Postmodern Conservative

Reflections on politics, culture, and education.

Is Progressivism Dead? (No Matter How Loud Elizabeth Warren Shouts)


So here are the Elizabth Warren’s 11 tenets of progressivism:

 -”We believe that Wall Street needs stronger rules and tougher enforcement, and we’re willing to fight for it.”

- “We believe in science, and that means that we have a responsibility to protect this Earth.”

- “We believe that the Internet shouldn’t be rigged to benefit big corporations, and that means real net neutrality.”

- “We believe that no one should work full-time and still live in poverty, and that means raising the minimum wage.”

- “We believe that fast-food workers deserve a livable wage, and that means that when they take to the picket line, we are proud to fight alongside them.”

- “We believe that students are entitled to get an education without being crushed by debt.”

- “We believe that after a lifetime of work, people are entitled to retire with dignity, and that means protecting Social Security, Medicare, and pensions.”

- “We believe—I can’t believe I have to say this in 2014—we believe in equal pay for equal work.”

- “We believe that equal means equal, and that’s true in marriage, it’s true in the workplace, it’s true in all of America.”

- “We believe that immigration has made this country strong and vibrant, and that means reform.”

- “And we believe that corporations are not people, that women have a right to their bodies. We will overturn Hobby Lobby and we will fight for it. We will fight for it!”

I will talk about this later.  But the takeaway is there’s very little to it.   There’s a vague hostility to the immorality of corporations; government should make ‘em be more ethical. There’s a  (conservative in the precise sense) bit about protecting the entitlements you already have.   There’s the more specific social or cultural progressivism, and that’s the only place EQUALITY is mentioned.  Unless you count raising the minimum wage (say what you will, that requires no new bureaucracy or national communitarian mode of thinking), there is no proposal for bigger and better government to remedy creeping  ECONOMIC inequality and all that. Nothing about access to health care, or higher taxes on the rich.  So the effectual truth of progressivism is contained to the realm of “autonomy” (a basically sophisticated issue) with some Green stuff.  It’s Silicon Valley or left-corporate capitalism.  And she is the candidate of the leftist progressives, one deemed by most Democrats as this point as too radical for their party.

Give Me Liberty (at Panera)


So one of my Panera Bread buddies (a retired Dean of Business) comes up to me with Carl Scott’s article on five forms of liberty. He has underlined more than half of it.  He asked me whether Carl Scott really knows what he’s talking about, after saying he sure is easy to read. I masterfully evaded the question by saying I actually know Carl Scott, and he’s pretty impressed. Another Panera guy (whom I don’t really know) comes up. He turns out to be a retired Air Force colonel. He, having overheard a bit of the suspicious but promising conversation, asks: What do I think about the Constitution? I respond I’m for it. He then reports he takes all sorts of online Constitution courses based on primary sources from Hillsdale, and he’s designed his own weekly seminar (based on David Ramsey — don’t actually know what that means) that’s meeting at Trinity Methodist church. He gently suggested I might learn something if I attended, which I might and so I might. Some people think there’s been progress since the Founders, but the truth is they really understood human nature. I didn’t try to tell him that progressivism is dead or anything.

I did try to tell them that they could learn more about Carl Scott if they go to the blog Postmodern Conservative at NRO. Carl could teach them a lot about the Ramones. The discussion kind of broke up at that point.

Panera trends: We don’t have the kiosks in Rome yet, which means that service remains slow but friendly. But they’ve, in a very calculated way, removed the couch that was in front of the fireplace. Panera is gradually becoming less like home.




French Reading for American Conservatives


Over at the increasingly indispensable Library of Law and Liberty, our friend the translator and teacher Paul Seaton gives you an overview of the contemporary philosophic French political thinkers that conservatives in America should be reading. I mean, I know you’d rather eat Sonic burgers while listening to the Ramones, but do check out and read some of these books. Unlike imbibing milkshakes and punk rock, you’ll feel better about yourself after you do. You’ll also be a better conservative. 

For more introductory material, I remind you of my recent posts on Chantal Delsol here, and on Pierre Manent and Philippe Bénéton here.

Carl’s Rock Songbook No. 99: The Ramones as Holocaust-Haunted Pop Art


Slight change of Songbook plans—I’m delaying the series on Lennon’s “Imagine” to say a few more things about The Ramones and punk rock, given the interest generated by my recent post.

Earlier this summer, my wife and I saw CBGB, a film on the seminal punk-rock club of the same name, and it led to our doing some reading.  One of the books was The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB’s:  A Secret History of Jewish Punk, by Steven Lee Beeber.  Its main take-away is that lots of the key figures in early punk-rock/new-wave, e.g., Lou Reed, Jonathan Richman, Hilly Kristal (owner of CBGB’s), Lenny Kaye (compiler of the Nuggets album and guitarist for Patti Smith), Chris Stein (co-leader of Blondie), 4/5 of The Dictators, half of The Ramones, and half of the creators of Punk magazine were Jewish.  Beeber also tells us that Richard Hell of Television was half-Jewish, Patti Smith at one time wanted to convert to Judaism, that many of the early punks were influenced by the Jewish humor tradition as revolutionized by Lenny Bruce, and that quite a few of them, Jewish or not, had a striking interest in…the Nazis.  

The most fascinating thing about the book is the light it sheds on The Ramones, and especially the late Tommy Ramone.  While we usually think of Johnny or Joey as being the quintessential Ramone, it turns out that Tommy was the architect.  He was a Hungarian Jew who along with his parents escaped the rising anti-Semitism and communist oppression of 1956 Hungary (his extended family had been wiped out by the Nazis), and yet, he let few of his music associates know this.  A quick summary of what you can learn from Beeber about Tommy—real name Tamas Erdelyi–was provided by The Jewish Forward, but here I’ll give you some quotes:

As first manager Danny Fields says:  “[Tommy] designed the band…it was Tommy that told us, you know the guitarist stands here, the lead singer never moves, there is no spotlight, all of that.”  …Or as Ramones tour manager Monte Melnick puts it, “It was his concept…he brought them together.”

…Though Johnny resisted bringing Joey [lead singer Jeffry Hyman] into the group, saying that he was too odd-looking, Tommy persisted, explaining to his bandmate that this was the point. “He was another one of the colorful characters I thought of when I envisioned putting together a band using my friends from Forest Hills,” Tommy says.  “He was the kind of guy people looked at twice…the perfect outsider for the Andy Warhol movie I had in mind.”

Forest Hills was not just any outer-borough neighborhood, but a heavily Jewish one.  Johnny (John Cummings, from a working class Catholic family) and Dee Dee (Douglas Colvin, son of an unhappy union between an American soldier and a German woman during the post-WWII occupation) were minorities there.  Dee Dee flirted with Nazi symbols early on as way to rebel against his abusive father, and this leaked into his lyrics.

Dee Dee wasn’t the only one to have conflicted feelings about the Nazis and Germany…  Tommy himself expressed mixed feelings without even realizing it.  Though he stresses that he…doesn’t believe Nazi references are funny, he now thinks, looking back on it, that the reason he may have been attracted to Dee Dee and Johnny in those days is that they represented something so opposite to what he’d grown up with.  In other words, Johnny wasn’t just physical and Dee Dee wasn’t just odd.  In their attraction to Nazi imagery, they were both dangerous.  Just like rock n’ roll. 

Musically, the band put a happy absurdist face on these Nazi interests–but they nonetheless had ugly implications and were an aspect of an ongoing subterranean war within the Ramones:

Did [Tommy] know that Johnny regularly tormented his friend Monte Melnick, and even Jeffery Hyman with anti-Semitic remarks?  Did he know that Johnny was recruiting Dee Dee to go on shopping expeditions for Nazi paraphernalia with him, especially when they were in infamously exile-friendly countries, such as Argentina and Brazil?  Did he know that Johnny would one day have a large, autographed photo of Adolf Hitler hanging prominently above the fireplace of his LA home, apparently placing it there without irony?  He must have sensed it, must have known that there was something beneath the surface, something that was roiling there all along.

Alas.  And Beeber’s book shows that similar flirt-with-danger and exorcise-by-embracing feelings towards the Nazis were roiling throughout the early punk scene and its antecedents:  Lou Reed briefly but seriously falling for “pale blue eyed” Nico, rich Jewish girls falling for the Stooges partly because of their Nazi paraphernalia, several punk-scene Jew-Gentile couples’ love-making sessions reputed to have occurred atop the swastika flag, and so forth.

