Postmodern Conservative

Reflections on politics, culture, and education.

A New Book by ME


My Allergic to Crazy: Quick Thoughts on Politics, Education, and Culture, Rightly Understood is now available as a reasonably priced (very low cost per word) paperback. It contains many of my mini-essays from my Big Think period (when I was the token conservative contributing to a very prominent techno-enthusiast, semi-transhumanist site). There’s lots else besides. Don’t worry, I was funnier and more engaging back then, and apparently my interests and passions were more diverse. It’s perfect reading for the bathroom, stoplights, and academic meetings of all kinds. I would add that it’s perfect reading for bedtime, but it shouldn’t put you to sleep. (That’s the job of all my other books.)

Self-promotion can only be so shameless. So let me ask a random young person on the street what he thinks of the book:

Warning: This book is not for everyone! Nutty ideologues will be put off by the calm common sense in these pages, and highbrow snoots won’t tolerate hearing that pop culture isn’t intolerably debased. But for the rest of us, this unpretentious and conversational book will make clear why Peter Lawler is a beloved teacher. Nobody does a better job than Lawler of revealing the ideas alive in politics and everyday life. Allergic to Crazy zips from Obama to Gaga, from Walmart to Waffle House, from movies to music, from science to celebrities. This collection of bite-sized readings is a delight.

—Adam Keiper, editor, The New Atlantis

Contrary to what Amazon says right now, I’m told it will have copies of this huge number of quick thoughts this week.
UPDATE: Amazon now says IN STOCK.

Ceaser’s 14 Conservative Points


The APSA panel on the life and work of postmodern conservative James W. Ceaser will be next Saturday at 4:30 p.m. in the Omni Shoreham (in, of course, Washington, D.C.).  You are all invited.

So after considerable reading, I think I’ve found the tightest and most illuminating summary of Ceaser’s conservative public philosophy (or political science?). I’ve reduced what he says in his Designing a Polity (pages 149–51) to fourteen propositions. The numbering is somewhat arbitrary and may or may not deserve JWC’s approval. My “learning style” when trying to get a handle on a complicated and subtle text is to write it out, while imposing on it an order that makes sense to me. That may be at the expense of the logographic necessity intrinsic to the text itself. My next step, of course, will be to think through and engage in friendly criticism of each proposition. You can start doing that right now, if you want:

1. “American conservatism is devoted to conserving the American republic. It can have no higher or nobler goal.”

2. “It is in the end a mistake to think of American conservatism as the same thing as American liberalism, even in the original sense. Conservatism may serve liberalism and seek to preserve it, but it often does so in ways the original liberalism hardly conceived of and that modern liberalism usually rejects. And it does so for original liberalism’s own good.”

3. “The fact is that liberal theory never developed the tools to sustain itself; it has always required something beyond itself to survive. Conservatism . . . is the philosophy that recognizes this need. Without conservatism, liberalism would begin to wither away.”

4. “Conservatism conserves the American republic by supporting its theoretical foundation of natural rights. This ‘abstract truth, applicable to all men and at all times’ (Lincoln) is something conservatives are not embarrassed to proclaim, even before the United Nations General Assembly. On this point, conservatives are in accord with many of the original liberals,” [versus contemporary liberals' thinking of their principles as both nonfoundational and developmental].

5. “Conservatism conserves the American republic by supporting the idea of the nation. . . . [Original liberalism] had difficulty from the first in articulating what the state [and its sovereignty] was beyond a contract, and it could never make full sense of reasonable feelings of attachment to it. . . . Modern liberalism . . . considers patriotism an anachronism and promotes global citizenship and global studies as replacements for American citizenship and education in our own political tradition. The main category of modern liberalism is humanity.”

6. “Conservatism conserves the American republic by giving appropriate support to biblical religion. Biblical religion has been the main source of our ethical system, one of self-restraint and belief in something beyond material existence. . . . Original liberal theory was in some formulations cool to religion, and it often failed to acknowledge or appreciate how much liberal society had borrowed from its storehouse of religious capital.”

7. “Liberalism does not require . . . neutrality [between faith and nonbelief], and conservatism does not recommend it.”

8. “Conservatism conserves the American republic by promoting ‘the tradition,’ which refers, beyond religion and the Enlightenment, to the classical Greek and Roman ideals of virtue and excellence.”

