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“A Breed Apart”: So This Is What “Individual Liberty” Looks Like

I was minding my own business channel surfing when I stumbled upon a disturbing scene carried on (where else?) Fox News. More than 1,500 students from all over the world were gathered in Washington to attend what was billed as the Students for Liberty Conference, whose advertised aim was to “celebrate freedom.”

The part I saw had Fox Business host John Stossel, author of No They Can’t: Why Government Fails, but Individuals Succeed, moderating a panel in which he asked students this bit of political trivia: How often is the word “democracy” used in the Constitution, or the Declaration of Independence for that matter?

What came next was chilling. When students were given the correct answer – none – they cheered.

Stossel later explained why. These students, like the Founding Fathers, “understood that democracy may bring mob rule – tyranny of a majority. So the Constitution focuses on restricting government – to secure individual liberty.”

Thanks go to Chris Hayes of MSNBC for showing what this so called “individual liberty” sometimes looks like in real life.

Hayes profiled ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson. As the head of the largest natural gas producer in the US, Tillerson is a vocal proponent of a controversial process known as hydraulic fracking.

It is so controversial, in fact, that many municipalities have begun passing local ordinances to place a moratorium on the practice until more is known about its long-term consequences. Exxon, for its part, has been just as active suing these cities and towns to have the ordinances overturned.

Then along comes another gas company with plans to construct one of these water towers needed for fracking — but this one near Exxon Rex’s 83-acre, $5 million horse ranch near Bartonville, Texas. Tillerson, of course, welcomes the new gas company to the neighborhood with open arms. Right?

Not on your life. Instead, Tillerson and his super-wealthy neighbors file a lawsuit which states that the fracking tower must be stopped since it might “devalue their properties and adversely impact the rural lifestyle they sought to enjoy.”

Further, as the Wall Street Journal disapprovingly reports, Tillerson and his neighbors filed suit, claiming that what the gas company wanted to do was illegal since it would create “a noise nuisance and traffic hazards” due to the heavy trucks hauling and pumping the massive amounts of water needed to unlock oil and gas from dense rock.

As Hayes succinctly put it: “Rex Tillerson is leading the fracking revolution — just not in his backyard.”

Adds Rich Unger writing in Forbes: “Sometimes, the hypocrisy expressed in real life is so sublimely rich that one could never hope to construct a similar scenario out of pure imagination.”

Being a vocal advocate for fracking is “a key and critical function” of Mr. Tillerson’s day job, says Unger. It is all he can do when he wakes up in the morning to “protect and nurture the process of hydraulic fracturing so that his company can continue to rack in billions via the production and sale of natural gas.”

So committed is Rex to the process of fracking, says Unger, “that he has loudly lashed out at those who criticize and seek to regulate hydraulic fracturing, suggesting that such efforts are a very bad idea, indeed.”

Except when the fracking is in Tillerson’s backyard.

The odium directed at Tillerson practically writes itself. But critics are wrong to call him a hypocrite. A hypocrite is someone who subscribes to the notion that people are basically equal, who agrees that rules should apply equally to everyone, but who nonetheless insists on special privileges or exemptions for themselves.

Tillerson, and those of his kind throughout history, do not subscribe to such egalitarian — dare we say democratic — ideals as justice or fairness. They really do believe their wealth makes them a breed apart. And they really do think that rules which apply to everyone else do not apply to them, though they rarely admit that in public.

To Tillerson and his caste, double standards are the only ones worth having. Consequently, it is perfectly legitimate, in their view, to make billions of dollars supporting a fracking process they say is a danger to no one — except people who  own multi-million horse ranches in rural Texas.

I wonder if Stossel’s Students for Liberty cheered just as loudly once they learned the Constitution does not use the world oligarchy either?

 

By: Ted Frier, Open Salon Blog, February 27, 2014

March 2, 2014 Posted by | Fracking, Oil Industry | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Why Russians Aren’t Smiling At You In Sochi”: The First Rule About Smiling Is You Do Not Smile At Russians

When Ed Leigh arrived in Sochi to cover the Winter Olympics, something struck him as odd: None of the Russians there returned his smiles.

When Leigh asked a native why that was, the man told him, “In Russia only two types of people smile: idiots and rich people—and rich people don’t walk on the street.”

For Russians, a smile in public is not the polite expression that Americans reflexively offer strangers on the street. A smiling person must have a good reason for doing it, and it should be obvious what that reason is. When people smile without hesitation—for no reason—Russians find those grins artificial or insincere. And they think those people have a few screws loose.

