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Postmodern Conservative

Reflections on politics, culture, and education.

Leo Strauss, Preppy Atheism, and Berry College



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First, I want to apologize for failing to respond to the very thoughtful comments in the threads. When I post a comment there, it mysteriously disappears. Why don’t I get that fixed? Well, I guess I’m getting around to it. As my wife can can tell you, when a light goes out in the bathroom, I usually give it a couple of weeks to fix itself.

Because it’s been made available for free on Showtime, I actually watched the first 20 minutes of Dead Poets Society again. I now refuse to believe that the prep school portrayed is realistic. Its “four pillars” are “honor, tradition, discipline, and excellence.” Give me a break. And all the teachers are old and boring men, who are pretty much about the discipline. What’s interesting is the school’s atheism: There’s prayer before a meal, but not in the chapel; the pillars are godless, etc. So when the RW character (Mr. Keating, or “captain, my captain”) tells the boys that in the long run you’re worm food, and that’s why you have to “gather ye rosebuds” and “seize the day” while you can, that makes perfectly good sense to them. Keating goes on to tell them that the only thing we know is that we’re here; life is a play that has no point beyond itself, and all anyone can do is contribute a verse. The truth the headmaster tells Keating is even tougher; the boys will hate you later for getting them to believe they can be poets or verse contributors, much less “free thinkers.” Most of them aren’t up to that. Keating’s response is a bit of his own poetry romantically obliterating the distinction between real life and dreams. The next step of my report about my “close watching” would be about Keating’s own solitary sadness, lack of real life, inability to contribute a significant verse, etc.

The allegedly evil suicide-inducing dad in the film is played by Kurtwood Smith, quite a distinguished sci-fi actor and, of course, the manly, lovable (by me), cranky, friendless dad Red Forman on That Seventies Show. Red, of course, was much more self-indulgent and arbitrary in his parenting, and his son Eric never got anywhere near either suicide or success. What’s unrealistic about the DPS character is his thinking that it’s good for his son to go light on the extracurriculars. Doesn’t he know about the résumé-building required to display yourself as a  well-rounded or “interesting” person to those Ivies? (Well, you might respond, admissions criteria have evolved since the Fifties.) Mainly, though, he’s not a bad dad. His tough love is about helping his kid get a lucrative and dignified profession, and then he can let him do what he wants. And the truth he sees maybe too well is that his son is not at a verse-contributing pay grade. He should have, especially in retrospect (of course), done more to indulge his dreams.

So I go to Real Clear Politics this morning to be rattled by how screwed up the world is. I have to admit I’m less concerned with the president’s coming calculated act of tyranny on immigration described well by Carl below than by his general cluelessness when it comes to the various threats facing us throughout the world. In the midst of all the doom and gloom, there’s a point of light in the article by my friend Peter Berkowitz vindicating Leo Strauss.

Why Strauss is front-page news today is unclear. But I certainly agree with Peter that trendy anti-Straussians — while claiming to take courageous moral or intellectual stands – really display willful ignorance. There’s a huge amount to be learned from Strauss, and I can’t take seriously anyone who thinks he’s too good to learn, especially those self-righteous creeps who really aren’t so good or so smart.

The most controversial or misunderstood part of Strauss’s writing is his talking up of the secret or esoteric teachings of philosophers. He made the fact that philosophers and other great writers didn’t say straight out what they really knew to be true less of a secret than ever. Strauss made a big deal of the fact that philosophers — who are really atheists or at least nonbelievers — made a show of agreeing with what the people of their time and place believed about religion and morality and all that. By saying that straight out, Strauss opened himself to the charge of atheism. Anyone who accuses Strauss of injustice is making that allegation.  Strauss corrupted the youth by refusing to believe or pretend he believes in the sacred human rights of democracy or something along those lines. Why was Strauss, to use his own words, so “exoteric” (or obvious) about being “esoteric?”

Atheism used to be a “brand” that would reduce “free thinkers” to impotence or worse. These days, however, most of the preppies are atheists, and what they think the truth really is (when they think at all) isn’t more comforting than what the philosophers of old thought. So almost screaming, in effect, that the philosophers of old were atheists may be the best way to get sophisticates — atheistic conformists who pride themselves in their free thought — these days to take them seriously. Certainly Strauss has been the inspiration of many a Dead Philosophers Society, although they, unlike the Dead Poets Society, imagine themselves meeting outside the cave. And Strauss’s “teaching method” was, in fact, oriented toward inspiring real verse creators and only rarely the genuinely free thinker. He was short on romanticism and shared some (far from all) of the “realism” of the headmaster.

We postmodern conservatives are about a realism that’s something other than Keating’s dreamy romanticism or Strauss’s classical rationalism, because we have a different view about what’s genuinely extraordinary about the life of each human person. But that’s a story for another post.

Here my final words on the DPS: Its filming began at the Ford buildings at my Berry College, which look more preppy/traditional than most prep schools. A bit of Berry made it on screen. But the “location” was moved to some school in Delaware once it was judged too costly to fill Berry with the fake snow required for the winter scenes. The new location, of course, also had the advantage of the scenic lake with all those geese conveniently located down the hill from the hollowed halls. Despite Berry’s look (in places), our college, thank God, isn’t dominated by preppies or atheists, although, due to our tradition of diversity, we have our share of each, including preppy atheists.

 

 

Tags: dead poets society , Leo Strauss , Berry College

Scary Stuff



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If our president keeps flouting the Separation of P’s,

just what should a good D say? 

Say little, say nothing, or cheerfully reply,

“Okay!”

Jonathan Chait writes a piece titled “Obama’s Immigration Plan Should Scare Liberals, Too.”  He supports the policy content of the plan, which would grant “temporary” legal status to up to 5 million illegal aliens, but opposes the manner of its proposed effectuation, which would be an executive declaration followed by non-enforcement of the existing law against those granted the legal status.   For more details on the rumored-to-be-in-consideration plan, which I call “Big Amnesty,” see Ross Douthat’s important editorial against it.  I have noticed only one weak denial that it is in consideration from a White House spokesperson, and there has certainly been no promise from Obama that it is now off the table for good.

Liberals should be scared by this, definitely.  I applaud Chait for saying so.  His piece has a few flaws, however.

First, he never uses the word “unconstitutional.”  Odd, isn’t it?  Well, if you read his piece twice, you’ll notice that Chait actually speaks of this as a debate not about violations of the Constitution, but about violations of nowhere-written-down “norms” of congressional and presidential behavior that he says are needed to maintain our Constitution.  Apparently, none of Obama’s actions (unlike several taken by the Republican House) have so far violated those “norms,” but the Big Amnesty would violate them.  Chait’s framing of things in this way lets him avoid having to say whether Obama’s previous law-suspension actions violated the Constitution or not.  Clever.

Second, his piece is too short, and too drained of passion.  Where are the two-thousand words of outrage against what has been an obscene lack of liberal opposition to this proposal?  Where are the high-toned calls for Democrats to forthrightly support the Constitution?  My self-promoting joking aside, his piece does lack the requisite urgency of tone.  And its timing, coming two-and-a-half weeks after Obama first floated of the Big Amnesty idea, similarly undercuts the feeling that this is something worth being scared about.    

Finally, nowhere in the piece does he demand of Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) an answer to this simple question posed to him many months ago by a Weekly Standard reporter:  “Are there any parts of Obamacare that the president can’t suspend?”  

