Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Neda Agha-Soltan and the Price of Liberty

by Michael Kaplan

This past spring (Monday June 14) HBO showed a documentary For Neda that explores the life of Neda Agha-Soltan, the young Iranian woman who was brutally murdered by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s thugs last year. Like so many people throughout the world I was horrified and filled with awe at the sight of this brave young woman who paid the ultimate price standing up for liberty. Unlike most of us who, whether out of fear or inertia, talk about liberty but don’t do much about it, Neda did something. She would not let those who’ve enslaved her country bully her. She would not let the theocratic tyrants control her mind or soul. In 1775 Patrick Henry said “Give me liberty, or give me death.” In 2009, in a country halfway around the world from Henry’s Virginia, Neda took up his challenge; she was going to be the mistress of her own destiny, wherever it might lead. And in doing so she became a martyr—a true martyr, a martyr for the liberty of all human beings, not one of those false martyrs who die for the jihad in hopes of finding 72 virgins in the afterlife.

Now, more than a year after Neda’s tragic death I have to ask the question that the makers of “For Neda” asked at the documentary’s end: “. . . did she die in vain?” Thomas Jefferson wrote from Paris in 1787 during the debates on the ratification of the Constitution, what he believed to be the price of liberty: “What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. It is it's natural manure.” Jefferson said many brilliant things as well as some contradictory and ridiculous things in his long public career. Some of them would outrage polite opinion in the twenty-first century. But the Sage of Monticello was on the mark here. Liberty is a hard won prize. Jacksonians understand that liberty is always easy to lose and once lost is very hard to regain. Which is why the right to bear arms, enshrined in the Second Amendment, is so important to them as the very bedrock of liberty. Declarations and constitutions are just beautiful words without the willingness and ability of the people to stand up for the principles they proclaim. It is almost impossible to win liberty from a tyrannical government that possesses a monopoly of fire power. The people of Iran have paid for that lesson in blood.

So far, a year and a half after Neda’s martyrdom, the prospects for liberty in Iran are not good. The Green Movement, driven underground, is down, though not out. The Islamic regime has, for the moment, survived the crisis. Ahmadinejad, Ayatollah Khamenei, and the mullahs are using the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij militia as their iron fist to crush any protesters brave enough or foolhardy enough to raise their heads. The Basij, many of whom are nothing more than street thugs, have been especially brutal, consistently engaging in the rape and torture of arrested protesters. The blog Islamization Watch posted (on February 21) a video and transcript of one Basij member who protested against the abuse of a group of children, all younger than 14, who had been taken into custody, stripped naked, and confined in a container. “What was this path that we’d taken,” he asked, “that it is an Islamic directive that people’s wives and children are being raped?” For his trouble this basiji with a conscience was himself arrested and tortured and driven into exile. This is just one example of the forces those Iranians yearning for liberty have to face.

Monday, October 18, 2010

A Krystal Ball into the Future?

by Michael Kaplan

Virginia’s First Congressional District has been called “America’s First District.” Created in 1788 after Virginia ratified the Constitution, the district was the setting for a number of milestones in America’s early history. In fact the first successful English settlement in North America, Jamestown, the seed which would grow into the United States, was planted in the swampy soil of the district in 1607. In 1781 America won its independence at the decisive Battle of Yorktown, also in the district. This was Virginia’s Tidewater country, in its heyday home to many opulent plantations and an aristocracy whose wealth was derived from the unrequited toil of its slaves. Some of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War were fought on the district’s soil, including the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862, one of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s greatest victories. George Washington spent his boyhood years at Ferry Farm just outside Fredericksburg. Washington biographer Ron Chernow writes that “The young George Washington could peer across the river and see a perfect tableau of the British Empire in action. Moored at town wharves, ships bulging with tobacco, grain, and iron gave glimmers of the lucrative transatlantic trade with London that enriched the colony.”

Mary Ball, mother of George Washington.

And now Fredericksburg has given us a freshman political candidate with a most New Age name: Krystal Ball. Yes that really is her name. “My father has a Ph.D. in physics and did his dissertation on crystals. Fortunately or unfortunately, my mother allowed him to name me and so he chose the name Krystal Ball.” The young Ms. Ball—she’s a 28-year-old professional woman, wife, and mother—is running as a Democrat for Congress in the 1st Virginia against Republican incumbent Rob Wittman. If elected she would be the first woman under 30 ever to serve in the United States Congress. Not as momentous a Virginia first as being the first colony and supplying the first president, but important nonetheless. In fact Ms. Ball could well be related, albeit quite distantly, to the Father of the Country—George Washington’s mother’s name was Mary Ball. But I doubt that General Washington, when he took the oath of office as the first president in 1789, could ever have imagined that a candidate for public office would be better known for sexually suggestive imagery than for her positions on public policy. Then again old George could never have imagined any woman ever holding public office, even one who might somehow be related to him.

