Thursday, August 30, 2007

Must Read: "The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy"

John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt have just published the book which follows up their 2006 article by the same name which stirred a firestorm. This is a very carefully and thoughtfully reasoned book by two academic political scientists. It gives a wealth of information about how much money and support we have given Israel beginning in the 1960s; this aid is frequently in the form of grants they don't have to pay back and we give it to them no matter what they do with it. The authors make the argument that this unconditional support is contrary to US interests and those of Israel. If this seems difficult to believe please recall that governments have been horribly wrong in the past regarding their own best interests, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan doesn't look too smart now does it? How about Hitler's attempt to rule the world? Japan's decision to attack the US?

Read Paul Kennedy's "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers".
An economically expanding power… may well prefer to become rich rather than to spend heavily on armaments. A half-century later, priorities may well have altered. The earlier economic expansion has brought with it overseas obligations (dependence upon foreign markets and raw materials, military alliances, perhaps bases and colonies)…. In these more troubled circumstances, the Great Power is likely to find itself spending much more on defense than it did two generations earlier, and yet still discover that the world is a less secure environment—simply because other powers have grown faster, and are becoming stronger…. Great Powers in relative decline instinctively respond by spending more on ‘security,’ and thereby divert potential resources from ‘investment’ and compound their long-term dilemma (emphasis added).
I believe, along with Chalmers Johnson (see his Nemesis), that this is the position the U.S. is now in; it is on the downslope of over-reaching militarily which will eventually hurt it economically and seriously undermine its world power.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Be Sure to read "The Authoritarians" by Bob Altemeyer

I have just finished "The Authoritarians" a free online book written by Bob Altemeyer who has been researching this topic for 40 years. Apparently he is close to retirement and this book gives a summary of the many studies he has run over 40 years. This is a must read for anyone interested in understanding the American Radical Right today and why the term "pseudo-conservative" was first prominently used in a book called "The Authoritarian Personality" almost 60 years ago. Altemeyer also distinguishes 'conservatism' from 'authoritarianism' and I believe that authoritarianism is in large part what I refer to as pseudo-conservatism. It is important to understand that Altemeyer is reporting what he has found with scientific studies conducted over four decades and not, like me, just presenting opinions based on my own reading and thinking. I heartily recommend this book!

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Still Trying to Distinguish Authoritarianism from Genuine Conservatism

Reflections on Authoritarianism

How should we define authoritarianism? Reading both Stenner (2005) and Altemeyer’s online book, “The Authoritarians” (2007), I have some thoughts. Let us first look at how Altemeyer defined authoritarianism. On page 9 he defined authoritarians as: “personalities featuring: 1) a high degree of submission to the established, legitimate authorities in their society; 2) high levels of aggression in the name of their authorities; and 3) a high level of conventionalism.”

I think there are good reasons to question Altemeyer’s use of “established, legitimate authorities” as a reference group upon which to base his most fundamental definition. And he himself provided examples of such reasons. On p.16 he wrote: “right-wing authoritarians did not support President Clinton during his impeachment and trial over the Monica Lewinsky scandal. So as I said, the support is not automatic and reflexive, but can be trumped by other concerns. In Clinton’s case his administration not only had advocated for groups anathema to authoritarians, such as homosexuals and feminists, his sexual misdeeds in the White House deeply offended many [authoritarians].”

But Bill Clinton was the duly elected President of the United States and thus he met every criterion of an established, legitimate authority. If authoritarians did not support an elected President then the definition of their group as exhibiting “a high degree of submission to the established, legitimate authorities in their society” is not accurate. Altemeyer (p. 15) had already pointed out: “We would expect authoritarian followers especially to submit to corrupt authorities in their lives: to believe them when there is little reason to do so, to trust them when huge grounds for suspicion exist, and to hold them blameless when they do something wrong.” Moreover, on p. 16 he showed that authoritarians supported Presidents Nixon and George W. Bush when their integrity had been challenged; why not Bill Clinton, an at least equally established, legitimate authority?

