May 13, 2005 | 12:43 PM ET | Permalink

The Wall Street Journal again shows why, when it gets its teeth into a complicated story, it is, in many ways, America’s best newspaper, here (Subscription only):

As Rich-Poor Gap Widens in the U.S., Class Mobility Stalls Those in Bottom Rung Enjoy Better Odds in Europe;
How Parents Confer an Edge

Immigrants See Fast Advance

That’s emphasis on the word, “ news,” because…

… [W]e are reminded of the words of another Senator, who also knew something about the U.N. "It is time that the American spokesman came to be feared in international forums for the truths he might tell." That was Pat Moynihan, writing in Commentary in 1975, and John Bolton is his heir.

More nonsense from the Wall Street Journal editorial page, in many ways, the worst one in America, and recipient of over $5 million of taxpayer largesse, care of the right-wing commissars at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.  (I refuted this silly Bolton/Moynihan analogy here (and if you missed yesterday’s Think Again, “Faith Based Journalism,” it’s here.)

Here’s another benefit from this counter-productive war.  We’re hollowing out our Army, here.

This is a brave and brilliantly written story by Ms. Bingham about Iraq, our government, and the media coverage of the war.  How sad that the person who published it had to be a member of the family that owns (or owned) the newspaper in order to ensure its publication.  It really is true that to exercise your right to a free press in this country, you had better own one.

First Ted Koppel retires, now this.  How will honest, thoughtful, intelligent discourse on TV survive?  Classy exit, too, dude.

Alter reviews, Benny Golson at Smoke
I ended decades of a kind of double ignorance last night; I had never been to “Smoke” the cozy little jazz club just seven blocks from my house and I’d never heard Benny Golson play the sax, not even on record.  In fact, I never gave the man much thought until I saw the (for some reason) extremely under-rated Tom Hanks/Steven Spielberg movie, “The Terminal,” which kind of turns on Golson, in a way that’s too much trouble to explain.  Anyway, the man plays a beautiful sax and leads a near perfect band, particularly in such an intimate setting.  It was the classiest of classic jazz, with lots of room for solos and investigation of the material, some of which dated back to Golson’s apprenticeship in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers back in 1958. I also very much appreciated the thoughtful and eloquent introductions and explanations he offered.  More about Benny here and keep your eyes peeled for “Terminal One,” as will I.

Correspondence Corner:

Name: Stupid
Hometown: Chicago
Hey Eric, it's Stupid to compare the war in Iraq to the American post-Civil War Reconstruction.  Last week I read a quote from King Abdullah of Jordan.  You know, moderate, pro-West, popular wife, etc.  Back in December Abdullah warned that should a Sistani-like slate score big in Iraq's elections it would create a dangerous "Shia Crescent."  Well, the actual Sistani slate scored big, and to use a favorite phrase of Glenn Reynolds, Abdullah's words have "explanatory power."  Be honest: do you really think Abdullah is rooting for the Shiite dominated government in Iraq to succeed?  I doubt it, and he's the best friend we've got! 

The media calls the insurgents "radical Islamicists."  Maybe a better analogy is the Ku Klux Klan: terrorists headed by former army leaders reacting to the sudden empowerment of a historically downtrodden group.  Listen to Fakhri al-Qaisi, a purportedly "reasonable" Iraqi Sunni leader who once was willing to work with the new government: "If the U.S. troops came alone we would shake their hand, but they brought our enemies with them."  Sunnis call the new government "Safawis," a reference to 17th century Iranian conquerors.  None of the insurgents seem to come from Iran, a nation not lacking in America-haters.  The Iranians aren't Sistani's puppet master, but clearly they have decided "first things first."  I suspect that's the real reason we haven't heard much from the Iran-linked Al Sadr, not last year's stand in Falujah. 

How did America defeat the Klan?  It didn't, at least the first incarnation.  By outlasting the federal troops sent to stop the violence, victory was achieved (with the help of a GOP sellout to secure the election of Rutherford Hayes).  So how can America defeat the insurgents?  Give them a similar victory: acknowledge this is another Bosnia in the making and partition the country into a loose confederacy.  Also, given the escalation in the Iranian nuclear weapons conflict, isn't the showdown here going to be with Iran anyway?  I think the word is "triangulation."

Name: Mike
Hometown: Tempe, AZ

Eric,
What a bummer, though not much of a surprise, to see that Robert Novak backed out of your scheduled debate.  It seems glaringly obvious that he is quite aware of his own chicanery and is therefore too afraid to have it pointed out in a public forum by someone who is aware of it and can do it in an eloquent manner.  It is rather easy for blowhards to hide behind their commercial breaks and corporate TV personalities, where it seems all too easy to smear someone with no regard to fact or retribution, but in a live debate there is nowhere to run.  The worst of it is that his withdrawal will have little or no media coverage and will go unnoticed, while a stern lashing in front of a crowd would have been much more revealing of his true colors. 

I hope you get the chance to upbraid him some day, but for some reason due to the typical conservative smear and hide method, I doubt you will.  Keep trying my good man, we're all behind you.  Thanks.

Name: George Yatchisin
Hometown: Santa Barbara, CA
Dr. A--
We are indeed very sad that you will not be able to debate Novak here at UCSB. It seems particularly telling that a so-called conservative is so cavalier about breaking a signed contract to make an appearance somewhere. Just another case of "laws only apply to those other folks not like me" we see far too often in the Age of Bush.

Name: Adam Upper West Side
Hometown: New York, New York

Why the political right hasn't cut bait with Pat Buchanan a long time ago is a mystery to Catocre.  After all, the former Republican Presidential hopeful has long shown a warmth for certain aspects racism and Holocaust denial.

