America, government, and the tough question of gun control

There is no doubt that gun control in the United States is a tough and important question and, in my mind, there is no doubt that something needs to change. But after the awful events in Connecticut yesterday, simply saying “Hey America, you should ban guns” or “We did it here after Port Arthur and it worked” isn’t particularly useful. The fact is, America’s relationship with guns is complicated, fraught, and intwined with questions of what Americans believe about themselves and about their government. Reexamining gun laws requires America to fundamentally reexamine itself.

Part of this goes to how Americans think about themselves, their country and the way they feel about government. Obviously, this isn’t all Americans- like anything else, there’s a range- but there’s a certain kind of American mythmaking and American exceptionalism that underpins much of this.

It’s a myth to suggest that America was founded on an ideal, but that myth is one of the key American stories. Certainly, there were ideals involved. But the process of developing, refining, and ultimately passing the Constitution was fraught. It was two years between when New Jersey- the first state to ratify the Bill of Rights- signed on and the tenth and final one required, Virginia, agreed to it. The three hold-outs,  Connecticut, Georgia and Massachusetts, didn’t actually ratify the Bill of Rights until the 1930s. As Akil Reed Amah so rightly pointed out in an interview with Ezra Klein, the way we now understand the Bill of Rights is largely a result of post-Civil War, post-reconstruction reinterpretation. The Constitution is a living document.

Which is why the almost deification of the founders, and the memory of the founding, is a problem. It reinforces false ideas about what American is, how it came to be, and how the framers saw the document working. It was never meant to be a perfect document- it was meant to be refined, it was meant to change. Jefferson himself believed the Constitution should be thrown out and re-written every twenty years.  But instead, it’s used as a shield to protect the status quo. And the problems of American gun culture are fundamentally problems of the American constitution and the way Americans understand it.

It’s not just the second Amendment that causes the problems- though that’s the obvious place to start. Of course, the actual text of the second amendment reads:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

The first part is often overlooked- that the right to bear arms is about protecting the free state, not the individual. While the protection of the natural right to defends oneself is arguably part of this right, the protection from tyranny and capacity for the individual to participate in law enforcement are also crucial parts of the second amendment. But as the nature of modern government has evolved,  the protection from tyranny has long since fallen by the wayside: few would argue that civilians should have ballistic missiles or nuclear bombs. The state absolutely has superior firepower to its citizens. Similarly, participation in law enforcement would in no way be hindered by more restrictive gun laws- in the time before institutionalized and professionalized law enforcement agencies, it made more sense, but that is now largely irrelevant. So it comes down to the protection of the ability to defend yourself. This is complicated: anytime you have to balance individual liberty with the needs of society, it’s a tough ask to come up with a compromise. But at the moment, talk of compromise is hindered by a largely archaic law.

But more than just a second amendment problems, the issue of gun laws is about enumerated powers, limited federal government power and beliefs about what government exists to do*.  While I certainly believe this is a useful model of government, it has its limits, and the United States has sometimes erred too far on the side of limiting federal government in the domestic sphere.  Relating to gun culture, this is demonstrated in both problems around health care (specifically mental health care) and restricted access to firearms.

For all the talk of keeping guns away from the mentally ill- by far the most popular proposed gun control measure- hinges on the crucial fact it requires the ability to identify the mentally ill. In a country without universal health care, this is especially difficult. And why isn’t there universal health care? Largely because of American beliefs about government. Because many believe it is not the government’s responsibility to provide health care to its citizens, or the responsibility of citizens to pay taxes that would then be used to finance the health care of other  citizens. While it by no means stands alone as a solution, better and more easily accessible mental health care is part of the solution, but to do so effectively requires rethinking the role of government in health care provision in a way many Americans are reluctant to.

Finally, much of the real work that needs to be done to change laws must happen at a state, rather than federal, level. With 50 different states, and each state having a governor and a bicameral legislature to deal with (with the exception of the only unicameral state, Nebraska), there is tremendous legislative difficulty in passing these law changes.  Even at a federal level, the challenges are significant. Currently, rural voters are over-represented in Congress, both in the Senate, where Wyoming and New York have the same number of seats despite a 34:1 population differential,  and in the House, where gerrymandering by Republican-controlled state houses after the 2010 census has contained many urban voters into large-majority districts.  On the whole, rural voters are more likely to oppose restricting access to guns, so this legislative inequality stacks the cards against legislative change.