Altemeyer (p. 9) also referred to “traditional religious leaders” as examples of the kind of “established authorities” that “authoritarian followers usually support”. But authoritarians certainly discriminate between religious leaders such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, whom they usually support, and more liberal religious leaders whom they emphatically do not support, e.g., the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

Another example occurred to me in relation to another study Altemeyer reported on (p. 28): “Gidi Rubinstein similarly found that [authoritarians] among both Jewish and Palestinian students in Israel tended to be the most orthodox members of their religion, who tend to be among those most resistant to a peaceful resolution of the Middle East conflict. If their authorities endorse hostility, you can bet most authoritarian followers will be combative.” But consider that Yitzhak Rabin was the duly elected Prime Minister of Israel, an established, legitimate authority, when he was assassinated by an ‘orthodox’ right-wing Israeli radical who opposed Rabin’s peace efforts. Rabin was obviously not the assassin’s authority even though he was ‘established’ and ‘legitimate’. Can it be merely a coincidence that Rabin and Bill Clinton were so close?

Throughout Chapter 1 of “The Authoritarians” Altemeyer repeatedly uses phrases like “their authorities” or “their in-groups” to refer to the groups to whom authoritarians give their allegiance. For example (p. 29) he wrote: “They are quite capable of adhering to the beliefs emphasized by their in-groups when these conflict with what is held by society as a whole.” (emphasis added) This seems to me an implicit admission that authoritarians have their own ‘authorities’ and ‘in-groups’ and do not give their allegiance to any and all “established, legitimate authorities”.

In thinking about this it has seemed to me that authoritarians will only glorify and submit to certain specific types of established authority, ‘authoritarian authorities’. However, this sort of formulation begs the question of defining “authoritarian”, which was the problem we set out to solve initially.

Stenner’s “authoritarian dynamic” involves the idea that when individuals with “authoritarian predispositions” are challenged by “normative threat” they will become more sharply authoritarian in thought and behavior (as well measured by Altemeyer’s Right-Wing Authoritarian Scale or RWA). She defined (p. 15) authoritarian predisposition in terms of “attitudes and behaviors variously reflecting rejection of diversity and insistence upon sameness…. The predisposition is labeled ‘authoritarianism’ because suppression of difference and achievement of uniformity necessitate autocratic social arrangements in which individual autonomy yields to group authority.”

Having “normative threat” as a very central concept she is required to consider what kind of “normative order” authoritarians would need to protect. Stenner wrote (p. 18) that she wished to distinguish authoritarians from “conservatives” by defining the latter as those who are committed to preserving a specific normative order, e.g., American Constitutionalism. She argued that although authoritarians would begin by defending the status quo and thus be hard to distinguish from mere conservatives, true authoritarians are primarily interested in maintaining uniformity and sameness in ethnic composition, political beliefs and moral values—and thus they would ultimately be willing to sacrifice any existing status quo (e.g., Weimar constitutional democracy) in favor of a new normative order that would guarantee uniformity and sameness. This then requires her to describe what type of normative order this would be.

Stenner wrote (pp. 18-9): “This is not to say, of course, that the ‘normative order’ of authoritarianism is completely interchangeable, that its content is entirely fungible, that oneness and sameness could be instituted and defended by collective commitment (voluntary or otherwise) to any set of values, norms, and beliefs. Oneness and sameness are attributes of the collective rather than the individual, and they are end states, not processes. They cannot be achieved without some type of coercive control over other people’s behavior…. If individuals are free, collective outcomes will vary, and oneness and sameness cannot be assured…. Thus, while the content of authoritarianism’s ‘normative order’ is somewhat flexible with regard to the specification of right and wrong… it is by no means value neutral. The normative order whose institution and defense might render ‘us’ one and the same can never value individual autonomy and diversity, and will always tend toward some kind of system of collective authority and constraint.”(final emphasis added)

