Category Archives: Marketplace of ideas

Tom Friedman’s take on torture report

I liked Tom Friedman’s latest column:

Why do people line up to come to this country? Why do they build boats from milk cartons to sail here? Why do they trust our diplomats and soldiers in ways true of no other country? It’s because we are a beacon of opportunity and freedom, and also because these foreigners know in their bones that we do things differently from other big powers in history.

One of the things we did was elect a black man whose grandfather was a Muslim as our president — after being hit on Sept. 11, 2001, by Muslim extremists. And one of the things we do we did on Tuesday: We published what appears to be an unblinking examination and exposition of how we tortured prisoners and suspected terrorists after 9/11. I’m glad we published it.

It may endanger captured Americans in the future. That is not to be taken lightly. But this act of self-examination is not only what keeps our society as a whole healthy, it’s what keeps us a model that others want to emulate, partner with and immigrate to — which is a different, but vital, source of our security as well….

It’s not a unique point of view. Even The Guardian, in expressing its high dudgeon over “America’s shame and disgrace,” acknowledged in a backhanded way that issuing the report illustrates something special about America, even though they were just using it as a way to beat up on HMG:

In one sense, it is a tribute to the US that it has published such a report. It is certainly a huge contrast to the cosy inadequacy of UK policy, practice and accountability – shortcomings that parliament must address.

But I particularly appreciate Friedman’s approach. His headline was “We’re Always Still Americans,” and it came from this John McCain quote at the end:

… I greatly respect how Senator John McCain put it: “I understand the reasons that governed the decision to resort to these interrogation methods, and I know that those who approved them and those who used them were dedicated to securing justice for the victims of terrorist attacks and to protecting Americans from further harm. … But I dispute wholeheartedly that it was right for them to use these methods, which this report makes clear were neither in the best interests of justice nor our security nor the ideals we have sacrificed so much blood and treasure to defend.” Even in the worst of times, “we are always Americans, and different, stronger, and better than those who would destroy us.”

Whether, of course, we remain Americans, true to our ideals, depends on whether we truly have put this shameful practice behind us.

What ‘we believe,’ compared to what I believe

Bear with me, those of you who aren’t interested in religious arcana. I’ll post something for you later. But it is Advent, after all, and therefore a time for reflection…

On a previous post, Mike Cakora shared a favorite quote:

“A consensus means that everyone agrees to say collectively what no one believes individually.”
– Abba Eban, Israeli diplomat (1915-2002)

My response to that got so involved, I decided to turn it into a separate post…

I really like the Abba Eban quote, even though I suspect he is trying to say something negative about consensus, when I think it is a wonderful thing.

The point he makes is at the heart of why I’m so pedantic about the distinction between an editorial and a column. An editorial expresses a group opinion (preferably an actual consensus, which was our goal at The State), and a column is what one person believes. (It particularly drives me nuts when innocents say they’ve contributed “an editorial,” when they mean a letter or an op-ed. It’s all I can do to keep myself from telling them, “That’s impossible, because you do not belong to an editorial board.” Because, you know, I don’t think it would be taken well.)

This distinction also lies at the heart of my objection to the changes to the Catholic liturgy in English in this country a couple of years back. Well, my substantive objection, as opposed to my merely aesthetic ones. (I thought the words were more beautiful before.)

I only have my nose rubbed in this problem when I attend a Mass in English, which I usually don’t do, since I’m a Spanish lector. (The irony is that the Spanish version has many of the same flaws as the new English one, but it’s the only version I’ve known in Spanish, so I don’t have the sense of loss.)

Last night, I attended a Mass in English, because I had a personal conflict with my usual Mass time. When we got to the Creed, I couldn’t bring myself to say the new words, and muttered th old one under my breath. Here’s the new creed, the one that bothers me so much.

Here’s the old one. Or rather, a comparison of the two. The old one is on the left.

I have a number of objections, as I said, arising purely from my love of the language. If you care about words, “one in being with the Father” is greatly preferable to “consubstantial with the Father.” Or compare the old, “he suffered, died and was buried” to “he suffered death and was buried.” The latter minimizes both the suffering and the death, coming across almost as though “he suffered inconvenience.” The old stresses that he SUFFERED, and then he DIED. Whole different emphasis. Or rather, the old actually does emphasize, and the new does not.

But the BIG objection is that the old is about what “WE believe,” and the new one says “I believe.” And yeah, I know this gets us back to a literal translation of the Latin Credo, but that doesn’t legitimize it for me.

Here’s why: For me the creed works as an editorial (the old way), but not as a column (the new way). As with the Eban quote, the creed describes what we have agreed to believe collectively, not a single person’s conclusions about faith. Switching to “I” negates the communitarian nature of Catholicism, and moves us more toward the nonliturgical denominations, where they talk a lot about their own personal faith, and their personal relationship with Jesus. I prefer to stress, through our statement of faith, that we are all part of the Body of Christ, and that these statements reflect a 2,000-year-old process of discernment.

And for those of you who still don’t understand my communitarian leanings, this is NOT about subordinating my ability to think to a collective enterprise. As you know, I object deeply to that sort of thing; that objection lies at the heart of my critique of political parties.

I object because I DO think for myself. And if I were working out a personal, “I” sort of creed, it would be quite different from this one. I’m not a Christian and a Catholic because of the things stated in the creed. At no time would I attach great importance to the Virgin Birth, for instance. I’m OK with saying “WE” believe that; I don’t object to it. But it’s not core to my faith. The core of my faith, and I think, truly, the Catholic faith, is what Jesus stated as the Great Commandment, and the second commandment that is inextricably related to it, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”

Were I to write a creed, it would center around those things, not around a sort of religious cosmology or the description of a Trinity-based pantheon of versions of God. I’m happy to go along with (WE believe) what they came up with at Nicea, but it’s just not what I, personally (I believe) would have come up with.

Which reminds me. I have for years had this idea for a project — to draft a new creed, based in what Jesus actually taught, rather than in all the arguments that occurred after his death as to who he was. A creed that Jesus would actually recognize, that would make him say, “THAT’s what I was talking about.” I’ve just been intimidated by the scope of it, and I worry that trying to do such a thing would show abominable hubris on my part. Lacking a good grounding in theology or in deep study of the Bible, I fear that what I came up with would be woefully inadequate, and therefore it would be presumptuous of me to try.

