Postmodern Conservative

Reflections on politics, culture, and education.

Sin, Virtue, and Calvary


So why don’t you write about movies anymore, one reader asks? Well, I still see them, but all the ones I’ve seen lately have been either annoying in their over-the-top vanity (The Gambler and Birdman, for instance) or realistically trivial (Big Eyes).

One exception is the Irish movie Calvary. You should see it, of course, just to take in the incredible natural beauty of that ruggedly green island, not to mention to be moved by the film’s tastefully chosen and haunting musical background and the charming accents and turns of phrase with which ordinary Irish men and women express even horribly depraved thoughts. Everything about “Irish culture” fights against those spirited, spiritual, and civilized people reducing themselves to souls without longing. (I read somewhere that the Irish actually saved civilization.) The film inspires hope that the future will be like the past — such a people can screw themselves up only so much.

The film is a week in the life of a good priest (perfectly played by Brendan Gleeson). He’s good because he’s unfailingly sincere or authentic, and so he really has a vocation. He’s also good because he really believes all the core teachings of the Church. He’s also very manly in all the obvious ways. He looks as rugged (or at least as grizzled) as Ireland itself. He had been married, and a good marriage it was. He carries memories of his dead wife with him every day. He’s a parent. Sure, by becoming a priest he sort of abandoned a daughter who had just lost her mom. And that wound has disfigured her adult life.  Still, he remains “there” for her, and she never denies his love or his integrity, even as she mocks his pretensions by calling him “Father.” 

But he’s a long distance from perfect. He’s an alcoholic who falls off the wagon out of self-pity. His “human-relations skills” need a lot of work. He was more moved by the death of his dog (he wept) than by hearing of all the lives wrecked or damaged by the shameless sexual abuse of pedophile priests. And he admits he really doesn’t have the words he needs to comfort the abused. He, in general, thinks of himself as too judgmental, although the most invigorating moments in the film are when he fearlessly speaks the truth to the self-indulgently self-deceptive, when he calls out the lie at the foundation of every sin.

He also gives some thought-provoking if quite questionable spiritual advice. A very screwed-up, suicidal young man who knows he is plagued with a very disordered soul is thinking about joining the army to get some much-needed personal discipline. The priest advises against the choice of war (especially for that reason) as fundamentally un-Biblical. It turns out that the guy is so desperate mainly because he can’t get a girl, and he’s exhausted the potential of Internet porn. The priest advises him to move to a more morally loose and women-abundant part of the world — such as Dublin or America — where his chances will be better.

No one who knows this good priest denies his integrity, which is not to say that he’s well liked (he gets and probably deserves to have the stuffing kicked out of him) or is particularly able to share his faith. For those who don’t know him, he’s seen as just another priest. That means, for example, that when a girl’s father sees the good priest joking around with his little kid on a harmless walk, he drags her away quickly from a presumed predator. The good priest is stuck with being one lonely guy.

At his best, this priest is a Graham Greene or Walker Percy character — a sign of the truth or the love that persists in the ruins. There’s no doubt that in many ways, after all, Ireland is a civilization in ruins, even in the midst of uneven prosperity. The institutional Church — especially in the context of the clericalism of the Irish republic — deserves a lot of the blame. But it’s disheartening to see the last good priest on the eve of seemingly inevitable destruction. His church is burned down, and he is murdered in an effort by a seemingly incurably wounded man to avenge what another priest had done to him as a child. It’s almost as if truth and integrity die with the last of the good priests, and his death seems neither to wash away any sins or be the source of anyone’s redemption. The very title of the film tells us in neon letters that he is some sort of Christ figure, but it seems to be too much to call him either a martyr or a savior.

But: The film ends with a glimmer of hope in the form of his daughter.

The most memorable moment of dialogue in the film is when the good priest tells his daughter something like there’s too much talk about sin, and not enough about the virtues.  And the first of the virtues is forgiveness. But the film also shows us that forgiveness depends on the real presence of the other virtues, on the loving and spirited capacity that we free and relational beings have been given to  resist lust, anger, greed, self-righteous pride, cold indifference, and so forth. If the practice of virtue isn’t possible, then there’s nothing to forgive. Being forgiven depends on contrition and the genuine resolution to do better by others and yourself. 

Being judgmental without being disfigured by anger – and never forgetting that every wounded creature is worthy of love and open to redemption – is the way the film may show us out of the age of outrage.

The turn to the virtues, of course, highlights the distinctively Catholic form of Christianity, which transforms without obliterating in the light of “total depravity” the Aristotelian account of the moral virtues — the result of habit more than thought — that are the foundation of every good life. Aristotle, of course, does not describe the virtues of humility and forgiveness, because his account of the virtues was deliberately too proud to be realistically relational.

Forgive me for possible errors of detail here. The truth is I didn’t think the film was all that great when I watching it, but it has grown in my estimation as I think about it.  I resolve to watch it again as soon as possible.


Mike Huckabee and The Dynamics of 2016


There was a time when I thought that Mike Huckabee had a chance to win over enough “somewhat conservative” voters that, when added to his pre-existing base among conservative white evangelicals, would give him a good chance to win the 2016 Republican nomination.  I don’t think that chance exists anymore (if it ever did). He hasn’t done any of the maneuvering he would need to do in order to expand his base of support. Thirteen months is not a long time and he has shown no inclination to make the moves he would need to make in order to expand his base. If he does run, I don’t see how his ceiling is higher than a strong second.

But hey, a strong second place finish would refresh his brand and strengthen his position as a powerbroker within the right. Not so fast. This isn’t going to be like 2008. Huckabee is probably the most likeable candidate in the field, but he isn’t going to sneak up on anyone this time. He enters with higher name recognition, but also with a target on his back.

No, I don’t mean from the Republican establishment. I mean from the candidates who will look to run as populist alternatives to the Republican establishment candidates. I don’t see any path for a Republican populist that does not include a very large share of the conservative evangelical vote. If Huckabee dominates among conservative evangelicals, there is no room for a Ted Cruz or a Rick Santorum and much less room for Rand Paul to improve on his father’s 2012 performance. In order for these alternative candidates to have a chance, they would have to break apart Huckabee as a viable candidate (Rand Paul has already started). If they can’t do that, they don’t have anything. Those are the incentives.

Huckabee can probably gain stature if he ends up the last man standing against the Republican establishment. But to get that far, he will have to survive being gang-tackled by the other anti-establishment candidates.


Mario Cuomo, Liberalism, and Listening


Based on his record as a policy innovator and a vote-getter, Mario Cuomo was less impressive than John Engler, Tommy Thomson, and any number of other governors who, upon their deaths, will not receive one-tenth the fawning media coverage that Cuomo is getting today. Cuomo’s national prominence is primarily a product of the emotional needs of down-the-line partisan liberals (including many reporters) during the mid-1980s.

His specialty was fluently and confidently telling the people who already agreed with him the things they already wanted to hear. He is best remembered for giving the two most overrated speeches of the 1980s. His 1984 speech to the Democratic National Convention applied  Great Depression rhetoric to a rapidly growing economy and failed to make the case for why his party and ideology should be trusted to solve any of the problems of the moment. His Notre Dame speech, for all of its throat clearing, could not address why he should be able to impose his values in the case of the execution of a serial killer but not in the case of protecting a late-term fetus.

Many thought of Cuomo’s 1984 convention speech as the answer to Reagan’s eloquence. Cuomo couldn’t be the answer to Reagan because before you can answer (rather than merely denounce), you have to listen. Just calling Reagan a Social Darwinist and a Herbert Hoover was going to fail regardless of the theatrical abilities of the speaker. It worked about as well then as calling Obama a communist works today.

Reagan was such an effective orator because he had listened to liberal speakers and worked on defusing and parrying liberal arguments. Reagan built his political career on defeating  the echo chamber liberalism of speakers like Pat Brown, Ted Kennedy, and Tip O’Neill – and Mario Cuomo.

