An unsuitable job

US elections 2008: If John McCain wins the nomination, he shouldn't put a foreign policy novice like Mike Huckabee a heartbeat away from the presidency

With John McCain's narrow wins in New Hampshire and South Carolina making him a shaky Republican frontrunner, people have engaged in some absurdly early speculation as to whom he might choose as a running mate. One early favourite is former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, the darling of the evangelicals. But if McCain is the man he and his supporters say he is, he won't do that to the country.

McCain's official campaign biography says: "As the son and grandson of distinguished Navy admirals, John McCain deeply values duty, honour and service of country." That's the theme of his campaign. His determination to prove his own integrity inspired his decade-long fight to impose strict new regulations on campaign finance. Told that his support for the Iraq war might doom his presidential candidacy, McCain repeatedly says: "I'd rather lose an election than a war." Newspaper endorsements, like this one from the State in South Carolina, echo those sentiments:

John McCain has shown more clearly than anyone on the American political scene today that he loves his country, and would never mislead or dishonour it. He is almost unique in his determination to do what is right, whatever the cost.

Posted on March 28, 2014  Posted to Foreign Policy,John McCain,Mike Huckabee,The Guardian,United States

Sex, religion and conservatives

Why do conservatives support laws against discrimination for characteristics that they approve of, but not for characteristics they don't approve of?

In their attempt to oppose laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation (that is, laws supporting gay rights) while supporting other such laws, conservatives have long tied themselves in knots. You shouldn't compare antigay discrimination to racial discrimination, they said, because race is an immutable characteristic, while homosexuality is a chosen behavior. Thus it's appropriate to ban discrimination on the basis of race. And also, they'll allow, all the other characteristics protected in the US by the 1964 Civil Rights Act - race, color, religion, sex and national origin.

But wait a minute, I used to say to conservatives. It's obvious to thinking people that sexual orientation isn't chosen - it may be genetic or environmental, but it certainly isn't chosen. As far as the individual is concerned, it's an innate or immutable characteristic. So if that's your standard, then discrimination against gays is just as unreasonable as discrimination against blacks. (Yes, conservatives could counter that orientation might be immutable, but sexual behavior is still chosen. Sort of like saying that you might be born Jewish, but you could stay in the closet and not practice your faith, and then you wouldn't suffer any discrimination.) And meanwhile, religion is a chosen behavior. Right? In most Christian churches, you must make a conscious decision to join the church, and that decision is normally made after reaching the age of reason.

Posted on March 28, 2014  Posted to Conservatives,Equality,Gay rights,Religion,The Guardian,United States

Hillary and the imperial presidency

US elections 2008: Clinton's promise to curtail executive power and restore checks and balances is belied by her record

In a speech to newspaper editors earlier this month, senator Hillary Clinton denounced the "imperial presidency" of George Bush and promised to pursue a different course if she becomes president.

But that promise is hardly more believable than her claims to have dodged sniper fire in Bosnia.

Posted on March 28, 2014  Posted to George Bush,Hillary Clinton,The Guardian,US politics

Jim Webb’s identity-based populism

The potential vice-presidential candidate supports liberal economic policies because of his Scots-Irish heritage

Richard Just at the New Republic magazine is not impressed with Virginia senator Jim Webb as a running mate for Barack Obama. Webb is fundamentally illiberal, he writes, a misogynist and an ethnic nationalist and "something of an apologist for the Confederacy." So why do lots of liberals like Webb, Just asks. "In the years since he left the Republican party, Webb has found his way to certain policy stands that liberals correctly find attractive. He was right about Iraq, and, on economics, he is right to criticise the disparity between rich and poor." Just can't figure out how a fundamentally illiberal Scots-Irish nationalist can arrive at all those good liberal tax-hiking, big-spending, trade-restricting positions that "liberals" like.

But in fact Webb's liberal positions on economic issues stem directly from his self-image as an oppressed working-class white man. When I read his book Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America, I was struck by how it burned with a passionate hatred of the English in both England and America, who in Webb's view had been keeping his people down for hundreds of years. Throughout the book he complains about "the Wasp hierarchy" and the "Cavalier aristocracy" from which the hard-working Scots-Irish have been systematically excluded. Just notes that too: "Perhaps the most unappealing thing about Webb's worldview is that it seems to be built largely on resentment. In his book Born Fighting, you can practically feel the resentment coming off the page."