But I really ought to try sometime… Maybe the difficulty of the task would make me appreciate the Nicene one better…

And maybe I shouldn’t be intimidated. After all, I think an atheist, Douglas Adams, did a great job of summing up the faith, even though he was being offhand and flippant about it:

And then, one Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change…

Another reason I like Facebook less and less all the time

So last night, I was leafing through my tattered and musty-smelling copy of The Name of the Rose, and ran across this Thomas à Kempis quote at the end of the foreword:

In omnibus requiem quaesivi, et nusquam inveni nisi in angulo cum libro.

And I immediately loved it and wanted to add it as one of my favorite quotes on Facebook.

But since Facebook has been reconfigured about 47 times (I think it’s competing with the number of times the U.S. House has tried to repeal Obamacare) since the last time I added a quote, I couldn’t find my quotes.

Which really ticked me off. If it had been a button for inviting people to play Candy Crush Saga, you can bet it wouldn’t have disappeared. But since quotes have to do with the written word, and might provoke actual thought

But thanks to Google, I found a way to get to my quotes. Actually, the instructions I found were out of date (a couple more Facebook configurations since they were written, apparently), but they helped me enough that I could intuit my way to my quotes.

Here’s how: Click on your name to get your home page. Click on About. Over on the left, click on “Details About You.” At the bottom of the box, you’ll find your quotes. Which is counterintuitive. You’d expect to find them on the page with your favorite books, movies, music, etc. But they’re not there…

Here are mine. Maybe they aren’t all the epitome of profundity, but I like them:

“I wouldn’t want to live without strong misgivings. Right, Chaplain?”
— Yossarian, in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22

“Stand in the place where you live.”
— R.E.M.

“I invested my life in institutions — he thought without rancour — and all I am left with is myself.”
— Smiley’s People

“In omnibus requiem quaesivi, et nusquam inveni nisi in angulo cum libro.”
— Thomas à Kempis

Child Hysteria Bingo Board, by way of Lenore Skenazy

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Lenore Skenazy, who spends her time debunking the more absurd anxieties of helicopter parents at her website Free Range Kids, passed on this inspiration from one of her readers

Welp, I think I’ve finally read enough of Free-Range Kids to make a Bingo board. Make a 5×5 grid, put Free [Range] Space in the middle, scatter the other options randomly over the grid, and play along!

  1. SCARY BLACK PEOPLE
  2. SCARY MEN
  3. SCARY PO’ FOLKS
  4. FACTS SCHMACTS, WE’VE GOT A WITCH HUNT GOING HERE
  5. MAD SNATCHERS BEHIND EVERY TREE
  6. I MADE IT UP AND NOW IT SCARES ME
  7. PHOTOS ARE WINDOWS TO MY CHILD’S BEDROOM
  8. ALL CHILDREN ARE 2 UNTIL THEY TURN 18
  9. THE ETERNAL CRIME WAVE
  10. EVERYTHING BAD ON THE NEWS HAPPENS HERE…

And so forth. You should go look at the whole thing. It’s hilarious. Except… every once in awhile when Lenore is making fun of such things, I pause and think, well… I DO worry about that one a bit… although none on this list jump out at me.

I would never have the nerve to be Lenore Skenazy, and here’s why: I have this superstitious dread — related to the old superstition of “naming calls,” whereby mentioning a thing you fear could make it happen — that if I mock people for having a certain irrational fear for their children, that very thing might happen to one of my kids. As a sort of cosmic justice thing for engaging in hubris.

Silly, I know. But have you ever heard that saying, “Making the decision to have a child… is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body. ” Well, my heart walks around in five pieces, spread from here to Thailand. And then five more pieces for grandchildren.

And a condition like that can sometimes overcome one’s resolve to be calmly rational…

Runyan defends his lone vote against same-sex benefits

I hadn’t really pictured Cameron Runyan as a culture warrior. But here, in the process of defending a vote, he takes on moral relativism, postmodernism, and other newfangled stuff.

Not the sort of stuff you usually hear city councilmen going on about.

Anyway, I pass it on verbatim:

Cameron Runyan for Columbia City Council
Why I cannot support the redefinition of marriage
My recent, lone vote against providing homosexual couples with marriage benefits has caused quite a stir in the capital city of Columbia.  I hope this will shed a ray of light on my action.
Let me first address two primary issues.  First, nothing I say below on this topic means that I do not care deeply about the people who are in the midst of these issues.  I do care, and will continue to care for them.  I also pray that as they read this, they can be as respectful of my worldview as they require others to be of theirs.  Second, there was a time in my life when I believed, like an increasing number in our culture, that what is truth for one person may or may not be truth for another person.  I believed that we should essentially let people do whatever makes them happy within their version of truth.
However, a few years ago, my eyes were opened to the reality that the increasing moral relativism of our post-modern culture is contributing to the unraveling of the societal foundations we all depend on.  Because so many in our culture now see all moral issues as being relative to the individual, we are quickly becoming a society where any absolute moral truth no longer exists.  Nowhere is this more apparent than with the contemporary issues surrounding human sexuality.
Twenty-five years ago, there was not one country on the planet where same sex marriage was legal.  Today, the push to redefine marriage and sexuality has become the issue of utmost moral urgency in our culture.  This movement has led us to redefine gender and the central institution of the family in ways that no previous generation in the history of the world could imagine.  We now face the once incomprehensible notion that a person can choose their gender and, further that they can choose the type of marriage arrangement they desire within their chosen gender.  The fruit of this unprecedented revolution is that absolute moral truths have been exchanged for a relativistic belief system in which nothing can be known with certainty.
City Council’s vote addressed same sex couples but the impact of this moral revolution extends far beyond that because once moral absolutes are removed, anything goes.  Even Facebook is in on the revolution.  Users there can now choose from more than fifty different gender options.  Earlier this year in Utah, a judge struck down that state’s anti-polygamy law opening the way for polygamous and polyamorous marriages.
In Germany, the restraints are even being removed from incest to allow for sexual fulfillment.  A recent ruling there declared, “The fundamental right of adult siblings to sexual self-determination is to be weighed more heavily than the abstract idea of protection of the family.”
Historic women’s colleges are now being forced to accept transgender men and are, ironically in the position of discriminating against women in favor of men.  On other college campuses, students are being encouraged to choose their “preferred gender pronoun” and to change them as often as they wish.  These students may literally choose to be male today, female tomorrow and to have no gender next week.
The moral revolution in the educational arena is also entering our high schools as well.  In a Kentucky high school, a child who was born a boy, but now identifies as a girl, has recently been allowed to use the lady’s facilities along with the school’s girls.
At the end of the day, I have been elected as one of three at-large, city wide officials to represent all the people of our state’s capital city.  The balance of council did their job representing one portion of Columbia.  I have chosen to represent the rest.