I bring it up here, because that question that cuts to the heart of the debate.  I think reporters should be asking every Democratic representative and candidate that question.  For clarity’s sake I’d rephrase it this way:

“Are there any parts of Obamacare that it would be unconstitutional for the president to suspend?”   

Senator Kaine’s response to the question was to dodge it, and to excuse his not replying on the grounds that “he is not a scholar.”  Of course, upon other more complex topics regarding executive power he presents himself as rather scholarly, quite concerned with the Founders’ intentions, and ready to answer all questions of constitutional and legal detail. 

Few Democrats will prove willing to answer the question, because even though it might seem to make intuitive sense to allow a president to make a few minor changes to a very complex law so as to allow its main work to be done effectively, they can find nothing in the Constitution that permits such.  In fact, no non-arbitrary rule for limiting such could be formulated for any constitution.  How few is few?  How minor is minor?  How complex must the law be?  Etc.

Thus, the real answer to the question would either be that 1) our actual politics allow every president as many violations of the Constitution as he or she can get away with in the court of public opinion, so that the “not getting away with it” prospect of Obama’s Big Amnesty plan, and the “Republican presidents might now do the same” prospect are the only really scary things about it, or 2) that presidents can refuse to enforce any parts of any law, up to all parts of said “laws.” 

2) means a Republican president could refuse to enforce Obamacare entirely, and any other law they dislike.  If you accept 2), you accept reducing the separation of powers merely to this:  a president can’t exactly pass a law by himself, but out the mass of federal laws on the books, he can “carve out” via non-enforcement suspensions whatever new legal landscape he wishes.  Such non-enforcement suspensions are de facto vetoes, but are not, like constitutional vetoes, subject to being overridden nor prohibited from being “line-item.”   

I don’t see how this ditching of our Constitution’s basic structure isn’t precisely what Eric Posner advocated last week when he offered one of the only serious defenses of the legality of the president’s proposal.  When the bells and whistles of his argument are removed, it basically boils down to this:  when a president decides Congress is “in gridlock” about an issue he believes is pressing, he may suspend the enforcement of laws as he sees fit to resolve said issue, and public opinion will provide the necessary restraint against unlimited use of this remarkable power.  Eric Posner’s truly scary TNR editorial is here, and Ross Douthat’s reply to it is here.  

But here’s the thing:  forthright scholar that he is, Posner is simply illustrating with clarity and consistency the position on domestic executive power that most Democrats actually now hold, whether they can admit it to themselves or not.  Chait would resist the idea that he has to agree with Posner, and that is to his credit.  But nonetheless, he is in a tricky position, for unlike those, such as the liberal scholar Jonathan Turley, who unambiguously denounced Obama’s various non-enforcement suspensions of 2013-2014 as—there’s that pesky word again!–unconstitutional, Chait’s now opposing the proposed Big Amnesty law-suspension has to be squared with his not opposing the smaller instances of the same type of action.  I’m not a Chait-watcher, but I take it that he either played the ignorance card about those earlier violations, as Kaine did, or if that was too ridiculous for him, tried to change the subject of the debate to one about policy, or to one about abrogation of his posited constitution-supporting “norms.”  But the main question, about whether this proposed action would violate and the earlier actions did violate the Constitution itself, is very easy to answer.  No, the Constitution does not allow a president to repeal laws or parts of laws.  And to say or imply that the “little repeals” are allowed, is to logically endorse larger ones. 

The Democratic Party’s dodging all serious talk about the constitutionality of the little repeals may have invited Obama’s scary Big Amnesty trial balloon; and alas, its continued silence even as that omen of constitution-abandonment malevolently hovers over there on the edge of our current affairs, a silence interrupted only by a few disgruntled noises such as Chait’s piece, indicates that Posner’s “okay, president” position really could become the one that the Democratic Party openly endorses from here on out.

P.S.  Mr. Chait, or sure, Mr. Posner, if you happen to see this, what would your answer be to the question put to Senator Kaine?

P.P.S–UPDATE:  Looks likelier now that Chait’s delayed timing in addressing the Big Amnesty proposal was due to his hearing new indications that Obama is going to do it.  That seems to also be what Mark Krikorian is hearing, who has an excellent piece today that walks you through the constitutional issues he compares Obama’s “little Amnesty” action in 2012, his pre-2012 delaying of enforcement, and pre-Obama era executive grants of temporary status, to the Big Amnesty proposal.  The constitutional issues here are slightly less straightforward than with his suspensions of Obamacare provisions, but Mark helps you sort them out.  The guiding question nonetheless remains, ““Are there any parts of Obamacare, or immigration law, that it would be unconstitutional for the president to suspend?”     

Tags: Jonathan Chait , Tim Kaine , Eric Posner , Constitution

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Kurds, Contempt, and Citizens



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So my conciliatory words on behalf of dead poets managed to replace hatred with contempt. My favorite comment on e-mail begins “You wimp!” Let me salvage my manhood by saying that every word in both of my Robin Williams posts could be true at the same time. I’ll add that the movie is very bad for my profession. Any parent could say, with plenty of reason, that it’s not worth big bucks to have my kid “inspired.” Sometime down the road, I’ll whine that no profession is savaged more by novels, movies, and so forth than that of the professor. Well, maybe we deserve it. I’ve said often enough that most of them do.

There’s a lot of talk in various venues in the last few days about whether young people are really libertarian. Well (obviously), it depends what you mean by libertarian. That controversy could be clarified by the simple insight that the dogma of our time is that nothing trumps keeping the people around right now alive for as long as possible and as free as possible. Only suckers think of themselves as “parts” of wholes greater than themselves, such as families, countries, churches, or species. The same goes with thinking of yourself, deep down, as a responsibly relational being. That “individualism” (see Tocqueville) ain’t the same thing as “libertarianism.” There’s a large role for government, after all, on the health-and-safety front, and, as I’ve said so often, we’re all getting more paranoid, prohibitionist, and puritanical (or highly judgmental and regulatory) when it comes to bodies, even as we are unjudgmental or “accepting” when it comes to souls or what used to be regarded as sin. And, of course, there’s the tendency to want the government to protect us from all forms of bullying — not only with fists but with speech. The libertarian adage about “sticks and stones” has been abandoned, for example, on our campuses and in our corporations.

So I was reminded at the ISI conference of Bertrand de Jouvenal’s distinction between being “libertarian” and being “securitarian.” Today’s young want to have it all. (Let me add quickly that I don’t mean all our young, certainly not those at the conference or those who attend Berry College. I really don’t! I’m pretty much going with what studies show about the young in general.)

But they’re not socialists! A socialist, of course, is inspired by a certain kind of civic devotion that leads to personal sacrifice. A real socialist has more than a bit of the Puritan in him. As Carl often points out, today’s young imagine with the libertarians that we can live in a post-political world; for them, “anarcho-capitalism” is a hyphenated word for fantastic self-indulgence. The good news, I guess, is that they’re not Fascists either. Or even nationalists.

Speaking of nations, I’m open to thinking that many of the messes we see in the world today are the result of mistaken confidence in our power of nation-building. Certainly the allegedly “built” government of Iraq inspires no one’s confidence right now, and there might be a nontrivial argument for wasting no more lives or treasure on it.