Beeber at one point says, “no Holocaust, no punk,” and there’s something to this.  I.e., the bleakness and anger of punk is to some degree explained as a belated psychic response to Hitler’s slaughter, one that had been typically repressed from ’46 up through the 60s.  I would add that the punk moment should be more broadly thought of as the second movement of the Counter-Culture that wanted to get its bold self-expression bolder yet, to bring the truly wounded aspects of the self out in the open, and stop reducing everything to platitudes about peace, love, and no-cost hedonism.  Whatever was special about the vibe of “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Let’s Get Together,” it didn’t have what it took to face what had only just happened in the Century of Horrors.  Nor did it have what it took to face the demons inside oneself, such as the desires Plato would label “forbidden” and “tyrannic,” nor the specific Jewish demon of Holocaust-prodded self-loathing.  As Beeber says, referring to the early synergy between Tommy, Johnny, and Dee Dee:  “All three considered themselves separate from the upbeat, smiley-faced world of their time.  All three felt there was a need to bring some darker, angrier truths to the surface.”

When younger, I heard about certain controversies about The Ramones making Nazi references in song, as well as ones to girlfriend-beating, drugs, etc., but I shrugged them off, as so much of it was so obviously a joke.  As you get older, however, you become aware of the possibility of hiding half-affirmations within irony, joking, and shock-value games.  That seems to be what Dee Dee and Johnny were up to.  Having absurdist songs about self-destructive drug-abuse and Nazis was a way to annoy smiley hippies, sure, but to some degree known only to themselves it was also a way of saying for me, these things are good.  Beeber argues that in 1985, the Jewish half of the band in a symbolic sense (Tommy was not a member by then) pushed back against Nazi-flirtations through Joey’s “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg,” a song which unambiguously denounced such sentiments via a pretty unfair attack on Reagan; however, I think we have to judge that gesture as regrettably belated.  

Or consider the more basic issue of whether it is good to channel and foster anger through pop music—something generally taboo according to pre-60s/70s manners, and something that the classical (Plato-derived) theory of musical imitation would at the least counsel great caution about. Tommy said he knew from the first that Johnny, “…was…a very angry guy” and that “…a lot of that violence came out in his music.”  And let’s not forget that while you could dress-up “Dee Dee” in teenage-evocative sneakers and jeans, to have a mentally unstable on-and-off addict who claimed to have once worked as a male prostitute in your band was no neutral choice.

Beeber suggests that in Tommy’s hands all these ugly elements became basically healthy through artistic and comic alchemy, but I think you can see the limits of that idea:

[Tommy] …set up a beat that was relentless yet joyful, angry yet celebratory…Tommy capped it all off by altering Dee Dee’s Nazi-obsessed lyrics, changing “I’m a Nazi baby” to “I’m a Nazi Schatze” (kind of like “sweetie” in German) and “I’m a German soldier” to “I’m a shock trooper in a stupor,” the result being that these possibly glorifying lyrics became parodic.  Like Mel Brooks in The Producers, Tommy reduced his “Hotsy-Totsy Nazis” to caricatures who were more laughable than frightening.

Prior to reading Beeber, and prior to reading the great conservative critic of popular music, Martha Bayles, my take on The Ramones was that punk-rock had blown it by following the example of the Sex Pistols instead of theirs.  But the facts makes such naïve championship impossible.  Despite his overall booster-ism, Beeber’s book shows you that their evocation of the rock n’ roll spirit and of teenage-pop-Americana, was a tempering element to a simultaneous expression of a lot of darkness, and perhaps a defense mechanism against that becoming overwhelming.  The Ramones have an all-American, fun, stupid, and joking side incompletely covering over an aggrieved-outsider, Nazi/Holocaust-obsessed, junkiedom-inclined, and anger-issues side. 

And perhaps, what “generates the heat” in their music is more that under-side.  The main Bayles complaint is that The Ramones created a “cult of incompetence,” which through ineptitude and partial intention, stripped the blues out of the Americana.  Red, White, and, well, not the Blues.  Bands like The Beach Boys and The Rivieras (“California Sun”) were already once-removed from it, and by choosing the likes of them as the rock n’ roll model to be minimalized, The Ramones got still further away.

That is, perhaps the British punks, or the hardcore likes of The Dead Kennedys, were right to mainly mine the darker vein in The Ramones’ music.  Structurally speaking, they were right to conclude its magic was in the power-chords, the adrenaline techniques, and the rapid-fire (but swing-allergic) “backbeat.”  So it’s appropriate to suggest, as some publicists verge on doing, that the highest praise for The Ramones’ music is that it eventually influenced the likes of Metallica.  Well, since I’m not a fan of most punk nor of any speed metal, I don’t appreciate such Ramones-appreciation, even if I think we have to admit that it was intuitive enough to carry the day. 

If you read the comments to my earlier post, you’ll see that I stirred up the loyalist ire of more typical fans by saying that the Ramones weren’t Rock n’ Roll.  Now I wouldn’t have said something quite so downer and mean back in ’76—I would have had more of a wait ‘n see attitude about how their example would teach the world to sing. But it’s long been obvious that the primary lesson taken from Ramones instruction was harder, faster, and angrier.  Beginning­­­ as a pop-art project, as an “Andy Warhol movie” that Tommy knew would appeal to the Soho set, is partly to blame for this.  You might have expected the camp-ironic and minimalist ways of “embracing” rock n’ roll would have placed The Ramones in a sense above it, free from its clichés, but in fact, they bound the band quite tightly to a new formula.  

And whatever box that kept them in, it wrongly suggested that there was nothing more to the old blues-swingin’ music than teenaged fun and cocky rebellion.  By The Ramones’ example, what Bayles calls Afro-American music was not something you delved into and learned from, but something you used, kind of as a “found object.”  So their example tended to confirm the verdict delivered by those German art-heads Kraftwerk:  with the exception of The Velvet Underground, American music was little more than “popcorn chewing gum.”   And of course, if the (rather German) judgment that American culture amounted to Mickey Mouse were true, punkifying it might be the way to go.

So I will conclude by asking you to entertain the idea, with all due respect for the ingenious improvised responses of Tommy, The Ramones, and a few other punk pioneers to their situation, that the life-affirming qualities of a music rooted in the travails of American Slavery could have provided a more substantial measure of healing to those haunted by the European Holocaust, had they listened to it more deeply, and been less impressed by the typical twentieth-century avant-gardists like Susan Sontag, Andy Warhol, etc.   A bit more Ralph Ellison, who right at the start of Invisible Man said “I know now that few really listen to this music,” and a whole lot less “European Son,” would have been better for those who became known as punk rockers. And for us.

However, I will add this: The Ramones seemed to have known that, all duties to irony and modern angst aside,  joy was still the main point.  That’s the case whether I should refuse to call their best approximations of the genre (such as  “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker”) rock n’ roll or not, or whether they should­­ have packaged their whole project as punk rock or not.  For whatever else we may say, Nazi Germany’s long shadow is utterly and rightly forgotten by the spirit that animates a song like “Sheena.” 

P.S.  I invite Christopher Wolfe, and our recent commenter George, to go to town in correcting any mistakes or misinterpretations made by Beeber or myself.

Tags: Ramones , rock , punk rock , Nazis , Holocaust

Some Possible Circumstances For A Split Between The GOP And Big Business


Don’t read too much into John Feehery’s little nervous breakdown in the Wall Street Journal where he hints that unless his clients start getting their way real soon, big business is going to abandon the Republicans and start bankrolling the Democrats.

To start with, Feehery isn’t big business.  He is part of a lobbying firm (granted, lobbying is a big business, but that isn’t what we are talking about).  More to the point, Feehery is part of a lobbying industry at a moment when big business must be wondering if they are getting their money’s worth – and I don’t mean from the Republicans.  The Export-Import Band Bank is on the chopping block.  I’m not going to count out something like the Gang of Eight’s immigration plan passing the 113th Congress until the first meeting of the 114th Congress in January 2015, but the Chamber of Commerce-favored form of immigration reform sure looks to be on its back at the moment.  That Feehery feels the need to issue public threats about how his clients are feeling unappreciated is a sign of weakness rather than strength.

Having said that, I can imagine circumstances where there is a temporary estrangement between the majority of big business and the GOP.  It would have to involve some Republican presidential candidate who was seen as either an absolutely certain loser and/or dangerously irresponsible.  Of the potential Republican presidential candidates, I suspect that many in the business community would see Rick Santorum as a certain loser and perhaps Mike Huckabee and Rand Paul as too irresponsible (Huckabee because he doesn’t seem to care to prepare himself for a serious presidential campaign and Paul because of questions about his foreign policy orientation).  In the case of any of those men getting the nomination (and I don’t even think Huckabee wants to be president as much as he might want to use a presidential campaign to refresh his media brand), one can imagine the Democrats getting somewhat more business money as the business lobbies hedge their bets.

The most important thing to remember is that the Democrats will get more business money if they seem like sure winners.  Obama was the most liberal Senator when he got plenty of business money in 2008. His opponent was the known amnesty supporter John McCain.  What happened?  Well, it was obvious that Senator Obama was very likely to win and that Obama was very likely to have an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress.  It wasn’t personal.  It wasn’t ideological.  It was business.