Perhaps it is now somewhat clearer why I have been tempted to talk of ‘authoritarian authorities’. Altemeyer’s contention that authoritarians are characterized by “a high degree of submission to the established, legitimate authorities in their society” is not accurate. The only ‘established’ authorities that authoritarians glorify and defend are those who endorse a strict obedience to some form of coercive normative order that satisfies the needs of authoritarian followers. This could be Islamic fundamentalism or Christian fundamentalism, it could be Mussolini’s fascist philosophy or Hitler’s Nazi philosophy, it could be some form of coercive Marxism-Leninism or ‘democratic centralism—but, as Stenner argued: “The normative order whose institution and defense might render ‘us’ one and the same can never value individual autonomy and diversity, and will always tend toward some kind of system of collective authority and constraint.”

This may help to differentiate genuine conservatives like Bruce Fein and his call for impeachment of Bush and Cheney because of his profound commitment to the Constitution, from authoritarians like Bush and Cheney. To the degree that a conservative is committed to a particular normative order and advocates only slow and prudent changes to that order, like Edmund Burke, they qualify as genuine conservatives.

The category of so-called ‘laissez faire conservative’, which Stenner discussed (p. 86 and see her Index), as did Rossiter (1962, pp. 131-62) is, I believe, close to a contradiction in terms and I will deal with that at more length later. The only way I can see to save this concept is by arguing that American society as it has been constituted for a long time is committed to a type of ‘laissez faire’ philosophy and thus a conservative in the specifically American context might be an advocate of laissez faire. Nonetheless, the recognition that capitalism is itself sometimes a revolutionary force, as in the only true social revolution in American history, the industrial revolution—suggests why I think a philosophy that advocates giving free rein to capitalism and keeping government from regulating the economy cannot easily be called ‘conservative.’ And this is without dealing with the enormous revolutionary changes in American society worked by the corporate revolution, which should be kept conceptually distinct from the industrial revolution. If U.S. state governments and the courts had not awarded corporations such immense powers we would have surely had an industrial revolution but not necessarily a corporate revolution as well.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

American Proto-Fascism?

I've posted on what I see as gathering evidence of precursors of American fascism and have also recommended Robert O. Paxton's very excellent book, The Anatomy of Fascism. Here is another example which you can see for yourself on Keith Olbermann's "Countdown" TV program. To see a video go here and look for the August 17 "Worst Person in the World" segment which can be played online.

Melanie Morgan is a right-wing extremist commentator who recently has several times viciously attacked Jon Soltz of because, although he is a veteran of the Iran War, he has been publicly critical of the Bush administration and the war.

Here's what patriot Melanie Morgan had to say about him: "[Soltz is a] hypocritical cockroach. He needs to be stomped on and neutralized...."

Hmmm. In case you missed the rise of the Nazis before WW II and haven't read Richard Evans' book "The Coming of the Third Reich", perhaps you'll get a replay in the not too distant future of the US. I guess Supporting Our Troops stops once they become critics of US government policy. Freedom of Speech on political issues is one of the most fundamental values on which America was supposed to have been based; I find it remarkable that these patriotic Americans don't see any contradiction between their support for America and their concurrent violation of its most basic principles.

Why do I call this proto-fascist? This is precisely the kind of hate speech that Nazis used against their political enemies. Morgan doesn't say who should carry out the "stomping" and "neutralizing" but the Nazis had the Brownshirts as an organization that carried out extra-legal political violence against its enemies. If we see the formation of extra-legal groups prepared to carry out political violence then that would constitute one more step toward full-blown fascism.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Barbara O'Brien's Mahablog Has Interesting Posts on Pseudo-Conservatives

I want to direct people to a series of very interesting posts by Barbara O'Brien's The Mahablog concerning the whole topic of pseudo-conservatives and authoritarianism. You can start with today's post or search her blog under relevant terms. This whole topic of pseudo-conservatives being best understood as authoritarians is central, I believe.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

My Struggles to Understand the Appeal of 'Tough' Foreign Policy

In an earlier post I struggled mightily to understand the appeal of 'tough' foreign policy. I now think that this thinking makes so little sense to me because I can't empathize enough with the authoritarian personality. This notion of 'tough' punitive treatment of our opponents comes right out of the authoritarian's psychological playbook. See my previous posts involving Karen Stenner's The Authoritarian Dynamic. Search for these by using the Search tool in the upper left of my blog's homepage and type in Stenner.