But Buchanan, here, reveals his himself in full with this column.

In brief, he argues that World War II wasn't worth it, at least the European part, which he declares was a "war to defend Polish freedom."  The gist of his argument is that Stalin was a result worse than Hitler for much of Eastern Europe, and that Western Europe would not have suffered the losses it did if it had let Hitler do whatever he wanted.  Both assertions are deeply misleading.

Eastern Europe:

Buchanan mentions that Poland eventually fell under Stalin's rule after the War, but overlooks that Hitler and the Soviets divided Poland between them on September 29, 1939, two days after Poland surrendered to Germany.  Indeed, the Nazi-Soviet (Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact) non-aggression pact prompted the Soviets to move into Eastern Poland, the Baltics, and Finland. If Western Europe did not declare war over Poland, the Soviets would have still controlled these areas. And if Hitler had not invaded Russia, the Soviets would have still controlled these areas. So Buchanan is wrong to think that Stalin would not have been the result there even absent the West's involvement.

But Buchanan also ignores the fact that Hitler always wanted to invade Russia, and might have done so sooner were it not for the Western front. If the West stayed out, Hitler may have defeated Russia outright, hardly a desirable result itself. But even if Hitler eventually lost, a successful Russian counter-offensive would have resulted in Russia controlling ALL of Germany along with the rest of the East.

In short, unless the Allies were prepared to launch an offensive against Stalin after defeating the Nazi's, there is little reason to think that the Soviets would have not ended up lording over Eastern Europe no matter what happened once Hitler came to and lost power.

Western Europe:

Buchanan says: "But before Britain declared war on Germany, France, Holland and Belgium did not need to be liberated. They were free. They were only invaded and occupied after Britain and France declared war on Germany - on behalf of Poland."

Yes, Buchanan is essentially claiming all Hitler was interested in was worthless Poland, and is blaming the Allies for Hitler's aggression in Western Europe.  It's absurd.  Hitler long planned for his move West, and within eight months of Poland, he invaded Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg, and made friends with Italy and Sweden. A month later Hitler was in Paris, and Italy was in North Africa, and within a year, Germany, Italy, and Japan had signed a formal alliance. By only claiming this was a war over Poland, Buchanan ignores the fact that Hitler would have invaded Western Europe anyway.

But say he didn't invade France. If Hitler had been allowed to rule Germany, he still would have controlled much of Western Europe with Mussolini, cementing fascism in the region for decades. If Hitler didn't break the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the Soviets/communists would have still controlled all of Eastern Europe, still resulting in communist rule there for decades. And if he did, either Hitler or Stalin would have ruled from the Maginot Line to the Urals. Many small nations would not enjoy anything approaching freedom or self determination.  Millions more Jews and political prisoners would have died in death camps.

None of this reality is meant to excuse the Soviets actions in the East. But its ridiculous to think that a strong Hitler was a better substitute, or that a Hitler-Stalin cold war would have been better for the freedom of the people caught in between them. In the end, WWII did secure the freedom of Western Europe from Hitler OR Stalin, and began the chain reaction that led some decades later to the fall of Soviet communism in the East.

Name: Rob
Hometown: Boston
Eric,
Speaking of Son Volt, Jay Farrar has put together an entirely new lineup for the band and is currently touring. He'll have a record release party at the Bowery on July 12 followed by a free show at the Seaport on the 14th.

May 12, 2005 | 10:42 AM ET | Permalink

Novak chickens out

I don’t issue statements often, in fact I don’t think I’ve eve done so before, but I’m making one now.  It is in response to the announcement, by Aaron Ettenberg, Acting Provost of the College of Letters & Science, at the University of California, Santa Barbara, following an emergency meeting of the Program Committee, reading:  "We regret to report that the Arthur N. Rupe Great Debate scheduled for May 25, 2005 has been canceled due to Robert Novak's unexpected withdrawal."

I very much regret Robert Novak’s decision to withdraw from the Arthur N. Rupe Great Debate scheduled for May 25 at UC Santa Barbara. I had looked forward to debating the important question of media bias, as well as the implications for that issue raised by Mr. Novak’s journalistic and ethical transgressions that have made him as much a “story” as a reporter.  Until now, Mr. Novak has managed to avoid being asked to answer for these transgressions, either by his employers, CNN and The Washington Post, or by other journalists.  No reporter from either of these allegedly liberal media institutions has yet pressed Mr. Novak to explain his role in a probe that may see two journalists jailed.  Nor has Mr. Novak been pressed to explain why he would play patsy to anonymous Bush administration officials in their attempt to destroy the reputations of two loyal and patriotic public servants -- an attempt that may have endangered national security and involved the commission of a crime.  If Mr. Novak withdrew from this debate because he feared the consequences of being asked to defend his journalistic ethics in a public forum, then he made a wise decision.  It is ironic, however, that someone so willing to fling unsubstantiated charges appears to lack either the courage or the sense of personal honor to answer the questions he has inspired among so many of us in the profession.  I also very much regret that Mr. Novak's apparent capriciousness will cause the hard work done by so many at the University of California at Santa Barbara to go to waste.

Here is the column that may have inspired his decision, and here is a solid profile of Novak from The Washington Monthly from December, 2004 describing some of those transgressions in detail.

I've got a new "Think Again" column up here on some of the issues raised by the growth in 'faith-based journalism.'