Rod Dreher on Being (Eating and Drinking) Southern


Crunchy-con (and porcher) Rod Dreher may have evolved in a postmodern and conservative direction through the unmediated experience of actually living in a small southern town as a successful adult.

He wittily and rightly pans a snotty New York Times reviewer for disparaging the author of the enduringly popular southern Stoic novel To Kill a Mockingbird  for having a regular booth at McDonald’s, enjoying takeout Burger King salads on movie night, and enthusiastically fishing with hot dogs and feeding the ducks with seed corn. Harper (really, Nelle) also watches network TV! I won’t remind Rod that we saw that same kind of disparaging from him when he was about branding himself conservative yet crunchy. And, of course, the porchers in general get all uppity when they speak of the people who frequent chains and so who waffle or worse on buying local by dining at Waffle House or getting groceries at Walmart (the latter, apparently, is what most of the folks in St. Francisville actually do, despite the drive).

But Rod goes further and outs himself as a tasteless southern eco-sinner: “Note to self: if Dwight Garner is to review my future books, do not let him know about my penchant for reading Dante while shoving a Super Sonic No. 1 with a Route 44 Coke Zero down my rusticated Southern gob.” Coke Zero, although closer to the taste of real coke than Diet Coke, is nothing but a heaping helping of chemicals, and God knows where the contents of burger No. 1 came from and what has been done to them. I expect Rod has learned the hard way not to use words like “rusticated”  and “gob” (I’m mean, what the hell?) around the other guys at Sonic. I expect they do appreciate that reading Dante is classy.

Rod, as far as I know, has not  shared with his readers whether his viewing or grocery-shopping habits have evolved in a characteristically southern direction. In any case, he’s moving in the right direction.

Walker Percy, of course, often lunched on Wendy’s bacon cheeseburger and a sweet tea. And watched really bad TV shows such as Barney Miller. I’m pretty sure Bunt decided where dinner came from.

Here’s my first piece of advice for Coke Zero drinkers: There’s not one study that shows that real Coke is worse for you. It won’t even make you fatter (well, I’m obviously not to be trusted on this front) unless you’re swilling several down a day. If you’re drinking that many Coke Zeros, you better have already picked out your oncologist.

I admit to having an incoherent, unmanly fear of an unviolent death that steers me away from real Coke and toward the occasional Coke Zero. And here’s my second piece of advice: Get it at Steak ’n Shake with a shot of chocolate added. That way you really don’t know it’s not a real Coke.

I know little about Harper Lee, but everything I do know I like. Flannery O’Connor’s dismissal of her novel as merely a children’s book caused me to be slow to see how great it is as a work of classical southern education, a tale of magnanimity. And there’s a whole lot to be said for writing just one book that you can live off handsomely for the rest of your life. That way you get to stay home. And it doesn’t have to be in the sulky, self-obsessed J. D. Salinger way.

UPDATE:  My ignorance of Sonic was showing here.  It turns out Route 44 refers to a 44 oz. drink!  Take that Mayor Bloomberg!  So it’s the equivalent of swilling several  regular-sized Coke Zeroes.  I would urge Rod not to do that every day.  Or maybe, as Dave in Georgia suggests in the thread, switch over to the possibly less toxic (in huge doses) Diet  Dr. Pepper. (My personal view of the taste of Dr. Pepper has no place on this family blog.)  There is a Sonic drive-in in West Rome, and I will be doing some remedial research this week.

UPDATE No. 2:  Rod responds to the above by saying that he’s never been ashamed of his love of Sonic food and drink, but he’s always adhered to the distinction between the occasional indulgence in junk food and the norm of healthy food.  The Crunchies are opposed to those who think of food choices as nothing but random preferences to be consumed at will.  So we can be assured that Rod isn’t overdosing on Coke Zeroes.  One of my grandson’s favorite books is about the Berenstain Bears overcoming their addiction to too much junk food.  He explains to me that he eats junk food, but only a little. Me too, although maybe a bit more.  I readily agree that some Southerners on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale have done themselves a disservice by abandoning collards in favor of too much junk food.  Collards are making a comeback though, among the more fortunate.  Rod was also attempting to be sarcastic with “rusticated gob.”  Well, I figured, but my whole post is meant to be on the lighthearted, if not exactly ironic, side.






Big Business Is Not Washington’s Big Problem


I’m not at all worried about big business “changing sides”. For one thing, the Chamber of Commerce is always going to be on its own side, and the size of government issues related to an aging population will create plenty of common ground (especially on taxation) between conservatives and most business interests for the foreseeable future. What is interesting about John Feehery’s cry from the heart is less what it says about business, and more what it says about the arrogance of America’s contemporary lobbyist class.

Feehery, the Barbour clan, and the rest of the Washington Republican operative class thought they had immigration policy wired.  Henry Barbour helped write the Republican National Committee’s “autopsy” that called for a “comprehensive” immigration reform that amounted to amnesty, plus low-skill guest worker programs, plus delayed (probably permanently delayed) enforcement.  Haley Barbour brought the billionaires along.  The intraparty opposition was underfunded and disoriented from the results of the 2012 election.

Yet for all of their advantages, the lobbyists were not able to win the intraparty argument over immigration policy.  Feehery’s comments are better understood as sign of his frustration that the other elements of the center-right won’t show sufficient deference to his bosses.  Gaining that deference to the business interests is Feehery’s job and he is failing at it.  The problem is that the Feehery’s have sold their clients an unrealistic idea of what their place can be in center-right politics.  The business interests can be part of the coalition, but they cannot be the coalition.  There will also be issues on which some of the business interests will politically diverge from the broader center-right.  That is what is so liberating about thinking of the business interests as … interests.   

Canada and Australia manage to have governing center-right parties that support skills-based immigration policies.  In Canada, the center-right party even manages to draw significant support from immigrants.  Business interests can be part of a successful relatively lower tax, lower regulation, lower spending political coalition.  They just can’t have everything they want.  They are never going to get everything they want from anybody.  They sure aren’t going to get a better  long-term deal from Nancy Pelosi’s Democrats.  Expecting everything will just lead to more lobbyists shrieking in the pages of the Wall Street Journal.   

Will Big Business Switch Parties?


So I had to drop everything and tell you about a warning promulgated by a Wall Street Journal writer: If those Republicans don’t stop being so libertarian and populist, big business might take its big money over to the Democrats.

By big business the author apparently means the businesses that are represented by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Those populist Republicans have to stop shouting “crony capitalism” as if it were an altogether bad thing. Business and government, after all, often reach sensible bipartisan decisions, such as immigration reform and the Common Core. Such matters, which ought not to be controversial, are being made so by populist demagogues.

On immigration, the perception is that big business and the Democrats, from somewhat different but pretty complementary perspectives, want to flood the country with low-skill workers to bring down the cost of labor. That, of course, is not so good for American worker — or so it would seem. But it is good for American big business, and the C of C thought is that everyone will be benefit eventually from the increased productivity and profit. So the American worker should understand that his worry about the security and compensation of his present job is unreasonably short-term. Still, I have to add this sort of  ”sensible” thinking shortchanges the idea of American citizenship, and it’s not true that the distinction between citizen and non-citizen is merely “rent-seeking” by citizens. It goes without saying that I’m not endorsing the populism that morphs into a nativism angrily insensitive to the plight of abandoned children. But our serious goal should be to be sure that everyone in our country is accounted for, legal, and with a road to citizenship, or not just  “guest workers” (a very un-American category). And, of course, we have every right to regulate who we let into our country with the welfare of American citizens and citizenship in mind.  To avoid any misunderstanding, let me say that I am for a very generous, hospitable, and global immigration policy, but we do have to have an actual policy.

It’s true that, on the Common Core, many of the criticisms are rather paranoid, and I will even agree that they might be at the expense of a real national conversation on the costs and benefits of technocratic national standards. Still, the populists have a point that the business-government-expert bipartisan coalition that produced these standards and the financial incentives for the states to embrace them was at the expense of real political deliberation about the best ways to make our schools better. And the record of technocratic educationists in creating and implementing educational reform that actually delivers what it promises has been pretty abysmal so far. Who can’t admire the populist spirit that refuses to bow down to the know-it-all evil empire that includes big business, Silicon Valley, educational experts, bureaucrats,  and the Obama administration?

My takeaways:  It is really not very clear, if you think about it, that the Democratic party is full of socialist hostility to our oligarchs. Many or most of them in Silicon Valley and on Wall Street are already voting Democratic. The ones that remain Republican want to impose on their party the uncritical faith that cutting taxes on job creators and getting rid of as many regulations as possible are all that’s required to grow the economy and so make all lives better, and they want partisans to ignore  their “crony capitalist” works that often contradict their faith. That the WSJ voices their threat to switch if their faith is denied  is a pretty telling piece of somewhat laughable blackmail.