Americans, on the other hand, seem to smile for any reason at all. The “American smile” has a long-standing bad reputation in Russia, explained Michael Bohm, the opinion-page editor of The Moscow Times, in an in-depth 2011 story on the matter.

National distrust of the Westernized grin dates back to the early Soviet era, when anti-U.S. propaganda abounded. Later, in the 1980s, Soviet media regularly blasted reports called “Their Customs,” explaining that Americans, a power-hungry people, smiled to deceive others. Behind that smile was an “imperialist wolf revealing its ferocious teeth.” One prime example of that, Bohm writes, came in 1990, when then-Secretary of State James Baker used his “charming, cunning Texas smile” to trick former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev into agreeing to a unified Germany in exchange for the U.S. halting NATO’s eastward expansion.

“There’s so much to be happy about here!” the Soviet government told its people—guaranteed jobs and housing, free education, a nuclear war chest to protect the empire. The people, frowning as they waited in line to buy bread or milk, respectfully disagreed.

Russia’s poker face “has little to do with Dostoevsky or the cold climate,” Bohm says, and much more to do with centuries of government oppression and corruption. The very form of government can dictate how its people control their expression of emotions, according to David Matsumoto, an expert on micro-expressions, gesture, and nonverbal behavior. In collectivist nations, like Russia and China, people tend to neutralize happy expressions, blending in with the rest of the population. In contrast, members of individualist societies, like the United States, crack smiles freely and often, reflecting the openness of their political climate. The 2008 World Values Survey found that freedom of choice strongly affects people’s happiness.

Everyday life for Russian people has historically been grueling, a fight for existence. Their hardships were reflected in their expressiveness, and deep concern, along with a tangle of worry lines, became entrenched on their faces. Russia ranked 167th out of 178 countries on a “World Map of Happiness,” a 2007 survey of 80,000 people worldwide that measured a nation’s level of happiness by factors most closely associated with the emotions, such as health, wealth, and education.

All this research makes it sound like Russians are perpetually unhappy people, doomed for depressing lives. They’re not. Take it from this native Russian reporter.

Russians smile for genuine happiness—fair health, a pleasant mood, prosperity. All good reasons.

When two Americans make eye contact in a crowded restaurant, they smile out of habit. Russians look away instead, since smiling at strangers is a cultural taboo. The Russian cashier ringing you up at the grocery store won’t offer a smile because he doesn’t know you, and he won’t mimic your pleasant expression.

That cashier is also working, and Russians stay especially tight-lipped while on the job. Work, simply put, should not be fun or taken lightly. Russian President Vladimir Putin may look markedly sullen while standing next to his American counterpart, but it’s usually not because he is angry or upset—he’s just doing his job.

When Russians do crack a smile in public, it’s usually directed at someone they know. Still, they tend to smile only with their lips, revealing only a hint of the upper row of their teeth if the grin widens. Any more, and that smile comes off as unpleasant or even vulgar.

The biggest and most natural smiles come out at home, where Russians laugh and joke like any American would, with close friends and family members. But when someone brings out a camera, the corners of their mouths turn down again. The permanence of photographs makes the images somehow less personal and more public; they reflect how Russians appear to everybody else, including strangers on the street. Entire family photo albums capture not one smile. My Russian parents appear stone-faced in black-and-photos from their young adulthood, during beach trips and barbecues, at weddings and parties. They are not the same people who today, after 16 years in the United States, smile widely, flashing their white teeth, in front of the camera.

Russian culture is full of quirks many Americans would find strange, from making long and complicated toasts to never, ever throwing away a plastic bag. In 2011, singer Alina Simone offered a terrific explanation for why Russians hate ice cubes. This week, BuzzFeed‘s Ellie Hall documented their love of dill.

So, smiling in Sochi is a surefire way to reveal you’re an outsider—and probably annoy a native Russian—but, in modern times, it’s relatively harmless. Whatever you do, don’t play the “got your nose” game with a Russian. That hand gesture, a fist with a thumb between the middle and index fingers, is a lot less playful and a lot more offensive over there.

 

By: Marina Koren, The National Journal, February 7, 2014

February 10, 2014 Posted by | Olympics | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“In The Name Of Freedom”: How To Spot A Paranoid Libertarian

In a recent essay in the New Republic, Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz contends that Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald and Julian Assange reflect a political impulse he calls “paranoid libertarianism.” Wilentz claims that far from being “truth-telling comrades intent on protecting the state and the Constitution from authoritarian malefactors,” they “despise the modern liberal state, and they want to wound it.”