9. “Conservatives subscribe to the liberal principle of equality of rights, but they do so in no small part because it makes room for the emergence of inequalities and excellences.”

10. “The tradition also provides a theoretical basis for a hierarchy of standards, allowing conservatives to criticize without apology the vulgarity that pollutes any society and runs rampant in ours.”

11. [Conservatives see that] “original liberalism often had such [hierarchical, anti-vulgar] inclinations . . ., but it engaged too easily on attacks on the classics and, in rationalist exuberance, went too far in elevating utility at the expense of nobility. . . . Modern liberalism, with its focus on compassion . . . allied itself culturally with relativism, which is the application of the idea of equality to all thought.”

12. “Conservatism is the home today for the few remaining proponents of the original liberalism. And rightly so, since the conservative movement is friendly to property rights and markets and is opposed to collectivism.”

13. “But conservatism is also the home for those who believe that liberalism’s defense depends on more than liberal theory. Conservatives of this variety show how the cultivation of tradition, religion, and classical virtue replenishes the cultural capital that sustains liberalism.”

14. “[Conservative] creativity is best expressed in the view that the public good is not to be found in adherence to the simplest principles, but in the blending of different and partly conflicting ideas. By acknowledging this complexity, conservatism shows that it is no mere branch of liberalism.”

Tags: James Ceaser , Conservatism , political science


Marilynne Robinson and Our Calvinist (Puritanical) Counterculture


So thanks to Carl for calling attention to the strengths and weaknesses of the moral, political, scientific, and theological views of Marilynne Robinson (perhaps our best living novelist) by highlighting Paul Seaton’s balanced and smart review of her latest book of essays.

Robinson’s thought really is neo-Puritanical. Paul and Carl, knowing, as they do, the work of Carey McWilliams (the other great contemporary political neo-Puritan), appreciate almost better than anyone what that means. And even when Robinson’s political opinions are at their most annoyingly intrusive and judgmental, they can laugh and say, “There that Puritan goes again.” McWilliams and Robinson don’t always agree, but they both have the rare merit of staying in character.

Now we postmodern conservatives do fault Robinson (and McWilliams — who was nicer about it) for being a naive political liberal. But we are, in many ways, liberals too. It’s hard to say whether we’re conservative liberals or liberal conservatives. Our friend Dan Mahoney has written about “the conservative foundations of liberal order,” but, for myself, I tend to think we go wrong when we stop thinking of “liberal order” as anything other than conservative foundations for the somewhat illiberal (because) relational institutions that make life worth living.

Today I’m thinking about our “foundations” as a prelude to thinking about our James Ceaser’s unrivaled accounts of American foundationalism and anti-foundationalism. There’s going be a panel honoring the work of our JWC at the American Political Science Association meeting a week from today. Jim, I sometimes think, slights the Puritanical/Calvinist dimension of even our Declaration of Independence and the way it has informed our political history. I could be wrong, but I’m going to begin by using Robinson to think I’m right. Jim and I certainly agree that “nonfoundationalism” is a pervasive and demoralizing project, one that replaces the aggressive anti-Americanism of, say, Heidegger with, as Carl has shown us, the imagination of a kind of post-Americanism. More next time on the exact time and place of the panel.

We learn from Tocqueville that the spirit of liberty and the spirit of religion are, properly understood, interdependent. Tocqueville said he learned that from the original Puritans, who were relentless innovators in politics and were, Tocqueville instructively adds, free from political prejudice. They were the source of our self-governing and egalitarian institutions. They were also the source of a kind of American idealism that sometimes causes government to provide (politically and charitably) for the unfortunate and to attend to public education that goes beyond “basic skills” and in the direction of liberal education for everyone. The Puritans, as Tocqueville presents them, were highly civilized family men and women who became political pilgrims in the service of a political idea, of bringing the ancient city into speech (transformed by the Bible) into being in a vacant (well, it wasn’t really vacant) part of the world. They were liberals — even progressives — insofar as their political opinions and practices were both unprecedented and more advanced (in the liberal and democratic directions) than those of anyone in Europe. Compared to conservatives today and most of the American Founders, they had a more elevated and ambitious view of what government could accomplish on the basis of the Biblical proposition that all men are created equal. (Most of this doesn’t make it into Jim’s “customary” account of Tocqueville on the Puritans.)

