The only way to counteract that despair is with hope. This is something that you can provide with a powerful speech that demonstrates your sympathy for the plight of average Americans, outlines what you plan on doing to help them, explains how those policies will work, and gives the American people a concrete idea of when those policies will begin directly effecting them.

The quote which I cited at the beginning of this letter has an addendum. In it, the author warned laborers to "beware of surrendering a political power which they already possess, and which if surrendered will surely be used to close the door of advancement against such as they, and to fix new disabilities and burdens upon them, till all of liberty shall be lost." And while today's Republicans, upon hearing those words, may think that they were written by Karl Marx or Vladimir Lenin, the reality is that they were composed by none other than the first Republican president himself - Abraham Lincoln. Even more significantly, he put them into his first State of the Union address, submitted to Congress at the same chronological point in his presidency that you will reach next month.

Like Lincoln, you are a liberal Illinoisan who has the fate of a nation resting in your hands. Like Lincoln, you have the power to not only dramatically improve the American nation in its present, but leave a lasting legacy of greatness for generations in the future to celebrate. The only question that remains is whether you will heed his advice, and in so doing follow in his footsteps.

Another Facebook Debate on Gay Marriage

This was a lengthy discourse on the issue of gay marriage as held between myself and my conservative friend, Kevin Reagan (no relation to that other famous right-wing Reagan). I have posted it below:

- Have you read my blog article on gay marriage?
- I'm very curious what you think about it.

- I would propose civil unions

- Actually, that isn't what I asked.
- What I really ask is: What is the fundamental philosophy that you believe should underlie our government?
- What is the philosophical foundation for the decisions you make as to right and wrong, both on larger issues and specific policies?
- I outline mine using three documents - the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, and the Economic Bill of Rights.
- From the ideas in those three documents, I extrapolate the conclusion that it is un-American to oppose gay marriage.
- What is the basis on which opponents of gay marriage draw their conclusions?
- Not simply for why they may PERSONALLY oppose it - and of course, every American has the right to come to whatever personal decisions he or she wants - but why they believe it is acceptable for the American government to oppose it?

- Well, in fact, very few opponents actually argue that the American government should oppose it.
- They leave it to the autonomy of the states, and when taken into the matters of each individual state, it has failed miserably.

- OK, then on what basis do they believe that the state governments - all of which are based on the same principles as the American government, even though their executions of them may differ - have the right to oppose it?
- And you're actually wrong ["very few opponents actually argue that the American government should oppose it"]. Republicans and conservative Democrats consistently fight to pass federal legislation banning gay marriage.
- Yes, a majority of voters oppose it, but as Ayn Rand put it best (and this is a paraphrase, I don't know the exact quote off the top of my head), "No majority should ever be allowed to vote away the rights of a minority."
- She, by the way, is a leader CONSERVATIVE thinker.
- Barry Goldwater, the founder of modern Republican conservatism, wholeheartedly agreed with her.
- Incidentally, there are two other documents that I feel formulate the basis of American policy which I forgot to include in my original article: Abraham Lincoln's First State of the Union Address and Lyndon Johnson's Great Society speech.

- Well, with regards to the idea of voting away the rights of the minority, that's why proponents argue that they aren't voting away the rights of the minority, they're voting to preserve the institution of marriage.

- But there isn't any logical case to be made that allowing homosexuals to marry would in any way imperil the marriages of heterosexual couples. That's an absurd position.
- I have more respect for Fred Phelps, who is at least honest about why he opposes gay marriage, then Newt Gingrich, who tries to construct elaborate bullshit arguments.

- Of course it would ["imperil the marriages of heterosexual couples"]. Marriage has always been the union between a man and a woman; for gay individuals to be "married" would destroy that idea.

- That isn't true. There are many civilizations in which two men were able to marry. Ancient Greece is a great example of that.
- Besides, even if that were hypothetically true, how exactly would the marriage between a man and a woman be nullified by two people of the same gender being married?

- Many American civilizations? No.

