Postmodern Conservative

Reflections on politics, culture, and education.



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


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


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).

The Case for Formally Threatening Obama with Impeachment Right Now


In what follows, I will be making the case for the current Republican members of Congress, and all new Republican candidates running for House election to sign, ASAP, a pledge to this effect:

“We the undersigned promise the American People, that we will initiate impeachment proceedings against President Barack Obama if he either a) commits three more violations, no matter how minor in practical effect, of the take-care clause and/or presentment clause of the Constitution, or if he b) commits one such violation that has the effect of providing amnesty to more than 100,000 illegal immigrants. 

This promise is totally independent from whatever occurs with the lawsuit.  Nor does it rule out or promise impeachment for other reasons, such as impeding investigations of current or future scandals.  This promise does not apply to just any independent executive actions, regardless of controversy about their being constitutional, but only to the kind indicated.  While this pledge could be used to judge how we actually vote on the final House decision on impeachment if such occurs, it does not pre-determine that vote:  each of us would certainly weigh all House debate and all input from our particular districts concerning that vote.”

A good brief argument against doing anything like this is found in Newt Gingrich’s remarks the other day

A solid case for undertaking some kind of future impeachment against Obama, once public opinion has been made ready for it, was made yesterday by Andrew McCarthy.  I am in broad agreement with Andrew, and particularly with his condemnation of the confusing lawsuit path, but note that the case I am making here would judge Andrew’s timetable as too slow and vague.  My case is that some commitment-to-impeach statement has to occur before the election, and some definite warning-shot has to be fired in response to Obama’s trial-balloon/threat this last weekend to unilaterally amnesty several millions. 

Keep reading this post . . .

Tags: Impeachment , Obama

Hanoi Michael


Despite our mostly theoretical, retrospective, and cultural conversations hereabouts, the actual political situation is getting rather tense:  the Border Disaster, the Big Amnesty Threat, the IRS-scandal, ISIS, the Gaza war, and my own peculiar fear that Obama perhaps pushing Republicans into the corner of having to resort to impeachment will coincide with autopilot Obama/EU policy perhaps pushing Putin into the corner of deciding to damn-it-all and just unleash the dogs of war.  A perfect storm a’comin?

So it felt rather relaxingly apolitical to take a stroll with the brilliant “war-zone correspondent/travel writer” Michael Totten through contemporary Vietnam.  Putting aside the frightening traffic, awful climate, and one other wee lil’ problem, life there is improving by leaps and bounds.  So much so that Totten concludes his piece by asking himself this:

Could I live in Cairo? No. Baghdad? Hell no. Havana? No chance. Not while it’s under the boot heel of the Castros. Rabat? Perhaps. Beirut? I have already lived in Beirut and theoretically could do so again. But what about Hanoi?

That causes him to remember the other problem I alluded to:

Vietnam is a pleasant destination for tourists, for sure, but it’s also a one-party nominally communist state. I have viscerally detested communism since the first moment I learned about it as a child. No political system in the history of the human race has killed such a vast number of people. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union were the greatest geopolitical events of my lifetime. Every cell in my body rebelled at the existential heaviness of the state in Cuba on my last long trip abroad and after a week I couldn’t wait to get out of there.

I had to look it squarely in the eye in Vietnam without flinching.

Could I live there, despite it?

Yes. I believe so.

As long as I stayed out of politics.

Tags: Communism , Vietnam , Michael Totten


More on the Forms of Liberty True and Imagined


So I wish I had the time and talent to comment intelligently on all the recent posts by Flagg, Carl, and Pete. For now, let me express my amazement that Carl expressed his agreement with “nearly all” of one of my rambles in a thread. They were all supposed to be controversial! I’m going to try to “advance the conversation” by listing most of my points here.

1. “Classical political science” is of real but limited utility in understanding America. That’s because America is not really a “regime” or holistic political form. When Tocqueville describes America as a democracy, he deliberately waffles on the foundation of that description with the endlessly controversial phrase “social state,” which is somewhere in between “political” and “sociological.” So he’s criticized by both Straussian political scientists and scientific sociologists. But “I get where he’s coming from.” Both American government and American “political thinking” are intentionally limited as an account of the human soul. It’s okay to engage in “American regime analysis” if you remain aware of its limitations. Today, we’re mostly a mix of democracy and oligarchy. And in thinking about “oligarchy,” you have to remember that it’s in many ways a good thing. Being an oligarch means thinking like a rich guy. If I knew how to do that effectively, I would be a rich guy. And I would be better off as a result. I actually often agree with libertarian economists insofar as they say it’s just sensible to “think oligarchic.”

2. Carl admits that I might be right that progressive ideas are weak now, but he adds that they will inevitably rise again in our future. As a social scientist, I can think of no way to prove him wrong. But I can wonder whether the perennial “longing for social justice” has much of a future among the American “autonomy-freak” sophisticates who seem to really call the shots.