The Puritans really cared for souls. But they made the mistake (according to Tocqueville) of being way too politically intrusive, of criminalizing every sin. They tried to translate the legislation found in the Old Testament’s Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, laws made, in fact, for rude and half-civilized people, into laws for highly civilized and enlightened modern Englishmen. Those laws were often bizarre and tyrannical — offenses against both common sense and conscience – even if they were only rarely enforced. But, Tocqueville reminds us, the laws were democratically enacted, and they were driven by admirable qualities of creaturely devotion that are the opposite of the characteristically America vice of individualistic indifference. What was wrong with the Puritans, in Tocqueville’s view, is that they weren’t Christian enough; their Calvinism gave them too political or specifically legislative view of the relevance the Old Testament for their time, whereas Jesus himself meant for the reform effect of his message of about the equality of all men under God to be much more indirect.

From the Puritans’ view — and Robinson’s and McWilliams’ neo-Puritanical view (not to mention Tocqueville’s own view), the leading American Founders tended to understand each of us as less than he or she really is. We’re understood as free beings who work. Our freedom is not understood as for civilization, work is not understood as for civilized liberty; Sunday is not cherished as the day when we hear and reflect about how each of us is a being with a high and singular being not limited by matter or time. So liberty is not understood as for democratic devotion but only for a kind of selfish private satisfaction. Now Robinson does say that Jefferson was a civilized man, but he couldn’t account for his personal — yet social — intellectual joys through his political principles.

By Robinson, we’re reminded of Puritanical moments in American political history slighted by, say, the Founderistic account of American political development. She praises the neo-Puritanical abolitionists (whose liberating views ended up in the McGuffey reader), William Jennings Bryan’s battle against scientistic Darwinism, the liberal Protestant dimension of the civil-rights movement (which can’t be reduced to Lincolnism), and so forth. McWilliams adds that even the devotion described in the Gettysburg Address is a Puritanical add-on to the liberty of the Declaration of Independence.

Robinson’s narrative is about the authentically Puritanical American Left, which wouldn’t, of course, be embraced by most of our liberals today. I wish more of today’s Christian leftists would at least join her battle against scientism, against those who deny the real existence of the wondrous love that’s at the foundation of the truth about human exceptionalism. The ”social justice” emphasis of our liberal churches these days gives little to no attention to the actual theology she’s recovered that once justified generous political progressivism.

Against the empty secularism at the foundation of today’s Oberlin College (mocked so instructively by HBO’s Girls), Robinson reminds us of genuinely neo-Puritanical and abolitionist antebellum Oberlin. There every student and faculty member engaged in manual labor, and everyone pursued a liberal education. Among the students were women and freed blacks. I’m sure, had NPR being around in those days, that its reporters would have been crawling all over the campus praising the social experimentation. But we conservatives can acknowledge that there was much to be praised in terms of justice and in living Saint Augustine’s (and, I’m sure, Calvin’s) admonition that both work and contemplation are for us all.

Having said all that, I agree completely with Paul’s criticisms of Robinson. Her strength is not political prudence, and generosity understood as a kind of  indiscriminate charity is not really a political virtue. Like a Puritan, she’s finds a questionable justification for intrusive, egalitarian big government today in the Old Testament.  (She is good on what charity/generosity is as a Christian virtue.)  American Puritanism has all kinds of, well, Puritanical (prohibitionist) downsides.  She too readily identifies all Republicans with dog-eat-dog exploitation,  and she, with NPR listeners and without much evidence, identifies genuinely civilized, cultured America today with political progressivism. She’s way too hard on the evangelicals, while being way too indulgent of the Congregationalists today. And she, perhaps because of her embrace of Whitman, is way, way too easy on the real heart of political progressivism today, which is evolution toward greater and greater autonomy–or freedom from being bound by any personal, relational authority, including that of God or his wondrous personal love. Our liberals or progressives are, in the most important or admirably Christian sense, less Puritanical than ever.

The Christian Liberalism of Marilynne Robinson


The other must-read piece on religion from the last couple days is from our friend Paul Seaton, with the hilarious title Moses, Calvin, and the Puritans Would’ve Listened to NPR If They Were Around Today.  Don’t let the humor’s edge mislead you into thinking it’s an attack on Robinson.  Rather, it’s an appreciative, balanced, and critically sober consideration of her writings on the nexus of religion and politics, especially those from a new book of hers.  