It used to be said of Barack Obama that he could restate his opponents arguments and make them better. I don’t think anyone ever said that about Cuomo. Obama came of age at a time when the American left (or rather those to the left of the Clintons) faced one political defeat after another – including Cuomo’s 1994 defeat for governor. Obama learned to listen a little. That is why the real liberal reply to Reagan was delivered at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.   


The Politics of an Improving Economy and the Middle Class


My column on the politics of our improving economy and the need to prepare for the next recession won’t get the same attention as my posts on Jeb Bush and Rand Paul, but it is the best and most important thing I’ve written all week.*

As the economy gets better (at long last), the salience of economic issues will decline a little bit according to the economic polls. This should not be seen as an opportunity to chase the news cycle. The economic problems of the middle class and of wage-earners below the earnings median did not begin with the Great Recession and won’t entirely disappear during our current period of growth. We are also more than five years into the “recovery” and are likely closer to the next recession than we would like to think.

We need to focus on the need for an economic agenda that deals with the priorities of the middle class and of struggling wage-earners. It is important for today. It will be even more important for when the next recession hits — as it inevitably will.


It’s a Good Thing Football Isn’t Real (We Southerners Now Have to Say)


As I get older, I’ve noticed that my interest in football has greatly diminished. Still, I listen patiently as I’m told tales of the superiority of SEC and Southern teams generally. I’ve come to assume that the real national championship game is the Iron Bowl between Auburn and Alabama. And I’ve marveled at the uncanny ability of Florida State to play very unevenly and to be distracted by possibly criminal behavior and still never lose. How many teams this year were stuck with saying we had Florida State beat, but then something

I did sit down last night to watch the semi-final games, just because there have never been such games before.

Well, I’ve been told that Oregon doesn’t play anyone challenging and is, at best, a pretty good team with a great quarterback (well, not great enough to actually rival the Florida State guy when they both hit the NFL). It turns out that they’re a very physically dominant team with a very good quarterback. I’ve never seen so many turnovers forced in a matter of minutes. Florida State just gave up in a way that’s not supposed to be characteristic of Southern men. Not only that, they were so humiliated that they didn’t think of themselves as worthy of shaking the hands of the stronger men who had vanquished them. Well, the FSU quarterback displayed himself as magnanimous enough to be worthy — or maybe he knew he couldn’t afford to tarnish his brand even more and be the future of the NFL. We’re left with trying to explain that Florida is not really in the South. (The Oregon players weren’t so classy either in celebrating their victory; it turns out they’re not the nice folks from Portlandia.)

We might want to say that the gods were against FSU this particular day. They had used up the amount of good luck typically allocated to a dozen teams earlier in the season. That was certainly Notre Dame’s excuse a couple of years ago in its humiliating loss to Alabama after a fluky undefeated season. But then we remember that the turnovers weren’t gifts of the gods but were forced by mere mortals.

Pardon me the impious thought that the Ohio State–Alabama game managed to be close yet boring. It was certainly a humiliating revelation to every Southern fan that the two teams were evenly matched when it comes to raw ability and strategic preparation. It turns out that those Buckeyes are every bit as quick as the Crimson Tide. Still, neither team was very offensive in the second half. For some reason, Alabama seemed to play much of the fourth quarter in slow motion. (Remember that in the second half they ran Auburn into the ground.) That didn’t mean only being a step late in key encounters. Their final drive — which was ineptly handed to them by Ohio State — failed mainly because of time wasted between plays. Both teams played hard and honorably, and the truth seems to be that this wasn’t a dominant year for either Alabama or the SEC. We Southerners don’t want to remember that OSU, after all, was playing with its third-string quarterback.

Overall, the season is coming to a close with all sorts of evidence for national football parity. The exceptions seem to be the real greatness of the unjustly dissed Oregon and TCU. So the Southern strategy will be to remember that Texas is (at least more than Florida) part of the South, and TCU could have beaten Oregon if given the chance.

Well, Ohio State might beat Oregon. But, from our view down here, that’s not a game worth watching, and that outcome would alter our strategy only slightly.


Science Education


So it’s characteristic of us professors of political philosophy to neglect what’s really going in the “hard” sciences. I remember, for example, being astonished that Allan Bloom, in The Closing of the American Mind, came close to saying that the one real thing in American universities otherwise deformed by relativism was natural science. And then he said virtually nothing about what those scientists really know. In a similar mode, Bloom seemed to be all about the life “according to nature,” but he, as a very urban and urbane man, didn’t notice the natural beauty all around him (see Saul Bellow). And even the virtuous agrarians of the Front Porch Republic seem satisfied to say that it’s farmers who know the most about nature, and that all our scientists have become basically scientistic techno-engineers. Well, that’s not completely true. Someone might say that those who wonder about the cosmos, the stars, and all that are getting in touch with “pure” nature, and those who are satisfied with contemplating the field behind the barn keep their eyes too focused on the comforts of familiar cultivation. If you want to reflect on what farmers, engineers, and physicists know and don’t know, you could do worse than see Interstellar.

In any case, I, in hustling to complete my study of the decline and fall of American higher education, have to say something — and maybe a lot — about the real thing that is scientific higher education in America.

Most of our brainy students are choosing STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) majors, convinced that such high-level quantitative knowledge is both real and increasingly marketable. It’s a bit of a myth that we have a shortage of STEM graduates, although it’s true that we can use more really good ones. Our “cognitive elite,” as Cowen and others explained, is increasingly composed of people with the techno-facility required to be on very comfortable terms with “genius machines.” And with the techno-imagination required to found startups, create new apps, and all that.

One piece of evidence among many that these STEM nerds are more in touch with the real world than the rest of higher education is the absence of self-esteem-driven grade inflation. As in the real world of the productive meritocracy, solutions can readily be judged to be either right or wrong. Another piece of evidence is that such programs are relatively untouched by emo/ideological campus political correctness. If you want to see a really diverse student body, walk around the MIT or Cal Tech campuses; it’s diversity characteristic of real meritocracy.

Nobody much criticizes the quality of American higher education in engineering or physics. At the heights of innovation in science and technology, we, in fact, rule. Alexis de Tocqueville worried that the restless Americans would be so impressed with the comfort and security provided by technological applications that they would neglect more purely theoretical scientific pursuits.

That observation turns out to be true in theory, insofar as most people appreciate science for what it can do for them right now. But it’s not so true in practice. Our universities have also been secure places for theorists who, like Archimedes, disdain practical applications. I refer you to the accurate-enough portrayal of the Cal Tech researchers on TV’s The Big Bang Theory. There’s the theoretical physicist who can’t even drive a car, an astrophysicist romantically in wondrous love with the stars and all the marvels of being, the experimental physicist who’s competent enough but lacks creative imagination, and the engineer with the mechanical ingenuity to devise space toilets and endlessly useful mechanical hands and generally to serve ordinary human needs. For techno-obsessed American experts, the engineer ranks highest, but the physicist also has the leisure to speculate about string theory and so forth, with not that much attention on whether his efforts to see into the mind of God ever actually pay off. 

Well, one more thing for now: I have to notice that at our flagship “great books” colleges — St. John’s and Thomas Aquinas –careful attention is given to what said books say about physics, biology, mathematics, and so forth and a real attempt is made to appreciate, through replication, great moments in the experimental progress of science. My last ISI mentee from St. John’s — who did her internship at The New Atlantis – was mostly interested in natural science.

At Thomas Aquinas, I’ve been told, they really talk about whether Aristotle or Newton is right on motion. You really can’t be all that scientific if you don’t see that there’s a case to be made for both great theorists, and the victory of Newton had the disadvantage of limiting our theoretical horizon in some ways, by, for example, detaching the humanities, or distinctively human motion, from much genuinely scientific curiosity.

Jeb Bush, Post-Obama Establishment Republican


I think that Rich Lowry is right to notice the ways in which Jeb Bush resembles pre-Obama conservatives (like his brother for instance), but I think it is just important way to think of Jeb Bush as a reaction to Obama’s political success. Specifically, Jeb Bush’s strategy is based on how the Republican lobbyist and donor classes interpreted Obama’s 2012 victory.

