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I suppose it is kind of preposterous that one imagines himself important enough to write down his opinions for others to read. Chattering superciliousness is one of the most infuriating things about academics and so-called intellectuals, generally, who feel compelled to share their thoughts. But here it goes, anyway.

Book Review of Do No Evil

The following review is from Kirkus, the nation's premier book reviewer:

"An effective integration of ethics, morality and business principles. In a logical progression, Berumen offers a historical review of major thinkers in philosophy and ethics, including John Locke, Immanuel Kant, David Hume, Thomas Hobbes and many others. He develops a framework for universal morality in which moral imperatives--rather than being matters of subjective opinion--immutable. The basis for universal morality, however, must be the avoidance of death and suffering, not just the general pursuit of good--"Being good is not good enough to be moral." The author also dissects current ethical debates, including extensive discussions, of social justice, animal rights and the environment. He explores the free-market economy, acknowledging what he believes to be the superiority of capitalism over socialism--"My theory shows that capitalism is not only ethically permissible, but also that socialism is more difficult to justify on ethical grounds"--and he highlights the principles of individual ownership and property as anchor points in his argument. He balances his argument by noting that the rights to property must be limited, and that morality provides a check on unrestrained capitalist pursuits. In the final section, the author elucidates the many layers of the managerial and corporate environment, deftly analyzing the fiduciary, social and moral relationships between the players in a corporation.

A fresh, convincing ethical examination. "

Selected Links for Reviews/Purchase: 

Abolish the Anachronistic Second Amendment!

For some years now, after one horrific mass-shooting and another, many liberals begin their lamentations and calls for more reasonable gun control with a de rigueur  introductory qualification, “I support the Second Amendment, but…” or “I support the right to bear arms and I own weapons myself, but…”  Here are my own bona fides: I grew up around guns and hunted as a youth with my father; I am an expert shot with an M-16 select-fire rifle as deemed by the U.S. Army, and I have the medal to prove it; and I own a rifle and have it on display (empty of ammo) in my house.  I also believe the Second Amendment is an anachronism and ought to be abolished.  The prescribed “right” to bear arms is by man’s law, not by any natural law, not  intuitively derived, and not mandated ex cathedra by any Abrahamic tradition’s sacred text.  And prescribed rights can be un-prescribed.

The amendment was part of the Bill of Rights, the original ten amendments to the United States Constitution, with wording virtually lifted from original state constitutions written before the Constitution (ratified in 1788). During the Revolutionary War era, “militia” referred to groups of men who banded together to protect their communities, towns, colonies and, once the United States declared its independence from Great Britain in 1776, individual states. The Second Amendment is concisely stated:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

During the Colonial era, a militia was a group of citizens who were not professional soldiers or part of a standing army, and who gathered together as necessary to defend the community against untoward, outside forces, and, more specifically, in the Revolutionary era, against the British.  It was a common perception among colonists before the Revolution that British soldiers of the regular army oppressed the citizenry, and there was a general suspicion and loathing of standing armies and centralized power.  After the Revolution, many in the country believed that a regular Army should be raised by the federal government only when necessitated to defend against foreign adversaries, and otherwise, that citizen soldiers armed with their own weapons (slow-loading muskets were used at the time and well into the 1840s) would be called when necessary to defend the local community. But it became apparent that loosely-organized citizen soldiers were not up to the task against the formidable British and its highly-trained professional troops, so the framers gave the new federal government the power to establish a standing army in peacetime.  So-called Anti-Federalists were suspicious of such power, however, and argued that such a standing army would encroach upon a state’s right to defend itself against tyranny. As a consequence, after the Constitution was ratified in 1788, its principal author, James Madison, soon proposed the Second Amendment as one part of a Bill of Rights (1791) in order to empower militias and to prevent the federal government from disarming them by ensuring that individuals, citizen soldiers, would be able to keep their arms.

It is convenient for supporters of the Second Amendment to overlook the word “regulated” in the key phrase, “A well regulated militia”–––much as it is for detractors to ignore the clause stating the purpose of a militia, namely, its “being necessary to the security of a free State”–––which as anyone knows who studied the period does not mean the freedom of the United States, but of the individual states within it.  Now, clearly, the right for an individual to bear arms is undeniable by any literal or historical interpretation of the amendment. The reason for arming the individual is so the local community––a state––can defend itself against tyranny. No serious reading of the history of the period could cause one to conclude otherwise.  With that said, the amendment, though pithy, is slapdash and ambiguous, and was drawn without full consideration of its ramifications, and, in particular, the changes in technology and the meaning of “Arms.”  It seems likely that Madison intended the individual states to provide the regulations for the “well-regulated” militias, and that surely would impact how individuals possess and use weapons (as even Justice Scalia implied in Heller v. DC), but unlikely that he could have predicted the types of weapons that became available over the next two hundred years, including rifles, semi-automatic and automatic weapons, portable missile launchers–––let alone smaller nuclear devices or biological weapons. It seems unlikely that he would have wanted just any citizen to own such devices, and yet, all fall under the definition of “arms”–––and the word is not qualified or narrowed in any way in the sentence.

The fact is that a state militia of citizen soldiers, as conceived at the time of the Revolutionary War and the ensuing Constitutional Convention, is an unlikely opponent against the full might of the combined forces and armaments of the United States, today.  And the picture of the lone individual NRA enthusiast emerging from his survivalist ranch with his AR-15 to defend himself against a stealth helicopter manned by jackbooted soldiers sent by the IRS or US Forest Service with missiles and 50-caliber machine guns seems far-fetched and even comically ludicrous. 

The amendment is poorly worded.  It does not account for modernity. So-called states’ rights were of course of particular importance to many of the men of the Convention, and especially those who wanted to protect slavery and the privileges it provided, which is to say, the men of the South. These motives were gussied-up with talk of the dangers of centralized powers and local democracy, but democracy could hardly be said to have been a paramount concern other than in a very limited, privileged sense, namely, that white men who had property should have a vote, which is to say, men like themselves.   The American Civil War and the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, and several court cases and legislation of the 1950s and 1960s, settled much of what these men sought to protect and to justify by “states’ rights.”  And while I do not discount the utility of local control and the advantages of plurality, some things ought not to be negotiable at a state or local level, which is why we have a Constitution in the first place, for some laws ought to apply everywhere and ought to be very difficult to change, not only to protect the majority of citizens, but also to protect minorities against majorities. This brings me to my last points.

The Second Amendment has seen its day.  State militias are anachronistic.  Individuals do not need assault weapons or nuclear weapons, or, in my view, any weapon other than those used for hunting or self-defense, and then, with very strict limitations. There is a reason we have more accidental shootings, suicides, and murders than any other advanced society in the world … both per capita and in absolute terms, and it is not because we are especially crazy or less homogenous or more naturally violent or for other concocted reasons: it is because we have millions of more guns, and compared to virtually anywhere else, we have unfettered access to them. The evidence is irrefutable. All human beings are to one degree or another naturally disposed to violence, something we aim to quell and inhibit with civilization, laws, upbringing, and conscience. Americans are not uniquely disposed to violence.  I hope that in time weapons will be abolished altogether, as hunting becomes a vestigial barbarism consigned to history, and self-defense is conducted by other means, perhaps even becoming unnecessary.  Gun ownership, itself, not simply militias, ought to be strictly regulated, and it ought to be regulated at a federal level at a minimum, and states can be more but not certainly less restrictive.   It is too complex an issue to boil down to a sentence or two or three, and because things change in technology and society, it is best handled by statute, and not addressed in the Constitution. Better simply to eliminate the Amendment in its entirety in my view. 

Now, I by no means believe that any of this is likely in the near term; the firearms industry’s lobby is too powerful, and the notion of it being an important “right” is too ingrained in the minds of many Americans, including many of our ciphering politicians.  But most of these same Americans are older, and mortality being what it is, they will be gone soon enough. Meantime, our youth are proving more sensible, not nearly as oriented to hunting or the firing range, and they do not adhere to the faux macho and overwrought notion that they need to possess a weapon to defend themselves. So, I think it is something we liberals need to start being more forthright about, a more vocal influence on youth who yet might live to rid society of this specious and unnecessary amendment, and that we need to stop the needless and often insincere qualification, “I support the “right” to bear arms,” nonsense.  Do we really?   I, for one, do not.