The American system is designed to work slowly. It’s designed to be difficult to change. But as the country grew, technology developed, and interpretations of the system changed, the slowness has become the system’s defining feature. Some things have become near-impossible to change.

And this is why gun culture and gun laws are the quintessentially American problem**- because they go to the heart of the way the system hasn’t changed and needs to. They go to some of the core hypocrisies of the dialog around freedom. But changing them isn’t as simple as saying “just bans guns”. What Australia did in 1996 could never work in the United States, because this isn’t just a problem of guns: it’s a problem of government.

To change things, the United States would have to fundamentally reexamine itself, its government, its identity and its political culture. That’s a big ask of anyone. To me, a necessary one. But it’s much easier for most to forget even the most horrifying events than engage in a long and frightening process.

*****

*I refuse to frame this in terms of “big” and “small” government, because many who claim to believe in small government are happy to have large military spends. “Big” and “small” is misleading. It’s about what government exists to do.

**I should also add that this post doesn’t get into the tough questions about guns and specific identities in the United States. There are fairly large subcultures for whom guns are a big part of the way they conceive of themselves. It’s difficult to talk about this without getting into class and regional issues. Beyond the complication of rethinking America’s founding documents – which is necessary to really transform gun culture – anyone looking to really effect significant change on this issue would have to engage with these complicated questions, adding another element of self-reflection that naturally impedes change.

A Tale of Two Horse Races

Tuesday’s a big day, in both the US and Australia.  In the States, we’ll finally know the winner of the metaphorical horse race. Back here, our horse race is of a literal kind, as we celebrate the race that stops a nation.  But as a metaphor for the election process, the “horse race” is lacking: in reality, the American presidential election is nothing like a horse race.

For one, in racing, any horse can win.  Sure, short-priced horses win most of the time, but sometimes the one paying $21 who pips the favourite at the post, and, more often than you might expect, it’s the real roughie that gets up. Like when Mine that Bird came from far, far behind to win the 2009 Kentucky Derby and paid $51, or when, just this Saturday, Too Hi Tek won at Rosehill, paying 101:1 odds.  In the American Presidential election, it becomes a two-horse race very quickly. Betting on Jill Stein would be just giving the bookie your money. There are no outside winners in Presidential elections.

What’s more, the process of the election is not at all similar to a horse race. Even in a staying race, horse races are over pretty quickly. Sure, there’s a lot of work that goes in behind the scenes but, ultimately, in a minute or so, we know the outcome. Even in a photo finish, it doesn’t take that long for the results to be finalized. Start-to-finish, we’re talking 15 minutes, tops. There’s none of that patient agony that many sports make us endure: a horse race is an adrenaline rush start to finish.

The sport of kings is also the sport of second changes. While it’s rare that a losing presidential candidate has a second try, that isn’t the case in horse racing. After a big win- or a big loss- a horse can back up the next week and race again: while winning is forever, a loss is only temporary.

Fortunately, there are a couple of other sport metaphors that are a much better fit for Presidential politics.

For example, you could compare presidential politics to boxing match: just two competitors, going face-to-face, slugging each other until one of them is knocked out and, if that doesn’t happen, judges declare the winner.

Or you could compare it to a cricket match: two teams playing a game that drags on forever, where it’s sometimes difficult to know who’s winning, and it can all change in a heartbeat if a few key players get out quickly. It’s a game of tactics, of patience, and bad weather can change everything.

Or you could compare it to a tennis tournament: the lightweights are usually knocked out early, the matches can seem like they never end, and the best players know what shot to play in which situation.  Occasionally, the most powerful player wins, but usually it’s the one who can balance power, brains, discipline and talent.

Or you could realize that comparing politics to sport is silly and dangerous. That, as genuine as my tears of joy were when the siren went in the 2012 AFL Grand Final. there are much higher stakes in deciding which people will make the policies that affect real lives. Maybe, instead of picking a side and going for a win  —  and the other side’s loss — we could start to treat politics as something other than a zero sum.