Alter-reviews:

Lucinda-palooza.  For those of you who have been bemoaning a paucity of live Lucinda in your lives -and I count myself among you if you do, let us whine no more:  Lost Highway has just released a double-live CD of her and her band playing “Live at the Fillmore,” and New West is offering a DVD of a performance they did in December 1998, for Austin City Limits.  There is a certain impulsiveness in both the pacing and the song selection of both shows; Lucinda does what the muse demands, not what the market wants, and for that reason, she reaches moments of transcendence in her work more than just about anyone.  She can also really bum you out, as she writes more powerfully than almost anyone else alive today.  There is a version of “Changes the Locks” on Live at the Fillmore that gets so deeply under your skin it might give you a disease, but on this generous offering, there’s something for everyone, particularly when you add in the nicely shot and edited DVD.  There’s a CD song list here and one for the DVD here.  The “Austin City Limits” series from New West also includes a first-rate performance by Richard Thompson from July 2001, available on both CD and a November, 1996 performance by Sun Volt on DVD . You can read about those here.

Correspondence Corner:

Name: Matt Shirley
Hometown: Gurnee, IL
Mr. Alterman,
I am impressed by the contributions to What Liberals Believe.  These folks have expressed far more eloquently than I the notions rattling around the back of my brain.  There was, however, a glaring omission.  At the risk of self-promotion, let me submit again my fourth point: True patriotism: On the whole the U.S. and its ideals have been a force for good and for democracy in the history of mankind.  True patriots neither seek to blame the U.S. for all the world's problems, nor do they cite American exceptionalism as an excuse for abhorrent policies.  Instead they advocate for U.S. ideals and democratic practices, and discuss honestly U.S. policies and behavior in light of U.S. ideals.  They are also willing to defend the U.S. from foreign enemies and domestic demagogues.

In all the lists of What Liberals Believe I saw no one talking about the unique role the United States has played in world history, nor the power of its ideals.  Where is Barbara Jordan's declaration: "my faith in the Constitution is total and absolute"?  Where are the critics of the Vietnam War who said they loved America too, and they thought U.S. participation in and conduct prosecuting that war betrayed our founding principles?

U.S. ideals and democratic institutions are revered the world over.  You can go to festivals in Cuba and find the image of Abraham Lincoln given a place of honor.  I've sat in a class on U.S. Foreign Policy with officers from the Columbian and other Latin American nations' Armed Forces.  Their take on the U.S. is that our ideals are fine; they just wish we'd follow them more often in our relations with Latin America.

We on the Left have expended considerable angst on our inability to appeal to the economic interests of poor and middle class voters in the "Red" States.  My sense is that our problem is not just Republican flim-flam on social issues.  Our inability to express the idea that the U.S. is in any way special to us, and that we have no more allegiance to the U.S. than any other democratic country, is what makes us inherrently suspicious.  I'm not saying we need to be Scoop Jackson or Joseph Lieberman.  But we do need to recognize which flipping country we are citizens of, and explain our how our beliefs fit into an American perspective.  Until we get patriotism, and distinguish it from chest-thumping jingoism, we are in for a rough ride politically.

May 11, 2005 | 11:39 AM ET | Permalink

America: This Congress StinksThis just in from Gallup on the eve of the Republicans’ unprecedented power grab via the “nuclear option” designed to disarm a time-honored technique of minority representation:

Only 35% of Americans approve of the way Congress is handling its job, and almost 4 in 10 say most Republicans and, separately, most Democrats in Congress are unethical.  That is the lowest approval rating and highest disapproval rating for Congress since July 1997.  When asked about members of Congress going on a trip funded by a lobbyist, an action that has caused House Majority Leader Tom DeLay to come under severe criticism and possible investigation by the House ethics committee, more than 8 in 10 say it is at least a "moderately serious" ethical problem.

Mr. Peretz Tear down that Wall.  Franklin Foer’s article here on Jack Abramoff and the inner workings of the intellectual influence peddling racket inside the conservative movement is too important to be hidden behind a subscription wall.  Jon Chait’s piece too, here.

How Washington really works, continued, from The Note

Seen at last night's cocktail reception for new Bryan Cave Strategies superlobbyists Jack Oliver and Steve Elmendorf: Rep. Steny Hoyer, Sen. Kit Bond, Reps. Mark Foley and Melissa Bean, White House Political Director Sara Taylor, RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman, former RNC chairman Ed Gillespie, OMB director Josh Bolten, Chief Deputy Whip Eric Cantor, Sen. John Kerry, David Plouffle, Mary Beth Cahill, Jenny Backus, Stephanie Cutter, Erik Smith, John Lapp, Phil Singer and Kim Molstre.  And journalists like Tom Curry, Dan Balz and Jeff Birnbaum.

Back to Ohio.  Odds on a stolen election.

Mr. Boehlert says Republicans remain committed to fixing a non-existent problem at PBS.

Boycotters, boycott thyselves.

Dear organizers and perpetrators of the boycott against Israeli academics:

I rarely have any patience for what people call “the politics of principle” because what interests me are results.  Still, even judged by the typical standards of self-defeating “principled” political campaigns—like say, Ralph Nader’s presidential runs—the boycott of Israeli academics is one of the stupidest and most self-defeating I have ever seen in this highly competitive category.  Hello, you idiots, the Israeli academy is the very center of political opposition to the occupation.  It is the one place, besides parts of the media and the peace movement itself, where Jews have not only allied themselves with legitimate Palestinian nationalist aspirations but also exposed the hypocrisy and brutality of the occupation.  And now your plan is to weaken, isolate and very likely alienate, the very people who are doing exactly what you would want done—opposing the occupation and questioning its legitimacy—because, well, you are powerless to do anything else and this makes you feel good about your stupid selves.  Really, it’s so goddam infuriating it makes me want to, well, sign this petition for starters. (P.S.  I hear Nader has openings for his 2008 campaign.)