2:15pm Matthew
- America is a Western civilization, based on Western ideological principles, almost all of which, in some form, trace back to ancient Greece.
- To philosophers like Socrates and Plato, both of whom, incidentally, were very openly gay.
- As was Alexander the Great.

- Now you're destroying the idea of an independent and unique America.

- No. The founders of America recognized our antecedents in classical thought.

America is not ancient Greece.

- Of course not. But the idea of democracy, of human freedom, traces back to ancient Greece.
- It was imperfect then because they had slaves; it was imperfect here, at first, because we had slaves.

- The same is true with the preferences given to the wealthy and powerful in both societies.
- America is an idea.
- A noble, beautiful idea.
- The best idea in human history.
- The idea of individual rights and freedom.
- That idea originated in ancient Greece and evolved over the millenia until it reached its apotheosis in America.
- Men like Jefferson and Madison understood that.
- If you argue against the right of gays to marry, you must argue that their marriages go against the essence of that philosophy. I can prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that not only does it not contradict it, but that opposing gay marriage is a flagrant contradiction.
- Of course, proponents of gay marriage don't care, which then begs this question: Why do they really oppose gay marriage?
- It isn't because of a desire to preserve the institution of marriage, since that isn't jeapordized in any way.
- It isn't to preserve freedom, since homosexual marriage could not by the farthest stretch of the rational imagination take away someone else's liberty. So why?
- I already know the answer, but for once, I'd like to hear an opponent of gay marriage both openly admit it and have the courage to stand by it.

- The reason people oppose gay marriage is largely personal conviction.

- Personal conviction based on what?

- Based on likes/dislikes, reason, religion, there are multiple factors.

- Either way, I am of the opinion that most people who oppose gay marriage do so either because of a visceral dislike of homosexuals or for religious reasons, neither of which I believe should be codified [into law].

- Why do you think people dislike homosexuals?

- People have a natural instinct to feel an aversion to that which is unfamiliar to them.
- No one is saying that those who dislike homosexuals should have to associate with them or engage in homosexual lifestyles, nor is anyone saying that a church which disapproves of homosexuality should have to marry them, or recognize their unions.
- All we are saying is that churches which DO approve of it have the right to marry their gay congregants, and that the government - which recognizes no faith as being superior to any other (or to those who lack religious conviction) - should not discriminate against its gay citizens based on the religious convictions of a few.

- But its not the religious convictions of a few.
- It's the many.
- Not only do I have a problem with gay marriage, I also have a problem with churches that don't have a problem with it.

- 1) It doesn't matter if it's the religious convictions of 90% of the population. Our government was founded on the idea of complete religious freedom for all, and that includes the ability to choose lifestyles that are not harmful to those whose faith opposes them.
- 2) You may have a problem with churches and synagogues which disapprove of gay marriage, but how is the government prohibiting them from marrying homosexuals NOT a situation in which one class of religious citizens have their rights placed above those of another class?

- That's merely by coincidence. The church or synagogue may perform the act of joining the two, but the marriage is still a legal, and therefore state, issue.

- I agree there.
- But now that you have conceded this point, how can you justify the state discriminating against the right of two consenting adults to get married simply because individuals have a personal dislike - be it for visceral, religious, or any other reason - of the circumstances surrounding that couple's union?
- This issue matters a great deal to me not just because I believe in gay rights, but because I believe in human rights. Allowing the government to delegitimize the rights of any individual human being, regardless of the cause, jeapordizes the liberty of all human beings.

- Because we live in a democratic society. And whether or not it's right, it's a fact of the system that the majority rules. and on this specific issue, the majority does not think this is something that should be lent any public legitimacy.

- We do not live in a government of majority rules.
- We live in a government of individual liberty that is restrained only by the state when it endangers the freedom and rights of others.

- Of course the majority rules. How was Barack Obama elected? He got a majority of the votes.

- The majority rules so long as they don't imperil the rights of the minority.
- Actually, Obama was elected because he got the majority of electoral votes.