Taxes, flooding, and an Australian idea

As the water recedes, and the East Coast is faced with the significant clean up after Hurricane Sandy, it’s probably worth a minute to consider whether it’s possible for the US to mimic the actions Australia took after the Queensland floods.

After a period of significant flooding in Queensland in 2010–11 — covering an area of around a million square kilometres and claiming 44 lives — ­the Queensland state and Australian federal governments faced a pretty large reconstruction bill, both to replace infrastructure and to assist those who couldn’t receive flood insurance.

This isn’t unlike the situation in the US right now. Hurricane Sandy’s bill is difficult to calculate at the moment, but no doubt it will number in the many billions of dollars. And as the Wall Street Journal explained, private insurance companies won’t be on the hook for much of it:

Sandy is expected to become one of the costliest storms ever. But a substantial share of the tab won’t be picked up by insurers, because standard homeowners’ policies don’t cover flood damage.

Instead, an indebted federal flood-insurance program is expected to pay for billions in property damage, while local, state, and federal taxpayers will likely take the lead in financing repairs to subways, roads, and other infrastructure.

As such, the US federal and state governments are likely to face a hefty bill, not unlike their Australian equivalents did after the Queensland floods. So how did the Australians address it?

A couple of months after the floods, the Australian Government passed legislation that would temporarily raise taxes to pay for the reconstruction. All Australians earning over $50,000 per year would pay an extra one per cent tax in the 2011–12 financial year. The levy only applied to people who were not affected by the disaster, and raised about a third of the total needed for reconstruction. The rest of the money required was raised through spending cuts and delaying scheduled infrastructure projects.

All-in-all, it was a pretty balanced policy that was a sensible response to an unprecedented event.

Yet it’s hard to see the US adopting such a policy. Raising taxes has become such an anathema to the Republican Party in particular that even in the face of overwhelming destruction, the idea of even a temporary raise taxes will be off the table. In reality, paying a small extra amount in tax to help the East Coast rebuild would be a deeply patriotic act. But the notion that taxes should not be raised, except perhaps on the wealthiest Americans (and even then it’s still pretty unpopular), is so deeply embedded in the current American political discourse that not even a major disaster such as Hurricane Sandy could shake it.

Which is a shame, because kicking in a little bit extra for those whose lives have been affected by this would be a pretty decent thing for citizens to do, and the perfect project for a lame duck session.

Originally published at the United States Studies Centre blog.

Paul Ryan and PCOS

This is a bit of an overshare. It’s the kind of thing that would usually be private. Unfortunately, by co-sponsoring HR 212, Paul Ryan has made my private health issue a matter of public policy.

I have Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome. It’s pretty sucky. Basically, it means that I have a hormonal imbalance that does all sorts of really unfortunate things to my body- acne, extra hair, weight gain. On top of that, I get my period really rarely. Like, maybe three times a year. That may sound alright (the fewer periods the better, am I right ladies?), but when I do get them, I have incredible amounts of pain. Plus, and this is more important to me, my chances of getting pregnant naturally are pretty tiny.

One of the problems with getting a period so rarely (which is actually a condition called oligomenorrhea) is that it puts you at a higher risk of getting uterine cancer. So on top of all the rest of the horribleness that is PCOS, you are at a higher risk of cancer.

PCOS is pretty common. It’s estimated that between 5 and 10% of women of reproductive age have it. It’s the most common endocrine disorder for women in that age bracket. It’s also incurable.

But it is treatable.

One of the most common and effective treatments of the side-effects of PCOS is the Pill. It treats a bunch of the symptoms. My skin clears up. I lose weight. But, more importantly, I get my period regularly, which means it hurts less and, best of all, reduces my chance of getting endometrial cancer.

But Republican VP candidate Paul Ryan doesn’t care about any of that. He doesn’t care about preventing pain or reducing the risk of cancer. He wants to ban the oral conceptive pill because he thinks a fertilized egg should have all the protections of a human being.

You can see how ridiculous this is in my case. He would ban me from being able to access medical care I need because of a POTENTIAL fertilized egg. The fertilized egg doesn’t even exist. The fertilized egg has a very slim chance of ever existing naturally, due to my PCOS. But he’s so concerned about that potential, he’d prevent me from having access to the care I need.

