Two things are just stunning me today. The first is Obama from a 2001 radio interview. Here's a link to the audio file:
OBAMA: If you look at the victories and failures of the civil rights movement and its litigation strategy in the court, I think where it succeeded was to vest formal rights in previously dispossessed peoples. So that I would now have the right to vote, I would now be able to sit at the lunch counter and order and as long as I could pay for it I’d be okay.
But the Supreme Court never ventured into the issues of redistribution of wealth and sort of more basic issues of political and economic justice in this society. And to that extent as radical as people tried to characterize the Warren court, it wasn’t that radical. It didn’t break free from the essential constraints that were placed by the founding fathers in the Constitution, at least as it’s been interpreted, and the Warren court interpreted it in the same way that generally the Constitution is a charter of negative liberties. It says what the states can’t do to you, it says what the federal government can’t do to you, but it doesn’t say what the federal government or the state government must do on your behalf. And that hasn’t shifted. One of the I think tragedies of the civil rights movement was because the civil rights movement became so court focused, I think that there was a tendency to lose track of the political and community organizing and activities on the ground that are able to put together the actual coalitions of power through which you bring about redistributed change and in some ways we still suffer from that.
I can not believe that I never heard this clip before I voted for Obama. I'm sick to my ears of the notion that governments are/should be in the business of "distributing" wealth. Slaves accept distributed wealth. Peasants. And I guess I shouldn't be surprised--all of the French theorists I was made to read in graduate school seemed to enjoy referring to people that any right-headed American would've called "citizens" as "subjects."
The second thing that's stunning me today is a 2009 article by Thomas Friedman, who is the New York Times' much-lauded favorite-op-ed son. In fact, most of my academic colleagues describe Friedman as "a centrist" or even as a conservative (!). Here's what he thinks:
Watching both the health care and climate/energy debates in Congress, it is hard not to draw the following conclusion: There is only one thing worse than one-party autocracy, and that is one-party democracy, which is what we have in America today.
One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century. It is not an accident that China is committed to overtaking us in electric cars, solar power, energy efficiency, batteries, nuclear power and wind power. China’s leaders understand that in a world of exploding populations and rising emerging-market middle classes, demand for clean power and energy efficiency is going to soar. Beijing wants to make sure that it owns that industry and is ordering the policies to do that, including boosting gasoline prices, from the top down.
Anyway, I'm just sick of people on the left telling me that Obama's not done anything crazy, and that the views of the left are not extreme or radical. Obama himself points to the fact that re-conceiving of the Constitution as (somehow!) describing "positive" rights is a major reversal of historical precedent. Rights are now gifted by the government, and not defended by it. I heard a commentator on the radio describe the unconcerned attitude most liberals express when hearing of things like the government infringing on property rights by forcing businesses to outlaw smoking--"it's in the interest of public health," they say. But if the situation were reversed--if you owned a restaurant and the government required that you allow smoking, could that possibly be just? Even if the majority wanted it?
We have grown comfortable with the idea that we are a "pure" democracy -- but the Constitution was designed specifically to protect us from mob-ocracy... from the tyranny of the majority as much as from a dictatorship of one. It's so deeply disheartening to me to hear such disregard for individual freedom from sources considered mainstream -- to hear Tom Friedman say that China is run by "a reasonably enlightened group of people."
I'm not into polemics anymore -- mostly because I've never ever ever seen anyone I know change their opinion because of an argument. But I guess I just want to go on record (again) saying that if you think of all of this as negligible stuff, you and I are from different cultures, and don't tell me you respect mine while you're willing to legislate it out of existence.