In service,

Cameron Runyan

Councilman, City of Columbia, SC

Here are some basic, immutable truths about SC politics. Now, someone please, please go prove me wrong…

I was inspired by this piece by Chris Cillizza of The Fix, who was in turn inspired by this John Harris piece in Politico., headlined “The Dark Art of Political B.S.”

For much of my career writing political opinion, I have been told by various people that I shouldn’t keep banging my head against walls and expecting the impossible, because things are just a certain way, and they’ll always be a certain way.

Except that things do change. They do. As Cillizza writes:

“Current trends never continue indefinitely,” Harris write. “Politics especially is an infinitely fluid process, refreshed continually by new issues, new circumstances and, above all, new voters with different generational perspectives. Politicians are intelligent people, whose ambitions naturally orient them to accommodate change and find a way to prosper in it.

The central contention of Harris’ piece is that modern politics — cable TV, Twitter, You Tube and all the rest — moves at a pace that makes predicting anything beyond the next few days virtually impossible. And that fact makes the entire political media industry — which prides itself on seeing around corners — on shaky ground even when at its best. “A lot of what political journalists write as we try to divine larger meaning from election results involves a whiff of bovine byproducts,” writes Harris.

He’s right.  And I’ve become more and more convinced of that fact the longer I have been writing about politics….

Presidents always lose seats in their second midterm election. Until Bill Clinton in 1998. Senators don’t get elected president. See Obama, Barack. The South will always be solidly Democratic. There will be no white Democrats in the Deep South in the 114th Congress….

Things that were never going to happen, happen. The Berlin Wall is an absolute barrier, until one day it just comes down. The IRA and the Brits will never reach a peace accord, until they do. Nixon is the most implacable anti-Communist, until détente and ping-pong diplomacy. Hitler and Stalin have a non-aggression pact, until they don’t. John Kerry voted for it before he voted against it. Barack Obama holds the firm belief that “that marriage is the union between a man and a woman,” until he doesn’t. Mark Sanford is a dedicated family man, until, you know.

Black people have to be drawn into majority-minority districts for black candidates to have a chance, because they can’t get elected at-large. Until Tameika Devine, Steve Benjamin, Tim Scott and Barack Obama.

To cite one very recent change close to home: Even though it was the one constitutional office that it made the least sense to elect, adjutant general was the one elective office that wasn’t ever going to switch to appointive. That’s because adjutants general continued to dance with the one that brung them, and their subordinates always followed their lead, and the Legislature and the rest of the electorate went with what the Guard wanted. And then, we get an adjutant general who favors reform, and bang! Things change.

Oh, and Bobby Harrell will never be made accountable for his mishandling of campaign funds, because he’s the speaker.

Never say never. Because things change.

With that in mind, I’d like to make a few absolutist statements about South Carolina, in the hope that I will in short order be utterly humiliated for having been so wrong. Here goes:

  • The Republican majority in the Legislature will never take down the Confederate flag from the State House grounds.
  • Nikki Haley and her allies will never see how absurdly irrational and harmful it is to South Carolina to refuse Medicaid expansion.
  • We’ll never see the ridiculously large numbers of school districts in South Carolina reduced, because it’s always in the interests of lawmakers to protect the status quo in their home communities.
  • The promise implied in the recent Supreme Court decision in favor of poor school districts will never be realized, because powerful suburban white Republicans will never devote the kinds of resources that are needed to poor, rural districts.
  • South Carolina taxpayers will continue to support the more than 500 unnecessary, duplicative little governments called “special purpose districts,” because most people don’t know they exist, and the districts themselves are too good at political self-preservation.

Maybe you have some eternal verities of your own you would like to toss onto the trash heap of history as well. Be my guest…

Pope Francis, the protopunk pontiff

I very much liked this piece in The Washington Post today about Pope Francis:

The pope himself seems unconcerned, continuing his unpredictable riff. He embraces the big bang. He appears in selfies. He criticizes euthanasia. He invites Patti Smith, the godmother of punk, to perform at the Vatican. He cashiers opponents. He calls the kingdom of God “a party” (which is precisely how the founder of the Christian faith referred to it). He is a man, by his own account, with no patience for “sourpusses.”

As a Protestant, I have no particular insight into the internal theological debates of Catholicism. But the participants seem to inhabit different universes. One side (understandably) wants to shore up the certainties of an institution under siege. Francis begins from a different point: a pastoral passion to meet people where they are — to recognize some good, even in their brokenness, and to call them to something better. That something better is not membership in a stable institution, or even the comforts of ethical religion; it is a relationship with Jesus, from which all else follows.

Instead of being a participant in a cultural battle, Francis says, “I see the church as a field hospital after battle.” First you sew up the suffering (which, incidentally, includes all of us). “Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds.” The temptation, in his view, is to turn faith into ideology. “The faith passes,” he recently said, “through a distiller and becomes ideology. And ideology does not beckon [people]. In ideologies there is not Jesus; in his tenderness, his love, his meekness. And ideologies are rigid, always. . . . The knowledge of Jesus is transformed into an ideological and also moralistic knowledge, because these close the door with many requirements.”…

As I’ve said before, this pope hasn’t said anything new, in terms of doctrine. I am bemused when nonCatholics, or extremely inattentive Catholics, express wonder that the pope embraces, say, evolution. I had never before run into any basic conflict between the Catholic faith and evolution.

But the very simple, and yet amazing, thing that he does is make sure that you hear what’s important about the faith. He makes sure you hear the love. You patch up the suffering first — heal the wounds. The rest is secondary.