And you know what, if I did want to have a kid, he’d like to sincerely limit my options there too, because he’d ban IVF.

Paul Ryan is an extremist. For all the talk about small government, he’d like to interfere with my doctor’s capacity to treat my chronic condition. That’s about as big as government gets.

Vote Obama in 2012. Do it for the women with PCOS who deserve access to medical care.

Iowa: what it really means (and what it really doesn't)

There’s a bit of confusion coming out of the contest in Iowa.  Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum were separated by only eight of the 122,255 votes cast. The implications of this, however, might not be what you think:

What it doesn’t mean:

  • Rick Santorum is a 50/50 chance to get the nomination.
    He’s not. He did well in Iowa, after a late surge in a socially conservative state that voted for Huckabee in 2008. He’s certainly in a better position than he was two weeks ago, but I still wouldn’t peg his odds at more than 5%
  • Romney is in trouble
    Romney massively outperformed expectations in Iowa. He spent very little time in the state, and it has never formed a big part of his strategy. His team also managed expectations incredibly well, so that an 8-vote win is actually a major victory.  Romney’s campaign is right on track
  • Obama will wipe the floor with either of these guys
    It’s tempting to think  that Obama will be in for an easy time in the fall because of the strangeness of the Republican nominating process, but that’s simply not the case. Once the GOP has its nominee, they’ll unite around the candidate and start attacking Obama. People vote on the economy, and the economy isn’t great. Whether it’s Romney or someone else (the latter unlikely), Obama will be in for a tough run in 2012.

What it means:

  • The run is definitely over for Bachmann, probably for over Perry, and possibly over for Gingrich.
    Iowa might not tell us who did win, but it’s good at telling us who definitely won’t. Candidates who built a campaign for an Iowa-friendly demographic and haven’t done well will likely get out of the race. Plus, New Hampshire is expensive and, without a strong showing in Iowa, these campaigns are likely to struggle to raise cash.
  • Ron Paul can’t win, but won’t quit.
    He’ll stay in it a while, but he can’t win the nomination without winning Iowa. Really, given his antagonistic relationship with the Republican powerbrokers, he was never going to win it anyway, but any chance he had went when he fell 3,796 votes short of the winner.
  • Santorum will get lots of media attention.
    The “Santorum surge” is the story of the week, not Romney’s winning it.  The media need a story to tell, and “Romney’s nomination is all but certain” isn’t going to sell much advertising, so the conflict will be played up over the week. At the same time, Santorum will get the same media vetting that Caine, Gingrich, Bachmann and Perry all endured.
  • Romney will get lots of money
    Strategic donors are smart. They will see the way the nomination contest is going, and start to donate to Romney. And as Romney gets more money, his ultimate success narrative will built, and the whole thing will become a self-reinforcing snowball which will barrel its way to Super Tuesday, when Romney will lock up the nomination.
  • People should have listened to me earlier this week when I recommended bets on Romney at $1.30 to get the nomination
    He’s now paying $1.07

Seven mistakes Aussies make when talking about US Politics

As we turn to the Iowa caucuses, and talking about US politics, there are a few mistakes that it’s easy for Australians to make- and frequently do- when discussing US elections. So here’s my list of seven mistakes Aussies often make when they talk about American politics.

1) They assume American political parties are homogenous

American Political parties truly are big tent- in each party, there are a wide spectrum of beliefs and voting patterns in Congress. Using a conservative-progressive scale, which is oversimplified but has its uses, the most progressive Republicans are more so than the most conservative Democrats. Within parties, there are groups that hold different things to be valuable.  Assuming “Republicans are X” or “Democrats are Y” really underestimates the huge amount of variety in US politics.

And this variety is important because most legislation is bipartisan.  Caucuses arranged around issues are incredibly useful. They allow Congresspeople who represent districts with similar issues to join together.  Rep Sam Farr, for whom I interned in 2010, is the co-chair of the House Ocean Caucus, a bipartisan committee primarily made up of representatives from coastal districts for whom Ocean management issues are important.

Related: Assuming American political parties have party discipline.

