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Category: General

The Leftist Hamilton?

[ 132 ] August 28, 2014 |

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Ever since the 1820s, Americans have recreated the Founding Fathers they wished they had and used them in convenient ways to promote their own agenda. Little has changed over the decades except the addition of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and to a lesser extent, Theodore Roosevelt, to the pantheon of people who you can pull quotes from without context to promote your positions. Thus the MLK conservatives can claim to support, laughable as that may be to anyone who knows anything about the man.

Although it certainly never disappeared, this sort of thing went through a bit of a lull after World War II, as historical studies of the constitutional period went out of fashion and were replaced by Arthur Schlesinger and others studying the Jacksonian period for the roots of American democracy. In recent decades, conservatives made the wise political move to reclaim the Founders, even if they are as fabricated as their MLK. Scalia’s originalism, patent fraud that it is, has roots in his version of the Constitution. Of course, he, like most Americans, sees the Constitution as a living document despite his protestations. So the 2nd Amendment is deified and the 4th Amendment flushed down the toilet. There’s a long history of this sort of thing, including Gilded Age courts finding an expansive interpretation of the 14th Amendment for corporations while not applying it to African-Americans at all, even though it was written for the latter. In the end, the Constitution has worked reasonably OK for a pretty long time, and it’s hard to ask much more of a government, at least when compared to other governments in history. But the attempt to tie everything to what a bunch of elite men in powdered wigs thought 225 years ago causes more problems than it solves for modern society.

My favorite story around this absurdity is the following:

“What Justice Scalia wants to know is what James Madison thought about video games,” and if “he enjoyed them,” Justice Alito said sarcastically. Justice Scalia shot back, “No, I want to know what James Madison thought about violence.”

Who knows! And why should we try to answer an unknowable and absurd question! In effect, the Constitution means whatever we want it to mean in a given time. But to say that makes people very uncomfortable, I think because we ultimately still want to revere the Founders.

In recent years, liberals have tried to play catch up on originalism, for better of for worse. I’d probably argue for worse because I don’t think originalism is particularly helpful except as a rhetorical political tool. There’s certainly no sanctity in the words or intentions of the Founders.

I mention all of this because of Christian Parenti’s article in Jacobin arguing for a left-wing Alexander Hamilton that has useful lessons for modern Americans on fighting climate change. The article itself is relatively unobjectionable, except that I don’t think Hamilton has any meaningful lessons for us on fighting climate change. Parenti is certainly correct about Hamilton’s modern vision of what would become industrial capitalism and of course his vital role in creating the financial institutions of the new nation is not in question. Parenti’s fundamental argument is that leftists have long fallen on the wrong side of the Hamilton/Jefferson divide. He notes that Jefferson was a slaveholder who had a backwards view of economic development and Hamilton was anti-slavery with a vision of economic growth, and that Hamilton’s idea of an activist government needs to be resuscitated by modern progressives who need to fight back against conservative Jeffersonianism. A Hamiltonian government, not a Jeffersonian one, is the only Founding vision that can effectively fight against climate change.

I have no problem with the left abandoning its idea of romanticized agrarian Jeffersonianism. Leftists love talking about Jefferson’s vague revolutionary words, but I don’t think that’s all that useful for a democratic leftist revolution that is probably never going to happen, at least within my lifetime. Yet is tying our boat to Hamilton any better? Parenti notes that Hamilton has long been perceived as anti-democracy. There’s a good reason for that. Hamilton was anti-democracy. You can’t wave that away. I’m also a bit turned off by the slavery argument. Yes, Jefferson was a slaveholder and a bad guy for it, but that point does not immediately mean that, if we are supposed to learn anything from the Founders, that Jefferson, Madison, Washington, and the other slaveholders are immediately disqualified. If there is value to be gleaned from these long dead men, I don’t think one, admittedly quite horrible, sin automatically means they are out of bounds on everything else, especially given that the non-slave holding Founders also held political positions reprehensible to left-wing Americans in 2014.