Reprinted from Liberal Resistance

Michael Berumen is a retired business executive and published author on diverse topics including economics, mathematics, music, and philosophy. He has lectured to civic, academic, and business audiences internationally, and testified before the US Congress and local legislative and regulatory bodies as an expert witness. He has served on various boards of directors. Among other things, he is the author of the book Do No Evil: Ethics with Applications to Economic Theory and Business. A longtime Californian, he and his wife have live happily in retirement in Colorado

On Fascism

The appellation fascist or fascism has been applied to many people and movements over the years, and more often than not, it has been used incorrectly etymologically, that is, in terms of its historical and philosophical origins. Most often it has been used by the left to describe people or movements on the right. To be sure, from time to time one hears people on the right using it against the left, too, and particularly in recent years.  In essence, it has become a convenient pejorative that has a certain desired impact, namely, it offends, for it is hard to imagine a political outlook that could be much worse, even though I suspect most who use it (or deride its use, for that matter) are unfamiliar with its historical meaning, that is, other than in the most superficial sense that it applied to certain European dictators and regimes in the 20th century. A facile use of the designation has had the unfortunate effect of causing many otherwise sober-minded people to overlook its proper use, and, what I view as particularly dangerous, there has been a failure to recognize when it is the appropriate label.  By any other name, and whether people want to acknowledge it or not, and that includes some soothsayers and deniers in academia and among the chattering and pundit classes, fascism is definitely on the rise. 

I have studied fascism and fascistic movements for much of my life. I have read its major philosophical progenitors, mostly French, Italian, and German thinkers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and I have studied its development and practice in several localities with some notable differences, but also with some common themes. And based on this research,  I believe there are very definite worrisome fascistic trends that obtain today in Latin America, the Middle East, Europe, and in the United States, trends spearheaded by leaders who evince both fascistic doctrines and styles of leadership, whether or not they are themselves fully aware of it from an intellectual standpoint. Comparisons to Hitler or Mussolini are often overused and usually inaccurate in terms of some of the unique personal capacities and traits of these men versus some today who are operating on the public stage. Both men were creatures of their times and influenced by particular upbringings and experiences. They also were quite different from one another intellectually and temperamentally. With that said, the writings and practices of both are useful as propaedeutics in understanding the essential characteristics of fascism, both as seen by its principal actors, historically, and to help us understand how it might be manifested today.

Let me begin by stating unequivocally, Fascism does not fit in the traditional ideological categories of right and left, which is not the way pundits representing either ideological extreme would like to have it, namely, by suggesting that fascism represents the ideology of the other side. The fact that this is even possible by both sides partly explains why fascism can appeal to many people even of disparate orientations, for it incorporates principles from both the right and the left. Fascism is nearly always presented by academics as a species of far right-wing politics, but that is both inaccurate and overly simplistic. It is more comforting for the typical intellectual or academic to put it that way, since he is more often than not of a liberal mindset. No less than an authority than Hitler himself thought Nazism, a species of fascism, transcended ideologies on the left and right, borrowed from both, and was what he called “syncretic.”

Fascism is also sometimes characterized as or mistaken for a species of populism, and while it certainly has populist overtones, it is also quite different from it, indeed, in its fully-realized form, it is the exact opposite of populism, insofar as it is the leader who becomes the embodiment of the state and its peoples. To be sure, populist political techniques can and certainly will be used to attain power, but the goal of fascism is not in any way, shape, or form democratic, indeed, it is anti-democratic.  Many on the left have viewed some recent movements as populist, when, in fact, they are far more fascistic in nature. They are guilty of mistaking popular appeal with populism, which at its root is a democratic movement in support of the rights and power of ordinary people. Fascism is about the power of the state and its leader, which subsumes the interests of the people.

The remarkable thing about fascism is its relative incoherency as a doctrine, as it does not offer a systematic view of the world as with a typical ideology or political philosophy.  As much as anything, fascism is about the behavior of its leader, his style, and it is highly transactional in the sense that whatever facilitates the attainment of its goal, which ultimately is the power and the identity of the leader with the state, a leader who is seen as the solution to all problems and who becomes the embodiment and incarnation of vox populi, is what it will adopt as its method or praxis. And whatever stands in the way of this goal simply will be rejected.  Here is the key to understanding fascism: it is about power. It is at once transactional and utilitarian. Part of the problem and reason that many have failed to recognize fascism when they see it is that they are looking for its leaders to delineate a systematic and coherent doctrine when they should be looking instead for personal behaviors and some general characteristics.

I have written elsewhere at some length and in several articles why I believe Trumpism is a manifestation of fascist tendencies in the United States, and why I believe that Trump is himself a fascist, even without his knowing that he is, as he is an utterly and unreservedly unlettered man, someone who is an entirely instinctual vessel of fascism. But my purpose, here, is not to deconstruct Trumpism or provide examples of his fascistic ways and beliefs. Rather, it is to provide a general précis on some of the principal attributes of fascism insofar as it can be codified in order to provide a guide that might prove useful in examining recent and future events in the United States and in other countries. Here are ten characteristics that were present in the major fascistic movements of the last century and are reappearing today.

  1.      Fascism is a form of hyper-nationalism that capitalizes (note, that is as much a method as a goal) on two principal outlooks, namely, strong patriotic feelings, often founded on a mythical past that never occurred or that is highly distorted, and accompanied by the vilification of groups seen detrimental to both the nation’s purity and the national interest–––groups most often represented by an ethnic, racial, or religious affiliation, cosmopolitan elites, and outsiders more generally. Both jingoism and revanchist claims are both common aspects of fascism.
  2.      While there certainly are elements of anti-elitist populism, power to the masses is not the goal, indeed, far from it. The people are but a means to an end, and the irony is that ordinary people are willing participants, for, truth be known, democracy is not their goal, they approve of their authoritarian leader(s). Fascism seeks to co-opt those presently in power, for power is its ultimate objective, and because it is more than willing to use utilitarian means to attain its ends, it will curry favor with economic, political, and intellectual elites wherever and whenever it can to secure it, and it will take full advantage of existing institutions and laws to accomplish its ends.
  3.      Related to the last point, fascism freely borrows from both socialist and capitalist doctrines, in that obtaining and maintaining power is its goal, and despite railing against economic elites when it suits its purpose, fascism  itself does not entail a systematic economic doctrine other than that which is seen as necessary to attain its ends and to benefit the state, which includes subsuming whatever economic power or centers of influence might be necessary to attain those ends, whether through markets, corporate interests, or popular measures with the masses. It is perhaps no coincidence that Mussolini was once a socialist involved in the labor movement (which he would destroy), and that Nazism had a vibrant socialist wing in its earlier years, one eventually quashed (the Night of the Long Knives) by the mid-thirties and replaced by a kind of quasi-capitalism, an economic system best described as state corporatism or crony capitalism, and in the case of both Italy and Germany, laden with considerable kleptocracy activity among some of its leaders.
  4.      Conspiratorial and exclusionary thinking about groups and forces aligned against the movement is part and parcel to all fascistic movements, and they play central roles in the rallying cries of its leaders, whether the bogeyman is international Jewry, Muslims, a particular ethnic group, the bourgeoisie, large corporate interests, liberal elites, communists, or the media. These groups are always conspiring against the legitimate powers and are usually blameworthy for problems past and present. Victimhood is a common feature, as problems or deficiencies must be attributed to others.
  5.      When out of power, fascistic movements always declaim against the legitimacy of those in power as usurpers and criminals who, through their machinations, rig outcomes and are not the true representatives of the people or the nation.
  6.      Every successful fascistic movement has been led by a charismatic and often bombastic demagogue who claims to be the embodiment of the nation, the vessel of the national will, and as the exceptional person without whom the nation is unable to prosper or survive. The state and its leader effectively becomes one, and unlike some other forms of totalitarianism or authoritarianism, the interests of state are inextricably tied to the leader who, for all practical purposes, is seen as the state made flesh.
  7.      A fascistic movement will often view violence as a just means of achieving its ends, whether outside of or through the state, and ironically, law and order are common code words used to justify it. Calls for violence or hints of violent recourse against opponents are common. There is often an exaggerated, hyper-masculinity on parade, with glorification of toughness and strength and power. There is a display of an authoritarian bearing, and the leader’s followers are unabashed admirers of it. In the modern era, violence may be more symbolic through posturing and threats than real, but hints of it through synecdoche and metonyms are often used to great effect in speeches and at rallies.
  8.      Despite the popular appeals to “law and order,” a trope and signal calling card of authoritarianism more generally, the fascistic conception of law lies outside of any legislative or judicial proceedings or the kinds of protections or due process enshrined by a constitutional authority. Often the law is construed as that which us willed by the individual or individuals in power. In other words, the liberal democratic principle of rule of law is essentially discarded.
  9.      An attribute of all fascistic movements is the creation of alternate realities, often with an adamant and repetitive disregard for the truth, even in the face of abundant veridical evidence to the contrary, especially when it serves the ends of its partisans or when said evidence conflicts with doctrine or the interests of the leadership.
  10.      Symbolism is often an important aspect of fascism, especially patriotic symbols that evoke feelings of group identity and shared destiny. The Nazis, in particular, made effective use of this. Stagecraft is of particular importance, including patriotic regalia, lighting, and music. The use of memes and symbols to vilify opponents is ever present in fascistic movements–––against those who would jeopardize the national interest from within or from without–––or they are used to encapsulate the magnificence of the world envisioned versus the depravity or inferiority of the alternative are prominent in fascistic movements. Making the nation great as opposed to what internal or external malefactors have done or would do. 

