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Andy Schmookler

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What Possible Justification Can a Good Capitalist Have for Opposing the Labeling of GMO...

Just got this in an email from Truthout, under the heading "Monsanto Spends Millions to Defeat Washington GMO Labeling Initiative":

Washington state will vote on a ballot initiative to label GMO food this fall. Monsanto, banking on repeating its California victory, has given $4.6 million to the campaign to defeat it. But while fundraising is 3-to-1 against it, the "Yes" campaign is confident savvy voters will stay strong in their 66 percent support during an an inevitable onslaught of advertising.

The whole premise of capitalism is that buyers have the information of interest to them pertinent to their decisions in the marketplace. It is nobody's business but their own, according to the market ideology of liberty, what criteria they wish to apply to their decisions. They have a right to know what they are buying.

Some people want to know if the food they are buying includes genetically modified organisms (GMOs). According to the capitalist worldview, that should unquestionably be their right to know.

It's understandable that Monsanto would not want people to avoid products that utilize their GMO technology. So it's no mystery why they'd not want labeling to be required. But it's nonetheless unmitigated chuptzpah, not to mention capitalist hypocrisy, for them to seek to prevent buyers from knowing what they're getting.

Interpreting President Obama’s Bad Press on Syria: A Displaced and Distorted Truth


It's almost fifty years since I made the interpretation of the meaning of cultural expressions the focus of my explorations.  I spent the last two of my undergraduate years at Harvard interpreting the meanings of the paranoid fantasies of the radical right, the evolution of religious symbolism and, for my undergraduate thesis, "The Psychology of Heroic Tragedy."  I then went to begin graduate study with the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, having applied to pursue "the psychology and sociology of literature, religion, and politics."

The insight, from depth psychology, that we humans are often far from fully aware of where we're really coming from and what we're expressing in what we say and do seemed to me crucial to understanding the human world.

Life soon took me in other directions, but that perspective has remained one of my interests and one of my tools in the years since.  In this era in which a good share of America has lost touch with reality in the political sphere, that's been useful.  And it seems to me that the substantial erosion in our culture, in the past fifty years, of that depth-psychology insight - indeed in the whole concept of the unconscious - is quite likely related to a precipitous drop in our times in what might be called the "sanity" of American culture, in particular American political culture.

What occasions these thoughts is the spectacle this week of what seems to me a strangely misguided outpouring, from the American press, of disrespect onto President Obama for how he's dealt with Syria.  It is those expressions that don't make good objective sense that serve as clues to psychological forces operating beneath the surface.

Here's how I see what's going on.

To what I've already written about why "Obama's Syrian Moves Deserve More Respect than They're Getting," I'll just add that I see good decision-making as including, wherever practicable, adapting to new developments in a flexible way.  Better to be a guided missile, that can change course in mid-flight, than a bullet whose course is determined the second it leaves the barrel.  As my father, an economist used to say, "In times of uncertainty, maintain maximum flexibility."  I think President Obama has done this pretty well,  (And the outcome is likely to be a good deal better than the kind of arrogant, "I know everything I need to know" approach that Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld followed as they created the disaster in Iraq.)

But much of the press has characterized Obama's flexibility - his unwillingness to act precipitously in a dangerous situation without clearly good options, his adaptation to changing circumstances -- as weakness.  Adapting to events is condemned as passivity.  Sharing the stage with another, not altogether friendly geo-political power, indispensable to any non-violent resolution of the crisis, is denigrated as a failure to lead.

The press speaks as if it sees all this clearly, of course.  But I think they're unaware of what they're really expressing.

I bet that the press would see these same Syria moves very differently if they were made by a president whom the press didn't already perceive as passive and weak and failing to lead.  I can imagine the press praising such a president for his being careful, thoughtful, able to seize and create opportunities, not so trigger-happy as some we've seen as commander-in-chief, aware of the big picture, etc.

But not Obama.  Why?

The central fact of American politics right now, as most Americans experience it, is that the system is not working.  This Congress is accomplishing less than any Congress in modern times.  We have challenges, and we're not meeting them.  Most Americans have been losing ground economically, and nothing is being done to remedy it (indeed, the gulf of economic inequality is reportedly still widening).  The government is paralyzed. (The main exception of its paralysis is in its apparent inclination to create altogether new problems with government shut-downs and defauting on the debt.)