The article talks about some Democratic dream of an alliance of big business and labor. I don’t know how that would work, although it would be very paternalistic. I do think if ordinary working Americans became convinced  that unions are toast no matter what they or the Democrats do, then they might switch to the somewhat populist Republicanism for both cultural and economic reasons. But they have to be persuaded that the Republicans have their backs.

Random caveats: I don’t mean to diss the fine work done by the Chamber of Commerce; the local C of C is one of the indispensable pillars of the prosperity we enjoy in Rome / Floyd County, Ga. I don’t even mean to diss oligarchs (at least much). To be an oligarch is to think like a rich person. If more people did that, we’d have more rich people. And that would actually be a good thing.

One more thing:  The dissidents who appreciated my appreciation of the libertarian opposition to the Common Core suggested I actually go after accreditation and certification too.  Here’s what I really think about accreditation.

Burning Bush: Truth and Consequences


Here are more thoughts occasioned by the brilliant new Czech film Burning Bush. For my first post on the film, go here.

The drama of Burning Bush centers on a libel suit brought by Jan Palach’s brother and mother against a member of the party’s central committee, Vilém Nový.  During a pre-election meeting outside of Prague at the end of February, Nový claimed Palach was a mentally unstable young man who was manipulated by right-wing foreign elements in cooperation with the student movement. He argued Palach had been told that he was being given a special chemical that would allow the fire to burn while also protecting him from harm (referred to as the “cold fire” theory). But the perfidious Western powers never provided the promised protective chemical—giving him gasoline instead.

Part one of Burning Bush concludes with Dagmar Burešová (Daša) and her boss Vladimir Charouz—two lawyers working in a legal aid bureau—reading an article in the newspaper Mlada Fronta quoting Nový’s speech. Both are struck by the boldness of the lie, and Vladimir notes that Nový would never had made such a claim without instructions from Moscow. A few minutes later Palach’s brother and mother arrive (with Ondřej Travniček , a leader in the students movement who has also been libeled) at the legal bureau to ask Daša to represent them in a suit against Nový. Daša is stunned by the request and asks the Palachs to reconsider. She tries to reassure them by suggesting nobody believes the nonsense in the papers. She asks Ondřej if he really understands who Nový is and if he understands the storm that will be brought down on the Palachs should they go on with their suit. As the frustrated Palachs depart, Daša tells them that Nový can’t diminish the significance of Jan’s act. Is she right? Can Jan Palach’s deed be altered by the Communist functionary’s mere words? Can Jan’s deed speak for itself and rise above the blather of Nový and the remarks of other officials?

Near the beginning of part two of the film Daša and her husband Radim are enjoying a night out without their twin daughters. Daša tells her husband that she has decided to represent the Palachs. Radim, who is a physician, asks what she possibly hopes to achieve with the lawsuit.  In reply she asks him if he only takes patients whom he knows he can cure. The date ends abruptly. In the very early morning their debate continues. Daša tells Radim that she is not taking the case for Palach or his brother or mother. She says, “We keep telling the girls that it’s bad to lie, that it’s bad to cheat, that they should be good. But we don’t believe it ourselves anymore.” Thus the passive toleration of lies undermines the basis of the sort of behavior she expects of her children. Daša comes to understand that her refusal to take the Palach case is a deed that contradicts what she tells her children about how to live. Her exhortations to her daughters would be mere words if she can’t bring herself to act in accordance the underlying principles. Just as the integrity of Palach’s deed really is threatened by Nový’s speech, the integrity of Daša’s speeches to her daughters is threatened by the deed of her initial refusal to take the case.

So Daša agrees to represent the Palachs and begins to build her case against Nový throughout part two of the film—the actual trial begins in part three. Once her investigation begins in earnest, we see the malevolent machinery of the party-state bring pressure to bear on everyone connected to the case. Mrs. Palachová is hounded by middle of the night phone calls and knocks at her door. A man who visits the snack bar at the train station where she works “accidentally” leaves his magazine there, which turns out to be full of naked photos of her son after his death. Jiří is pressured by the cemetery overseer to move Jan as his grave is said to be fast becoming a site for anti-state agitation. A complaint is filed against Radim by a patient who is also assisted by the obviously false testimony of a nurse. Daša and Radim’s flat is surveilled around the clock by two men. And Vladimir, Daša’s boss, ends up stealing a key piece of evidence against Nový. In exchange for his assistance, the state offers to protect his daughter Vladka from the consequences that will follow for her fellow members of the student movement. This is all so well-done by the writer, director, and actors that the film is hard to watch as all of the screws tighten. We are led to question Daša’s decision to take the case, and perhaps even to question Palach’s act, as we see his mother being driven to temporary institutionalization. Simple decency makes one wonder whether it’s all worth it.

It seems clear from the outset that the Palachs have little to no chance of winning their case. One must recognize just how important it was that the Communists preserved some of forms and formalities of the rule of law (e.g., the presence of the legal aid bureau and the fact that a suit could be brought at all against someone like Nový). Yes, most of these institutions and processes were hollowed out or utterly corrupted, but their presence allowed the party to maintain certain pretenses about the overall character of public life. The contrast between the appearance and the reality is what led most people to become utterly cynical about anything political and to cease even to pay much attention to politics. When Daša is gathering information for the trial and conducting interviews, more than once does an interlocutor reply with something like “I don’t pay attention to politics.” And who would dare to suggest such an attitude is not entirely justified? One might even go further. Is it not irresponsible to endanger friends and family while waging battles one cannot possibly win? The proper response might be to flatly ignore the deadly games of the powerful and to endure. Vladimir takes precisely this position in a heated argument with a very young colleague who admires Palach and Jan Zajíc, another young man who immolated himself at the end of February (Zajíc swallowed acid before lighting the flame and died before he ever made it to the street on Wenceslas Square). Vladimir tells the young lawyer, “Your generation has no survival instinct!”

So most people kept their distance as much as possible and made concessions when necessary in the hopes of preserving something like a decent life for their families. They did not take a stand for the truth and allowed a drapery of lies to hang lazily around them. The costs were real for those who did take stands: loss of jobs, children denied entry to school, the loss of friends—the list is long. I once asked a dissident, Kamila Bendová (wife of a leader of the Charter 77 movement, Václav Benda), if her children (or those of other dissidents) ever reproached her for her actions that cost them schooling, decent jobs, or even just a quiet life. She said never—she’d never heard of such a thing—and that on the contrary, it was the children of those parents who had compromised themselves for their children’s sake who were filled with anger and guilt later in life. Standing for truth and justice—against all odds—took enormous courage. The film certainly teaches this. But perhaps even more than that, such stances seemed to entail a certain confidence, a certain hopefulness, that better things really are possible—all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. Václav Benda once wrote an essay about the fate of his friend Jiří  Gruntorád, who endured a prison term and protective custody, among other things. Benda wrote:

Jirka Gruntorád is, in spite of all the bullying, cheerful and resolute, his friends are on the increase…Whereas They walk with their heads hanging, They are afraid of each other, scared of the future, of anything at all. I would not want to provide Jirka and many others with cheap comfort or make light of their situations, but what is raised against them shows signs more of revenge and impotent fury over defeat than any really effective political activity. They have no future ahead of them, and they know it. That does not make them any less dangerous and it would be a bad idea to underestimate them. Their worst problem is that they are almost boundless in the damage they can do, but do not have it in their power to succeed in anything or in any way; such ontological status is sterile from the start, and in time wearisome…They can do anything, but surprisingly it does them no good. We have to endure everything, but each manful endurance strengthens the position of what I would—maybe immodestly—call justice, freedom, truth or good, which in itself undoubtedly has an element of hope.

There is a brilliant touch near the end of the film. It is now January of 1989, and students have joined together to celebrate Jan Palach week. A few students have been putting up flyers in the Prague metro, and they are being chased by police officers. As the students sprint up the long escalator to escape, they inadvertently drop a bunch of flyers—they float randomly to the ground, perhaps never to find their intended audience. Then commuters emerge into the tunnel and most of them—young and old—bend down, grab a flyer, and place it in their pocket. Most of these people probably did not and would not take a stand for the truth. However, they know it when they see it and they want to touch it, to preserve a little of it when they can.


Tags: Burning Bush , Communism , Jan Palach

Is Progressivism Dead?


It’s starting to become a commonplace observation that our two parties are converging in a libertarian direction. That means, from one view, that they’re becoming demoralized. Veteran (well, elderly) Democrats, such as Thomas Edsall, are sadly observing that their party’s economic agenda is dead. That’s because younger voters, although loyal to the Democratic party, see its main role as protecting them from conservative moral restraint. Meanwhile, they have no faith that bigger government can alleviate the plight of the poor, and they buy the argument that government can’t afford to do much more that it’s doing. They are, in fact, so post-racist in their interpersonal lives that they even fail to see the need for the “classic” Democratic remedy for racism, which is affirmative action. And they are so post-heterosexist that they don’t see any reason in opposing same-sex marriage, and all gays need, of course, is the leveling of legal distinctions and not quotas or whatever.