But the Kurds, of course, are a real nation (well, not technically) we didn’t even build. Not only that, they like us, and we should admire them as better than us on the personal-liberty and civic-devotion fronts. So the least we could do is help our allies big-time — with airpower and manpower — to fend off an “existential threat.” Who can deny that the Kurds should be our focus in delivering a decisive blow against ISIS, which is the greatest or at least most extreme threat to civilization since the Stalinists (and, of course, the Nazis)?

Praising Dead Poets



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Alternative title: Okay, I see you up there on those desks. If I hadn’t reached the age when you fall, you can’t get up, I’d get up there too.

The second wave of our country’s classy and touching tribute to Robin Williams has been standing on desks to show allegiance to “captain, my captain.” Jimmy Fallon did it well last night, and such displays are all over YouTube now.

Given what I said about The Dead Poets Society yesterday, you might think I think that America had taken a wrong turn. But that’s not true. I was surely wrong (not to mention unclassy) when I highlighted the limits of the movie yesterday. For one thing, I’ve gotten a lot of e-mail, Facebooking, and threading that comes just short of hate mail on this, and I blog out of vanity, not to feel the hate. For another, the criticisms found in said mail actually make sense. I’m standing by what I said yesterday, but I’m giving the strong case in the other direction today.

I’m told I don’t understand how repressively conformist elite prep schools are, because I’ve haven’t “been there.” True enough. And I’m certainly happy that rich guys have largely abandoned the custom of sending their young sons (and daughters) away to high school. From the movies, novels, and other forms of hearsay, I’ve always thought that boarding high schools are pretty creepy, and I’m not even talking here about the tales we get from the English public schools.

When the RW character tells those boys that lawyers and engineers are necessary for sustaining life, but poetry and love are what makes life worth living, he’s telling those boys what they long to hear. Don’t I always say that the great challenge today is subordinating the technocratic “how” to a humanly worthy “why”? Well, I do. There’s a lot more to the ”why” than the romantic vision of this captain. But, hey, he’s teaching poetry, and his is an inspirational first step.

And who couldn’t cheer when the captain commands the boys to tear out the introductory material to their textbook otherwise filled with real poetry? That Dr. Pritchard wanted to reduce the appreciation of poetry to a kind of quantitative assessment based on a ridiculously reductionist rubric. Any teacher who declares war on that — and, by implication, on all specialists without spirit and on digitalization of the humanities and so forth — really is about opening the boys to a kind of “lifelong learning” that all we poets should believe in. God bless all teachers who are bold (or un-careerist) enough to take such a dissident stand, especially in front of students.

And the phrase “dead poets” is to be praised on many levels. First, there’s the connection of poetry to immortality or transcending the confines of biological being (as described by Mr. Darwin). Second, the poets are mostly not only dead but white and male. Poets are celebrated for how they continue to move erotically beings who are both “inward” and relational today, and not for their political correctness or immediate relevance. Third, it’s easy to move from dead poets to dead philosophers and theologians. Fourth, the poets of the past were better at celebrating gods and heroes, saints and sinners, lovers and warriors, all the polymorphous displays of great individuality. Fifth, reading dead poets turns out to be evidence of truth of the academic platitude that most real learning takes place outside the classroom.  The boys secretly go outside to read poetry aloud to share the sheer joy of words that correspond to the truth about who we are. They really have a society. I could go on, and it goes without saying I’m reaching here and there.

A particularly anal teacher or administrator might criticize the captain’s “teaching method” for being short on measurable learning outcomes. And it will inevitably lead to grade inflation. That’s my awkward transition to letting you know about this article I wrote on grade inflation and the Ivy League. I’m trying to think about every criticism of liberal-arts colleges around, and grade inflation, for me, is one of the least interesting.

 

 

 

Tags: Robin Williams , dead poets society

The Things I Like about Clinton Are Making Her More Politically Vulnerable



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I like that Clinton is drawing distinctions between herself and Obama, and I think she is generally right on policy. She is admirably forthright in her defense of Israel and in her condemnation of Hamas’s tactics of both targeting Israeli civilians and hiding behind Palestinian civilians.

The bad news is that a substantial body of Democratic opinion is actually to the left of President Obama on foreign policy. That means it is dangerous to be to Obama’s right.

I think Ezra Klein is right that Clinton is playing a politically dangerous game with her party’s leftists — who are both more numerous and more self-confident than they were when she was in the White House. History has promised the party’s activist liberals that the future is theirs, and it will take a series of consecutive electoral losses to beat the hubris out of them. That won’t happen by 2016.

It gets even worse when Clinton criticizes Obama from the right.  Obama’s approval ratings are pretty lousy, but the plurality of Democrats who are likely to vote in the 2016 primaries are almost certainly going to be heavily invested in believing Obama was a good president. The only conditions under which a majority of 2016 Democratic primary voters might repudiate Obama are conditions under which no Democrat could hope to win the general election.

Clinton’s moves to the right provide an opening for Biden. Clinton’s moves allow Biden to present himself as both the relatively less interventionist candidate (without being a left-isolationist) and the true heir of President Obama. This could given Biden access to a much wider anti-Clinton constituency than could be won by an Elizabeth Warren) whose support would likely come from white upper-middle-class liberals).

Tags: Hillary Clinton

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Recriminations



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I don’t have any constructive, forward-looking proposals for Iraq, but let’s take a look back. By the time Obama took office, Iraq’s political violence had sharply declined, Al-Qaeda had been marginalized, the Iran-backed Shiite militias had been subdued, the government had the backing of parties representing pluralities of all of Iraq’s largest confessional and ethnic groups, and the legislature was working though changes to the country’s civil service and pension systems.  All of the progress took place while Maliki was prime minster.   

Then the Obama administration happened. Maliki is a bad guy, but the forces of stability in Iraq were able to keep his worst instincts in check while the US was heavily involved.  When it became clear that the Obama administration had ceded influence to Iran, the incentives changed for all the players.

Obama treated Iraq as primarily an American domestic policy problem.  He was glad to take all the credit for pulling all the troops out even as the Iraqi state disintegrated. Obama’s short-term-oriented strategy worked – for Obama. He was reelected. It is unlikely he will ever pay the full political price of his choices. But the map of ISIS control of Iraq is a measure of his failures.         

Tags: Iraq , Barack Obama

Liberty’s Two Modes



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What follows is a pedantic footnote, involving the dotted i’s and crossed t’s of how to talk about liberty, to my essay in National Affairs about The Five Conceptions of American Liberty.  If you’ve already read that, and are trying to correlate it with what Lawler speaks of in his fine liberty-post below, you’ll find it helpful.  You ought to read my main essay first, unless yours is the kind of mind that benefits from jumping right into the middle of things. 

One thing Peter’s list of liberty-conceptions below has reminded me to say is that there are two modes of thinking about liberty before we even come to consider different conceptions of it, those of 1) personal liberty and 2) political liberty.   In the first mode we ask, “Is this person free?” or, “What is it that makes a person free?” and also, especially after Locke, “What does the right to personal liberty consist of?” In the second mode we ask,   “Is this society free?  What is it that makes a regime one of liberty?”  That is, to speak as Montesquieu did, we ask, “Is liberty there?” 

It is of course quite natural to blend or even conflate these two modes of talking about liberty.  And some conceptions of liberty are more likely to invite the conflation.