- And now, he rules. Popular, too.

- Had it been popular votes, the last eight years would have been run by Al Gore.
- That tangent aside, though...

- I was talking about Barack.

- The majority gets to decide on all matters that do not infringe on the individual civil lberties of others.
- Read the Federalist Papers. I am not being some great innovator here.
- If you, me, and a guy named Fred decide to vote for who will be the mayor, and Fred and I vote for me and you vote for yourself, I get to be mayor because majority rules, BUT if I decide to use my mayoral power to persecute you legally, then majority rule is replaced by your rights as an individual.

- So, based on your argument, I would have to assume that you would be a proponent of repealing any and every law that prohibits public nudity?

- lol
- That's an interesting leap. However, I'll take it.

- It's not really a leap at all, but go ahead.

- Here it is:

- People have the right to be nude in private locations of their choice, so long as it does not inconvenience or endanger the welfare of others (either citizens who disapprove of their lifestyle or of children, who lack the agency to make the appropriate decisions). That is not comparable to gay marriage because two gay people getting married does not pose the same direct interference with the welfare and day-to-day lifestyles of those who disapprove of it.
- If someone is nude in public, another person opposed to public nudity has no choice but to be exposed to it. If two gay people get married, and you happen to see them walking down the street, it is more reasonable to assume that you can just ignore it.

- Not quite the same thing when looking at the flaccid schlong of a 78-year-old alterkocker.
- Sorry to have put that image in your head, by the way.

- Not true.

- For some, seeing a flamboyantly gay couple walking down the street would be twice as offensive as seeing that "schlong".
- One would have no choice but to be exposed to it.

- Yes, but one has no choice but to exposed to many things which one finds objectionable.
- The question - the ONLY question - is whether one can be reasonably expected to just deal with it, or whether it is a situation where just dealing with it is, for whatever number of reasons, unrealistic.
- You can ignore two gay men walking down the street and holding hands.
- It is disingenuous for you to argue that it is just as easy to look away from that schlong.

- Of course it is. Every person has one. Everyone knows what a naked man or woman looks like.
It's the exact same situation.

- By the way, you contradicted yourself there.

- No, it's not. You're being coy.
- How exactly did I contradict myself?
- By the way, you have twice attempted to divert this conversation away from the main issue - gay rights.
- First by focusing on the popular vote.

- Then by focusing on public nudity.

- I'm not being coy at all. If you're going to argue vehemently that being gay is a lifestyle choice that does not harm others, then I'm going to argue that walking around naked is the same thing.

- And by your logic, you would have no choice but to accept that.

- Wrong. I will explain again.
- Homosexuals have the right to make whatever lifestyle choices they want so long as they don't harm others or cause an unreasonable imposition on others. Nudists have the right to make whatever lifestyle choices they want so long as they don't harm others or cause an unreasonable imposition on others.
- A gay person getting married neither harms nor imposes on someone else, and a nudist going to a private beach with other nudists neither harms nor imposes on someone else. A gay person having sex with another gay person in public, or a nudist walking around naked in public, does impose on others, and that should be illegal.

- Now you're walking a fine line, however, because it's impossible to define what exactly imposes on others.

- You have to make assumptions if you're going to assume marriage.
- You're going to have to assume PDA.
- And to many, gay PDA is an imposition.