The Democrats sit back, knowing that it's the Republicans who are to blame, and knowing that much of the public despises the Republicans for their obstructionism.  

But this isn't the whole of how Americans see  this paralysis and dysfunction.

If the political system is broken, what is the president doing to fix it?  "The buck stops here" is a general phenomenon in America politics:  the president is the one who's supposed to take responsibility to see that the ship of state sails to where it needs to get.  It's the president who is supposed to lead.

If the system is being crippled by enemies of the public interest, it's the president's job to go after them.

When the president sits back and seems to accept -- that is, does not actively and determinedly fight to alter -- a situation that the American people find Unacceptable, he will be seen as passive, as weak, as failing to lead.

So now, when the President pursues a policy that might have been praised under other circumstances, the press pounces on him, attributing to him in the Syrian situation the very qualities that he's been showing in an altogether different realm. (This is an example of the "halo effect."*)

The press is right that we need from Mr. Obama stronger, more active, more aggressive leadership.  They've just misidentified the area where it's been lacking.  (It is often the case in human groups that important messages get delivered indirectly, or in coded form.)

So what might this more active and stronger leadership look like?  President Obama could be actively pressing the battle against the obstructionism of the Republicans.  

If the Republicans in the House can vote to repeal Obamacare 40 times, why can't the President propose his jobs bill every week until it gets enacted?  That's the kind of measure the polls show the American people want.  Keep the spotlight on the problem that must be addressed, on his insistence on solving it, and on the Republicans' failure to serve the American people.

Why can't the President hold a press conference every week, beginning each with a statement that challenges the Republicans in the Congress to pass measures that clear majorities of the public want (some by overwhelming margins), like the universal background checks on guns, or immigration reform?

Why can't the President challenge the Republicans to a series of regular debates on a series of issues on which the public wants action, going on television with or without a Republican champion to come into the arena to defend the indefensible?

The more the president highlights what the Republicans are doing, and are failing to do, while he fights for what the public wants, the more he will be seen as a strong leader.  And the more the pressure will build on the Republicans.

That pressure on the Republicans is important.

Consider the issue du jour: the inability of Speaker of the House John Boehner to get his Republican caucus to fund the government.  Boehner is loath to disregard the infamous "Hastert Rule" and, with less than a majority of his obstreperous Republicans, to bring to the House floor a measure that, with the help of the Democrats, could get a majority of the total Congress to support it.  

The President, by pressing the battle, could change the field of forces on the Republicans. The more the public pressure on the Republicans to do the people's business, the more the incentive for sane Republicans to create a working majority that includes Democrats. For Boehner, that becomes less dangerous than trying to keep his Teahadist Republicans behind him.

President Obama has not used the power of his office nearly as effectively as it can be used.  It's not that he's been weak as commander-in-chief, but as the leader of the nation.  

His pulpit has not been nearly as bully as it can be.  He has not taken nearly as active a role in leading the political process as he could.  He's not been nearly as aggressive in going after a disgraceful opposition as the nation needs for him to be.

On all this, the press has been mostly mute.  But now this major unspoken truth is coming out but in displaced and distorted form, faulting the president in a different fight.  

I doubt the press is aware of just what they are expressing and why.

The nation would be best served, I believe, if the President would remain careful on Syria and become bolder in addressing his opponents in Congress.

• From Wikipedia: "The halo effect or halo error is a cognitive bias in which one's judgments of a person's character can be influenced by one's overall impression of him or her. It can be found in a range of situations from the courtroom to the classroom and in everyday interactions."

Interpreting Obama’s Bad Press on Syria — Part I: George Lakoff’s Interpretation


[ABS: The premise of this two-part series is that the press has been inappropriately, or at least excessively, dumping on Obama for the course he's taken on Syria. I believe Lakoff's ideas, below, provide one valid piece of the explanation. I'll soon be posting some of my own thoughts, which I think add another dimension to the picture.]

Here's the essence of Lakoff's article, which appears in Huffington Post:

Every language in the world has a way in its grammar to express direct causation: a local application of force that has a local effect in place and time...