Who cares that Patti Smith’s “Gloria” doesn’t start “Glory to God in the highest,” but rather, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine?” Well, OK, I guess we should care to some extent. But what this pope does is reach out to Patti where she is. He tries to get her to feel the love. And she seems to dig it.

And so it is that we now have our first protopunk pontiff…

I’m trying to get you to engage in crimethink

Off in my corner, out of sight of the telescreen, writing down my subversive thoughts...

Off in my corner, out of sight of the telescreen, writing down my subversive thoughts…

Back on my post last night expressing horror at the number of South Carolinians (49 percent!) who voted straight-party on Tuesday, Lynn T. posted this thoughtful comment, to which I responded, and I thought the exchange was worth its own post. Lynn’s comment:

The parties have successfully sold the idea that they stand for a consistent set of values and priorities. Anyone who watches actual votes and decisions knows better, but few citizens do. First we have to set aside the cases in which consistency isn’t a reasonable goal because pragmatic lawmaking requires compromises. Even excluding those cases, the variation is substantial. One Democratic senator campaigned on his 100% rating from the Chamber of Commerce, normally more closely associated with the Republican Party. At the same time, his environmental record was not nearly as positive as that of some Republicans, who are usually perceived as more inclined toward business than environmental preservation. There are Republicans who support no-excuse early voting without adding “poison pill” restrictions, and others who take a very different direction. The diminished resources of the press in this state are a serious problem because the press is the closest thing we have to a reality check. If The State had as many reporters on the State House as on Gamecock football it would be fabulous. But then if more citizens cared about their government as much as they do about Gamecock football, it would be fabulous.

My response:

What the parties — and the media, and interest groups, and practically everyone whose profession has to do with politics — have successfully sold is the binary paradigm.

Almost all of the people who write or talk about, or otherwise deal with politics for a living, talk about political decision as being a choice between two options, and two options only. Either-or. Left-right. Democrat-Republican. Black-white.

And because that’s the way THEY talk and write about it, the rest of the public does the same. Why? Because they lack the vocabulary to speak or think about politics any other way. It’s a very Orwellian situation. The point of Newspeak in 1984 is to eliminate all words that express concepts that would free people’s minds. If they don’t have words for a concept that would be a thoughtcrime, they can’t engage in crimethink.

Too many people just can’t think beyond the notion that good people like me vote THIS way, and only this way, and that people who vote that other way are bad.

The way rank and file voters react to Nikki Haley offers a good example of this phenomenon. Among in-the-know Republicans — the Inner Party members, carrying forward the 1984 analogy — have never liked her much, although I sense a lot of them have now warmed to her.

But among the great masses of people who think of themselves as Republicans, if you criticize Nikki Haley, then you are a liberal Democrat. This, to them, is a truth that cannot be disputed. There can be no other explanation for your criticism.

I know this from personal experience. I actually have missed out on getting a job because the boss was convinced I was “left of center.” Why? Because I’ve criticized Nikki Haley. That was the entire explanation. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. But I knew I’d have trouble working for someone who didn’t think any more clearly that that, so sour grapes.

Cindi Scoppe and I both got that a lot over the years. And the idea that either of us is a liberal Democrat is risible to anyone who looks and listens and thinks. But otherwise bright people who don’t think about this stuff all the time believe it as a matter of course, because their paradigm admits no other explanation.

Back when Jim Hodges and Bill Clinton were in office, we caught similar hell from Democrats. Their notion that we were right-wingers was equally laughable, but you couldn’t convince THEM of that. (I’ll never forget one through-the-looking-glass experience I had speaking to a small group of academics back when Hodges was in office. They sat there with these stony looks of hostility on their faces. They finally let me know that, because I was opposed to Hodges and his “education lottery,” I was an enemy of public education — despite the fact that we had written FAR more over the years as champions of the schools than we had written about Hodges and his plan. They could not be moved. They sat there and informed me I had never lifted a finger for education. They were adamant in their absurd belief.)

As you say, Lynn, “Anyone who watches actual votes and decisions knows better, but few citizens do.” Posts such as this one are part of my campaign to gradually wear away at the bars of the average citizen’s mind prison, which was largely created by my colleagues in the media…

Trying to make up my mind on the Lexington sales tax hike

This story in The State today reminds me that I have to decide by next week whether to vote for the Lexington County penny tax increase.

I checked with Warren Bolton to see whether they’re going to have anything about it on the editorial page. He said there will be something, and I look forward to reading it. Y’all may think of me as a guy who comes equipped with a full set of strongly-held opinions, and to some extent that’s true. But my daily discussions with Warren and Cindi — and back in the halcyon days, Mike Fitts and Nina Brook and before them John Monk and Claudia Brinson — helped me refine and correct and hone my views. I was always smarter about an issue after discussing it with them. Even if I still had the same general view I went in with (which, I admit, was usually the case), I had a better grasp on it, and had sanded off the rough edges, when I came out.US_One_Cent_Obv

And when, as with this case, I’m not sure what to think, such a discussion always helped me make up my mind. (That dynamic, by the way — the testing of one’s thoughts against those of a group of thoughtful people — is what editorials, and especially endorsements, are all about. Even if you disagree with the piece, and don’t change your mind, you’ll be smarter about the way you approach the issue for having tested your views against the ones you read.)

I know that if I could sit in a regular morning meeting with my friends on the edit board, I could arrive at a conclusion that I would be comfortable with, and that I could support and defend. Lacking that, I look forward to seeing what they publish.

The problem I have making up my mind on the Lexington penny is that it’s just for roads and infrastructure. I backed the penny in Richland because half of it went to the buses. I’d have backed it more enthusiastically if it had all gone to public transportation. But Lexington County largely turns its back on the bus system, and is all about cars and roads. Which bothers me…

OK, it’s not ALL about cars and roads. There’s some other infrastructure in there. But I’m happy to pay the Richland penny because it’s funding something that is an alternative to cars and roads, and which the community needed, and which it was having trouble paying for otherwise. (And though I do live in Lexington, I probably spend at least as much on taxable items in Richland.)

Then there’s also the problem that we’re already leaning on the sales tax too much in this state. It’s crept up to where it’s on the border of being too high if not there already, while property and income taxes aren’t bearing their share of the load (OK, business property taxes are, but primary-residence taxes are not).

