Saturday, December 31, 2011

Sic Transit Gloria Meehan: Delusions of grandeur from a New Jersey Republican vigilante

Everyone knows that it is more fun to comment on the posts of a well-regarded blogger who draws a good deal of attention. What's the point of sticking to your own site when nobody bothers to read it? Rod Dreher's pages at The American Conservative magazine is one of the more popular and highly regarded. But sometimes a discussion can spin out of control. Like a raging argument between two invited guests at a dinner party, it needs to be removed from the premises, to the corner bar, or the driveway of one of the antagonists.

An aging vigilante living on fantasies of past glory, going by the name of Thomas O. Meehan, takes perverse enjoyment in finding blogs populated by those he characterizes as "all manner of fantasists, humbugs and inadequates." Those are his own words, and by his own words, he seems to fit all three descriptions himself. It is not, otherwise, clear why he cares to waste his time engaging with fantasists, humbugs and inadequates.

Dreher posted some doubts that requiring photo ID to vote is racist. Although few offering comments directly thought is was racist, many challenged the wisdom, propriety, and necessity, of imposing such a condition on the exercise of the franchise.

Very late in a lengthy discussion, Meehan began hinting that he had been part of a glorious effort to document and curtail voter fraud, a great citizen uprising which had single-handedly paved the way for a Republican to be elected governor of New Jersey. Pressed for details, Meehan slowly and begrudgingly offered something approximating a factoid or two, of gradually increasing specificity. Hard pressed, he eventually was even gracious enough to identify the year of the election, and the candidates.

Sorting out claims of fact from a matrix of bombastic rhetoric, Meehan would have anyone who read his account believe that:

In 1982, an unelected, voluntary organization styling itself the "Ballot Security Task Force" mailed post cards to registered voters in Newark and Trenton, New Jersey. It is not clearly whether he claims that 45,000 of a much larger sample, or 100% of 45,000 cards mailed, were returned marked with some variation on "No such person at this address." This task force, Meehan boasts "brought good government to New Jersey in the person of Thomas Kean."

How did this happen? Meehan offers various versions, but the more cutting edge claim is "We forced a recount that threw out enough bogus votes to elect an honest governor." More emphatically, "We challenged them at the polls and we had more than enough legal grounds to force a recount based on State Law." Meehan further specified "The purpose of the recount was to prove that the contested votes (lists) were indeed invalid." The recount, he insists, "succeeded in challenging more than enough of those fraudulent votes to form a government."

Further pressed, Meehan offered a series of suggested Google search terms, and later, specific links to news coverage. What searches and links revealed was a very different story.

The post cards were sent to addresses from a voter list that was several years out of date, not the list actually in use for elections in 1982. Naturally, many voters registered in past years had moved, and were no longer at these addresses. Because the list used was out of date, the commissioners of registration declined to investigate the loudly trumpeted "results." It is not clear whether an out-of-date list was used BECAUSE many voters would have moved, providing the desired appearance of fraudulent registration, or whether the task force was simply careless or negligent.

The task force then paid squads of visibly armed men to congregate around voting places, intimidating voters with the unsubstantiated allegation that they were not qualified to vote, and might be arrested if they tried. In the 19th century, Democrats shot Republican poll workers for challenging the exclusion of black voters — the goon squad Meehan boasts of being part of did not actually shoot anyone, but appears to have taken up the same cause, in the name of the Republican party.

There was indeed a recount, but not one initiated by the self-styled "Ballot Security Task Force." Votes were recounted because the inital margin of victory, for the Republican candidate, Thomas Kean, was so tiny, that the Democratic incumbent, James Florio, wanted a recount. The recount did NOT result in massive numbers of ballots being discounted as fraudulent. It did NOT change the result of the initial vote tally: both in the initial count, and the recount, Kean won.

There was a court case AFTER the election: The result was that Republican defendants promised to cease and desist from intimidating likely Democratic voters, while admitting no wrongdoing. There was no court case that disqualified one or one thousand voters, nor any court case that reversed the outcome of an election.

Perhaps Meehan's real motive lies in the off-hand remark, "readers who wish to purchase the few remaining signs in my possession can contact me at my web address above. Be warned, they’re not cheap." Perhaps not now, but one is left with the impression that a buyer today, at Meehan's price, will find that his investment depreciates in value as the truth dawns upon the population of potential buyers.

It is only fair to note, for the hypothetical reader (if any) who cares to examine this matter closely, that Meehan made a few follow-up remarks in the midst of another discussion at Dreher's site, a retrospective on "The Red Dean," William Hewlett. Meehan's reputation for either accuracy or probity having fallen under the principle "Falsum in unum, falsum in omnibus," he felt impelled to defend himself, however ineffectually, one last time.

Meehan is invited to attempt to rehabilitate himself in the posting box.

Politically Libertarian, Economically Socialist, Culturally Conservative

An independent voter, who prefers "None of the Above" as a descriptive label, could do a lot worse than to try to weave together the best of the libertarian, socialist and conservative principles winding their way through human thought and history.