Ultimately, I have two much larger problems here. First, Parenti is correct that we need to argue for the activist state. Hamilton is useful for that argument. But if that alone is the argument, we can draw off of Lincoln, FDR, Lenin, a pantheon of people. It’s not that Hamilton has lessons to teach us. It’s that there is a whole history of people showing that an activist government can accomplish a great deal. Tying that to Hamilton is just a politically convenient way of doing that because of the power of using the Founders. And maybe that’s OK.

But this gets to the second problem. If Hamilton’s view of an activist government means that we can use government to fight climate change, Hamilton himself pushed that activist government to facilitate industrial capitalism, i.e., the very system creating catastrophic climate change! Until industrial capitalism is solved, we aren’t going to create a comprehensive response to climate change. If that means a comprehensive response is not going to happen, well, yes, because that is actually what is happening.

In other words, saying Hamilton can guide us today requires a) taking the man out of context or b) making the lessons impossibly broad. There is no “leftist” Hamilton because he would never have recognized such a thing could be possible. It’s a construction of Hamilton based upon chosen facts and stories that serve a modern political purpose. I guess that’s alright, but it certainly raises the eyebrows of this historian. And if we are to learn this lesson from Hamilton, what other lessons should we learn? That the Alien and Sedition Acts were a good idea? That democracy is scary and should be crushed? None of these Founders are less complex than Jefferson; that the latter was a slaveholder who hated the urban poor was terrible, but he did genuinely believe in a form of democracy that was advanced for its day, even if it was a herrenvolk democracy. Hamilton sure didn’t believe in any form of democracy that advanced. If we are reappropriating Hamilton for the left, we have to reckon with these questions because they are as central to his being as creating the institutions of American capitalism, including a functioning federal government. Otherwise, we are cherry picking what we like about him.

I completely agree with Parenti that environmental activists need to double down on their focus on the state, but then I don’t agree with him that lots of greens today don’t rely on the state. That may be true with some grassroots activists, but it most certainly is not true of the big green organizations who are so reliant on the state that they struggle to even comprehend how to motivate the grassroots in an era where they can’t get legislation passed for the first time in a half-century. It’s also not true of the 350.org movement, which is completely reliant upon pressuring the state not to approve the Keystone XL Pipeline. I don’t doubt there is an anarcho-environmentalism that’s popular in some grassroots groups, but that’s hardly indicative of a movement that has long understood the power of the state to enact change. Even here though, Parenti seems to be talking about a libertarian environmentalism that argues for corporate social responsibility. Those ideas are out there but I think is more of an environmentalist strategy in the face of hostile government shutting off legislation than an end game.

Personally, I would rather we not turn the Founders, ever more distant in the past, into people we bow before, or at least their faces chiseled on the sides of South Dakota mountains, an odd American institution. I think it’s really problematic because it relies upon constructed histories of them that almost inherently have to leave out difficult facts. It also reinforces the narrative that change is primarily created by wealthy white great men, not a theory with which I am particularly comfortable. The left likes to talk about “the people,” but it sure loves its great men.

So what is history good for then? I speak for no one but myself, but for this historian, there are very few “lessons” from the past that we can easily learn. Nothing can be understood without the context of the time. What history offers is the understanding of how we got into the situation we are in today, whether positive or negative. For example, we can’t understand Ferguson without understanding the history of slavery, Jim Crow, urban segregation, police violence, etc., both nationally and in the context of the St. Louis area specifically. That’s not a lesson, it’s figuring out the context of what is happening today. It’s the actions of millions of individuals, the ideology of white supremacy as it has developed through time, and the decisions made by municipal, state, and federal governments, not to mention the entire economic context around the disappearance of jobs for the poor, and especially poor people of color. In other words, it’s really hard and certainly not dilutable down to a simple lesson for public consumption.

Although far less intellectually honest than Parenti, Jody Hice, your next congressman from Georgia’s beet red 10th district is promoting made up quotes about the Founders on his Twitter feed. Some of these are misattributed, some are just plain nuts, but in a way it doesn’t matter because the Founders are constructed to be useful to everyone and therefore are probably useful to no one except as a political tool. Which is fine I suppose. It’s a usable past. It just a false one in Hice’s case. Both sides hitch their wagons to the Founders, making them mean whatever the individual wants them to mean.

