Friday, 25 September 2015

Darwin Got It Right—Why Evolution Is True

No other scientific subject generates as much suspicion and mistrust among lay people as evolutionary biology.  A good deal of the confusion about evolutionary biology stems from its being labeled ‘Darwinism’ or ‘neo-Darwinism’. The term has been injected into public debate by people who object to evolution by natural selection, so as to make the latter look like an ideological position rather than a well-established fact.
Evolutionary biology is the only scientific field subjected to this kind distortion. Modern chemistry is nowhere imputed to be neo-Lavoisierism; one never sees quantum mechanics described as neo-Einsteinism; and I have yet to hear anyone say that modern psychology is so much neo-Jamesianism or mere Wundtism. 

Evolutionary biology is not an ideology; it is one of many specialized branches in the general field of biology. Like their colleagues in other sciences, evolutionary biologists adhere to the most rigorous processes in collecting and examining data, and in testing and explaining their findings.

When casting doubt on the blind, undirected, non-designed force of natural selection, anti-evolutionists (who are ideologues) present questions and arguments and descriptions that seem informed by the most recent literature on the subject.  But if you turn to peer-reviewed scholarship or read a plain language text by a scientist who has dedicated her professional life to a particular line of research, you will find that the propositions advanced by the critics are inaccurate and the questions they raise irrelevant or already explained. 

Although the literature on the subject is too great to summarize here, it is right that people ask a couple of basic questions about evolution in order to determine its explanatory force.

What are the features of evolution?

Evolutionary biology is based on the idea of evolution. Central to the idea of evolution is that species undergo genetic change over a period of time. This happens over many generations, and during that time a species can evolve into something different. The changes are based on mutations in DNA, which is conditioned by environmental and other physical factors. When scientists say that mutation is random, they do not mean arbitrary. They mean random in the literal sense of a set of probable outcomes based on a particular set of conditions. The operative force here is natural selection, which Darwin describes in a perfectly succinct way in The Origin of Species:

“Man selects only for his own good: Nature only for that of the being which she tends.”

Natural selection requires that individuals within a species vary genetically so as to survive and reproduce in their environment. They must adapt in a way that makes them fit for the struggle of existence within their environment, and they must be able to pass on their genes if their form of life is to continue down the line.

Another tenant of evolution is gradualism. It takes a great deal of time for substantial evolutionary changes to appear—hundreds of thousands or even millions of years in most cases. When someone makes the claim that no one has ever seen evolution, they are right. It would be impossible for anyone to do so. Though there have been cases of minor changes occurring within a human lifetime, the really big evolutionary changes take place over a long period of time.

A final tenant of evolution is speciation. This is the phenomenon of a species splitting. Whenever two populations evolve genetic differences to the point that they can no longer interbreed, speciation occurs. Jerry A. Coyne, a leading expert in this particular field, says it best:

“Speciation doesn’t happen very often. But each time one species splits into two, it doubles the number of opportunities for future speciation, so the number of species can rise exponentially.”

What is the evidence for evolution?

Genetic science gives ample evidence of the interrelation of all living species. This alone would suggest the common ancestry of animal life. However, the fossil record offers the kind of documentary evidence that most people need in order to form a mental picture of how evolution has worked throughout history.

In Darwin’s day, the fossil record was thin. Since then, it has become much more robust. The sequence of rock strata that have been unearthed proves that early life was simple, and that more complex species appeared over time. The many fossils that have been dug up over the past century show one species of animal or plant changing into something different. Each fossil is found exactly where one would expect to find it in the rock strata.

The human body itself bolsters the case for evolution. We are filled with remnants of our primate ancestry. Our bodies show little sign of intelligent design, but rather the clunky adaptations of a physically weak primate struggling to survive in the African savannah. Our sense of smell is very poor compared to our cousins in the wild. We intake food and drink through the same orifice through which we breathe—an arrangement bound to lead to constant choking. And in one of the more curious developments in our bodies, we expunge our waste through the same organ through which we pro-create: which is akin, as one observer put it, to running a sewer system through an amusement park.

Another interesting vestige of our evolutionary past is the phenomenon known as the furry fetus. At six months, the human fetus becomes completely covered with a coat of hair. This lanugo, as it’s called, is shed about a month before birth and replaced by the short, sparse, evenly distributed hair that we keep throughout our life. Monkeys also develop a coat of hair at about the same stage of embryonic development. The human womb is warm enough to keep its fetus safe, so that is not a sound explanation for this sudden growth of hair. The best explanation is that the lanugo is a remnant of our primate ancestry.

There is further evidence for the case of evolution, not all of which can be presented here. No science ever claims to have absolute command of every fact of the part of the natural world with which it is concerned, and evolutionary biology is no different. Though new discoveries are being made all the time in the field, there is no good reason for anyone to doubt the truth that humans, like every other species, evolved through natural selection. 

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Race, Religion, and Power

Nothing has been stirring in my mind more, lately, than this matter of race and religion. Religion is not a trait that one is born with; it is a belief system that presupposes the existence of a supernatural being who commands the universe. There is a difference between believing in a religion and growing up in a racial or ethnic community dominated by it. Just as there is no one way to interpret and practice a faith, there is no reason to think that all who are born into a faith will come to accept its teachings.

Of this last I can personally attest. I grew up in a highly religious family. My earliest memories are of Sunday worship in the hot, vibrant setting of a south Florida church. It is a well-established fact that black Americans—and black women in particular—are, along with Latinos, the most highly religious group in the country. My family was no exception to this rule. Not only were they religious, but almost everyone we knew was either connected to our church or another one.
Yet, belief in God and the supernatural never touched me. I do not mean that I rebelled against it; I mean that I never had anything whatsoever to do with it in moral feeling or intellectual outlook. Religion left me cold when I came to understand it; and it was all I could do to get through the chore of attending weekly church services (two days a week and twice on Sunday).

I did what I could, like the other kids, to make the most of church society. I made friends and flirted with girls. But by the end of High School I felt I had outgrown these associations. In the year before I left home, I decided to take advantage of being a member of the flock. I wanted to test my oratorical and leadership abilities, so I got involved in my church youth group and even preached a sermon on a day designated as youth Sunday. It was based on Psalm 111:10:

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom: a good understanding have all they that do his commandments: his praise endureth for ever.

I was carried away by the effect of my words on the congregation; not because of any mysterious power running through my body, but by dint purely of my own pride and vanity. I think it was then that I discovered, in a very half-thought out way, one of the rational principles of religion: that it is the result of a human tendency to understand the world by transposing psychical acts into it. I don’t remember what I said in my sermon. I know for certain, however, that my words did not come as a result of any supernatural force. Every bit of what I said was my own invention. 

The crowd was stirred by my performance. And while I am sure that my youth and lack of authority precluded anyone from taking me seriously, I am also sure—again, owing to first-hand experience—that the words of real preachers were accepted by many in the same crowd as revelations of moral absolutes and as descriptions of how the world works.