Reasons my city is better than your city (unless your city is my city, or Paris or Rome), continued:  I was on the Metroliner coming back from a dinner in D.C. yesterday morning when I got a call on my cell from a friend saying, “Hey Eric, your class at Brooklyn doesn’t start until 3:30.  Why don’t you stop off at Lincoln Center and see the Rolling Stones?”  Not a bad idea I thought.  The train got in at 12:50.  I got to Lincoln Center at 1:10.  Stones came on at 1:15 and played “Start Me Up,” a pretty decent new song and “Brown Sugar.”  It was over in fifteen minutes, but it was pretty great while it lasted…  Except for one thing.  People who call people at concerts and oblivious to everyone around them, just to say, “Hey, I’m at a concert,” are very close to Nader supporters and Israeli-academics boycotters in my book of people who deserve no mercy when the Rapture comes….

What Do Liberals Believe, Continued

Name: Paul Wolfson
Hometown: Hanover, NH

Another pass at liberals' principles.

  1. Liberals believe in the value of individual liberty, in individuals' freedom to make and act on choices for themselves.  All policies are evaluated in this light.

    In the real world, individual liberty cannot be absolute or you find yourself in Hobbes' dystopia.  Hobbes argued for the absolute concentration of power as a lesser evil than perpetual civil war.  The liberal tradition has developed around a qualified egalitarianism as a way to achieve a balance of power and maximize the number for whom freedom has substance.

  2. Liberals are skeptical of concentrated power, because it threatens the liberty of those outside its circle.

    Based on their experience, and no doubt on their own social status, the founding fathers focused on the problems of concentrated political power.  More than two centuries of history that have included the Industrial Revolution, make clear that:
  3. An important type of concentrated power, though by no means the only one, is concentrated wealth.

  4. With economic development and modernization, it is possible to reduce concentrations of wealth without making all poor.

  5. Carried too far, both concentrated and unconcentrated power/wealth threaten liberty: concentrated power for the reasons alluded to above, unconcentrated power for the means often used to achieve it, in particular the restrictions that egalitarian policies place on individual actions.

    Based on these very general principles, liberals might well favor a policy at one time, when it is judged to expand liberty, and oppose it at another time, in other circumstances, when it would have the opposite effect.  To date, middle-class democracies in combination with developed economies have been most favorable to liberty.  It does not follow from any logical argument based on first principles that this will always be the case.

  6. Liberals believe in empiricism over faith.

    So liberals learn from mistakes, theirs and others.

Name: DM Hancock
Hometown: Arlington, VA
My cut at the essential principles that guide liberalism.

  1. Government creates the conditions that allow our economy to flourish and has an obligation to ensure that everyone may participate fully and equitably in that economy.

  2. Certain goods and services are too essential to leave solely to the market to distribute fairly so government must help the market ensure this equitable distribution.  This includes health services, retirement security, and decent housing.

  3. Government must ensure that there is a zone of privacy within which everyone may exist free of government or corporate interference, including the realms of sex, speech, expression, marriage, and bodily integrity.

  4. International relations must be premised on national security and respect for the interests of other nations.  National security is achieved through international cooperation and the resolution of disputes through multilateral institutions that combine the force of many nations.  Armed conflict is to be reserved for circumstances in which our national security is directly threatened or fundamental human rights are at stake.

Name: Richard Ahern
Hometown: Lenoir, NC

One (admittedly broad) framework for a definition of modern liberalism: Liberals believe that what is private is private and what is public is public.  Conservatives tend to believe that matters generally considered to be private are public and what is public is private.  Libertarians believe private is private and public is private.

Also, liberals understand that our individual happiness is considerably contingent upon the happiness of others in our society.  Poor health and poverty tend to constrict happiness.  Thus, the amelioration of these conditions among my neighbors, writ large, increases the chance of my own happiness.  The current Dali Lama has articulated this view in much of his writings.  Even conservatives can see that public sanitation and vaccinations lessen the chance that their children will get their neighbor's cholera.  Liberals better sense the more attenuated, but nonetheless very real connections among people.

Name: Kirsten
Hometown: Berkeley, CA

Dear Dr. Alterman,
Thank you for again opening an intelligent dialogue on a potentially volatile topic.  Your other correspondents have done such a good job in articulating my own thoughts on liberal principles that I don't feel the need to add anything.  It strikes me that the difficulty isn't in finding adequate definitions of ourselves, but in finding spokespeople to stand up and articulate these as clearly and charismatically as is required to motivate a comfortable populace.

Comfortable people don't seek change without powerful motivation.  Conservatives currently have wrapped up the two most powerful motivations available:  Money (for wealthy conservatives) and Religion (for poor and middle class conservatives).

We need to re-engage in these discussions, instead of conceding and looking for a different argument.  Money should motivate the lower and middle classes to vote their best interests, which should be the liberal vote.  (If the people who represent us are true to our ideals and don't vote for such things as bankruptcy bills that give credit debt priority over child support).  Any discussion on religion should include more than abortion and gay marriage.  Respect for human rights and the environment, tolerance, love even of hateful people, care even for indigents, and the conviction that one's participation in society is more important than one's individualism were the "Christian values" I was raised with.  Where have these gone in the discourse?

