Come on, progressives, it’s time to talk freedom!


Image by on Wikimedia Commons

We have had four presidential announcements now – three Republican (Paul, Cruz, Rubio) and one Democratic (Clinton).

Of the three Republican announcements, the word “freedom” rings out twelve times. You hear “liberty” 26 times.

How many times do you hear the words freedom and liberty in Clinton’s announcement? Zero, zilch, nada.


As I’ve written before, come on, progressives, we have got to own the concept of freedom!

Freedom and liberty are THE central animating ideas of America. Yes, the concept of equality matters, too. But what is it people want equality of? Freedom!

We cannot keep ceding the ground of freedom and liberty to the right. That’s partly for rhetorical reasons. Many Americans define themselves by their love of freedom and liberty. We’re foolish not to talk those people in terms they understand. But we also have to claim that ground because progressive morals, attitudes, and policies actually DELIVER more freedom and liberty.

Why do we want expanded and guaranteed voting rights? Because in a democratic republic, people should be as free as possible to have the opportunity to choose their leaders.

Why do we want money out of elections? Because all people should be free to have their voices heard by their government, not just those of great wealth.

Why do we oppose discrimination on the basis of gender, race, and sexual orientation? Because we believe people should be free to live their lives and judged by their qualities and actions, not the accidents of their birth.

Why do we work to ensure that people have enough food, a quality education, affordable health care, and financial security? So that they can be free by having the resources and capabilities necessary to pursue their dreams and achieve their aims.

I could go on. The point is that we progressives have to frame our values and goals in terms of freedom and liberty. It’s sweet justice that, unlike conservatives, our framing also matches the reality of our beliefs.

Just sayin’ – Iowa caucuses edition

Let’s take it as a given that the United States is the world’s preeminent nation state and that the U.S. president matters a great deal to international affairs.

That said, there are three BILLION people in China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, and Singapore (where I live now) that likely don’t care what the three MILLION people in Iowa think will make a good president.

And for that matter, I don’t think I do, either. Well, not more so than any other group of Americans.

Let’s play the generational politics blame game – just for fun

As a good liberal, I prefer to see people as individuals rather than groups. I like to judge people by the content of the character and their actions, rather than characteristics they were simply born into.

But let me take a moment and play the generational blame game in politics. This is going to sound a bit harsh, I suppose. But indulge me – just for fun.

See, I’m 45, so I’ve been labeled “Gen X” for my entire adult life, and my generation has been accused of being a bunch of listless, lazy, directionless, aloof, disconnected slackers – especially when it came to politics. And who was saying those things? Baby boomers, for the most part. After all, they were the ones writing the stories before we came of age. And we, as a group, could only seem dim compared to the energetic glow of the generation that preceded us, with all of its social consciousness, moral superiority, and whatnot.

But where did baby boomer politics get us? The rise of plutocratic right. The rise of the religious right. Inaction on global warming. A stagnating standard of living for the vast majority of Americans. The war in Iraq. A rightward drifting Democratic Party, especially on economic policy. The rise of the Tea Party. Bill Clinton. GEORGE W. BUSH.

No, really, as a member of the much-derided Gen X, I can’t say thank you enough.

And now my generation is coming of political age. We’re starting to enter positions of leadership. But thanks to spending a childhood and early adulthood steeped in the right-wing resurgence, who are our leading lights? Paul Ryan. Ted Cruz. Marco Rubio. Yep, we’re changing things now.

And who are the leading national Gen X progressive political leaders?

<Sound of crickets.>

No, really, help me out here. Maybe I’m missing something.

So, again, thanks, baby boomers. We really appreciate helpful advice over the years and for leaving us in such great political shape. It’s almost enough to get me off the couch.

Now back to our regularly scheduled programming, where we forget generational politics and set about making the world a better place.

As ready as I’ll ever be for Hillary

As ready as I’m supposed to be for Hillary Clinton, I have to admit that I find it hard to trust her – at least on the issues I care about most when it comes to the presidency.

Let me be clear: I think she is one of the most qualified people to be president that the nation has seen in a long time. Certainly her long record of public service in so many different roles will have given her the skills to be an effective president.

And that’s what worries me. What would she apply that effectiveness to achieve?

For many progressives, the vital distinguishing feature in 2008 between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton was her vote in favor of war with Iraq. Obama proved to be the more prescient and principled in criticizing the rush to war, and that counted for a lot. Times have changed as the decade-plus of wars have dragged out, so maybe she would make different decisions now. But seeing as we always have Republicans clamoring for war somewhere all the time, I worry if she would push back well enough. While I oppose how Barack Obama has used our military across the globe – especially the drone war – at least he has resisted the calls to bomb Iran. More of that kind of resistance would be welcome.