Finally, I’ll note that for an article in Jacobin, Parenti’s piece can easily be construed as quite the defense of capitalism. Of course, one must acknowledge the reality of capitalism, but Parenti argues simply for a more robust role of the state in operating it. Which is not a radical argument, however defined.

This is all me spitting in the wind. People are going to keep using the past to justify their own positions no matter what any historian says about it. If you want to think Hamilton has lessons for you, go for it. But I think those “lessons” are really tenuous and have to be so broad as to lose the specificity for that person. If they help people decide government is good, I guess that serves a social good and I am just a cranky historian. Print the legend.

Do You think Kirsten Gilibrand is Hot?

[ 59 ] August 28, 2014 |

Do you think she’s fat? In either case, could you keep it to yourself?

America’s gun fetishism

[ 267 ] August 27, 2014 |

Yesterday a nine-year-old girl accidentally shot and killed a 39-year-old instructor at a firing range designed to cater to Las Vegas tourists.

Sprawling across more than 30 acres in the Mojave desert 26 miles from Vegas, Bullets and Burgers advertises itself as an “Outdoor Machine Gun Adventure” with a “Desert Storm atmosphere.” “Our guests have the opportunity to fire a wide range of fully automatic machine guns and specialty weapons,” the Web site says. “At our range, you can shoot FULL auto on our machine guns. … Let ‘em Rip!”

The shooting range’s Web site says the minimum age for the “ground adventure” is 8, and children ages 8 to 17 “must be accompanied by parent or legal guardian at all times.”

She lost control of an Uzi sub-machine gun when the instructor allowed her to fire it in its automatic mode. The video below captures the moments immediately before the accident, and cuts away at the moment the instructor is shot (you can hear the girl scream however).

Fans of the Second Amendment and the Rule of Law will be relieved to learn that nothing illegal took place during this incident:

The sheriff said no citations would be issued and no charges would be filed against the shooting range because it is a licensed, legal operation.

Red States Inflict Suffering on Their Citizens to Spite Obama

[ 46 ] August 27, 2014 |

The most direct consequence of states refusing to accept the Medicaid expansion is people suffering from avodiable death and/or suffering because they don’t have medical insurance. The problems are going beyond this as well:

While record numbers of Americans sign up for the larger Medicaid health insurance program for the poor, financial issues are emerging for medical care providers in the two dozen states that didn’t go along with the expansion under the Affordable Care Act.

Reports out in the last week indicate the gap between those with health care coverage is widening between states that agreed to go along with the health law’s Medicaid expansion and those generally led by Republican legislatures and GOP governors that are balking at the expansion.

The moves against expansion are “beginning to hurt hospitals in states that opted out,” a report last week from Fitch Ratings said. The U.S. Department of Health and Human services has said Medicaid enrollment in the 26 states and the District of Columbia that agreed to go along with and implemented the expansion by the end of May “rose by 17 percent, while states that have not expanded reported only a 3 percent increase,” HHS said in an enrollment update for the Medicaid program.

“We expect providers in states that have chosen not to participate in expanded Medicaid eligibility to face increasing financial challenges in 2014 and beyond,” Fitch said in its July 16 report. “Nonprofit hospitals and healthcare systems in states that have expanded their Medicaid coverage under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act have begun to realize the benefit from increased insurance coverage.”

I once again turn things over to Brad DeLong:

This is the piece of the article that leaves me most annoyed because of the absence of context. Why have 20 states refused to take part in Medicaid expansion? It’s not because of how the Affordable Care Act was written. All states currently participate in Medicaid–it is a good deal for a state to do so. The ACA changed Medicaid. But John Roberts rewrote the law from his post on the Supreme Court to give states the option of (a) simply continuing with Medicaid-as-it-exists-in-2013 in addition to the options of (b) participating in Medicaid-as-it-exists-in-2014 and (c) dropping Medicaid entirely.