Eventually I left home. I joined the Navy and was assigned to the Emirate of Bahrain as my first duty station. There I met a number of educated Bahrainis whose views on religion ranged from devout belief to convinced atheism. None, however, not even as grown men, would do or say anything that contradicted the orthodoxy established by the clerics and enforced by the wider society. It was then that I began thinking about the invisible strands of coercion which lurk beneath the smooth surface of piety in religion.

Today, I cannot help thinking that a great many young people growing up in Muslim communities in Europe may have doubts about the Islamic faith. They may feel that it is impossible, however, to go against not only their family but everyone who they have come to love and respect. I have seen a number of newspaper articles and television programs in which young Muslims say they have a choice as to whether and how they practice their faith. I don’t believe that is actually the case. Having grown up under similar circumstances, I know that they would have to disavow their entire means of material security and social support if they decided not to follow the tenets of their faith. Even if they were willing to do so, they would likely face further consequences that would make their lives unbearable.

Now there are many well-meaning secularists and leftists who do not understand what it is like to grow up in an environment in which the whole of one’s life is controlled by religion. Writers such as Ayan Hirsi Ali and Monica Ali have tried to describe it; but many on the cultural left, taking their cues from persons seen as respectable enough to speak for the majority of Muslims, denounce them as peddlers of racist stereotypes. This kind of thinking reflects a failure to take seriously the tensions and contradictions that exist between religion and progressive ideals.

Over the last few decades the Left has put the rights and oppressions of racial minorities at the center of its politics. However, any honest deconstruction of the structures of such oppression cannot stop with white racism; it must also lead to an honest examination of how power is distributed within minority communities, and, ultimately, to an account of who holds power and the uses to which they put it.

In the black community in America, the power of the black preacher is unrivalled. No one can touch him—not the black politician, businessperson, lawyer, or civil rights worker. In many instances, the latter need his support to get anything of significance done. If Imams in Europe do not have the exact same standing, they have something close to it. And although such leaders—in America and Europe—have been involved in advancing some progressive causes, they tend towards retrenchment when it comes to the rights of women and LGBT and at times float dubious ideas about evolution and other scientific truths.

The point in any case is that religious leaders in minority communities prioritize above all else the spreading of a belief system which holds that an all-knowing, all-powerful consciousness shapes events and takes an interest in human affairs; and they are mainly interested in creating a social order that will please it.

Religion is often defined as group identity. Religious leaders tend to be characterized as individuals who offer guidance and counsel and organizational skill to persons who wish to join with others to observe rituals, celebrate their faith, and fight against injustice and mistreatment. But one must take care to ensure that a particular form of identity is not attached to someone by accident of their birth. Being born into a Christian or Muslim family makes one no more of a believer in superstition than being born into a family of socialists makes one a follower of Karl Marx. However, it is harder to disentangle oneself from the former; for there is much greater pressure to stay true to the faith. It is for this reason that I think progressives should put themselves more in sympathy with the minority within minority groups: with those who do not subscribe to the existence of the supernatural.

Furthermore, the clerisy isn’t needed to advance the cause of anti-racism or any other social justice movement. In the furtherance of political and social rights for Muslim-majority countries and communities, Salama Moussa, Edward Said, and Naguib Mahfouz should stand as proof enough of this. In the case of the civil rights struggle in America, Martin Luther King Jr. and the work of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference are the most popular references when the topic is broached. But such allusions are based on a limited understanding of American history.

W.E.B DuBois, a towering figure in the fight for racial equality, a man who was born in the time of Reconstruction and who died the year that King gave his “I have a dream speech” said he never thought he’d live to see a radical black preacher. The statement was apropos. King’s conscription of the black churches in the struggle for civil rights was exceptional not only for its effectiveness but also for the fact that he was able to do it in first place. Before King made his stand, pastors and churches tended to keep out of direct action politics. King pioneered the role of black preacher as civil rights leader. He was at the time, however, carrying on causes that had been initiated well before he arrived on the scene. He was a strong opponent of the Vietnam War and a tireless campaigner for worker rights and economic justice, and was murdered while working on behalf of black sanitation employees who had gone on strike.   

It is no wonder that A. Philip Randolph—a socialist, atheist, and trade unionist—was the principle architect of the march at which King gave his famous speech. Before the liberal-Christian civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s there was the even more radical socialist-secularist movements of the 20s and 30s, many of which were led by black intellectuals and political organizers. But The Harlem Tenants League, the Alabama Sharecroppers Union, and Red Chicago have been forgotten. The names Hubert Harrison, Cyril Briggs, Otto Huiswood, Richard B. Moore, Harry Haywood, and Hosea Hudson have been put out of circulation. And the role that artists such as Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, and Paul Robeson had in the radical activism of the period tends to be played down. There seems to be a discomfortespecially among black liberalsin acknowledging the fact that the Communist and Socialist parties offered the first organizing force against racism in America. A solid grasp of this history is required, however, before one can get a clear and accurate picture of the ideas which inspired the persons who spearheaded progressive activism in the country during the latter half of the 20th century.

I have gone through this long digression to show that racial and ethnic minorities do not need religion to establish group identity or to work against their own oppression. Those who would restrict how criticism of religion is expressed are, unwittingly, acting in deference to religious leaders who have gained the most power in their communities, not to any universal sentiment of the people within them. The voices of non-believers are not as widely heard as those of the faithful, but they exist and are usually the most politically progressive.

But the outbreaks of madness—outbreaks which are encouraged and engineered by religious leaders—that sometimes result from a perceived offense are not of great interest to me. Nor is the threat posed by religiously inspired violence, which I regard as a mere security matter. My main concern is the subtle and insidious forces of conformity which shape the atmosphere of households and other social centers in which religion is dominant. I believe white atheists and progressives should make common cause with their brothers and sisters in minority communities who wish to express their skepticism but find it difficult to do so. Even if one dislikes a particular piece or form of criticism aimed at religion, the larger cause of secularism is still worth fighting for. Making the effort will give hope and encouragement to the silent minority of individuals struggling to pursue ideals informed by their own conscience, experience, and reasoned thought. 

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Taking Scottish Independence Seriously

The referendum on Scottish independence is an issue that divides the Left in Scotland and in Britain as a whole. In the No camp are those who say that by staying in the union we keep in solidarity with our comrades in England, Wales, and N. Ireland and continue the fight for a just society. In the Yes camp, the feeling is that the values of the Scottish people differ significantly from their neighbors to the south, and that independence is the only means by which this collective identity can be expressed. Many embellish this argument with the rhetoric of democracy and self-determination so as to avoid the charge of abetting nationalists. 

Here, in this blog piece, I shall neither bury the union nor praise it. Nor will I go into the many facts and opinions and speculations surrounding oil, debt, currency, and borders. My intent is to evaluate the ideologically-colored claims of Left Yes supporters (and all mention of ‘Yes camp’ and ‘Yes supporters’ refers to this community) and put forward my own opinions about what the priorities of progressives ought to be.

