Obama's Patriotism

The kerfuffle over Barack Obama's pastor is in large part about whether the man is patriotic enough. Other data: he doesn't wear a Stars & Stripes lapel pin; his wife found herself proud of America for the first time a little too recently. This sort of thing may well be deadly to his candidacy. He may be obliterated by John “No Glory but Service to the State” McCain's thorough and unimpeachable Americanism, a cult of fake history, hubristic exceptionalism, tacky iconography, and aggression. But Obama's inferior patriotism makes me like him more rather than less because I agree with George Kateb that patriotism is hardly worth the blood it is designed to spill.

Kateb's reply today in Cato Unbound to Walter Berns' and Bill Galston's sophisticated civics class apologies for patriotism is strong. He is completely dogged in his insistence that patriotism is good for little more than readying people to kill and die for the state. He implies something that I believe to be correct: the proud and enthusiastic patriotism of Americans bears a large measure of responsibility for the immoral and failed war in Iraq. This administration's war would have been impossible had our mindless love of country not made the public rather too ready. As Kateb writes:

I am not writing from a pacifist basis. I believe in the right of self-defense, by violence if need be. The trouble is that most democratic wars are not fought to preserve the lives, liberties, and goods of the people, but are fought, instead, for grandiose and often insincere ideals and for limitless augmentation. If patriotism — devotion to the country and obedience to its state for the wrong reasons — has to exist, it should be defensive in temperament and parsimonious in the expenditure of life, including the lives of its enemies, and not mobilize the energies of self-defense and transmute them into the energies of expansion and imperialism. In truth, if strict self-defense were ever at stake, patriotism would be unnecessary: people would not require any inflated passion to defend what was not an inflated purpose.

Barack Obama should be proud that he is no great patriot. Of course, in America it is political suicide to appear to be anything less than besotted with the purple mountains' majesty, so of course he gives his speech explaining the meaning of “god damn America” in front of a de rigeur rank of flags, which testify silently, garishly, to his devotion to true religion.

Barack Obama Loves Flags

Patriotism and Monogamy

In the comments below, David Stearns asks:

Is there any room left in the concept of ‘patriotism’ for the deep appreciation of the freedoms and independence of thought that the states are at least supposed to embody, and that they do embody in their finer moments?

I don't think so. Freedom and independence are general features of a place or people and are valuable wherever they occur. I may love America for it's freedom, but then I should love Canada for its freedom, too. And I do! To love a place because of its general features implies that love may wane or disappear as the manifestation of those valued qualities change. But Patriotism, the love of country, is particularistic. It is a “monogamous” sentiment. If you claim to be an American, Canadian, Danish, and Japanese patriot all at the same time, because you love qualities all these societies excellently exemplify, people will look at you funny. Patriotism requires that you “pick one,” which implies that it is not about the general features of a place, but about special attachment. (Dual citizens may get away with picking two, but that's just because there are two attachments, and even this is suspect.)

If you meet a women with all the attributes you claim to love about your wife, only better, and you run off with her because of their excellence, then you never really loved your wife. You loved her attributes. You can rightly claim never to have been unfaithful. Indeed, to stay would have made you untrue — to your values. But to fully love a woman, or a country, is to love some one particular thing. Now, it is surely better to love a woman than to love her qualities. But when it comes to countries, it is better by far to give your heart to freedom, and to love countries themselves incidentally and faithlessly.

Viciously Darwinian Totalitarian Fascism in One Lesson

Jeff of “A Banner Coward” cannot fathom while Obama's anti-globalization rhetoric bothered Megan and me:

Let’s take, say, an assembly line worker who has just been laid off so the factory he worked in can open up shop in India. Is he expected to look upon the economic immolation of his family and community and say to himself, “Well, at least it’s raising the living standards of those poor sods in Bangladesh?” Given Wilkinson’s accusation that Obama is failing to extend a philosophy of mutuality beyond American borders, and that he ignores “the very real, yet non-American people who gain immensely from outsourcing,” it must be assumed that this is precisely what he means. But good God! What an impersonal — and, indeed, totalitarian — philosophy. What a gross subservience of the individual to the good of the collective. In case Wilkinson is curious, this is the kind of thing leftists are referring to when they (rather sloppily, I’ll admit) describe capitalism as “fascistic.”