How is it that you ask one question on your blog and elicit many well spoken responses, and yet the people called upon in public to represent us don't have the backbone to be so clear and confident about these principles?

Quote of the Day:

The books are beautifully printed and sturdily bound.  In the exquisite new format they are, according the conservative New York Times, “The greatest book bargain in America today."

--On the back of a copy the Modern Library edition of Samuel Butler’s "The Way of All Flesh,” found in the laundry room of my building.  What did they know then that we’ve forgotten?

Correspondence Corner:

Name: Doug Ruffier
Hometown: Butte Montana

Eric
Perhaps this is off of the radar, but as a teacher who reads your work faithfully, I can't help but be smitten by the recent article grading the 1000 best high schools in America in Newsweek.  Perhaps the most telling statistic of all is the far right column's percentage of students receiving free and reduced lunches.  As a teacher in a school where that percentage reaches 75%, I am and am not surprised that the list is made up mostly of schools with very LOW percentages of students receiving free and reduced lunches.  It seems to me that even the most critically challenged politician would recognize that this means schools in affluent communities fare better than those in economically depressed ones.  So is it not a logical conclusion that raising the economic welfare of our citizens in general would also raise our educational success?  So why do we have NCLB?  I and many of my colleagues believe it is to destroy public schools, not to enhance them.

Name: Joe Harris
Hometown: New York, NY

Eric-
Love your views, writings and principled stand against the forces of evil.  I just wish you didn't continually include the New York Yankees in the pile.

The Yankees are New York's team.  Despite the shallow perceptions of some, they are very much a 'peoples' team' with an owner who, though occasionally misguided, tries to give
the fan base everything they want.  In his lifetime, no one else has come close to his success.

Yes, many of us fans have been spoiled by recent success.  And, certainly, Yankee-hating is a time-honored tradition which we've recently earned a lot of (on merit, in my opinion).  But they are a better team than they have started off playing like.  They've started to pitch better and will turn things around.

Every year the pressure gets greater on Joe Torre, Derek Jeter and this team.  Watching them play through the media howling, the hand wringing and the general negativity that comes with anything short of complete and total domination from wire to wire is, to me, fascinating. They show character when they fight through this stuff like this.

I only hope you'll devote the same amount of space in your otherwise fine blog when they turn it around (it's May for chrissakes).  Because if they make the playoffs after this horrendous start (let alone win the pennant), you've already given up the right to say, "Well, they're supposed to do this" and to act unimpressed.

Name: Phil Kaplan
Hometown: Norwalk, CT

Hi Eric,
I know you admire Professor LaFeber, so I was wondering if you heard this 'Trading Nations' interview he did with Brian Lehrer this morning.

My impression is that LaFeber thinks that Churchill and Roosevelt were severely constrained by the reality of 7 million Soviet troops in Eastern Europe at the end of the European campaign. 

I suspect (but can't say for sure), based on When Presidents Lie, that your beef with FDR was not so much with his and Churchill's capitulation to Stalin as with his public characterization of what was agreed to at Yalta.

Am I off base on this?

Eric replies:  I’ve written a 1500 word piece on this topic which I’ll publish within the week, thanks.

May 10, 2005 | 11:02 AM ET | Permalink

What do liberals believe?

One of the first correspondences I received in response to my readers query on Friday about whether it was possible to sum up a contemporary liberal worldview in a few short sentences came from my friend Danny Goldberg. He wrote:

  1. Government is required to balance unfairness and excess of private business interests.  Examples—environmental regulation, minimum wage, worker safety laws.  Conservative arguments which have distorted progressive taxation, weakened regulation of big business, and weakened rights of labor have resulted in corruption of big business and and unhealthy gap between rich and poor.  As Warren Buffet says—"there has been class warfare in recent decades and the rich are winning."

  2. Government is uniquely qualified to provide for certain needs of a society—examples public schools, most kinds of health care, public transportation, public safety, public parks and recreation areas.  Conservative arguments weakening government have resulted in the U.S. falling behind other countries in most of these areas.

  3. One of government’s roles is the protection of minorities with regard to certain basic rights.  Examples—civil rights legislation and laws protecting gays and lesbians.

This reminded me that one of the better, though quite casual descriptions—as opposed to definitions—of what liberals today believe can be found in the opening pages of Danny’s Book, Dispatches from the Culture Wars: How the Left Lost Teen Spirit, which has just been issued in paperback.  I copied this passage when I read it for use in my forthcoming book on the uses and abuses of contemporary American liberalism.  It reads:

What exactly is “my” side?  In previous eras there were more clear-cut definitions of what “left” and “right” were.  Today there are dozens of variations.  On economic issues I’m a typical liberal.  Having run my own business and having worked for big corporations, I have a basic belief in capitalism, but I think that government, representing the collective will of the citizens, has a special obligation to balance out the excesses of the marketplace.  I wouldn’t mind paying higher taxes to have national health care, better paid school teachers, smaller class sizes in public schools, and more jobs programs to help get people out of poverty and help average-income people deal with their lives more easily.  It seems to me that many Western European countries have been better at supporting people on the low end of economic spectrum than Americans have, and the extent of poverty in America seems immoral to me given our country’s wealth.  Although I’ve never been a member of a labor union, I believe they should be stronger.  Corporations have so much power that it seems healthier to me for there to be a strong counterweight on behalf of workers.  I also think our country should be more generous with foreign aid given the immense poverty around the world.

Conservative rhetoric that implies that private charities can replace government doesn’t ring true to me.  I know that governments tend to be inefficient, but there are some things that only governments can do, such as build highways, protect the environment, and provide police protection, and so on.  The environment is an area where it’s particularly important for government to enforce the public interest when it clashes with the economic interest of businesses.

