Postmodern Conservative

Reflections on politics, culture, and education.

Ellison for Everyone


Two initial statements.  First, Ralph Ellison is a great novelist that more persons of all stripes ought to read.  Saying this reflects my own taste, i.e., my own inexpert judgment of literary quality and reading pleasure, but also my desire to bring others to experience something of the feeling I find I’m increasingly getting from the man’s books.  It is overall a feeling of familiar warmth, of wanting to return again, years after the last reading, to the characters, scenarios, and images found in Invisible Man, Juneteenth, and some of the other writingsIt’s the not the sort of feeling I get with most authors.  And, it’s something of a surprise to feel it for Ellison’s work, which contains more than a number of prickly shocks, the first time around especially, and flights of prose that require more than a little work and concentration on the part of the reader.

Second, Ralph Ellison turns out to be a very significant figure for American Political Thought.  This is not for the reason we might expect, namely, his being one of the first widely-acclaimed Afro-American literary artists, and one whose work dramatized the pervasive injustice of America’s racism.  It is more fundamentally due to his further development, particularly in his essays, of a certain American tradition of democratic faith, characteristic of Emerson, Whitman, and several of the big names in 20th-century progressivism/liberalism, but in a more tragedy-attuned and blues-schooled mode.  This ought to be important to political thinkers across the board, whether they are champions of that tradition or critics of it. 

This aspect of Ellison’s thought is intimately related to what has been more widely commented upon, his account of America’s cultural mixing, such as that represented by the metaphor of the melting pot, made against sharply-drawn multi-culturalist categorizations of American culture, identity, and ethnicity.  That teaching pitted him against many of the advocates of Black Pride; it is the reason his socio-political thought is treasured by contemporary opponents of ethnicity-based politics, such as the indispensable Shelby Steele.  It is thus the initial reason it ought to be of interest to all conservatives and moderates.  But as I will explain in another post, Ellison’s account of America’s cultural mixing and complexity amounts to far more than simply a rejection of dismal “race-card” politics and identity-formation.  It is an account that invites the questions of 1) whether or not Americans might understand themselves as a distinct (yet variegated) people in the face of the globalist instinct (see my big essay below) to regard our cultural-ethnic mixing as a template for a world society, and 2) whether or not democratic societies across the world might continue to make room in their ever-more democratic culture for the fine arts and other possibilities of “naturally aristocratic” cultivation.  For all these reasons, I say Ellison is going to remain important to political thought.  

If you’re unfamiliar with Ellison, here’s a link to the PBS American Masters documentary about him.  I can’t remember if I’ve seen it, but watching that would give you the basic shape of his biographical story, and the link also features a useful written introduction by Anne Seidlitz.  The major aspects of his story are his being raised in the somewhat-more-free-for-blacks state of Oklahoma, his undergraduate education at Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute in the early 30s, his moving to New York City to explore certain artistic proclivities (initially ones as focused upon classical composition and sculpture as upon literature), his publishing Invisible Man to immediate and lasting acclaim in 1952, his essay writing, resulting in two important volumes of essays, Shadow and Act in 1964, and Going to the Territory in 1986, and his work all through these years upon a never completed three-volume novel, Three Days before the Shooting, of which the most-developed portion was published posthumously in 1999 as Juneteenth

Invisible Man in some ways parallels Ellison’s developmental journey from Alabama’s Tuskegee to New York City.  A promising young black man who has completely bought into a kind of Booker-T-style collegiate idealism winds up in NYC through a series of mishaps, and becomes, after more mishaps yet, a leader in “The Brotherhood” organization (i.e., the Communist Party) that is winning over Harlemites in the 1930s.  The main words I would have for it are driving, wild, and imagistic.  A film version surely would have been made had Ellison not explicitly forbidden this, but certainly no film could capture the relentless power of the book’s interior dialogue. 