- It's difficult ["to define what exactly imposes on others"], but not impossible.
- The question is whether individual agency empowers the person in question to overlook it, or whether no degree of individual agency makes that realistic.
- People who display heterosexual PDA of an intense sort - fondling and dry humping - are stopped, and obviously the same should apply for homosexuals (which it does).
- But holding hands or kissing is hardly as intrusive to the casual eye.
- By the way, what is to use the same logic you're displaying to stop an atheist from saying that Christian crosses shouldn't be made public, because they find them offensive?
- You and I BOTH concede that free expression should at times trump individual dislikes of that expression.
- You and I BOTH concede that, at other times, individual dislikes trump free speech.
- The question is where that line is drawn. My answer is that it is drawn as follows:
- Human beings can live their lives in the manner of their choosing so long as they do not harm or impose an unreasonable imposition on others (and while the technical details of what constitutes "unreasonable imposition" can always be picked apart by the hypercritical, the reality is that you and I and everyone else has a basic idea of where they are, glibness aside).
- Gay people getting married certainly is not the same as a person walking nude in public because, if for no other reason, you actually don't know a person is gay and married simply by watching them walk down the street.
- So even if I were to buy your premise, you would only have made a case against public displays of homosexuality, not against gay marriage.
- However, I don't buy your premise, because the reality is that someone being naked is far more visually detectable than two gay people holding hands.
- To deny that is disingenuous.

- Not at all

- That would be like saying that in a majority Christian nation that dislikes Muslims, you can outlaw whether a Muslim wears a crescent on his or her necklace because a lot of Christians are offended and/or threatened by it.
- Simply objecting to something morally is not sufficient cause to prevent its public exposure, unless you want to create a society where anything that doesn't abide by Christian values is kept out of the public light.
- It has to be a situation where one who has moral objections is INCAPABLE of turning the other way.
- Now do me a favor.
- Let's stick to the original subject.
- The one you keep diverting attention from.
- Because you never answered my question.

- Which question might that have been?

- I asked it twenty-four minutes ago. "How can you justify the state discriminating against the right of two consenting adults to get married simply because individuals have a personal dislike - be it for visceral, religious, or any other reason - of the circumstances surrounding that couple's union?"

- And I gave you my answer. You're a theoretical guy, no?

- Majority rules just doesn't cut it. And I can prove that by asking you this question - if a majority voted and said that they believed your Christianity was offensive, and that while you could be privately Christian, you would be unable to openly discuss your faith or wear crosses, would you be okay with that?
- By the way, in a hypothetical world where that did happen, I would side with your right to be as openly religious as you wanted.
- Including your right to pray in schools.
- So long as you don't pressure others to do likewise.

- But see, that's HYPOTHETICAL, not ACTUAL.

- And when I say that majority rules, I'm talking about the ACTUAL. I'm not saying it's fair, I'm saying that's the way it is.

- So let me get this straight:
- You think it's okay to create a logical system that COULD hypothetically undermine your freedom for the simple reason that it just so happens that, in its current manifestation, it DOESN'T undermine your freedom?

- That's a very convenient position for you to take.
- Basically you're saying that might makes right.
- A position usually taken by the mighty.
- It's a philosophy that breeds bigots and bullies.
- And as a Jew, it's a philosophy that personally scares me.

- No, it's a philosophy that stands as true in america today.

- That's a cop out.

- Again, I point you to the election.
- Barack obama had "might".
- So therefore, he was "right".

- I don't think so, but that is how it happened.

- The election of Barack Obama was no more an infringement of your individual liberties than George W. Bush's was a violation of mine.
- At least, not his 2004 election.
- To say that they're comparable is a bullshit position to take.
- You are still able to live your life as a white, Christian, baseball-playing, Republican-voting, suburbia-dwelling, upper-middle class American just as easily as you were before.
- You're a majority.

-A powerful majority.

- I'm sorry you don't like my position.

I don't resent your position.

You're calling it bullshit...

- If you replace "Christian" with "Jewish" and "baseball playing" with "playwriting" and "Republican-voting" with "Democratic", it's the same as mine.
- We are basically in the same status.
- The difference is that I recognize that just because I live in a system that happens to benefit people like me over people who aren't like me, that doesn't mean that the system is right for doing so, or that it should be accepted in its current form.
- That makes me a liberal.

- Sure, but the opposite does not make me a conservative.

- No.
- The opposite makes you a bully.
- Saying that because you are strong that it's okay to oppress the weak...
- ... saying that it's okay for the system to be this way because "it's just how things are", and dismissing the fact that the same system could be used to someday persecute you because you have the advantage of being one of the mighty ones...
- THAT position....
- ... that's the position of the bully.