Krystal Ball

Krystal Ball was catapulted into the national spotlight this month when racy photographs, taken at a Christmas party after she graduated from the University of Virginia in 2003, were posted on a conservative blog. The nine photos show Ball dressed in a “naughty Santa” costume leading her then (and now ex-) husband around on a leash and sucking a red dildo on his nose. Here’s one of the now infamous photos.

Ball told an interviewer with a local news station that posting the photos was part of a coordinated attack to derail her campaign. If so it failed miserably. Ball ’s campaign has seen a marked increase in donations since the scandal went national. Much of the money is coming from women who admire her grit in the face of adversity, a very Jacksonian trait. Before the photos came to light Ms. Ball was largely unknown and her campaign was a long shot. Now she’s attracted national coverage for her campaign, writing an impassioned article in The Huffington Post, and appearing on Fox News with Megyn Kelly and MSNBC with Dylan Ratigan. Ball was outraged as she told Ratigan that the bloggers were trying to paint her as a whore:
KRYSTAL BALL:  For years women have been delegitimized and denigrated by being portrayed as whores, and I cant believe that Im on your show saying that word, but I think thats true.  The new twist is that now that we have Facebook, now that so many of us live so much of our lives online and so much of it is recorded digitally, what does that mean? I think Im sort of the first person who's had to face this particular thing, but I certainly don’t think Im the last.  So part of the reason that I believe this story has gotten so much traction is simply because we have to ask ourselves as a society, as people of my generation, both young men and young women [who] come of age and decide to run for office: How are we gonna handle this particular issue?
She even caught the attention of Rush Limbaugh, who devoted segments of his October 12 and 13 shows to her. Alas, Rush was less than chivalrous when discussing Ms. Ball, dismissing her outrage as Facebook generation self-absorption. “No, Krystal, you’re not. Krystal, you’re not the first person to whom this has happened. This is the thing when I always tell you, ‘People think that history began the day they were born,’ this is what I mean. Everybody’s historical perspective begins the day they were born. So poor Krystal Ball here thinks that this is the first time something’s happened like this, happened to her.” And besides, Rush suggested, a little sex-tinged scandal never hurt a Democratic candidate. Rush also noted that Ms. Ball bears a striking resemblance to Demi Moore, which she does (the Demi Moore of 20 years ago, pre-Ashton Kutcher, that is).

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Peter Berkowitz on Why Liberals Don’t Get the Tea Party Movement

by Michael Kaplan

Peter Berkowitz of the Hoover Institution has written an excellent piece in The Wall Street Journal taking liberal progressive pundits like E. J. Dionne to task for their less than knowledgeable analyses of the Tea Party movement. The critics of the Tea Party may have degrees from our top universities, but they are surprisingly ignorant of American political history and the founding principles embodied in the Constitution. Higher education is doing a terrible disservice (among many other disservices) to the younger generation of Americans by focusing on social history and trendy ethnic and gender group feel-good studies to the exclusion of political and military history. Not that I have anything against social history—I have done research in it—but I would agree with Berkowitz that social history and its focus on issues of race, class, and gender, is being used by some in the liberal progressive elite to condemn America as racist, exploitative, and patriarchal, rather than to understand the complex process of nation building. We need to study political and military history alongside social and cultural history to achieve a well-rounded and sophisticated understanding of the human condition.

While Paul Krugman labeled the Tea Party “AstroTurf,” a fake rather than a genuine grassroots movement, Dionne dismissed the Tea Party as a fringe of the far right, wallowing in paranoid fantasies that nobody should take seriously. Here, according to Berkowitz, Dionne is following in the footsteps of historian Richard Hofstadter who showed a consistent hostility to populist movements in his writings. Hofstadter popularized the notion of a “paranoid style” on the right that displayed “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy.”

Berkowitz concedes that Tea Party has its share of offbeat wingnuts; yes, some of its more prominent candidates have made statements and embraced policies that leave something to be desired. Then again so have liberal progressives. Berkowitz continues:

Born in response to President Obamas self-declared desire to fundamentally change America, the tea party movement has made its central goals abundantly clear. Activists and the sizeable swath of voters who sympathize with them want to reduce the massively ballooning national debt, cut runaway federal spending, keep taxes in check, reinvigorate the economy, and block the expansion of the state into citizens lives.
In other words, the tea party movement is inspired above all by a commitment to limited government. And that does distinguish it from the competition.
But far from reflecting a recurring pathology in our politics or the losing side in the debate over the Constitution, the devotion to limited government lies at the heart of the American experiment in liberal democracy. The Federalists who won ratification of the Constitution—most notably Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay—shared with their Anti-Federalist opponents the view that centralized power presented a formidable and abiding threat to the individual liberty that it was government's primary task to secure. They differed over how to deal with the threat.