Basically, the Republican establishment blamed their 2012 defeat on social conservatives and opponents of upfront amnesty for unauthorized immigrants. The Republican establishment asserted that the policy problem with Romney’s failed establishment candidacy was that it did not sufficiently focus on the preferences and priorities of the Republican establishment. That’s very convenient when you think about it.

The Republican establishment did not talk much about the economic weaknesses of Romney’s tax plan (which focused on tax cuts for high-earners). Like Rich Lowry says, Jeb Bush is ready to be critical of the Republican party. But he is much more ready to be critical on the issue of immigration than on an economic program that had a majority of Americans believing that Romney’s agenda primarily benefited the rich rather than the middle-class. Apparently for Bush, the lobbyists, the consultants, and most of the donors, Romney’s economic agenda wasn’t the problem – regardless of what the public said.

This Republican establishment reaction to 2012 can also be seen in how Jeb Bush is reacting to social conservatives. In the 2000 cycle, George W. Bush allied with social conservatives to hold off John McCain’s challenge from the party’s left. Now, Jeb Bush and his circle are talking about the party’s social conservatives as an obstacle to the nomination.

I think part of the confusions is in how we think about who is a real conservative and who is a RINO. Lowry gets to that when he asserts (correctly) that Bush is a conservative (of a kind). Much of the criticism of the Republican establishment gives that establishment both too little and too much credit. Some members of the establishment (like the Barbour clan) really are mercenaries. But Jeb Bush and many others within the Republican establishment are just as legitimately Republican as anybody, just as conservative (in their own way) as anybody, and just as vulnerable to ideological self-delusion as anybody.

Tags: Jeb Bush

Carl’s Rock Songbook No. 105, The Beatles, “Tomorrow Never Knows”


One of the first pop songs to espouse pantheism, and one of the first psychedelic rock songs.  In a PBS rock documentary, members of the Grateful Dead recalled that when Revolver came out they went from friend’s to friend’s place in the Haight excitedly sharing the news:  The Beatles knew, i.e., they were sharers in the LSD enlightenment.  The evidence was this astounding song. 

There’s no denying its effectiveness.  It’s one of the seminal stun-from-the-first-note, overwhelm-the-senses, and pin-the-hearer-to-the-wall moments of rock power.  One could say much about its unusual beat, the parallel use of Indian tamboura and feedback, and the new studio techniques such as tape loops it employs, but without question, part of that impression of power comes from the song’s sense of danger.  To approach the divine All, and to unlock the chaos of the subconscious mind by means of acid, these must be fearful things.  And here is a maelstrom of sound to reflect that.

Similarly, even if the lyrics say that love is all and begin by telling us to relax, they take us into considering daunting doctrines, and troubling paradoxes:

Turn off your mind, relax and float down-stream,

It is not dying, it is not dying,

Lay down all thought, surrender to the void,

It is shining, it is shining.

That you may see the meaning of within,

It is being, it is being,

That love is all and love is ev’ryone,

It is knowing, it is knowing.

When ignorance and haste may mourn the dead,

It is believing, it is believing,

But listen to the color of your dreams,

It is not living, it is not living.

Or play the existence to the end.

Of the beginning, of the beginning. (etc.)

If we consider the dying, shining, etc. participial lines I think we have to conclude that they are meant to suggest relation to one another, often paradoxical relation, and that the correct pairings are:  shining/being, knowing/believing, and more significantly, not-dying/not-living, with perhaps also an implied pairing of end-ing/beginning.  And other paradoxes are present in the lyrics:  the void shines, you listen to colors, etc.

You are to surrender to the All, which as we know from other pantheism songs, such as The Byrds’ “5D,” could be presented in a kindly manner, but here it is initially presented as the void. The quick reassurance that such a surrender is not an act of dying is eventually undermined by the suggestion that not dying is in some way the same as not living.  Part of the reason I say this is that since the antecedents to each of the participial lines’ pronoun “it” are never 100% certain, they could be read in a deeper sense to all have one antecedent.  This transcendent “it,” this One, which outside of the participial lines seems to be described as the meaning of within, the color of one’s dreams, the void, and as a love that is all, is described within the participial lines as both beginning/ending, shining/being, and not-dying/not-living.  The mental relation of our individuated minds to the One, which obviously we could also call the All, is what is captured in the knowing/believing pair.

The When ignorance and haste may mourn the dead line, as it is followed by the suggestion that the proper remedy to such ignorance is a kind of believing, could initially be read in two ways:  1) mourning is mistaken because the person lives on as a person, as in Christian or spiritualist belief, or 2) mourning is mistaken because “the person” was never more than an ever-changing part of the itself ever-changing All, so that death’s dissolving the body into the earth and other living organisms simply more vividly reveals this, and so that the enlightened belief is that this is not a change to be regretted. Upon minimal reflection, we can see that the second interpretation of this line must be the favored one.  Christian doctrine regards death as a real curse.  Jesus wept when in the company of his fellow humans confronting death prior to the more solid hope of resurrection that he brought[John 11:35].  As for spiritualist heresy, it is all about the idea that the particular person lives on in the afterlife.  So “Tomorrow Never Knows” cannot offer any encouragement to the desire of many of us have, such as Cate Le Bon, to be in some way with the dearly departed again. 

Judging the song artistically, I’d say its musical and lyrical evocation of the mysterious and frightening side of pantheism make it much better than The Beatles’ other big pantheism song, “All You Need Is Love.”  Comparing the former song’s elusive use of paradox with the more straightforwardly didactic use in the latter song reveals that spelled-out pantheism, at least in the mouths of its Western novices, often becomes repellently smug.  However kindly its chorus seems, the verses of “All You Need Is Love” teach a doctrine precisely guilty of the type of all-is-destined and its-all-good moral surrender that Tocqueville argued was the key characteristic of pantheism. “Tomorrow Never Knows” took the more attractive path of keeping the doctrine shrouded in mystery.

I admit that to speak authoritatively on the subject of pantheistic religion is no easy task.  We postmodern conservatives often immediately proceed to quoting Tocqueville’s famous chapter on it from Democracy in America, but as I suggested when I recently discussed Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion (scroll below), there are a number of other authorities to be taken into account:  Greek philosophers, Sanskrit sages, Transcendentalist literati, modern psychologists, 60s and New Age gurus, etc.  I also said that what we really want to know is whether our New Age spiritual practices today, most of which first got off the ground in the 60s, are more fundamentally pantheistic, or individualistic/therapeutic.  That is, are they more about understanding oneself as a mere part of the divine all, or, more about divinizing the inner self? 

Douthat says the latter—for most present-day New Agers, the meaning of within turns out not be a too-profound-for-words encounter with being, but a follow-your-inner-voice theology of books like Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love.  Gilbert’s inner voice told her to leave her husband, and to travel to places like Bali.  Our Peter Lawler says something similar, but puts the accent more on the therapeutic than on the selfish. He argues that pantheism serves more as a temporary therapeutic technique than a seriously-followed doctrine:  “These days, pantheism rarely defines a whole way of life…but is a kind of stress-relief from the competitive marketplace that is so much of most successful lives.” I.e., as Tocqueville said, it is a relief from modern democratic restlessness.  “Restlessness,” incidentally, was the very word used by James Redfield in The Celestine Prophecy to describe the modern malaise his New Age doctrine would cure.  That is not a sign that Redfield knew anything about Tocqueville, but rather a sign of how deeply Tocqueville knows us, the democratic men and women who made Redfield’s crackpot book a bestseller.

Now to my Gen-X ways of judging, the exploration of pantheist spirituality found in the 60s Counter-culture always seemed cool and sophisticated, even if as a Christian I regarded it as ultimately errant, whereas that exemplified by 80s New Age seminars, best-sellers like The Celestine Prophecy, or the sorts of teachers championed by Oprah, has always seemed pretty lame, something characteristic of the more tired of the aging baby-boomers, and those foolish enough of later generations to listen to them.  1966’s “Tomorrow Never Knows” belongs to a period when The Beatles and many others in the Counter Culture were quite seriously hoping that LSD-use would allow something new, i.e., that combined with certain Eastern religious teachings, it would produce what Allen Ginsberg once described as a “revolution in consciousness.”  The initial embrace of the sexual/hedonistic revolution made by many in the early-to-mid 60s period, was thus being quickly followed by a turn to the spiritual, although admittedly a spirituality that would endorse aspects of the newer hedonism.  In any case, it was fresh, and full of potentiality. 