Now some Yes supporters hold beliefs that are plainly absurd. There are folks who believe that Scotland can have a first world economy with a third world banking system, a Swedish-style welfare state with American level taxes; that the Scottish government will have the power to dictate to the world the terms of its independence, and that the whole of economic history and logic will be defied before a single one of their predictions is proven false.

One should be suspicious of anyone who suggests a yes vote will bring with it a seamless transition to a socialist utopia. Breaking from the union is not likely to come without some pain. On the other hand, there is no reason to think that such a move will lead to the inexorable decline of Scotland. To re-cast Aeschylus: as long as there are people the city stands. The choice is not between eternal joy and everlasting doom. The progressive must look at a number of tenable constitutional arrangements and choose the one that most closely comports with progressive ideals.  

To that point, one of the more extravagant claims advanced by the Yes camp makes separation from Britain a kind of alchemy for the creation of a settled left-wing policy agenda. The strategy is to bind progressivism and independence into a single idea: to make the two of them equivalent by mere assertion. Such wish-thinking is far removed from the reality of leftist movement politics. The work of Kier Hardie, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, George Bernard Shaw, Sylvia Pankhurst, Arthur Horner, and Claudia Jones is proof that the nations of Britain need not be separated to further the progressive cause. These great leaders of the socialist Left changed Britain at a time when its people were more conservative, its government more centralized, and its society more undemocratic than they have ever been since. They did it through wit and agitation, through organizing and mobilizing poor and working people. They galvanized the spirits and summoned the energies of workers throughout Britain by putting class rather than nation at the center of politics. They gave clarity and purpose to the indigent and exploited by awakening within them a broad sense of hope and a general feeling of solidarity with their fellow laborers. They forged a unity of will that brought capital and privilege to heel and made the country better serve the needs of those who built it…But more on this later.

The stronger arguments for independence involve the issues of Trident, the House of Lords, self-determination, the supposed social democratic consensus in Scotland, and inequality.

I am in sympathy with the Yes camp on the first two, but I am not overly concerned with them. The House of Lords is rather powerless as a law-making body, and its list of heredity peers continues to decline. The removal of Trident is not likely to stop Scotland being targeted by other nuclear powers, since it will still be a member of NATO regardless of the referendum vote. I see no reason why nuclear weapons can’t be eliminated, the House of Lords thoroughly democratized, and the Church of England permanently disestablished by other means. Yet, I accept that many people object to these things on principle and want to be rid of them—now.

The self-determination argument has taken shape as two distinct kinds. There are some who like to spin the line: ‘Scotland needs independence so that it can get the government it votes for.’ The statement is catchy but empty. Wherever there are popular elections, there are people who get a government they didn’t vote for. But even if it is taken with charity and read as ‘England has the largest population in the U.K., so it will always decide the outcome of general elections’ it still faces the hurdle of being trivial. In a democracy, one expects the places with the most people to have a greater share of representation. It doesn’t follow that voters in different parts of the country do not have the same interests.

The other, more thoughtful, kind of this argument is based on the principle of democratic sovereignty: ‘independence will bring government that is more in line with the will of the people.’

Representative government is the concrete means by which the will of the people is expressed. At the moment, the Scottish people have a voice in four different legislatures: their city councils, the Scottish Parliament, the British Parliament, and the European Parliament. Each of these levels of government has powers and responsibilities for dealing with issues relevant to its domain—city, Scotland, Britain, and Europe—and the people get a say through their elected officials. This is sovereignty shared, not sovereignty stifled. It is a form of democracy that has emerged as a response to a citizenry that is at once Scottish, British, and European.

If the Yes camp wants to limit the concept of self-determination to one that excludes the impositions of all extra-Scottish legislatures, then membership in the EU should be off the table; for the entire purpose of the EU is to pass laws which regulate and harmonize certain actions of its member countries. Even the Scottish Government’s White Paper, Scotland’s Future, recognizes that ‘the EU has considerable influence over Scotland’s economic and social welfare…’ If the Yes camp is so hot on democratic sovereignty, why would they allow such sway by a non-Scottish government?

In practical terms, being a member of the British and European unions is a matter of convenience. From a strictly ideological perspective holding British and European citizenship reflects the kind of rooted cosmopolitanism that is part of the cultural tradition of the Left. In any case, the Yes camp cannot object to the one and not the other and still paint its position as one of political principle.

For many, the case for independence rests on the belief that there is a social democratic consensus in Scotland that does not exist in England. However, a British Social Attitudes in 2011 revealed views on income, redistribution, and taxes and spending which casts doubt on this assumption.   

59% of Scottish people surveyed agreed that ordinary people do not get a fair share of the nation’s wealth. The figure for the English is 55%

While 78% of the people in Scotland believe that difference is income are too large, only 43% agreed that government should redistribute income from the better-off to the less-better-off. The number for England is 34%

These numbers show a Scottish electorate that is slightly more progressive than its English counterpart, but that is hardly a hardened socialist bloc. Scotland’s voting trends and political parties also put the claim into question.  

The Yes camp is quite slippery on this topic. It rages endlessly against Tories and gives no quarter to Labour, but it deems any mention of the SNP as irrelevant to the referendum. But why should the values and ideas and history of the political parties in Scotland be discounted, especially when claims are made about a social democratic consensus? If it is fair to disparage Tories and to criticize Labour, then it is fair to scrutinize the SNP and its plans for an independent Scotland—since it is the party in power.

The Yes camp’s treatment of the Labour Party is particularly worth noting.  It is said that Labour has lost its way. It is said that Labour has abandoned working people, has deserted the poor, and is the same as the Tories. What is said about the man held responsible for these supposed betrayals, Tony Blair, chaste ears should be spared.

The general view is that Labour needs to return to the left. But this is a view born of nostalgia rather than history. The truth is that Labour has governed from the center left since the first premiership of Harold Wilson. The notion that the party shed its radical skin under Tony Blair is nonsense. Labour was down the path of centrism long before Mr. Blair came into the picture.

The last redoubt of the party’s ‘hard’ Left occurred during the seventies and eighties. The radicals of this period rallied around the Alternative Economic Strategy, which called for import controls, price controls, compulsory planning arrangements, nationalization of key industrial firms, public ownership of the major financial institutions, withdrawal from the Common Market, and other measures to bolster the welfare state and reduce the security state. Though briefly official party policy, the program was never enthusiastically endorsed by the parliamentary leadership. Even Michael Foot, rightly seen as one of the grand old men of the Labour Left, distanced himself from it by the end of his time as leader in 1983.

Neil Kinnock is the person most responsible for formulating the aims and politics of the modern Labour Party. It was he who fully embraced the ‘embourgeoisement’ of Britain and made Labour a party that could appeal to both middle and working class voters. New Labour under Tony Blair was little different from Old Labour under Neil Kinnock. The former was a mere branding exercise; and the policies pursued by successive New Labour governments were based on ideas that had been around since the late 80s.