3. I don’t think (thank God) totalitarian Communism can rise again in any future I can anticipate at the moment. Neither can the general kind of Historical thinking that regards particular people as “History fodder” to be exploited by all means necessary to bring into being some egalitarian paradise. To speak Straussian again for a moment, we have to be open to the possibility that Nature and History are both on life support. I’m actually optimistic about the future of Nature, but I don’t see much real thought about it in “contemporary discourse” learned or popular. Talking about the Founders is not really talking about Nature (as I will explain later). For now: Those techno-freak libertarians think they’re “originalists.”

4. On the other hand, Communism as Marx actually describes it remains attractive, even or especially to libertarian economists. Marx, after all, describes the promised future as an unlimited, unobsessive, unalienated menu of choice.  So does Tyler Cowen.

5. I don’t see the imperialist, natalist progressivism of TR making a comeback any time soon (although it might be good if it did, at least a little).

6. The same with FDR’s “liberal” vision of the selfish private sector being displaced over “evolutionary” time by the cooperative efforts of government and citizens devoted to those efforts.

7. So I guess the “progressive” vision that has the most legs (as Flagg and our friend James Poulos say, sort of) is the combination of private autonomy with managerial expertise (the government/Silicon Valley complex) through endlessly intrusive big data. The Silicon Valley folks and maybe the government will able to really KNOW you through all your online choices. And by KNOWING you, maybe they can RESHAPE you. But of course no candidate can campaign on that vision. Obama, though, got reelected by implementing that vision.

Dear Israel


I didn’t want to write this email, but I feel like we are growing apart.  This is so hard because we had so many good times, like experiments in socialist agriculture, and handshakes with Yasser Arafat.  I will always smile when I remember how you were your best self on that day.  It didn’t work out, but taking those kinds of risks was what I loved so much about you.  Too bad about that pizzeria bombing, but I think it was all worth it in the end.  It’s all about the journey, not the destination.

But you’ve changed.  You’re always like “Oh no, thousands of missiles are being fired at our cities” and “Let me tell you about those death squads who infiltrated through underground tunnels to attack our farms.”

I think you’ve lost all perspective.  Most of those missiles miss and you’ve stopped most of those infiltrators.  But it is still all about how your people have to go into bomb shelters and how your farmers are worried about being massacred.

And don’t give me this stuff about how the people who are bombing your civilians are hiding behind their civilians.  Just as sure as I know there is a bridge between the West Bank and Gaza, I know you could target those rocket and mortar sites in civilian areas without hurting the civilians in those areas.  Have your pilots considered corrective lenses or not being evil or something?  I only say this because I care about you.

Other people have problems too you know, and you aren’t respecting my issues.  Have you ever tried dealing with the Tea Party and Ross Douthat?

That doesn’t mean we can’t like hang out, but make sure you text me only when you aren’t all obsessed about how some Anti-Semitic genocidal terrorist groups are launching attacks on you right that minute.  I think we could really connect again, and I could always use someone to talk to on those days that Ted Cruz is just driving me so crazy.

Tyranny and Responsibility: On Jan Palach’s Deed


This is my third and final post related to the brilliant Czech film Burning Bush (trailer is here). Here are posts one and two.

“We’re all stuck between millstones.” So says the cemetery manager to Jiří Palach (Jan’s older brother). The manager is being pressured by the Communist party to get Jiří to move Jan’s body to a different location outside of Prague. The gravesite, according to the Party, has become a site for “anti-state” activities. Jiří, of course, pushes back against the cemetery manager’s “request.” The manager pleads with Jiří that soon he won’t have any choice in the matter — the state can, by law, simply remove the body and have it cremated without anyone’s consent.

The millstones line is a perfectly apt description of everyone’s status under the Communist regime. The implicit argument in this context is that Jiří would have consented to the removal of Jan’s body had he truly appreciated the position of the cemetery manager. The responsible thing to do in such situations is to sympathize with other actor who will be affected by one’s own action. Recognizing the millstones pressing upon others dictates that one must act to minimize the risks and difficulties of others. Further, it is likely the case that the cemetery manager is an utterly decent and honorable man. Why should Jiří make his life difficult by refusing this request? And for all we know, the member of the interior ministry who has been in touch with the manager about the Palach grave is also decent and honorable. The manager, in turn, wouldn’t want to make his life difficult. Thus, difficult, unpalatable, and ultimately unjust actions are justified throughout this intricate, hierarchical web of command. Note I don’t say “chain” — the hierarchy is not always overt and the contacts to the official state bureaucracy may not be routine. Most importantly, the state never simply dictates — it demands affirmation of and participation in its decisions. For example, after Palach’s coffin has been removed from the gravesite and it is about to be cremated, we see the representative of the state with a clipboard standing next to the cemetery manager. The manager has to sign a form that presumably, in some way, authorizes or legitimates the removal and subsequent cremation of the body. Thus nobody can claim innocence or isolation. Everyone must have a hand in these actions. Herein lies a distinctive feature of totalitarianism. As Pavel Bratinka once put it to me, “The decisive fact is this: People were forced to express their agreement and joy with things they considered idiotic and criminal. People’s lives were ruined over small things, like in my case refusing to join the Socialist Union of Youth.” Personal responsibility is thus everywhere and nowhere in places like Communist Czechoslovakia.