- Indeed. So to bring up a related and relevant situation/question, I would then be forced to conclude that you would be totally against the idea of the democrats ramming legislation through congress with 60 votes without regard for bipartisanship.
Because they have seriously discussed that and considered it a possibility.
- Harry Reid has admitted so publicly!

- I will quickly address this and then insist on returning to our original point of conversation. I dislike it when people try to get out of it by changing subjects.

3:08 pm Kevin
- I'm not trying to get out of anything. This is all exceedingly relevant to the point you're making.

- In any free, democratic society, there is a social contract.

- That contract stipulates that individual members must participate in a political process that, while guaranteeing them their individual rights, at the same time requires them to participate in a larger national order through governmental institutions - elections, parliaments (in this case Congress), and so on - with set rules of procedures.
- It's the trade-off.
- You are an American, and that gives you the freedom to live your life however you choose so long as you don't harm others (unless you're gay, apparently).
- The trade-off is that, when it comes to the specific policies made by the federal, state, and local governments, you have to engage in majority rule.
- Which is fine, so long as the majority never votes away the individual rights of minorities.
- That's the social contract.
- Individual freedoms come first.
- The political infrastructure created to support those freedoms comes second.
- Because it exists for the sole purpose of serving and protecting those freedoms.
- And the welfare of the individual citizens.
- At the same time, in order for society to function, people do need to accept majority rule so long as their individual civil rights aren't violated.
- I may not have liked it that George W. Bush defeated John Kerry in 2004, but he was the duly elected president, and I couldn't just say that he isn't my president because I didn't vote for him.

- Yet I can't even begin to TELL you how many self-proclaimed "liberals" did just that.

- That extends to Barack Obama even!

- They were wrong, just like the many conservatives who accuse Obama of being a Nazi, or a Communist, or a non-citizen are wrong.
- And I don't recall Obama ever saying that about Bush.
- You still have the right to oppose the policies of your duly elected leaders.
- You also have to recognize their legitimacy.
- That's part of the social contract.
- Conservatives can say they disagree with Obama on health care reform.
- Of course they can.
- But if a majority of the leaders elected by the people (the president and members of Congress) are able to, through legitimate means, pass legislation that contradicts the will of conservatives, that too is the price they pay in being part of a democracy.

- The reference there is to obama's "apology/blame america tour".

- You see, you keep bringing up a flurry of points that have progressively less and less to do with the central subject.
- I will address that, of course, because I don't want to be accused of avoiding a position, but it's getting a little annoying.
- Obama's international tour was meant to reverse the geopolitical stand taken by the Bush administration when it came to our relationships with nations that opposed our position in Iraq or felt in some way alienated due to his other foreign policy decisions.

- Obama was making it clear that he was reversing the policies of his predecessor.
- Which, as a duly elected representative of the people, he had every right to do.

- I'm not the one bringing up "a flurry of points".
- You are, my friend.
- I'm merely showing you the holes in them.

- Incidentally, no.

- You keep changing the subject from gay marriage to other bugaboos in your right-wing arsenal.
- Though you say you're finding holes in my argument, you haven't actually found a single hole yet.
- You've just creatively manufactured more logical inconsistencies that I have to patch up.
- Like I said, it's annoying.

- Not particularly difficult [for me to handle], but annoying.

- I disagree. You may think you address the holes I bring up, but they're not being satisfactorily answered.