2) They don’t realise political philosophy is actually pretty important

Political philosophy plays a far more obvious role in American politics than it does in Australia, yet as Australian observers, it’s easy to focus on policy itself, rather than the philosophical debates that underly it.  Often, the issue for many Republicans isn’t whether something like health care is a good thing, but whether it should be the responsibility of the Federal (rather than State) government.  The boundaries of government, what government exists to do and what it does not, and which government ought to be responsible for things is a far more central and important part of the American political conversation.

By representing the debate as being about whether something is good, rather than whether or not the US Federal Government should be the ones doing it, much of the important nuance in the debate is lost.

3) They assume that foreign policy is important to voters

While as non-Americans, its easy to get caught up in foreign policy issues, the truth is that elections aren’t usually won or lost on the power of foreign policy. The economy matters more. Cultural issues matter more. A small subset of Americans vote on foreign policy, but most don’t. in 2012, it will be the economy that matters most.

4) They overestimate the power of the Presidency

Oh, this is a big one. It’s amazing how often Australians talk about the President as though they operate as the Prime Minister. The role is very different. Separation of powers- which we talk about in the Australian system but don’t really experience in the same way- is key. Congress makes the law- the President does not. Saying “the President will do this” or “Obama should have done that” displays a very naive understanding of what the Presidency actually can and can’t do.

I don’t want to get all primary-source on you, but it’s worth looking at the Constitution at this point. Here are the powers of the Presidency:

The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States; he may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any Subject relating to the Duties of their respective Offices, and he shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.

He shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law: but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments.

The President shall have Power to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate, by granting Commissions which shall expire at the End of their next Session.

 Compare that to the powers of Congress:

The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;

To borrow Money on the credit of the United States;

To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes;

To establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization, and uniform Laws on the subject of Bankruptcies throughout the United States;

To coin Money, regulate the Value thereof, and of foreign Coin, and fix the Standard of Weights and Measures;

To provide for the Punishment of counterfeiting the Securities and current Coin of the United States;

To establish Post Offices and post Roads;

To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;

To constitute Tribunals inferior to the supreme Court;

To define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas, and Offences against the Law of Nations;

To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water;

To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years;

To provide and maintain a Navy;

To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces;

To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;

To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress;

To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the Acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of the Government of the United States, and to exercise like Authority over all Places purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be, for the Erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards, and other needful Buildings;–And

To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.

Congress is far more powerful, and the President far less, than many understand.

5) They think Evangelical Christians are very influential

Yes, they’re there. Yes, they vote. Yes, they vote in large numbers. But if you want to look at voting blocks that really influence elections, the age and wealth of voters is far more significant. Conservative Christians do not rule the United States with an iron fist, and there are plenty of people in both parties who identify as Christian yet don’t support traditional “culture war” issues.

6) They assume it’s a story of good guys vs. bad guys

This is more of a summary of many of the points above, but given the Democrats’ pretty significant popularity in Australia, often there’s a tendency to treat Republicans as the bad guys. In reality, their policy positions are far more varied and nuanced than once might assume, and the vocal, tea party type is just one of many kinds of Republicans. Portraying all Republicans as hard-right, super conservative Evangelicals is lazy, and it doesn’t at all serve to help us understand the US more comprehensively.  It does, however, feed into anti-American stereotypes which abound.

7) They think the US would be better off with a Parliamentary system

People often talk about the problems in the US Political system as though they are fundamental- it’s either the existence of a powerful extreme conservatism or the lack of a parliamentary system that causes most of the problems.  They’re not. The separation of powers, the incredible diversity of US political parties and the centrality and importance of individual rights is part of what has made the US the great modern democracy. Yes, it is flawed. Yes, it needs some tweaking. But these are not fundamental problems.

Rather, there are some pretty significant structural issues that have caused a lot of the US’s current political problems.  You could significantly reform the US system not through huge, fundamental system change, but a couple of minor adjustments:

  • National popular vote for the President. Get rid of the electoral college
  • Change the Senate representation rule to reduce the massive disparity. Introduce a tiered system where the largest states get 6 Senators, the mid-sized states get 4 and the small states get 2. That way, you preserve the state-based nature of the Senate, but understand the interests of a citizen of Montana should not be weighted at 66x those of a citizen of California.
  • Get rid of the filibuster. Allow the Senate to pass legislation by a simple majority. The supermajority plus the current Senate representation method means that Senators representing just over 14% of the population can prevent something from passing. That’s hardly what the framers of the Constitution could have had in mind. Yes, that tyranny of the majority is a real and important thing to consider, but that’s what the Bill of Rights is for.
  • Eliminate anonymous holds on nominations. They’re just undemocratic.