The weirdest part is that, a while back, Wilkinson cast aspersions on the idea that a sense of community or sharing norms could be applied to something as big as the nation-state. Now here he is asserting not only that a sense of mutuality and interdependence can be applied to the entire globe (and yes, interdependence, mutuality, community and sharing norms are all basically the same thing), but that this application can be brought about by something as impersonal and viciously darwinian as the global marketplace of corporate-capitalism. You have to wonder exactly what planet the man is living on.

Except for “totalitarian,” “fascistic,” and “viciously Darwinian,” I'm afraid none of this makes any sense. It seems Jeff missed the point I made about having one's job outsourced to another part of the U.S. or being replaced by a machine. The point was: from the point of view of the person out of a job, or the community out of a factory, the “economic immolation” is exactly the same. Suppose you thought the widget plant at which you were foreman got moved to India. Damn those corporate Bendict Arnold CEOs! But then you find it out got moved to South Dakota. What does it matter to you? (“Damn those South Dakotans and their tax incentives!”) The only reason to pick on shipping jobs “overseas” is to provoke anti-trade animus. That's it. And that's not unifying.

It also seems that Jeff does not understand that, as a rule, trade is a positive-sum game and redistributive politics is not. High levels of redistribution tend to require a good deal of solidarity to maintain because redistribution is negative-sum. Some people give (voluntarily or not), some people get, and some is lost on the way. Deadweight losses from taxation and transactions costs from administration reduce average wealth. Those who bear the costs of transfers therefore tend to require a solid sense of fellowship with those who receive them. That's one reason why ethnically and culturally heterogeneous nation-states are a bit less inclined to support high levels of redistribution.

When speaking of Obama and positive-sum mutuality, I was not talking about the solidarity required to support really high levels of taxes and transfers. The ur-liberal ideal is global peace and prosperity through migration and trade, not Denmark with twenty-four time zones. The mutuality I had in mind was mutual benefit, which is what trade delivers, not a sense of mutual obligation. When you're part of a system of exchange, you and the other participants are in it together, whether or not you have any positive or negative sentiments toward each other either way. That's why I've elsewhere contrasted “the system of solidarity”– the market order of mutually advantageous cooperation — from the “sentiment of solidarity,” the feeling of commonality needed to induce altruistic cooperation.

Solidarity is tricky. There is a feeling of solidarity, fraternity, and belonging that can pervade the gut and bring a tear to the eye. There is also a system of solidarity in which we can be embedded and enmeshed. As joint participants in the market, relying constantly on far-flung partners in a mind-boggling network of specialization, vying to cooperate with one another on increasingly beneficial terms, we are, in fact, in it together. We are part of the system of solidarity, whether we know it or not. One of the paradoxes of modern life is that the system of solidarity does not necessarily produce or even encourage the feeling of solidarity. I need not feel warmth for, or even recognize the existence of, the Chinese laborers running the machine that made my socks (nor they for me) in order for us to be participants in a needful common enterprise — to be related parts of an interdependent whole.

One of the things that is so enticing about Obama is that, unlike most politicians, he shows glimmers of a fairly deep understanding of the possibility of mutual gain through the system of solidarity. That's why I find it frustrating when he ruins it by appealing to the sentiment of solidarity in a way that threatens the already existing international system of market cooperation. I think I'll just quote myself some more:

We should beware the temptations of the feeling, which so often serves to solidify the barriers against those outside the charmed circle of our sentiments, and reorient ourselves toward the system. The system of solidarity pushes us past our tribal commitments to class, creed, and nation into real relations of mutual advantage with our fellow human beings.