At no point did Labour ‘lose its way’. The decision to refashion its image and implement free market policies was a historically determined one. Like the other parties of the West European left, Labour was forced to respond to changed social and economic conditions, lest it become irrelevant. It doesn’t follow that the party threw out its governing ideals. Its revisionism involved rejecting old policies, not old ethical principles; eschewing old means, not desirable ends.

I hate to make lists, but the ones I’ve seen of Tony Blair’s record depict him as a reactionary monster whose premiership saw not a single piece of progressive legislation passed. Here are some of the liberal and social democratic laws produced and results attained while he was in office:

The Human Rights Act
The Scotland Act
The Government of Wales Act
The removal of most hereditary peers from the House of Lords
The Freedom of Information Act
A raft of acts protecting and extending the rights of LGBT
The introduction of a national minimum wage
The introduction of winter fuel payments
The reduction of VAT on fuel
Employee Relation Act
A rise in the incomes of the bottom 10% of earners as a result of transfers through the social security system
The halving of child poverty
The signing of treaties integrating Britain more closely with the EU

Yes, Mr. Blair got Iraq wrong. But his time as Prime Minister cannot be reduced to that series of mis-judgments, untruths, and bad decisions—significant though they were.

To this day, Labour consistently and systematically advocates and supports welfare programs and progressive social reform. That is what distinguishes it from the Conservative Party.

Eric Hobsbawm said that the effective parties of the Left have served to ‘regulate and socialize the wealth-creating and directionless economic dynamism of capitalism, not replace it’. This is the terrain on which democratic socialism has been treading for the last fifty years. Its goal has been to sustain a robust business sector and strong public institutions, high levels of private consumption and an efficient welfare state.

The center left governments that have been in power in Holyrood—Labour and SNP—have adhered to this revised form of democratic socialism. They have implemented policies that marry social welfare spending and market-based growth. Nothing in its White Paper suggests that the SNP, which would in the near term steer the course of an independent Scotland, intends to nationalize or heavily regulate and tax industry. Had Scotland put the Greens in power or spawned and voted in some other radical left-wing party the case for its having a separate and unique social democratic consensus would be more convincing.

The usual rebuttal to this observation is: ‘It’s not about the SNP! There are many different groups with all kinds of political ideas.’ Fair enough. Let them organize into parties and get elected to parliament, or, gather as lobbyists and change the policies of existing parties. Once that happens, a better case can be made for a distinct political culture. There is no reason to believe that the notions and fancies which flit through the mind of every person claiming the mantle of social justice will be turned into law after independence. There are restraints imposed by reality on everyone’s dreams of freedom.

Finally, we come to the problem of inequality. It is the defining issue of left wing politics, for we cannot live in a free and democratic society while ancient privileges are protected under capitalist guises. The problem is one that fires the spirit of many in the Yes camp and triggers a lot of the big talk about fairness. But here again their views on the matter put them on shaky ground.

The Yes camp advances the idea that tax from the oil industry will give an independent Scotland the means to reverse austerity and spend more on welfare programs. I will put aside for a moment the feasibility of this plan and accept the considered opinion of the authors of The Wee Blue Book:

‘But in July this year, Professor Sir Donald Mackay, of the pro-devolution think-tank Reform Scotland and an economic adviser to the UK government for 25 years, said that Westminster’s figures were underestimating the true value of oil by £8 billion a year…£8bn a year is enough to completely wipe out even the No campaign’s most pessimistic assessment (£7.6bn) of an independent Scotland’s deficit [54] and give Scotland a large budget surplus.’

Now even with all that money in the public coffers it is not clear how future Scottish governments will reduce inequality. As is the case in most OECD nations, inequality in Scotland is driven by a sharp divergence in incomes between high-end and low-end service jobs and downward pressure on wages in general. It cannot spend its way out of the problem: no country can. What is needed is structural economic change, and the process ought to begin with giving workers more power.

The Scandinavian countries have been held up as models for what an independent Scotland could become. They have lower rates of inequality than other European countries, and Norway in particular has large oil reserves which it has used to invest in clean and sustainable industries. It is striking that in all the discussion of our neighbors to the north there has been little mention of the one thing that has made their achievements possible: trade unions.

Norway, Sweden, and Denmark have some of the strongest trade unions in Europe. And this is what really accounts for the size of the welfare state, the social liberalism, the high wages, the equity of pay between men and women, and the relatively low levels of inequality—which is growing but not exceedingly so—in these countries.

A revitalization of trade unionism is needed if inequality is to be reduced in Britain. This really ought to be the priority of the Left. For the workers in an independent Scotland will be prey to the same exploitation as the workers elsewhere on the island unless they are all able to collectively bargain for wages, benefits, and working conditions.

Working people in Britain have no power. That I think is the cause of the present angst and the general dissatisfaction with politics. When people are powerless, they will not only lash out against those who they perceive as having power but embrace those who promise to give it back to them. The chance to start over again, to begin anew, to rebuild Scotland from the ground up—all of these images have been used to great effect by the Yes camp. The truth of the matter, however, is that a country’s politics and society cannot be reformed unless its economic arrangements are changed. A new constitution will do little to help ordinary people. Political militancy is not the same as economic militancy, as Lenin pointed out. Organizing poor and working people against capital and concentrated wealth is the best way to liquidate the pervading injustice and give power back to the people.  

The pro-independence Left talks about building a fairer Scotland, but its program of action will not make this happen. Enshrining political wish into the constitution is not enough. Nor is reversing austerity or raising the minimum wage. It was the dissolution of the trade unions in the first place that made the latter necessary.

Any discussion of what is fair will ultimately result in disagreement. The criteria of fairness used by workers are unlikely to correspond to that of business. Workers need the means to effectively negotiate pay that tracks the revenue and profits of the companies that employ them. The presence of strong trade unions is an essential condition for an agreed and coordinated approach to increasing incomes and to ensuring that people are able to work with dignity and respect.  

Funding the range of social services needed to provide opportunity for individual talent and to protect the citizenry against the ravages of illness, old age, and economic distress is the hallmark of a decent and enlightened country. But establishing such institutions does not in itself guarantee levels of future spending by future governments. In the time since the welfare state was created, every country in Europe has seen governments of both the Left and the Right cut spending. Even the highly praised Swedes have gone through periods of austerity. ‘Independence will guarantee that Scotland will never have another Tory government again’ is a nifty slogan, but even if it were proven true it does not follow that future left-wing governments will not be compelled to reduce social investment or reform the size, scope, and delivery of social services.

Democracy rests on the assumption that society is a network of human relations. It can only work if the various groups within it are acknowledged and heard by lawmaking bodies. Trade unions establish institutional protection against unbalanced welfare reforms. They force lawmakers to be moderate and humane in their handling of public services. They give strong voice to the interests and concerns of working people and press legislators to take heed, even when fiscal circumstances require compromise and adjustment. Trade unions can create real centers of democratic action—the participatory, consensus-building, problem-solving kind that harnesses the combined strength of working people and uses it to wield power in industry and government.