And as I’ve said repeatedly, we have a mechanism for building and maintaining roads — the state gasoline tax. That needs to be raised, rather than just raising sales taxes here and there across the state.

At the same time, that is still a tough row to hoe, and in the meantime we have inadequate roads. So I struggle with this.

Maybe y’all can help me with this. The morning meeting is hereby convened…

What’s wrong with our politics? It’s the parties, stupid!

In The State today, there’s a column by Clive Crook of Bloomberg News that takes issue with Francis Fukuyama’s assertion that we are plagued by “too much democracy,” arguing that it’s more accurate to say, “The problem isn’t too much democracy; it’s too much politics.”

He elaborates:

You don’t measure the quality of democracy just by asking whether the politically engaged have voice, or by counting their opportunities to influence outcomes (for good or ill), important as those metrics may be. Democracy is also supposed to work for the disengaged. In that respect, this democracy is plainly failing.

America’s political class — candidates, interest groups, activists and their respective groupies in the media — can’t be faulted for lack of engagement. Boy, are they engaged. That’s fine, of course. (It would be even better if they were as interested in public policy as they are in the political contest as blood sport, but that’s another matter.) Outside that bubble, however, views of politics run the range from boredom to despair. And a main cause, I’d submit, is popular disgust with that very political class. More politics doesn’t necessarily get you more democracy, much less better democracy….

But when people say there’s “too much politics” in our, well, politics, they are confused. There’s nothing wrong with politics, per se. Properly understood, it is the set of mechanisms whereby human beings manage to live with each other, and when it’s working properly, it enables them to work together to get things of mutual benefit done.

Most of the time, when people say “politics” with a disgusted tone, they refer to contentiousness for its own sake. They refer to political actors working not to achieve something of benefit to the society, but trying to gain advantage for themselves and their own narrow ideological group.

The problem is that “politics” has come to refer to public affairs engaged in as a sport, in which there are only two sides, they are sharply separated, and one must win while the other must lose.

The system is rigged against those of us who would like to see change. Not by some class of insiders or by money contributed by a “one percent.” It’s rigged by the parties and their affiliated interest groups, who have set things up so that sensible ideas with broad, consensus appeal don’t have a chance.

Their most obvious mechanism for accomplishing this is the one mentioned in my last post: reapportionment. Every ten years, the algorithms have gotten more sophisticated, and so it’s child’s play for the party in power to draw, for instance, one super-safe Democratic congressional districts, and six others in which a Democrat will never have a prayer.

And so we have elections that are not elections, because our courts have held that incumbent protection (which really amounts to party protection) is an acceptable aim of reapportionment. So the only elections are the primaries, and they are geared to produce the most extreme, the most “pure,” expressions of the brain-dead ideologies that each party professes to embrace.

So is there any wonder that the rest of us are fed up, disillusioned?

What we need isn’t less politics; it’s more politics — the kind in which anyone has a chance to make his or her case in a fair election. We don’t have that now.

Showing a noble, inspiring faith in the possibility of politics

Sue and Jim Rex, at the American Party booth at the SC State Fair.

Sue and Jim Rex, at the American Party booth at the SC State Fair.

I went to the fair today, and saw the usual booths for the Democrats and Republicans, and stayed away from them.

But I stopped to chat at the American Party booth, because one of the founders of the party was there — Jim Rex.

Jim invited me to sign the petition to get a recall power onto the ballot — a measure that would allow voters to dump politicians who have broken the law.

I told him no, I don’t hold with recall petitions. I think elections come soon enough. Although I admit that allowing recall only in cases of illegality is a lot less objectionable than the kind they have in California and other places, which allow voters to dump pols between election on a whim if they choose (thereby eliminating even the rare glimpses of political courage that we occasionally see in non-election years).

Then, we segued into a polite argument about term limits, with me getting on a rhetorical high horse and saying I just have more simple faith in politics than he does. I trust the voters to decide for themselves whether they want somebody for one term, two terms, three terms or 20 terms.

I said that if he wanted to do something about cynical incumbents, noncompetitive elections and apathy, then go to work on a federal constitutional amendment that would end the way we apportion districts in this country. THAT is the cause of all the ills he deplores.

Anyway, looking at the picture I took above of the Rexes causes me to check myself — I shouldn’t have said I have more faith in politics.

There is no greater faith in our system than stepping out and starting a new party, and sticking to it and working as hard at it as the Rexes have, along with Oscar Lovelace and others.

Frankly, I find it inspiring, even when I disagree on policy proposals

More newspapers have stopped doing endorsements, and their excuses for this cop-out are as lame as ever

Politico notes that more and more newspapers are announcing that they’ll no longer do candidate endorsements.

And as usual with such cop-outs, their excuses for this are completely lame:

Papers in Michigan, Wisconsin, Maine and Texas have all announced this year that their editorial boards will no longer print the traditional candidate endorsements.

The Green Bay Press-Gazette said they are discontinuing the practice in order to be “an independent voice amid the growing clamor of voices espousing hyper-partisan views.”

Yes, that’s right. You are supposed to be “an independent voice.” And if you, the independent voice, won’t state a preference between the candidates, then the only people out there expressing a preference will be the “growing clamor of voices espousing hyper-partisan views.”

To continue:

It’s a trend that’s been spreading throughout the country, CJR reports. In 2012, the Halifax Media chain said they would stop endorsing ” because endorsing candidates could “create the idea we are not able to fairly cover political races.” The Chicago Sun-Times and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution have also ceased endorsing candidates.

Guess what? People will still accuse you of not fairly covering political races. As has always been the case and always will be the case, people will try to read a bias into every word you write. They will always be looking for an indication that you’re really for the other guy, and in their minds, they will find the proof in every news story.

That’s why, as an institution, you should be honest about any preference you do have. So at least readers can take that institutional preference into consideration in assessing the fairness of your coverage. It makes you more transparent, rather than forcing readers to guess about the biases that they assume you have.