Here are a few of the most interesting responses I received in the hopes of jumpstarting an important conversation.

Name: Mark Paul
Hometown: Chicago

Here's a try at defining liberalism, though the term is best understood in relation to its mirror opposite.  The Latin roots help a lot.  Conservatives are primarily concerned with conserving wealth, power, and privilege.  Since most of them already possess these, they know how good it is to be wealthy, powerful, and privileged -- a $50K tax cut is not at all abstract -- and will fight like hell to remain so.  As someone (Barbara Ehrenreich?) once said, it may be tiresome to clean your own bathroom, but the chore is positively humiliating if you once hired someone to do it for you.  Conservatives, Buckley said, stand athwart history and say Stop!  (I would add, easy to say when you're standing on the spot that says pass go and collect $500.)  Their conundrum is that even Buckley cannot stop time.  They must choose what to conserve and they choose best when they favor civility, rule of law, responsibility, and classical aesthetic values.

Liberals are interested in expanding liberty.  The term originally developed in British politics, as England evolved into a constitutional monarchy.  Liberals wanted to expand the franchise and conservatives resisted.  In the U.S. the terms were most useful during the civil rights movement in the '50s and '60s.  Everyone who believed African-Americans should have the right to vote was a liberal.  Everyone who didn't was a conservative.  Adam Smith, too, was a liberal, because he wanted to expand economic liberty beyond royal concessions, and liberals remain market-oriented.  The conundrum for liberals is that expanding liberty for those who do not have it inevitably pinches those who do, even if all it does is dilute their vote as it has in the Deep South since the Voting Rights Act passed into law.

Liberals believe you should be able to do with your property as you please, unless you impinge on others.  Conservatives, such as would-be appellate judge Janice Brown, believe zoning is theft.  Liberals want to be confident when they buy a suburban house that their upwind neighbor can't turn the backyard into a hog farm.

Liberals believe labor should have the right to organize into unions, just as capital organizes into corporations.

Liberals believe liberty expands when people have reasonable expectations of each other through fraud and liability statutes; conservatives prefer caveat emptor.

Liberals also understand that economic development sometimes destroys markets, leading to oligopolies and monopolies, and these must be regulated or commerce becomes extortion.  Liberals don't resent Bill Gates for becoming wealthy by building a successful business, but they don't want him to have sole control of the software business, either.

Liberals have also reluctantly concluded from the evidence that modern medicine has outstripped the privately financed, fee-for-service system, which now makes no more sense than private ownership of New York City streets.

Liberals understand that modern economies can have disastrous effects unforeseeable by even the most prudent.  Poverty is poor soil for liberty, so they favor unemployment compensation and other temporary relief measures for those with the capacity to adjust, and a Social Security system for the disabled, dependents, and the elderly, who cannot.

Liberals believe government should be constrained from interfering in private life.  How we worship, what we read and watch, our reproduction choices, and how and to whom we make love (minors and coercion excluded) are private matters.  The government need only acknowledge marriage as a boilerplate contract giving both parties certain rights and obligations.  Whether they are the same race or same sex is none of government's business.

Liberals believe the public sphere should be governed by empiricism, which requires an intellectual discipline best developed through education and the free expression of ideas.  Good public schools expand liberty for everyone, regardless of their parents' educational achievement.

Sorry, but liberal and conservative don't seem to be useful terms in foreign policy.  Journalists like to use the terms, but that only muddies the waters, which are already fairly murky.  Isolationist vs. internationalist and unilateralist vs. multilateralist seem more relevant.  Right now of course, it's the fantasists vs. the empiricists.  And Bateman is king empiricist in my book.

Hope this is useful and not too long for your purposes.  Oh, yeah, I guess liberals also believe that utility is more likely to lead toward good policy than abstract ideology.  Back in the day when SDS veered off into Maoism I never dreamed that conservatives would take so well to ideology, which used to be the province of Euro-socialists.  Take David Horowitz, please.

Name: John S. Ransom
Hometown: Carlisle, PA

Oh, well, I can give you a liberal principle.  It comes from John Rawls' A Theory of Justice.  It is that "society is a cooperative venture."  This is meant to respond to the excessive individualism of conservative thinking.  Conservatism makes the mistake of thinking that each individual is self-sufficient and that all achievements and failures must be laid at the feet of the individual, the only exceptions being for natural disasters, disease (unless its AIDS), etc.  The liberal argument is that society is a cooperative venture, and so it never makes sense to completely individualize each person's accomplishments and failures.  That's why it makes sense to tax people who are better off so as to help those who are worse off, in addition to helping those who are better off with basic services like highways, health care systems, etc.  Helping others is not charity and taxation is not theft: rather, it is a recognition that none of our achievements would be possible without the supporting background of cooperation; the multiple criss-crossing fibers of support and opportunity that society provides.  This liberal principle also acts as a rebuttal to conservative doctrine: conservatives, according to the liberal approach mentioned here, have no theory of society.  Take a look at Section 17 of Rawls' A Theory of Justice, titled THE TENDENCY TO EQUALITY for more.

Name: Dave Richie
Hometown: Birmingham, Al.
Dr. A,
I know you don't want to hear this from a conservative, but I have plenty of liberal friends here in Alabama.

To a person I believe they would not be ashamed to agree that the following are at least among their core beliefs:

  1. Freedom of expression
  2. Freedom of religious and non-religious beliefs
  3. An open and truly compassionate government
  4. Engagement in foreign affairs with war as a final option
  5. An equitable distribution of our resources and wealth

I came up with this in less than 2 minutes after reading your query.