Perhaps in time we will become civilized and our feelings of solidarity, expanding to encompass all those embedded in the worldwide web of cooperation, will catch up to the reality.

Such is the rhetoric of global unity we viciously Darwinian, totalitarian fascists are so drawn to.

An Even More Perfect Union

I see that Megan's first impression of the speech was very nearly my own, and she beat me to the punch about the fundamental contradiction at its moral core:

I understand the political logic that forces Barack Obama to spend a fair amount of time hating on trade. But I sort of feel–call me a starry-eyed idealist though you will–that a speech urging Americans not to hate and fear people who are different from them, should perhaps itself forgo urging Americans to hate and fear people who are different from them. You know, to set a good example for the children.

Sadly, this misguided and divisive habit of Obama's isn't new. The conclusion of Kerry's column on Clinton and Obama on trade from June pretty well sums up the point:

It’s nice, I guess, that Obama wants to bring people together. Now perhaps his research team can find a social glue superior to a shared xenophobia.

Obama's idea of unity through mutuality may be far from perfect, but he can always perfect it.

Let Me Serve You Up!

Customer” by Raheem DeVaughn may be the greatest song ever written as it is the first to fully grasp, and to deploy for the purposes of seduction, the immense romance of being catered to … like a customer (at an idealized, perfected, phantasmagorical Burger King, one is lead to imagine). The luxury of the commercial relationship lies in the simplicity of its mode of reciprocity. “You can have it your way; you're the customer,” DeVaughn croons. Which is to say, commercial exchange allows for customization and undivided satiation, as it requires but a simple payment and not constant emotional negotiation and renegotiation to arrive at an only partially satisfying compromise. To be treated like a “customer” is to be treated precisely the way you want, not the way someone else wants to treat you. Though the “payment” implied in the song is nothing more or less than acquiescence to DeVaughns' attentive, indulgent , and no doubt skillful ministrations, “Customer” works astonishingly well as an anthem for the legalization of sexual services.

Positive-Sum Within, Zero-Sum Without

I was pretty impressed with Barack Obama's speech. It struck me as unusually direct, realistic, intellectual, and mature. I'm not sure that will keep Fox News from showing Jeremiah Wright 24/7, as Obama himself more or less worried aloud, or that this won't kill him in the general. (I'm inclined to think McCain would beat him in any case.) But it does make me think a bit more highly of him. I am extremely cynical about politics, but I do think rare, exemplary leadership can matter a great deal culturally. So, despite my cynicism, I think Obama did do something today to make the American discussion of race more frank and intelligent, which is pretty important, whether or not he goes on to the White House.

I was especially struck by Obama's explicit use of the the idea of zero-sum games, and the way themes of positive- and zero-sumness were woven throughout the speech, always serving Obama's rhetorical aim, but often undercutting his underlying moral message.

… in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.

This could have come straight out of Benjamin Friedman's The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth. And Obama's right. The key to social amity is the sense that neither individuals nor groups succeed at the expense of others. What I have always liked about Obama (and what Paul Krugman appears to hate) is that he sees the America not as a system of antagonisms defined along race or class lines, but as a fundamentally cooperative venture for mutual advantage. What I have never liked about Obama is his apparent failure to grasp how certain kinds of market institutions promote precisely the kind of positive-sumness he is rightly looking for — a point I articulated here nearly three years ago. And I have always been struck by his rhetorically resourceful but intellectually bankrupt failure to apply the same logic of mutuality beyond our borders. So it is that he ends up saying, after denouncing the politics of superficial divisiveness (i.e., playing clips of a ranting Jeremiah Wright on TV):

This time we want to talk about the shuttered mills that once provided a decent life for men and women of every race, and the homes for sale that once belonged to Americans from every religion, every region, every walk of life. This time we want to talk about the fact that the real problem is not that someone who doesn’t look like you might take your job; it’s that the corporation you work for will ship it overseas for nothing more than a profit.