Posted on March 28, 2014  Posted to Race issues,The Guardian,United States,US economic growth and recession,US elections 2008,US politics

The media’s racist bogeyman

Racist attacks on Barack Obama are few and far between, but that hasn't stopped the media from sensationalising them

Liberal journalists are combing the back roads of America looking for evidence of the resurgent racism being generated by the prospect of a black man becoming president. The striking thing is how little they've turned up in a country of 300m people with plenty of racial conflict in its history.

Here's how the Associated Press led a roundup story on Friday: "Race, an inescapable but explosive issue on which both presidential candidates have tread carefully if not tried to ignore, is increasingly popping up as it's becoming more likely the country will elect its first black president."

In San Bernardino County, California, the October newsletter of the Chaffey Community Republican Women, Federated, showed Obama's face on a phoney $10 government food stamp coupon adorned with a watermelon, ribs and a bucket of fried chicken. Diane Fedele, president of the group, apologised and she had no racist intent: "It was just food to me. It didn't mean anything else." The state GOP denounced the newsletter.

In Nevada, Colorado and Michigan, TV ads show a clip of [the Rev Jeremiah] Wright declaring "God damn America!" in a sermon. "How can we forget these hateful sermons from Obama's pastor for over 20 years?" says one ad by the Our Country Deserves Better PAC, a Sacramento, California-based group that was formed to campaign against Obama.

Posted on March 28, 2014  Posted to Barack Obama,John McCain,Media,Race issues,Sarah Palin,The Guardian,US elections 2008,US politics

Obama’s shock doctrine

On the economy, Obama is trying to scare the American people in order to ram through a progressive agenda

"Profound economic emergency," the president says. Failure to pass his spending plan could "turn a crisis into a catastrophe". Any delay will mean "paralysis" and "disaster". It's all out of the "shock doctrine" playbook: scare people to death and then demand that your agenda be enacted without delay.

Naomi Klein made waves two years ago with her book The Shock Doctrine, in which she claimed that conservative governments use crises to ram through free-market policies. As she put it in an interview: "The Shock Doctrine is a political strategy that the Republican right has been perfecting over the past 35 years to use for various different kinds of shocks. They could be wars, natural disasters, economic crises, anything that sends a society into a state of shock to push through what economists call 'economic shock therapy' rapid-fire, pro-corporate policies that they couldn't get through if people weren't in a state of fear and panic."

And that's just what we're seeing today only in reverse.

Last year the US economy was hit with one shock after another: the Bear Stearns bail-out, the Indymac collapse, the implosion of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the AIG nationalisation, the biggest stock market drop ever, the $700bn Wall Street bail-out and more all accompanied by a steady drumbeat of apocalyptic language from political leaders.

And what happened? Did the Republican administration summon up the spirit of Milton Friedman and cut government spending? Did it deregulate and privatise?


It did what governments actually do in a crisis it seized new powers over the economy. It dramatically expanded the regulatory powers of the Federal Reserve and injected a trillion dollars of inflationary credit into the banking system. It partially nationalised the biggest banks. It appropriated $700bn with which to intervene in the economy. It made General Motors and Chrysler wards of the federal government. It wrote a bail-out bill giving the secretary of the treasury extraordinary powers that could not be reviewed by courts or other government agencies.

Now the Obama administration is continuing this drive toward centralisation and government domination of the economy. And its key players are explicitly referring to heir own version of the shock doctrine. Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, said the economic crisis facing the country is "an opportunity for us". After all, he said: "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And this crisis provides the opportunity for us to do things that you could not do before" such as taking control of the financial, energy, information and healthcare industries.

That's just the sort of thing Naomi Klein would have us believe that free-marketers like Milton Friedman think. "Some people stockpile canned goods and water in preparation for major disasters," Klein wrote. "Friedmanites stockpile free-market ideas." But that is exactly what American left-liberals have been doing in anticipation of a Democratic administration coming to power at a time when the public might be frightened into accepting more government than it normally would. For instance, the Centre for American Progress, run by John Podesta, who was President Bill Clinton's chief of staff and President-elect Obama's transition director, has just released Change for America: A Progressive Blueprint for the 44th President.

Paul Krugman, the Bush-bashing New York Times columnist, endorsed Emanuel's enthusiasm: "Progressives hope that the Obama administration, like the New Deal, will respond to the current economic and financial crisis by creating institutions, especially a universal healthcare system, that will change the shape of American society for generations to come."

Arianna Huffington had called Klein's book "prophetic". As the Obama team began drawing up plans, she proved just how right she was, declaring: "A crisis is a terrible thing to waste. And it might be this particular crisis that will make it possible for the Obama administration to do some really innovative, bold things on healthcare, on energy independence, on all the areas that have been neglected."