I believe liberals to possess noble principles.  Conservatives also have noble principles.  Only through civilized discourse will either side acknowledge these facts.  Alas, I have disabused myself of the notion that this will happen in my lifetime, as I have caught myself using the same coarse approach which I now so roundly condemn.

Name: Dan
Hometown: New York

(The second season of the Wire is very good, but not as spectacular as the first.)

Principles:

  1. Government has a great deal of power.  That power should be applied extremely carefully.  When it is brought to bear, all actions should be taken with a view towards providing the broadest public good possible.
  2. When choosing between policies, the government should favor the policy which produces the more equitable distribution of wealth.
  3. The weakest groups in society should be lifted out of their weakness, rather than blamed for it.
  4. [foreign policy] The security of the country is best enhanced with the judicious use of both carrots and sticks.
  5. Condemnation, on its own, is seldom productive, and often disastrous.  Reason, empiricism and negotiation are far more important tools of public policy than moral outrage.

Name: Carter Williamson
Hometown: Philadelphia PA

Dear Dr. A.
The right is awfully good with sound bites like "ownership society," "limited government" etc.  The left really doesn't have anything comparable.  Maybe because the left's positions require at least a couple of sentences to lay out.  That being said, here are what I would consider 5 liberal principles or ideals (in no particular order):

  1. Respect for the environment;

  2. A government responsive to the needs of the less fortunate;

  3. A cooperative foreign policy as opposed to a unilateral one;

  4. Defense and advancement of human rights (right of everyone to education, health care, food, etc.); and

  5. A progressive tax policy.

Name: Timothy Hogan
Hometown: Park County, CO

5 Liberal Values:

  • We want government that functions for the people, not bad government in the name of less government.

  • We do not want government interference in people's social lives.  (We do not want legislated morality.)

  • We see the complexity of issues and honor differing perspectives in working toward solutions.

  • We think that a person or community has more worth than a corporation or business interest and that the two are not irreconcilable.

  • We value the foundations of a civilized society: access to education, care for the elderly & children, equal rights for all human beings, a humanitarian approach to the world instead of a militaristic one, and above all a sense of inclusion rather than the "us vs. them" attitude that is driving the political climate of today.

May 9, 2005 | 11:07 AM ET | Permalink

Name: Major Bob Bateman
Dateline: Baghdad, Iraq

Gifts for the Children

Baghdad does not really have suburbs.  Drive out of the city in any direction, and very suddenly you find yourself in the middle of the desert.  This is not unusual, given the physical environment.  In times past, permanent human habitation in this land between the rivers was limited to the extent of the viable range of cultivation determined by the irrigation system.

As in the United States, inroads of humanity now thrust out along the new rivers of asphalt mankind sets across the desert.  As affluence is also directly proportional to distance from the city-center, one does not need to travel far to find the lowest common denominator.  Forty kilometers will do.

This far out from the city one finds very few large buildings, and certainly none in the village our small convoy approached. There are no towering minarets from which the calls to the faithful emanate.  There are no large buildings at all.  The majority of the buildings are made, literally, of dirt.  Earthen bricks created at the site.  Poverty is sufficient to contain the proliferation of cars beyond the bare minimum needed to sustain life this far from water and food sources.  My convoy was in a village like this recently, a village without a name on my map.  It is a village through which I have passed before.

America is generous to a fault.  Our armed forces are well equipped, trained, and supplied.  On top of that our friends, families, and a host of strangers send us their expressions of love and gratitude, literally, by the ton.  We have more ‘comfort food’ here than a convention of jilted lovers (minus the Haagen Daz, which does not travel well).  All mailed from home.  Too much, in fact, for us to consume.

The attack came almost as soon as our two HMMWVs pulled off the road and rolled to a stop.  We found ourselves assailed not by bullets or rocket-propelled grenades, nor IEDs and mortar rounds, but by a swirling squealing smiling mass of diminutive petitioners all under four feet tall.  Three or four children stood on the road just ten seconds earlier, yet by the time I climbed from my seat in the lead vehicle at least forty of them swarmed between my vehicle and the next.

Six of us dismounted, the drivers and gunners staying in the vehicles. I walked to the rear of gun-truck #2 where another man opened the hatch.  The mass and press against my legs and back as I reached in for the box of food made me feel like I was at a Rolling Stones concert, albeit one given exclusively for very, very short people.  I could barely move as I turned to try and carry the food over to a parent, hanging back at the edge of the village.  Pressed in on every side, I called upon my remaining secret weapon.

The gunners in their turrets tried to focus on any potential distant threat, but when I gave the pre-arranged signal the gunner of truck #2 shifted.  We had planned for this contingency.  We plan for every contingency, even the happy ones.

Back at our base we had separated the hard candy from the more substantial food and toiletries we and placed this ‘ammo’ in a separate box.  That box was with the gunner, “Wingnut.”  On order he let fly with handful after handful of hard candy, throwing it well away and to the side of my location, a sugary ‘covering fire’ which shifted progressively further away from my location.  My howling ‘opposition’ melted away, streaming in a shrilly joyous mass away and to the side, diving for luxuries strewn in the dirt.

I accomplished my mission, handing to two now-smiling women great boxes of food and toiletries.  Thirty seconds later we were remounted and on the road again, just in case, because we were a long way from friendly forces and our convoy of two was very small.

What I describe above took place two weeks ago.