Why Authoritarians Have a Fundamental Advantage

I have been reading an interesting book, Whose Freedom?: The Battle over America's Most Important Idea, by linguist and cognitive scientist George Lakoff. This is a good book with many good ideas. One of his most fundamental ideas is that 'progressives' have a very different concept of 'freedom' than right-wing 'conservatives'. He believes these different concepts of 'freedom' are based upon differing conceptions of the family: 'progressives' are committed to a "nurturant parent" family model and 'conservatives' are committed to a "strict father" family model. This is a reasonable attempt to organize the fundamental differences between so-called 'conservatives' and 'progressives' or liberals. This task is one that needs to be done: how do we understand and organize the fundamental differences between 'conservatives' and 'liberals'?

While reading Lakoff it occurred to me that Karen Stenner's book "The Authoritarian Dynamic" might really have more to say about these differences (see my several earlier posts on Stenner's book beginning with this) than Lakoff. Lakoff simply posits that different people have different conceptions of the family while not going deeper to ask why. Stenner argued that there are perhaps 30% of people who are born with a biological disposition to be authoritarian. I wrote:
In an excellent book, The Authoritarian Dynamic, political scientist Karen Stenner gave a brief description of the predisposition to be authoritarian; she wrote (p. 16) that the stances taken by the authoritarian “have the effect of glorifying, encouraging, and rewarding uniformity and of disparaging, suppressing, and punishing difference.” Ad hominem attacks are attempts to glorify uniformity and suppress difference. On the other end of the continuum from authoritarianism is libertarianism.
I frankly think it is at least plausible that approximately 30% of humans are born with a biological predisposition to be authoritarian and that this means they feel compelled to glorify, encourage, and reward uniformity and disparage, suppress and punish difference. It is these people who would naturally be drawn to Lakoff's "stern father" model of the family.

The fact that authoritarians glorify uniformity and punish difference gives them a fundamental political advantage: their stress on uniformity and rejection of difference allows them to share a reasonably common set of beliefs that give them solidarity. Liberals, on the other hand, stand for a diversity of beliefs and the right to disagree and be different. This puts them at a fundamental disadvantage to authoritarians! Look at Hitler's emphasis upon the necessity that members of the Nazi Party declare absolute allegiance to his 25 points (see Richard Evans, "The Coming of the Third Reich", pp. 179-180). As Evans points out these 25 points were "soon declared 'unalterable', so as to prevent it from becoming a focus for internal dissension." Although I haven't got a ready citation for this think of Lenin's emphasis upon the need for "democratic centralism" in the Bolshevik Party so that once a position or strategy had been agreed to all discussion and criticism must stop. Totalitarianism has this fundamental advantage over liberals and progressives because the latter prize diversity and believe that free discussion will eventually bring one to the truth.

In fact it seems to me that a very basic belief of liberalism is that humans are not in possession of the truth and thus using tools like free public discussion, or the scientific method, or continued search for innovation in technology and industry are at the very heart of liberalism. On the other hand, the authoritarian believes we know the truth (the Bible is the unerrant word of God, America is always right and thus you must love it or leave it, questioning the government in wartime is tantamount to treason, etc.) and thus diversity and differences are simply annoying discomforts that should be punished and suppressed. The uniformity, discipline and subordination to a leader (father) gives authoritarians a very strong advantage over liberals and this is at least worth being aware of.

Further Comments on Recent Posts

Let me respond to some of Steven Andresen's points here:
I am under the impression that political writers have been trying to point out the fascistic characteristics of the conservative movement for a long time. They've done it so much I hear the argument that they are like the boy who cried wolf.
Calling some group 'fascist' is indeed a well worn tactic but to me it makes a difference whether you are just throwing names around or taking seriously what the words mean. Thus, I cite Paxton who is a very serious and thoughtful student of fascism and use his carefully arrived at definition to determine if the label is justified or not.

