Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Socialism = Morality?

So it is not often that I share any stories from graduate school in this forum, because for the most part they are not particularly relevant to what I do here. I am training to be an historian of the United States, concentrating in the political and intellectual history of the early American republic. Obviously, when it is relevant I use knowledge I have gained during this training in my arguments and writings, but I don't generally post on specific happenings within my graduate program. Today, I make an exception. A seminar I am auditing in preparation for my final oral examination before I begin my dissertation has brought me face-to-face with the explicit voicing of an all-too-frequent idea in this modern world we live in.

The setting: A discussion of essays concerning the advent of slave labor in the colonial period of Atlantic/Caribbean history. The specific point which interested my colleague was a moral condemnation of slavery as a labor system. This should be a rather humdrum occurrence in modern historiography (and is for the most part), no one would countenance for one moment a substantive disagreement on this point. However, this colleague of mine was fascinated by this overtly "socialist" judgment creeping into a work of history. What does that mean? For starters (and I confirmed this for my own understanding after the class), it means quite unequivocally that socialists are the only ones who make a moral case against slavery as a labor system. When I queried in class if it were possible for a capitalist to morally condemn slavery I was told quite simply, "No." The only thing which comforted me in this moment was the fact that I was not the only one in the room insulted by this remark, in fact the sense of shock was quite palpable.

Of course, the reasoning (if it can be called that) behind this argument is easy enough to tease out and I did so with this colleague of mine afterwards in an attempt to understand the thought process at work here. Essentially socialism is about as close to a secular manifestation of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic ethical code as one can come up with. Materialism, selfishness, "greed," and individualism either have severely circumscribed or non-existent roles in both. As socialism is the only political and economic system devised entirely on the moral ethos of altruism, the life blood of the ethical doctrines of the western monotheistic tradition, it carries with it (whether stated or not) the gravitas which the religious version has gained with centuries of unquestioning obedience and worship. Things with thousands of years of history behind them tend to gain some degree of legitimacy whether they deserve it or not.

When I asked, "Well what about ethical systems which reject altruism as immoral," I was then asked, "Why is it immoral?" Rather than ask for my colleague to explain what exactly morality meant to man's life on earth and then explain how is was that altruism was moral to begin with, I merely countered that: "Altruism is self-destructive (sacrifice is, and is meant to be, destructive), a moral code which destroys you can hardly be called 'good.' [Unless, of course, you are evil] SO, back to my question, what about ethical codes which reject altruism as immoral?" Then I got the classic blank-out response, "They're wrong." The conversation ended there, I was fully satisfied that I had rooted out the origins of the statements in class, and my colleague was content to let the dialogue die on an unsupported assertion.

Of course, the horrid thing in this is that, if accepted or unchallenged (fortunately that did not happen!), a dreadful dichotomy is established. Either one accepts the awful ethics of altruism and its economic and political corollary of socialism in order to morally condemn slavery or one accepts slavery in order to avoid altruism. Obviously this dichotomy is false, not to mention a classic one dating back at least to Marx. Altruism is a doctrine of self-sacrifice, but it's essence is sacrifice. And it is the idea of sacrifice, in all its hideous permutations, whether of self-sacrifice or the sacrifice of others to one's self, which underlays socialism and slavery. Sacrifice is the common denominator.

It is no accident that societies built upon socialism resemble societies built on slavery in that the great mass of people are being sacrificed either to some smaller group of people or, theoretically, to each other. In either case, their lives do not belong to them but to others. The only real difference is whether one prefers being ground up in the sugar mills of an 18th century French plantation in St. Domingue (Haiti) or being pounded into the dust of some five year plan in Soviet Russia. Either way, you are just as sacrificed; either way, you are just as dead.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

A Poem?

OK, so I'm no poet. I can only read the words of Scott, Yeats, and Byron in awe with no hope at even imitation, let alone anything else. But, like Lincoln, I occasionally am moved to express myself in poetry. I share one of these rare efforts now, please be gentle in the criticism.


Two hearts,
One inflamed; the other, not.
Can love exist between the two?
When one is cold; the other, hot.

Love is worth the risk, no?
To put one’s happiness in reality’s hand?
But be prepared to be most low,
When she scoffs at a fool’s stand.

Ignore the truth for love’s embrace!
The joy you feel will help you,
But this is a most dangerous chase,
It is all your Waterloo.

Reality is as the Duke,
Strong, Firm, like Iron,
Not impressed by the fluke
Of your Corsican environ.