There are implacable cynics and ideologues who claim this is impossible, that the three are mutually repulsive philosophies. This would be true, if anyone attempted to apply all three simultaneously to every aspect of life, politics, and culture. But looking for the best hope of human happiness, rather than the Correct Party Line, it seems each of these philosophies has their place and their proper use.

Most people are by nature libertarian, at least concerning their own individual choices and preferences in life. We all want to be left alone by society when it comes to how we will live our life. Conservative columnist Rod Dreher, author of the celebrated and denounced book, Crunchy Cons, provided a good example in accusing the federal government of communist tendencies for messing with raw oysters in New Orleans. (The article appears to be irretrievable).

There are of course points of tension between any principles that are, respectively, individual, communal, and judgemental. When it comes to gay rights, should a libertarian impulse to live and let live yield to conservative denunciation? The answer to that question could put a citizen on either side of the Supreme Court decision, Lawrence v. Texas.

How about Roe v. Wade? A consistent libertarian would want government to stay out of a private, intimate, personal decision. A rigid conservative would ask whether murder of a five year old is also a valid private decision. From a socialist point of view, it might be deemed either good for the community to reduce the surplus population, or a duty to the state to produce more children.

The truth is, almost everyone is inconsistent in such matters. That is why the media pundits are always having to distinguish between "social liberals" who are "fiscal conservatives" and "social conservatives" who are "economically liberal." Getting into what ornery, unique individuals REALLY think would be much more complex.

Nothing enrages a narrow-minded ideologue more than the thought that libertarian and socialist thoughts could lurk in the same mind. But any semblance of justice requires both. A handy rule of thumb might be, the larger and more powerful the enterprise, the more government regulation is required to "promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity."

There are limits even to that. A small local butcher shop is not entitled to sell rancid meat kept in sloppy, unsanitary conditions, inflicting salmonella and other infectious illnesses on its customers, merely because "I'm a small business, leave me alone." However, it is possible to keep the necessary inspections and licensing streamlined and inexpensive.

It is companies with supply lines extending around the world, who pay millions of dollars a year to lobbyists and high-powered law firms, who bear watching. There is almost no way that an individual citizen, consumer, or employee can exercise effective control, supervision, or "free choice" over such behemoths. We The People need OUR government to do that on our behalf, forcefully if necessary.

But, any measure of regulation, licensing, control, or direct intervention, should leave room for the hapless local craftsman carving children's toys in a small rural community by the side of a well-traveled road. Such a craftsman should not have to pay thousands of dollars for lab testing and certification, merely because chain stores have been importing toys from China decorated with lead-based paints. Those chain stores, having demonstrated their gross irresponsibility, DO need to be tightly regulated, and pay for the costs. If this raises the price of the net product, perhaps they should re-think whether extending the supply chain to China is really such a great cost saving.

The dividing line between the three spheres comes down to the old principle, your right to swing your fist stops where the next man's nose begins. Cultural conservatism, in this sense, can really be a libertarian expression. The State should, perhaps, not regulate your choice to read sexually explicit novels, but, I have a right not to have your prurient interests graphically shoved in front of my eyes. Ditto, you may not impose your tastes on innocent children in order to gratify your desires. What about THEIR liberty?

What color I paint my house, and what God or gods I believe in, affect nobody but myself. What portion of the revenue from any given commercial enterprise goes to those who labor on the floor, what portion goes to stockholders, and what portion goes to executive management, is a matter of vast concern to all of the above, and to the health of the entire economy.

Businesses may complain about the Environmental Protection Agency, in glowing libertarian language, but what they really seek is a subsidy of the cost of doing business by those who are down wind or down stream. If the full cost of particulate pollution, from the homeowners who have to repaint more often, to the medical costs (and funeral expenses, lost wages, etc.) of those who breath the particles, were fully monetized and charged to the account of the polluter, why every business would be rushing to install extensive controls, or reorganize the process of production. It would take regulation and inspection to implement even such a "free market" approach to pollution control.

So, contrary to the infatuation of the busybody nanny state conservative, individuals should be free to make individual choices about any matter than does not infringe the rights of their neighbors. (This will also offend that species of socialist who assumes that EVERY aspect of human life is a manifestation of class struggle, requiring a Party Line on each detail imaginable).

Contrary to the sordid greed of "Kerr-McGee libertarianism," decisions about economy and production which effect the lives and welfare of all require some degree of collective regulation and even policy and priority decisions through the political process. Corporations only exist by license of the state, and are properly subject to regulation for the common good. If you don't want social accountability, then you must give up the privilege of limited liability, facing the prospect that those you harm can sue you for ALL you are worth, and then some.

Contrary to the facile and flagrant exhibitionism of the "anything goes" crowd, I don't have to applaud, appreciate, celebrate, participate in, or even watch and listen to, your own exercise of your own personal choices. That is where cultural conservatism has some value. Some level of sex education is healthy, but it does not, and should not, extend to detailed advice on techniques and preferences. Leave that to each individual's own libertarian choices.