It’s an important piece for thinking about the liberal Christians in our midst–I mean the ones that are both theologically and politically liberal.  Some of their churches are fading membership-wise, as Rod Dreher notes in the piece linked to below, but we must note that some are holding their own.  One congregation in my Virginia city has a sign that says something like, “We’re Progressive, and We’re Still Thriving!”  I don’t think conservatives, religious or secular, should dismiss these churches as absurd, or as self-evidently irrelevant to the broader cultural conversation.  Most of them are far from being Unitarian in all but name.  In the Episcopal ones particularly, the Bible-studded liturgy is still there, for example, doing its silent work Sunday upon Sunday.  Robinson, a Calvinist, is arguably a product of an earlier time, but it remains significant that our liberal churches provide a religious home for people like her.  It is out of such churches, I dare to hope, that there may come the leaders necessary to reform/moderate/cleanse the Democratic Party, or at least one wing of it, if the hour for that long-needed movement ever arrives.  And she is of course right that there is a deep connection between modern democracy and Calvinism, as our Ralph Hancock has explored.

Paul’s piece has its very sobering moments, however.  Robinson’s love of Walt Whitman’s overall creed is rather disappointing to learn about, and makes me tempted to join one of those churches just so I can find a way to teach a Christian Education class that would delve into “Whether Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass Ought to Be Added to the Canon of Scripture?” 

Tags: Marilynne Robinson , Religion

Read Rod


Man, my own writing’s been bogged-down lately with I don’t know what internal dynamics of confusion and self-sabotage:  a paper on the great Ralph Ellison I’ve been working on is taking forever. Some of that is a reflection of Ralph’s depth, but some of it’s just some kind of a funk.  So apologies for the light blogging.

Anyhow, one blogger who’s been on fire lately is Rod Dreher, over at The American Conservative.  Today he’s got a must-read piece on his “Benedict Option” idea.  A taste:

People don’t want to hear it, but it’s clear that if you are part of a religious community that does not define itself strongly against modern secularist culture, you are all going to lose yourself in it — if not yourself, then your children likely will. It’s just too strong.

If you’ve little patience for reading about Alasdair MacIntyre, and how what he said about the Benedict Option relates to what Dreher makes of it, I can at least sympathize. But what you should read this piece for is the way Rod captures the sense, the worry, present throughout the late aughts and Obama years, but I think to a number of observers becoming particularly vivid over the last three years, that we are in a season of rapidly increasing secularism and abandonment of Christianity (and Judaism).  I’m hesitant to use grand terms like “post-Christian culture” or “secular era,” but something does seem to have shifted.  I’ve always basically agreed with the quote above, particularly intellectually, so that as a Christian I’ve always said “amen” to that sort of sermon; but worrisomely, it feels like I have to agree with it more strongly today that just a few years ago, and feels not like some intellectualized radicalism-longing idea I might take away from my luxury reading of guys like Kierkegaard, but like something that is just immediately obvious.  

But what do you say?

Tags: Rod Dreher , Religion


Being The Nice Guy Isn’t Enough


Michael Brendan Dougherty is right that Paul Ryan’s political evolution is a good thing. Dougherty is also right to wonder if Ryan is right in trying to expand the Republican coalition by emulating “bleeding heart conservative” Jack Kemp. Probably not.  Republicans are going to have to win larger margins among younger and nonwhite voters in high turnout elections. They could try to follow Kemp’s softer approach, but the model should be less Kemp’s largely unsuccessful attempts to win over African Americans and more Reagan’s successful attempt to win over urban, unionized, working-class white voters.

Ryan (along with other Republicans like Mike Lee and Marco Rubio) deserves credit for what he gets right. It was absolutely indispensable that Republicans reconstruct their policy program for the present day, and drop their lack of interest in, or contempt for, people under the earnings median. As long as Republicans had a policy agenda centered on high-earner tax cuts, and a message that called non-business owners either inert matter or active parasites, nothing else they did was going to matter. There is no speech and no public relations strategy that will fix those mistakes.