True responsibility is a threat to the regime. This is why the regime’s response to Palach’s self-immolation denied that he was responsible for his actions. Palach, according to Vílem Nový’s speech, was both mentally unbalanced (and thus could not really understand what he was doing) and manipulated by malicious right-wing elements. Even characters in the film who are not at all sympathetic to the regime and its response to Palach make the charge that he could not have been in his right mind — both Vladimir Charouz (Daša’s boss at the legal aid bureau) and Daša’s husband Radim suggest something along these lines. This is precisely why the Palachs pursue their lawsuit. However troubling Jan’s act is for them — Libuše (Jan’s mother), in particular, goes through a harrowing ordeal questioning her son’s love for and devotion to her and then must endure the state’s viscious response to her lawsuit—they understand that to preserve the memory of Jan and his legacy they must secure his act as truly his own.

The evidence suggests Jan Palach was quite deliberate about his action. On his chosen day, the Central Committee of the Communist Party was meeting at Prague Castle. The place of his self-immolation was a quiet yet highly visible spot at the top of Wenceslas Square near the National Museum, a central and symbolic place. We know he edited the text of his last letter — his roommates found a rough draft. According to Eva Kantürková, the final draft differed from the first in its “forcefulness, brevity, and in being stripped of all emotional coloring.” He also changed his thoughts about his demands, in the end settling on two: an end to censorship and the abolition of a propaganda organ called Zprávy.

Though in his letter Palach warned that if his demands were not met, other “torches” would come forward, nobody has ever confirmed the existence of the group to which he alluded. It may be this was a mere tactic designed to add to the weight of his own deed, or perhaps he thought his own act would inspire more torches (which it did). The demands seem somewhat modest or out of proportion with his deed, but again he apparently considered this carefully before settling on those two demands. Looking at the deed itself as rendered in the film and considered in light his demands and the political circumstances of Czechoslovakia, Palach’s act seems extreme and alien to the scope a defensible ethical universe. Ought one sacrifice oneself for a free press and the abolition of one worthless newspaper?

His painful sacrifice is a striking display of courage, a willingness to confront evil. But perhaps more than that, Palach’s deed is aimed squarely those millstones pressing on his fellow citizens. Herein is its true importance. The metaphorical millstones are quite real. There were consequences, sometimes dire, for not acting in line with the Party’s needs and desires. One hesitates to blame people for not resisting. Yet if one follows this logic out too far, human beings become the play-things of necessity — they are not and cannot be responsible for themselves and their actions. Their surrender of their own responsibility confirms the force of necessity — the same force that provides the rationale for sending whole races or social groups to the camps. Palach’s self-sacrifice reaffirmed to irreducible dignity of the human person — a being who must live amidst good and evil (within and without), and bear the responsibility for his choices. His radical act called out to his fellow citizens: here I am, this is what I choose. I have chosen death. In her essay on Palach, Kantürková writes:

Palach aroused the national collectivity, but he did so by an individual deed chosen of his own will. He broke free from what oppresses us: the impossibility of acting ethically under conditions of totality. Under this anti-ethical pressure, which denies the individual the option of freely choosing to act according to his personal conscience, the weak succumb to alcohol or licentiousness, the mediocre become indifferent, and the majority hide privately the wrecks of their ethical sense. . . . Some people simply see further and deeper and are not put off by the obligation to which this seeing commits them.

1989 began in Czechoslovakia with Jan Palach week. A planned ceremony in Wenceslas Square was banned, and a pilgrimage to Palach’s grave outside of Prague was blocked. Eventually over 1400 people were arrested in connection with events that January, including Charter signatories Václav Havel and Dana Němcová. In December of 1989, Dagmar Burešová (the lawyer who represented the Palachs in their libel suit against Novy) became the first Minister of Justice in post-Communist Czechoslovakia.

Tags: Jan Palach , Burning Bush , Communism

Never Say Never to Impeachment


Let’s assume most of the Republican House representatives heed the advice of Newt Gingrich, Charles Krauthammer, etc., and refuse to impeach Barack Obama. And even refuse to threaten to impeach him. Even if he actually does this rumored big amnesty order that Yuval Levin says “could well be the most extreme act of executive overreach ever attempted by an American president in peacetime.”

The primary rationale behind the advice is that an impeachment threat gives Democrats a much better shot at holding on to the Senate. Let’s assume for the moment that that it is correct. (Indeed, it probably is.) So, the Republicans follow that advice and they hold the House, and gain the Senate by the likely narrow margin. 

What if on the Friday afternoon following the election, Obama does the big amnesty order?   