The way Justice Anthony Kennedy has spoken about liberty is an example of such.  Take his famous statement in Lawrence v. Texas that “the components of liberty and its manifold possibilities” reveal themselves more fully to us over time, so that to our eyes, liberty evolves over time.  He seemed to be speaking of Liberty simply, indeed closer reading revealed that the first and the last words of his opinion were “liberty” and “freedom,” respectively. But the context, even of the famous quote, would indicate that he was speaking particularly of the personal right to liberty protected by the 5th and 14th amendments. 

Keep reading this post . . .

Tags: liberty , American Liberty

Robin Williams as a Man in Full



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It’s impossible not to be moved by the deep and respectful responses to the suicide of Robin Williams. His death wasn’t caused by Hollywood self-indulgence or a chronic chemical imbalance, but by something that touches us all. I, of course, don’t know for sure how well this response reflects the truth about his substance abuse and depression. But we students of Walker Percy are always happy when people take the “existential” option seriously in our therapeutic time.

One line: All comedies laugh on the outside, but cry on the inside. Laughter and tears are twin responses to the tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing that is human life. The comedian’s personal life is a mess. We all enjoy him, but we wouldn’t want to be him. And we wouldn’t want our daughters to marry him.

Well, Robin Williams was blessed with tremendous comedic gifts, and he was the hardest-working man in the comedy business. But, for me, his comedy was hit-and-miss, with more misses than hits. He mostly seemed more frantic than funny to me.

Williams remains an underrated “serious” actor. His most memorable performances were displays of the relational dignity of troubled and somewhat marginalized gentlemen who, despite it all, know who they are and what they are supposed to do. I’m thinking for the moment of his performances in Awakenings, Good Will Hunting, and The Birdcage. In The Birdcage and Mrs. Doubtfire, we see caring dads with the loving confidence to be willing to hide key aspects of who they are in the service of the most indispensable parts of their lives.

Williams’s most annoying and perhaps his most “inauthentic” movie was The Dead Poets Society. There the teacher catered to the most self-indulgent and soft parts of his pampered students, and he actually drove one of them to suicide over a relatively small personal disappointment. The teacher should never point to himself as a role model — as “captain, my captain.” The gentleman shows us who he is by staying in character when the going gets tough. Seizing the day is often really bad advice for those of us born to know, love, and die. Now I’m not saying that “liberal education” shouldn’t be anti-bourgeois, but not in that way.

Compared to virtually all comedians today, Williams was a gentleman. He certainly wasn’t a jerk in the mode of Johnny Carson or Seinfeld. Nor did he content himself with ironically orbiting life with sad eyes in the mode of Bill Murray. He was hardly ever gratuitously gross, because he knew, even as a performer, he had grown-up responsibilities. Even though, in my opinion, Louis C.K. is funnier and maybe deeper, he has a lot to learn about being a grown-up, to say nothing of a gentleman.

Williams, apparently, never achieved in his own life the self-confidence and self-knowledge of his best characters. He seemed never to have been quite comfortable in his own skin. Too much restlessness and not enough serenity. He was a great man.

What Policy on Iraq Should Conservatives Recommend?



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Jim Geraghty makes a quick case that Republicans shouldn’t be taking an automatically critical stance towards Obama’s current actions on Iraq. Perhaps it is right to say, as the National Review editors do, that more should be done, but that requires that we get much more specific about what we mean by more. I think that one and all can agree at this point that much greater aide to the Kurds is urgently needed, and should have been initiated months ago.  

It is true that now that Obama is acting in the face of more and more massacres, however, and even a number of prominent Democrats are calling for him to do much more, with Senator Feinstein seeming even to call for American boots on the ground with her “it takes an army to defeat an army” comment, it is feckless for Republicans to continue the usual grousing about him betraying allies, having no foreign policy, etc., etc.  

I have seen some conservatives mocking Obama for his reluctance to aide the Maliki more forcefully, which he tried to encapsulate with his comment about not wanting to the U.S. to become “Maliki’s Air Force.” This automatic mockery dismays me, because Obama is right that working with Maliki is highly problematic, and risks strengthening his hand against opponents within what’s left of the Iraqi state and society. Moreover, at present, there are disturbing reports of complicated Iraqi political moves, some amounting to threats of a pro- or an anti- Maliki coup, in the aftermath of recent electoral victories by his opponents.   

My position, sketched here, is that the mess with Maliki reflects more than his own pathologies, but the fact that a partition of Iraq has to be considered as a serious possibility at this point. Indeed, if partition provides the only reliable path for us to openly aide the Islamic State’s Sunni enemies, and for us to not betray our supporters the Kurds, then a partition-assuming policy is the best path for U.S. interests. Whatever Obama and his State Department think regarding such, I say we conservatives have to face the possibility that the Iraqi “rump state” has become largely a Shiite affair, whatever noble or self-serving noises are made by the remaining Sunni participants in its parliamentary politics. It is a state that will likely be driven by its own survival instincts to more and more ally with Iran, persecute Sunnis, undermine Kurdish autonomy/security, and adopt strongman government. That is why blindly doing “more” to “aide Baghdad” and to “fight ISIS” could strengthen all these unhealthy tendencies. It’s fine to craft a policy that has some chance of prodding that rump state towards real compromises with the non-Islamist Sunnis and the Kurds that permit the re-emergence of a viable federal Iraq, but whatever you do, don’t let that rump become stronger unless it makes real moves in that direction. I am fine with accusing Obama of having “lost Iraq,” with pointing out his responsibility-denying lies, and with thus pinning on his policy some degree of responsibility for the massacres, but he is surely correct to be wary of now aiding “Iraq” in a way that actually saddles it all the more with Maliki or that more generally strengthens the Shia side in what may inevitably turn out to be a war of partition.  

I will also say this — unless absolutely necessary or absolutely required by our existing treaty commitments, I don’t think conservatives should support any boots-on-the-ground military actions (beyond the existing one in Afghanistan) so long as Obama is commander-in-chief. In a hundred ways, he has proved himself fundamentally unreliable in diplomatic and military affairs(the “red-line,” Benghazi, etc.).  

Part of this is specific to Obama’s character, but part of this is that “moderate” Democrats have to be made to face the consequences of their allowing their political allies to demonize Bush for the Iraq policy that they in some part signed onto initially. The level of division they permitted in our politics did not need to occur. A gentleman’s agreement between the parties to not demonize disagreement about collectively-entered-into military affairs was what was needed. It was the “adult” and moderate-so-called Dems who let the leash upon their side’s extremists drop, who made that gentleman’s agreement impossible, and they need to face that it lead, not simply to a further degree of polarization in our politics and to so many Dems adopting a knee-jerk “not-Bush” approach to foreign policy, but that it now may well result in a needless genocide of Iraqis, which there is now little possible American consensus to prevent. In saying that, I grant that a President Hillary Clinton would have been less likely to have so utterly abandoned what we had gained in Iraq — that is, the adoption of no-holds barred attack tactics upon “Bush’s war” by the Democrats could have led to a less disastrous outcome.

Of course, Obama at present shows no signs of pushing for American boots on the ground, outside perhaps target-spotters. But Republicans need to figure out what their policy approach is before they indiscriminately blame Obama for whatever goes wrong. If we Republicans conclude that, primarily for reasons of political division and inability to trust the chief executive, we cannot support sending troops back into Iraq, let us say that, and in a forceful and collective way. That is, let us not criticize Obama for not taking actions that we could not get behind were he to take them!  