When John Roberts rewrote the ACA from the bench, he did so very badly. The expansion of Medicaid meant that a great many people who used to show up at safety-net hospitals without any insurance at all will now be covered by Medicaid, so the rationale for the Disproportionate Share Payments to safety-net hospitals that treat the uninsured will go away, hence the ACA eliminates the no longer-needed DSP. But in states in which Medicaid isn’t expanded, the need for the DSP remains. When Roberts rewrote the law, did he rewrite the law so that the DSP remains for states that do not accept Medicaid expansion? No. Will safety-net hospitals in non-expanding states close as a result? Some of them, probably, without some other emergency fix. Did Roberts know what he was doing? Almost surely not. If you rewrite a law from the bench, shouldn’t you and your clerks first familiarize yourself with the law enough so that you know what you are doing? Next question!

Although the Medicaid portions of Sebelius used exceedingly unpersuasive reasoning to produce a horrible outcome, however, the states remain free to take the expansion. The fact that Republican-controlled ones generally aren’t tells you everything you need to know about the contemporary Republican Party.

Philanthropy and the Bucket Challenge

[ 99 ] August 27, 2014 |

I got sick of the means after about 10 minutes. But it’s worth considering the possibility that the ends are dubious as well. In particular, I agree with Salmon about the “raising awareness” point. Raising awareness about AIDS was valuable in itself because the disease was largely avoidable through changes in behavior. But being aware of ALS doesn’t actually solve anything.

The Supreme Court v. Accountability

[ 40 ] August 27, 2014 |

Good piece by Erwin Chemerinsky on how judicial doctrines of immunity make it difficult to get effective remedies for abuses of power by local authorities:

Because it is so difficult to sue government entities, most victims’ only recourse is to sue the officers involved. But here, too, the Supreme Court has created often insurmountable obstacles. The court has held that all government officials sued for monetary damages can raise “immunity” as a defense. Police officers and other law enforcement personnel who commit perjury have absolute immunity and cannot be sued for money, even when it results in the imprisonment of an innocent person. A prosecutor who commits misconduct, as in Mr. Thompson’s case, also has absolute immunity to civil suits.

When there is not absolute immunity, police officers are still protected by “qualified immunity” when sued for monetary damages. The Supreme Court, in an opinion by Justice Antonin Scalia in 2011, ruled that a government officer can be held liable only if “every reasonable official” would have known that his conduct was unlawful. For example, the officer who shot Michael Brown can be held liable only if every reasonable officer would have known that the shooting constituted the use of excessive force and was not self-defense.

The Supreme Court has used this doctrine in recent years to deny damages to an eighth-grade girl who was strip-searched by school officials on suspicion that she had prescription-strength ibuprofen. It has also used it to deny damages to a man who, under a material-witness warrant, was held in a maximum-security prison for 16 days and on supervised release for 14 months, even though the government had no intention of using him as a material witness or even probable cause to arrest him. In each instance, the court stressed that the government officer could not be held liable, even though the Constitution had clearly been violated.

Taken together, these rulings have a powerful effect. They mean that the officer who shot Michael Brown and the City of Ferguson will most likely never be held accountable in court. How many more deaths and how many more riots will it take before the Supreme Court changes course?

The Thompson case is a particularly good example of this shell game — people can have their rights clearly and willfully violated by state authorities, but courts can nonetheless invent reasons why nobody can be held accountable. It’s a serious problem.

ESPN’s creepy nonsense

[ 124 ] August 26, 2014 |

ESPN is veering into Robbie George territory here. Like George, their desperate search for a reason gay people living normal human lives and doing normal human things ought to be viewed as a problem has caused them to stumble across a strategy that makes them look incredibly creepy, with what appears to be an unhealthy obsession with other people’s genitalia.

Let’s review a set of uncontroversial, widely known facts:

1)      Across the country, there are many tens of thousands of locker rooms, located in YMCAs, public swimming pools, and high school and college gyms, and commercial gyms and fitness centers.

2)      Very few of these establishments have policies banning otherwise eligible gay men and lesbians from using locker rooms and shower facilities. Even fewer have separate shower facilities for them.

3)      Many gay men and lesbians are not closeted, making it possible, if not likely, that many people who use these locker rooms are aware of their potential co-presence in the locker rooms.