Perhaps the most valuable quality of trade unionism for progressives is the sense of idealism it inspires. I agree with Wilkinson and Pickett when they say:

‘The weakening of the labour movement during the last quarter of the 20th Century also saw a decline of any sense of how to improve our societies. Progressive politics lost sight of the direction in which we should be trying to move social and economic change to produce a better quality of life for everyone.’

This observation encapsulates the sense of ideological drift felt by many on the Left. It may also explain the difference between how the legacies of Harold Wilson and Tony Blair are remembered. Both men governed from the center left; both implemented programs and policies that resulted in the largest transference of wealth from the top to the bottom in British history—Blair nearly matching Wilson in this measure. But Blair was more piecemeal in his approach, while Wilson had more vision and coherence. Wilson also had an organized Left which acted as reference to the aims he set and the values he espoused.

The movement for Scottish independence does not strike me as one that is cogent with leftist ideals. Whatever idealism it has sparked seems scattered and shallow. The impulse of the Yes camp is to use the tones and timbre of class conflict without bringing to fullness its harmonies, its music—the complete orchestra by which to dramatize the needed class struggle. If this were done, it would become clear that the real problem is not between Westminster and Holyrood, England and Scotland, Tory and non-Tory: it is between capital and labor—as always.

This is not a call for a return to the 30s or 60s. Those generations had their battles and their victories, most of which we now take for granted. We in the 21st century must take the same liberal and socialist ideals that inspired our political forbearers and make them suitable to our own time. The fight must go on. The lords of finance and capital should not be allowed to sit and watch as working people turn against each other: knowing that no matter the outcome their privilege and influence will remain undiminished.

In the end, equality has to aspire to more than modest boosts to low incomes or the periodic reshuffling of social welfare priorities. It has to mean an equalizing of political, social, and economic rights so that there is equal dignity for all. That is worth fighting for, and that is what the Left should be fighting for.

As heirs to the Enlightenment, the Left must constantly deploy the optimism of the will. To remain politically relevant we must keep before the public mind the idea that improvement is possible, that progress is inevitable, and that solidarity in the struggle is inescapable. Where there is no border, we should not make one. I do not say that Scotland is not a nation. I only say it should be a nation within a federation of nations—a member of both a federal Britain and a federal Europe. 

As a progressive, I can find no good reason to support independence. The facts, my ideals, my sense of the continuity of left-wing politics drive me in the other direction: to keep the union together and to keep in solidarity with liberals and social democrats in it; to remain engaged with what is far from a settled debate over the future of federalism in Britain and Europe, and to continue the call for effective democratic organization and action.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Remembering Jean Jaures

One hundred years ago today the French socialist Jean Jaures was assassinated. His efforts to prevent Europe from going to war had earned him the scorn of French nationalists, who, in the person of Raoul Villain, took the great man’s life. Jaures died as he had lived—in tireless pursuit of enacting the revolutionary ideals of the late Enlightenment: democracy, secularism, civic freedom, and social justice. Jean Jaures was more than a politician, more than a philosopher, journalist, and historian respected throughout the world. He was the very embodiment of the Enlightened Man. In him was the spirit of the French Revolution and every other movement of thought and action that sought to free humanity from fear, suffering, division, and superstition. His guiding principle was his strong ideal of justice, his socialism was of a kind enriched with the highest aims of humanism, his goal: the unity of humankind, a world without poverty, oppression, castes, and classes, a world in which men and women were not separated by war and violence—a world, in short, of collective harmony and individual happiness. Here was a visionary; a utopian to be sure, but one whose mind was not moved by mere fancy or sentiment. Jaures was driven by a range of impulses natural to a thinker of his power. He fused will and intellect, passion and grace, purpose and kindness, action and imagination.

Jean Jaures was born in 1859 in the city of Castres in southern France, in the department of the Tarn. He came from a close knit family of middle class provincials who were ambitious and tolerant. He was raised in an environment that was less liberal but also considerably less pretentious than its urban counterpart. The region in which he grew into manhood was caught up in the wave of industrialization sweeping through the France of his day. Mills and coal mines dotted the landscape of the Tarn and were the lifeblood of its economic life. From his earliest childhood Jaures mixed easily with the laboring classes. A large mining enterprise and a glass factory introduced large scale capitalism into the region, and the labor needed to run them. However, it was not the milieu of his boyhood that prepared him for socialism but rather his innate sense of integrity and fairness. These latter did most of the work. His mastery of history and philosophy did the rest.  

As a student Jaures came to view history as the story of liberty. His absorption in the subject and interpretation of it were starting points for his journey towards socialism. After completing university in Paris in 1881, he returned to the Tarn and assumed a teaching post. He had furnished his mind with republicanism, atheism, and a belief in progress. He had also made a commitment to the study of secular letters. He looked to the 18th century philosophes as models of intellectual inspiration and moral clarity. During the following four years of reading and lecturing Jaures developed philosophical principles that combined materialism and idealism, insisting on a metaphysics that kept the two conjoined. Even after his turn to socialism and his acceptance of Marx, he never surrendered his belief that human ideals were the motive power of history—a life-affirming enigma in the purposeless world of matter

Though Jaures remained a life-long student and scholar of history and philosophy—completing a doctoral thesis in the latter for the Sorbonne in 1892—it was in the field of politics that he made his name and his mark. He first entered the National Assembly in 1885 as its youngest member. Still filled with the ideals of Enlightenment republicanism, he refused to join the radical left. The militants in the chamber were repellent to his humane and democratic temperament. Though he sympathized with many of their goals, he could not abide their vindictive and doctrinaire spirit. 

His first four year term as a deputy served as an apprenticeship in partisan politics; it also opened his eyes to the power of class in the state and in society. He remained during this time a republican-at large, and took center left positions. He was an advocate for a regulated market that would unleash the dynamism of industry while ensuring basic security for ordinary people. He was to learn that this middling position was untenable. The parties of the center left were as much hostages of business, the military, and the church as the hard right. Only the radical left could be trusted to actively pursue a progressive agenda. 

Jaures lost his seat in 1889, but the four years he had spent in office spurred an evolution in his thinking. By the end of this first term, he stood for state control over capitalist enterprise and urged the creation of strong and independent unions to counter the power of banks and manufactures.

The Carmaux strike of 1892 signaled Jaures’s coming out as a militant socialist. He threw himself into the battle between labor and capital. He politicked, organized, and mobilized; he wrote, spoke, and harangued, attacking without compunction the opposition of industry to the right of workers to unionize. The Carmaux strike was the fire that steeled the bond between him and the workers in his constituency. It also thrust him into French socialist politics, and in 1893 he was returned to the National Assembly.

His electoral rebound marked his ascent as a statesman and political thinker. Over the next twenty years he became one of the most respected figures in the international socialist movement. While dealing with the everyday contingencies of partisanship and factionalism in the Assembly, Jaures developed his own vision of a just society. He was devoted to the democratic method, and believed that socialism—which he defined as a human movement to give aid and comfort to all those who suffered and were threatened with starvation and death—could be achieved through free elections and gradual reforms. Revolutionary aims, Jaures believed, could be attained through evolutionary means.

