The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Anti-Buddha

Wisconsin Governor Walker Is Not a Wise Grasshopper

Some conservatives have taken to dubbing President Obama the “anti-Reagan” of late, as opposed to those branding him the Antichrist for some time now. They mean to mock suggestions by some that Obama is moving toward the center as he enters the second half of his Presidential term. I tend to agree with their evaluation. Obama strikes me as consistent in his politics and leadership style, albeit a consistency sometimes difficult to label.

However, if we are trotting out “antis” for consideration, I believe there is a new one emerging on the conservative side. I nominate Republican Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin as the “anti-Buddha” because of his intentions to limit severely the collective bargaining rights of public sector unions. It is not so much what Walker wants to achieve that earns him this sobriquet from me as the manner that he has gone about doing it.
Republican Governor Scott
Walker of Wisconsin

Walker says Wisconsin needs to do this – and I take him at his word – because of the state’s looming budget deficit. It is but part of $1.0 billion in cuts he will likely propose for next year’s budget. Walker warns fifteen hundred state workers could lose their jobs by July if the Wisconsin legislature fails to adopt his proposal.

Walker wants affected workers to accept an eight percent pay cut on average as well as significant increases to the portion of their pensions funded by themselves. Union leaders have agreed to these concessions, acknowledging the state’s dire financial straits. However, this is not good enough for Walker. He demands Wisconsin’s need to invalidate the collective bargaining agreements already in place with its public sector unions and limit their bargaining rights in the future to modest salary increases.

Walker rejected union concessions repeatedly, as well as one Wisconsin Republican Senator’s alternate plan to suspend collective bargaining rights temporarily for only two years. He maintains the bargaining process is too complicated and slow for the rapid, flexible responses necessary to solve Wisconsin’s problems. He insists this is not a political power play and his only desire is to return his state to economic sanity.

However, critics quickly find numerous ways in which his actions fail to match his words. Even as he calls on unions to share sacrifice for budget deficits, he ignores the primary reasons for their sudden burgeoning size are his recent tax cuts. In addition to limiting bargaining rights, Walker’s bill requires unions to face a vote of membership every year to remain formed and allows workers to opt out of paying dues. Most notably, he has focused his cuts on unions traditionally friendly to Democrats, such as teachers, while exempting those friendly to Republicans, such as firefighters and police.

In fairness, many conservative pundits argue convincingly that public sector unions need to concede more than pay cuts and require basic infrastructure changes. David Brooks of the New York Times, Richard Cohen and Michael Gerson of the Washington Post, and Jonathan Rauch of the National Journal have all argued recently or in the past that state and local governments are so indebted to union workers, particularly over generous pensions, it has become impossible for them to pay for critical services.

However, rather than bargain in earnest with state unions over this new reality, using legislation to outlaw collective bargaining as leverage, Walker pursued its forced reduction/elimination from the onset. This was his primary mistake, in my opinion. But why does this make him the anti-Buddha?

It is because of an underlying principle in Buddhist teachings that runs, “Learn the ways to preserve rather than destroy. Avoid rather than check, check rather than hurt, hurt rather than maim, maim rather than kill.” In the old Kung Fu television program, the main character’s Shaolin master was fond of this adage. It may sound like non-violent transcendental silliness but it is rooted in practicality, readily conceding that extreme actions are sometimes necessary.

It is also rooted in science; namely Newton’s Third Law of Motion, which states that for every action there is an equal but opposite reaction. Buddhism wisely concludes that when under attack by an opponent, it is usually less painful – certainly to oneself and often to one’s opponent as well – to avoid, misdirect, or deflect their force rather than attempting to meet it head on. This is the nature of Walker’s error. He needed to bring a carrot and stick to his dealings with unions. Instead, he brought a sword and came out swinging.

Whether this was a mistake on Walker’s part or he sincerely believed cost reductions are only possible by limiting the political power of unions, he was disingenuous when insisting his bill is strictly a cost-cutting measure. He and possibly Republicans in general are also likely to suffer negative political blowback from his overreach, even if they successfully pass the measure, which still seems likely to me, and even if ultimately motivated by good intentions.