My list is not exhaustive, by any means, and there are variations on these themes and on the importance that each plays in a particular strain of fascism. But I think that both in terms of its underlying philosophy and where it has been put into practice, these ten characteristics encapsulate the major features of a fascistic regime, which, to no small degree, is a is inseparable from the style and persona of its leadership, for fascism is not simply a matter of ideology, but one of personality. There are several very disturbing aspects of fascistic outlook, to be sure–––both in terms of its aspirations as well as its underlying motivations and what actuates it as a movement. Of particular concern, however, is the fact that it is quite dismissive of the rule of law and it is not rooted in any overarching conception of justice.  In fact, with fascism, the benefit of the governed is ultimately seen as whatever benefits the ruler, and the ruler is in effect the embodiment, indeed, the raison d'être for the state. It is a critical error to look for a highly-systematic doctrine or an overarching weltanschauung.  Fascism is at bottom very transactional and utilitarian in the sense that the power of the leader and his identity with the national interest are paramount. There are some typical tools that I’ve enumerated, but these do not in and of themselves describe the endgame, and it is easy to confuse means with ends when analyzing the fascistic state and those who would lead it. Not so long ago that kind of regime resulted in the deaths and suffering of millions, and many millions more would sacrifice their lives to eradicate it from the world.  What will be said of our time and of our generation if all that loss proves to have been in vain?

Reprinted from Liberal Resistance

Michael Berumen is a retired business executive and published author on diverse topics including economics, mathematics, music, and philosophy. He has lectured to civic, academic, and business audiences internationally, and testified before the U.S. Congress and local legislative and regulatory bodies as an expert witness. He has served on various boards of directors. Among other things, he is the author of the book Do No Evil: Ethics with Applications to Economic Theory and Business. A longtime Californian, he and his wife have live happily in retirement in Colorado.

The American Civil War: Why it Continues and How Finally to End It

Reprinted from Liberal Resistance 4-1-18

The traitor Robert E. Lee, head of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, may have surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Wilmer McLean’s house at Appomattox in 1865, but that did not really end the American Civil War. It only ended (other than some isolated skirmishes in the months that followed) the military conflict between the United States and the disloyal secessionists. Major segments of the latter were never reconciled to defeat, did not accept many of the principles and the cultural ethos that impelled the victorious Union, and would live to fight another day by other means. Indeed, that battle by “other means”––––political means–––continues to this day, albeit, the parties are no longer easily defined by geography. While it is true that the locus of the ideological heirs of the Confederacy continues to be predominately among whites in southern states, the outlook that defines it has also infiltrated other states.  For lack of more descriptive appellations, I characterize this particular idea of “politics as war by other means” (inverting von Clausewitz’s aphorism) as a struggle between what I call liberal cosmopolitanism and the neo-Confederacy.

It is not my purpose, here, to provide a scholarly disquisition on the Confederate outlook of the 1860s and how it is manifested today in more modern terms in what I call the neo-Confederacy. At the risk of oversimplification, therefore, allow me to summarize its major attributes, which I believe consist of five major elements, and in no particular order of importance, recognizing that there are variations on the theme of each with weightings that differ among individuals and sub-groups. First, the neo-Confederate ethos entails a sense of religious superiority, which is to say, a belief theirs is at once a greater and more appropriate kind of religiosity versus the more secularized society or religions one finds among the economic and cultural elites, usually the more educated in more liberal urban centers of the nation.  These are typically Protestant religions, and especially among the more Evangelical and Pentecostal varieties, though it must be noted, almost exclusively among peoples of European origin. Second, there is a belief that liberal cosmopolitans have strayed from the kind of country the neo-Confederates imagine the Founders and Framers intended, one harkening back to a kind of Rockwellian depiction of the halcyon days of a mythological white America.  The hagiography surrounding major figures of the rebellious states during the Civil War, especially military figures, and plenty of iconography and symbolism in admiration of the Confederacy, are all emblematic of this mythmaking. Third, there is a shared antipathy for what is seen as an economic hegemony by unscrupulous, elite money powers with global interests, interests often typified by Wall Street moneymen, and additionally, today, Silicon Valley techno-barons. In some quarters there are disturbing, exaggerated, and not-so-subtle reminders that some of these moneyed interests, as well as major media outlets, are led by Jews. Then of course, there are the liberal denizens of academia who are intent on corrupting the young with anti-American and anti-religious ideas, and notions of equality among the races and sexes, even acceptance of sexual deviancy from the supposed norm. The focus of many of these elites is on investing capital, science, and technology, as opposed to more worthy forms of labor–––and it is at the expense of the “little man”––––a perpetual victim of dark forces. Victimhood by the impingement of outsiders is a particularly important trait shared by both the old and the neo-Confederacy.  These elites denigrate the neo-Confederate’s prized values of masculinity, womanhood, hearth, and godliness, bringing us to the fourth attribute, namely, eschewing the multi-culturalism and globalism, in other words: cosmopolitanism–––an outlook that often attends financial power, affluence, and education. And fifth, and not least of all, there’s the matter of race (a rather bogus concept, biologically, I hasten to add, and largely a social construct, but one that communicates for our limited purpose)–––and an imagined loss of prestige and power in relation to those who are seen as inferior or as outsiders, resentments reinforced by an underlying and nearly visceral tribal contempt for “the other.”

By way of excursus, I should point out that people in the neo-Confederacy do not suggest a return to slavery, as such, or even a major rollback of key civil rights laws. Most even deny that they have racist or ethnocentric outlooks, though their language and behaviors quickly belie these protestations. What they really want when one adds it all up is to ensure that those of European heritage maintain suzerainty and privilege over persons of non-European origin, and especially those who are seen as inferior, threatening, or both, or, at the very least, that they not lose the rightful power and prestige they (usually imagined, since the working classes seldom had either) believe has been taken away from them. That African Americans, for example, hold prestigious positions in entertainment or sports, and that they are entitled to enjoy facilities with equal public accommodation, are not of special untoward consequence to most neo-Confederates; however, that African Americans might hold key public offices, and especially the presidency, or that they seek to change white privilege in other cultural or economic arenas that are not viewed as being tantamount to minstrel work, are in combination seen as a bridge too far.

After the “surrender” at Appomattox, there was ample reason to be hopeful about the prospects of recasting the South, and going about it in a way that was conducive to reconciliation. The latter objective was clearly stated in Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, where he said, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves…” Lincoln’s assassination and the disastrous tenure of his successor, Andrew Johnson, set all of that behind, though the key 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments abolishing slavery, bestowing citizenship, and ensuring voting rights had been put into motion and were all ratified by the states by early 1870 with considerable pressure from Radical Republicans in Congress and the executive branch. Notwithstanding these amendments, white southerners wasted no time after the war in establishing the so-called Black Codes, which, among other things, restricted black people's right to own property, conduct commerce, lease land, or move freely through public spaces.  After Johnson left office, President Grant attempted to adopt what he believed more closely comported with Lincoln’s vision and to enforce that in the erstwhile rebellious states. Grant spent a great deal of his time eradicating the Ku Klux Klan, squashing various disaffected militia groups, and enforcing suffrage and representation. However, by his second term, the Radical Republicans in Congress had lost much of their power; the abolitionist wind that had hitherto bellowed Republican sails had died down, and the appetite for funding Grant’s reconstruction and regulatory efforts had seriously waned.

After Grant, the Republican Party became increasingly aligned with commercial and more parochial Northern interests, thereby enabling southern whites and northern interlopers willing to exploit the situation to roll back much of the progress that had been made. Soon, under Hayes and successor Republican and Democratic presidents, powerful whites were able to shut out blacks from the state legislatures in the South, and they instituted apartheid-type laws, widely known as Jim Crow laws–––laws that mandated segregation in nearly all aspects of life. These would last well into the second half of the next century, indeed, in this writer’s lifetime. They implemented various impediments to any hope of political representation or financial prosperity, and enforced what amounted to indentured servitude, effectively removing all economic and political power from African Americans. Many local militias, including a burgeoning Klan and like organizations, terrorized African Americans to keep them in line. Many blacks fled to northern urban areas and to the West Coast to escape these privations. There they would encounter problems, too, for racial animosity was not confined to the South, but not to the same degree, and they were not as bereft of political, commercial, and organized labor allies in positons of power. Moreover, there were opportunities to establish major enclaves that created both economic and cultural advantages in urban areas without many of the kinds of impediments found in the South.