Fortunately, there are still some editors out there who understand what newspapers, and especially editorial pages, are for. As CJR reports:

As for movement in the other direction? The Los Angeles Times, which gave up endorsements in presidential campaigns after 1972, in part because of conflict over its support for Richard Nixon, returned to the practice in 2008. The Times’ reasoning tracked pretty closely with the Chicago Tribune’s 2012 statement on why it plans to keep endorsing: Editorial boards take stands on political issues every day, and it would be odd or even irresponsible to go silent at such a key moment.

Amen to that. I’ve said the same many times: Every day of every year, newspapers publish their opinions on every policy issue under the sun — which is a fine thing in theory, but the fact is that in a representative democracy, a newspaper’s readers can’t do anything about most of those issues. The one time they all get a say is at election time, when they choose the people who actually will act on those issues.

To opine about these issues the rest of the time (and if you don’t think newspapers should express opinions at all, then that’s another issue for another day), and then fail to point out which candidates are most likely to enact the policies one favors, at the critical moment when readers all have a decision to make, is both lazy and cowardly.

Cowardice has always been a factor because close to half of the people reading any endorsement are going to get mad at you about it. So has laziness, as endorsements are labor-intensive. The “lazy” factor is playing a bigger and bigger role as newspaper staffs keep shrinking.

And so it is that I’ve been proud to see Cindi and Warren cranking out endorsements this week, here and here and here and here. I know how much work they’re putting into the process, and I appreciate it.

endorsements

Time for change: Scoppe column on judicial vote-trading

Did you see the exclusive story in The State the other day to this effect:

State and federal law enforcement officials are questioning S.C. legislators about potential illegal vote swapping in February’s race that re-elected the state’s Supreme Court chief justice, multiple sources have told The State….

Did you find yourself confused in reading it? Did you think to yourself, Don’t lawmakers trade votes all the time, on all sorts of issues? Since when is that illegal?

Well, Cindi Scoppe helps walk you through all that in her column today. She explains that yes, lawmakers routinely swap votes on issues — the General Assembly would get even less done if they did not.

But she also explains how a series of horrific events in 1995 that caused lawmakers to elect less-qualified jurists to the bench led to reform, and the practice was banned — with regard to judicial selection. (And ironically, the reform was passed by a vote-swapping deal between House and Senate conferees.)

Here’s her recap of what happened back then to lead to the reform:

it starts on a sunny spring day in 1995, when the Legislature elected E.C. Burnett to the Supreme Court and Kay Hearn to the Court of Appeals and re-elected Danny Martin to the Circuit Court. Mr. Burnett and Ms. Hearn were qualified for the positions, but analyses by the S.C. Bar and the Legislature’s judicial screening committee showed that they were the least qualified candidates in their hotly contested races. The committee found Mr. Martin didn’t understand the law at all, and the Bar had declared him unfit for the bench.

As senators filed out of the House chamber after the election, then-Sen. Robert Ford bragged about how it all happened: The Legislative Black Caucus pledged 20 votes for Hearn in exchange for Horry County votes for Martin and 18 votes for Burnett in return for four Spartanburg County votes for Martin; another five Spartanburg County legislators agreed not to vote in the Martin race.

“All kind of deals was made,” Sen. Ford told reporters. “I had to sell my soul to 10 devils.”

No one denied the deals, because vote trading always had been a part of judicial elections — whether the votes involved other judicial races or legislation. And why not? Trading votes is a natural part of the legislative process….

As so often during his lamentable lawmaking career, there was the brazen Robert Ford, standing as the poster child of bad government. But of course, he was just the most visible manifestation of something much more widespread. Perhaps we even owe him a debt of gratitude for making the unsavory situation so much more obvious.

That’s all history, but the thing that deserves even more attention is this conclusion:

I supported the current system for a long time, because it was such a huge improvement over what came before. But it never was a good system, because it encourages the sort of logrolling that is alleged to have occurred in the chief justice race, and because it allows one branch of government to control the judiciary.

And if one person rules the House with an iron hand — one person who is not the governor, who is not elected by all the voters of this state, and who is not accountable to the public for his power — it allows that one person to control the judiciary. As felt so disturbingly to be the case as we watched Mr. Harrell’s treatment in our courts in the weeks and months leading up to his indictment this summer on public corruption charges.

That’s sort of new, and sort of not.

I have long held the position that we should switch to a different method of choosing judges, preferably one like the federal system — the governor nominates, and the Senate confirms. That spreads out the power across the other two branches of government, and makes sure that the one individual having extensive say in the matter is one elected by all of the people, not just one House district.

But since the reforms of the 1990s, which did much to inject merit into the current system of election by the General Assembly, I (and the editorial board) acknowledged that the system was much better than it had been, and so we let judicial selection slide to a back burner. We still advocated for change when the subject came up, but we didn’t drive it the way we did so many other issues.

The events of the past year or two — with Bobby Harrell trying to bat the judiciary around like cat with a chew toy, so soon after a dramatic example of his power in choosing justices — mean it’s time to move real, substantive reform to the front rank of priorities.

It’s high time to stop letting the Legislature choose judges, all by its lonesome.

So which is it? Is SC economy in the tank, or doing great?

Apparently riffing on a release sent out by the SC Democratic Party, Will Folks writes:

Is it a “great day in South Carolina?”

Not if you live in Cheraw or Bennettsville, S.C.  These two rural towns are reeling after a recent announcement from Bi-Lo – a regional grocery store chain that operates roughly 200 supermarkets in Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee.

According to reporter Mary Edwards of WMBF TV (NBC – Myrtle Beach/ Florence, S.C.), Bi-Lo is shutting down stores in Cheraw and Bennettsville – a move that will leave 130 employees out of work.

The job losses are coming sooner rather than later, too, with the store’s regional public relations manager telling Edwards the stores will be closing prior to November 19 of this year.

Happy Thanksgiving, right?…

Remember Colonial Stores?

Remember Colonial Stores?

As a native of Bennettsville, I can remember when it had a thriving retail environment, with a bustling Main Street and several supermarkets in the downtown area — Winn-Dixie, Colonial (anybody remember Colonial Stores?), an A&P, and later, a Harris Teeter.

Not so much anymore. I haven’t counted the grocery stores lately, but it’s been awhile since downtown has been what it was.