None of this should surprise us. It's crazy to think that most governments will respond to a crisis by reducing their own powers and deregulating the economy, as Klein would have us believe. Political leaders naturally respond to crisis by riding in as the man on the white horse and taking control.

As Rick Perlstein, liberal historian, wrote: "The Oval Office's most effective inhabitants have always understood [that a crisis is the best opportunity to make radical change]. Franklin D Roosevelt hurled down executive orders and legislative proposals like thunderbolts during his first hundred days, hardly slowing down for another four years before his window slammed shut; Lyndon Johnson, aided by John F Kennedy's martyrdom and the landslide of 1964, legislated at such a breakneck pace his aides were in awe. Both presidents understood that there are too many choke points our minority-enabling constitutional system, our national tendency toward individualism and our concentration of vested interests to make change possible any other way."

Robert Higgs, the libertarian historian, is less enthusiastic. In Crisis and Leviathan, he demonstrated that government growth in the US has not been slow and steady, year in and year out. Rather, its scope and power tend to shoot up during wars and economic crises.

Occasionally, around the world, there have been instances where a crisis led to free-market reforms, such as the economic reforms in Britain and New Zealand in response to deteriorating economic conditions. Generally, though, governments seek to expand their power, and they take advantage of crises to do so. But they rarely spell their intentions out as clearly as Rahm Emanuel did.

Posted on March 28, 2014  Posted to Barack Obama,Books,Democrats,Global recession,Obama administration,Republicans,The Guardian,United States,US economic growth and recession,US economy,US politics,World news

Cheer up, Kirk Douglas

We're living longer, healthier, more comfortable lives on a cleaner planet.

Dan Glaister reports that actor Kirk Douglas is celebrating his 90th birthday with a new book and a jeremiad on the state of the world.

"Let's face it," he writes to "America's young people":

"THE WORLD IS IN A MESS and you are inheriting it. Generation Y, you are on the cusp. You are the group facing many problems: abject poverty, global warming, genocide, Aids, and suicide bombers to name a few. These problems exist, and the world is silent. We have done very little to solve these problems. Now, we leave it to you. You have to fix it because the situation is intolerable."

Posted on March 26, 2014  Posted to Culture,Film,Human rights,Kirk Douglas,Social exclusion,The Guardian

Not in front of the children

America's contemporary authoritarians justify all their intrusions on liberty on the grounds of protecting the young.

Whoever said that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel reckoned not with the power of "do it for the kids." From Hillary Clinton (It Takes a Village) to Rick Santorum (It Takes a Family), America's contemporary authoritarians justify all their intrusions on liberty on the grounds of protecting children. Banning gay marriage, regulating television violence, the drug war, government tracking and databases, banning "raves," global warming regulation, videogame regulation, regulating sexual content on television--it's all justified with the claim "it's for the children."

Now in response to a proposed law to ban the spanking of small children, the governor of California has summed up the all-about-the-children mentality with his usual pith:

"I think any time we try to pass laws that say you've got to protect the kids, it's, in general, always good."

Posted on March 26, 2014  Posted to Children,Hillary Clinton,The Guardian,US politics

Amazing song, amazing story

A new movie will shortly bring the story of Newton, Wilberforce, and the abolition of slavery to millions.

Amazing Grace is a beautiful song, but I've never been entirely comfortable with it. I didn't like that line "saved a wretch like me". I don't think I'm a wretch. Nor are most of my friends.

But once I learned the story behind the song (with a little help from my friends at the Mackinac Center), I became more sympathetic: John Newton, who wrote Amazing Grace, really was a wretch. Now a new movie is going to bring that story to millions of people.

Posted on March 26, 2014  Posted to Human rights,The Guardian

A belief that dare not speak its name

There seems to be a dearth of prominent atheists in America. Can there really be just one in Hollywood?

News flash: an American congressman has acknowledged that he is not a religious believer. That's one out of 535. Pete Stark, a leftwing Democrat from the San Francisco Bay Area, says he is a "a Unitarian who does not believe in a supreme being." The old joke is that Unitarians believe there is, at most, one God. But really, if you're not a believer, why join a religion? Oh well, many of Pete Stark's ideas are incomprehensible to me.

So the American Humanist Association celebrated the discovery of a nontheistic member of Congress by taking out an expensive quarter-page ad in the Washington Post. (It's in colour online but not in the newspaper.) The ad notes that Stark and other humanistic, nontheistic Americans are in good company and includes photographs of some other impressive nontheists.

Posted on March 26, 2014  Posted to Religion,The Guardian,United States

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