Fast forward to the 20th Century–––the South remained essentially the same until the mid-1960s, a virtual apartheid nation within a nation, and from the perspective of an African American, a totalitarian dictatorship. In the 1930s, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was able to cobble together strange bedfellows of Southern Democrats, northern labor interests, academic and intellectual classes, and many African Americans–––a great many of whom had been Republicans prior to the 1930s–––a coalition of unlikely partners formed out of shared economic interests that resulted from the Great Depression and hardships that affected everyone. These were not natural alliances, and least of all, with the racist, agrarian, non-union, insular, and relatively poor whites in the South, which would nevertheless remain Democratic until the 1960s and 1970s. Fissures in FDR’s coalition began to show in the early 1950s with Brown v. the Board of Education and the ensuing forced integration of public schools, and these breaks were furthered by the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1964, and capped by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, arguably the three most important pieces of domestic legislation since the 1860s.  President Lyndon Johnson lamented to his aide Bill Moyers that his strong-arming civil rights legislation through Congress would be the end of the Democratic Party in the South, but he knew history was on his side.

Johnson’s prediction would come true in relatively short order, as cynical Republicans used states’ rights (often code for anti-civil rights legislation) and other effective memes to foment dissension and attract disaffected Southern Democrats. Richard Nixon’s “silent majority” and “law-and-order” planks, not-so-subtle code for preserving white power and culture, drove the penultimate nail in the coffin in terms of Democratic hegemony in the South.  And Ronald Reagan drove in the final one with his rhetorical flourishes of robust patriotism and military prowess, always a selling point among many working and middle-class Southerners, and in particular–––and somewhat ironically, by this twice-married, Hollywood man–––by effectively co-opting the Evangelicals from the Democrats with the help of the likes of Jerry Falwell of the misnamed Moral Majority. In a matter of two decades, the South became a bastion of Republicanism. All this was shored up by state party operatives who ensured that gerrymandered districts and voting restrictions of various kinds would establish and preserve disproportionate power to their national numbers in congressional elections. Meantime, these new culturally-driven, revanchist Republicans drove away many of the cloth coat, country-club Republicans of the business class, and more liberal and moderate or libertarian Republicans of the northern and western states, if not to the Democrats (which was simultaneously losing more moderate and conservative-minded members), then to unaligned, independent and non-partisan status, where they would pick and choose based on candidates rather than based on party affiliation. Thereby, of all things, the Republican Party, the erstwhile Party of Lincoln, became a party that represented many of the values of its once mortal enemy, the old Confederacy cast anew. It cynically sought to capitalize on cultural grievances and on racial (now expanded beyond African Americans) antagonisms while, at the same time, maintaining its standing with commercial interests with the idea that self-interested financial motives of a more cosmopolitan and socially liberal commercial class would enable it to overlook the racism, religiosity, and the vulgarianism of the neo-Confederacy.

It is worth noting, here, that according to a recent Pew study, 39% of the electorate identify as independents, 32% as Democrats, and 23% as Republicans. Thus, a plurality of voters are now unaligned, while the two parties have become increasingly polarized without identifiable moderates in either party, or liberals among Republicans or conservatives among Democrats. This is very different than fifty years ago when both parties had conservatives, moderates and liberals. The difference-making target for both parties, nowadays, is to win based on turnout and attracting a sufficient number of independent voters on the margins.

While the southern states remain the stronghold of the neo-Confederacy, it has certainly established footholds in other parts of the nation sharing some of the grievances and resentments previously adduced. So-called “hard hat Democrats” of the Nixon era were the progenitors of a movement of many disaffected, white working people in urban and suburban areas that came over to the Republican Party, which not many years before had been seen as a party of the commercial merchant and big-business classes, and one antithetical to the interests of blue collar workers.  Increasingly, the Republican Party allied itself with several of the neo-Confederates’ cultural shibboleths and totems, such as religion, anti-abortion, anti-equal rights for women (e.g., the failed Equal Rights Amendment), anti-gay rights, and, of course, the firearms lobby embodied by the NRA–––and, somewhat ironically, despite its long track record of isolationism and pacifism prior to World War II, it re-branded itself as the party of robust defense and patriotism, especially under Richard Nixon and beyond. Along comes Donald Trump, a flamboyant and unlettered conman, a feckless draft-dodger and gauche playboy, but who, with a kind of intuitive marketing savvy into people’s darker natures, was able to exploit all of the grievances and resentments characterizing the neo-Confederacy by selling his distinctly American brand of fascism. Trump’s bombastic rhetoric and faux hyper-masculinity appealed to many working class whites, and his racist overtones attracted all manner of kooks from out of the political recesses into the limelight. Whilst cosmopolitans were appalled at his vulgar taste and habits, his supporters reveled in it, for they represented what they would choose to be like had they the money and power. With more than a little help from Russia, James Comey, and Facebook, he secured an Electoral College victory with only 77,000 votes more than his opponent in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.

So, here we are today, a nation nearly as polarized as we were in 1861 at the outbreak of the Civil War, proper–––and, perhaps, with just about the same proportions in terms of the bifurcation of sentiments as measured by population–––then roughly 70% in free states, 30% in slaveholding states (the latter consisting of the Confederate and so-called Border States).  The Republican Party, notwithstanding some of its establishment types who adhere to a more conventional brand of fiscal conservatism, is solidly in the hands of the neo-Confederates. Some of the commercial interests (e.g., the Koch brothers, among others) and those establishment types clinging tenuously (and cravenly) to power (such as Paul Ryan), and some voters among the more educated business class, are cynically willing to overlook the semi-literates of the unwashed Republican constituency that reliably comes out to vote the party line,  all in order to protect their sinecures and fulfill their more parochial economic interests (such as lower taxes), and strangely enough, promote interests that are more often than not diametrically opposed to many of those among the less affluent who vote the party line. But Trumpism is beginning to force a change, and now even establishment politicians are taking stances in economic policy and foreign affairs that would have Republicans like Ronald Reagan, among others, rolling in his grave. The winking and nodding of the Romney types at the underclasses while going about feathering their nests will no longer cut it. White trash is now in charge of Congress and the Presidency. Only the unwieldy, large bureaucracies and the courts hold out, but for how long is anyone’s guess before irreversible damage is done.

With all of this said, in the final analysis we must acknowledge that we are divided along tribal lines, by this I mean the liberal cosmopolitans and neo-Confederates, and this is despite the patina of logical analysis and our self-serving sense of being right on both logic and facts.  The great Scottish philosopher David Hume was correct when he said nowhere in nature will one find a moral fact, but only facts (empirically verifiable matters or tautologies) and values (our preferences and passions), and that moral judgments are judgements of value and not matters of fact. And political ends are essentially moral judgments writ large, to borrow from Plato’s Republic. In other words, our political ends, the kind of world in which we want to live, are but our preferences, passions, emotions, desires–––our values.  And as Hume said, we cannot show that a value is something we ought to desire without conjuring other values, and these can never be justified through ratiocination, that is, through reason alone, and our suggestions to the contrary always rely on a kind of circular reasoning or they are ex cathedra, based on some authority (e.g., faith in Scripture) rather than founded in logic or empirical findings. Thus, reason can help us achieve our ends, but our ends, in the final analysis, represent our desires quite apart from anything mandated by reason. What this means is that politics is at its roots essentially an emotional business insofar as political ideals go (e.g., liberty, equality, caring for the weak, peace, even survival of the species). It is about the kind of world we desire, not something commanded by reason. It is impossible to argue for these ends with logic and facts, because the reality is that logic and facts have little to do with them. That Humean outlook is unsettling to many, though I find no reason to think he was wrong, and philosophers struggle today to find a way around it, but as far as I have observed, without any success.  

Then there is the matter of the group to which we belong, that is, the clan or tribe that shares our worldview, perhaps those who share our background and culture or of what we aspire to have–––the group that gives us the sense of belonging and, most importantly, confirms our own beliefs and, in this case, our preferred state of affairs, a shared outlook on what the world ought to look like.  The world the neo-Confederate desires and the one desired by liberal cosmopolitans are simply not the same. It is commonplace to say we all desire the same thing; it is the kind of thing one hears from politicians seeking to mediate between competing views–––“we all want the same thing,” but it is untrue, for we really don’t. I’m sorry, but coming from a white trash background myself, I can say with some authority, many among what the cosmopolitan elites perceive as the “rabble” actually prefers their rabbling ways, and has little or no interest in the things that float the boats of liberal cosmopolitans. And the ultimate vulgarian now residing in the White House exemplifies some of those very preferences. Indeed, what liberal cosmopolitans often fail to acknowledge is that there is equal contempt for one another’s worldview.  I learned long ago as a young social activist of the left not to take seriously the left’s insincere call for “power to the people,” for the people imagined are a mere abstraction, and often not really how “the people” are at all. With that said, though, there are certainly shared interests among all, and these are the interests that can serve to bring us together, to ameliorate tensions, and at least begin the process of conversion via group identity. In other words, we must grow the tribe to change things.