Love is for those who are honest,
Tricking yourself, you’ll fail;
When your false ship begins to list,
You best be there to bail!

Friday, February 08, 2008

Where is Charles Keating???

This election, particularly the Republican nomination fight, has been very puzzling. Numerous Democratic pundits keep claiming that they fear running against Arizona Senator John McCain more than any other Republican. I keep asking myself, why? What am I missing? Senator McCain is not an effective orator, would be the oldest person ever elected to the office (this is an issue and makes his VP selection all the more critical), agrees with them on most major issues except the Iraq War, and threatens to depress his own party so much that Donald Duck could be the Democratic nominee and win. Even if he overcomes those issues, there is another issue from McCain's past, a past he enjoys talking about when he refers to his own admirable military service, which will sink him. It calls into question his character, his credibility, and his own proudest legislative achievement, the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform Bill (it might more accurately be called the McCain-Feingold Destruction of Free Speech Bill).

What is this issue, why is it so important, and why has it not been brought up so far in this campaign? The last question I cannot answer, it baffles me. Why Mitt Romney or any of the other Republicans would not skewer McCain with his own signature issue and make him look like the fool he truly is is a question I will not try to answer. Perhaps most of the electorate does not remember the Savings and Loans "crisis" of the late 1980s (in fact I was only a very small child at the time, but as a historian it's my job to look into these things), but I am sure John McCain does.

When deregulation hit the Savings and Loans Associations in the 1980s, a predictable speculative boom occurred which eventually came crashing down. Charles Keating ran one of these businesses in Phoenx, Arizona and donated money to numerous politicians, including his friend John McCain. Standard story of modern politics, right? Wait, it gets a little more interesting. During an investigation of Keating's real estate company (which owned the S&L) five Senators who received money from Keating (including McCain) met with the investigators attempting to strongarm them and get them to back-off of Keating's business dealings and practises. Basically what Keating did was make numerous high-risk investments which did not payoff, eventually causing his companies to go bankrupt, including his S&L. In an effort to avoid investigation from regulatory agencies Keating obviously called in favors (why else would these five senators, including McCain, go out of their way in one specific investigation?) in an attempt to not be found in violation of banking regulations. When the role of these senators, the infamous "Keating Five," became known, a scandal ensued and the Senate ethics committee censured them in various ways. This ended as far as McCain was concerned in 1990.

In the subsequent decade the posterboy of government corruption and payola, McCain, reinvented himself as a "Maverick" and champion of governmental reform, particularly (in grand irony) of campaign finance. It was his chief issue in his campaign against President George W. Bush in 2000, and which he finally got passed into law when the Democrats gained control of the Senate in 2001. In fact, the Keating Scandal, as inauspicious a start in the Senate anyone could create for themselves, may be the catalyst of McCain's whole subsequent facade as an "Independent" force in American politics. Essentially, he's a fraud attempting to get so far away from what happened in his first term in the Senate that most people, hearing of the Keating scandal for the first time today, scarcely believe that it's the same guy.

As a character issue, the Keating scandal is a troubling sign about McCain's priorities. Let me preface this by saying that McCain's status as a hero in unquestioned, but military heroes do not always make the best political leaders and are not above making poor decisions in their civilian lives. Being willing to use his power as a United States Senator to intimidate investigators conducting a lawful invesitgation smacks of Nixonism. It shows, at the very least, the ability to act as unethically as any public official can act without committing an outright felony.

This does not bode well for McCain running as ethical an administration as can be expected in this day and age. Perhaps the main lesson from the Clinton administration was that ethics no longer matter, by and large, to the electorate (in spite of clearly breaking numerous laws in plain view, indeed on TV in front of everyone, he maintained high popularity throughout his impeachment and trial) and thus McCain has nothing to fear from being made to look like a liar and hypocrite. I suspect, however, that the character of the reaction will be molded by the presentation (as in the Clinton case when everyone yelled, in the face of reality, that it was "only" about sex).

Though I said I would not try to answer the question of why this isn't being talked about (yet), I will advance a suspicion. Perhaps the reason the Democratic pundits (who, like all pundits, are not to be trusted) pretend to shake in their boots about McCain is because they know McCain is like Swiss cheese, full of holes. Saving things like the Keating scandal makes sense then, they want to make sure that McCain gets nominated first and he goes around a little longer blathering about his "straight talk" before they ruin him. Then again, I'm not sure if they are actually that smart.