Couple Things from Talk Radio in the form of a Tirade

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.


fenhopper said...

why are you wasting your time with friedman? i typically hear him described as not too bright and largely inconsistent. he's representative of very little.

on the obama quote, i hear him saying that the change should be a grassroots thing. that true redistribution doesn't come from the top.

Casey said...

"Wasting my time" on a 3-time Pulitzer prize winner? Who else should I pick on? I've already done Krugman.

I'm sort of deciding to go radio-silent, anyway... I'm not willing to stand up for "the truth," I guess. I'm not saying I liked what Rand Paul said, for example, but I hate that anyone who does say that they like what he says is immediately written off as an insane racist.

The only thing Friedman got right is that we're living in a one-party system. Watch what you say. Join the party. Tell on your neighbors if they resist.

I don't think of Timothy Geithner's takeover of the private sector as "grassroots." I know you can argue that Obama inherited an emergency, but... you've read The Road to Serfdom. Rahm has too, I'm sure: never miss an opportunity to make something of a crisis.

Anyway, I don't care anymore. For now, things are fine. I can raise my baby. We can still leave the country whenever we want. We aren't China yet.

(Jeez, Casey: that bleak without any self-conscious irony?)

fenhopper said...

milli vanilli won a grammy.

still never wasted my time either dancing to them or trying to undo their influence. some things are silly enough to leave alone even at their peak.

on the quote (not on obama): but isn't the statement ok? isn't he saying something pretty conservative here? i can understand you thinking he's been dangerous in his economic policies, but this quote doesn't make that case does it?

Casey said...

Well it seems implicit in what he's saying (especially in the audio) that in his view, the Warren Court wasn't radical enough. He seems to be pulling his listeners in that direction--to be longing for that kind of radicalism.

I guess to me it's "radical" to want to begin legislating "positive" rights--but maybe it shouldn't be. We've been living in that kind of a state for my whole life.

Casey said...

I had a Milli Vanilli tape, btw.

fenhopper said...

i don't get at all that he wishes the warren court had been more radical. it seems he's just saying that people who call it a radical court are using too broad a brush.

in fact he speaks very cautiously about the role of the courts in his opinion.

"i'm not optimistic about bringing about major redistributive change through the courts. the institution just isn't structured that way."

and later the audio includes half of a sentence:

"altho you can craft theoretical justifications for it legally, you know i think you can any 3 of us sitting here could come up with a rationale for bringing about economic change through the courts..."

the second half of his sentence could be either "so we use the courts however we can" or it could be "but legal rationale isn't a good enough reason."

so then are we talking about legislation? can we leave the "radical court" argument behind?

fenhopper said...

(and to be grammatically correct, because of the "altho" at the beginning of his quote the next half wouldn't start with "so" or "but".)

Casey said...

His reference to "optimism" seems to suggest that he sort of wishes the courts were structured that way... but I guess that insofar as he's recognizing the structure at all, I guess--

But then, what would a radical court look like?

I'm not talking about legislation, because I just disagree. :)

fenhopper said...

now that i can accept as a fair question: why does he use the phrase "i'm not optimistic"?

of course the discussion can go very easily towards your claim -- that "i'm not optimistic" means "it's too bad that it's not true; i'm going to work to make it true."

it can also easily go towards another reading -- sometime almost like litotes. the understatement through a negative. like "probably not your brightest idea" meaning "that's dumb."

and there's the 3rd--to me the most likely--intention. "there's little historical evidence of it working. it'd be nice if we could snap our fingers and make it work. but as a practical issue, we shouldn't spend much time on it, especially since there are other paths to take."

my primary criticism of your post was that you were making an authorial intent argument that i didn't see the quote supporting. once we get into the details of which words are working which way, i can see your argument with a little more support, but the quote seems much less newsworthy to me. and beyond that, it seems a literary argument rather than a political one.

now if you were to argue that the text has a certain power, regardless of what obama was thinking, you're sliding over towards the new historicism arena. and... meh.

now, you say that you're not talking about legislation, but you did write in your previous comment "I guess to me it's 'radical' to want to begin legislating 'positive' rights..."

so did you or did you not want to bring up legislation?

Casey said...