But the view can still look pretty good from Columbia, as Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt writes today in The State — and he has plenty of facts on his side:

By any measure, South Carolina is on a roll. Over the past four years, we have been making major gains — gains that are bringing economic stability and opportunity to communities across the state.bobby_hitt_110111

We’ve celebrated big recruitment wins, including announcements by the world’s top automotive and aerospace companies, boosted opportunities for small businesses and created an environment that encourages existing industry to continue expanding in our state.

The facts are clear: Trend lines show unemployment on the decline while the number of South Carolinians working has risen to historic highs. Our economy is humming, and companies around the world are choosing South Carolina as a place where they can succeed….

That team approach starts at the top, with Gov. Nikki Haley personally invested and fully integrated in what we’re doing, meeting and speaking with prospects or our existing companies. As the CEO of the state, she understands the importance of customer service and a personal touch. In fact, one thing we hear from clients all over the world is that she readily gives them her cell phone number and says to call her with any issues….

So which is it? Is our economy in the dumps, or thriving?

Fearing U.N.’s ‘Agenda 21′ down in Charleston

Paranoia strikes deep in the heartland. And also on the coast. I rode on an elevator with Matt Kennell of City Center Partnership this morning, and he was marveling at the credulity of those in Charleston who believe that “smart growth” is some sort of U.N. plot to undermine the American Way.

Here’s what he was referring to:

Where builders and planners see combining high-density housing, retail and offices as the wave of the future, residents from Mount Pleasant to James Island see problems – crowded schools, lack of parking and an end to small-town lifestyles.

Now, they also have complaints that high-density residential developments, bicycle lanes, mass transit and “sustainable” or “smart” growth are part of a 22-year-old United Nations plot to undermine the American way of life.

“It’s all a part of this Agenda 21,” said Mount Pleasant native Cindy Anderson, referring to the Coleman Boulevard Plan. “They will push us all into these urban centers – that’s the plan.”

Bill Eubanks, the creative director of Urban Edge Studio at Seamon, Whiteside & Associates, who authored Mount Pleasant’s Coleman Boulevard master plan, said he’s heard concerns about Agenda 21, a 351-page document outlining ideas to address poverty, housing and environmental problems, including climate change.

“I have looked into the Agenda 21 conspiracy theory claims and not only do I think they are unfounded, I think they are absolutely ludicrous,” he said. “Worse than that, buying into this ridiculous fear-mongering can stand in the way of both sustainability and smart growth – something our communities really need.”…

Apparently, “Agenda 21″ is to development what “Common Core” is to education standards — some sort of dog-whistle thing that only the conspiracy-sensitive can hear.

Those who fear this supposed agenda say it could lead to people getting out of their cars and riding mass transit. Which, of course, sounds awesome. I don’t know whether the U.N. has a plan for that, but I do. Alas, I don’t think any of us will live to see it where we live…

Why DO Americans freak out so over single-payer?

One recent morning, I watched another episode of “The West Wing” while on the elliptical trainer. It was the one titled “Drought Conditions,” the 16th episode of Season 6. It’s the one you might remember best from the scene when Josh and Toby actually get into a fight, right there in the West Wing, and Toby gets a nasty cut on his cheekbone. (See above.)

At this point in our story, Josh has left the White House to manage Matt Santos’ bid for the Democratic nomination for president. His candidate has done better than expected in New Hampshire, but Josh is worried about another candidate who has come out of nowhere to start grabbing support that should go to Santos. This new candidate, Rafferty, is using language that Toby once wrote for Bartlet in favor of a single-payer health care system. Toby admits he’s been collaborating with Rafferty. This is what precipitates the fight.

Anyway, there are two or three conversations about this, and we pick up on the fact that, way back before they won the White House, everybody else had to talk Toby (and presumably President Bartlet) down from their politically unpalatable position.

This was so familiar to me. This episode aired two years before I wrote my column asking why no presidential candidate, even in the Democratic field, dared to say “single-payer,” other than fringe extremists such as Dennis Kucinich. Barack Obama certainly didn’t dare say it. My attitude was much the same as Toby’s: What’s the point in even having Democrats, if they can’t stand up for something so obvious, so commonsense, so entirely accepted in the rest of the advanced world — and so in their wheelhouse ideologically?

Anyway, I finished watching the episode just as I finished with the elliptical trainer. (I do 40 minutes, which is almost perfect for watching American “hour-long” commercial TV shows.)

While doing my crunches and stretches after, I put on a few minutes of a “30 Rock” that I’d started watching previously. It’s the one when Jack and Avery have their baby, reluctantly, in Canada after failing to get back across the border before she gave birth.

Which leads to this exchange, which interrupts a phone call Jack is having with Liz Lemon:

Avery: This woman is trying to tell me that we don’t have to pay for any of this.

Woman: Right. The Canadian health care system…

Jack: Oh, no you don’t. We will not be party to this socialist perversion. You will take our money.

Woman: I’m sorry, sir, I can’t do that.

Liz (on the other end of the phone): Oh, this is gonna be good.

Jack: Avery, can you walk yet?

Avery (rising from her bed, holding the baby): I am right behind you, Jack.

Jack: Let’s go find a Canadian who will take our money.

That is played for laughs, and it is hilarious, particularly Jack’s hyperbolic crack about “socialist perversion.”

But what it’s making fun of isn’t funny. Why DO Americans freak out so over something that Canadians and Brits take for granted?

Y’all know me. I’m a center-right kind of guy (if you must place me on that stupid left-right spectrum), and on some things a neocon. I want the federal government out of things it has no business in, such as education (which means, by the way, that I would never vote for the fictional Matt Santos — he comes across like he’s running for school board rather than POTUS).

But putting everybody into the same risk pool and eliminating profit from the payment system just seems like common sense, not radical at all. Paying my premiums (or if you prefer, taxes) for coverage that I can never lose, no matter where I go to work in the future, also just makes sense to me. Having something simpler than either the patchwork of private coverage or the complex maze of Obamacare just makes sense to me.

I don’t get why it doesn’t make sense to other people — and in fact, freaks them out so. I mean, intellectually I understand that some people have a sort of religious horror of the government being involved with anything. I accept that they are that way. But I have trouble understanding why they’re that way. Why do Americans get so worked up about something that other people who are so like us culturally — such as the Brits, and the Canadians — take for granted, as a matter of course?

Some of y’all have tried to explain it to me in the past. Maybe you should try again. Maybe I’ll get it this time. Then again, maybe not.