And assume that his minions stirred the rumors that a big amnesty order was imminent from August through election day, for the purpose of baiting impeachment. That would mean Republican candidates for the House would have constantly been asked variations of this simplistic question: “Do you support impeaching the President?” And we have to assume most of them, listening to the likes of Gingrich and Krauthammer, would have denied that they support it, some claiming this to be a false issue concocted by desperate Democrats

Each and every one of them, if they then sought to impeach Obama following a November amnesty order, would be wide open to the charge of lying to their constituents. The 2016 ads write themselves: “He promised us wouldn’t join his parties’ immigrant-hating extremists in impeaching Obama” — cut to close-ups of livid faces of shouting anti-Obama protestors — “so why should we listen to anything he promises us now?”

Try another scenario. What if Obama were to do the amnesty order well before the election, say, next week? The Republican candidates, also in this scenario listening to the advice of the political pros, refuse to take the bait, deny to one and all they will seek impeachment, and instead continue with the present plans to sue. Now let’s say that a week after the election Obama then does another extra-egregious violation of the Constitution, whether in the area of immigration or not. Assuming the House has remained in Republican hands, how will the representatives feel about not initiating impeachment proceedings then? Well, let’s say they don’t, and Obama commits another such violation in December. And another in January. And if they finally find the courage to impeach him then, how effectual will it feel? In every scenario, there is no possibility of Obama’s conviction in the Senate but only the consequence of going on record as one of only three presidents to be impeached. I think that is a serious consequence — but in this scenario the belated application of it to repeated offenses might well seem arbitrary to the public.  Moreover, the Republicans would still face the charge of lying to their constituents about opposing impeachment. 

These hypothetical scenarios, which merely assume Obama cares little about the Constitution and is game enough to raise the stakes whenever he calculates advantage, might suggest that the advice given by nearly the entire conservative establishment not to pursue a threat to impeach Obama now is less wise than it seems. I expect to explore that suggestion further in another post. 

But for now, one obvious takeaway. Republican representatives and candidates, do not let the media trap you into saying that you “are against impeachment.” For please notice, saying that implies that you will be against it regardless of what Obama does. Saying you are “against impeachment at the present time” is fine, but don’t promise your constituents that you will always be so. 

Tags: Impeachment

It’s Tocqueville’s Birthday!


I know it’s hard to believe, but I woke up this morning not knowing that. And then I saw on my Facebook (often a surprising source of wisdom) this post from my student Ben Riggs:

In honor of Alexis de Tocqueville’s birthday:

“I do not need to travel across heaven and earth to find a marvelous subject full of contrast, of grandeur and infinite pettiness, of profound obscurities and singular clarity, capable at the same time of giving birth to pity, admiration, contempt, terror. I have only to consider myself. Man comes out of nothing, passes through time, and goes to disappear forever into the bosom of God. You see him only for a moment wandering at the edge of the two abysses where he gets lost.”

That is, of course, the single most important passage in Democracy in America. Why? It’s where Tocqueville tells us what he thinks the real truth is about who we are. 

It’s in the chapter of democratic poetry, where Tocqueville explains that the tendency of democracy is to discredit the illusions that were at the foundation of aristocratic poetry. The big issue! Does democracy leave anything left for poets to works with? Sure! Democracy allows us “a glimpse of the soul itself.” Or “man . . . viewed in the depths of his immaterial nature.” No democratic movement in thought can deconstruct the soul. As Tocqueville says, whatever we think or do, “man remains.” That means that “human destinies, man, taken apart from his time and country, and placed before nature and God with his passions, doubts, and unheard-of prosperity, and his incomprehensible miseries, will become the principal and almost unique object of poetry for these [democratic] peoples.”

We remain caught between complete ignorance and complete self-knowledge. And so we remain poetic:

If man were completely ignorant of himself, he would not be poetic, for one cannot depict what one has no idea of. If he saw himself clearly, his imagination would remain idle and would have nothing to add to the picture. But man is uncovered enough to perceive something of himself and veiled enough so that the rest is sunk in impenetrable darkness, into which he plunges constantly and always in vain, in order to succeed in grasping himself.

There is nothing more wonderful than the lost being who wanders for a moment between two abysses. Isn’t that the whole point of the poetry and science of Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos? The being who wonders necessarily wanders. And that being will always be marked by singular greatness and incomprehensible misery. Is this all Pascal? Well, a lot of it is. But Tocqueville and Percy add some stuff too.

You’ll notice that I mean this as a message of reasonable hope that the ”big data” surveillance systems of Google and Big Government — of Silicon Valley left-libertarian corporatism — will never capture the whole truth about who we are. The humanities will never become “digital.”

What is Progressivism in 2014?