Were you on the high school debate team? :)

It goes like this: I'm personally against (re)"distributive" legislation just about like well-known racist Rand Paul is. But we've been over that too many times for me. It's become an exercise, right? I mean, whenever either of us (usually me) presents evidence, the other of us (usually you) is able to deconstruct the evidence or its source or whatever in such a way that we're spinning our wheels. It's exhausting! I don't mean this to sound like, "You're a bad conversation partner." Obviously you're not. But, it feels like we've played that point to a stalemate, and there's no use chasing each others' kings around the board.

So stay away from legislation, even if I mentioned it. What I was interested in here was the idea that Obama was disappointed that the courts weren't more in the business of distributive politics.

And then there's my interest in Obama's "rhetoric," which I'm starting to conceive as almost always purposely-ambiguous. And purposeful ambiguity is only good in a literary context (for me), not when you're president. I feel like he designs his speech so that you and I can never be sure what point he was trying to make.

Okay, I'll stop short of blaming the escaping smoke monster in the Gulf on him.

fenhopper said...

how could you even come close to blaming him? isn't bp private industry?

fenhopper said...

...should probably just ignore the tangent.


Casey said...

Well, it'd be fucking easy to blame it on--not exactly Obama--but a culture of "intervention" rather than private business.

Why are oil companies drilling 1,000 feet down under water and then 3,000 feet down under that? I'll tell you why: because the government won't let them drill anywhere else more accessible. How does ANWAR sound now? A few annoyed caribou would be preferable to the Gulf disaster, wouldn't it?

Let's not act like there's EVER been a really-private oil company in this country since the government intervened with Standard Oil more than 100 years ago. This is one of my hugest pet-peeves, actually, because it's precisely the way that liberal/progressive "logic" seems to work: take something that's not a problem, regulate it with the best of intentions, and when it's worse (overrun with corruption) ten years later, claim that there was insufficient legislation (those darn conservatives!), and regulate it more. Repeat.

Need examples? Oil. Steel. Banking. Auto. Housing.

You guys act like Bank of America wasn't regulated twenty months ago. Or like BP (!!!) wasn't regulated. I mean when is Obama going to regulate something before the disaster for once?

I don't blame Obama for the BP oil disaster. And something like that may have happened in a laissez-faire market, absolutely. So, okay. Fair enough.


fenhopper said...

you're right, if we open up the market and say exxon can do whatever it wants. we'll still see some slick dead animals. i struggle to understand how wanting effective regulation is in principle a problem.

"You guys act like Bank of America wasn't regulated twenty months ago. Or like BP (!!!) wasn't regulated."

look, we're getting into a system of layers here with this question. yes there are regulations, but there were obviously ways that the regulations weren't applied. in the housing market, there were incentives that meddled and had an ill effect. but there were also regulations that were set aside and the ability to set some values artificially was the product of free rein.

in the drilling industry there was corruption but there was also "reasoned" dismissal of regulations. something like this oil spill isn't the product of regulation any more than paralysis resulting from a late hit in football is the product of a ref blowing the whistle.

arguing about the role of regulation in this issue is too masturbatory for me. regulations put them out there. they got away with skipping inspections. should we allow them to drill wherever? should we enforce additional safety measures? you know what? i don't know.

sure, they're in the ocean because they've run out of legal land, but if they want to drill as much as possible, they're probably going to go grab an ocean spot anyway. and they're going to ship the oil. and oil drills and oil tankers get rusty no matter where they are.

and i expect that bp is just as interested in making sure this doesn't happen again as people on the coast are. but does that mean that bp answers to no one now? just the market? what are you willing to let companies just absorb?

Casey said...

"...look, we're getting into a system of layers here with this question. yes there are regulations, but there were obviously ways that the regulations weren't applied."

--I know, it's just that I always feel like, "rhetorically," I'm always in this position-I-didn't-choose of defending a politics of "two-regulations-ago." As if you want the dial set to FM 100.7 and I want to listen to 98.9.

Now, it's totally annoying for me to clarify all of that, because then I'm such an idealist that I'll only defend my position under circumstances that don't exist, right? Well.

As for who BP is accountable to -- yeah, only the market. Even the idea of that CEO just cutting and running right now with all of his millions (an absurd idea) would only lead to him having the most isolated, despairing, and inhuman existence for the rest of his life? "Oh, you're Mr. BP who ruined the Gulf and you want a country club membership?" No. And the same conversation at Sam's Club, probably.

So, that's the best I can do/imagine. Otherwise I get inconsistent, and I'm really to a point where inconsistency seems a larger problem to me than bureaucracy.