How to fix the American political situation, in one easy step

Are you ready for it?

Vote.

It’s as simple as that.

Vote in the general election. Vote in the primary election. Vote every time you can.

Maybe there’s an extra step. Maybe you need to register your affiliation with a party or as an independent. That’s easy pretty easy too. If you live in a state with closed primary elections, you’ll want to do that.

But after that, it’s pretty straightforward. Find some time on election day, one day every two years. Make it a priority. Vote.

Are you sick of crazy extremists holding political parties hostage?

Vote.

Water down their influence. Let Republican senators and congressmen know that if they face a challenge from the hard right in their primary, that you’ll be supporting them. Let them know for every tea party person they piss off, they’ll encourage a moderate.

The Tea Party have the power they do because they vote. They show up. They are disproportionately represented in those who vote in primary elections. So they get to elect their own and, worse still, they get to hold more moderate members hostage with the threat of their power.

But you know what? They’re not that great in number. They really aren’t. Their influence can be diluted.

You just have to vote.

 

Why Michelle Bachmann could be President

 Once upon a time, I counted myself a Republican.  It’s a true story.  And not just a Republican, but a hard-core, social-conservative Republican.  I was anti-abortion-rights, pro-death-penalty, pro-prayer-in-schools.  I was your cliche, full-on, religious-conservative Republican.  And I lived in the US at the time, and was surrounded by friends who felt the same.

*edit*: A point for new readers: this is notable because I am now a passionate supporter of the Democratic party, and interned in the office of a very progressive House of Representatives Democrat.

Yes, I changed.  I changed a lot.  I feel like I learnt a lot about the world, and realised the danger of using one’s personal religious beliefs as the basis of Public Policy.  And my personal beliefs changed too.  But the lasting legacy of all that is that I understand cultural conservatives, and I take them seriously.

Cultural conservatives are serious people.  They are not to be laughed at.  I mean, you can laugh at them if you like, but that doesn’t really help the debate.  They are people who passionately hold a set of beliefs, believe they are right, and that they can invoke a higher authority to justify their rightness, and who will fight, fight, fight for what they believe.

Which is why Michelle Bachmann’s announcement, also, should be taken seriously.

Because, unlike Palin, she speaks a very specific language to a very specific set of people.  And while some may laugh at “authenticity”, to the community she’s a member of, she drips it.  She’s smart and knows policy, and has a set of beliefs that inform her ideas consistently.  You may not agree with that set of beliefs, but to those who do, she is an incredibly powerful figure.

Bachmann isn’t a pale imitation of Palin; if anything, it’s the other way around.

Bachmann may seem like an absurd figure to 80% of Americans, but if she can get those 20% to all vote, and convince a quarter of the rest to all vote and not to vote for Obama, she’ll be President.  Her path to the nomination is not remotely unfathomable: she’s got a strong ground game in Iowa already in place, and her appeal to the base is incredibly strong.  Her capacity to get-out-the-vote among social conservatives is phenomenal.  And she has both social and economic conservative credentials.

Liberals will write her off at their own peril.  I have full faith that Obama can defeat a run-of-the-mill, bland Republican.  Bachmann, on the other hand, scares me.

On "celebrating" death

All over my facebook today, people are citing the fake MLK quote about celebrating death and making quite disparaging remarks toward the people who are expressing pleasure with the fact Osama Bin Laden is dead.  I’ve wanted to engage in a conversation about it, but given both the fact it’s not in one place, and Facebook’s comment length limit makes an adequate reply difficult, this seems a better place.

First of all, I think there’s a lot of naivety around the reality of international relations, international law and the nature of modern conflict.  The Obama administration made a conscious decision to minimize collateral damage in Abbottabad by sending in ground troops (as opposed to a drone strike).  When the officers arrived and were fired upon, is it really realistic to expect them not to fire back?  This may not be war as we’ve known it before- it’s a war with non-state actors, a decentralized war- but it’s still war.  And when you’re dealing with non-state actors who have fundamentally changed our understanding of warfare, who have adopted a strategy of extreme violence toward civilians, it’s impossible to employ old school diplomacy.