Peter Lawler looks at Elizabeth Warren’s eleven points and concludes, “So the effectual truth of progressivism is contained to the realm of ‘autonomy’ (a basically sophisticated issue) with some Green stuff.  It’s Silicon Valley or left-corporate capitalism.” Carl Scott argues that it is premature to think the left has abandoned the progressive understanding of liberty: the social justice of the national community (number 4 in his fivefold typology). I would say the rhetorical truth of progressivism now leans toward Carl’s fifth category: personal autonomy liberty (see, for example, the reaction to the Hobby Lobby decision). In addition, the current environment is not (to say the least) hospitable to big government. It’s tough to sell liberty as social justice for the national community in light of the Veterans Affairs debacle, a rogue IRS, the NSA and big data, the immigration crisis on the border, and the wonders of Obamacare. But the effectual truth of progressivism (its heart and soul) is still social justice. Jonah Goldberg’s description below thus still fits the current crop of progressives:

Bureaucrats and other planners need — or at least want — ever more power to decide how economic resources are arranged and allocated. That doesn’t mean they’re socialists, it just means that corporations need to follow their lead. Indeed, good “corporate citizenship” means acquiescing to the priorities of progressive state planners and whatever their latest idea of “public–private partnerships” might be.

Jeffrey Anderson in The Weekly Standard gives us a bird’s eye view of this process under Obamacare. Lots of meetings with CEOs of the largest insurance companies at the White House to ensure public relations coordination (among other things). And then there’s this:

After Obama lawlessly empowered himself to un-ban the plans that Obamacare had banned by law, insurers weren’t happy, so the administration responded by paying them off. It did so by changing the rules regarding two programs buried in the bowels of Obamacare — its risk-corridor and reinsurance programs.  As Jay Cost and I wrote this spring, the administration changed the rules “to funnel more money to insurers.  Put simply, the administration lowered the threshold at which insurers become eligible for reinsurance money, and it made more generous the formula by which insurers get paid under the risk corridors.”  In the process, Obama effectively turned the risk-corridor program into his own personal slush fund.

If contemporary progressivism is some combination of progressive liberty and personal-autonomy liberty, must one of those conceptions eventually win out? Or is there some stable hybrid developing? James Poulos thinks he’s identified the hybrid: what he terms the “pink police state” or what Carl might call “statist-autonomy liberty.” Poulos explains the strange combination of hyper-autonomy/permissiveness and hyper-statism/interventionism:

In a culture where social or interpersonal freedom is valued much more than political freedom, government becomes assertive in restricting “unhealthy” and “risky” activity, but assertive in broadening the ability of individuals to pursue pleasure in “healthy” and “secure” ways. That means both more permissiveness and more intervention in sexual life: a bigger portion of society is “sexualized,” and a bigger portion of society falls within the official sphere of life.

But Poulos emphasizes the instability of this system. Why? Because

there is no logical limit to how intrusive the new regime will get. Because political freedom is disvalued, once “public” and once “private” sector surveillance and monitoring may become completely comprehensive and permanent. This result is encouraged by a culture which feels increasingly fated to do what it is apt to do anyway by choice: put interpersonal, hedonic freedom far above political freedom in our relations with the state.

He also argues that these official freedoms will never be enough and people will continue to find new boundaries to cross. It seems to me that Poulos’s argument absolutely depends upon the devaluation of political freedom by the American people. This affirms what Carl argues in his essay about the importance of what he terms “classical-communitarian liberty.”

Tags: Carl Scott , James Polous , Peter Lawler , Progressivism , American Liberty

The Structural Disadvantages of Israel and the American Right


This great article by Ron Fournier has applications far beyond the case of Israel. Israel has an age-cohort problem in American politics. Israelis aren’t getting their message out to younger Americans, and this is a bigger version of a problem faced by the American Right in domestic politics.

Netanyahu went on most of the Sunday talk shows yesterday, and he did fine. Netanyahu is as eloquent as you can reasonably hope for from someone whose primary language isn’t English. The problem was that people under age 30 just don’t watch those shows. Younger people are getting their news about the Gaza conflict largely through social media, and younger liberal activists are statistically less likely to be sympathetic to Israel. This combines with the tendency (in my experience) that younger liberal are more likely to share politically oriented news and information to their basically apolitical social-media contacts. Many younger people who are not strong ideological liberals inhabit a media universe where Team Left (as defined by their more activist friends and the entertainment media) is the only one that gets heard from for all but maybe 40 days out of every two years.

That doesn’t mean these younger voters are all especially liberal, but their media consumption habits form impressions of who are the good guys and who are the bad guys that are often at odds with what those same young people believe about legal at-will late-term abortion, or whether Israeli civilians should just shut up and let themselves be bombed by Hamas. Their media environment ensures that many young people never even get to think of the controversies in those ways.

I sympathize with, and like Netanyahu. I read my first book of Netanyahu’s 20 years ago. But, as Ron Fournier points out, Netanyahu’s media strategy can’t reach a very large fraction of Americans that might prove persuadable. It doesn’t matter how eloquently Netanyahu speaks. Most of the young people he needs to persuade will never hear him.

What is true of Netanyahu is true of the American Right. It would be nice if Republicans ran better conventional campaigns, but there is only so much that even the best campaigns can do in 2014 (or 2016) using made-in-the-1970s tools. When it comes to younger voters, the search for the better ten second debate zinger, the better thirty second commercial, and the better twenty minute speech involves looking in the wrong places.