But the lameness was there to detect from the start.  It would soon enough issue in things like slightly annoying Beatles song “All You Need Is Love,” or the truly nauseating Beatles movie Magical Mystery Tour, but there were those who recognized that even this song, right at the leading edge of the trend, contained notes of smug self-serving therapeutic technique. 

Consider The Who’s “Armenia City in the Sky.”  It is the lead song on the album The Who Sell Out, which was made loosely thematic by the interspersion of little commercial ditties between the main tracks, and was like Magical Mystery Tour released in December of 1967.  It is a lesser song than “Tomorrow Never Knows,” but I think it only takes a single listen to recognize that it is derivative from it, or more properly labeled, a deliberate response to it:



The song was one of the few Who numbers written by a non-member, Pete Townshend’s chauffeur and fellow rock musician Speedy Keen, and there’s talk that the title refers to some lost painting.  But the minimal lyrics strongly suggest that they have “Tomorrow Never Knows,” or at least what it stands for in the emerging Counter Culture, directly in their sights:

If you’re troubled and you can’t relax,

close your eyes, and think of this.

…If you ever want to lose some time,

just take off!  There’s no risk.

The way the psychedelic spirituality had been championed, by acid-pioneers like Ken Kesey’s “Merry Pranksters,” and by the song of this post, it was presented as something you had to have bravery to try.   But its effectual truth, the way it was really practiced by the Counter Culture, was all wrapped up in the word relax present in the first line of “Tomorrow Never Knows,” and made in “Armenia City” to sound like the cloying pitch of a slick advertisement.  There’s really no risk to this spirituality, because the pantheistic doctrine is not to be seriously followed as a guide to living, but to be taken as a momentary therapeutic relief from modern troubles and restlessness.  Thus, the guru and the ad-man could be the same man.

There would be those more serious about the new spirituality, such as The Beatles’ own George Harrison, who would turn away from acid to established Eastern pantheist disciplines and doctrines, such as those of the Hare Krishnas, ones which require real self-sacrifice.  But it seems The Who were onto the more dominant note of the Counter Culture’s spirituality, the one Douthat and Lawler can more fully explain in our day. This is so even if we expand the “Armenia City’s” criticism of the use of Eastern religion to include that of religion in general—something which might be suggested by the presence of Armenia in the title—and even if it seems slightly tricky to correlate its criticism with Pete Townshend’s own long-term devotion to the guru Meher Baba, which began around this time. Quickly on that last wrinkle:  The Who as a whole would not let themselves be defined by Pete’s Baba-ism, and this is one of their few non-Townshend songs; Baba-ism itself criticized the easy/vague pantheism, and especially the related acid-use, that characterized so much of the Counter-Culture.  “Tomorrow Never Knows” was the song that best embodied and heralded the arrival of that pantheism. 

Again, I would never deny the song’s artistic achievement—here’s a bit more on its making for the Beatles-lovers–, but I’ve saved the last words for Tocqueville:

If there is a philosophical system which teaches that all things material and immaterial, visible and invisible, which the world contains are to be considered only as the several parts of an immense Being, who alone remains eternal amidst the continual change and ceaseless transformation of all that constitutes him, we may readily infer that such a system, although it destroys the individuality of man, or rather because it destroys that individuality, will have secret charms for men living in democracies. All their habits of thought prepare them to conceive it and predispose them to adopt it. It naturally attracts and fixes their imagination; it fosters the pride while it soothes the indolence of their minds.

Among the different systems by whose aid philosophy endeavors to explain the universe I believe pantheism to be one of those most fitted to seduce the human mind in democratic times. Against it all who abide in their attachment to the true greatness of man should combine and struggle.

Tags: pantheism , The Beatles , The Who , Alexis de Tocqueville , Peter Lawler , Ross Douthat , LSD , rock

Give Me Liberty or Give Me Political Correctness?


I’ve read many a capable article in recent weeks about the assault on individual rights on campus by paranoid political correctness. They make many good points, and surely a strong argument can be made that there are now fewer protections for liberty on campus than there are in society at large.

My own tendency is to cast a wider net and blame the technophilia of “disruptive innovation” as, in the long run, a greater threat to intellectual liberty than “tenured radicals.” (I admit that administrators and bureaucrats now tend to be politically correct technophiles – incorporating the worst of both worlds.)

But, for now, I wish libertarians and conservatives would do more to understand political correctness as a feature of the libertarian securitarianism at the foundation of too much of campus life, including official institutional policy. To be clear, both conservative and libertarian intellectuals are repulsed by that semi-oxymoronic combination. Libertarian economists think of college life as a “bubble,” an artificial environment that insulates, at exorbitant cost, the students from the rigors of the competitive marketplace. The pro-choice (with the exception of health and safety) orientation of campus is driven by a perverse consumer sensitivity, enflamed by the desire to induce said consumer to max out on government-subsidized loans. Don’t think of your underemployed future saddled with debt.  Enjoy the secure “no rules” freedom graced by luxury amenities we can offer you right now.

Conservatives step in at this point and emphasize the lack of moral orientation on campus beyond being safe and consensual. Both the libertarians and the conservatives see the bubble as making young people worse than they would be if they were living somewhere else. The corruption is all about privileges without corresponding responsibilities. It’s the Marxist “end of history” — doing what one pleases in abundance without having to work or being stressed or obsessed or otherwise alienated. Sure, that’s an exaggeration, but all the studies show that college is getting easier and, in general, more about what students want than what they need.

But not everyone is happy is paradise. Campus life is particularly hard on women. For one thing, there’s an unnatural scarcity of men, which distorts the sexual/relational competitive marketplace. And no-rules coed dorms are really the expense of the truth about natural sexual differences and proper relational boundaries We can’t forget the “maturity gap” that separates college-age women and men, especially these days. I could go on. So we can’t be surprised that political correctness would gain force through the emphasis on the securitarian dimension of libertarian securitarianism. I demand to live as I please without being assaulted, bullied, or even judged. And I demand that I never feel unsafe or uncomfortable.

Someone might object that it’s unreasonable to attempt to achieve said safety without relying on any virtue beyond justice understood as consent. Someone might respond that no one on many of our campuses is speaking of the other virtues as if they are real and should make demands on us all.

I say more here, mainly with the intention of instructing libertarians and conservatives about what’s really wrong.

Rand Paul and 2016


Peter Lawler has wondered if maybe Rand Paul will be tough to beat for the Republican nomination. Paul is well positioned to inherit his father’s voting base, but his father’s voting base was not nearly large enough to be a real threat to win the Republican nomination.

There are several factors that make Rand a potentially more formidable candidate than his father. He doesn’t come across as a fanatic and a sectarian. He has a chance to reach beyond his father’s voting base to conservative voters who are frustrated with the establishment and don’t see anyone else who is standing up to the GOP’s Washington elites.

Paul is also helped by the peculiar dynamics of 2016. Ted Cruz could conceivably challenge Rand Paul for the party’s anti-establishment voters but, as Henry Olsen has pointed out, Cruz actually has a pretty narrow path to the nomination and could get taken out early in Iowa by Ben Carson. It is quite possible that Rand Paul could emerge from Iowa and New Hampshire as the only breathing alternative to the establishment candidates. Rand Paul could end up being both the Ron Paul of 2016 and the Rick Santorum of 2016. It is also possible that the Republican establishment will fail to coalesce around one candidate and that the establishment Republican vote will either split several ways going into South Carolina and/or the establishment candidates will bankrupt and destroy each other in the course of pursuing their ambitions.

That is a lot of ifs. My best guess is that the most likely scenario is one where Paul finishes a very strong second (think Clinton in 2008 rather than Santorum in 2012) to the surviving establishment candidate.