The thing is, I can probably recite all of the objections. The words I know. What I don’t get is the passion, the horror at the idea. It’s the emotion that eludes my understanding…

Headlines about Eric Holder

As a former front-page editor, I found the different approaches taken by three great newspapers in announcing the resignation of U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder mildly interesting:

  1. Holder to Resign as Attorney General — The Wall Street Journal takes the plain, unadorned approach.
  2. Holder, Liberal Voice, to Quit as U.S. Attorney General — The New York Times throws in some analysis, bordering on making an editorial judgment. Interesting choice. Of course, this being the Times, we might see that as an honorific.
  3. Eric Holder, first black attorney general, to resign — The Washington Post charts a middle ground. They wanted to say more than the WSJ was saying, but didn’t want to venture into subjectivity. So they point out something about him no one can argue with. Of course, if I’m Holder, I’d prefer the NYT approach. I’d be thinking, “That’s it? That’s all you think of when you see me?”

    Yeah, I know. It seems like I think about these things too much. Well, I used to get paid to do that, and it’s hard to stop…

 

So are things hunky-dory, or are we all gonna die?

I was struck by this contrast in The State this morning…

First, from a David Brooks column:

Widening the lens, we’re living in an era with the greatest reduction in global poverty ever — across Asia and Africa. We’re seeing a decline in civil wars and warfare generally.

The scope of the problems we face are way below historic averages. We face nothing like the slavery fights of the 1860s, the brutality of child labor and industrialization of the 1880s, or a civilization-threatening crisis like World War I, the Great Depression, World War II or the Cold War. Even next to the 1970s — which witnessed Watergate, stagflation, social decay and rising crime — we are living in a golden age.

Our global enemies are not exactly impressive. We have the Islamic State, a bunch of barbarians riding around in pickup trucks, and President Vladimir Putin of Russia, a lone thug sitting atop a failing regime. These folks thrive only because of the failed states and vacuums around them.

I mention all of this because of the despondency and passivity and talk of unraveling that floated around this summer. Now there is a mood of pessimism and fatalism evident in the polls and in conversations — a lack of faith in ourselves.

It’s important in times like these to step back and get clarity….

Then, from this feature from Carolyn Click about Rosh Hashanah starting tonight:

Jews mark the beginning of the High Holy Days at sundown Wednesday with the observance of Rosh Hoshanah, entering a time of personal reflection that comes amid a backdrop of fighting in the Arab world, a deadly Ebola outbreak in Africa and other world calamities.

“I think everyone is feeling the drumbeat of war in their ear,” Rabbi Jonathan Case, leader of Beth Shalom Synagogue on Trenholm Road, said Tuesday.

Older members of the congregation, those who lived through World War II, “feel that they have been in this place before,” Case said, “that the world seems to have gone awry. There is no doubt that people are scared.”…

Maybe Brooks is being a bit of a Pollyanna, but it would seem the Rabbi — or the people he’s referring to — are getting a tad overwrought. WWII? The Holocaust? Compared to now?

I think maybe Brooks and some of the folks at Beth Shalom should get together and compare notes…

The worst idea the new American Party has come up with

I really groaned when I saw this:

Party to undertake “Recall” initiative for elected officials

In the interest of holding our elected officials accountable and in keeping with our Party’s core principles, the American Party is undertaking a RECALL initiative in South Carolina. This initiative is aimed at enhancing governmental accountability by amending the State Constitution to allow registered voters to recall elected officials who violate the trust placed in them by the electorate.

We would like to invite you to join us at our press conference to announce this initiative:

Thursday, September 25th
10:00am
1st Floor State House Lobby
(enter through visitor’s entrance under the north state house stairs)

Please be on hand by 9:45am. Contact Scott Malyerck at (803) 446-2881 with any questions.

Thank you for your continued support.

Dr. Jim Rex and Dr. Oscar Lovelace

This alternative party had already succumbed to the temptation of embracing other populist nostrums that sound far better, to the unthoughtful, than they are in reality — term limits, for instance.

Recall petitions are as bad as government by plebiscite, which I half expect Messrs. Rex and Lovelace to embrace next.

One of the worst thing about politics today is that elected officials are so busy looking over their shoulders, fretting about the next election, that they seldom pause to govern. This would make the looming pressure of election hover over them even more ominously and destructively. The perpetual campaign would, if anything, be even more omnipresent.

We need lawmakers who can step away from whatever fads and fashions are running through the electorate at a given moment long enough to deliberate and govern. This pulls them in the opposite direction.

This is disappointing.

Regarding Scotland, I add my cheers to Friedman’s

Friday night, I ran into our own Phillip Bush at the Greek Festival. He had a pint of beer in hand, which he had obtained at the craft beer stand next to the main tent, where Greek-flavored music was being performed. I asked if he would recommend one of the beers. He said that, Anglophile that I am, I should get a Skunk Cabbage ESB, to celebrate the Scots’ rejection of separatism.

Which I did. And I congratulate the local brewers — I liked it better than the legendary Fuller’s ESB.

But I congratulate the Scots even more heartily. And I share this Tom Friedman column, which Samuel Tenenbaum brings to my attention:

Three Cheers for Pluralism Over Separatism

MADRID — THIS was an interesting week to visit Britain and Spain — first to watch the Scottish separatists push for independence and then to watch Basque and Catalan separatists watching (with disappointment) the outcome of the vote. One reaction: I’m glad a majority of Scots rejected independence. Had they not, it would have clipped the wing of America’s most important wingman in the world: Britain. Another reaction: God bless America. We have many sources of strength, but today our greatest asset is our pluralism — our “E pluribus unum” — that out of many we’ve made one nation, with all the benefits that come from mixing cultures and all the strengths that come from being able to act together.

As I’ve asked before: Who else has twice elected a black man as president, whose middle name is Hussein, whose grandfather was a Muslim, who first defeated a woman and later defeated a Mormon? I’m pretty sure that I will not live long enough to see an ethnic Pakistani become prime minister of Britain or a Moroccan immigrant president of France. Yes, the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., reminds us that we’re still a work in progress in the pluralism department. But work on it we do, and I’ll take the hard work of pluralism over the illusions of separatism any day….