In his own words:

We must never forget the new and grandiose character of the Socialist Revolution. The common good will be its object. For the first time since the beginning of human history, a great upheaval will have for its aim, not the substitution of one class for another, but the destruction of classes, the inauguration of a universal humanity.

In the Socialist order discipline and the co-ordination of effort will not be maintained by authority of one class over another, but will come as the result of the free will of associate guardians of the peace.

Jaures complimented his soaring rhetoric with practical ideas and policy for relieving the distress of labor and empowering it to defend its interests against capital. He fought not only for the rights of workers to unionize but for the social legislation needed to preserve material security and individual dignity: the eight hour day, pensions for old age and accidents, and insurance against forced unemployment. He also worked for socialist unity. He endeavored to keep the splintering socialist factions together by arguing for a synthesis of viewpoints. He was an advocate of ‘big tent’ socialism and disparaged those who dogmatically clung to narrow lines of thought.  

His biggest, and perhaps most important, fight in his later years was the one that ultimately cost him his life. Jaures had already begun a crusade against imperialism when the storm clouds of war cast themselves over Europe. The emergence of virulent forms of racism, jingoism, and nationalism in the first decade of the 20th century alarmed him. And he re-committed himself to marrying socialism with what he believed to be the universal aspiration for unity and harmony.

We can say that today there is no religion, and, in the truest sense, there is no community. Traditional Christianity is dying, philosophically, scientifically, and politically…History never knew the total Fall of Man, which necessitates the intervention of a tyrannical God in order to restore him…Rather the entire universe suffered the Fall, in the sense that the unity of God was shattered into innumerable competitive and egoistic centers…

If we thought that man was now permanently evil and the human conscience powerless, we would despair of love, and we would abandon the great hope of Socialism. On the contrary, we note with joy countless examples of human nobility, and we conclude from them that the conscience of man, who has known how to conceive the ideal of justice, will not long accept an economic regime which daily negates that ideal…

It is in this spirit that Jaures pursued the cause of peace even as the crisis of 1914 began to peak. He never gave up hope in the human capacity for ethical thinking. He believed that the ideals of justice, of international socialism, would rouse the people and galvanize them into opposing war.

In the days before his murder, Jaures went to Brussels to speak out against going to war and to rally the Socialist International to his cause. He drew up a manifesto calling on the French and German governments to restrain both themselves and their respective allies. He spoke as a kind of tribune of the people, warning against the ‘relapse into barbarism’ that war would bring. All those who were tired and discouraged and embittered by the belligerence, exploitation, and oppression of the imperial powers were given voice by the writings and speeches of Jaures in those crucial weeks.

Sadly, it was not enough, and never would have been. The bullet that ended his life was the first fired by the 20th century enemies of reason and humanism. The forces of war and reaction had too strong an influence on the public mind for there to be any turn from conflict. Even as politicians, diplomats, and intellectuals eulogized him and praised his ideals, they rallied to their respective national standards and took Europe to war.

All that came after the death of Jean Jaures—the slaughter and torture and slavery of millions in the following decades—may cast doubt on his belief in the shared aspirations of people to do good, to seek justice, and to establish universal brotherhood. But perhaps it takes persons such as Jaures to remind us that suppressing selfishness and aggression and embracing culture and solidarity is the only thing that makes civilization possible. It is any case worth remembering that before Europe was plunged into a war that would usher in a period of violence and destruction unparalleled in human history, there was at least one person who tried to stop it.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

In Government We Trust

When people say they don’t trust government, they are often confusing trust with blind trust and government with functions of government they don’t like or of which they are skeptical. Few of the lefties now howling about NSA and GCHQ surveillance have a problem giving national governments enormous power to engineer certain social outcomes. And the debate over spying would be much more interesting if such persons would stop dressing what are only their prejudices and preferences in the rhetorical garb of a pseudo-libertarianism. 

Now over the past few months we’ve been treated to a spectacle of public hysteria and indignation over the Snowden leaks. The popular belief seems to be that the NSA and its British counterpart have been monitoring the emails, phone calls, and text messages of the entire world, and that no man, woman, or child has uttered a word without it being recorded. A moment’s reflection should lead any reasonable person to question whether such a thing is even possible. And the next stage of that contemplation should lead him to ask: what does it mean to say that these spy agencies are collecting data? What kind of data? And further: does the gathering of such data amount to an invasion of privacy and an infringement of liberty?

This line of inquiry prompts two more questions. The first is the old one of liberty versus security: how much legal space does a government need to protect the lives and property of its citizens? This question is best discussed in the abstract. The second, more relevant, question is: what reasonable guarantees of privacy ought we to have from our government given our competing demand that it investigate and prevent terror threats?

In dealing with the latter it must be acknowledged that less and less of the content we put into various media streams can actually be kept private. If I go to the Washington Post website, a number of books I’ve expressed interest in are put before me. If I visit the Huffington Post or some other news site, I am told the names of Facebook friends who have also visited the page. We are all forced into communities of interest without our consent. Our transactions and communications are monitored and employed by private companies to get us to buy things directly or by way of seeing them advertised. I am not too bothered by these intrusions. The effort of various networking sites and retailers to keep tabs on my online activities is no threat to me, and I suppose it can be convenient at times. I am inclined to feel the same way about the collection of phone records and other kinds of meta-data by the government. And I prefer to give the government what it needs, within reason, to be effective in protecting the lives and property of its citizens, while demanding strong safeguards to prevent abuse.

The most obvious rejoinder to this preference is that it is na├»ve; that politicians and policy makers are never to be trusted, that government is to be always suspected of being up to no good, and that if you give it more power it will inevitably misuse it. These claims and admonitions could be used to discredit every act of the state and any of the organizations and institutions run by it. And I can only respond by saying that blanket distrust of state action and government bodies is as dangerous to liberty as unreserved confidence in them. No one expects their government to coerce, intimidate, and wrongfully persecute its citizens. But I would think that most people expect it to take measures to detect and thwart intended acts of violence and murder. I do not claim that government can justify any action on the premise of public safety; only that it can justify certain, limited, legally authorized actions on that premise.

Legislators and law courts often get things wrong when it comes to these matters.  For decades the ‘law and order’ meme has been used by reactionaries and demagogues to advance everything from mass incarceration to mass deportation. It has been used to profile and harass individuals who were doing nothing other than exercising their right to protest or to put one foot in front of the other on the street; it has also been used to blackmail and smear persons whose ability to inspire and influence threatened the status quo. But criticizing acts of cruelty and suppression is a far cry from objecting to government programs on the spurious basis that the agencies that run them are in league to undermine democracy. In every forum in which this topic has been broached one has heard nothing but wild stories and over-exaggerations—the pathos of grievance and outrage that so dominates current discourse.  If sanity is to be brought to the debate over spying the activity must first be seen as a legitimate public service that, like other such services, is subject to checks and oversight.