On the other hand, having a relevant policy message and respectfully explaining it to the voters you want to win over is what you are supposed to do. It amounts to just showing up. You can’t win if you don’t show up. The 2008 Detroit Lions showed up too, but didn’t win any games. A better policy agenda and making an attempt to communicate with non-Republicans are first steps, but, by themselves, will  get you about zero new votes.

The first thing to keep in mind is that even many young voters and nonwhites with right-leaning policy preferences voted for Obama in the last presidential election. Many of these voters have either a personal or ancestral connection to the Democratic party. While these votes might have right-leaning policy preferences, they likely inhabit social networks where most of what they hear about politics comes from liberal sources. Winning these voters is going to take more than a better tax plan and a better health care plan – though those things are crucial. Winning over those voters is also going to mean hitting these voters with how their values diverge with the values of the national Democratic party. Before they are ready to vote Republican, right-leaning Obama voters  are going to need some visceral reasons to oppose the Democrats.        

The second thing to keep in mind is the reaction of Democrats and their media allies. Ryan seems to like being seen as a nice guy. Democrats don’t think it is very nice when Republicans try to expand the Republican coalition. Ryan can try to win over nonwhite voters.  As long as he is ineffectual, the Democrats will mostly ignore him. They might even patronize him as the exception to the racist Republican rule. But when it is starting to look like Ryan is making progress, Ryan is going to wake up and see a commercial where he lynches somebody.  That is just what the national Democrats do. There is no point in expecting better from the party of Harry Reid and Lois Lerner.    

Ryan can’t be (just) a nice guy and make substantial gains among nonwhites and younger voters. Think of every harsh (sometimes apocalyptic)Reagan critique of the Democrats, every Reagan jab, every negative ad, that the Republicans of the 1980s used to win over previously Democratic voters. Those were all a legitimate and essential part of the process of winning over the persuadable.

That doesn’t mean that Ryan and other Republicans shouldn’t listen very carefully to the voters they need to win over. They should listen very carefully. They should craft their policy positions very carefully. Republicans should also work just as carefully on their attacks on the opposition. Jack Kemp had a reputation as a nice guy.  Kemp liked to talk about how many liberal friends he had. Reagan got to be president.

Tags: Paul Ryan , Jack Kemp , Ronald Reagan

Libertarianism and Securitarianism (and Richard Dawkins)


So I’ve written for The Federalist the long version of  the case for thinking of “the libertarian moment” as actually a kind of “selective statism” rooted in what Tocqueville describes as individualism. I’ve already gotten a couple of e-mails asking when I embraced the field of Mormon apologetics. I highlight the Mormons only because Tyler Cowen embraced their way of life as a form of discipline that might allow men to flourish in the rigorous 21st-century global competitive marketplace. My only point is that the Mormons have what it takes to be libertarian for all political purposes, while our only apparently more consistently libertarian hyper-technophiles who put their hope in the Singularity to come do not. Our Silicon Valley libertarianism is a mixture of extreme libertarianism and extreme securitarianism — a mixture, you might say, of Rand and Hobbes. So, increasingly, are our college campuses.

Speaking of the triumph of security over liberty: My apologies to the few who were anticipating my promised trashing of Richard Dawkins for giving women the moral imperative of aborting unborn Down-syndrome babies. The difference between a Down-syndrome kid and one with autism, in his view, is that those who find a place on the autism spectrum are often “enhanced” (Dawkins’s word) cognitively (think Sheldon Cooper), whereas the Down’s kid never is. The former can make a real contribution to society, the latter can’t. I couldn’t help but think, of course, that kids with autistic qualities can sometimes also be burdened with severe cognitive impairment and can’t function socially at all. If we ever develop a reliable prenatal test that diagnoses autism (and we might soon), then, I guess, the moral duty to choose abortion is just as urgent. You never know whether you’re going to get one of those enhanced ones, and so it’s safer and so more responsible to do as Dawkins says: abort and try again. Dawkins makes it altogether too easy to have the “teachable moment” of showing that allegedly civilized public indifference to the fate of this or that particular foetus / unborn baby leads to the eugenic imperative of enhancement. That imperative, of course, undermines our egalitarian conviction about the uniqueness and irreplaceability of every free and relational personal life.