Enough with this lazy criticism of Obama for everything on the world scene that’s gone to pot. Every candid person with a brain now admits that he is a generally poor leader who radiates indecisiveness in foreign affairs, so let us instead turn our fire upon those in the Democratic Party who are most responsible for our present foreign policy helplessness, and most likely to discourage moves away from that helplessness in the post-Obama era. Let us loudly say now, that if in the future the likes of Feinstein or Clinton get real Democrat support rolling for a more forceful and extended intervention in Iraq – not a fantas,y given the levels of televised murder ISIS may deliver – conservatives must refuse to support it unless we get a much stronger and clearer “buy-in” resolution from Democratic representatives than they gave for George W. Bush using force against Saddam Hussein.  

I admit there is much I am unsure about here, and I want to hear from others. I do know I will lend my voice to the growing movement among American Christians to demand efforts to protect our co-religionists in the Middle East. I would be quite open to a policy that merely said, “We have little idea anymore about what’s best for you Iraqi Arabs or you Muslims in general — but we will bomb hard and cut all aide to anyone who tries to murder or push out Christians, anyone who promotes terrorism in the U.S or Europe, and we will make sure that Israel and the Kurds can defend themselves.”  

But what do you say? With the wild cards of Maliki’s villainy and Obama’s untrustworthiness in mind for the short-term, and with the obvious need to prevent the consolidation of a terror-exporting Islamic State in mind as well, what long-term policy in Iraq should conservatives support?

Tags: Iraq

Who Do You Trust?



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Say you are someone on the center-right and you want to donate money to advance your political beliefs.  You might be wealthy, economically conservative, uninterested in social issues,  and ready to donate thousands.  You might be both economically and socially conservative, and can only spare fifty dollars. Either way, you have the same problem.  Who do you trust with your money?

Michael Brendan Dougherty wrote a scathing column about the self-dealing among Tea Party-branded conservative groups. You can look at it as a story about how tea partiers are suckers, but that is missing the point.

The establishment-connected Super-PACs spent hundreds of millions of dollars in 2012 with no discernible impact on the outcome of the general election at either the presidential or senatorial level. The problems wasn’t that the people running the establishment Super PACs gave themselves exorbitant salaries.  The problem was that they followed a made-in-the-1970s media strategy while producing commercials that varied from the strange and worthless to the hilariously counterproductive.

I doubt that the consultants in charge of the 2012 Super PAC campaigns were trying to waste donor money.  It’s just that they were the only game in town, so they didn’t have to work all that hard to update their methods or adjust to a new audience.  For the establishment donors, it was either the old, tired, lazy Republican consultant class or nothing. For the tea partiers, it was either taking a chance on unknown organizations that had “Tea Party” in their name, or giving money to Karl Rove, or nothing.    

The problem isn’t Tea Party grifters, or superannuated establishment Republican consultants looking to make one last big score (or two) before they retire. The problem is the lack of any credible institutions on the right that are dedicated to understanding contemporary public opinion and reaching to voters who do currently support the Democrats, but might vote for an incremental and relevant center-right program.  Building those institutions is the best way to make sure that less money goes to either the grifters or the hacks.    

The Future (and Past) of Liberty Is Confusing



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So there’s a lot more I could say about the ISI Conference. But because I have to give some wrap-up comments on the future of the tradition of liberty tomorrow, I’m going to limit myself to some stuff I learned (or remembered) about liberty over the week.

1. The singular (classic) Greek contribution to liberty is freedom of the mind. That means, more or less, the freedom of Socrates.

2. Well, there’s also the freedom of the citizen. The freedom to participate in ruling and so be more than a merely material or economic or tribal or familial being.

3. There’s also the freedom connected with moral virtue. That’s a proud and rational freedom from necessity that’s more particular than being philosophic (which requires completely getting over or dying to yourself) and merely being a citizen. This freedom is elevated by the Stoics, and it’s displayed by the virtues of courage, generosity, and magnanimity. This virtue found its place in America in Southern Stoicism, in George Washington, Robert E. Lee, and (the fictional) Atticus Finch. But it was also displayed by Lincoln.

4.  The Greek view of liberty, from our view, was never personal enough. The tendency of the Greeks is to see particular persons as merely parts, as parts of nature or parts of the city.

5. Christian liberty is found in the being made in the image of the free, loving, and relational logos of the personal Creator. The creature retains his personal identity even in his loving relationship with God; he neither dies to himself (as does the philosopher) nor discovers he is merely part of some divine or natural cosmos. It’s from the Christians that we learn that all men and women are equal under God, and that each person has a unique and irreplaceable dignity. It’s owing to the Christians that government becomes limited because we are all more than citizens. And this religious freedom is “relational freedom,” and so it’s displayed in the organized body of thought and action called the church. The Christians criticize the natural and civil theologies of the Greeks and Romans for understanding us as less than who each of us is as a free person. It’s also from the Christians that we get the idea of the irreducible personal inwardness called freedom of conscience.

6. Modern liberty — as found, for example, in John Locke — retains the personal insight of the Christians. We are all free individuals, and so free from nature and the city.  Nature can be transformed creatively by free persons to be more useful to our personal needs.  The nature we’re given is no respecter of persons, and so we deploy technology to remake it in our personal images.  Modern freedom is personal but not relational, and that’s why its theology is culminates in the impersonal God of nature of the Deists. That God is unrelational or no respecter of persons and left us with freedom to secure ourselves on our own.  Locke limits government through his spin on the Christian insight into irreducible personal identity; I am, deep down, not a citizen (or a philosopher or creature lovingly open to the truth about the unbought  gift of being), and so government is to be limited to a contract to serve my individual rights.

7. The Declaration of Independence was a compromise between Lockean Deism and Calvinist Christianity.  The more Christian members of Congress amended Jefferson’s Lockean draft to transform the God of nature into also a providential and judgmental (or living and giving) God. So despite the fact that most of our leading Founders and Framers did not think of themselves as believing Christians, our Founding might be regarded as more Christian than not.  Our Declaration might also be regarded as a form of accidental Thomism. Certainly the limitation on government for the free exercise of religion depends on Christian premises; insofar as religious freedom is much more definitely relational than mere freedom of conscience, we can say that limitation is for freedom of the church.

8. Our progressive movement did harbor the inclinations to reduce the person to part of History — or to History fodder, or even to part of nature — insofar as it was infected by Darwinism. It also was an attempt to reestablish citizenship as a national community aiming at social justice. But it wasn’t the collectivism of communism.

9.  The idea that the flourishing of personal liberty depended on bigger and better government peaked in America with the idealism of the Great Society.

10. The natalism, civic spirit, and imperialism of, say, Theodore Roosevelt’s progressivism is pretty much dead today. President Obama may make a gesture in that direction from time to time, and our educators talked about “civic engagement.” But the dominant view is that the freedom and security of particular persons is the bottom line these days. That view is sometimes called “non-foundational.” What that means is that we don’t attempt to explain why persons are the bottom line. In large measure, our belief in “human rights” is detached from any understanding of persons as citizens or free by nature or creatures. Human rights just are, which is why the listing of them seems pretty arbitrary and indefinitely expansive.

11. Progressivism today is increasingly about personal identity or the right to freely construct one’s own identity independently of any definite relational context or responsibilities.  That isn’t the same thing at all as civic progressivism. It is the indefinite expansion of the realm of one’s own freedom. Progressivism so understood really is about new personal rights emerging over time through thinking through the personal insight or “liberty” of our Framers. Our Court used that word liberty to discover (or uncover) the right to relational autonomy and (soon) the right to same-sex marriage.