4)      (1), (2), and (3) somehow don’t seem to produce any significant controversy to speak of.

Given the above, what does it say about those who pretend Michael Sam’s presence and/or comportment is the St. Louis Rams locker room is a source of newsworthy controversy? We’re being asked to assume either that a) Michael Sam is uniquely incapable of professional, non-sexual behavior, or b) Professional football players as a group are uniquely homophobic (not to mention unprofessional) relative to the population of gym-using Americans.

Whichever set of assumptions is motivating the ESPN journalists and producers pursuing this non-story, there’s some rather ugly bigotry lying behind it, whether it’s directed primarily at NFL players or gay men.

Indefensible Arguments Fare Poorly In Federal Court

[ 93 ] August 26, 2014 |

I almost feel bad for the attorneys representing the states here. I can’t say I’d want to come before Richard Posner with nothing but empty tautologies either:

Judge Richard Posner, who was appointed by President Ronald Reagan, was dismissive when Wisconsin Assistant Attorney General Timothy Samuelson repeatedly pointed to ‘tradition’ as the underlying justification for barring gay marriage.

“It was tradition to not allow blacks and whites to marry — a tradition that got swept away,” Posner said. Prohibition of same sex marriage, he said, is “a tradition of hate … and savage discrimination.”

Posner frequently cut off Indiana Solicitor General Thomas Fisher, just moments into his presentation and chided him to answer his questions.

At one point, Posner ran through a list of psychological strains of unmarried same-sex couples, including having to struggle to grasp why their schoolmates’ parents were married and theirs weren’t.

“What horrible stuff,” Posner said. What benefits to society in barring gay marriage, he asked, “outweighs that kind of damage to children?”

I’m guessing these bans will not be upheld…

Today In Green Lanternism

[ 100 ] August 26, 2014 |

Via Chait, who engages in some entertaining mockery of the embarrassing bad faith summit between Frank and West, we can see a somewhat more measured argument in the same vein from Michael Kazin. To be clear, it’s not nearly as bad as Frank’s Salon hackwork. Nonetheless, my jaw remained on the floor for some time after reading this:

Why has Barack Obama—one of the most eloquent and thoughtful of recent presidents—become such a terrible politician? Midway through his sixth year in office, his ineptitude is pretty clear. He frustrated and demobilized the huge base he built during his campaigns and, unless the polls turn around quickly, will be watching from the White House as the GOP takes full control of Congress this fall. On Tuesday, the Times offered some new evidence in an article about his frosty relationship with Senate Democrats.

[...]

But it also helped him win the 2008 Democratic primary, and then boosted minority and young voter turnout to give him an easy victory in the general election. And if Obama is indeed as arrogant some say he is, then so were some of the more consequential chief executives who preceded him—Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson, Lyndon Johnson, and Ronald Reagan.

Each of those four presidents—as well as greater ones like Lincoln and FDR—built loyal followings and retained them for nearly their entire time in office.

Yes, I’m afraid that as an example of someone who was (unlike Barack Obama) able to retain the strong support of his party, Kazin is citing…Lyndon Johnson. You know, the sitting president presiding over a party so united he did not seek a nomination for which he was eligible. If only Barack Obama had that kind of unifying force. (That “nearly” is sure doing a lot of work.)

In addition, it’s worth noting that in the 1938 midterm elections, the Democrats lost 7 seats in the Senate and 72 seats in the House.  And, perhaps even more to the point, these elections marked a point at which Congress was controlled not so much by the nominal Democratic majorities as by a coalition of Republicans and conservative Democrats.  If FDR had some kind of magic formula that allowed Democrats to maintain support in midterm congressional elections, he apparently declined to use it.

Midterm elections tend to be bad for the party that controls the White House, and this is a particular problem for Democrats, whose less affluent constituencies generally have lower vote turnout. This isn’t a trend caused by Barack Obama being a “terrible politician.”

For a comic conclusion, Maureen Dowd has still “learned” far too much about politics from Aaron Sorkin. And is she in on the ultra-hacky “Obama, unlike any other president ever, plays golf!” trend? I think you know the answer to that.