I just wish that the GOP establishment was less of an arm of the Washington business lobbies and that Tom Cotton had a few more years in the Senate.


Tags: Rand Paul , Ted Cruz , Ben Carson

Rand Paul for Senate


Rand Paul plays a useful role in our politics. He is the first somewhat broadly credible conservative spokesman for a certain strain of foreign policy thinking. This kind of thinking is called isolationism by its critics and non-interventionism by its friends. It is skeptical of long-term collective security arrangements and of having the US play a role in balancing regional state systems. This distinguishes isolationism/non-interventionism from conservative “realists” who might think that the Bush administration was too idealistic and aggressive, but who also believe that US plays an indispensable global role. Rand Paul represents the views of millions of Americans and even more, Paul is able to voice questions that occur to millions more who have no particular theory of foreign policy and no attachment to any political faction, but who wonder about the value of a given alliance or American security guarantee. But useful as he is, Rand Paul should not be president.

Prior to Rand Paul, it was his father Ron Paul that was the foremost spokesman for isolationism/non-interventionism. The problem with Ron Paul was that he was too dogmatic to confine himself to prudential arguments against a particular conflict. Ron Paul’s opposition to a particular war were wrapped up in a master theory that opposed most American military interventions since World War II. And here is what Ron Paul wrote about World War II:

America entered the Second World War, largely as a consequence of Franklin Roosevelt’s interventionist foreign policy. An excellent description of this can be found in Charles Callan Tansill’s Back Door to War. From this outstanding historic documentation of what transpired prior to the war, it is clear that the United States deliberately provoked the Japanese into attacking Pearl Harbor for economic reasons. Since the United States had broken the Japanese code, Roosevelt knew exactly what the Japanese were planning. FDR did nothing because of his own political ambitions and his desire to unify the country in support of the war. By the early 1940’s only a small minority stood on principle and objected to our becoming allies with Soviet murderers.

This dogmatism made Ron Paul a weak critic of any given American military intervention. If the median person had to swallow opposing Reagan on Grenada, the first Bush on the first Gulf War and embrace a conspiracy theory of World War II in order to support Ron Paul, then it wasn’t going to happen. There was also Paul’s ugly habit of rhetorically simplifying issues so as to condemn the US and exonerate America’s enemies. Paul could have made the more nuanced point that the American oil embargo forced the Japanese government to either scale back their imperial ambitions or militarily confront the United States. But no, Roosevelt had to deliberately provoke the Japanese in order to help the Soviet Union (rather than defeat Nazi Germany).

The main problem with Paul’s dogmatism was not that his flaws made him irritating, but that his flaws made him weaker than he might otherwise have been. The other, more interventionist, candidates in the Republican primaries of 2008 and 2012 spent more time condemning and dismissing Paul than in actually answering his arguments. Paul’s appeal was too limited to be a real threat.

Rand Paul has a chance to be something better. Rand Paul is better than his father at crafting alliances that push the center in his direction. Where his father courted racists, Rand Paul worked on sentencing reform. Rand Paul has tried to find the common ground between conservative realism and isolationism/non-interventionism. In a major Rand Paul foreign policy speech, Paul rhetorically accepts the principles of conservative realism, but he consistently tries to push it one or two clicks in the direction of less US involvement. He emphasizes the danger of an Iranian nuclear bomb and goes on to describe the need for a diplomatic solution, but does explain how such a solution might be gained in the (likely) event of Iranian intransigence.

In all of this, Rand Paul is doing the country a service. It isn’t just that Rand Paul is giving voice to millions of non-interventionists that supported his father. By offering prudential arguments, Paul is giving voice to the concerns of millions of other Americans who get left behind by the foreign policy discussions on the right. These Americans don’t share the presumptions of either the James Bakers or the John Boltons. They wonder if the global balance of power would work out better for us if we let distant regional state systems take their own course without our involvement. They wonder why the United States should be providing security guarantees to allies that most Americans can’t find on a map. These Americans aren’t isolationists. They aren’t anything. They have questions that aren’t being answered because no credible politician on the right has been raising them.

But that doesn’t mean that Rand Paul should be president. Just because he tries to find common ground with realism doesn’t make him a realist. He often strains himself to make realist-sounding arguments in favor of isolationist/non-interventionist policies. Paul opposed giving aid to the pro-Western Ukrainian government. Fair enough, but he tried to dress up his opposition to aiding Ukraine as a method of opposing Russia. That’s just too cute. Under pretext of declaring war on ISIS, Paul submitted a congressional use of force resolution that would have hampered (or perhaps more precisely was designed to hamper) US military operations against ISIS and al-Qaeda.

Rand Paul came very close to suggesting that Dick Cheney supported the Iraq War because of the influence of Halliburton. As with his father, the main problem is not that Rand Paul was making himself obnoxious. Hard and untrue things get said in politics. If Hillary Clinton had said the same thing, one could dismiss it as a liberal internationalist trying to appeal to Elizabeth Warren groupies, but with Rand Paul, one has to wonder it was a glimpse of a submerged worldview.

Rand Paul has a chance to make or national discussion of foreign policy both more inclusive and more nuanced. On the available evidence, he should not be managing American collective security arrangements and he should not be commander-in-chief. He is already in the place where he will do the most good – and the least harm.         

Tags: Rand Paul , Ron Paul

The End of the Professions?


Among the numerous facts that have come to my attention lately is that the Republicans have not won a presidential election since 1928 without a Nixon (well, there’s only one) or a Bush on the ticket. You have to admit that’s one strange bleepin’ fact. It does strengthen the case for finding Jeb a place on the ticket — and for finding out what Tricia Nixon has been doing lately.

There is also a lot of informed speculation out there on the web about men being replaced by machines (by computers and especially robots). I’ve read that the personal physician will soon be replaced by the diagnostic computer — which (who?) of course will know a lot more and make fewer errors. The personal touch can be provided by a nurse. Nursing, everyone knows, is exploding as a profession, and it appears to be one of the very few college majors that guarantees a job to about everyone who completes the program. These probably aren’t the best times to go to medical school (and certainly you shouldn’t risk borrowing a lot to do so). One takeaway: There are probably more ways than we can imagine right now in which technology will reduce medical costs. The libertarian futurists are right about some things.

We also read that much of what lawyers do now will be turned over to machines. (Insert lawyer joke here.) The supply of lawyers already far exceeds the demand. This seems, of course, bad news for political science as a liberal-arts, pre-professional major. Constitutional law used to be touted as a really tough course that would show your readiness for law school. Well prepared by all the reading and writing you did in college, you will, it’s very, very likely, do well enough in law school to be rather securely set for life in a good firm. Many a Berry grad has followed some version of that “career path.”

But things have changed.  It’s easier to get into law school. Some pretty decent programs, in fact, aren’t filling up and are getting desperate for warm bodies. Even grads from the best programs are having trouble getting secure jobs, and compensation for lawyers is, in general, getting worse. The business of borrowing huge bucks to fund your legal education is now way too risky. Everyone knows of underemployed law-school grads (many of whom got good grades in law schools) drowning in debt. So the new challenge is to go to law school for free or at least on the cheap, and that is getting a lot easier to do, as law-school discounting is getting closer to college discounting. A reputable law school not far from where I’m sitting now used to basically stiff their students with an exorbitant tuition, and the profit was redistributed to the rest of the campus programs. Now, money is being frantically redistributed to the law school for financial aid to keep it afloat.

It’s still the case that if you want to be a lawyer you should “follow your passion” and go to law school. But you have to do so with a much more entrepreneurial spirit. Jobs aren’t guaranteed for the nerds who get all A’s. Everyone has to hustle to find gainful employment. And lawyers are more and more stuck with being independent contractors selling their labor piecemeal for a price.

Does this mean that pre-professional liberal education is no longer relevant? It means exactly the opposite. It’s more true than ever that it’s the foundation of the flexibility required to flourish in the 21st-century competitive marketplace. You probably won’t have some securely placed ”career” as a lawyer. And the most marketable skills remain lucid and precisely detailed speaking, writing, and reading comprehension, and the world still belongs to those with huge active vocabularies, those who can deploy the world of the screen and techno-jargon with effective irony, those who can really use words to describe the world as it is. And the main source of a “real vocabulary” is absorbing the content of ”real books.” 