This time we want to talk about the men and women of every color and creed who serve together, and fight together, and bleed together under the same proud flag.

This is a tactic as old as time. Unify factions against a common threat. But it stinks.

Obama says the real problem is not that an American of a different ethnic background might take your job (that was the context), but that a non-American might. But let's not dwell on that Mexican, Canadian, or Chinese guy who gets that job. Who cares about them? Well, if you think it for a second, you might care. So let's try to remove from our thoughts the very real, yet non-American people who often gain immensely from outsourcing and pin it on all corporations. Well, Obama can't have it both ways. It matters not to the individual American whether she has lost her job to someone in South Dakota, where it is cheaper to do business, or to someone in a whole different country. It matters not to the individual American whether he has lost his job to father of four in India or a new robot arm in North Carolina. In attacking offshore outsourcing Obama encourages in one breathe the zero-sum mentality he condemns in another. It may be possible to induce a spell of internal cooperation by framing it as part an external conflict, but it can't last. By threatening growth, protectionism encourages internal conflict over the division of a smaller pie. As Obama evidently knows, that's when racial lines are the most salient, when divisive zero-sum thinking prevails.

I'm convinced that Obama holds himself to a higher moral standard than the typical politician, and think that this speech was proof of that. But he guts his own aspirations when he stops short and preaches conflict at the point where preaching unity is no longer expedient.

The Solidarity of Ethnic Homogeneity: Not Liberal, Other Things Work Better

Reihan Salam makes an excellent point:

As Ed Glaeser and Alberto Alesina have argued, it seems that ethnoracial fragmentation cuts against redistribution — taxpayers are reluctant to subsidize members of outgroups, a gut instinct that is easily characterized as racist. But perhaps this impulse is a useful corrective, and one of the virtues of diversity — i.e., perhaps greater homogeneity leads taxpayers to overinterpret a kind of nationalist sameness, thus leading to higher levels of redistribution than are in fact desirable. Now, I don’t think this is obviously true, but it’s no less plausible than the other story, namely that the interrelationship between extreme homogeneity and social democracy is an unambiguously good thing.

My take is that the kind of homogeneity and conformity necessary to generate the sense of solidarity that leads to popular, high levels of redistribution ought to be unattractive to liberals, who are either cosmopolitan pluralists or not really liberals at all. Add the fact that that there are superior feasible policy alternatives to lavish state-provided social services — deregulated labor markets, actual markets in insurance and health services, higher rates of growth, etc. — and American liberals really ought to stop trying to wish Nordic levels of solidarity and redistribution into existence, and instead just get with the program of promoting actually feasible market-based reforms.

How Sex Is (and Isn't) Different, Part II

Everything is what it is. Sex work is different from carpentry and it is different from surgery. It is like carpentry and surgery in that it is a way of renting one's body. It is like surgery in requiring some hardening and compartmentalization. It is not like surgery in that it involves a different set of skills and different emotional preparation. A distinctive thing about sex is that it involves taking pleasure in ourselves and others as physical things, as objects. Very often we enjoy being objectified. We like to feel sexy, to arouse others, to be wanted qua object. But the danger of objectification is de-subjectification: losing track of the fact that the other person is not only an object, to be used as a means to one's sexual ends, but is a person — an end in themselves. Sex workers, like models, are paid to be de-subjectified to some degree, to be used as means, and this can come as a blow to dignity unless one has braced oneself against it.

I find it a bit insulting to feel pushed to have to say that children are not prepared to brace themselves in this way. Or to feel pushed to say that parents have deep, special obligations to attend to and protect their childrens' subjectivity, to cultivate and protect their personhood as it develops, to cultivate and protect their burgeoning sense of dignity. For a parent, of all people, to de-subjectify a child, and to use him or her as an object — as a means for sexual gratification — is a special kind of betrayal and violence. I'm sure we can all agree to that. And from here on out, I'm sure we can all agree that we are not talking about children, but the activities of consenting adults. We are talking about whether paternalistic prohibition of these activities may be justified.