We human beings are naturally tribal. Our social habits are firmly ingrained, hard-wired over many millennia of evolution since our earliest primate ancestors lived in trees. However, reason does allow us to overcome some of these tendencies. The biggest tool we have is language and the ability to communicate.  We are not going to change our nature or the nature of those we oppose by argument, because our political desires, on both sides, are not ultimately based on facts or logic, but on feeling, no matter how we gussy them up with rational window dressing. We will not cause others to abandon their tribe and join ours by logical analysis, notwithstanding how we perceive their interests. Here’s what I am driving at: we must appeal to their preferences to the extent that is possible, that is, appeal to their emotional needs. This is something Trump understood, though in his case his understanding of demagoguery is at some intuitive or instinctive level rather than a cerebral one. Sometimes our preferences versus those of others are sufficiently outweighed by differences such that conversion is a lost cause. I suspect a portion of the neo-Confederacy (which I am guessing is about 30% of the electorate) is intractable. Let us say it is half or 15%.  That is a manageable number. If we can broaden the cosmopolitan tribe to 85% of the electorate, in a generation or so we can further marginalize the minority of fascistic neo-Confederates. I must add, though, that a liberal cosmopolitan is not necessarily a partisan, though philosophically the Democratic Party may be closely aligned to her outlook.

I am temperamentally ill-suited for politics as a practitioner; however, I know as an analyst, recognizing of our tribal nature, that to defeat the neo-Confederates we must both expand the number of liberal cosmopolitans and motivate those already among us who are apathetic into political action. Democrats must play the key role, I believe. There are four major tactics we must employ to conquer the neo-Confederacy once and for all.  First, we must motivate the unaligned and the young to vote and to work to defeat Trumpism as an immediate objective. Many independents are suspicious of or outright against both Trump and many of the defining characteristics of the neo-Confederacy, and recent polls show that the young reject Trumpism overwhelmingly. The young are who we need to grow the Democratic Party, and represent its best hope for the future. We must convince the independents to align with us, even if temporarily, and the latter, our youth, to go to the polls in all elections and vote their beliefs, which are for the most part aligned with the Democrats. Second, we must convert the softer neo-Confederates by appealing to as many emotional interests that we have in common–––desires and preferences–––to the degree practicable, all the while without sacrificing our most important principles, which is to say, the most vital ends of our worldview (justice, economic opportunity for all, tolerance, equality under the law, etc.). From a practical perspective, this is going to mean emphasizing more parochial issues that will vary by locality–––kitchen table, pocket-book issues–––and not just grand, national social themes. Third, we must get all those who presently identify as Democrats to vote! It remains the majority party, but has embarrassingly shameful and lackluster performance in attending the polls, and as a consequence its political power has been materially diminished in recent decades.  And fourth, once in power, Democrats must work in state legislatures and in the courts to put a stop to the gerrymandering of congressional districts by establishing non-partisan commissions, even if that sometimes works against them. And of considerable importance, the Democratic Party must reinvigorate itself and put special emphasis on improving economic prosperity and security; providing healthcare and education for everyone; and of particular importance, rekindling hope in the possibility of upward mobility, this being a defining characteristic of the American Dream since its founding, one that has been diminished in recent decades. In other words, if we want to end this seemingly interminable war, we must defeat the neo-Confederacy by shrinking it and expanding our tribe, and not simply by condemning the former, but by making the latter the obvious choice. We must do so by appealing to our shared interests––––our preferences and desires for the kind of world we want to live in–––and motivating people to act on them at the ballot box.

Finally, I would like the Democratic Party to be the dominant party, much as it has been for decades, which is not to say that I want it to be a unitary power. I would also like to see a vibrant, responsible center-right party, a loyal opposition, for I know Democrats do not have a monopoly on good judgment, and it is good to have a check on the power of any one institution to protect the interests of all, particularly minority interests. The Republican Party can no longer be considered to be either “responsible” or “loyal”–––or even a center-right party. It has many fascistic overtones, and fascism transcends and stands apart from traditional right-left classifications. The GOP now harbors views and practices that are antithetical to the American ethos or the kind of country that so many of our forbearers aspired to create, ideals for which many have sacrificed and suffered, indeed, have even given their lives to defend. The Republican Party has cynically dabbled in supporting our enemies by either enabling or ignoring the nefarious activities of those who directly do so. It is as far removed from being the party of Abraham Lincoln or Charles Sumner as the modern Democratic Party is unlike the party of Stephen Douglas or Jefferson Davis. I don’t know if the Republican Party can recover its bearings, but I rather doubt that it will or that it even can. To my mind, now is time for the remaining responsible elements of the GOP and unaligned conservatives to form a new party, one that represents true conservatism, as opposed to the fascistic and neo-Confederate strains that have spread like a malignant cancer in the GOP––––a conservatism that in its modern incarnation is but another species of a liberal democratic outlook, an outlook that seeks to optimize individual liberty and prosperity, one where everyone has a say, and with justice and equal treatment under the law for all–––the kind of conservatism once promoted by William F. Buckley and promoted today by the likes of George Will and Brett Stephens  And along with Democrats, together, we might finally realize the original intention of Abraham Lincoln, and while respecting our several differences, consign the seeds of hateful discord and the emotional militancy that polarize us today to the dustbin of history.

Michael Berumen is a retired business executive and published author on diverse topics including economics, mathematics, music, and philosophy. He has lectured to civic, academic, and business audiences internationally, and testified before the US Congress and local legislative and regulatory bodies as an expert witness. He has served on various boards of directors. Among other things, he is the author of the book Do No Evil: Ethics with Applications to Economic Theory and Business. A longtime Californian, he and his wife have live happily in retirement in Colorado.

We’re Just Whistling Past the Graveyard if We Don’t Focus on Defeating Republicans at Every Level

 (Reprinted from Liberal Resistance Feb 21, 2018)

In the wake of the most recent school shooting tragedy in Florida, there is the customary hue and cry of media cognoscenti, gun control activists, and many politicians professing disgust. Social media are abuzz with outrage and commentary. And now, even high school students, the most recent and all-too-often the victims of this mayhem, have commendably taken to the streets.  The leading terrorist organization in the United States, the National Rifle Association (NRA), is silent as it always is immediately following such events, keeping its proverbial powder dry and dealing with its legislative lackeys in private, while the public outcry dies down and people move on to something new and shiny. And politicians who depend on the NRA’s largess are offering their usual “thoughts and prayers,” simultaneously admonishing those who speak of reform for “politicizing” the issue, as though that very admonishment and anything else a politician says is not “politicizing” one thing or another. The bolder ones say we ought to look into this, but then they do nothing.  All of this “Déjà vu all over again” – and not long after the Orlando nightclub and Las Vegas concert incidents, which both provoked similar clamors and plaintive pleas for reform. 

My prediction is that nothing substantive will happen at the federal level, that past will be prologue, and that if any legislation occurs in the Congress, it will be relatively meaningless window-dressing, perhaps at most some tweaking of background checks (begging the question: once we have the information, what is it we’re going to do with it?) and raising the minimum age for assault weapons, as though 21 is magically a clear-cut demarcation between sanity and lunacy, or between our pacific and violent natures. And then, if such new laws are passed, politicians will crow about their accomplishment and what bipartisanship can do (there won’t be much of that, I can assure you). But I will believe it, even innocuous reform, when I see it.  I hope I’m wrong. Most likely we will see some things at the state level, but that is hardly a solution as long as people can freely purchase and carry assault munitions across state lines. Which is why federal law is necessary. The fact is, though, there are three unpleasant realities we must face both as liberals and as a nation.  Permit me to encapsulate them.