 It’s not that young Democrats have suddenly come to conclude that the whole welfare state is unconstitutional; it’s just that they no longer care to devote themselves to defending what probably doesn’t have much a future. Why get excited about Social Security when it won’t be around when I get old anyway?

From Edsall’s point of view, this realignment of Democratic priorities, which can be seen in the president’s focusing his party’s mobilization against Hobby Lobby, Republican religious animosity, and all that, will mean that the Democrats will soon lack the firm spirit of unified resistance to Republican schemes to roll back taxes on the rich, starve entitlements and other government programs, and scale back those regulations that constrain the irresponsible greed of corporations and banks. Not only is the moral energy that drives the Democratic spirit of progressive, redistributive reform almost gone, but the void created by the lack of politicized communitarian compassion in young Democrats will be filled by the insistent and often successful big-money lobbying of business and corporate interests. Our oligarchs remain as energetic as ever.

In Edsall’s admirably judgmental opinion, young Democrats have become selfishly against real equality in their opposition to any kind of moral restraint imposed by government. They’re the party of uninhibited freedom in one’s own personal life. And they are no longer moved by any sensitivity to the injustices of the growing inequality — or the struggles of the failing middle class — that are the consequences of the unmediated effects of the global competitive marketplace on ordinary American lives.

Well, I’ve been saying for a while that big-government progressivism, or the communitarian Left, is dead. It’s great to have a classic and classy liberal agree with me.

The progressivism described by Justice Kennedy in Lawrence v. Texas is still very much alive. Laws once thought to be necessary and proper are today thought only to oppress. And our Framers left “liberty” undefined in the Constitution undefined in order that it serve as a weapon to be used by each generation of Americans in expanding its domain. That progressivism, of course, isn’t especially liberal. It’s part and parcel of the judicial activism defended by libertarians (who usually vote Republican in defense of economic liberty) such as Randy Barnett.

Just as the Democrats are demoralized by abandoning their traditional progressive economic agenda in view of trending opinion, the Republicans are demoralized by abandoning their social–cultural agenda for the same reason.

I want to say that I’m far from satisfied with this conclusion, from either a normative or an empirical point of view. If you look even more closely, you can see a slowly growing movement that’s consistently anti-libertarian, favoring the classic Democratic view on “social justice” and the Republican view on “social ecology.” I’m far from being a part of that movement, dissenting on both its normative assumptions and its empirical analysis. But the possibility of being consistently anti-progressive does, as they say, complicate the picture.

The Republican Consultant Class Are Doing What Feels Good


I grew up with the idea of political consultants as cynics who were primarily dedicated to winning.  An individual consultant might have personal policy preferences, but advancing their career by getting their candidate elected came first.  The current crop of GOP consultants does not appear to be living down to this model – and that is too bad.  The country would be better off if Republican consultants acted (in their professional capacity) as soulless guns for hire.

Let us start off with some facts.  According to a survey by the College Republicans, only 16% of young voters thought that abortion should be legal in all cases.  Another 37% of young voters said abortion should be legal “up to a point”.  A narrow majority (51%) of young voters though abortion should always be illegal or generally illegal with some exceptions.  Obama got 60% of the youth vote in 2012. You would think that Obama’s abortion extremism and the abortion extremism of the national Democratic party would provide Republican consultants with an opportunity to drive a wedge between the Democrats and some young (and-not-so-young) voters who oppose at-will late-term abortion and   support extending legal protections to infants who survive botched abortions.

That is what you would think.  Instead, the Republican consultant class has produced ads mocking Obama’s performance in the first debate, and highlighting business owners who made vague complaints that Obama was taxing and regulating them too much.  Some of the ads were just a series of poorly connected in-jokes that only make sense to political junkies. 

One way to understand the often ineffective, and sometimes just plain odd recent behavior of the Republican consultant class is to think of them not as hired guns, but as part of a wider elite Republican culture that also includes donors, Washington political aides, former elected office holders and lobbyists (the last three groups overlap to a very large extent).  This culture shapes how these consultants believe campaigns should be run.  Attacking Obama for his vote on born-alive legislation would just be too harsh.  Constantly attacking Obama over “you built that” really speaks to the average American.

In  A Theory of Political Parties: Groups, Policy Demands and Nominations in American Politics, a collection of political scientists argue that party politics is dominated by “policy demanders”.   Policy demanders are activists and groups who use the party as a vehicle for their common agenda.  Policy demanders are not about winning elections at all costs – at least not if those costs involve sacrificing too much of what the policy demanders want.  Policy demanders are about advancing their interests and their preferences even if it sometimes means reducing the odds that their political party will maximize its political advantage.

You see this with today’s Democratic party.  President Obama’s combination of paralysis and bad faith on the border crisis issue is not doing anything to help the prospects of the Democratic party in the short and medium-term (that is, during the career cycle of the top Democratic leaders).  Obama’s response is doing nothing to help Vice President Biden (age 71) become President Biden.  Nancy Pelosi’s response to the border crisis  is doing nothing to help her (age 74) become House Speaker Pelosi any time soon.  If you think of the Democratic party as simply a machine designed to advance the electoral interests of a team of politicians, the behavior of Obama and Pelosi makes no sense.  If you think of the Democrats as a collection of policy demanders, then their behavior can seem more reasonable.

Maybe the current crop of Republican consulting class are best seen not as policy demanders, but as a group of politics demanders.  They are concerned less with governing (policy) and more concerned with how campaigns are conducted and what issues are emphasized.  There are certain themes they are comfortable employing and certain themes they find irritating.  A given Republican consultant might personally be opposed to late-term abortion (to the extent they ever think about the issue), but late-term abortion is not the kind of thing that elections are about.  The campaign priorities emerge from an elite culture (a center-right elite culture) that prioritizes economic issues and views the social issues as a distraction or a necessary evil.  This is not just about dollars and cents.  It is about how priorities emerge within a culture.  This is a culture where it was widely believed that endlessly repeating “you built that” had some kind of talismanic power over the electorate.

This view of how campaigns should be run leads the current Republican consultant class to treat social conservatism as an embarrassment or (at best) a chore.  Social conservatives are seen as an isolated, exotic and toxic group.  The consultants see it as almost absurd that Republican should carefully pick social issues fights that unite social conservatives with moderate voters while isolating liberal Democrats.  The “values” stuff belongs at the Values Voters Summit.  Also, a few cryptic lines about a culture of life in the presidential nominee’s speech at the national convention are probably unavoidable.

By way of comparison, the national Democratic political elites are confident and aggressive social liberals.  This means they know how to take advantage of opportunities (like in the case of Todd Akin).  It means the Democratic political class is looking to create political opportunities (as in the gratuitous HHS contraception mandate and the form of the opt-out for religious groups).  The Democratic political elites are constantly looking for ways to connect the social liberals in the party’s base to persuadable voters.  That means choosing the political ground, striking first, and investing in getting their message out.  By contrast, Republican consultants seek to placate social conservatives with as little fuss as possible, while trying to craft a different message for persuadables.  Occasionally, you will see a Republican consultant suggest excommunicating social conservatives.

The result is that the GOP has missed (and continues to miss) major opportunities, and much of the consultant class doesn’t seem to mind.   According to the group-centric view of parties, the party is a coalition.  One group within current Republican coalition is not holding up its end.  Social conservatives (and just plain Republican partisans) should start demanding either better politics from their consultants or better political consultants.  

Suicidal, Lazy, Or Corrupt?


If the Republican can’t put together a winning message on late term abortion, with the public already agreeing with the pro-lifers on this issue, then it will be clear that winning is not the top priority of the GOP consultant class.  And yet you know that there are Republican consultants who would be more comfortable working on more unifying issues like the need for low-skill guest worker programs, and how Obama is picking on old, white, business owners.

These consultants are the same people who twice blew the chance to publicize Obama’s votes to prevent extending legal protections to infants that survived botched abortions.  I guess that is because people like telling business owners “you built that”, more than they like babies.

Hey, you can’t argue with success.

Libertarian Dissenters vs. Common Core Conscription


So I’ve been criticized by some for blaming libertarian economists for the uncritical faith in technocratic expertise that’s responsible for the various degrading stupidities characteristic of disruptive innovation in education.

I’m thinking that criticism makes a lot of sense. There’s a difference between faith primarily in the market and faith primarily in technique, although the difference may be far from radical or fundamental.

For today, I’m going to highlight the difference by paying homage to the criticisms (here and here) of the Common Core found in the libertarians’ Reason (magazine).