I believe there are differences between the neo-cons and the christian zionists, for example.

I agree. The neo-cons are primarily Zionists (not all but most are) whose main concerns are a 'tough' foreign policy and US support for the hard right within Israel. The Christian Zionists are Christian fundamentalist evangelicals who believe that Israel must be supported because of their reading of the bible even though they often have the belief that Jews will ultimately go to Hell.
Do we want to argue that the kooks are beyond the pale and no one should be paying any attention to them?
I think they are part of what used to be called the 'lunatic fringe' but now the fringe has substantial power. I wish we could ignore them but as you say we can't do that if we wish to live in the real world of practical politics.
Are we wanting to question the reasoning behind the kook movements? That would be interesting. But, I'm not sure anybody has the will to follow through with any critique of their foundations.
We have to learn to be just as persistent as they are in putting forward our analysis and showing what is wrong with theirs. Drew Westen's recent book "The Political Brain" argues very convincingly how we must oppose the extremist right. Bill Clinton and Howard Dean strongly recommend this book.
I'm sure this was the argument the nazi party guys made to each other and to the German people. They said, you cannot deny the threat to our morality posed by the communists or the jews.
You are exactly right, Hitler and the Nazis emphasized the threat to the Fatherland of Communists, Socialists, Jews and homosexuals. I'd say the real threat to the US is the foreign policies we have pursued that have caused Muslims to want to fight and destroy us; similar to what Ron Paul argued at one of the recent Republican debates. Ron Paul is a Libertarian who believes we ought to leave other countries alone unless they truly pose a threat to us.
That is, the puzzle isn't so much about how all these people are different amongst themselves, but how we can know who to listen to for guidance about what to do?
I have indicated throughout this blog many of the people I think it makes sense to listen to and who have good ideas about what we can do.

Answer to a Question About 'Conservatism'

Steven Andresen recently asked a question about how to define 'conservatism' as a comment to my Why Pseudo-Conservatives Are Not 'Conservative' post and since my reply is longish I thought I'd add it as a new post.

I believe the term 'conservative' has been hijacked by right-wing extremists in the US and thus tends to mean what ever they want it to mean even if what they believe contradicts the dictionary definition of 'conservative' and even if the principles they say they espouse are self-contradictory. Could I direct your attention to the four part series of posts I wrote called "What Does 'Conservative' Really Mean?" that starts here?

So-called "Christian Conservatives" are usually right-wing extremists who come closer to qualifying as fascists than anything 'conservative'. I do not use the term 'fascist' lightly. Robert Paxton recently published a really excellent book called "The Anatomy of Fascism" which very carefully examines the appropriate uses of this term. Paxton is a historian at Columbia and has spent many years teaching, writing and thinking about fascism. Here's his definition (p. 218):
Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in an uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of
internal cleansing and external expansion.
While we have not yet realized a state of full-fledged fascism in the US Paxton demonstrates that movements can approximate fascism and there can be precursors. I suggest that the Christian right's preoccupation with 'moral decline' in America, it's preoccupation with seeing itself as the butt of a war on Christianity (let me know if you want an example), it's culture war against liberals, it's development of a compensatory cult of 'purity', it's mass-based militant nationalism ("America: Love It or Leave It"), it's collaboration with the traditional elites of the Republican Party and many in the corporate and military elites, the gradual but constant abandonment of democratic liberties under the Bush administration, the redemptive violence against abortion doctors and clinics, the goal of internally cleansing "secular humanists" and an external expansion that apparently knows no bounds (see Chalmers Johnson's "The Sorrows of Empire" and "Nemesis"--all of these elements are precursors of American fascism.

Sinclair Lewis is reputed to have said, "When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross." I suspect this came pretty close to being an accurate anticipation and if Lewis said it his statement was made in the 1930s.