Postmodern Conservative

Reflections on politics, culture, and education.

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

Who Do You Trust?


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

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

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

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

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


The Future (and Past) of Liberty Is Confusing


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tags: Intercollegiate Studies Institute

Relationships and Policy


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conservative Diversity


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Get Ye to an Orrery


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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts From Another Perspective


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

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

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

Ross Douthat and the Week of Obscene Silences


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Keep reading this post . . .

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

Several Questions


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

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

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



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


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