Political persuasion is built on political socialization. The Republican consultants of the 1990s could start from the assumption that, all else being equal, there was a latent majority of the electorate that had been socialized to vote for center-right candidates. That is why the 30-second ads could work. The audience had the context that allowed the ad to be effective. That latent majority no longer exists. An ever-larger fraction of the voting public has not been socialized to think kindly of the American center Right. Now, many of those who think that conservatives are their natural enemy also happen to be mostly pro-life and suspicious of higher spending or whatever, but that doesn’t change who they think their friends are.

This dissonance between policy preferences and voting behavior can’t easily be changed by a national convention speech, or a debate performance, or a mess of ads in the October of even-numbered years. Unless people are ready to change their minds, contrary information just makes them evasive, irritable, or hostile. Getting people ready to change their minds is important work that has to take place between elections and even between episodes of Meet the Press.

People made fun of “The Life of Julia” slideshow and the famous 2012 music video about Obama, but getting younger voters to see effective, five-minute presentations through social media is almost as much the media challenge of our time as crafting effective television ads was the media challenge of the last third of the 20th century. The Left has huge legacy advantages in reaching those young people who are not already embedded in strongly conservative social networks. That makes it that much tougher for the Right to reach young people, but the problem is compounded with conservative donor money going to techniques that will either not reach those young people or else reach them too rarely, too briefly, and too late.    

Hat tip to David Frum for the Ron Fournier story.

Are We Going Back to the 18th Century?


Traditionalists and Founderists, be of good hope. There’s a 12 percent chance that nature (unaffected by anything human) will knock us back to the 18th century in the next decade. And recently we’ve already ”barely avoided” what some progressivists are calling that “disaster.” When are we going to turn our attention to teaching that sun to behave? It may already be too late. The sun is not our friend!

Is the Ivy League for You?


So here’s another good symposium sponsored by Minding the Campus on an overrated article (and forthcoming book) on an overrated question. It’s not an article or a question that I care about at all, which is why I used my words just to make points.

If you care about democracy or if you care about your soul, so the article goes, then you shouldn’t go to an Ivy. It privileges a rarified kind of American snob: ”I got into Harvard, but I’m too virtuous to go. I don’t want to live one of those American lives of quiet desperation.”

Sam Goldman’s good response is that it’s elitist to believe that it’s the point of a few years of college to turn your soul around (take that St. John’s and Thomas Aquinas grads!). And here’s one way that Ivies aren’t elitist: They do have pretty much the best financial aid deals (with their endowments and all) for the economically disadvantaged. If you get in, maybe you should go.

 I’m always proud to say of the best Berry College graduates: At least I didn’t screw them up. Don’t let college screw you up. The Ivy students I meet regularly through conservative honors programs are more than smart enough to know what’s good and what’s not about their place. And they have found more than enough savvy and accomplished men and women such as themselves to avoid anxiety, loneliness, and so forth. Finding sympathetic faculty is sometimes tougher, but almost never impossible. Harvard or Yale or Dartmouth hasn’t screwed them up. Sam is right, after all, that in addition to future financiers and politically correct dogmatists, each of the Ivies has a “critical mass” of students passionate not only about ideas but about who they are and what they’re supposed to do.

It’s the case that there’s more genuine moral and intellectual diversity at our best schools with religious missions. They are more of a “safe space” to explore whether or not Roe v. Wade was rightly decided or whether sex outside of marriage is morally wrong or whether God exists or whether each of us is miserable without God and so forth. They are also more likely to have a “culture of reading” great books as if they might teach the truth that we can’t live well without. Harvard, Yale, and so forth now have missions that barely rise above platitudes, even when they aim to defend liberal education.

John K. Wilson is right enough that the author is at his most condescending when he suggests that obscure, nonselective colleges are often havens of “soulful” learning, no matter how badly their students standardize test. They’re often pretty bad, and the students, at best, plod along. But Wilson’s not completely right. One advantage of the really terrible job market for the Ph.D. in literature or philosophy or political philosophy or history or religion is that some genuine outstanding dissident teacher/scholars end up in the sticks. And what they do with their best students should shame those Harvard professors. Even with the dissidents’ elevating influence, it’s still risky for a promising student to choose a fairly mediocre environment. Professors can get fired or move on up when opportunity knocks. In our remarkably diverse system of higher education, there are also plenty of special cases, such as Berry College.

It’s fashionable to talk about “education for leadership,” about elitist education with a positive spin. And it would be better, of course, if the Ivies were still about highlighting and cultivating the virtues of leaders. I don’t mean disruptive innovation or entrepreneurial drive (although the latter is and indispensable quality for our country) but generosity, charity, magnanimity, and so forth. With privileges and “status” come responsibility.  It would be better if more of our top leaders came from colleges (and homes) where virtue and the soul are thought of as real, and where faculty and students thought and acted as if nothing is more important than the singular destiny of a unique and irreplaceable personal life.  But it’s not the end of virtue or souls that they don’t.