- For example:

- I would respond with a quote from William Jennings Bryan:
- "The mind convinces itself of what the heart wants to believe."
- You want to believe that homosexuality should be legally persecuted.
- Vis-a-vis making marriage illegal.
- You can't square that with the basic principles upon which our nation was founded.
- So you manufacture increasingly labyrinthine arguments, all of them built of tenuous premises, to support your position.
- My position is a very basic one:
- 1) People should be allowed to live their lives in the manner of theri choosing so long as they don't harm others in the process.
- 2) Homosexuals are not harming others by wanting to be married. Therefore, they should be able to live their lives in the manner of their choosing, in this case, by becoming miserable in the bonds of matrimony like the rest of us.
- You keep constructing elaborate rationales to either:
- 1) Imply that my position has implications that it clearly doesn't (such as about it supporting public nudity, or making it wrong for Democrats is Congress to use their majority power to pass health care reform);
- 2) Claim that homosexual marriage DOES violate the rights of other people (such as by saying that it jeapordizes the institution of marriage).
- In neither case do your assertions hold much water.
- What they do is make me have to shadowbox.
- Like I said, I can shadowbox.
- But I'd rather stick to substance.
- And the substance is this:
- You believe that homosexuals should not have the same rights as heterosexuals.
- Why?
- That is really the only question.
- I can tell you why I think they should have those same rights.
- Namely, because I believe in the principles upon which our country was founded.
- You have the right to disagree with me.
- But to disagree with me, you have to establish a different set of principles upon which you believe our government should base its policies, and explain why gays should not be allowed to marry in accordance with that set of principles.
- You have thus far avoided doing that.

- I'm not going to establish a different set of principles upon which i believe our government should base its policies.
- I could, but that would take too long.

- Well then, there isn't much more to be discussed, is there?
- You are opposed to gay marriage.
- But you aren't willing to say why you are opposed to gay marriage.
- At least, not apart from taking weak pot shots at the pro-gay marriage position.

- I've only told you 1000000 times why I am.

- Then tell me why again:
- Why should homosexuals not be allowed to marry each other?

- I have personal moral, religious, and social convictions that tell me that the idea of gay marriage is wrong.

- This I know.
- But that only tells me why YOU dislike gay marriage.
- It doesn't tell me a thing about why you believe the state has the right to outlaw it.

- Again, I explained that too. Or rather, you did when you defended the idea of majority rule.

- sigh
- I defended the idea of majority rule insofar as the selection of political leaders is concerned, vis-a-vis a social contract.
- You've taken political science courses, so you understand these principles.
- I also pointed out how conservative as well as liberal thinkers (conservatives including Rand and Goldwater) said that no majority should ever be allowed to vote away a minority's individual rights.
- I am tired of repeating this.

- What you need to explain to me is where you draw the leap that because YOU personally don't want a minority to have individual liberties, that means that they shouldn't have those rights.
- It doesn't matter whether there are a hundred people like you or a hundred million people like you.
- What gives you the right to say that, because you don't want this group to have their rights, they shouldn't have them?
- And let me draw this back to my faith:
- Jews have been persecuted for many years in America. Not as badly as in other countries, but as you may or may not know, until the mid-19th century, Jews in Maryland could not serve in political office.
- A majority of Marylanders were Christian.
- They objected to the idea of Jews being able to serve in public office, saying that while Jews could practice their faith privately if they wanted, once they made it public, it would undermine the integrity of the Christian way of living within that state.
- An argument that is remarkably similar to that used against homosexual marraige today.
- What is to stop a Christian right-wing movement from saying that Jews should lose some of their basic individual rights because they don't coincide with the majority?
- Your response to this was that I was only discussing hypotheticals, not actuality.
- But you see, that's the equivalent of saying that it doesn't matter that the same oppression you force on others could be hypothetically used to oppress yourself, because... well, because you happen to know that that isn't going to happen to you.
- In short, it's a refutation of the golden rule.
- "Do unto others as you would wish others to do unto you."
- Your rebuttal to that is: "If I can do unto others what I wouldn't want done unto me, but I know that neither they nor anyone else will ever be able to do that to me, then fuck 'em."

- Of course, a gross misrepresentation of my position.
- Something you're quite fond of doing, I've noticed.
- I'll attribute it to a lack of understanding of conservative principles.

At this time Kevin needed to depart to buy some groceries, so our conversation was brought to an abrupt close. Before signing off, however, I asked him if I could use his real name in this blog article. He agreed.