The Common Core, of course, was the product of educationist expertise funded lavishly by the Gates Foundation and semi-forced upon the states through the carrot of national government funding. It sure isn’t a good sign that representatives from our two major parties and our executive branch all deferred to a billionaire philanthropist who knows how to market (and especially corner the market on)  software and so forth and maybe not much else.

Here are some Reasonable observations:

Gates surely sincerely believes that the new national curriculum and rigorous national testing based on its standards will improve American education. It will do what past such efforts — such as No Child Left Behind — failed to do.

Still, “a Windows webpage actually recommends that schools hurry up and buy the latest Windows software in order to enjoy a smoother transition to techno-heavy standardized testing.” Microsoft will make a lot of money from the virtually certain fact that schools will be stuck with Windows 8 (or higher), given that Microsoft has managed to make sure that there’s no comparable product in the marketplace.

It’s always true that “massive, expensive public policy changes . . . carry ramifications for rent-seeking.” The money Microsoft makes won’t flow from the competitive marketplace, but from basically a monopolistic government stimulus package.

In general, the semi-coercive standardized computerization of educational “delivery” and evaluation is “crony capitalism for computer companies.” Silicon Valley in general, and Microsoft in particular, depends more and more on that kind of corporatism, or pseudo-capitalism. And the joy of techno-creativity found in the early days has been displaced by a far more rigorous attention to the monetary bottom line by manipulation of consumers through what can be known about who they are by their online behavior. I’m all for  a hermeneutic of suspicion” when it comes to any centralizing, expert-driven reform flowing from Silicon Valley. Thank you, Reasonable libertarians, for reminding us that we should worry a lot more, say, about Google watching us than about the NSA doing the same.

Here’s the dissident Coalition against the Common Core: Tea Partiers, teachers’ unions, various parents-rights activists, localists, homeschoolers, religious educators, libertarians, and Louis C. K., the philosopher-comedian. They agree that the reform is needlessly intrusive and dependent on “wonky high-stakes tests” based on jargon-driven competencies and impossible to sensibly prepare students for, and that it costs more to implement than it could possibly be worth in improving student learning. “Private”schools won’t really remain unaffected, as all standardized testing is reconfigured with the Common Core in mind. This dissident coalition includes pure libertarians and those deploying libertarian means for their traditional ends.

I’m not about to wander off the libertarian ranch in this homage and defend teachers’ unions, although I’ve already said more than once that we should have selective nostalgia for unions in general. I will say that the high-school teachers I know aren’t against being held accountable; they would be thrilled if some competent and informed authority actually recognized their excellence and offered them helpful criticism. It’s just that their bosses don’t know what they’re doing, and so accountability means living in fear of random willfulness. And they don’t have any more faith in being held genuinely accountable for their job performance through standardized testing generated by what passes for educationist expertise. Accountability, to be real, has to be personal and local. It does exist here and there in American education, but the Common Core, if you think about it, almost guarantees there will be less of it.

The Common Core standards, as I will explain later, could easily be worse. They recognize the importance of content-driven education and of actually being able to do mathematical computation and not just relying on the mysterious outcomes that are the results of inputting data into calculative devices. But they, as I’ve said before, do away with the competency of penmanship, with what’s required to think more clearly by using the selective and whimsical “method” of taking handwritten notes. Handwriting is dispensable if all “writing” is keyboarding.

So all in all, the tendency is to install the computer into all levels of the “classroom experience” as an extension of each student’s physical being. That is a huge mistake, studies show, if we’re really about giving students the joy of thinking for themselves about what they read and hear. For the existential reasons described by Louis C. K., teachers should tell students to leave those screens alone. There are also, of course, the freedom reasons; everyone online is being monitored every moment from Silicon Valley. The less time our kids spend revealing themselves online, the better. Schools should develop habits of self-reliance; they include rediscovering the joyful competency, celebrated by the Beach Boys, of being alone with your thoughts in your room. So the Common Core is most of all a stimulus package for those who want to make as much of our students’ world as virtual or screen-dependent as possible. I’m not saying, of course, that I’ve captured Gates’s or Microsoft’s secret goal or anything like that.

For polemical purposes, I’ll say that our libertarians have noticed that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce support for the Common Core is also a bad sign. The real goal is to move even further away from education aiming at forming souls and toward producing reliable, “collaborative,” “information-retrieving” (as opposed to wisdom-seeking) cogs in a cyber-machine scripted by our cognitive elite. From that point of view, I understand and applaud the libertarian cry that we need to stop using our kids as “conscripted labor” (trapped in public schools) “for standardized testing companies.”

The concluding libertarian truth, indispensable for those who are about using libertarian means to achieve the non-libertarian end of sustaining and enhancing the moral and intellectual diversity that is the saving grace of American education from kindergarten through graduate school: “Efforts that empower parents to fix their own local schools will always be more successful than cumbersome national initiatives.” I would include in the category of cumbersome the costly, time-sucking, and largely pointless monopolistic processes we have for accreditation and certification.

This sounds a bit one-sided? Sure.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being President of the United States


Not a parody:

In a summer when the president is traveling across the country meeting with ordinary Americans under highly choreographed conditions, the Rome dinner shows another side of Mr. Obama. As one of an increasing number of late-night dinners in his second term, it offers a glimpse into a president who prefers intellectuals to politicians, and into the rarefied company Mr. Obama may keep after he leaves the White House.

Sometimes stretching into the small hours of the morning, the dinners reflect a restless president weary of the obligations of the White House and less concerned about the appearance of partying with the rich and celebrated. Freewheeling, with conversation touching on art, architecture and literature, the gatherings are a world away from the stilted meals Mr. Obama had last year with Senate Republican leaders at the Jefferson Hotel in Washington.

As Mr. Obama once said about the Senate Republican leader from Kentucky: “Some folks still don’t think I spend enough time with Congress. ‘Why don’t you get a drink with Mitch McConnell?’ they ask. Really? Why don’t you get a drink with Mitch McConnell?”

He likes everything about being president except for the actual job. Salons are more to his taste. Restless, weary of ordinary Americans and Republican Senators, where is he to turn? He’s a perfect intellectual–unfit for politics–without the excusatory circumstances of his French counterparts in the 18th century:

At the almost infinite distance from practice in which they lived, no experience tempered the ardors of their nature; nothing warning them of the obstacles that existing facts might place before even the most desirable reforms; they didn’t have any idea of the dangers which always accompany even the most necessary revolutions. They did not have even the least suspicion of them; for the complete absence of political freedom had made the world of action not merely badly known to them, but invisible. (Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the Revolution, Book III, chapter 1, “How Around the Middle of the Eighteenth Century Intellectuals Became the Country’s Leading Politicians, and the Effects Which Resulted from This”)

The “world of action” is certainly visible to our President, but is it an overstatement to say he loathes it and desires nothing more than to exempt himself from it?

The Coalition For Either Everything Now Or Nothing Until Whenever


Ramesh Ponnuru points out that the three billionaires op-ed in the New York Times has a logical disjunction.  The billionaires are mostly interested in increasing high-skill immigration.  If that policy could somehow be separated from the rest of the immigration controversies, there would very likely be sufficient congressional support  for increasing high-skill immigration.  But the billionaires are urging Congress to pass a “comprehensive” immigration reform that would also increase future low-skill immigration and legalize millions of currently unauthorized immigrants prior to implementing improved internal immigration enforcement.

As Ponnuru points out, the billionaires would seem to be undermining the cause of expanding high-skill immigration by bundling it with more controversial policies.  Why would they do that?  It is because the coalition supporting the current version of “comprehensive” immigration reform seems to have accepted certain demands from Democratic political elites and the lobbyists seeking to drive down the wages of low-skill workers.

The first demand is that the Democrats will not accept increased high-skill immigration unless it is bundled with amnesty and expanded low-skill immigration.  The second demand seems to be that the implementation of internal enforcement measures before legalization is worse than no deal at all.  One can imagine a deal where some of the conservative opposition accepts a limited amnesty only after the implementation of a visa tracking system and workplace verification for both new and current employees.  The Democrats and low-wage labor lobbies won’t have that.  The Democrats are counting on benefiting from increased demographic change and an alienated low-skill worker population.  Employers of low-skill workers would rather keep open the pipeline of future illegal low-skill labor even if it means that the current population of unauthorized immigrants do not get legal status.  For both the Washington Democrats and the cheap labor lobbies, if they have to choose between legalization in five years after implementation of internal enforcement, and no legalization at all, they will pick no legalization at all.  That is something to remember the next time Democratic spokesmen go on about the urgency of bringing people out of the shadows.  The Democrats prefer keeping current unauthorized workers in the shadows if that also means preventing effective internal enforcement.  That is the coalition the billionaires have latched onto.