First, there is the reality that the NRA is nothing less than a sponsor of terrorism and most, even liberals, fail to acknowledge it. Some of us profess as much, but a great many are in denial and simply unwilling to say it, for their neighbors, friends, father, boss … even they might presently or might have previously belonged to it. Much as my father did for many years. Who, after all, wants to say they pay dues to a terrorist organization, and isn’t it really just a sporting outdoorsmen’s and gun safety organization? And, for Heaven’s sake, we don’t see Wayne LaPierre himself out there waiving an AR-15 around and threatening anyone like some unhinged Mullah. The last matter first. The fact that NRA management is not out there shooting people does not militate against the fact that they wantonly and knowingly promote crowding the country with weapons specifically designed to kill people, and that they effectively use largess to prevent any stoppage or reduction of sales resulting from protections that might stop the wrong people from getting them.  As for being a sporting organization, that is simple nonsense, for it stopped being sports enthusiasts’ organization decades ago. It is a lobbying organization for the firearms industry, pure and simple, an industry whose callous utilitarian outlook mandates that profits supersede safety and lives, and declaims against any impingement on access to guns as a slippery slope to ending gun ownership, when in fact it relates more to the prospect of reducing profits, an unacceptable outcome. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with lobbying on behalf of an industry in my view, mind you. But there is when the preponderance of evidence shows the products are certain to be used for criminal and lethal outcomes, and at a cost that is far greater than any possible societal benefit (thereby nullifying the silly argument one hears about outlawing knives and cars).

Let’s get something straight by using an analogy: consider the arms dealer selling weapons to rogue states or terrorists. If such an entity sells arms designed to kill to people to bad actors that will use them illegally to destroy lives and property that results in terror, then that dealer in effect is an accessory to terrorism. And if another entity knowingly represents such a dealer as an agent for easing the latter’s path in society, both in terms of the institutions of law and general public acceptability, then it, too, is an accessory to terrorism. The NRA represents those who manufacture such weapons, manufacturers who know or ought to know the consequences of their use, and it does everything possible to limit any restrictions in the face of mayhem that almost certainly will result from their availability. It then shamelessly beguiles ordinary citizens through propaganda into believing it protects their interests as sporting people. It is not that Americans are more mentally imbalanced than any other nation in the developed world, despite its very high incidence of homicides; it’s that America has more guns than any other developed nation in the world. And one of the principal reasons it does is because of the NRA. The NRA by any standard of logical analysis is essentially a sponsor of death and terrorism. Pure and simple.

The second issue is this. There is a myth that the Second Amendment offers individuals unbridled access to all weapons. It does not, and neither the Founders nor the Framers imagined such a thing. It is only recently that people came to believe that it did, and that is due largely to the success the NRA has had in its propaganda manipulating a large number of gun enthusiasts, building on anti-government sentiment and stoking paranoia about jack-booted, government confiscators swooping down in helicopters, and then essentially holding legislators hostage with both PAC money and its influence over voters, rousing the later into action at the slightest hint of challenge to its interests. No less a conservative than the late Justice Scalia put the lie to the notion that the Second Amendment is so capacious (Columbia v. Heller), and while he did believe the Amendment offers individuals the right to own arms (I disagree with this, but set that aside for our purpose), he also believed that the state has the right to regulate arms, much as one does with getting a license to drive and regulating the kind of equipment that one can use travel the public roads. Would anyone seriously maintain the Second Amendment entitles individuals to possess a nuke, a tank, or a cruise missile? And when the Framers were considering the so-called “prefatory clause” regarding a militia in the Second Amendment, surely they did not mean that such a force that would consist of just anyone, without regard to their capacities or their being in good standing with the law, or that it would entail citizen soldiers with no training. A widespread and consistently reinforced public relations campaign will be necessary to change hearts and minds on this issue, and to disabuse people of the idea that the Second Amendment gives carte blanche to weapons ownership.

Third, and from a practical perspective, the most important issue is this: a Republican Party that has spent years out-foxing Democrats at the local level on redistricting, whilst the latter paid attention to national polls and elections, has secured for itself a disproportionate amount of power in Congress when compared to the number of registered Republicans, nationally. Moreover, its power is inconsistent with the nation’s outlook in the sense that the majority of Americans disagree with very some key elements of the Republican platform on issues ranging from abortion to gun control. Many of the elected Republicans are beholden to the NRA both in terms of the money it gives to their campaigns and the voter influence it wields in their gerrymandered districts. Absent campaign finance reform and fair districting, that relationship is unlikely to change, even with national public pressure, for it is the local district that matters, not what Californians and New Yorkers think about gun control among other

issues. Meaningful campaign finance reform will not occur under a Republican Congress. Period. And fair districting will not occur without the courts intervening in state legislatures’ mischief. Not only are these Republicans beholden to the NRA, they have a corporate constituency’s interests to mind, too, one that may be headed by those of a more “country club” Republican mindset of yore in philosophical orientation, but that is nonetheless forced to be a strange bedfellow with the wooly-minded Evangelicals, gun fetishists, and assorted Trumpsters in order to fulfill its more narrow financial objectives. Most business executives in corporate America are doubtless not interested in supporting the NRA or the GOP’s wackier social agenda; but many do like their lower taxes and fewer regulations.

Which leads me to my final and most important points: if there is to be material change in the NRA’s influence and truly meaningful gun control legislation, the Republicans cannot be allowed to continue their control of Congress. Indeed, they must be completely marginalized so that it is not simply a minority party in Congress by a small degree, but by a decisive amount and one sufficient for cloture in the Senate and enough Democrats and unaligned members in both chambers to overrule a veto from a Republican President. So, if we liberals want to emasculate the NRA and get meaningful gun reform, then we are going to have to get very serious about winning at the local and state level. That means to some degree we need to recalibrate the way we do politics. First and foremost, we must become better marketers and more adapt at playing hardball … and we are not nearly as good as Republicans have been in recent years … and we must relearn Speaker Tip O’Neil’s wise judgement, which is that all politics is local. We must find ways to appeal to local constituencies with local issues, not just the sweeping, single national issues that drive and interest many liberals the most. Those things can be best dealt with once in office; getting there is the trick. Moreover, we must become less divisive in our own ranks, not falling in love but falling in line, like the Republicans, and unlike in some of our recent campaigns where internal strife and overly-pious dogma have contributed to our loses. And like the true believers that dominate the Republican base and the Second Amendment fetishists, we must vote. And until all of that happens and we bounce the Republicans out of Congress for a long period of time, don’t for a moment think things are going to change in any measurable way. They just won’t.  I am not discouraging protests, marches, lobbying efforts, writing and social media campaigns, and attempts to legislate sensible gun control in the meantime; as with the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 60s, it is necessary to do these things to build popular support over time. But those efforts should be in addition to the most important measure of all, namely, getting out the vote for good, electable candidates and taking action at the ballot box. And the youthful protesters we see today that are in high school and who are now or will soon be old enough to vote can play a vital role in this by voting and helping to get out the vote in the upcoming midterm election and again in 2020. A decisive Democratic majority in both bodies of Congress is where the rubber ultimately will meet the road.  If we want gun control, marginalize the Republicans and, as a result, put an end the insidious power and mayhem of the NRA.

Michael Berumen is a retired business executive and published author on diverse topics including economics, mathematics, and philosophy. He resides with his wife in Colorado. He is the author of the book Do No Evil: Ethics with Applications to Economic Theory and Business. He has been writing about and warning against Fascism in America and Trump for several years.