In this, they may potentially share the same fate as Obama and Congressional Democrats over the passage of healthcare reform. Like Obama in that instance, Walker appears to remain serene in the wake of a “shellacking” by organized labor and other protestors. This cannot be easy. Walker and Republican Wisconsin lawmakers must feel as though descended upon by a plague of locusts. However, this is what happens when you are not a wise grasshopper.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Re-Peeling the Banana

The Tea Party and the Patriot Act Create a
Conservative Clash

We have heard much lately about how Tea Partiers, like other Republican members of Congress, want to repeal healthcare reform, arguing the new law is, among other things, an unwarranted intrusion of government into private lives. Their dissatisfaction centers on its “individual mandate,” which requires people to buy health insurances from a private carrier or pay government penalties.

If Tea Partiers object to a government intrusion forcing them to buy something geared toward protecting them from financial ruin in the event of catastrophic health problem(s), then it seems as though they would object even more to government intrusions geared toward violating their privacy and possibly sending them to prison with limited Constitutional rights. As Democratic Representative Dennis Kucinich of Ohio recently challenged Tea Partiers on the House floor, “How about the Patriot Act, which has the broadest reach and the deepest reach of government to our daily lives?”

A cartoonist's take on the Patriot Act

Last week, a handful of freshman Tea Party legislators rose to the challenge. The House was voting on a bill to extend, for nine months, three aspects of the Patriot Act that are due to expire on February 28. The first permits court-approved roving wiretaps that permit surveillance on multiple phones. The second, known as the “library records provision,” gives the FBI court-approved access to “any tangible thing” relevant to a terrorism investigation. The third, known as the “lone-wolf” provision, allows secret surveillance of non-U.S. individuals not known to be affiliated with a specific terror organization.

The House Republican leadership was so confident of passing the extension that they brought it up for vote using an expedited procedure that required a two-thirds majority for passage. The final vote of 277-148 fell just short of the necessary total, resulting in the measure’s defeat and considerable embarrassment for the GOP. About two-thirds of House Democrats voted against the measure. However, twenty-six Republicans, including seven freshman lawmakers backed by the Tea Party movement, joined them in dissent.

Winning the vote of just those seven Tea Partiers would have been enough to provide the necessary two-thirds majority for passage. The Tea Partiers objected to the Patriot Act as an unwarranted intrusion on everyday life.

The Obama Administration backed the extension. In fact, it favors extending all three provisions for three years. However, it was willing to settle for nine months as a buffer period allowing “new lawmakers to get up to speed on the issue and . . . discuss fully the usefulness of the techniques.”

President Obama has failed to deliver on a number of campaign promises and I find that I can accept most of them without significant qualms. However, I must agree with Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Constitution-Journal that Obama’s “most disappointing decisions have revolved around national security issues and his insistence on retaining [former President Bush’s] oppressive policies on terrorism.”

I have written many time in the past that I can understand need for the types of provisions that were up for vote, in order to allow law enforcement officials the flexibility and swiftness to apprehend and detain terrorism suspects before they could do harm. My chief objection to the Patriot Act, as currently written, lies with the lack of independent judicial review it provides. Simply put, the people who investigate, arrest, and jail suspected terrorists should not also be the same people who sit in judgment over them.

Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder attempted to deal with this by pushing for trials of terrorism suspects in civil courts on U.S. soil. Unfortunately, opponents used invective to stoke the public’s existing fears over this matter. Coupled with the Administration’s often half-hearted and ineffective attempts to promote the practice, Obama had already lost this battle almost before he began.

This is one reason I have become increasingly convinced that all aspects of the Patriot Act require resistance and diminishment whenever possible. I also believe the most likely reason a civilian court might reach a different outcome than a military tribunal is rejection of illegally gained intelligence/evidence by the former. It seems giving law enforcement greater leeway leads to abuses and sloppy casework far often rather than building solid cases after detainment.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation recently completed a study, using data collected through Freedom of Information Act requests, which concludes the FBI has committed over forty thousand intelligence violations since the September 11 attacks. It further uncovered instances of the FBI “lying in declarations to courts, using improper evidence to obtain grand jury subpoenas, and accessing password-protected files without a warrant.”

The recent failure to pass an extension of three provisions may be an embarrassment for Republican leaders and the White House but it is hardly a death knell for the legislation. The GOP has already re-introduced the bill under regular procedures and passed it with a simple majority. Meanwhile, the Senate has introduced multiple bipartisan bills to make the provisions permanent.