Obviously, there are points of tension on which reasonable people may differ. That is why we have public debate and political process. But in general, the power of the state should be regarded with skepticism, applied to individual citizens. It should be judiciously deployed, with regard to large institutional decisions that DO have a coercive effect on individuals, whether made by private or public sector bureaucrats. Culturally, we really don't have to "let it all hang out." That should be a sound basis for achieving a workable consensus that all but the most venal can live with.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

All Faiths Carry Totalitarian Seeds, yet one may be true

It is inherent in every religion which claims to be the One True Faith, or the last and final, the highest and ultimate revelation from God, that some portion of its adherents will lay claim to special privileges, or to domination over those not of the same faith.

The logic is inexorable: we are God's elect. We have higher morals, better judgement, the favor of the Almighty. The Others should conduct themselves subordinate to our laws. The Others, if suffered to live among us, should be our servants.

Furthermore, as the teachings of our faith are THE means of salvation for all humanity, we must be free to bring these teachings TO all of humanity, and none must be allowed to get in our way. Other teachings, being false, should not be allowed in the public square.

Taken to its extreme possibilities, this logic could justify simply exterminating those who refuse The Truth, resist the True Faith, those who are so ungrateful as to spurn so precious a gift.

All these strands of thought can be found, at various times and places, in the history of Christianity and Islam. They are less present in Judaism, for two reasons: Judaism is not an evangelical faith, as Christianity and Islam are, and, until the middle of the 20th century, Jews had been without effective political domination of any place on earth for over one thousand years.

Jews do not seek to bring all gentiles into their mode of worship, nor their polity. They are the Chosen People, others are free to worship their own gods, so long as they do not seduce Jews to worship pagan idols. There have been times when Jewish kingdoms have subjugated or slaughtered pagan peoples, but not lately. The conquest and forced conversion of the Idumeans was a disaster, visiting the Idumean, Herod, upon them as the Roman puppet king. There is basis in the Tanach (aka the "Old Testament") to believe that Jews subjected non-Jews to servitude from which Jews were formally exempt, when Jews were politically dominant.

Buddhism, where politically dominant, has its totalitarian strains, just as Christianity and Islam do, even without the core belief in a creator Deity. Hinduism, although not evangelical, is triumphalist, founded on the Aryan conquest of the ancestors of the Dalit. Based strictly on its literature, and traditional culture, Hinduism is the most implacably racist faith on the face of the earth.

To stop short of its totalitarian implications, a religion must either finesse its claims to superiority, OR it must abandon its claim to a uniquely correct approach to salvation.

When multiple religious faiths coexist within the same political entity, there is either a suppressed, low-level conflict, or there is a relaxed attitude that each has its own legitimate path to God. The former contains the seeds of renewed bids for domination. The latter offends the understanding that, e.g., "I am the way, the truth and the life, no-one comes to the Father but through me," or, on the other hand, "There is no God but The God, and Muhammed is his prophet."

The most sophisticated, and well-balanced, answer to any bid for political domination by any religion is, salvation belongs to God, not to the governments of this world. The state, however well-intentioned, is not competent to judge which faith is the true faith. God will act in his own way, as he sees fit, without any need for the assistance of the state.

There is no such thing as a Christian Nation, nor, for that matter, a Muslim Nation. The first Caliphate, like the Holy Roman Empire, besmirched the name of its faith by indulging in decidedly un-Islamic (or un-Christian) pursuits. The Umayyads are particularly blamed for that within the Muslim world, Sunni and well as Shia, but the Abassids committed many of the same sins, and the Arabs ended up in open revolt against the Turkish Sultans, who were in fact the direct successors to the Caliphate.

The most pious rejection of religious freedom is, in a [NAME YOUR PREFERRED FAITH] there will be no conflict between your personal life, your family life, your civic life, your spiritual life, and your political participation. All will be in harmony. (Not mentioned is that rivers of blood would have to be shed to bring that about).

There remain, within every faith in the world, advocates of carnal political dominion, and advocates of either toleration, or outright political equality. Whether the advocates of dominion are a real hazard to others (within as well as without their own faith) depends on how much political room they have to act on their rhetoric, and whether any sizeable number of their co-religionists are actually prepared to take up arms for a doctrine. The potential exists everywhere.

The reason the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America bars Establishment of Religion, is that many in the original 13 states feared efforts to use the machinery of the new federal government to do exactly that. The reason the next clause protects the Free Exercise thereof, is that many feared efforts to infringe individual choice of worship.

That a faith cannot be imposed at the point of a sword, or by means of statute book, police, and prison, says nothing about whether it is, after all the One True Faith, or a true faith, or a complete delusion. Those who really trust in God need not lay their hands on the machinery of the state, to coerce their fellow citizens. God, after all, is omnipotent, and will do what he chooses, in his own good time.