Polemic on Politicians and Society: A Skeptics Defense of Liberalism

Reprinted from Liberal Resistance, 23 Jan 18

By Michael E. Berumen
I don’t mean this in a personal way. It’s not about a particular politician, though I could name many–––but I simply don’t like politicians as a class, and that is true notwithstanding their political orientation, indeed, even when I agree with many of their positions. There are times I might even put political activists as a class at a close second for contempt. I was once an activist myself, long ago, for what that’s worth. And I confess to occasional bouts of it still when moved by idiocy in the political landscape, such as I see today with the rise of the crypto-Confederacy and fascism. There are of course activists and politicians that I do find likable enough in the particular, that is, when I have more first-hand knowledge of them–––because the fact is, as a hopelessly social being, myself, I like most everyone in the particular. My wife assures me that this is a weakness of mine. Some find it easier to like humanity in the abstract, a detached formulation that even seems a bit insincere or even impossible to me, even somewhat meaningless–––whereas I like people individually, concretely, that is, when I know them.
I think that in order to be a politician one must possess characteristics that I rather abhor, and first and foremost, just the fact the typical politician presumes to know what’s best for me and seeks to arrange my life and the lives of others, which I resent. Among other things, they assume that the economic goods that I acquire fairly, whether it is by luck or desert, are at their disposal––well, by virtue of their power, they truly are at their disposal––and, further, they believe that they are in a position to tell me what to think, and often enough they are even able to tell me how to behave, that is, lest I run sideways of the law and suffer the consequences.
Then there are there are the constant self-congratulatory declarations of doing well by others–––of selfless service and sacrifice–––usually ostensibly directed as testimony about other politicians, disingenuously, for in actuality it is intended to reflect more upon themselves. More on that in a moment. Also, I am perturbed by the fact that politicians of every persuasion possess a kind of personal grandiosity, a sense of self most likely entirely unjustified–––a belief they are specially endowed or entitled, with a destiny to fulfill some end-state conception of theirs with benefits that will inure to the rest of us.
Then there’s the matter of lying. Now, human beings lie, almost (I say almost not quite believing it is even just almost) without exception–––and sophisticated psychological studies show people lie astonishingly often, granted, usually on unimportant things, but often enough on important ones, too. But most human beings are not governing large numbers of other human beings, so some liars are more important than other liars in terms of their impact. Here’s the rub that would set politicians all atwitter in denial: in a true democracy with a population consisting of people with a wide range of interests and capacities, in order to succeed, politicians must be untruthful, either by commission or omission, and if not in a blatant way, then in a vague, slippery sort of way, and usually a bit of both–––for in no other manner could they at once appeal to different constituencies with different and, often enough, opposing interests and still be elected. We are all liars, it’s just a fact and there’s no denying it without lying again. But as opposed to most of us, politicians make their livings at lying, and we pay their way. Let me put it another way: one must be something of a scoundrel in order to succeed as a politician.
An honest ideologue would be no better, though, even if he were elected to office, for an ideologue is by definition unyielding and doctrinaire, and he imagines that the fulfillment of his principles is paramount and above all other concerns, and contrary facts on the ground or opinions of others are very unlikely to alter his view. A dishonest ideologue is even worse, of course. And there’s a good chance he will be, for, as I said, people lie, and in this particular case, with a fanatical ideologue, lies can have big consequences to many, often resulting in authoritarianism. Dishonesty is simply something we must accept in a democracy, that is, if we are to have it, which, as Winston Churchill averred, is the worst possible system except for all the rest.
As I suggested before, no one perpetuates the idea of public service and their personal sacrifice, and the sacrifices of their peers–––even their opponents (usually only when dead, though!)–––more than a politician, which is more often than not simply another means of self-justification. It nauseates me when I hear politicians praise one another for their service in obsequy at funerals, as though they suffer great travail out of duty or encounter untoward danger when seeking power over the rest of us. Heroes among them are few and far in between. It is simply self-praise for a predilection for meddlesomeness. I do not mean to say that political achievement is never actuated by good intentions with even noble ends in mind. But I think there is usually more selfishness behind it than noblesse oblige, and that in at least equal measure there is a desire to fulfil personal ambition, even glory, and certainly to gain the satisfaction that comes from having power and control over others, not to mention their approbation. A politician by his very nature is something of a narcissist, some being more of one than others. I don’t find such people worthy of admiration, generally, though I confess I do make exceptions. But this isn’t about the exceptions–––it’s about most of them.
As for patriotism, it is an emotion akin to supporting a favorite sports team. A perfectly human one, mind you, but a feeling rooted in tribalism. It is not altogether dissimilar to what gang members feel about their band of brothers. And the various symbols that accompany it–––flags, songs, and statues and such–––are akin to a gang’s or sport team’s various totems. Love of country is love of an abstraction, one that is idealized, usually a conception that doesn’t even exist in the real world. This is not to suggest that I am personally devoid of such feelings, as I am human and being human I too have tribal feelings; but I do view them as primitive, and not especially worthy of rational men, something reason should seek to overcome, control, and not feed. Such emotions, these clannish feelings of patriotism–––or in its more energetic manifestations, nationalism and jingoism–––are the source of considerable evil in the world, a principal cause of many, no most horrible wars and much suffering.
With that said, I do separate patriotism–––the love of country and the (not uncommon) feelings of one’s country’s superiority or exceptional nature–––from duty to country. By that I mean the sense of duty owed to the society that has offered one certain benefits and protections, and also the duty to one’s neighbors and family, or more broadly speaking, the duty to one’s countrymen. I have a rather Socratic view of this, which is to say, I obey the laws of my country and fulfil the duties assigned to me (within the limits of good conscience and what I deem to be morally right), such as paying taxes, not committing crimes, obeying contract laws, and even defending it when it becomes necessary. Much as Socrates refused exile instead of death when found in violation of Athenian law of corrupting the youth and such–––a society from which he said he gained much and, he believed, had a duty to obey–––I think one acquires a certain set of duties just by living in a society and must adhere to the consequences of its laws. I do see limits to this, and a place for conscientious objection. I do not subscribe to the Socratic view that one owes his very life to the state, though I think one can argue we sometimes owe a great deal. This will obviously vary by the kind of societal arrangements we have, and the benefits we derive from it. While I might not have explicitly signed-up for or accepted these duties, neither did I explicitly deny the benefits or opportunities bestowed upon me, many or even most of which I took for granted. Therefore, my acceptance of those duties is at least to some degree implied by my having also freely taken advantage of the benefits bestowed upon me. The matter of choice certainly enters into the matter and can be a mitigating factor. We do not have a choice as to where we are born or even in many instances where we sometimes end up living. There are times the institutions of a society are so unjust that they must be resisted at great cost, and thereby other duties are justifiably nullified.
My political views can be summarized fairly simply. I subscribe to tolerance, not of everything, but of differences that obtain in society that do me no harm, and, therefore, to pluralism; believe that the material goods and assets fairly acquired by others belong to them to own and dispose of as they see fit, with some constraints (such as not causing undue suffering by virtue of one’s use of the property); believe in the rule of law, and not the caprice of men (understanding that civil disobedience is sometimes defensible); hold that people ought to have the right to choose their leaders; believe that minorities have rights that need to be protected from oppressive majorities; accept the role of logic and science, which is to say, reason, and as such I eschew both superstition and ignorance. I therefore suppose I am properly characterized as a liberal, to resurrect the once venerable appellation that has been sullied in recent decades.
I do not hew to any overarching system of ends from which all other social principles are derived, which characterizes an ideologue–––that is, beyond the most rudimentary kind of moral principles that can be derived from conjoining two distinct concepts into one, namely, impartiality and rationality, the former meaning without bias, the latter meant in the psychological sense of rational behavior. The conjoint principle of impartial rationality underlies a moral code that can be universal, which is to say, applicable everywhere, by everyone, and at all times. We know, for example, it is irrational for one to choose his own suffering (or death) without another, greater reason (such as to avoid greater pain, as surgery might require, or to protect a loved one), and if we act impartially, we extend this basic, rational prohibition to others, and without regard to the benefits or disadvantages for one’s own self or others about whom we care. This is a long way of saying that the guiding principle of universal morality is to avoid causing unjustified suffering, and that all other just principles are derived therefrom.
No one could reason that we ought to promote happiness as a universal requirement, though, or some other conception of the good, for there is no objective standard of reference for such ideas upon which all rational people would agree. However, there is such a standard for suffering and death, and specifically for their avoidance, that is, without an overriding reason. It is a condition of rationality. Conceptions of the good–––the things we believe we ought to promote or act upon for society as a whole or for people individually––cannot be similarly universalized as requirements (unlike a rational prohibition, the avoidance of suffering) to apply to everyone in a way that all rational people would agree, for there are no objective standards of reference to validate what one person thinks is good versus another’s conception. Nothing in rationality or reason suggests we should prefer one conception of good over another, but it does require we not seek to suffer (or die) for its own sake.
Democratic political systems are theoretically manifestations of our ends, our desires, which reason can lead us to fulfill by various means–––but ends that are in and of themselves not determined by reason, as David Hume famously showed, but are desires arising from passion. Reason does provide us with means to ends, though, and can aid us in avoiding suffering unless justified, a principle we all would extend to others if we act impartially. We can also formulate exceptions to rules dictated by impartial rationality, rules such as do not lie or kill, when given specific facts. The justification can be made by using the same formula–––universalizing it impartially such that I, too, or another whom I care about, could as easily be the victim or beneficiary of it, given the same essential facts of the matter. Thus, thereby, one might universalize an exception to a rule against lying to protect an individual from a life-threatening circumstance, e.g., telling the Nazi one is not hiding Jews in the basement–––or formulate that the suffering that will surely attend war will be outweighed by the lives it will save and greater suffering it will prevent. This, impartial rationality, is the formula by which all political (and economic) rules and acts ought to be judged, indeed, by which all social acts ought to be judged. My ethical and political philosophy can be summed up in two words, namely, impartial rationality, and I submit it is the very essence and sine qua non of liberalism.