Dawkins’s standard for a life worth protecting, apparently, is “human feelings.” Well, people with Down syndrome typically love and are lovable, joyfully discover the correspondence between words and real things,  are self-conscious, and are moved deeply by the suffering and deaths of other persons. What “human feeling” do they not have? Yet, in Dawkins’s view, a loving mother to be has the duty to pass up an opportunity she’s been given to love and be loved, to act according to the inclination that Darwinians see she’s been given by nature. In Dawkins’s view, Down’s men and women don’t deserve a chance or would not want to live. That conclusion, as every parent of a kid with Down syndrome knows, is contrary to the facts we can actually see on the ground.

Now you might say that I’m being unfair to Dawkins. But consider this: What would a world be like in which people in general thought that a woman who had her Down’s kid out of love had acted immorally? Surely “the state” can’t be allowed to facilitate or conceivably even tolerate that kind of irresponsibility!

There have been so many indignant postings about Dawkins as moral monster that I’m losing the urge to pile on. Maybe the best advice I have for you all is to pay no attention at all to his moral, political, and religious musings. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about, at least when talking about those who are members of our species.

There’s nothing that I’ve said that necessarily leads to the allegedly extreme position that all abortion should be illegal. It does support the view that, in order even to preserve a loving mom’s freedom of choice, our default position has to be in favor of life. That way, no mom could ever be blamed for choosing for the life of one of her own — and, really, our own. Dawkins’s position is really, really extreme, although his extremism has the sense, especially when tweeting, of being merely a kind of ineffectual bragging or posing.

Notes On David Frum: Where The Republican Rich (As A Group) Aren’t The Problem


David Frum has an interesting essay over at Foreign Affairs trying to help the magazine’s readership understand the genus Republicanus.  While Frum’s analysis is earnest, and he has some solid points, I think that the magazine’s readership would be led astray in several ways. Today, let us look at the Republican donor class.  The GOP donors are problematic in multiple ways, but they aren’t the problem in several areas that Frum identifies.

1.  Frum places Republican insistence on tighter monetary policy under the category “radical rich”. You could find individual rich guys calling for more contractionary monetary policy, gold standards, etc. But focusing too much on those loud (and sometimes obnoxious) voices is misleading. Romney was the candidate of the donor class and he was the candidate who was the least critical of Bernanke and the Federal Reserve. It was Romney’s underfunded Tea Party-branded  rivals who were falling all over themselves to make nonsensical statements like calling Bernanke the most inflationary Federal Reserve Chairman ever. To the extent that there was monetary sanity in the 2012 Republican presidential primaries, that sanity was found In the candidate of the donor class.

2.  The same thing is true about the relationship between the Republican donor class and taxes. The original Romney tax plan involved some cosmetic middle-class tax cuts (basically cutting taxes on investment income most middle-class people didn’t have much of) combined with a modest cut to the corporate income tax. It was only later in the campaign, after Romney faced a challenge from Santorum, that Romney proposed bringing down the top marginal income tax rate as part of an across-the board income tax cut.

Romney didn’t do this because he needed the support of the donor class. He already had the support of the donor class and, by the time Romney proposed his revised tax plan, the only viable alternative was Santorum. There was no way on Earth the donor class was going to ditch Romney to back Santorum. Romney’s revised tax plan was designed to show rank-and-file- conservative primary votes that he was conservative – was Reagany – enough for them. See? I’m for a Son of Kemp-Roth tax plan. Isn’t that what you people like?   

The Republican donor class has a lot to answer for, but they were not the cause of the 2012 GOP’s problems on monetary policy, and they were not the reason Romney adopted his plans to cut the top marginal income tax rate.

Tags: David Frum , Mitt Romney

Liberty and Libertarian Convergence


So here’s a provocation by me that explains Obama’s focus on contraception and his tyrannical move on immigration in terms of libertarian convergence theory.  I also bring in the 22nd Amendment. Please be free to be critical. It’s probably always a mistake for political scientists — and especially professors of political philosophy — to think they have any special insight into what’s going on now. But Carl has inspired me to think somewhat more about liberty in the here and now.