Wilentz gives credit to Richard Hofstadter for the term “paranoid libertarianism,” but he is being generous. Although Hofstadter wrote an influential essay called “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” he didn’t call special attention to its libertarian manifestation. Wilentz has performed an important public service in doing exactly that.

Most of Wilentz’s essay focuses on Snowden, Greenwald and Assange, and he offers a lot of details in an effort to support his conclusions about each of them. But let’s put the particular individuals to one side. Although Wilentz doesn’t say much about paranoid libertarianism as such, the general category is worth some investigation.

It can be found on the political right, in familiar objections to gun control, progressive taxation, environmental protection and health care reform. It can also be found on the left, in familiar objections to religious displays at public institutions and to efforts to reduce the risk of terrorism. Whether on the right or the left, paranoid libertarianism (which should of course be distinguished from libertarianism as such) is marked by five defining characteristics.

The first is a wildly exaggerated sense of risks — a belief that if government is engaging in certain action (such as surveillance or gun control), it will inevitably use its authority so as to jeopardize civil liberties and perhaps democracy itself. In practice, of course, the risk might be real. But paranoid libertarians are convinced of its reality whether or not they have good reason for their conviction.

The second characteristic is a presumption of bad faith on the part of government officials — a belief that their motivations must be distrusted. If, for example, officials at a state university sponsor a Christian prayer at a graduation ceremony, the problem is that they don’t believe in religious liberty at all (and thus seek to eliminate it). If officials are seeking to impose new restrictions on those who seek to purchase guns, the “real” reason is that they seek to ban gun ownership (and thus to disarm the citizenry).

The third characteristic is a sense of past, present or future victimization. Paranoid libertarians tend to believe that as individuals or as members of specified groups, they are being targeted by the government, or will be targeted imminently, or will be targeted as soon as officials have the opportunity to target them. Any evidence of victimization, however speculative or remote, is taken as vindication, and is sometimes even welcome. (Of course, some people, such as Snowden, are being targeted, because they appear to have committed crimes.)

The fourth characteristic is an indifference to tradeoffs — a belief that liberty, as paranoid libertarians understand it, is the overriding if not the only value, and that it is unreasonable and weak to see relevant considerations on both sides. Wilentz emphasizes what he regards as the national- security benefits of some forms of surveillance; paranoid libertarians tend to see such arguments as a sham. Similarly, paranoid libertarians tend to dismiss the benefits of other measures that they despise, including gun control and environmental regulation.

The fifth and final characteristic is passionate enthusiasm for slippery-slope arguments. The fear is that if government is allowed to take an apparently modest step today, it will take far less modest steps tomorrow, and on the next day, freedom itself will be in terrible trouble. Modest and apparently reasonable steps must be resisted as if they were the incarnation of tyranny itself.

In some times and places, the threats are real, and paranoid libertarians turn out to be right. As Joseph Heller wrote in Catch-22, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.”

Societies can benefit a lot from paranoid libertarians. Even if their apocalyptic warnings are wildly overstated, they might draw attention to genuine risks, or at least improve public discussion. But as a general rule, paranoia isn’t a good foundation for public policy, even if it operates in freedom’s name.

 

By: Cass Sunstein, The National Memo, January 30, 2014

January 31, 2014 Posted by | Civil Liberties, Government | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Freedom’s Just Another Word For Guns”: Honor Lincoln And MLK By Getting Yourself An AR-15

Let’s say you’re a local Republican party organization in a Democratic state, and you want to think creatively about how to get media attention. You could put up a “Kiss a Capitalist” booth at the county fair, or hire a local graffiti artist to spray-paint portraits of Ronald Reagan on the homes of poor people in order to inspire them to take a firm hold of those bootstraps and pull. Or, in honor of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, two liberals who got assassinated with guns, you could raffle off an AR-15. That’s what the Multnomah county GOP is doing, and you have to give them credit: people are noticing! Here’s part of their press release:

Multnomah County Republicans recognize the incredible time of year we are in. In successive months to start the year, we celebrate the legacy of two great Republicans who demonstrated leadership and courage that all of us still lean on today: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Abraham Lincoln. In celebrating these two men, and the denial of the rights they fought so hard against, the Multnomah County Republican Party announces that we have started our third raffle for an AR-15 rifle (or handgun of the winner’s choice).

For the record, Martin Luther King was not a Republican, and Abraham Lincoln’s Republican party was the liberal party of its day; just ask yourself what side the average Tea Party Republican of today would have been on had they been alive in 1864. And let’s try to unpack that last sentence: “In celebrating these two men, and the denial of the rights they fought so hard against…” So wait, are you celebrating the denial of rights? And which rights did they fight against? I’m confused.