Well, there’s another route: Being on very good terms with the “genius machines” that will be continue to expand as sources of our productivity. But that route is not for everyone. And the world belongs to those who know enough to be able to tell those nerds what to do. Peter Thiel, remember, majored in philosophy and went to law school. And Barack Obama’s and Mitt Romney’s educational narrative is the same sort of  undergraduate foundation in real books followed by “professional development.”

Merry Zeffirelli Christmas


The best cinematic portrayal of the gospel stories I know of is Jesus of Nazareth, co-written and directed by Franco Zeffirelli.  Released in 1977 as a six-hour mini-series, it features excellent casting (for Jesus in particular), a very solid script, but is pushed into an appropriately higher level of excellence due to a very moving score by Maurice Jarre, and by a style of filming that, ever-aware of the Western tradition of gospel-scene representation in painting, is as focused on the tableaux it provides as the action it conveys.  It matters that Zeffirelli was not only a Catholic director, but one born, and educated art-wise, in Florence.  

There are scenes where the final result is no more than a high quality 1970s mini-series portrayal, but there are many places where things come together to make it seem an inspired film indeed.  It has helped win not a few converts over the years.  I recall being strengthened in my young boy’s faith when it came out, and due to some recent reading, I can also report that John Lennon was quite moved by it, and came close to converting himself at one point due to its influence.  Anyhow, here is the visitation of the shepherds scene.  Nothing particularly special, at least until that music rises up.  Merry Christmas!



Update: Sorry about the wrong video earlier–and no, I don’t know why our name has been changed to “Postmodern Conservat-ism.”  We’ll fix things after Christmas.


I Believe in Christmas Day (But Happy Festivus to the Rest of Us)


Well, today, I’m told, is Festivus, the hilarious alternative to Christmas portrayed on Seinfeld. Festivus is my favorite alternative to Christmas because it really is an alternative. The other alternatives attempt to keep the Christmas moods about home and love and wonder and all that alive without the baggage of religious belief.  But Festivus is the opposite of  Christmas. Gratitude is replaced by the airing of grudges. And instead of bowing down before a newborn King, we pump ourselves up through feats of strength. A big argument about Seinfeld is whether it celebrates or mocks narcissistic nihilism. Obviously there’s some of both. Festivus, though, is clearly meant to be instructively repulsive and ridiculous. The holiday was invented by a man who also screamed “serenity now” without getting any therapeutic results. Can you celebrate both Festivus and Christmas? Well, probably not, although the former might be understood to provide the catharsis that prepares you for the true spirit of the latter. Seinfeld himself, of course, doesn’t see the personal need for either.

I usually leave music to Carl, but I have, in the past, managed to say something about a Christmas carol. My favorite American Christmas tune remains “I Wonder as I Wander.” You can find out why, as well as read a number of Christmas musings from not so long ago, by buying my “Allergic to Crazy.” This particular micro-essay has been reprinted in several places, and I’m going to give you my gift of the link to the version found on The Imaginative Conservative, just in case you didn’t know about that diverse and often genuinely imaginative storehouse of conservative reflection.

My lame Christmas musical message this year comes from my appreciative listening to FM 95.7 (the Ridge) in Rome, Ga., at noon while doing various Christmas errands. First there’s Elizabeth Davis’s “Motown Monday,” which featured this week the definitive Motown versions of many of the various Christmas classics. Most memorable was Stevie Wonder’s fine version of  “Ave Maria” (not exactly a Christmas song), featuring his reverently inventive interlude on the harmonica. As Elizabeth observed, “Stevie did a bang-up job pronouncing those Latin words.” He also reminded me he can really, really sing. This show is on every Monday at noon, and it’s the loving project of a real expert. It is also just fun. Elizabeth, at a certain point, gave us a break from all that Christmas by playing “Brick House,” remarking that she just couldn’t locate a Christmas message from the Commodores.

Tuesday’s noon show is “Fab Tuesday.” The fabulous treat for today was the Beatles’ Christmas messages to their fans from 1963 through 1967. Well, they get stranger and stranger. If I remember correctly, 1965 included some of the lad’ raucously singing, to the tune of  “Yesterday,” ” Oh, I believe in Christmas day.”

And they added, “Bless you all on Christmas day.” In subsequent years, their message was not so clear or edifying, although it was always fun.

Book Notes, New Deal Edition


I’ve been reading up on the history of American liberalism this year, and so for you last-minute Christmas shoppers, here’s a few recommendations for books about one aspect of that, the New Deal. 

The first is The Forgotten Man:  A New History of the New Deal, Graphic Edition, by Amity Shlaes.  I’m ambivalent about graphic novels, but this one really works.  I found it hard to put down, and it similarly affected another reader I know, one with little taste for history books.  Plenty of conservatives and libertarians are saying it would be a good book to put into the hands of teenage readers exposed to the typical lionization of FDR in the schools.  

Shlaes’s original history (2007), whatever its other virtues, was well suited to this sort of adaptation, due to its weaving into its main narrative the stories of a number of interesting lesser figures, such as various New Deal captains, The Schecter brothers, and the Harlem leader Father Divine.   I wonder what other center-right historical or literary books would be good for this kind of adaptation—any ideas? 

Reading the original was one of the things that made me strongly suspect the whole “crisis/opportunity” response of Obama and co. to the 2008 downturn was going to keep harming the economy, since same as FDR and co., they were making move upon move that increased uncertainty about the future business environment.  If liberal accounts admit FDR’s unpredictability and ignorance regarding key economic decisions but suggest that his overall confident air and compassionate policy instincts got us past difficulties, Shlaes shows us more of the real cost.  For one, the so-called “capital strike” on the part of potential business investors was far less ideological than simply prudential in the face of the uncertainty generated by FDR and his men.

Also at the heart of her critical take on FDR’s New Deal is her underlining the severity of the “second wave” of the Great Depression felt in 1938—employment levels and stocks again went dramatically downward, and what was so devastating was that this was after all the legislation, experimentation, and modest economic rebounds of the previous four years.  This blow was within a year or so overshadowed by the coming of WWII, but Shlaes is right to insist upon its continued significance for how we assess FDR’s policies.

A feature of Shlaes’s book I particularly like is its dual focus upon FDR’s most attractive and ambitious social reformer, Rex Tugwell, and upon Wendell Wilkie, FDR’s only serious Republican challenger (1938), and a man who had regarded himself as a pro-New Deal business progressive in the early days—he had voted for Roosevelt in ’32.  Tugwell’s story-arc is an unhappy one, for various reasons.  Some of these have to do with conservatives and moderates successfully demonizing him, stemming from his having been part of a 1927 trip of naïvely-pro-planning professors to the USSR, but they more fundamentally have to do with the outright failures of FDR programs to deliver in key ways—one of the more experimental programs dear to Tugwell’s heart, the Casa Grande resettlement cooperative farms, conspicuously bombed. 

We wind up feeling more badly for Tugwell than we do scornful of his ideological blinders, and Shlaes is right to suggest that insofar as someone like him, one of the New Deal’s most significant architects and most enthusiastic champions, found its actual playing out deeply disillusioning, this tells us much about the whole project’s true nature.  The discouragement of a number of liberal true believers—Tugwell was only the most obvious case–was not simply about inability to enact  the full and pristine version of the desired program due to the clout of reactionary forces (according to the liberal understanding), but in many ways about failures of New Deal programs that were enacted.

Wilkie also serves as an example of this dynamic of liberal disillusion under FDR, since he was fairly pro-New Deal early on.  But his ideological story-arc is a happy one, since to Shlaes he was the progressive liberal who, in reflecting on what was going wrong with the New Deal, worked his way back to truths of classic liberalism.  He becomes a student of William Graham Sumner and the English Whigs like David Hume and Lord Melbourne.  This change parallels his leaving his unsympathetic wife for a soul-mate in Irita Van Doren.  In a sense, he finds himself.  And, he almost beats FDR.