The problem is that the billionaires know that the Democrats are united and confident that they will get everything they want in the end.  The Republicans are divided on immigration policy with a significant fraction of the party’s Washington elites willing (either from libertarian ideology or the search for  donations) to make a deal on the terms of the Democrats and the lobbies who want to drive down the wages of low-skill workers.  From the perspective of the billionaires, the current coalition in favor of the current form of “comprehensive” immigration reform probably seems like a better bet than trying to construct a new coalition that divides the business lobbies and is opposed by embittered Democratic leaders.

The immediate task of conservatives is to defeat the current immigration proposal of increased low-skill immigration and legalization before enforcement (and one can reasonably surmise permanent nonenforcement).  But that isn’t enough, because the status quo serves the Democrats well enough.  The even more important task for conservatives is to put together an immigration agenda which command enough electoral support that billionaire opportunists decide they have a better chance of getting more of what they want by allying with conservatives.    



The Ramones Weren’t Rock n’ Roll


They were an effort to capture the spirit of rock n’ roll that — sorry — didn’t quite cut it. Oh, I was always a fan, in that I was always with ‘em in spirit. But since it was after all Lester Bangs, the man most responsible for the mistake that was punk rock, that said you had to be “brutally honest,” that’s what I gotta do here, even on the occasion of Tommy Ramone’s passing.

If you want to know Why the Ramones Mattered, that Ricochet post by Jon Gabriel will give you the standard reasons why, reasons which I largely accept. He also has a fun photo of those all-American boys dissing the usual leftist tedium. But Gabriel doesn’t really deal with their partial responsibility for punk, or of punk’s more negative-than-otherwise impact upon music and the culture at large. If you wanna walk around with me ’spoutin on about what I think the real deal is, go to Carl’s Rock Songbook No. 13, The Ramones, “Blitzkrieg Bop.”  

The best part is where I unfairly pit that song against the gargantuan awesomeness of “Wooly Bully”:

Compare the dumb fun of, say, “Wooly Bully” by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, with the dumb fun of “Blitzkrieg Bop.” The former positively swings , and will accommodate young and old, male and female, good dancers and poor ones. It only seeks to be about dumb fun, but was only produced by apprenticeship in Afro-American music methods. The latter has energy, and to spare, but it only suits simplistic moves and young rushes of enthusiasm — it leads less to dance than to the macho (and fight-prone) mosh-pit. Both invite you to indulge your simplistic side (and both get played at baseball games), but the similarity ends there. 

RTWT.  I mean it, man.

You might also wanna check out why I say hard-rock ain’t rock n’ roll either, in Songbook No. 12, although unless you’re prepared to ditch the common idea that we can meaningfully define rock n’ roll music by its attitude, and/or its zest for hedonism, you’ll think I’m 100 percent wrong. Of course, if you’ve got your head dunked deep in the soup of common democratic opinion, you’ll be outraged that I think we can define anything about pop music.  In any case, you’ll see from number 13 that I’m much fonder of their music than of standard-issue hard rock.  

So it’s two hearty cheers for The Ramones, and a sincere thanks for plenty of fun. More on all this later this summer when I get around to talking about the movie CBGB

Tags: rock , rock n' roll , kosher salami , Sheena , pinheads , loudmouths

Mastering Sex


I’m sure everyone enjoyed Jim’s singular theatrical experience below, and I’m still reflecting on the significance of a Tocqueville who’d prefer to “show”– instead of  “tell”– his tough but decisive choice for democracy over aristocracy.

Carl is right to complain in the thread that we haven’t been sharing our appreciation of TV and movies much. Let me begin by vindicating the very good book and film The Fault Is in the Stars from its misguided conservative and faith-based critics. It’s, to some extent, a philosophic criticism of diversion, or of floating through life seemingly untouched by what we can’t help but know about the oblivion to come. But philosophy or listening to the universe and its natural explanations just isn’t enough to account for persons, and young people with terminal cancer stuck with quickly learning how to love and die have to struggle hard with whether being ephemeral is compatible with (or essential for) being lovable. And they do learn finally that personal being, even in the absence of a personal Creator, extends beyond biological death. They don’t struggle at all with the meaning of the intense physical suffering that’s part of the territory of cancer;  they won’t be seduced by the wishful thought that there is any. They knew and experienced all they could without faith in that Creator, and, after all, they really do inhabit a world without attractive faith  (the Christianity they experience is nothing more than diverting happytalk, and their parents and friends don’t believe), for which they and the book’s author can’t be blamed. This book is being compared with Catcher in the Rye as all about being authentic or not a phony. But Holden is a whiny jerk who doesn’t have to come to terms with anything that might make him tough or loving or genuinely truthful. And it’s really important to notice how much books mean to the dying girl. She has the skill or competency of being able to take reading personally!

Today’s TV news is not the World Cup final, in which I can’t even feign interest. The new seasons of Ray Donovan and Masters of Sex start tonight on Showtime! These shows would, in fact, be better with less sex and nudity, if Showtime were a bit more about censorship in the service of art. That doesn’t mean they aren’t really good and in many respects very conservative.  Both are better than any new film I’ve seen in a long time.

One episode of Ray Donovan had one of Ray’s brothers finding a priest to confess adultery. Choosing against more adultery with the only women he’s loved or has loved him was the exceedingly difficult act of a basically good man. The priest failed to help this man. He told him to stop being so hard on himself. The trouble, of course, is if sin isn’t recognized for what it is, it can’t be forgiven. Priests these days, in Ray Donovan, are discredited because they molest children. But the bigger problem is that they have no consciousness that even they themselves are sinners.  The priest who molested Ray showed no remorse even decades later; he told Ray he had loved him (and that made abuse something else).  So Ray shot him.

I’m not quite caught up on last season’s episodes of Masters of Sex, which is about the lives of the pioneering sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson. The very title of the series suggests a criticism of  the idea  that human sexual experience can be mastered by its complete description through physiological experimentation, and the show also is masterful in its criticism of the deceptive pretensions of scientific detachment and the cold deployment of compensated sex workers, even in the service of science. The show, reasonably enough, is somewhat appreciative of the benefits of the objective or “involuntary” or wholly physiological approach. Masters and Johnson really did add to our useful knowledge of human sexual response, and lives of ordinary couples are sometimes in some ways better as a result. There’s also something real to their shared joy in scientific discovery, although it gets mixed up with all kinds of issues of personal attachment and sexual attraction. They never come anything close to being masters of their relational domain.

There’s so much more to the show.  One character is a young physician who explains to an old patient that he’s floated through life.  He became a doctor to please his family and because he’s good at math and science. His parents were Jewish, but he’s “nothing.” The result of his floating is he’s about to marry a girl he doesn’t really love because she’s “chosen him,” and he’s willing to become a Catholic to please her. Religion, after all, is just words. And he tries to convince himself he’s not harmed by proclaiming his faith that Jesus has saved him, although he doesn’t believe any such thing. Most of the words of his life meant to correspond to real devotion really have meant nothing to him.

The old patient tells him: ”Only the young think floating is an option . . . when you get older you realize floating is for boats.” It turns out that almost all the show’s characters have been floaters, unhappily immersed in an option that’s not really available to anyone who not’s a body (described by physiology) or a mind (scientist) but a third kind of being — a person born to know, love, or die. They’re all getting older, and so each of them is having to come to terms with the futility of floating. The moral of the show is not primarily that, before scientific enlightenment, most Americans — even or especially prosperous and sophisticated Americans — used to be in the hellish thrall of sexual ignorance and repression.  Pop scientific enlightenment doesn’t address — and in some ways exacerbates — the deeper and more intransigent floating issue. That goes both for the science of sexology and the science that makes death in childhood from accidents and cancer more rare, more clinical, and more terrible — more terrible, at least, for those who have to live in love with the dying.

The young physician stops eating bacon (for the sake of his father), refuses to become a Catholic, and breaks up with the wonderful girl who, with the best of intentions, has chosen him. He realizes, first of all, that he’s stuck with choosing for or against being a Jew, and he does. I have to watch the next episode before I can tell you more. (I haven’t told you enough, in any case, to spoil your personal viewing experience.)

Tocqueville in Georgetown


Postmodern conservative moviegoers will under no circumstances want to miss Dnesh D’Souza’s new documentary America.  Some of us — not me! — may find the display of bunting excessive (one torn and battered Old Glory from the Revolutionary War makes her appearance some twenty times), and others of us — again, not me! — may complain of an overdose of patriotic music and gauzy depictions of this nation’s natural beauties. Reasonable questions might also be raised about whether D’Souza’s account of the continuing influence of Saul Alinsky’s philosophy on President Obama and Hillary Clinton, a preoccupation that takes up much of the last part of this 103-minute documentary, is not exaggerated. But no one in our camp can be anything but grateful at the first appearance on the big screen of the personage of pomocon’s house philosopher, Alexis de Tocqueville.