The Anti-Federalists—including Patrick Henry, Samuel Bryan and Robert Yates—adopted the traditional view that liberty depended on state power exercised in close proximity to the people. The Federalists replied in Federalist 9 that the science of politics, which had “received great improvement,” showed that in an extended and properly structured republic liberty could be achieved and with greater security and stability.
This improved science of politics was based not on abstract theory or complex calculations but on what is referred to in Federalist 51 as inventions of prudence grounded in the reading of classic and modern authors, broad experience of self-government in the colonies, and acute observations about the imperfections and finer points of human nature. It taught that constitutionally enumerated powers; a separation, balance, and blending of these powers among branches of the federal government; and a distribution of powers between the federal and state governments would operate to leave substantial authority to the states while both preventing abuses by the federal government and providing it with the energy needed to defend liberty.
Whether members have read much or little of The Federalist, the tea party movement's focus on keeping government within bounds and answerable to the people reflects the devotion to limited government embodied in the Constitution. One reason this is poorly understood among our best educated citizens is that American politics is poorly taught at the universities that credentialed them. Indeed, even as the tea party calls for the return to constitutional basics, our universities neglect The Federalist and its classic exposition of constitutional principles.
Elite liberal progressives, who see themselves as champions of a childlike and easily misled American public who need guidance and protection, can’t get their heads around the idea that a grassroots movement can emerge from the right instead of the left. Krugman, Dionne, and other pundits who dismiss Jacksonian America (70% of the nation) as a tribe of kooks, wackos, and weirdos—boobus americanus—should not be surprised when the Jacksonian Tea Party rejects them and their patronizing condescension. Other liberal progressive pundits and academics simply can’t believe that Tea Partiers can have a proper understanding of history, one that’s different than their own. Lorelei Kelly, director of the New Strategic Security Initiative, a liberal internationalist NGO, writes in The Huffington Post (October 15, 2010) that the Tea Party in its ignorance has appropriated American history and symbolism and transformed them into kitsch. “The Tea Party is taking a joyride through the world of American ideals. Along the way, it has grabbed the best revolutionary symbols, the cinematic frustration of the masses, and an irreproachable sounding plan (Fiscal responsibility! Constitutionally limited government! Free markets! Yay!)” Kelly continues in the same condescending tone, “But it's all emotions and fantasy. Despite the symbolic appeal, Tea Partiers don't really speak to tradition. They speak to nostalgia. These signals resurrected from the past are not representative. They are kitsch.” Tea Partiers certainly don’t have the intellectual heft to understand America’s founding principles, rubes that they are. Again are progressives really surprised, given those attitudes, that Jacksonians turn away from them in disgust?

As Berkowitz makes clear the Tea Party patriots understand American liberty better than their supposed betters. “Our universities have produced two generations of highly educated people who seem unable to recognize the spirited defense of fundamental American principles, even when it takes place for more than a year and a half right in front of their noses.”

© 2010 Michael Kaplan

Monday, October 11, 2010

Is the Tea Party Populist?: Fareed Zakaria GPS Panel Debates Populism and Conservatism

by Michael Kaplan

Kudos to Peggy Noonan and Richard Brookhiser for some first rate analysis of the Tea Party and populism on Fareed Zakaria GPS (October 10, 2010). The other half of the panel, historians Robert Caro and Charles Postel, fell back on the well-worn liberal progressive caricature of the Tea Party as racist, nativist, and a puppet of corporate interests and the well funded right-wing hate machine. Noonan and Brookhiser did a good job challenging Caro and Postel on this point and engaging them in a debate on whether or not the Tea Party really is a populist movement.

Here is the video. The panel starts at 3:40.

The differences between the conservative and liberal halves of the panel turned on a broad versus a narrow definition of “populism.” As I pointed out in a previous post, Jacksonian populism is neither completely of the right nor the left, and at different times has switched its allegiances between the Democrats and the Republicans. Jacksonians lean left populist on economic issues (they hate collusion between big government and big business), while they lean right populist on social and cultural issues. Noonan and Brookhiser incorporated both right- and left-wing populism in their analysis while Caro and Postel limited their definition of populism to the left-wing version, in particular the Populist movement of the 1890s.

Noonan led off the discussion arguing that the Tea Party movement was both conservative and populist, and that by challenging both Democratic and Republican elites it could appeal to centrists. “The Tea Party has some of the style and—and spirit, if you will, of classic populist movements. It is anti-establishment, it is anti-elite, it is broad, it is spontaneous, it is still evolving. It is not something that is set.” She added that the Tea Party is “very much within American tradition, and I also think it is where the energy is on the political scene right now.” Caro, biographer of Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson, insisted that the Tea Party cannot populist because it rejects the liberal progressive idea of social justice. The Populists of the 1890s, like William Jennings Bryan, Tom Watson, Lyndon Johnson’s grandfather Sam, and many others according to Caro, wanted the government to use its power to make life better for those without power and influence. Lyndon Johnson’s father once told him that “the job of government is to help people cordon the tentacles of circumstance. That’s what populism wanted. Populism was for social justice, where government’s stepping in to help people fighting forces too big for them to fight themselves.” Postel, author of The Populist Vision, agreed with Caro that the quest for social justice is the essence of populism. “The Tea Party is a conservative movement, not a populist movement. It's a conservative movement that doesn't think the government should make a better life for poor people, for—for the common person.”