I recommend both versions of Shlaes, but I’d say that you really ought to supplement her history with one of the usual liberal takes, particularly if it is the outstanding history Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal: 1932-1940, by William E. Leuchtenburg.  Shlaes’s biases and angles are ones I largely agree with, but her thematic economic focus and personal stories can keep one from grappling with the bigger picture, and particularly as that picture was seen by dominant liberal opinion at the time and thereafter.  If you’re going to learn about the patron saint of the church of liberalism, whatever revisionist history you study, you really ought to learn what that church says about him itself.

Not that Leuchtenburg is a preacher to the choir, in the way guys like Hofstader and Schlesinger verge on being.  Rather, he is such a good historian, providing you with ample documentation and elegant writing at every turn, that his (usually) consensus liberal view never comes across as heavy-handed.  He always gives you what you need to see past it, and the sentimentalism and personal adulation that have come to be common in liberal accounts of FDR are simply absent—rather, Leuchtenburg consistently focuses upon the political nitty gritty. 

He is also good at getting you to sense the fundamental fears and doubts about capitalism’s and democracy’s future in the early portions of the Depression, and getting you to see the various political responses that emerged to it.  We really did need a president who conveyed a sense of confidence, purpose, and action, for 1933 and 1934 were genuinely crucial years for the future of democracy in the U.S.  The chapters on foreign policy are also first-rate.  Published around 1960, it’s still the best book here, even though I’ll be saying less about it than the others.

If you get the recent (2013) Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time, by Ira Katznelson, splurge for the hardback, since the paperback’s lightly-printed text is a strain on the eyes.  Katznelson is a political scientist, which makes a number of the features of his book more attractive to many of our readers here at Postmodern Conservative.  His extensive footnotes are a wonder of erudition, he is tuned to important debates in the fields of American political development, presidency studies, and congress, and he is quite open to various points of view.  For example, while he strikes me as basically liberal in his views, he is able to cite aspects of Shlaes in a fair manner, makes a sympathetic nod to Leo Strauss at one point, and even more impressively, cites figures and arguments from the iconoclastic and deeply anti-New Deal libertarian economic historian Robert Higgs

Katznelson tries a number or revisionist, or at least unusual, framings of the New Deal story.  To take one example, he says the full story has to go up to through the resolution of the Korean War.  We are not so focused on debates about the economy or the New Deal program, not so focused on the personality of FDR, and yet, we are often even more immersed in the nitty-gritty of politics than in Leuchtenburg. 

One blurb correctly says that the book is more than a bit “dark.”  Troubling ironies abound.  The good things the liberals did often came with disconcerting costs, or only came about due to disturbing political dynamics.  The correct fight against the Axis produces a dangerous military-industrial complex.  FDR’s most progressive period on the one hand saw large segments of the population responding to him in a cult-like and fascist-like manner, and on the other was most reliably supported in congressional votes by the segregationist Democrats. 

The book starts slowly—Katznelson puts too much weight upon, and spends too much time setting forth the importance of, his “fear”-oriented framing—but then it picks up a head of steam, providing telling detail after detail, generating insight upon insight, that it never loses until it hits the Cold War somewhere around the 300th page.  The very serious loss of confidence in liberal democracy of the 30s, exending from intellectuals to the man on the street, is more thoroughly explored and conveyed here than in the other books.  Unlike most historians, Katznelson is prepared to explore the roots of this loss in many progressives/liberals’ ongoing but intensifying suspicion (and sometimes hope) that liberal democracy might be surpassed by a more advanced form of government. 


Keep reading this post . . .

Tags: FDR , New Deal , Amity Shlaes , Ira Katznelson , Hadely Arkes , Cass Sunstein

Santorum and Huckabee


One of our Postmodern Conservative commenters asked why we weren’t giving more attention to Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee and Rand Paul as potential 2016 presidential nominees. It was a good question. I’ll leave Rand Paul for another day, but here is my thinking for why Santorum and Huckabee are unlikely to get the GOP presidential nomination in 2016:

Santorum deserves a lot more respect than he gets. He is a principled social conservative. He was the only one in the 2012 Republican field who recognized that the Republican message aimed at entrepreneurs and right-leaning professionals had too little appeal. Santorum recognized the weaknesses that Obama exploited in the general election. Jeb Bush would be smart to study what was right with the 2012 Santorum campaign, but he probably won’t. The entire Republican establishment response to the 2012 loss was to double down on the priorities and sensibilities of the business lobbies.

One objection to Santorum is that his 2012 working-class economic message was badly out of day. Santorum was trying to appeal, both culturally and economically, to the working class of 1972 rather than that of 2012. That is a problem, but it is probably remediable. Policy agendas can be rewritten in order to adapt to changing circumstances.

But Santorum’s biggest problems have less to do with his agenda, than with his personality. When under pressure, he can’t avoid getting into self-defeating arguments. There is no reason to expect that this is going to change in his fifties. Santorum also seems to lack some executive skills. Santorum wasn’t able to raise a large amount of money early in his campaign, but fundraising networks can be built. The real problem was that Santorum wasn’t able to manage what should have been under his control. His campaign had trouble organizing the setting for interviews. Most of his primary night speeches were poorly organized and self-indulgent. Santorum is a good man who deserves our respect (more so than just about any Republican who ran for the 2012 nomination), but he is just missing some of the talents it takes to go all the way in a contemporary presidential race.

Talent is one thing that Huckabee has. If presidential campaigns were run on paper, Huckabee would be the frontrunner for the 2016 presidential nomination. Not a frontrunner.  The frontrunner. He has a large, pre-existing base among white evangelical Christians (most of Santorum’s 2012 vote would almost certainly go to Huckabee). Huckabee would enter the 2016 with much higher name recognition and a larger fundraising base than in 2008. He has the kind of winning personality that could appeal to open-minded voters and he could benefit from being underestimated in all the right ways.  

Huckabee was weak on national policy in 2008, but that should be fixable. Santorum can’t make himself less choleric, but Huckabee could hit the briefing books.

But it turns out that Huckabee isn’t all that serious about running a presidential campaign. His speech to this year’s CPAC was a series of conservative Christian identity politics gestures. He is still in favor of the politically suicidal FairTax.

Well, the FairTax is suicidal for a presidential candidate. It is just fine for a political entertainer. Huckabee just seems to occasionally hint that he is running for president as a way of refreshing his entertainment industry brand. It is reasonable (and maybe even admirable) that he is reticent to run for president. But normal people have a limited appetite for politics and for disappointment. Huckabee’s cynical flirting with the presidential campaign is toying with the emotions of real people who are being badly served by our politics

I just wish we could somehow give Huckabee’s talents and executive experience to Santorum.   

Tags: Rick Santorum , Mike Huckabee

Steven Pinker vs. Microaggression


My admiration for Harvard’s Steven Pinker continues to get less grudging.  It goes without saying that I side with the ultimately much more deeply scientific Leon Kass against Pinker’s evolutionary reductionism or scientism.

Still, I thought Pinker was right in opposing the suddenly fashionable thought that what’s wrong with Harvard and other Ivies is that those  institutions don’t facilitate students in their construction of their personal souls or whatever. Harvard hires specialists in various academic fields; they are chosen according to their potential for making contributions in said fields, not for their skill or competency in soul development. Students, Pinker claims, should work on their souls, if they believe they have them, on their own time.

Well, someone might say, I thought you were all about the soul. As part of higher education, I am only if professors really do have the confidence and the competence to see why philosophy, theology, literature, and even natural science are rigorous academic pursuits with the whole truth in mind about who we are as natural, personal, relational beings with distinctive excellences, joys, miseries, flaws, perversities, and responsibilities. That kind of professor is not going to be common at Harvard or our other elite schools soon. Meanwhile, there is a lot to learn from evolutionary psychologists, among others. Amateur — and usually self-induglent or emo/ideological — toying with the “affective” side of student development is a waste of time and money. Of course I think there’s both too much scientism and too much relativism on campus, but I still side with the scientists who take seriously their self-correcting method of inquiry.