Secondly, I think there’s a kind of reflexive anti-Americanism that much of the world is prone to fall into.  In the class I’m teaching this semester, Americanism and Anti-Americanism, we talk about anti-Americanism as a prejudice, a tendency to approach the US in a certain way, which is often negative.  Too often, empathy and compassion are put aside when we talk about a hegemon, as though their perspective is unworthy of the same concern we show for the citizens of less powerful nations.  Rather than judging people for their emotions, I think we should try to understand them. And that includes Americans.

Accusing people of “celebrating death” is, I think, an oversimplification that lacks nuance, empathy, and understanding.  If one sees the death of Osama as a symbolic, if not actual, end to the War on Terror, it is entirely understandable that people would want to celebrate.  Sure, some are probably celebrating the fact Osama is dead, but more- many more- would be celebrating the sense of relief, a symbolic end to a tumultuous decade, the endurance of America. Bin Laden was someone who desperately, passionately, wanted to destroy the United States. Celebrating the fact the nation endures despite that is, I feel, more than worthy of celebration.

This reader’s response from Andrew Sullivan’s blog was, I think, quite eloquent:

I keep reading a lot of accusations from well-meaning critics who say that those Americans who chant “USA!” and wave the flag, or are even just plain happy right now are somehow “celebrating death”.  (I’m particularly irked by David Sirota’s finger-wagging piece). Going beyond the obviously flawed comparison of a terrorist celebrating the death of an innocent civilian to innocent civilians “celebrating the death” of a terrorist, I feel an urgent need to point this out: We are not celebrating death.

A mass-murdering and very powerful lunatic is dead, yes, but our joy just comes from the simple fact that he is not going to kill anymore.  His cohorts will, yes.  Like-minded fanatics may continue to do so as well, sure.  But this one – the biggest terrorist there is – will not.

If the news had come in that he was no longer dead, but instead had just been put on a rocket and shot into space, or simply been captured and brought back to stand trial, we would STILL have been singing in the streets and cheering on our nation and our armed forces and Obama and … well just cheering because what the hell else have we had to cheer about in the last 10 years?  A 1-1 draw with England in the World Cup?

I’m a progressive Buddhist.  I abhor all violence, as it is the perpetuation of suffering.  I don’t celebrate the death of Osama Bin Laden any more than I’d celebrate the death of anyone.  It is sad that it came to this, but what I do celebrate is the look in the cheering faces of my friends and family, my fellow Americans and my fellow human beings around the world, who for the first time since the fall of the Berlin Wall can all find a few moments of peace and rest from a world overflowing with anxiety and fear.  And I don’t care much that this massive catharsis just so happens to come at the expense of a dead bogeyman.

Finally, I think it’s easy, in Australia, to occupy a moral high ground.  We are remarkably safe, by global standards, and enjoy a remarkable standard of living.  It’s easy to forget that this is the case largely because we enjoy American protection- ANZUS is a real, great, and very important thing.  The world is an often dark and complicated place, international law is constantly being challenged to take into account new realities, and there are times when the right thing is incredibly difficult to discern.  I’m reminded of that part of The West Wing, where Leo and the President are talking about the assassination of Shareef, and they discuss the absence or presence of moral absolutes- the whole Shareef series of episodes illustrates, I think, the complexity of this kind of situation.

International politics is tricky business. Modern war is even more so. It’s tragic, and it’s horrible.

But I don’t think there’s any problem in saying that yes, the US got this one right.

 

2010 may not be a disaster

I’ve long suspected that 2010 won’t be nearly as much of a disaster for the Democrats as many expected, and that the memory of 1994 is making us scared in ways we shouldn’t be.  The 111th congress has been damn effecting, and the Obama administration has done a lot right- they just haven’t wasted the resources telling people about it when there’s still six months before the election.  With the economy steadily improving, there’s lots of reasons not to be pessimistic.

Which is my way of saying y’all should read my post over at the USSC on seven reasons why 2010 might not be bad for Dems.

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