There is much that is deeply disturbing and portions that feel psychedelic in a bad-trip way, so that I have a measure of sympathy for the North Carolina parents who a couple years ago tried to get it removed from their high-school reading list due to it being too intense (particularly regarding sexual situations, and racial injustice) for that age, but I must add that in many instances what is disturbing also is subtly shown to be funny in a blues-reminiscent way; moreover, there are many sweet scenes peppered throughout, and I detect a humorously sympathetic tone pervading the entire work.  Sure, it’s all about existential homelessness encroaching upon modern man, but it has quite a few instances of homey-ness in there also.  That’s part of what keeps drawing me back. 

It’s those latter aspects that educators usually neglect when trying to introduce the book.  They always dwell on the relation between racial oppression and Ellison’s presentation of his narrator’s metaphorical invisibility.  And if they require students to read any part besides the modernistic Prologue, it’s the first scene, the Battle Royale, a uniquely sinister portrayal of small-town segregationist oppression and degradation of Negroes.  (Note:  Ellison always preferred the term “Negro” to “black” or “African-American,” and I try to honor that a bit herein.)  It’s a truly great scene—my only complaint is that there are so many other brilliant ones we could be teasing interest with instead, many of which do not so easily suit the too-hammered-in lesson conveyed by our contemporary schools and films that pre-1970s America, especially in the segregationist South, was grossly unjust to blacks. (That’s a vital lesson for all Americans, no doubt; but any lesson overdone, and especially when its repetition seems designed to favor one side in contemporary debates, becomes a botched one.) 

Let me quickly also mention the merits of Juneteenth, which particularly center upon Ellison’s portrayal of the Negro church and of the Azusa-Street-like dream not infrequently cherished within it in which American Christians, black and white, would someday arrive at an inter-racial Christian fraternal love.  Now Ellison’s letters to Albert Murray, collected in Trading Twelves, reveal in places a highly critical attitude towards Negro preachers, but in Juneteenth Ellison truly gave himself over to the character and voice of the rather admirable Hickman, a jazzman-become-preacher (echoes there of gospel music giant Thomas Dorsey).  Hickman’s sermon at the heart of the novel, which mythically describes the cultural decimation of the African slaves and their collective rebirth through Afro-American musical creation, is one of the few instances I can think of in which American literature really lives up to Walt Whitman’s call for epic-like poetry of America, although it does so by way of a perhaps un-Whitman-esque openness to the Bible.  Much remains to be discussed about that—for one, the most theological moments of Hickman’s preaching sound more Process Theology than they do orthodox–, but I’ll just say here that it’s not a sermon to be missed. 

I’m sure critics have somewhere discussed which writers best capture the infectious patterns of Afro-American speech, and I don’t know whether Ellison is ranked at the top, but I’d guess that he’s ranked pretty highly, simply based on the blues-and-gospel-evocative prose throughout Juneteenth.  One of the funny things about him, given such a gut-bucket and swingin’ a voice he could employ in his novels and letters, is how formal and nearly-standardized a voice he used in public speech, and I guess in everyday life also.  Surprise at that voice might be the first impression you take from this 1966 interview, or from these 50s audio-clips recently re-discovered in the Harvard Library, but don’t let that distract you from the various riches therein, including (go to 20:30) a section of the sermon just described.  

Ellison’s self-cultivated aristocratic manner has subjected him to a lot of unfair criticism.  His reputation at present, given some of the unflattering sides of his character revealed (and tendentiously highlighted) by the 2007 biography by Arnold Rampersad, is perhaps on the wane, and maybe someday may even need a calumny-answering defense of the sort Daniel Mahoney recently published for Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.  Without question, there are certain elites that, like the secularist and liberal elites that enabled the campaign of misrepresentation and dismissal against Solzhenitsyn, would welcome a diminishment of Ellison’s reputation.  While in socio-economic terms Ellison’s political sympathies were liberal and leftist, much of what he wrote remains a standing rebuke to the racial-grievance identity politics that the Democrats seem determined to nurse until Kingdom Come, and to the black identity stances that work with it.  Now many, including our Invisible Man-loving president, never fully see this.  But it still makes Ellison an ongoing threat to present-day black leaders, as Shelby Steele pointedly suggested in a 1999 TNR piece:

He has let the world see behind the black mask, and so has drawn the ire of the modern-day Bledsoes of his group.  …their focus on culture is really a focus on power; …their enterprise is really about territories within institutions… When Ellison celebrates the resourcefulness of the ingenuity of black culture, he “blows the game” of his group leaders by revealing that which undermines the mask.

You don’t know who “Bledsoe” was?  That’s like a Greek not knowing who Circe was!  Sheesh, you probably don’t know who Ras the Exhorter and Rinehart are either!  Take up and read Invisible Man, and get with your American mythology. 

Anyhow, you can see why many would have reasons for wanting the appreciation of Ellison to become diminished and limited, limited to acknowledging the power of his art and its witness to racial injustices.  They would love for the line on him to become “A genius, a giant of American literature right for his moment, but ultimately, a fairly nasty piece of work as a man, with an attraction to retrograde ideas.”  Such a line is unlikely to “succeed” quite in the way a similar one did with Solzhenitsyn, since it keeps having to hold Ellison’s initial accomplishment up as a paragon of black cultural self-assertion and accomplishment, thereby drawing new generations of readers, such as Barack Obama and myself, into the spell of his artistry, and thus, if nothing else, into a sense of his overall decency and wisdom.

But again, what will also remain a standing offense is Ellison’s emphasis, which became part of his own personal manner, upon the self-creative and thus self-elevating possibilities present in modern democratic society.   He constantly focuses on the ways democracy really makes, and must continue to make, opportunities for cultural uplift widely available.  His emphasis upon this is serious enough that it can rub the wrong way, for it gives us no excuse for making only weak efforts at cultivation.  He knows all about the Afro-American “down home” and suggests that all of us ought to be on the look-out for wisdom in unexpected places and persons, and especially from those on the low end of the social ladder, but he won’t pretend to be more “everyday people” than he really is.  Nor does his work allow any of us to pretend to be.  Ellison challenges one and all, and he doesn’t do it as a way of positioning himself above everyone, but as a way of urging everyone up.  More about this soon. 

I’m not saying here that debates about Ellison’s overall literary merit, or the connection of that to charges that he was too arrogant generally, and became too distanced from younger Negro writers and artists specifically, are illegitimate ones, or can be settled simply by observing who stands to gain from hits upon his reputation.  I’d just say that those who get into Ellison ought to be aware of the ongoing tensions among our literary and cultural guardians about the man, lest they too easily accept as true certain accusations (often disguised as pitying “half-appreciations”) they might hear leveled against him.

Well, enough of that.  The main thing is that the two novels are fantastic reads, and ones that stick with you.  I hope I’ve given everyone, from the American of whatever background to the foreigner, from the lover of stories to that of ideas, and yes, from the conservative to the liberal, reasons for attending to Ralph Ellison.  

Tags: Ralph Ellison , Literature , melting pot , Shelby Steele , Walt Whitman , Ralph Waldo Emerson

What Is The Elbert Guillory Ad?


The real value in the Elbert Guillory ad depends on whether you see is as an example of a workable strategy or as one of many steps toward developing a plausible center-right communications strategy for winning over persuadable nonwhite voters. If conservatives embrace the Guillory ad as an early stage in a trial and error process, the ad might be of great historical importance. If conservatives see the ad as an example of a strategy they should follow, then Elbert Guillory will represent just another false hope and false start among failed conservative attempts to make inroads among nonwhite voters.