Speaking of Carl and liberty, I really like the rather genuinely Whitmanesque long quote in his last post. Yet another criticism of The Dead Poets Society is that Mr. Keating only mentions that “captain, my captain” is, in Walt’s poem, “Lincoln.” It’s pretty funny to tell your students that they should regard you as their Lincoln.  But Keating’s “teaching method” — being are all romantic and rather narcissistic — has no place for the appreciative study of Lincoln. For the very manly Whitman, Lincoln is a martyr who should be the centerpiece of a new American civil theology that properly ennobles the suffering and dying of American citizen-soldiers during the Civil War in pursuit of justice. I’m not for civil theology, of course, but I forgive Whitman, because the main deficiency in his education that distorted his poetry was his lack of knowledge and tone deafness to specifically biblical theology. Absent that knowledge, he failed to reconcile the conflict between the personal experiences of  oceanic universality and of those of deep, lonely particularity. He knew, in fact, that he had failed, even with the help of Hegel. I am for education that includes the study of the great virtues of nobility and generosity as well as, of course, the deeply personal Christian virtue of charity. Lincoln has ‘em all, in some measure.

Carl’s quote isn’t about Whitman’s ennobling of Lincoln and war either. But I do like the emphasis on American hostility to limits, as well as the American affirmation of waste. For we followers of Whitman, there are no limits to what Americans might achieve through a free economy and technological ingenuity.  America “works” only with confidence in economic growth and technological innovation dissolving or at least ameliorating seeming intractable human problems.

Too much old-world concern with limits may be fatal for us. Consider what sophisticated hostility to population growth is doing to us now, for example. And our Porcher friends too often perceive limits that aren’t really there.  I remember, for example, that a few years ago Pat Deneen couldn’t say enough about the looming techno-collapse that would be the result of “peak oil.”

On the other hand, too little concern with limits may be fatal too. Economic growth alone might not be anywhere near enough to keep our failing middle class from continuing to fail. And there might not be a techno way out of every threat posed to our flourishing by man-made climate change and finite natural resources. And there are, of course, natural limits given to us by our invincible natural purposes to what we should do biotechnologically. The idea of limits or moderation is a large part of any life in the service of the one true progress toward wisdom and virtue.  It’s the idea of relational limits, finally, that allows us to use techno-libertarian means for non-libertarian ends, for the loving cultivation of  relational institutions that shape our lives and make our lives worth living.

So when it comes to limits, we postmodern conservatives are somewhere in between Porchers and the wholehog followers of Whitman.

Should Americans celebrate our indifference to waste symbolized by beer cans on the side of the road? Being an incorrigibly messy and wasteful (or deeply left-handed) person myself, I’m open to that, to a point. I certainly think we’ve become too puritanical when it comes to waste, as in wasting paper. Still, it’s the South that’s most about trash on the side of the road and rusty mobile homes in the front yard. And I don’t think Whitman is the inspiration for that.


John Kouwenhoven on Democracy, Waste, and Liberal Education


Here’s some provocative passages from a 1961 book by John Kouwenhoven, a Walt Whitman scholar and an “American Studies” pioneer who theorized a good deal on architecture and handicrafts, with the wonderful title The Beer Can by the Highway:  Essays on What’s American about America.  I got to Kouwenhoven through that most-sane of Emerson’s and Whitman’s disciples, the acclaimed novelist and essayist Ralph Ellison.  Kouwenhoven seems pretty good not great so far—but he’s certainly off the beaten path of most democratic-faith Whitmanian/Emersonian types.  Here’s a few bits from the title essay, which yes, says we shouldn’t despair about the litter we often see on our highways, as it’s a reflection of abundance.  Subtle point he’s making there, destined to be misunderstood by most folks, especially those of environmentalist sensibilities.  But anyhow, the quotations:

What I am trying to suggest is that we may not be able to get rid of the mess without also getting rid of the abundance. 

…some Americans are beginning to feel that it is cruelly wasteful, if not socially dangerous, to educate everybody (as the principle of democracy requires us to do) without determining in advance whether there will be jobs available in which they can use their education.  …General Eisenhower…warned against educating more men and women than can earn a living in the field in which they have been educated, lest they “turn upon” the society which aroused expectations that could not be fulfilled.

…But it is not only democracy’s commitment to education which alarms such people.  They are troubled too by the way it “encourages people to determine their own goals” and to set their own courses towards them… What is the sense of letting people set goals for themselves which the limitations of a disfrontiered civilization will make it impossible for them to reach?  The social waste resulting from this sort of thing…

From this point of view status now appears to be something which society must assure, in order to relieve the tensions of security.  …Hence also the increasing emphasis in labor-union contracts—and college contracts with the faculty—upon seniority, tenure, and pensions.