No language in the world has a way in its grammar to express systemic causation. You drill a lot more oil, burn a lot more gas, put a lot more CO2 in the air, the earth's atmosphere heats up, more moisture evaporates from the oceans yielding bigger storms in certain places and more droughts and fires in other places: systemic causation.

... Systemic causation cannot be experienced directly. It has to be learned, its cases studied, and repeated communication is necessary before it can be widely understood.

To President Obama, "Syria" is not primarily about direct causation. It is about systemic causation as it affects the world as a whole. It is about preventing the proliferation of poison gas use and nuclear weapons. It is about the keeping and enforcement of treaties on these matters....But the president has not made this clear, and he could not possibly do it in one speech, given that most people don't viscerally react to systemic causation, and many don't understand it at all.

As a result, the president's logic of limited bombing is not understood: he wants to bomb to prevent the systemic effect of the use of poison gas, not to stop the direct killing via other means, which we cannot stop.

Lakoff's interpretation makes good use of cognitive psychology.  I think he captures part of the problem. I will offer, shortly, an additional interpretation which will seek to illuminate another dimension of President Obama's bad press, drawing on the kind of psychology that deals with emotions and symbolic communication that are the province of clinical psychology.

If We Had Our Act Together to Fight the GOP Wrecking Crew, Here’s a...

A number of the most extreme, most obstructionist, most destructive Republicans are planning to try to repeat their atrocious behavior from 2011,  abusing the need to raise the debt ceiling in order to extort concessions from the President -- particularly their demand that Obamacare be defunded.

President Obama badly misplayed that debt ceiling crisis back in 2011, but apparently learned from that mistake.  He's declared that there will be no negotiation over the debt ceiling.

This approaching showdown creates an opportunity that could be seized by a movement with the ability to put people into the streets and the goal of taking power away from the destructive force that's arisen on the political right and taken over the Republican Party.

It would rally people to demonstrate -- in Washington, and in major media areas around the country -- around the theme:  "Tell President Obama to Stand Fast on the Debt Ceiling, and Not Give an Inch to Republican Blackmailers"

This could help accomplish two tasks important for winning the central battle of our times, which is to take power away from this force on the right that's so systematically damaging our nation.

1) It would strengthen the president's resolve (and his position in being resolved).  This is important because, as disappointing as President Obama has been at fighting that battle, the president is by necessity our champion in the fight, the one in far and away the best position to fight it, and Barack Obama is the only  president we're going to have until 2017.

Obama’s Syrian Moves Deserve More Respect than They’re Getting

I'm not saying that President Obama has played it masterfully. I'm not even claiming that his judgments have necessarily been basically right. Maybe they were, or maybe they weren't. But his big decisions have been at least defensible, reasonable, plausible.

Yet, as this whole Syrian story has unfolded, Obama has gotten little respect, as if he did not measure up to the American standard for commanders-in-chief.  

The right --like John McCain-- has been pounding Obama for many months for being a wuss for not jumping into the Syrian civil war in some way that would get us enmeshed and incur responsibility in a situation over which our control is dubious.  Maybe McCain and Co. are right, but after our experience with their wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, maybe the ability of these Republican hawks to fully foresee the consequences of involvement should not be assumed.

Maybe Obama's restraint is wiser --better for the nation-- than the path of action the Republicans have castigated him for not acting. That is as plausible as their case.

Maybe it was not best that the President drew that "red line" about the use of chemical weapons.  My guess is that he did it because the Republicans put him in a position where he felt the need to refute their "Obama's a wuss on Syria" attack by showing that he's ready to flex American muscle, but there's got to be more of our interests involved than there were then.  Hence a red line beyond which...

Once that line got drawn --whether or not Obama should or shouldn't have drawn it (and whether or not the Republicans basically pushed him into it with their latest version of the old Republican theme of only WE are manly enough to protect Americans and be the exceptional big guy in the world)-- it created a reality that must be taken into account when, as has now happened, the Syrian regime so brazenly crossed it.  

Whether we like it or not, the failure of the President of the United States to back up his threat can have serious repercussions in terms of world stability.