Butter and the Before Time

[ 127 ] August 26, 2014 |

Memories of Butter?

memories

This is an acceptable name for something only if dairy cows have been obliterated by whichever flavor of apocalypse comes home to roost. In between shifts at the sludge plant you smear Memories of Butter on your protein cube and weep silently when the child who doesn’t know any better asks you what it was like during the Before Time.

In a world where there is butter, this is literally the worst possible marketing. The butter is three feet away. Once moved to action by the memory of butter, you can reach out and acquire butter. Our operative theory was that it was badly mistranslated from French, or at least there was something lost in translation. What that could possibly be we do not know.

Perhaps the Canadian friends of LGM can help explain.

Some years ago, my brother was working at a big recording studio on an ad campaign for a butter substitute product. The tag line for the ad campaign was “Tastes Like Butter.” After many, many hours of recording ads, the lawyers came in at the last minute and insisted that the tag be changed to “Buttery Taste.”

Butter. I don’t care what they tell you they’re putting or not putting in your food at your favorite
restaurant, chances are, you’re eating a ton of butter. In a professional kitchen, it’s almost
always the first and last thing in the pan. We sauté in a mixture of butter and oil for that nice
brown, caramelized color, and we finish nearly every sauce with it (we call this monter au
beurre); that’s why my sauce tastes richer and creamier and mellower than yours, why it’s got
that nice, thick, opaque consistency. Believe me, there’s a big crock of softened butter on
almost every cook’s station, and it’s getting a heavy workout. Margarine? That’s not food. I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter? I can. If you’re planning on using margarine in anything, you can stop reading now, because I won’t be able to help you.

Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential

The Doggerel Thread

[ 124 ] August 26, 2014 |

LGM frequenter and all-around great polar bear, N_B has suggested a doggerel thread. I love the idea. Write your corny, bad poetry here! Two rules:

1.) the poetry must be inspired by either wingnuts or wingnuttery in general and

2.) let’s keep Nantucket out of this.

Nantucket didn’t do anything to deserve an appearance  in a crap poem about Paul Ryan.

Thanks to Origami Isopod for this inspirational image:

 UPDATE: I’m pretty convinced Jon McNaughton is punking us now.

Area Hack Fires Popgun, Shoots Self Repeatedly In Foot

[ 140 ] August 25, 2014 |

A conservative writer has options. They could, for example, pursue journalism. Alternatively, they could join with Tucker Carlson and do whatever it is that the Daily Caller does. One of the latter is Jim Treacher, the Daily Tucker blogger for people who find Mickey Kaus too highbrow. For some reason, he showed up in my Twitter mentions today:

While racial discrimination in law enforcement is a problem, it would obviously be foolish to think that white people have some sort of blanket immunity from police violence, justified or not. (Let’s leave aside the fact that Treacher, natch, takes the most authoritarian interpretation of the Michael Brown shooting.) So he could not have “learned” this from me, since I don’t believe any such thing and have never written any such thing.

Truly the hack’s hack, Treacher would not identify from which post he “learned” the thing he just made up. But I assume he meant this post, which I now reprint in its entirety:

I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty confident that if a unarmed white kid from suburbs was shot dead by the police we wouldn’t be informed by the Paper of Record that he was “no angel” because of a minor alleged shoplifting. And this!

He had taken to rapping in recent months, producing lyrics that were by turns contemplative and vulgar.

But were his jeans too baggy?

It’s not just that Treacher is making his accusation up out of whole cloth. It’s that the post is not even about disparate treatment of African-Americans by the police at all. (My hypothetical, you’ll notice, assumes that a white person from the suburbs could be subject to being killed by the police.) The post is about the disparate treatment of Michael Brown by the media. Even funnier is that the target isn’t even a conservative media outlet. Indeed, a remotely competent conservative hack could have written something about how eventheliberal Scott Lemieux thinks that the New York Times is using strange racial stereotypes in a story about the Brown shooting. Only Treacher 1)is really not at all competent, and 2)he would presumably see nothing objectionable about the Times story if he read it.

Verdict: Jesus Christ, what a pathetic operation Tucker Carlson is running.

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