There are things that trouble me about self-described leftists. Foremost among them is their certainty about how others ought to live their lives. But also one of the left’s hallmark characteristics is the focus on motives or on “good” intentions, and the emphasis on what lies behind an act or prescription, that which it is assumed gives the act its moral meaning and merit. I reject this Kantian outlook, though I accept much else of what Immanuel Kant says about morality, especially in relation to impartiality (his categorical imperative, though flawed as he has devised it, is essentially a formula to achieve impartial universality), and also his defense of democracy and individual liberty. Morality is about what we do, though, not simply about what we feel or believe, or about our intentions. Sentiment and belief are worthless, that is, unless followed by the right act. Would that it were as easy as simply believing a certain way! In this leftists share much with various religious doctrines, most notably Christian doctrines that consider morality to be more about what we believe than about what we actually do.
And as with Christians of various stripes, some on the left also believe there is something impure about wanting or acquiring property, or to make a profit in the process of exchange, expending labor, investing one’s goods to acquire even more, or even by serendipity. The New Testament itself tells us that it is hard for the rich to enter Heaven. The profit motive is seen as being selfish, a character flaw, and one to be eschewed. As if self-proclaimed selflessness and the satisfaction derived thereby were not in and of itself a form of hubris and selfishness. Profit is conceived as something not based in moral desert, and profit-taking is seen as a zero-sum proposition, whereby someone gains, someone loses. The leftist sometimes subscribes more to a kind of theology than empirical economics. This disdain for commerce and profit dates back at least to Plato’s Laws. And while it is less important to Christian thought today, especially in Protestant theology, it is manifest throughout early Christian literature and Scripture, and it was profoundly influential in the development of many leftist doctrines.
So-called capitalists (I am not one–––I believe both capitalist acts and socialist acts can be justified, and not in a “system” consisting only of one at the exclusion of the other) are wrong to say capitalism is justified because it is more efficient than state-ownership of economic goods or state-controlled pricing––even though an abundance of empirical evidence suggests that this is the case. Efficiency is not a moral criterion. Taken to an extreme, a strict utilitarian argument could leave a great many people impoverished or enslaved in order to maximize average prosperity. This is the great flaw with libertarian economic arguments favoring profit above all else in commerce, such as some of the arguments made by economist Milton Friedman. Private property and its disposition–––how we use it, can be justified on moral grounds, when it is property that is fairlyacquired (not mystically instantiated by labor, a la Locke, Marx, and Rand––which would bestow property on both oxen and horses), but also only when its use does not cause others to suffer, for morality always trumps efficiency.
The political right bases much of its dogma on moral desert. Rightists often ignore the singular advantage of good fortune, e.g., being born in a particular place and time, genetic advantages, and having particular experiences such as accidents of coming in contact with the right people at the right time, including a particular kind of upbringing. They ignore luck, in other words. They imagine the things they acquire result entirely from their own effort–––a kind of magical thinking. The corollary is that the privations of others are in some manner their own fault–––and often enough believed to result from slothfulness or shiftlessness, or in some cases because god wills it to be so. They ignore the advantages bestowed upon them that they had nothing to do with, ones others did not have through no fault or moral deficiency of their own. Consequently, they often are more loath to share their gains, for example, through taxation, notwithstanding the fact that simple luck and the benefits of society (protection of the law) might have made possible much of what they have.
People on both the right and the left make a fetish out of democracy, but neither side really cares much for it when they don’t like the result. Democracy is a very messy kind of business––and, let’s face it, people are often not very smart and they sometimes even operate against their own interests, or at least what others (including me) believe to be in their interest–––and that’s part of the point. Who gets to decide this? And why should someone else be in charge of deciding my interests or, similarly, why should I be in charge of deciding another’s? I am not fond of stupid people coming together at the ballot box to tell me how to live. On the other hand, there’s little evidence to suggest that smart people are any better, and, plenty of evidence to suggest they can be equally or even more dangerous when given unencumbered power. There is unfortunately no good alternative to democracy, certainly not authoritarianism or anarchy, though I’d take my chances with the latter over the former. Over time, democracy tends to work out, but not always––and the tyranny of the majority always remains problematic, which is why a system of law and representative procedure are necessary to protect individual rights from mob rule or from the opinion of the moment–––laws made by elected representatives who, though largely dishonest and self-serving themselves, are still much more likely through reflection and compromise to come up with something more sensible than what we’d get with a direct democracy.
Of course, leftists often prattle on about “the people”–––holding this disembodied abstraction as their special and abiding interest. They make a fetish of the poor too, and yet, studies show they do little themselves out of their own pocket for the poor. The reality is that much of what “the people” really desire is eschewed by the left, that is, their superstitions, tastes, values, and habits. The left has contempt for their unwashed ways–––ways they would hope to change to suit their conception of how “the people” ought to be, as opposed to how they really are. So the left comforts itself, deludes itself, really, with a belief that “the people” are just being misled and are ignorant of the true facts, and if they only knew them, they’d come running to their righteous cause. The unlettered and uncultured ways of the underclass are seen as manifestations of their victimization in the class struggle. Of course, this is mostly rubbish, for the rabble genuinely prefers its rabbling ways, and even think their would-be do-gooders on the left consists of wild-eyed, impractical kooks. In reality, “the people” have disdain in equal measure for their would-be protectors as the latter truly have for them; but they are not in denial about it. This is not to say that I am a fan of the mores of the unwashed masses. I am not a devotee to some wooly-minded abstraction about “the people” or “the working man,” nor do I believe in some sort of special virtue of the poor. Such nonsense has helped give rise to Trumpism, a modern form and American species of fascism, in our own time, and in no small measure facilitated by the pandering of the media. I reject the idea on empirical grounds that one economic class is inherently more virtuous than another, or even that virtue accompanies literacy and education, for it plainly doesn’t. The rise of Hitler, after all, occurred in arguably the most literate society on earth in the early 1930s.
The political right is of course fascinated by and loves authority, despite its occasional paeans to individual liberty. In reality, liberty is the furthest thing from the typical rightists’ mind, especially as it pertains to the liberty of others. Liberty for themselves, maybe, though the typical rightist is quite enamored of structure and hierarchy. They require strong father figures to tell themselves and especially others how to behave, to provide rules of conduct for society, and of course, to punish the wicked who violate them. They like order, regularity, predictability–––and they generally deplore non-conformity. They also share with the left a disdain for people with whom they disagree, and at their most ideological, they are every bit as intolerant. People on the ideological left, of course, imagine they are more tolerant, but they often are not, and left to their own devices many would just as soon have people with whom they disagree ostracized or put in a re-education camp.
The right seems to have a special love of symbolism and abstractions such as flag and country, the latter being more idealized than anything, and often enough based on some halcyon time from the past that never really existed as they imagine it did. They seldom love their countrymen as they really are; rather, they love those who think as they do and more often than not they despise the rest. So love of country is quite conditional.
The right also is especially apt to see punishment, retribution, as the proper solution to get others to obey and to obtain justice, whereas the left is more inclined to rehabilitation and second chances. It is perhaps not unexpected therefore that the right prefers strongmen as leaders, whereas the left prefers nurturers. Both are susceptible to cults of personality. In fact, the populations constituting the greatest cults were under leftist rule in the 20th century, notably the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. People on the right and left are not nearly as different from one another as they’d like to believe in terms of their vulnerabilities and naiveté. It is not surprising that many on the right tend to be religious and seek the ultimate father figure in their belief in a supreme being who brings order to the universe. People on the left often settle for some cosmic notion of justice––natural law or a dialectical progressivism––social forces that inexorably lead to the left’s idealized version of the just society–––but they also can put great store in charismatic leaders who are seen to be more “caring” for people, more “mothering” nurturers as opposed to the stern father figures that the right so often prefers.
Finally, lest someone mistake my point of view, I believe so-called moderation can be as much a fetish as the various shibboleths of the right and left­­­, and that moderation it is more a matter of temperament or technique than a well-formulated position. At its worst it can be a cowardly outlook, compromising when there should be no compromise. At its best it can be accepting compromise for a greater good as a matter of tactical necessity. There can be no truly “moderate” political view, for what would that be–––something in between true and false or right and wrong? An Aristotelian mean of sorts? What I am arguing for, here, is a liberal outlook, properly understood, and I am arguing against tribalism, silliness, and pretense. I am not promoting cynicism, but I am promoting skepticism. I am arguing against both leftist and rightest comprehensive and invariant systems from which all principles are held to flow, and instead, arguing that social principles should flow from logic and evidence, and that before formulating a position, that we should consider how the essential properties of the facts at hand bear on other, similar instances, and ask ourselves if such a position can be willed impartially to apply to all without regard to how we ourselves might benefit or lose in the same circumstances. I am arguing for making exceptions to principles based on universalizable and impartial prescriptions. Most of all, I am arguing for the conjoint principle of impartial rationality–––and for healthy skepticism about those who presume to arrange our lives through political activity. Such people are necessary to a well-ordered and just society–––and they will be with us as long as there are more than a handful of people–––but these people and their ideas always must be put into proper perspective and viewed through a skeptical lens.

Michael Berumen is a retired business executive and published author on diverse topics including economics, mathematics, and philosophy. He resides with his wife in Colorado. He is the author of the book Do No Evil: Ethics with Applications to Economic Theory and Business. He has been writing about and warning against Fascism in America and Trump for several years.