Those on the left who single out the operations of the NSA or GCHQ as examples of government infringement of individual liberty say nothing about the tax man who siphons money from wages to finance social welfare programs; nor do they complain of regulators who infringe the freedom of business owners by enforcing safety and anti-discrimination laws. Liberalism holds that government ought to intrude in the lives of individuals in limited and prescribed ways in order to promote the common good. What spy agencies do is not congenial to the moral feeling and personal temperament of everyone. But that does not put these agencies outside the bounds of public service and political control.

I should also say something, as an aside, on the current kerfuffle over The Guardian’s role in the Snowden leaks. The paper has a responsibility to publish what it thinks is in the public interest, and it should not be hauled before legislative committees for doing so. If any governmental pressure is to be brought to bear, it ought to be on Russia for harboring a fugitive—that vain, callow charlatan Mr. Edward Snowden. Otherwise, the efforts of the U.S. and U.K. are better served in trying to prevent future leaks of this kind.

Representative democracy is not perfect. Not everyone will always be pleased with what their governments do. That’s why we have politics and elections. No good comes of persons going on irrational screeds about The Big Brother State, especially when the same folks turn around the next day and blast the government for not regulating banker’s bonuses and not doing enough to bring down youth unemployment. In both instances, the government is expected to employ public resources to advance the common good. If one favors public investment in education and infrastructure but does not care for its foreign and domestic surveillance programs, that's a legitimate position. But it is just as arbitrary as someone who favors the latter but does not care for the former. In either case, the person puts his trust in government to solve public problems and promote the general welfare.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

In Defense of Same Sex Marriage

The time has come to extend the civil franchise of marriage to our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. Regardless of how the cases now before the United Sates Supreme Court turn out, the fight for marriage equality, for recognition of same sex couples who have entered committed relationships and wish to enjoy the legal status of marriage, will continue.

As this debate has unfolded in the last decade or so opponents of same sex marriage have suggested that the legal sanctioning of marriage between two men or two women presents a danger to both the institution of marriage in particular and the civil society of America as a whole. They tend to employ some form of one or another of the following argumentative strategies: the argument from anthropology, the argument from history, and the argument from religion.

‘Anthropology,’ some of them contend, ‘and the other social sciences inform us that the human family is the foundation of society and all its institution. If we were to alter the way in which such families are formed, namely, through marriage and the production of children, we would open a path to the collapse of civilization itself.’

In general, claims that contain such sweeping summaries of academic research ought to be received with skepticism. But in this specific case, even if scholarly credence were lent to the premise of the argument, none could be given to its conclusion; for no credible contemporary anthropologist, speaking strictly as a social scientist, has ever made that kind of unqualified claim. Opponents of same sex marriage are thus barred from using the authority of social science to advance their cause. However, their trouble runs deeper than that. If we look around, we see that not every couple that marries does so for the purpose of having children. Indeed, heterosexual marriages are formed for a variety of reasons and are organized and practiced in an insuperable number of ways. Yet civilizationsfrom the American to the Japanesecontinue to thrive economically, socially, and culturally, despite the plurality of ideas around which marriage is arranged.

This brings us to the argument from history, a line of reasoning closely linked to the last one, and to my favorite refrain from opponents of marriage equality: ‘Marriage has always been defined as the union between one man and one woman.’ Persons who repeat this claim seem to be unaware that they are not saying or proving very much. To rest one’s entire case against same sex marriage on gender composition excludes the aims, purposes, and functions of marriage, as well as the concrete relations and experiences of the persons in it. By referring constantly to how marriage has always been ‘defined’ the opponents of marriage equality conflate a concept associated with marriage with various conceptions of it.

While it is true that oppositeness of sexuality has been until recently one of the abiding conventions of marriage, this bare fact is much too limited to explain in full how persons in history conceived and practiced marriage. Different times saw different conceptions of the institution. In Ancient Rome women were seen as so much property, to be transferred from one family to another; in Medieval Europe royal and aristocratic families used their sons and daughters to seal political alliances and produce heirs of their crowns, lands, and fortunes, while in the lower classes the institution was used to create a supply of cheap labor; even as late as the 19th century, middle class women were pressured into finding an appropriate ‘match’ for a marriage in order to maintain respectability and to relieve their families of the financial burden of keeping them fit to live in society—in all of these examples, social and economic conditions were the determinative factors in prompting or compelling people to marry and established the standards by which they conducted themselves once they had done so. The fact that the two persons in the union were of the opposite sex mattered only with regard to the production of children, a biological function inseparable from the larger material and political needs of the times.

Marriage is an idea that has changed and evolved over the centuries. The much freer and humane views of marriage and family held by we who live in the 21st century contrasts starkly with the illiberal and parochial conceptions of those who came before us. Those who attempt to reduce the debate over same sex marriage to the ‘definition’ of marriage neglect the variety of ways the institution has been and continues to be exemplified.

I shall not tarry long on the argument from religion; for the refusal of its proponents to recognize certain factual realities of the American Constitution makes it untenable from the start. The minions who argue from religion insist that America is a Christian nation, and that because the bible forbids homosexuality the government is obligated to deny legal recognition to same sex couples in any form, including civil unions. The Christian Right has certainly been effective in their campaign to convince Americans that the country was founded on ‘Judeo-Christian’ values; and I have recently discovered that their influence extends beyond the nation’s shores.

The week after President Obama came out in favor of same sex marriage I received an email from a Scottish preacher friend of mine in which he offered a standard Christian criticism of same sex marriage. What struck me most was a line in which he stated that allowing same sex couples to marry would extend the separation of church and state “beyond what the Founders imagined”. This good clergyman is an example of the milder kinds of theists who oppose same sex marriage: he is not bigoted, nor is he mean-spirited or hate-filled; he is just in error. He believes, like many of his fellow Christians across the pond, in the fundamental religiosity of the American Founders, despite all the evidence to the contrary. And he adheres to this belief because of a more fundamental conviction that the institutions of Western society rest solely on Christian precepts. Here is not the place to treat this misconception with the thoroughness it deserves. It must suffice to say, in the context of this discussion, that the Constitution of the United States is a secular document. There is not a single hint, indication, or suggestion that the Founders wished the laws and policies of the nation to be governed according to Christian principles.

‘Why not just invest civil unions with all the rights and privileges of marriage?’ is a point often raised among those struggling to accommodate both the traditionalists and the liberals on this issue. But that presupposes the existence of a marital norm that belongs exclusively to heterosexual couples. And in any case, the history of ‘separate but equal’ in America has shown that the sectioned off group is usually reduced over time to a state of second-class citizenship. No. Only full recognition of the right of same sex couples to get married will do.

It must be remembered that marriage as a civil right is in essence a contractual arrangement. It involves the merging of assets and the acquisition of certain legal privileges in the management of domestic affairs. The religious ceremonies associated with marriage are grounded in custom and ritual; but a marriage ceremony is not a necessary condition for a couple to be married in the eyes of the law. Although the fact is not stated often enough, persons must work through the public authority in order to seal the legal bond of their marriage.