…From this point of view the beer can by the highway glows with a sinister light indeed, since it is a symbol both of mobility and of a far from reverent attitude towards the decorum of a status-oriented society.   

…I would argue, on the contrary, that a commitment to democracy—and a certain indifference to waste and untidiness—are prerequisite to abundance.

…By a “commitment to democracy” I mean a commitment to the idea that there are no fixed or determinable limits to the capacities of any individual human being, and that all are entitled, by inalienable right, to equal opportunities to develop their potentialities.  Democracy in this sense is an ideal, not a political system, and certainly not an actual state of affairs.

…people who are inventive, ingenious, and other respects mobile are more likely than those who relish or depend upon security of status to recognize potential abundance when they see it.

…Emerson is not in high esteem in these days of “togetherness” and “the organization man.”

…I think that is from men and women who share Emerson’s open-ended conception of man’s potentialities—which is the root and seed of democracy—that we will get that open-ended conception of abundance, that refusal to accept limits to potential wealth or virtue or kindness or talent or love, which will enable us to keep all doors open to our own self-fulfillment while helping others to open doors for themselves.

Well, I reject his way of defining democracy.  I’d prefer to try to define “democratic-republic” anyhow.  And all this limitless potentiality talk…well, you could see what I said in the book on Chantal Delsol, Lucid Mind, Intrepid Spirit about the dangers of indeterminacy.  

But what do you think?

Tags: John Kouvenhoven , Walt Whitman , Ralph Ellison , Ralph Waldo Emerson

A Tension Within The Left


Carl rightly praises Jonathan Chait for criticizing Obama’s threatened abuse of discretionary authority in granting a mass amnesty. Chait is at it again in condemning the bizarre indictment of Rick Perry for threatening to veto an appropriation.

What unites Chait’s two post is the sense that, in politics, what goes around comes around. If Obama makes maximal use of executive discretion now, then a future Republican president will do the same. If Democrats try to criminalize the veto now, the Republicans will target Democratic executives in the future.

That doesn’t mean that Chait is all sunshine. Where norms are decaying (as in the case of the filibuster), he is all in favor of first doing unto others, as they would eventually do unto you. I agree, and think the Republicans should take his advice and dump the filibuster entirely the moment we get the combination of a Republican president and Senate.

But there is another way of looking at these kinds of conflicts.  First Amendment claims are the first refuge of a monster. Freedom of speech is freedom to abuse. Freedom of religion is theocracy. Freedom of the press is enabling Fox News.  Better to do away with it and give the opposition prosecutorial discretion good and hard.  College student need to be protected from speech that might conflict with what they are learning from their liberal college professors. It is an outrage that the House Republicans are trying to impeach Obama – even though they aren’t. After all, I didn’t support the impeachment of Bush – even though I did.

I think that what unites all of these stories is not merely the confidence that what goes around won’t around, but that one side is too virtuous to have to obey the rules and the other too dangerous, and too illegitimate to deserve protection of the laws. The question isn’t, What do the rules (whether norms or constitutional amendments) allow us to do?  The question is, What can we get away with doing right this second?

That what goes around comes around never enters into it, because the tactics are only legitimate when one side uses them.  Chait sees two political coalitions in conflict and inevitable rotation of power between the two coalitions – though not that the two will hold power for precisely equal periods of time.  From the second point of view, politics is a contest between firefighters (the left) and arsonists who want to burn our children.

From this perspective, Obama has to use whatever means necessary to get what he wants now. It also means liberals have the right to retroactively make similar use of authority illegal in the case of a Republican president. If you think otherwise, you probably also think that you should be able to put out a movie critical of Hillary Clinton during an election year. Movies critical of Republicans are fine of course. That’s artistic real free speech rather than hijacking our democracy.

All you need is the right frame of mind and the understanding that … politicized discretion only goes one way.    

Leo Strauss, Preppy Atheism, and Berry College


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


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

just what should a good D say? 

Say little, say nothing, or cheerfully reply,


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

Kurds, Contempt, and Citizens


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


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


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



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


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


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?


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


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