Four days ago, just a few kilometers from where I sit now inside Baghdad’s Green Zone, another group of American soldiers were doing much the same.  They were passing out candies to children, as American soldiers have been doing for decades.  The children were playing near the parked HMMWVs, and if my experiences are any guide, the kids were probably yelling and begging for yet more sweets, surrounding the Americans, when a suicide bomber drove straight into the pack of children and detonated his lethal cargo among them…

This cannot stand.

Baghdad Within Earshot:  My Baghdad-as-London analogy remains and in my opinion strengthens.  Nothing else to report.

Write to Major Bob here.

“Are Americans so jaded about the deceptions perpetrated by our own government to lead us into war in Iraq that we are no longer interested in fresh and damning evidence of those lies?  Or are the editors and producers who oversee the American news industry simply too timid to report that proof on the evening broadcasts and front pages?” asks Joe Conason, here, on the incredible silence in the U.S. media greeting the publication of this incredible memo in the Times of London.

Perhaps this is even worse.  I can’t judge.  Here’s the plan: We start wars against people who present no threat to us, and get thousands of people killed for nothing, but do nothing to protect our own people from a potential threat that could kill as many as 14 million people, here.

Do right-wingers [heart] terrorism?  I think so, but go ahead, prove me a cynic, here.

The Vatican is silencing its loyal opposition here.  The Catholic Church is going to be a real problem under this guy.

Congress screws Abbas, here, with the enthusiastic cooperation of liberal Democrats.

Michael Kinsley begins his column, here, “In this great country, there are newspaper editorial pages of every political stripe, from nearly insane far-left rantings to the Wall Street Journal.”  Hey Michael, name one “nearly insane far-left” newspaper editorial page in the United States or has it escaped your notice that you are just about the most liberal editorial page editor in the United States?

My sincerest sympathies again to all you Yankee fans.  My guess is that you’re not that used to last place.  So perhaps you had better learn.  You not only have the most overpaid team, you also have the oldest.  I’m sure we can all depend on Steinbrenner to handle it with that certain Je ne sais quoi we have all come to know and love.

I just love this letter to the Times Book Review from Butch Trucks.

She’s here.  Resistance is futile.

Talk about your all-purpose websites, Spamalot lyrics are here.

Alter-reviews

Name: Bill Skeels
The Wire, the complete second season, may be the best single body of work to appear on television in the last 10 years.  Each of the first three seasons has provided a different take on law enforcement and civic life in Baltimore, MD, structuring the plot around the institutions that govern, police, prosecute and provide illegal drugs in the city.  The show provides a view into the organizational incentives that motivate its players, which gives The Wire the feeling of reality, not so far from the actual people who play these roles in real world Baltimore.

Season 2, in particular, stands on its own; the central plot revolves around the Baltimore docks, the dockworkers union and how old undercurrents of corruption interact with their desperate attempts to continue to play a role in the new world shipping economy.  About halfway through the season, the plot intersects on many levels with the story of the various urban institutional cultures solidly established in season one.  Unlike, say, FX's The Shield, which is strong in illustrating police culture but presents criminals, politicians and other players in one dimension, The Wire tells the story from all sides.  Without any effort, just by following the intertwined stories, you gain a familiarity with as many as a dozen or more strong characters from each of a special detective unit, the regular homicide group, the police hierarchy, the local judiciary, the states attorney's office, the US Justice Department, the FBI, Homeland Security, local and state politicians, the stevedore's union, two rival drug groups, and several related but amorphous smuggler / arms dealers.  Organizational and personal incentive drives actions, and the chess game that is played out feels very real.

While the plot threads are sufficiently clear to keep the viewer involved throughout each episode, there were a fair number of subplots that became much clearer on a second viewing.  In particular, the nuances of how Homeland Security, in pursuit of its own bureaucratic goals, carelessly torched much of the work of a Baltimore drug and smuggling task force, is worth the price of admission.

Here's something I just updated my iPod to include:  Heather Greene's version of The Cars' "Just What I Needed" off her new CD Five Dollar Dress.  Her take makes the song something else, and it's something thoughtful, funny, and sad, like the rest of her record.  She’s been playing around the city a lot lately and will be at Joes Pub on May 12.  Also The Greencards, on Dualtone, Weather and Water, beautiful voices, smart arrangements, sensitive intelligent lyrics, reminds me a bit of Cry, Cry, Cry.

Correspondents’ Corner:

Name: Tom Moore
Hometown: Hurricane, WV

Eric,
Retired Colonel David Hackworth passed away this morning.  I think Major Bob would agree with me that we've lost a good one.  He was a great man and a great leader.

My father served in the Pacific with the Marines during WWII.  I remember how impressed he was with Col. Hackworth when the 60 Minutes interview came out.  My father felt Hackworth was a true leader concerned about the Army he served in and the men he served with.  If you had known my father you would know this was the highest praise you could ever get from this veteran of Guadacanal, Saipan and Iwo.

Colonel Hackworth will be missed because he had the legitimacy to challenge the Chicken Hawks that are currently running this country into the ground.

From: Todd Gitlin
Hometown: New York
To the editor of the Times:

Re Oliver Conant's letter (May 4):  Mr. Conant, in chastising the Vietnam anti-war movement for what was indeed "the terrible aftermath of the war," namely prison and exile for many, neglects to mention that the war killed some 3 million Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans only to produce a result no more humane than would have resulted absent the war.  The choice was not between paradise and war but between two tragic options.  Despite many foolish claims by the movement, the withdrawal path that it endorsed was by far the preferable one.

(The author was an organizer of the first major national demonstration against the Vietnam War.)

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