This secular principle leads me to the position that if every other kind of couple that may face disapproval from some sections of society—think of younger men and much older women, of older men and much younger women, of couples of different religions, of couples of different races, of couples of different socio-economic backgrounds—can legally marry then the right should be extended to same sex couples.

Yes, I have good friends, indeed life-long friends, who are gay; but my position is based mainly on strongly held liberal and secularist ideals. I take human equality to be the central tenant of liberalism, and I am convinced of the need to respect individuality in all of its variousness. Such statements usually lead to the rejoinder: ‘so you respect the murderer and the child molester!’ To which I respond: I respect the right of these persons to exist, to fulfill their potential, and seek happiness; but this in no way commits me to respect or approve of the act of murder or child molestation. One may accept the will of individuals to act in ways that are natural to them while not condoning every act such individuals may engage in. Order, safety, and decency still matter in society. Recognizing the right of same sex couples to marry is not a stepping stone to accepting those actions and relations still censured by law and common morality.

 In all likelihood the campaign for marriage equality in America will have to be fought year after year, state by state. But history tells us that in the end fairness and justice will prevail.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

The Case for Re-Election

Barack Obama has been an excellent steward of the presidency and deserves another four years in the White House. No president begins his term of office clear of all difficulties and problems. No president gets to decide the tumult, crises, and challenges that will occur during his incumbency. No president has unlimited power, authority, and resources available to him. For sure results matter but so do the means by which they are achieved. President Obama has been unwavering in his commitment to use the energies and capacities of the federal government to promote the general welfare of all Americans.

Presidential elections are about ideas, policy, and the alternative. In general, we choose between two competing visions, two competing policy prescriptions, and two competing candidates. President Obama took the oath of office during America’s worst recession since 1929, and he has worked steadily to improve the economy for all who participate in it. His intervention in the national economy has been guided by two ideas: Stability and Growth: counter the forces of recession and reinforce the conditions of high industrial performance. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and the government loans to GM, Ford, and Chrysler were the two most important policy decisions related to these ideas. The results of President Obama’s actions have been for the most part effective. Over 5 million jobs have been created as a result of the stimulus package and its knock-on effects; over a million manufacturing jobs have been saved because of the president’s decision to implement the auto bail-out; and corporate profits are at an all-time high. Still, the recovery has been bumpy: GDP remains sluggish and unemployment unacceptably high. Much of this has to do with the fact that the original stimulus was too small for a $12 trillion economy and that recoveries from financial crises are normally weak. But President Obama’s plan to increase infrastructure investment, hire more state and local workers, double the size of the payroll tax cut, and add a new set of tax cuts for small businesses and companies that hire new employees are likely to move the country toward a healthier, more robust economy.  

Jobs and the economy are important, but they do not constitute the only issues of public concern; the conditions, arrangements and inter-relations of civil society also matter. President Obama has kept Fairness and Equality at the center of his social policy. The legislation he signed into law is significant in its impact on those who have health care insurance and those who have struggled to get such coverage. We are all strivers in civil society, and the marketplace provides a means for coordinating and exchanging our different wants, needs, and desires. However, health care is unlike any other service in that it is something that everyone in an industrial democracy needs at some point. The ACA is not about eliminating choice and variety or limiting market flexibility; it is about ending consumer mistreatment and making costs more manageable for everyone—particularly the elderly and the working poor. Giving people a fair chance to carve out their own paths to achievement and success requires more than talk about patriotism and freedom; it obliges one to identify the systematic barriers to advancement—the barriers to ‘pulling oneself up by the bootstraps’—and taking measures to mitigate them. This is how the idea of Fairness is transformed into public policy.

The same holds true for Equality. President Obama’s push to repeal the odious ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and his further efforts to secure LGBT civil rights affirms his commitment to a core idea of the American Republic: that every citizen is equal under the law. President Obama has put this abstract idea into concrete action; he has demonstrated that in America no one’s love, affection, family life, and dedication to duty is of more value than anyone else’s by virtue of the fact that they partner with someone of the opposite sex. Immigration reform is the next big task in the realm of social policy. President Obama has put forth intelligent, comprehensive, and practical policy proposals for providing pathways to citizenship for the millions of undocumented persons living in America.

Precision and Restraint have informed President Obama’s foreign and security policy. Winding down the war in Iraq and shifting resources to the war in Afghanistan-Pakistan was right because the latter theatre of operations is more directly related to the struggle against terrorism. And if we are to commit combat forces overseas, then we ought to be meticulous and definitive in determining the purpose and location of their deployment.  

Much has been made of the president’s handling of the Arab Spring. My own view is that America should not get involved militarily in these conflicts. I opposed our limited intervention in Libya, just as I now oppose intervening militarily in Syria; for the use of American military force in the short term is no guarantee of reduced death and destruction in the long term. But despite my disagreement with President Obama’s decision to support NATO airstrikes in Libya, I am encouraged by his general penchant for moderation, diplomacy, and political sophistication in dealing with foreign affairs. We will need a steady and seasoned hand navigating the ship of state through the next four years as the guard changes in China, our relations with Russia and India become ever-more complex, and unrest continues in the Middle East. President Obama has demonstrated his ability to think and act pragmatically in the preservation of American interests, and he has proven himself an able leader on the world stage.

No endorsement of President Obama would be complete without a discussion of the alternative: Governor Mitt Romney. Of Mr. Romney’s economic ideas I will only say that they are either vague or incoherent, or have already been tested as public policy and have not delivered the promised outcomes. As for his ideas on social policy, it is quite clear he intends to cripple Medicaid, roll back abortion rights, eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood, and use the power of the federal government to insert perverse, religiously-inspired nonsense into women’s health issues. An equally worrying thing about Mr. Romney is his cynicism. Mr. Romney’s habit of lying is so deep and persistent that at times it seems as though he is willing to defy the brute fact of human perception. It’s not just the ads he runs but the things he actually says. He makes claims that are demonstrably false and quickly verifiable. His modus operandi seems to be: say what people want to hear or what they vaguely suspect, mix it with the ‘he said, she said’ jumble of political news, and after a while people will be so confused that they will not care about what is true, only about how they feel—and in tough economic times, this is sure to get a few votes.

To be sure, all presidential candidates exaggerate news, juggle language, and refine their positions over time; but none have told as many bold face lies as Mitt Romney has during this election cycle. Governor Romney has practiced an order of mendacity never before seen in modern presidential politics. His entire campaign is a factory for the customized dissemination of distortion, dissembling, and obfuscation. Mr. Romney’s only conviction is that he should be president and the other guy shouldn’t. And the only thing he has shown the American public is that he will say anything to reach this double aim.

President Obama has demonstrated the integrity and mettle that Americans expect of their Chief Executive. He has proven himself a bright and capable leader whose ideas and policies will continue to do the most good for the most people. The case for re-electing the forty-fourth president is solid and I strongly support him.