Russ Feingold, the former Democratic Senator from Wisconsin combined canny understanding for the seductive appeal of the Patriot Act with equal acumen for its potential abuses when he was the lone Senator to vote against its initial passage in October 2001. “Of course, there is no doubt that if we lived in a police state, it would be easier to catch terrorists . . . But that probably would not be a country in which we would want to live. And that would not be a country for which we could, in good conscience, ask our young people to fight and die. In short, that would not be America.”

Feingold was defeated last November by Republican Ron Johnson, a Tea Party-backed candidate. During the campaign, Johnson called healthcare reform “the greatest assault on our freedom in my lifetime” and vowed to repeal it. I can only hope he will show the same integrity as his seven House colleagues when attempting to reconcile Senate bills extending the Patriot Act provisions with the House version.

I certainly hope he does better than President Obama. As a Senate candidate in 2003, Obama said he would vote to repeal the Patriot Act, calling it a “shoddy and dangerous law.” Now he justifies his preference for a three-year extension of some of its abuses by arguing, “This approach would ensure appropriate Congressional oversight by maintaining a sunset but the longer duration provides the necessary certainty and predictability that our nation's intelligence and law enforcement agencies require.”

I have recently argued that some nations, such as Egypt, may not be ready for abrupt, dramatic change – even change as desirable as democratic rule. The United States, on the other hand, is a well-established democracy that can survive sudden shocks. While Obama’s desire for stability is understandable, I feel it misplaced in support of a law that does so much to gut civil liberties and the Bill of Rights.

The Patriot Act is a bad banana, pure and simple. However, hope of repeal is as unlikely in this case as it for Republican seeking a total repeal of healthcare reform, even if Obama showed greater desire to try. Any banana once peeled is impossible to re-peel. The only practicable strategy at present is to continue using every opportunity to resist extending the law’s provisions and drawing attention to its liabilities. At present, this seems limited to a group of freshman Tea Party Representatives.

Thursday, February 3, 2011


The Desire for Democracy Is Universal and Eternal; The Competence to Govern Democratically Is Not

What, oh what, should the United States do about Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak? Events unexpected in their timing and rate of progress, if not necessarily their likelihood of occurrence, have transformed him, almost overnight, from a right-wing strongman effectively quashing organized dissent for thirty years to an old man teetering on the precipice of forced removal by a popular uprising. Should the Obama Administration be doing more to support the anti-government protestors and encourage Mubarak to vacate office immediately?

The consensus among many pundits of differing ideological stripes is that it should. They argue against past prevailing wisdom that Mubarak, for all his faults, brought stability to Egypt following the assassination of Anwar Sadat as well as welcome moderation to the Arab world, particularly in his willingness to treat peacefully with Israel. Likewise, they argue Mubarak’s loyalty to America, in exchange for massive economic aid, has done little to increase our safety.
Egyptian anti-
government protestors

In fact, author Lawrence Wright postulates in his Pulitzer-prize winning work The Looming Tower that Mubarak’s harsh treatment of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood radicalized this group, pushing several of its leaders beyond national politics into global jihad.

David Brooks of the New York Times cites compelling numbers to suggest the U.S. is fighting the tide of modern history by doing anything other than encouraging the toppling of non-democratic regimes – one hundred nations experiencing popular uprisings, the fall of more than eighty-five authoritarian governments, and the establishment of about sixty-two new democracies over the past twenty years. “Autocracies are more fragile than any other form of government, by far,” Brooks chides those championing repressive governments as stable.

The problem for many is not some great personal love for Mubarak but fear over where Egypt ends up in his absence. Ross Douthat, also of the Times, notes, “even if post-Mubarak Egypt doesn’t descend into religious dictatorship, it’s still likely to lurch in a more anti-American direction.” Others counter this dreadful pending vacuum directly results from our toleration, indeed our reward, of Mubarak’s dictatorial style.

Michael Gerson of the Washington Post remembers a 2005 trip to Egypt with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that left him unimpressed with that country’s collection of opposition leaders. His disdain remains today. “This is the Mubarak legacy. In the name of weakening Islamism, he undermined all legitimate opposition, often forcing dissent into the radical mosque. If the alternatives to Mubarak’s rule are poor, it is because he did his best to make it so.”

Francis Fukuyama, writing in the Wall Street Journal, agrees. Mubarak’s strategy was “gutting liberal opposition and permitting the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood to operate just enough to scare the United States and other Western backers.”