12. The emptiness of autonomy means it can’t effectively trump the imperatives of productivity or the 21st-century competitive global marketplace.  So these days we tend to understand individuals as producers and consumers.  It’s the more definite and relational understandings of personal freedom flowing from nature (the family), being a creature, and being a citizen that would be more effective breaks on the reductionistic economization or technologization of all of life.

13. The utopianism of our time is most centered on biotechnology and the “transhumanist” transcendence of nature in the service of personal freedom. Technology is the route to perfecting the Marxian vision of a non-obsessive, non-alienated, and deeply unrelational future — a world without love, work, and death. The existentialist criticism of Marx is that alienation persists as long as persons remain self-conscious mortals, or open to the ”Socratic truth” about contingent and ephemeral personal being. The final solution is the overcoming of the distinction between the free person and the machine through the Singularity that makes us, in a way, conscious machines or detaches us from nature (biology) altogether.

I typed these in an hour, and so there may be a flaw or two.

Tags: Intercollegiate Studies Institute

Relationships and Policy



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Did you hear about how Vice President Biden and former House speaker Nancy Pelosi both referred the continent of Africa as a “nation”? Well, most people didn’t. They would have if it had been Sarah Palin.

That isn’t important in itself, because these kind gaffes are, in themselves, trifles. The problem is that changes in the media environment have made it much more likely that people who don’t consume right-leaning media and aren’t embedded in politically conservative social circles only hear shots at one side.  Th worst flaws of the other side are edited out of existence.

This is especially problematic when a population has no collective memory of successful and popular center-right politics. Henry Olsen does a great job writing about the policy and attitudinal difference between white, non-Evangelical non–college graduates on the one hand and Republicans on the other. Those non-Evangelical blue-collar whites are not conservatives of the tea-partiers or establishment Republican variety. These voters have plenty of reason to distrust the GOP. But many of those same voters likely also have some fond memories of Reagan and not-so-fond memories (either personal or passed on from parents) of the Democratic party of the 1970s and 1980s. Both parties are unsatisfactory but both parties can be viable alternatives depending on the candidate, the candidate’s policy agenda, and the circumstances.

It is different for a large mass of African Americans, recent immigrants, and many younger whites who have primarily gotten their political socialization through the mass media of the last twenty years. All the stories about Palin being dumb can’t make these voters think Obama is doing a good job on the economy, but the media environment can get them to mentally disqualify Republicans as an alternative. The media environment can’t make them like late-term abortion, but it can make sure they don’t hear about Obama’s record of voting to deny legal protecting to newborns who survived botched abortions.

What is more, the media environment creates a sense of associations of center-left politicians as basically decent (if lovably imperfect) and center-right politicians as the chieftains of an alien horde. Those associations can’t be shaken all at once. You don’t go from thinking Obama is a basically good guy who doesn’t always get it right, to thinking through the implications of his abortion voting record. You definitely don’t process that information when (if!) you get it several weeks before an election — and the information comes out of the mouth of the enemy. You are, of course, always primed to believe the worst of the other side — even when they agree with you on the general direction of policy.

It would be better if Republicans ran better candidates, who gave better speeches, and had a better policy agenda, but for a fraction of the population that might agree with the content of that agenda, the speeches will rarely be heard and even less often listened to. That is not primarily the fault of either the candidate or the listener. It is the result of the absence of political institutions that can build relationships between large swaths of America’s population and center-right politics. Building those institutions is more important than finding the right candidate.

My column at First Things is about how the candidate-centered strategy for expanding the center-right vote just is not enough.

Conservative Diversity



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So I’m spending the week at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s undergraduate honors program.

ISI is distinguished from other such programs by its display of conservative diversity — among both faculty and students.

Examples: There is a student here who’s pushing hard the case for hereditary monarchy. Nobody much is getting on board the king train, but he really does have a “safe space” to say exactly what he thinks. And just today: One student was talking up Lincoln as our best president. Another claimed he was our worst, the real source of our centralization, big government, the implosion of constitutional morality, and all that stuff other conservatives usually trace to the progressives and the New Deal and/or the Great Society. There was also the claim that you can’t blame Lincoln; America really started to go wrong with the unconstitutional Louisiana Purchase by President Jefferson. There are similar disagreements about whether the American founding was perfect or deeply flawed, whether the Greek polis and/or Plato and Aristotle should be our guides, whether or the Christian idea of the personal Creator and personal creature was a truthful modification of, transformation of, or decline from the possibly less personal wisdom of the Greeks, whether the modern world is a development or a negation of Christianity, and so forth and so on. There are also subtle discussions on whether America is exceptional and, if so, in what way.

There are also folks for and against same-sex marriage, defenders of (from my view) extreme judicial activism and judicial restraint, every conceivable view on foreign policy, radically different evaluations of the Tea Party, folks agrarian and Green and some climate-change deniers or minimizers, lovers and haters of Walmart, libertarians, anti-libertarians, and libertarian fellow travelers, at least somewhat radically different views on the constitutionality of the welfare state, and a divergence of opinions on our likely future. To dispel ridiculous stereotypes about conservatives, let me add the obvious observation that there is no disagreement on the evil of racism or the unique and irreplaceable dignity of every human person or on in the fundamental ways all men and women are created equal. There is, in fact, disagreement on whether human dignity and devotion to equality depend on the real existence of a personal Creator. Some say reason and revelation agree or are close enough for all practical purposes on such issues, others are much more skeptical. There might not be anyone who thinks that both the Socratic view of reason and the Biblical view of revelation have been discredited by the alleged progress of science. There’s little to no scientism or relativism at ISI.

And although anti-tech traditionalists in the mode of Alasdair MacIntyre, Wendell Berry, and the Front Porch Republicans definitely have a place at the ISI table, every student was thrilled to have received the techno-gift of  the most advanced form of Kindle loaded with 50 conservative classics. One of the classic categories is entitled ”Sex, Drugs, and Dignity,” which (of course) includes a book of mine.

On the other hand, every faculty presentation is “delivered” without the assistance of  PowerPoint or anything else displayed on the screen. And just about all the students confine themselves to taking notes the old-fashioned way, with pen and paper. The ISI teachers really do leave those screens alone, at least when they’re teaching.

The students are distinguished not only by their academic achievements but by the self-confidence and moral compass that comes from having been raised right. But they’re not all Catholic or all Christian or all believers. What brings the students together (and the faculty too) is genuine concern for the soul, the personal and relational foundation of sustainable liberty, and the defense of imperiled civilization, a defense that is more cultural and political and includes, of course, a defense of liberal education.

On the fashionable (if stupid) question of whether or not members of our natural aristocracy of talent and virtue should attend Ivy League colleges these days, there are some joyful and serious men and women from the Ivies who are obviously flourishing intellectually and morally in an only semi-hostile environment. But it’s also true that are a number of exceptionally educated and hugely promising students from lesser-known colleges. One endlessly impressive young man, for example, is from Lee University in Tennessee. The reason? He’s studied with a graduate of Berry College who’s now a magnetic and highly “engaged” professor who knows what to do with talent when he sees it.