Carl’s Rock Songbook No. 100: The Songbook at a Glance


A few years back, I started a blog-essay project that I call Carl’s Rock Songbook. I began it on the First Things version of Postmodern Conservative, which was for the first half of this year incorporated into First Thoughts. This summer, I have been pleased to be presenting these essays on the NRO version of Postmodern Conservative, and today, I find myself up to the 100th Songbook entry! So it’s time for a bit of retrospective consideration. Upcoming posts will seek to introduce the series more formally, laying out some the key themes developed within it, and spelling out some of the presuppositions that shape it.But if you’re interested in rock, I think you’ll pick up pretty quickly on the main things I’m up to simply by clicking on what pricks your curiosity below. If a regular introduction would help you, read the one I did for First Thoughts.

I’m also providing this link list because, for boring technical reasons, it is difficult getting about a third of them through First Things and, therefore, through any standard Internet search. That’s also why most the self-referential Songbook links I provide within the series no longer work — for those, you have to use the link names provided here. (Note: I have left out a handful of posts that were fairly incidental or of lesser quality, and there are two good ones listed below without a link, 87 and 89, because they seem to have gotten lost in the First Things archive.)  If you find a link that doesn’t function, please let me know in the comments.

So, fans of my Songbook should bookmark this. I’m trying to make a regular book out of it all, which, hopefully, will happen within the next year or so, but much will be reconfigured. These original posts will in some way remain the real thing.

1. The Zombies, “Time of the Season”

2. The Zombies, “Changes”

3. The Zombies, “Friends of Mine”

4. The Poetic Wisdom Paradox, Amplified

5. U2, “New Years Day”

6. Bob Dylan, “Blowin’ in the Wind”

7. Duke Ellington, “Come Sunday,” and The Velvet Underground, “Sunday Morning”

8. Bob Dylan, “Masters of War”

9. Marilynne Robinson, “I Miss Civilization”

10. Rock and Roll Patriotism

11. Rock and Roll Patriotism Defended

12. The Who, “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” and “My Generation”

Keep reading this post . . .

Tags: rock , cultural criticism

Paul Ryan, the Not-Quite Poor, and the Media Environment


Some almost random thoughts:

1.  Paul Ryan is very rare and valuable  not only because he is willing to stick his neck out with major policy proposals, but because he is willing to change his policy proposals in response to constructive criticism. The evolution of his Medicare proposals from Ryan’s Path to Prosperity to the Ryan–Wyden plan gives a good idea of Ryan’s combination of policy boldness and thoughtfulness. 

2.  I think this would be a good time to go back and reread Lawrence Mead’s Beyond Entitlement. While Charles Murray’s Losing Ground kicked off a national conversation about the incentive structure of welfare policy (especially AFDC), Mead’s reform ideas were more influential in the structure of the 1996 welfare reform. One of Mead’s key insights was that both the left and the right were too libertarian. The Left wanted to use the tax-and-transfer state to give the working-aged money without any reciprocal obligations. The right resented the idea of government provision and wanted to cut welfare spending by as much as politically possible. Reihan Salam makes the argument for Lawrence Mead–Paul Ryan poverty policy better than I ever could.

3.  While Paul Ryan’s attempt to tackle poverty policy is a good idea in itself, I would expect any political benefits to be limited. Henry Olsen pointed out that the key Midwestern swing-states just don’t have enough persuadable and right-leaning white college graduates for Republicans to win high turnout elections. For Republicans to win elections in presidential years (barring extraordinarily favorable circumstances), the GOP is going to have to make gains among non-Evangelical whites who do not have a college degree, and nonwhites.

As Artur David pointed out, the Republican lack of interest in the poor hurts the with African Americans across the income distribution.

I recognize most African-Americans are middle-class. I recognize most African-Americans work. There is a great sensitivity in the African-American community toward low-income people because most African-Americans are only a generation removed from that kind of poverty and still regularly face it and encounter it even in family reunions.

If you go into the African-American church, you might have a pew full of doctors and lawyers and a pew behind them is many cases full of people on welfare. There is a social confluence in the African-American community of high-income and low-income people that creates a sensitivity toward poor people.

I would guess that this is also somewhat true for Hispanic voters. For reasons related to residential patterns, middle-class African Americans and Hispanics are more likely to have more economically struggling people within their social networks, and are probably less likely to vote for a candidate who seems contemptuous of (or even just uninterested in) those who are in poverty. A serious poverty policy won’t win very many votes by itself, but it might help the GOP get a hearing from people who know that cutting taxes on high-earners isn’t enough.

4.  Henry Olsen also points out that the right’s political problem with those on the other side of the earnings median isn’t just a poverty problem. It is also an insecurity and downward mobility problem for people who are above the poverty line, but who feel like their wages are stagnant and who worry about what would happen if they were laid off and had to take several part-time jobs that did not offer health insurance. Alongside a poverty plan, it is at least as important that Republicans offer policies that limits the tax penalty on working parents, and reform health insurance to give families access to catastrophic health insurance more cheaply and less intrusively than Obamacare.