Others worry about bad blood toward the U.S. on the Arab street. Reporting from Tahrir Square in Cairo, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times reports himself “intoxicated” by the “yearning and hopefulness” of ordinary Egyptians risking their safety to call publicly for democracy. However, he worries, “One thing nags at me. These pro-democracy protesters say overwhelmingly that America is on the side of President Mubarak and not with them.”

The Washington Post’s Marc Thiessen conveys the ire of one protestor that “We believe America is against us.” He fretfully predicts, “The resentment could last for generations.” While I cannot help but wish that guys like Thiessen and Kristof had shown greater apprehension over discontent in the Arab street when it opposed the Bush Administration’s invasion of Iraq, this does not make their concerns over its reaction toward our non-involvement in the current Egyptian troubles any less valid.

There is no question that the U.S. made a mistake continuing its political and economic support of Mubarak’s anti-democratic policies. It is but one in a series of post-World War II foreign policy blunders backing regimes that ultimately caused more problems than they resolved. Yet our reactionary rushes to judgment, all for the desirable goal of promoting stability, only increases my reticence at doing exactly the same thing for the equally desirable goal of promoting democracy.

Moreover, I question whether demanding Mubarak’s immediate departure is likely to move Egypt closer to democracy in any significant way. I share the sentiments expressed by thinkers like Brooks and Fukuyama that there is an innate desire for democracy – what they define as “desire for dignity” from government for the governed – that crosses all geographic and cultural boundaries.

However, I believe it is dangerous to conflate this desire with competence for democratic governance, which is highly conditional upon time, place, culture, and other factors. Brooks sanguinely generalizes, “Most countries that have experienced uprisings end up better off,” although he concedes Iran as a glaring exception. Fukuyama points out numerous former Soviet republics that embraced democracy to initial cheering then subsequently “disappointed their hopeful early backers by not producing effective democratic governance.” He argues the same is true for Afghanistan and Iraq.

“Democracy does not magically spring to life once the dictator is gone or even after the first free and fair election has taken place,” Fukuyama admonishes. My chief concern over true democracy in Egypt is not that it has come too slowly to that country but that we may, attempt to force it to come too quickly once again. I agree with Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, who asserts that Egypt “lacks the civic and political institutions that are necessary for democracy.”

“I care about democratic values,” Cohen adds, “but they are worse than useless in societies that have no tradition of tolerance or respect for minority rights.” The Egyptian protestors are heartening in their aspirations and their courage but, without intending discouragement of their intentions, I counsel caution regarding their actions. What we have in Egypt right now is more “demobcracy” than democracy. It is very different from democratic governance, let alone Western-style secular democratic governance.

If the protestors in Tahrir Square are budding Founding Fathers, then they are standing closer to their equivalent of a non-lethal (so far) Boston Massacre or Tea Party than they are a Constitutional Convention. While some of the same individuals in our nation’s history may have been involved with both events, fifteen-plus years separated them. The Founders learned many important lessons over this period. Most notably, the disastrous Articles of Confederation taught them that democratic governance by a largely powerless central government was both unmanageable and unsustainable.

Amr Bargisi, a senior partner with the Egyptian Union of Liberal Youth, reports that many of the middle class young men in the streets of Cairo over the past several days are not protestors but rather standing guard in front of their houses and stores to protect them from looting. They fear unrest and instability from the mob more than they resent limitations on liberty by Mubarak.

Bargisi fear the most likely outcome from whatever individual or group assumes power in Mubarak’s wake will be “a contract between the state and the frightened middle classes to make sure no similar uprising ever happens again.” In other words, even greater repression of free expression and other rights necessary for the genesis of true democratic government.

I would be happy to see the Obama Administration say/do more to support and protect the anti-government protestors in Egypt. However, I think we would stray from the path of wisdom in encouraging Washington to help oust Mubarak as expeditiously as possible. Americans often disdain reactive policies but a go-slow approach may actually strengthen rather than weaken Egypt’s pro-democracy movement in the end.

The plan proposed by Mubarak himself on Tuesday – to remain in power for now but not seek re-election – will give non-radical opposition groups critical necessary months to establish legitimacy and power bases. A mob is a sudden and capricious creature, even when inspired by noble goals. It will take some time for demobcracy to evolve into democracy in a nation and a culture where it has languished under repression for so long.