Get Ye to an Orrery



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Not that many people today, even among the most erudite, know what an orrery is. This is a real shame. I was in Philadelphia last week attending a seminar with some of the best graduate students in the nation, and my enthusiastic invitation to join me in a pilgrimage to visit David Rittenhouse’s orrery met with blank stares. Only the most confident could summon the courage to ask point-blank, “Just what are you talking about?” The lack of knowledge — and my inability to give a good explanation — bred a disinclination to make the trek, which led to a solo journey.

Mind you, I am not attempting to place myself on any kind of higher intellectual plane. It is only by accident that I came to develop this curiosity, which now seems to be evolving into an obsession, for orreries — if this is indeed the proper plural of the noun. Not only have I been a teacher at the University of Virginia for over a quarter of a century, and thus perforce interested in all matters Jeffersonian, but I also once devoted a few years of research to the origins of anti-American discourse in European thought. It was Jefferson, it turned out, who was particularly dismayed at the anti-Americanism that was so powerful in some circles in Europe in his day, and he wrote his only book, Notes on the State of Virginia, in no small part to confront this view. Late-18th-century anti-Americanism was rooted in a prevalent scientific theory that almost everything in the Americas was inferior to what was found in Europe and was in a state of degeneracy. Our animals were smaller and less noble, the indigenous American less powerful and less sexually potent, and the European transplant in a condition of gradual physical and intellectual deterioration. The principal cause of this misfortune was said to be climatological, related to the greater dampness and humidity in the American atmosphere. Jefferson undertook to refute this theory, in part by providing extensive charts to prove that American animals compared favorably to their European counterparts. It was owing in part to Jefferson that others could claim that, as we might say today, “studies show” that the whole degeneracy thesis was in error in respect to the animal realm.

When it came to human beings, the proofs were necessarily less rigorous. In refuting the French encyclopedist Abbe de Raynal’s claim that America never produced “one able mathematician, one man of genius in a single art or a single science,” Jefferson cited three examples: Washington, Franklin, and Rittenhouse. Placing Rittenhouse in the company of those other two was great praise indeed, and it was all based on his remarkable mechanical construction: “We have supposed Mr. Rittenhouse second to no astronomer living: that in genius he must be the first, because he is self-taught. As an artist he has exhibited as great a proof of mechanical genius as the world has ever produced. He has not indeed made a world; but he has by imitation approached nearer its Maker than any man who has lived from the creation to this day. . . . Mr. Rittenhouse’s model of the planetary system has the plagiary appellation of an Orrery.”

An orrery may described as the precursor of the planetarium. It is a device of some kind — each one is different and an original conception of its own architect — that gives a visual representation of the movement of the planets (and some of the moons) of our solar system. In Rittenhouse’s case, this involved a series of gears and levers, most hidden from view, that display the movement of these bodies in relation to one another, and to do so over time for a millennium of past history and for a millennium to come. It is like a complicated Swiss watch that would require knowledge of astronomy, of mathematics, and of the craft of mechanics. Rittenhouse’s orrery is contained in a fairly large case — really a piece of massive furniture — that contains three panels, the major one just described, a second one that charts lunar eclipses, and a third that he did not complete. If it works — and I have been assured that it does — we have a wonderful example of a perfectly functioning, and very elegant, Rube Goldberg mechanism.

A representative of the natural, as opposed to the hereditary, aristoi, Jefferson chafed at the designation of this invention by the name of Orrery. That name comes from a British aristocrat, the Earl of Orrery, who — my knowledge is spotty — bought or sponsored the first orrery in 1704. Jefferson, I suppose, would have preferred to call it a Rittenhouse.

In any event, one can visit his orrery in Philadelphia, where it is housed on the sixth floor of the main library of the University of Pennsylvania. Rittenhouse for a time held a position there as professor of astronomy. (He was also president for many years of the American Philosophical Society, a science advisor to the government during the Revolutionary War, and the first director of the U.S. mint, appointed by his friend Jefferson.)  The orrery is nicely displayed inside a blue glass room, but it is inadequately curated. There is scant explanation of how it works or what it does. By way of a small imbroglio, I learned that the Penn orrery, which I had assumed was the original, is in fact the second one that Rittenhouse constructed. It seems that, in an early Ivy League competition, President Winthrop of Princeton was able to purchase the first, to the consternation of many in Philadelphia. The orrery at Princeton is found today in Peyton Hall, a building I have walked past scores of time on my many visits to that campus without ever knowing of the treasure that lay within. I won’t let that happen again. It is long past time for Princeton to make more of its orrery, even, or perhaps especially. if it means giving less attention to Woodrow Wilson.

Thoughts From Another Perspective



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1.  Dan McLaughlin (the Baseballcrank) makes the same point on twitter that I made on Friday. Obama’s approval and disapproval ratings are noticeably worse now than at this point in 2010. He should be an even bigger drag on his party. The only difference I would note is that the labor market was probably putting continual downward pressure on Obama’s approval ratings in 2010, and this probably is not the case (or as much the case) right now. But if the state of the economy is going to help the Democrats in 2014, there is not much time left for the effect to show up.

2.  I was watching Fox News Sunday yesterday and the commentator panel was talking about how the House Republicans were making a mess of immigration. What? President Obama has a spectacularly low approval rating on immigration, and suddenly he is some kind of tactical genius on this issue? What would qualify as political failure?

3.  The media look at the Republicans on immigration (or health care or taxes) and see division. They look at the Democrats and see relative unity on policy. One interpretation is that the Republicans are a mess and the Democrats are together. Another interpretation is that the Democrats are stuck in a political and policy strategy optimized for the recent past, while Republicans are hashing out ways of dealing with the changing political reality. It will be a while before the GOP forms a consensus, but the center-right is in a much better place now compared with the combination of desperation and torpor that characterized the 2008 cycle. 

Ross Douthat and the Week of Obscene Silences



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Last week was one of the more dismaying ones in the history of our republic.  A president suggested that he was ready to take an action that would violate the separation of powers in a major way. In Ross Douthat’s words:

…the president is contemplating — indeed, all but promising — an extraordinary abuse  of office: the granting of temporary legal status, by executive fiat, to up to half the country’s population of illegal immigrants.

It even appeared plausible he was signaling this for the sake of provoking demands for impeachment  that he calculated would aide his party’s fortunes at the next election.

Did the president deny the rumors—likely planted by his minions—that he was considering this patently unconstitutional action?  He did not. 

Did he respond to the speculations of his wanting to provoke impeachment talk by denying them?  He did not. 

Were any reporters able or willing to aggressively ask our president about the origins of these rumors?  About how such an action could be constitutional? No again.

Did he seek to distance himself from claims that the GOP would impeach made by many in his party in fund-raising letters and speeches?  No.  Rather, the sudden adoption of that tact appears to have been coordinated, and we can rightly suspect that such coordination was approved by him.  Rather, he modeled for one and all how to characterize Republican concern and debate about how to combat his unconstitutional expansions of executive power–referring to the lawsuit resolution passed by the House, he delivered this:  stop hatin’ all the time! 

And the response of Americans, particularly those of the political class, to all of this?

Crickets.

Oh, there was talk alright, but among the Democratic leaders it was all along the lines of how to better drive home the hatin’ angle, and among Republican ones it was all along the dishonest-in-spirit, utterly unsustainable, but sure, technically true lines of “WE haven’t said the I-word!” 