Tocqueville plays no bit part in this movie, but is announced with great solemnity by the narrator (D’Souza) as one of the great interpreters and defenders of the American experiment. This verbal introduction does not begin, however, to prepare the viewer for the splendid visuals that follow. Played by handsome Rett Terrell, who debuted in Vampire Sucks (2010) and made a mark in Army of Frankensteins (2013), Tocqueville cuts quite a striking figure. Clad in impeccable aristocratic garb, he surpasses all the other characters in the movie, George Washington perhaps excepted, in splendor and looks. (The change of genre, from vampire to aristocrat, should also help Terrell to jumpstart his career by showcasing his versatility.) Tocqueville’s  manly image, softened just slightly by a conspicuous habit of jotting down notes in a fine leather tablet, commands the audience’s attention for a good while. Tocqueville is made to look even better by comparison: He is followed around by another person, also dressed in an aristocratic costume but short and portly, who is never identified. The pomocon viewer may flatter him or herself in thinking immediately of Gustave de Beaumont, Tocqueville’s companion on the journey, but such speculation should await corroboration from genuine Tocqueville experts like Carl Scott and Peter Lawler.

The viewer may be slightly disappointed that Tocqueville has no speaking part — perhaps Terrell’s French accent was not yet up to snuff — but there is no question that he is featured in one of the movie’s most dramatic and original scenes. (I issue here a Spoiler Alert for those who plan to see the film.) Tocqueville is depicted in a crowded tavern seated amidst scores of Americans, all quite democratic in appearance with roughly hewn clothes and shouting loudly as they imbibe the local beverage. The food, evidently hunks of cooked meat, is placed unceremoniously on platters in the middle of the tables. Tocqueville looks very much out of place. Suddenly the good democrats fall silent as they all turn toward Tocqueville, who is observed removing his two hands finger by finger from the most perfect of linen white gloves. The camera lingers on Tocqueville’s hands — the hands that crafted Democracy in America. The Americans are half in awe, half in scorn, wondering at how this alien, almost a being of another species, would eat his food. It is an existential moment for Tocqueville, who is pulled between his heart and manners, formed by aristocracy, and his judgment and sense of the destiny of history, which leans for democracy. After an agonizing second, Tocqueville in a sudden and dramatic burst grabs a knife and stabs it into a piece of the meat. He has chosen democracy! The Americans burst into shouts of joy, as Tocqueville makes common cause with the people.

I found myself applauding, unable in this moment to contain my emotions. All this took place in the K Street cinema in Georgetown, where I was saved from embarrassment by the fortunate, though not entirely surprising, fact of being the sole spectator in the theater. Georgetown is not exactly D’Souza’s home turf. There will be other venues, one hopes, where Tocqueville can be more widely appreciated and earn the cult following he so richly deserves.

Hobby Lobby and Propaganda Exhaustion


The latest from the always-great Ashley McGuire, “Sorry, Libs: The War on Women Is a Complete Fiction,” provides a good rebuttal to the left-oid talking-points against the Hobby Lobby decision.  Sure, religious liberty can be a tough issue to fully think through, so that sane citizens might disagree about whether Congress’s passage of RFRA was a wise move, but obviously under it the HHS requirements that these closely-held firms pay for abortifacients violated the law.  It is a respectable and understandable judicial ruling, and doesn’t deserve crude labeling as part of a “War on Women” or as “bringing your boss into your contraceptive decisions.”  More from Peter Berkowitz on the p’s and q’s over at RCP.

Face it, liberals, Obamacare was drafted very poorly.  The president you elected doubled-down on its offense to religious liberty when he refused to listen to protests of those affected by the HHS requirements, and the media you tolerate did not call him on it, and made it seem to you that he really made an “accommodation”  and that there was thus nothing to see here.  But now, when you simply read accounts about the decision and dissents, it is pretty plain that there was a problem. 

McGuire rightly calls attention to the fact that there are plenty of women who support the Hobby Lobby decision, and that in a fairly similar religious liberty case, the primary victims of the religious liberty offense are nuns who devote their lives to serving the poor! 

Doesn’t this stuff feel tired?  Why are we arguing about it?  And how easy it would have been for Obama to have avoided it all.  Despite her recent tone-deaf reaction statement against the decision, I doubt that had Hillary Clinton been president, she would not have come to a real compromise on the regulation before things got to the court.  And I doubt she would have been arrogant and foolish enough to force the health care act through in a form that garnered zero Republican support. 

Our Pete worries over at First Things that the Hobby Lobby decision will wind up being yet another instance of conservatives “Winning at the Supreme Court” but “Losing in the Court of Public Opinion,” but reading Berkowitz and McGuire convinces me that the efforts of many Democrats, and of their media shills, to brand the decision as Anti-Woman! and Theocratic! is a just a crawl too far out on the branch of stupidity. 

This pattern of doubling down in defense of dumb Obama moves, with the MSM and social media outlets making enough of a success of the subsequent “rebranding” to get by and onto the next news cycle, has limits, after all.  Everyone knows by now that the guy is an incompetent arrogant bore, even if they lie to pollsters about whether they approve of him.  So here’s predicting that the effort to irretrievably taint Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. among liberals, the way it was successfully done with Citizens United, isn’t really going to work.  Many liberals, despite their suspicion that the issue is a minor one used primarily to obstruct Obamacare, at least sense that actual plaintiffs had a strong case on the merits, and no propaganda campaign is going to change that.

Oh, and let’s not forget that even if I’m incorrect about there being enough of such liberals, and the rebranding effort does seem to work well-enough to get by, that it is sin and hypocrisy to undertake it.  So the last words go to Berkowitz: 

Still more pronounced, however, is the evident aversion among prominent progressives to living in a society with those who disagree with them about religion and reproduction. So great is their distaste for the diversity of views characteristic of a liberal democracy and so strong is their resolve to control the conduct of others that they are willing to mischaracterize the other side’s opinions, warp the facts, and politicize the law. …Practicing more of the empathy and compromise they preach would enable progressives to make a valuable contribution to containing the polarization they bewail.

Heidegger, Technology, Higher Education, and Me


So I’m finally getting around to telling you about the Winter issue of  The New Atlantis. Mark Blitz has a penetrating and wonderfully clear article about how to understand the most influential and (who knows?) maybe the greatest philosopher of the 20th century, Martin Heidegger. It reminded me that when I say that the real threat to higher education is not political correctness (which is mostly ridiculous and easily mocked by libertarians) but techno-vocationalism, or the tyranny of middle-class thinking (the thinking of free beings who work, beings with interests and nothing more), to some extent I’m really sampling Heidegger on the omnipresence of technological thinking in our world.  Here is Mark’s tight and right summary of Heidegger’s view:

All things increasingly present themselves to us as technological: we see them and treat them as what Heidegger calls a “standing reserve,” supplies in a storeroom, as it were, pieces of inventory to be ordered and conscripted, assembled and disassembled, set up and set aside. Everything approaches us merely as a source of energy or as something we must organize. We treat even human capabilities as though they were only means for technological procedures, as when a worker becomes nothing but an instrument for production. Leaders and planners, along with the rest of us, are mere human resources to be arranged, rearranged, and disposed of. Each and every thing that presents itself technologically thereby loses its distinctive independence and form. We push aside, obscure, or simply cannot see, other possibilities.

Mark also forcefully reminds us that Heidegger, as a totalizing thinker, exaggerates (sometimes, I think, shamelessly). He and Marx, despite their great differences, both want to explain everything according to the horizon or Historical perspective — technology or “capitalism” — that governs our time. There’s no place for personal, relational freedom and all that.  Our libertarian theorists are really no different, viewing the whole truth about who we are to be self-interested productivity in the service of the weightless preferences found on the ever-expanding menu of choice.

So when I say that the danger is that all American education becomes technological, I don’t mean it actually has or even actually will. I mean that our experts are thoughtlessly distorted by viewing technological thinking — or quantitative assessments of the skills and competencies required for flourishing in the 21st-century competitive marketplace — as the whole of real thinking about who we are and what we’re supposed to do. And so they’re reducing our kids to “instruments for production.” One problem with that reductionism is that it even turns out to be bad for productivity. At my pay grade, all I can do for you is deliver an array of provocations designed to get you to think outside the Heidegger/Marx/libertarian box.

Gilbert Meilaender, the distinguished theologian, also has an article in the Winter issue that claims that liberal education can’t be the antidote to technological thinking — or the perspective of ungrateful mastery — for most college students these days. What passes for liberal education as general education is too undisciplined and unserious, and most students properly regard college as preparation for a vocation and nothing more. Meandering through “liberal education” turns out to be, in most cases, a waste of time and money. What most students — most people — need as an effective anti-technological antidote is the experience of worship. I think Gil is wrong about a lot (although right about the indispensability of worship), but I’ll have to explain later.


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