A large part of my point is that adults are not children. Laws that insist on treating women (in particular) as children do not benefit them. Again, it is important to point out the circularity in this perennial form of conservative reasoning. We cannot infantilize a class of people by denying them their full autonomy and then turn around and appeal to the fact that we have done so as justification for paternalism. (Read mid-19th century debates against the abolition of slavery to see the most egregious examples of this form.) We've come a long way (baby!) from when women were treated by the law like large children for almost all purposes, but we still have some way to go.

There is nothing unique about work that requires those who do it to cultivate distinctive emotional strategies that make it possible to do things that might otherwise be off-putting while leading a completely healthy, normal, happy life. Some people find cultivating certain attitudes easy, and others don't, which is why not everybody is cut out for every kind of work. Personally, I think I would probably find it easier psychologically to sell sexual services (in a world in which this was legal and not despised) than to sell cars, since I find the kind of subtle manipulation one must practice in order to be a successful salesman completely intolerable, but I don't particularly mind being treated as a piece of meat. I'm sure there are a lot of sex workers who aren't particularly well cut out for it, and who find it really taxing, but who do it anyway because they don't have better options. I feel terrible for those people, but I certainly don't think we would be hurting them by making their profession legal and less despised.

How to Be Grotesquely Reductionist and Utilitarian about Human Love and Life

This post by one “Deep Thought” is a brilliant example:

This isn’t rocket science; men with easy access to prostitution or to promiscuous women have little incentive to marry. Suddenly there is nothing to offset their legal and financial obligations as a husband – so why take on the obligation? Women who are promiscuous face disease, pregnancy, and emotional trauma – all of them reduce their ability to be a valuable wife.

This probably helps explain what's going on with prostitution bans, but is it supposed to be a moral reason to endorse them? Dramatic reconstruction:

Sweetheart… Since I have no easy access to women who sell sex, will you share my life so I can use you for sex? I mean, even if there were a few more easy women around here, I'd have no use for you. Definitely no reason to make a commitment to you. But there aren't. Oh well. So… I love you? And Oh! Here's a diamond.

Maybe this tells us something about the great romance of being the mother of Deep Thought's four children, but for my part, I share my life with Kerry because she is brilliant and exciting and we mesh in so many ways and I love her. As far as I can tell, the existence of Craiglist's Casual Encounters has no bearing on this, my greatest source of happiness.

It gets even more obsessively biological. This is, sensibly enough I suppose, written by a Catholic guy with a theology degree who attends Latin mass and thinks “the Patriarchy, when controlled by Judeo-Christian morality, is a protector of and advocate for women.” [!!!]:

the future belongs to those who show up. If you don’t have kids, you have no stake in the future. If you have kids, you not only have a stake in the future, you can influence it in ways almost impossible to duplicate without kids.


bans on prostitution exist not just to avoid the exploitation of sex workers; they are in place not just because the majority of world religions declare them immoral; they were passed not solely to fight the spread of disease; they were written with more than the goal of reducing the numbers of poor, fatherless children. No, they are there to protect the future.

Again, I can see the explanatory power here. But to think that this has justificatory power is simply grotesque. This is to reduce individual human beings to tokens of a biological type, to reduce the purpose of an individual human life to a link in a biological chain there is no moral value in forging. Yes, the future belongs to those who show up. But the present belongs to each individual human being. We have lives because a lineage has been perpetuated. But our lives are not for perpetuating lineages. Our lives are for our living. Our duty is to treat one another as free and equal persons, as ends in themselves, which means we are duty-bound not to use people and their lives for purposes not their own. We treat people with the respect they deserve. Whoever shows up, shows up. If you're interested in that, then breed away. But do leave the rest of us alone.