Was Lincoln Wrong to Fight to Preserve the Union?

Some Southerners still call the Civil War the "War of Northern Aggression."  I've already shown that -- it being an act of outlawry to secede the way the South did it -- it was no such thing. But was Lincoln, even though he was entitled to use force, nonetheless wrong in his judgment that it was worth a war to hold the Union together?

Abraham Lincoln is generally rated by historians as the nation's greatest president ever.  He was certainly an extraordinary man with a great spirit.  His level of compassion, his inclination to forgive those who wronged him, his craving for peace-in all these ways, he seems to us now, and seemed to a great many of his contemporaries, an exceptionally humane man.  Also, his navigating of the most complex of waters, during our nation's greatest crisis, suggests a man of astonishingly acute and subtle judgment.

But for at least a decade I have been wondering about the wisdom and rightness of the main decision of his presidency, the judgment on which almost everything else about his presidency rested: to go to war against the secessionist South in order to preserve the Union.

Lincoln decided to use force to hold the Union together for two main reasons.  One is that he believed the secession unconstitutional, and thus that his oath of office, to defend the Constitution, required that he enforce the irrevocability of the states' membership in the Union.  That position was at least arguable, so I don't think Lincoln needed to feel absolutely honor-bound to resort to war.

His other reason was that he believed profoundly in the American experiment in democracy - a government of the people, for the people, and by the people - and he believed further that the nation's breaking apart into two nations would grievously discredit the American experiment and therefore the very idea of democracy.  He believed that keeping alive this "last, best hope on earth" required keeping the Union together, by force if necessary.

I've not come across serious Civil War scholars who question that judgment.  But I am unconvinced of its validity.

It is not clear to me that the example of the American democracy would have been discredited if the two regions -- which had become in many ways like two different cultures, aside from the deep polarization that had antagonized the two against each other -- had negotiated a separation.  When Czechoslovakia divided into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, that peaceful division seemed an accomplishment to their credit.

If I could place myself back in early 1861, and were in a position to advise the newly-elected President, this is what I would have counseled:  

"Offer to sit down with the Confederates and negotiate over the question of their independence.  Keep the military option open, use it subtly as an inducement to come to terms favorable to the Union of which you would still be president.  Your unwillingness to allow slavery to spread further into the American territories can guide the terms you would accept.  See if this can be accomplished peacefully."

Of course, I have the benefit of hindsight:  I know that the war would be more terrible than either side expected at the outset.  (Nonetheless, during the 1850s, as the specter of secession loomed, many did anticipate that the outcome might be a nightmarish war.)  

Still, as with all counter-factual history, my hindsight doesn't enable me to see whether my proposed alternative would have worked out better.

In The Federalist Papers, one of the arguments presented for the former colonies to form "a more perfect Union" is that if the colonies break into more than one nation, history suggests the great danger that these sovereign entities would in time find themselves at war with each other.  My proposal to Lincoln, the logic of The Federalist would suggest, might only postpone the war.

Indeed, I expect that danger is even greater than the general history of intersocietal relations would suggest.  For I do believe that the spirit animating the South was one that was itching for a fight, and I am quite uncertain whether peace would have been possible. Here are three reasons I might be wrong about the chances for a peaceful resolution.

First, I wonder if the Confederate States of America would have been willing to cede to the Union, as part of the price of secession with peace, ownership of the territories of the West that were not yet admitted as states.  If I'm right about the spirit animating the South, it might well have been impossible for Lincoln to have achieved acceptable terms.

Second, having read about the appetite of the Southerners for additional territories into which they could take an economy based on slavery -- Mexico, Central America, Cuba...-- the Confederacy might have been an especially difficult neighbor with which to live at peace.

Third, if I'm right about the South being, at some level, driven toward conflict - driven, I might say, to destruction (this will be the subject of the next installment) - then that, too, might have made a peace between the USA and the CSA difficult to maintain.

Despite all those, I believe that an attempt at negotiating the division of the United States into two nations would have been preferable to the course taken.

Lincoln never considered it.  (Many others in the North advocated a position like mine:  let the South go, they said, weary of the trouble-making and bullying they'd experienced from that region.)