Also, I have virtually no confidence that she’s willing to stand up to wealthy interests. She – and Bill, for that matter – have a long history of cozying up to wealth. It’s a central concern of mine that we find more effective and comprehensive ways to guarantee that everyone gets the necessities of life – food, shelter, education, medical care, etc. While the arc of history has bent this way (most recently with the Affordable Care Act), it’s always a hard slog. It’s that much sloggier when our leaders seem to buy into what I see as one of the central myths of our time: just take care of the wealthy and powerful, and they’ll take care of you. I’m not sure she would be a “champion”, so much as a go-between.

Of course, Hillary Clinton is likely to be far better than any candidate the Republicans would put forward on these issues. And in voicing these concerns, I fully realize that I mark myself as part of the left wing that Clinton seemingly has no need to please.

So where does that leave me right now, a ridiculously long way from the actual election? Would I or would I not vote for her?

Yes, probably – but not mainly because of her or her policies. Mostly I would want to make sure we get the kind of Supreme Court nominees that would come from a Democratic administration rather than a Republican one. A sad state of affairs indeed.

As always, having nothing but bad choices always makes me yearn for a different electoral system that would  make other voices competitive. Under a different system, she might win the Democratic nomination – and general election – regardless. But at least she’d be forced to confront a more credible threat to the seeming inevitability of her victories.

Gimme more of that big one world government

I do my level best to ignore Rand Paul, but since he’s now running for president, we have seemingly endless coverage. So, we get this piece in the Washington Post that concludes at one point:

The Paul political brand is not personality-based. It’s all about the ideas. And the key idea is that liberty cannot easily coexist with big government.

If this is an accurate presentation of his thought – and I’m guessing it’s pretty close given his libertarian background – it is utter crap. In fact, in the modern world, big government is the best friend liberty has.

There are two kinds of liberty. One is the right to be left alone – the right to use your own moral judgment and do as you see fit. The limit on this kind of liberty is that you can’t harm others while exercising your liberty. This is liberty in the classical sense, and it’s all well and good.

But there’s a second kind of liberty. It’s the liberty that comes from having the resources and capacities to achieve your aims. It’s the liberty that comes from having enough food and water, decent housing, a quality education, needed medical care, and financial security. One interesting thing about this second kind of liberty is that it can be measured – in dollars. The fewer dollars you have, the less of this freedom you can purchase. If you’re a billionaire, you’re very free indeed.

We live, in part, in a capitalist society. We allow markets to play a significant role in how our lives are organized. And it is a fact of markets that they tend toward concentrations of money. The few – be it individual billionaires or corporations (which are really just fronts for billionaires) – end up with most of the dollars, and therefore have most of the liberty.

And that’s where big government comes in.

As a society in the U.S., we have precious few tools to push back against concentrated money and ensure that its liberty does not unfairly impinge on everyone else’s liberty – that big money’s relatively enormous resources and capacities to not tread on the rest of us.

Unions are one such tool, but for many reasons, they have declined in significance. Really the only one left standing is democratic government. And to push back against big money, you need a big government. Local governments are helpless. How many towns have been destroyed by the departure of the community’s major employer? State governments aren’t in a much better position. How often have we heard the feuding between state governments as they grow desperate to lure big economic actors to relocate? No, only the federal government – the biggest government of all in the U.S. – has enough resources – has enough raw power – to go toe-to-toe with the biggest concentrations of money and preserve our liberty by ensuring that all of us get enough resources to live as free and autonomous human beings.

But even the federal government might not be enough. I would argue that we need to make an even bigger big government. We need to create real and powerful liberal republican international institutions that answer to the People. Some right-wingers like to wring their hands about a coming One World Government and lament the existence of the United Nations. Little do they realize that One World Government is already upon them, but it’s all tilted toward protecting the liberty of concentrated wealth. Through an increasing number of one-sided trade deals, big money is gaining the right to exercise its liberty across the globe, but without the hassle of countervailing democratic institutions. There is no Congress of the World with any real power to push back against globe-striding economic actors who would use their freedom at the expense of ours. The United Nations doesn’t have these kind of teeth.

Most certainly liberty and government – and even big government – can coexist. In fact, if the majority of us want to remain free, we have to ignore people like Rand Paul and take an active role in ensuring that our government works to preserve our liberty.