A mere word, of eleven little letters that begins with an “I,” and every conservative strategist is shaking in fear of it, and every other Democratic partisan is suddenly brandishing it about like a talisman!  Available at a click are carefully thought-through and exquisitely constructed sentences from our Founders laying out what they intended, both for the separation of powers and for impeachment, but a president of these latter days utters some schoolyard Miley Cyrus phrase, and that’s it, everyone knows and accepts that there’s nothing more to see here. 

Well, thank God that Ross Douthat is not among those.  The man’s had many a great column, but this week he stands particularly tall, for being one of the few willing to warn that a very dangerous line is about to be crossed (although in the strict sense, it is not, as he said, a “Rubicon”-type line of no-return).  It is the line between confining the power to make and repeal legislation to one branch, and allowing it to be shared by two.  If there is anything sacred about our Constitution, then the mere suggestion given by a president that he might erase such a line is tantamount to a high priest uttering blasphemies before the whole congregation. 

Keep reading this post . . .

Tags: Impeachment , abdication of moderates , Ross Douthat , Barack Obama

Several Questions



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In response to Ross Douthat’s warnings about the potential fallout of President Obama’s rumored plan to grant executive amnesty to as many as half of the country’s unauthorized immigrants, Richard Yeselson argues on twitter that Obama’s actions might be “derivative” of “polarized hyper partisan parties w/separation of powers”.

If the problem is hyper-partisan parties combined with separation of parties, why didn’t President Obama’s party enact President Obama’s favored immigration policies during that part of Obama’s term when the Democrats had supermajorities in both houses of Congress?  If the problem is the dysfunction of Congress rather than public opposition to the policies President Obama prefers, do the president’s partisans expect the ranks of Obama’s congressional opponents to grow or shrink as a result of the November election?

Whatever the alleged defects of our constitutional system or our political culture, the immediate controversy is the result not of structures, but of a hyper-partisan president who seeks to further embitter our politics.  Structural analysis enables the president’s behavior (by shifting responsibility), but it does not explain why President Obama is contemplating this particular course of executive action at this particular point in time.   

GET ON UP



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The film is not as stellar as Armond White’s review on the main page suggests it is—nor do I understand why he thinks it’s obviously better than director Tate Taylor’s other big film THE HELP,–but it is good enough, and it manages to be different from most any biopic you’ve seen.  A straightforward narrative style is abandoned for jumping back-and-forth in James Brown’s life.   And that life does not fit the usual 50s/60s pop music biopic patterns anyhow.  Indeed, the film suggests that Brown was hard to figure and a hard man in general—not because of complexity, really–but due to a deliberate choice he made to stay on guard. The film in a way signals that we can’t get the full inside story on him, but this does frustrate our natural audience expectations.  Part of the way it does this is that some scenes convey a lot of info very quickly, conveying, for example, the love-life info in mere flashes, and unless you’re very familiar with his biography, such incomplete glimpses will be initially off-putting.   At times all this sketching and jumping-back-and-forth works, although during certain stretches, the whole doesn’t seem to be clicking, even if all the parts are.

My impression was perhaps harmed by the theater having the sound at a nice moderate level.  You definitely do not want that!  The many music scenes with the fantastic dancing are half the point or more.  Try to recall your local theater that has most assaulted your ear-drums with explosions and such, and see it there.

I’ve linked it before, but here’s a fine little career-review and reflection from Martha Bayles on Brown.  It explains why White does not overstate things when he says that Brown may be the most significant figure in popular music for the second half of the twentieth century. 

Presidential Job Approval and The Midterm Elections



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I’m not sure that President Obama’s job approval rating is getting enough attention.  It isn’t just that President Obama has a lousy job approval rating, it is how much worse his job approval rating is now compared to the Republican wave year of 2010.

In 2010 Republicans gained six Senate seats.  On August 1, 2010 President Obama’s Real Clear Politics average job approval rating was 45%.  Obama’s disapproval rating was 49.7%.

As of August 1, 2014 President Obama’s RCP approval rating is 41.4% and his disapproval rating is 55.3%.  The headwinds for Democratic Senate candidates seem  stronger this year and the Republicans also seem to have a stronger crop of Senate candidates.

One counterargument might be that voters don’t like congressional Republicans, the North Carolina state legislature, the Supreme Court ruling on Hobby Lobby, etc.  Maybe, but Republican governance wasn’t exactly popular in 2010 either and that didn’t stop the GOP from making major gains.  Democrats can spend the Fall trying to make the election about the machinations of the House Republican Caucus, but I don’t think that the persuadable voters Democrats need are going to find that very persuasive – and they might find talk about the House Republicans some combination of boring, whiny,  and incomprehensible.

I wonder if the improving labor market will lift President Obama’s job approval rating between now and the election.  We are certainly getting better news that we have seen in quite a few years.  But maybe voters have already priced the improving economy into their evaluation of Obama, and that while the improving labor market is preventing Obama’s job approval from slipping to the 30s, it won’t do much to improve Obama’s numbers in the short-term.

 

The New Prohibitionism



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I’m not dissing the great comments on my previous post. Let me address them one at a time. We don’t want to test the patience of our readers too much.

Carl is big on John Lennon’s “Imagine” being an expression of a kind of vague humanitarian, near-pantheistic communitarianism that’s part of the spirit of our time. He does an expert job analyzing the appeal of the tune. He makes the more general point that that kind of longing for social justice is part of our post-Christian world. It’s, as Nietzsche said, Christianity without Christ. Or, as Flannery O’Connor says, sentimental tenderness wrapped in theory. Its slogan, as Jean Elshtain wrote, actually came from Elvis: ”Don’t be cruel.” Or as we say now: “Don’t be a hater.” The philosopher of the imagination, I still think, is Richard Rorty and his soft and evasive hopes for the power of words. This kind of imagination, as O’Connor saw, lacks the toughness of acceptance found in real Christianity. Sentimentality, she also wrote, can lead to the gas chamber.

Now Lennon didn’t sing imagine there’s no death. Rorty suggested more than once we could somehow take death out by not talking about it or ironizing it. Death becomes “death.” The experience of existentialism is a problem solved by pragmatism. For Lennon, as Carl has suggested, death might be imagined to dissolve as individuals disappear through the reverie captured inadequately by “we are the world.”

Today, it seems to me, all that seems soft and stupid. It’s been replaced by obsession over one’s own autonomy, which depends, first of all, on one’s own health and safety. We have become paranoid, prohibitionist, and puritanical when it comes to being safe or avoiding risk factors. If there is a road to serfdom or unprecedented “statism,” it would be the one that points in the direction of transhumanism, the Singularity, utopian eugenics, detaching all sex from birth and death (consider that there might soon be a real mandate to use contraception), climate control, and so forth. Libertarians, such as my good friend Ronald Bailey, are fairly blind to the statist implications of their techno-obsessions. For them, no reasonable person could oppose an indefinite expansion of the menu of choice, and so no one could oppose the coming of a world where we can all be pro-choice on both love and death. I will say more later. If you Google me, you can see I’ve said a lot in the past.

For now, let me make one point: This deep aversion to everything risky has little to do with a longing for social justice (although John Rawls, Ronad Dworkin, et al. endorse it). It’s foundation is personal, but not all that relational. It’s about keeping me around forever, even at the cost of the impoverishment of all our relational lives. John Lennon, to his credit, was no transhumanist imaginatively anticipating the Singularity or a world where Yoko could be replaced by a more compliant and safer Operating System (see the movie Her).

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