Olsen wrote that people who were in households that were above the poverty rate, but below the median household income could reasonably look at the Republican agenda and ask, “What’s in it for me?” For starters, how about a more pro-parent tax code to increase take home pay and free market health insurance reform that increases peace of mind for struggling working families, while saving the federal government money (relative to Obamacare).

5.  The great news is that Republicans, led by Senator Mike Lee, are very quickly shifting their policy focus to include the immediate concerns of people who are under the earnings median. The bad news is that the right’s communication infrastructure is not keeping up with the right’s best politicians.  For electoral purposes, it doesn’t matter how good someone’s ideas are if the voters you need to win over never hear about those ideas or only hear about them in hideously distorted form.  It is only a little better if the voters only hear about them for a few minutes during a debate that takes place several weeks before the election.  It takes people time to assimilate new ideas and be persuaded. 

That means that the voters that the right needs to add to its coalition need to hear about those ideas months (preferably a year or more) before the election. There are millions of Americans who have little or no family history of voting Republican and no memory of successful Republican governance at the federal level. Republican candidates can’t just show up and start talking about their health care plan the month before the election. The burden shouldn’t even be on Republican candidates. The right needs institutions that can publicize good ideas to people who don’t consume much right-leaning media like talk radio and Fox News. Hundreds of millions of millions of dollars were wasted in 2012 on commercials that were third-rate imitations of Republican ads from the 1980s. It wouldn’t have helped if those ads had been first-rate imitations of a 30-year-old strategy. People (especially young people) consume media differently and have a different frame of reference.  Some of those hundreds of millions of dollars would be better spent reaching those voters with the best conservative ideas in the fall of 2015, rather than flooding the airwaves with ineffective 30-second ads in the fall of 2016.

Obama and Israel


There is much that went wrong during George W. Bush’s administration, but one thing that went right was the U.S. relationship with Israel. Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon got all the political and diplomatic cover he needed to break the Second Intifada.

When we talk about “international pressure” on Israel, we are really talking about American pressure on Israel. Hamas is internationally isolated. Apart from the stance of the U.S., Hamas is in a weaker position than was Arafat during the Second Intifada.  

The difference is that the Obama administration seems to be acting as if they are waiting for events in Gaza to create the public-relations circumstances in which Obama could knife the Israeli government in the ribs without creating too much of a public relations backlash in the U.S. Absent that, the Obama administration is taking passive-aggressive shots at Israel by demanding impossible conditions for targeting terrorists who hide behind civilians, and suspending American flights to Israel — until Senator Ted Cruz threatened to make the travel ban politically costly.

The travel ban has been lifted, but the message is clear. Obama is only going to support Israel as much as he is forced to by domestic American politics, and a public-relations disaster for Israel could well see the Obama administration forcing the Israelis to agree to a cease-fire and concessions to Hamas. That is why Israel is conducting the operation as if any misstep would lead to being forced into a unilateral retreat.

I don’t think Obama is pro-Hamas in any way. I do think that Obama is looking for any excuse to stick it to Netanyahu.  t isn’t like the US is gaining anything in terms of international public relations. The U.S. is getting just as much blame as we would have if Obama had never taken shots at Israel. As President Obama’s hopes of getting major new legislation have withered (though I wouldn’t count out some version of the Gang of Eight’s immigration proposal), he seems to be governing more and more based on spite.

Reagan, Conservatives And Immigration


As a general rule, I think conservatives would benefit from trying to  imitate Ronald Reagan’s political virtues.  Immigration is an exception to that rule.  We are going to have to find our own way, based on the specific economic and social conditions of our own time.  That’s what my column over at First Things is about.

Hugging Hillary


Maybe all Elizabeth Warren really is doing is setting us up for the big hug to come.

Via Facebook, I got this affirmation of my post below on the strange lack of economic content in Warren’s tenets of progressivism by the astute Professor John Moser of Ashland University:

I think Pal Law [that's my Facebook name] is right about this–as a progressive manifesto, it’s pretty small beer. I also think that’s the point. There’s nothing on Warren’s list that Hillary Clinton couldn’t safely get behind without alienating important corporate constituents (see also on this Warren’s refusal to oppose the reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank). We’re being set up for a grand “reconciliation” in which Clinton pledges to fight for all eleven of Warren’s commandments, and the two women warmly embrace on stage.

John is surely right that we’re likely to see and be moved by these smart and ambitious women embracing.

I think there’s more to it  than that, of course. The longing for social justice through a big-government national community just isn’t animating Americans these days, even or especially our young sophisticates (there was a time — captured forever in Plato’s Republic – when the young erred on the side of political idealism). That’s why Democrats (even or especially Warren!) talk less about the outrages of the disappearing middle class, oligarchic creep, and the global competitive marketplace leveling our safety nets and more about the outrage of Hobby Lobby.

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


So here are Elizabeth Warren’s 11 tenets of progressivism:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sign up for free NRO e-mails today:

Subscribe to National Review