Ferguson, police, and race

Here I am writing my first public thoughts about Ferguson. Awfully late, you say. Fair enough. But I had my reasons. Race is complicated and delicate, of course, and it’s not something I study consistently, so I was inclined to wait for the Justice Department reports and read other commentary. Also, let me say this: when it comes to these issues, I know what’s expected of me by some of my liberal and leftist friends, and I’m not sure I can deliver. “Where you stand depends on where you sit,” of course. And while I’m a liberal (which any leftist will tell you is not much of a lefty at all, no matter what conservatives say), I am also a middle-aged white guy, raised in a certain amount – and certainly living in a certain amount – of privilege. That brings certain reactions and preconceptions, not all of which I will go into here.  But I have attempted to put those reactions and preconceptions into context and to learn. I guess in the end what I’m trying to do here is clarify my own thinking. You can judge, praise, or condemn at your pleasure. Here we go:

Recently, the U.S. Department of Justice released twin reports on the events in Ferguson.

For the record, I agree with the conclusions reached by the Department of Justice and the state grand jury about Darren Wilson. Eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable, even under the best of conditions. And I am sympathetic toward police. They get to see the worst sides of humanity and have to somehow deal with it, rather than look away (although it’s important to note that policing is not specially dangerous). Also, as a practical matter – unless we want to go down into some libertarian or survivalist fantasy land – I believe we all want to know that there is someone to call when things get bad. And yes, I want the police to protect my property, if necessary. And I refuse to endorse the use of the word “pigs” for the police that I’ve seen used in places lately. Police can serve and protect when – and this is the key – they are policed themselves.

And that’s where things are breaking down. Police are given wide latitude, discretion, and power in our society. And with those should come strict accountability. But this is very difficult to do, given the way police are generally treated preferentially by the justice system. Body cameras might someday help with accountability. Police training needs to change. And we need to definitely stand down from the militarization of our police (and certainly of our entire society).

I see these as all good directions to go, but of course, sometimes police just get out of control. And that’s why I also agree with the other report from the Department of Justice regarding the Ferguson Police Department. It’s a terrible list of offenses – made all the uglier by the pattern of racism that’s evident in them. Any community targeted by its police force like this would be primed for violence – even if it was an ethnicity that gets defined as white. (I’m thinking of the Irish or Italians in my immediate ethnic circle. They were both viewed unfavorably at one time, to say the least.) That’s why I agree with characterizing the protests as a rebellion or an uprising and not a riot. Incidentally, the pattern of using police citations as a way to fund the local government sure strikes me as a variation of taxation without representation, and when has that ever pissed people off before? (Sadly, this practice seems to be widespread in the St. Louis area.)

Regarding the larger issue of race in the United States, I’ll say something obvious: racism is real; it is pervasive; and it effects people’s behavior, even when they don’t realize it. (Incidentally, it’s also worldwide. Singapore, where I live now, became an independent country in part because of severe racial and religious tensions.) Be honest with yourself: even if you don’t consider yourself a racist, have you ever felt even the slightest bit uncomfortable around a person of another color? Maybe it was just because you wondered what that person thought of you because of your color? Or maybe you were wondering if they would perceive you as racist in some way? I’ll bite the bullet: I have. That’s racism hard at work.

So, racism is ubiquitous, but it’s effects are not felt equally. The danger comes when racism gets connected to power. And there are few examples of power that are quite as clear as the criminal justice system. The justice system literally holds power over freedom and incarceration, life and death. And what we find here when we look for racial patterns is profoundly disturbing, with minorities being disproportionately subjected to criminal justice power – even to the point of death.

So what’s to be done? I don’t know. My opinion on that is for a future post (or dozens) after more reading. All I’ve tried to say is where I’m coming from. I guess doing that – talking about racism – is a start, at least for me. Of course, sometimes that conversation will be uncomfortable and will get hot – perhaps even bleed over into the streets. But that’s just like any conversation that’s about something that actually matters.

Happy Veterans Day! Now get up and do your part.

Happy Veterans Day! My thanks to those who currently serve and have served – both willingly and unwillingly – in  the U.S. military, providing every American with very real physical defense and security.
I feel this especially now, living in a foreign country that operates under the security umbrella provided by the U.S. and knowing that soldiers would be the first people to come to the American embassy to fetch us should things go badly.

That said, I refuse to glorify war. War is abhorrent. It is “all Hell”, as William Tecumseh Sherman put it. It degrades civilization and threatens our liberties. It allows our worst instincts as humans to flourish, while choking out our best qualities. While our veterans deserve our thanks and respect, those who promote and celebrate war deserve our contempt.

Also, I refuse to let our veterans’ sacrifices be used to justify every terrible purpose to which our military has been put. Our elected officials – and all of us in turn, if representative democracy is to mean anything at all – must be held accountable for the actions of our military. We the People must work to make sure that our military is never used for unjust or selfish ends. It is our role in a republic – especially one where everyone is not required to serve – to make sure that no soldier’s life is put at risk or sacrificed unnecessarily.
So, by all means, say Happy Veterans Day and thank those who have served. Now truly honor their sacrifices by renewing your commitment to citizenship and working for peace.