Grammatical puzzlers aside, this is some high-grade, industrial-strength trolling. For some people, freedom’s just another word for … guns. That’s really all it’s a word for. Freedom is guns, and guns is freedom, and if a historical figure sought to correct injustice, then obviously he would have been opposed to the worst injustice of all, which is when you have three AR-15s and you want to get a fourth one, but you have to get a background check to get it instead of just buying it out of some dude’s trunk at three in the morning in the parking lot of the Piggly Wiggly like James Madison intended.

And here’s the best part of that article about the raffle: “The winner will be given a background check before receiving the weapon.” Wouldn’t want any nuts getting their hands on it.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, January 15, 2014

January 16, 2014 Posted by | GOP, Guns | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Free To Be Hungry”: Conservatives Believe That Freedom Is Just Another Word For “Not Enough To Eat”

The word “freedom” looms large in modern conservative rhetoric. Lobbying groups are given names like FreedomWorks; health reform is denounced not just for its cost but as an assault on, yes, freedom. Oh, and remember when we were supposed to refer to pommes frites as “freedom fries”?

The right’s definition of freedom, however, isn’t one that, say, F.D.R. would recognize. In particular, the third of his famous Four Freedoms — freedom from want — seems to have been turned on its head. Conservatives seem, in particular, to believe that freedom’s just another word for not enough to eat.

Hence the war on food stamps, which House Republicans have just voted to cut sharply even while voting to increase farm subsidies.

In a way, you can see why the food stamp program — or, to use its proper name, the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) — has become a target. Conservatives are deeply committed to the view that the size of government has exploded under President Obama but face the awkward fact that public employment is down sharply, while overall spending has been falling fast as a share of G.D.P. SNAP, however, really has grown a lot, with enrollment rising from 26 million Americans in 2007 to almost 48 million now.

Conservatives look at this and see what, to their great disappointment, they can’t find elsewhere in the data: runaway, explosive growth in a government program. The rest of us, however, see a safety-net program doing exactly what it’s supposed to do: help more people in a time of widespread economic distress.

The recent growth of SNAP has indeed been unusual, but then so have the times, in the worst possible way. The Great Recession of 2007-9 was the worst slump since the Great Depression, and the recovery that followed has been very weak. Multiple careful economic studies have shown that the economic downturn explains the great bulk of the increase in food stamp use. And while the economic news has been generally bad, one piece of good news is that food stamps have at least mitigated the hardship, keeping millions of Americans out of poverty.

Nor is that the program’s only benefit. The evidence is now overwhelming that spending cuts in a depressed economy deepen the slump, yet government spending has been falling anyway. SNAP, however, is one program that has been expanding, and as such it has indirectly helped save hundreds of thousands of jobs.

But, say the usual suspects, the recession ended in 2009. Why hasn’t recovery brought the SNAP rolls down? The answer is, while the recession did indeed officially end in 2009, what we’ve had since then is a recovery of, by and for a small number of people at the top of the income distribution, with none of the gains trickling down to the less fortunate. Adjusted for inflation, the income of the top 1 percent rose 31 percent from 2009 to 2012, but the real income of the bottom 40 percent actually fell 6 percent. Why should food stamp usage have gone down?

Still, is SNAP in general a good idea? Or is it, as Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, puts it, an example of turning the safety net into “a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency.”

One answer is, some hammock: last year, average food stamp benefits were $4.45 a day. Also, about those “able-bodied people”: almost two-thirds of SNAP beneficiaries are children, the elderly or the disabled, and most of the rest are adults with children.

Beyond that, however, you might think that ensuring adequate nutrition for children, which is a large part of what SNAP does, actually makes it less, not more likely that those children will be poor and need public assistance when they grow up. And that’s what the evidence shows. The economists Hilary Hoynes and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach have studied the impact of the food stamp program in the 1960s and 1970s, when it was gradually rolled out across the country. They found that children who received early assistance grew up, on average, to be healthier and more productive adults than those who didn’t — and they were also, it turns out, less likely to turn to the safety net for help.

SNAP, in short, is public policy at its best. It not only helps those in need; it helps them help themselves. And it has done yeoman work in the economic crisis, mitigating suffering and protecting jobs at a time when all too many policy makers seem determined to do the opposite. So it tells you something that conservatives have singled out this of all programs for special ire.

Even some conservative pundits worry that the war on food stamps, especially combined with the vote to increase farm subsidies, is bad for the G.O.P., because it makes Republicans look like meanspirited class warriors. Indeed it does. And that’s because they are.

By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, September 22, 2013

September 24, 2013 Posted by | Poverty, Public Policy | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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