Perhaps Lincoln's reasons were good.  Perhaps this compassionate man - who was also a very complex man-- had a dark side that expressed itself in his rigid determination to undo the secession of the South through war.  

I don't know if Lincoln is to be faulted here. But I hold some space in my thinking for the idea that, in the course Lincoln took, the North bears some responsibility for the fact that the central issue of that era was decided not peacefully but through a monstrous war.

Bad Combination: Abuse of Power over Prisoners and America’s Misguided “War on Drugs”

My wife April engaged recently in an act of civil disobedience in furtherance of the effort to block the Keystone XL Pipeline, largely out of concern about climate change. (In the picture, April is the one with the blue bag around her neck.)

Now April has written a piece ("Imprisonment-More Punishing than You Might Think"), which I commend to your attention, on her experience with the justice system. It is one particular aspect of her experience that I want to say something about here.  

In her piece, April mentions that she and evidently everyone else who gets arrested for anything in Washington, D. C., is required to take a drug test.  Her point is made in the context of the system's apparent inclination to humiliate those over whom it has power: in particular, each person is required to pee into a cup, and to do so in the presence of a guard.

My point is about another dimension of the abuse of power this represents. Why should the simple fact of being caught up in the system strip an American citizen of the protection against "unreasonable search"?  

Why should a "crime" that implies nothing whatever about the likelihood of her being involved in the use of illegal drugs --like an act of civil disobedience against a corporation that had produced a fraudulent report for the government, hiding its conflict of interest -- remove the usual requirement that the police authorities must have "probable cause" before the they are entitled to invade an American's right of privacy?

Do Partisan Politics Still Stop at the Water’s Edge?

It seems that opposition to Obama's request is developing on the Republican side from people who have been hawkish about every issue of war and peace until this one.

It's beginning to look like yet another instance of put their own partisan quest for power ahead of what's best for the nation.

It's beginning to look like yet another instance of the GOP riding roughshod over the best of America's political traditions.

My own position on the authorization of force in Syria is heavily influenced by my belief that a failure for the Congress to support the president's request would significantly increase the probability of very dangerous things happening between Israel and Iran and perhaps the United States.

There is evidence that the Iranians have interpreted even to Obama's taking the issue to Congress as a sign that the President is weak.

If the United States shows itself unable to follow the president's leadership on this military matter, the Iranians will be emboldened to pursue their quest for nuclear weapons. They will feel more secure that the United States will not enforce what Obama has said countless times about a nuclear-armed Iran being something the United States will not tolerate, and about "all options" being on the table.  

How We Can Know that the South’s Decision to Secede Was an Act of...

I've argued that the spirit that drives today's Republican Party makes a fight over everything. Its choice of war over cooperation and compromise could hardly be clearer.  I've asserted -- throughout this series, of which this is the 8th entry -- that the spirit behind today's Republican Party is a re-emergence of the spirit that drove the South in the era leading up to the Civil War, and that this persistence of the same spirit is revealed by the significant overlap in the character and tendencies of the two forces.

Does that overlap include the tendency to choose war, I have asked?  With respect to the political process during the 1850s, I have argued in the previous posting, the answer is yes.  It was -- predominantly -- the South that pressed the political battle and generated the dynamic that polarized the nation so intensely that continuation of the Union came into question.

Now the question is: at the climax of this polarizing process, when the states of the South made the decision to secede and form a separate nation, did that decision in itself represent a choice for war?

It is only recently, after much study, struggle and consultation, that the answer has become clear to me: Yes, in the drama over secession, as in the process leading up to it, the conduct of the South shows that same spirit that prefers war and conflict over peace and cooperation.

Here's the path that leads me to that conclusion. First, it should be noted that secession was not an explicit declaration of war.  

In the Wake of the Vote of the British Parliament Against Attacking Syria


I'm wondering: Does Great Britain backing out of the idea of attacking Syria, because the British Parliament today voted not to attack and Prime Minister Cameron says he will abide by that, make stronger or weaker James Fallows' argument, in his article in the Atlantic , "Here's a Wild Idea About Syria: Make the Case to Congress," that what Obama should do is have Congress vote for or against an American attack on the Assad regime as punishment for its use of chemical weapons against its citizens?
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