Pinker is getting more vocal and resolute about speaking out against everything at Harvard that trivializes, infantilizes, or plain represses intellectual life on campus. Here’s a noble and eloquent excerpt from a letter he wrote yesterday about Israel BDS (boycott, divest, sanctions) movement at Harvard, where the presence of a SodaStream sparkling-water machine made by an Israeli-based company is alleged to be a “microaggression” that has to be purged from the university community.

Equally foreign to the mission of a university is the idea that students are to be protected from “discomfort” or so-called “microaggression” when they are exposed to beliefs that differ from theirs, or when the university does not accede to demands that it prosecute their moral and political crusades. Discomfort is another word for tolerance. It is the price we pay for living in a democracy and participating in the open exchange of ideas.

Middle East politics above all is a subject on which thoughtful people disagree; it is certainly not one on which a university should decree the correct position. While I am sympathetic with many of the students’ objections to the current policies of the Israeli government, I object even more strongly to the policies of the governments of countries such as Russia, India, Pakistan, China, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. In a world filled with governments with deplorable policies, it is pernicious for a university to single out one of them for opprobrium.

Pinker’s objection, of course, is to suppressing reasonable political disagreement because some students are uncomfortable with it. Any good class is full of “microaggressions” that aren’t perceived as such. Words aren’t merely weapons to secure power and advantage — or so we must believe if we take higher education seriously. The soft combat — the dialectic — called conversation, which is central to higher education, is with the truth in mind. The “correct position,” in principle, is the goal of an open-minded conversation, which proceeds on the premise that each side — all sides — has some good reasons but still is more confident about what it believes it knows than is reasonable.

Takeaway: Sparkling water never hurt anyone.

Stranger Than Fiction


I’m not up to commenting much on the strange events involving North Korea and Cuba. I don’t know that a tale of North Korean hackers bringing Sony to its knees over a bad movie that would have been in theaters for a mere couple of weeks would make a credible movie script. It is good to be reminded how vulnerable our country and our economy are to cyber-attacks. Now every patriotic American has to demand the right to suffer through the unfunny film so that the terrorists don’t win. 

Restoring relations with Cuba has divided the Republican coalition more than a bit. Two astute libertarians have told me, in fact, that it’s the best thing Obama has done. Well, it’s not the worst thing, I will admit. But as Krauthammer points out on the main NRO site, it’s not clear why we didn’t demand something — maybe a lot — in return. So in general, our country continues to look weaker, more vulnerable, and a bit ridiculous in the final two years of our president.

That’s not to say that Obama isn’t savvy enough to continue to display his tactical superiority over the the Republican congressional leaders.

I will also mention, in passing and without naming names, that I’ve come across two prominent libertarian legal scholars who explain that what the president did on immigration was constitutional. Despite their appeal to principle, the bottom line is he produced the policy outcome they desired. Individual rights trump limited government through the separation of powers. There’s a connection here to the libertarian scholars’ excessively activist view of judicial review.

Strange too is the Republican fatalism that marks many of the responses to Jeb Bush virtually entering the race for president.  So I only have to tweak somewhat what I speculated before.

Although no one wants him to be nominated, the conclusion is, he has an excellent chance. You wonder how that could be in a democracy. But, if memory serves, that’s not that distant from the way Bush the elder (soon to be eldest?) and his other son got nominated.

Already there’s the call for the party leadership (wherever they may be) to rally round early in the process a single credible alternative to Jeb. Unless the leaders can do that, Jeb can prevail with one mere plurality after another in primaries with a large and diverse field of candidates. Nobody knows how to make said rallying happen. Maybe after the winnowing process has taken out every opponent but one, Jeb will be swamped in the final showdown. And maybe not, given that the other last man standing may well be ill equipped to take advantage of the opportunity he’s been given.

Pete and I, of course, define “the base” differently. I mean the regular guys I meet at Panera and on various social occasions who vote Republican. They were all, last time, for anyone but Romney. They will this time be for anyone but Bush, although some wouldn’t want Rand Paul either.

My own view, let me repeat, is that the other last man will most likely be Paul, and he will be so equipped. And I will have been tricked into voting for Jeb myself, with many establishment and base Republicans. I assume that the primary electorates will be enhanced in RP’s favor by voters neither establishment nor base. I could be wrong on this, but I’m thinking in terms of a candidate who generates energy and inspires enthusiasm.

Turning to the Democrats, Carl’s gut tells him that a charismatic candidate will rise from the streets to take out the has-been HRC. That could happen, but I don’t know right now who that candidate might be. David Brooks thinks that Elizabeth Warren might win; I’m not convinced, despite the ways David talked her up, that there’s that much there there. The main evidence for Clinton’s possible defeat is that her family is actually more loathed by leading Democrats than the Bushes are by leading Republicans. Once blood is smelled, she might be torn apart.

Common sense tells us, maybe, that a free and democratic country won’t torture itself with the depressing choice between two old people from families most Americans would rather forget about for now.

But the choice between HRC and RP would be, for me, far more depressing still. The choice between EW and RP, which would be both wacky and scary, can’t be ruled out.

As Glenn Reynolds says, Bush is a nice man who would be a better president than Obama. And more than one distinguished political scientist (including one we all know and love) has told me that Jeb might be much better than better than Obama. That doesn’t mean that Glenn or much of anyone else wants him to be nominated. Almost anyone else would be better.

Pete and Yuval, for now, don’t seem to have a candidate.  They sure deserve one.

Jeb Bush and the View from the Chamber of Commerce


This Marc Ambinder column on Jeb Bush strikes me as basically correct. Bush isn’t a moderate Republican. He is a candidate of the business lobby consensus (a consensus he seem to entirely believe in). I have a few things to add:

1. Ambinder is a little harsh on the Tea Party populist conservatives. Tea-partiers aren’t against governing. They don’t trust the Washington political elites and they are frustrated. Rank-and-file Tea Partiers lack a clear and plausible alternative governing agenda, but that is because they are normal human beings and that is not how normal people relate to politics. They can be won over by a positive agenda that speaks to their values and priorities. To the extent there is not a realistic Tea Party agenda, it is an indictment of the various pols (some of them outright charlatans) who have sought the support of Tea Partiers.

2. Ambinder argues that Bush needs a middle-class agenda. Part of his column could have been written by Yuval Levin or Reihan Salam. But what if Bush actually believes that the Chamber of Commerce agenda is the middle-class agenda that people need? My sense is that the GOP K Street complex has been getting more confident and more insular lately.

3. The key for Bush is to become the consensus establishment candidate by Iowa at the latest. Bush could probably beat Ted Cruz and Rand Paul (and various other right-populist characters) if it is Bush against a bunch of candidates bidding for the support of the Tea Party. As Ramesh Ponnuru wrote, the nightmare scenario is one where Christie and/or Romney get enough establishment money that the establishment candidates empty their bank accounts in the course of destroying each other’s approval ratings. A very lucky Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, or Marco Rubio might slip through under those circumstances .

4. I wouldn’t count Bush out in a general election even if he doesn’t adopt a middle-class agenda. Bush is a smart, principled, likeable guy. If the 2016 Republican nominee is going to run using a Made On K Street strategy, Bush would run that strategy about as well Chris Christie or Scott Walker.

Tags: Jeb Bush

Jeb Bush Is Not The Biggest Problem With Jeb Bush


It is too late in the day, and I’m too tired to mock the dynastic implications of a general election in which Jeb Bush faces off against Hillary Clinton. It creeps me out a little, but what is more disturbing is how Jeb Bush seems to have completely bought into the K Street interpretation of why Republicans lost in 2012 (too much social conservatism, not enough Obama-supported immigration reform).

My suspicion that Chris Christie and Scott Walker basically share Bush’ views (even if they might be more reticent about voicing those views and are perhaps more willing to compromise with dissident elements of the center-right).

Like in 2012, I think that the climate of opinion among Republican elites is more of a problem than the idiosyncrasies of any particular candidate.


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