The Guillory ad powerfully makes a point that even many Democratic voters can see – that Democratic governance has fallen short of reasonable expectations. The ad also has some powerful dramatic elements that are missing from most other commercials from right-leaning outfits. The explanation of public choice theory and the kicker at last thirty seconds are so are very well done. That about exhausts the ad’s virtues. It is an affecting story that doesn’t go anywhere.

The ad has problems both in what it has and in what it lacks. The line about scrounging food stamps to buy Kool-Aid is obnoxious, but it also points to a deeper risk in how conservatives talk to persuadable nonwhites. You can only get away with something like that Kool-Aid line if you already have a strong connection to a constituency and they are inclined to cut you a lot of slack. Then again, maybe a line like that blows up in your face even in front of a friendly audience. It’s all downside risk. In any case, Republicans have no such pre-existing good will among Democratic-voting nonwhites, and Republicans need to take great care that they don’t give this constituency another reason to dismiss the GOP.

What the ad lacks is a negative message that links the difficulties in people’s lives, or violations of voters’ deeply held values to policies supported by the national Democratic Party. Vague stuff about the welfare state isn’t going to get it done. Democrats are putting us on the path to raising your taxes and killing ever more jobs. That might work. The national Democrats are supporters of killing late-term fetuses at-will. That might work. The stuff about Democrats living in mansions and not caring about you now has some meaningful context.

One last thing that is less about the ad than some of the response I have read to the ad (and to some things I have heard here and there from stray conservatives about the Herman Cain and Alan Keyes presidential campaigns). Republicans and conservative activists should not be narrowcasting a message to nonwhite voters about rejecting rampant statism, embracing entrepreneurship, reconstructing the family, etc. In the medium term, the relevant nonwhite audience for conservatives already believes that government is somewhat too big, taxes somewhat too much, favors restricting late-term abortion, and yet voted for Obama’s reelection. This audience does not include the median African American or Latino voter, but it still includes a lot of people. If Republicans can’t win over this group, then it is a fantasy to try to win over nonwhite voters who have left-of-center policy preferences. Let’s learn to walk before we try out for the Olympic gymnastics team.

Let’s learn to work within the common ground between the existing Republican base and those right-leaning nonwhite Obama voters. That common ground does not include flat taxes, tax cuts on high-earners, 9-9-9 boondoggles, over the top condemnations of the welfare state, or praying in the direction of the Reagan library. This common ground might include a parent friendly tax reform and a market-oriented version of health insurance coverage expansion that saves the government money and lowers health insurance premiums. Instead of telling people to embrace smaller government and family values, adopt a set of policies that make it easier for people to live out those values at a lower cost to the government than what the Democrats are offering. You might win over the people who already agree with you on policy. And who knows? You might even change a few minds.


Girls, God, and Guns (or Religion, Family, and TV)


So I was in Newport News, Va., the last couple of days for a conference on religion in America. It featured first-rate and genuinely intellectually diverse speakers. I was moved, at one point, to say that Christopher Newport has emerged as a genuinely “safe space” to argue over the fundamental issues surrounding the future of freedom and the human person.  Thanks to the organizational skills of Elizabeth Kaufer Busch (who used to teach at my Berry College), the large and appreciative audiences included plenty of deans and provosts and such. The “institution” actually stands for academic freedom, even if that turns “academic justice” into more of a question than a dogma. One of the big issues these days, it turns out, is whether religion still should have much to do with God.

Representing one point of view (although not in exactly the  same way) were our friend Ross Douthat and ME. I probably didn’t say anything you haven’t already read (or even tell any jokes haven’t already heard), but I am getting better at reducing my message to slogans that could appear on PowerPoint slides or be highlighted as TED-talk takeaways: The threat to religious liberty is libertarian securitarianism. One indispensable means for countering it is the highly self-conscious or intentional deployment of libertarian means for non-libertarian ends. Even those, such as our friend Rod Dreher, who, following Alasdair MacIntyre, want to experiment with the “Benedict option,” need the support of said means.

Still, I added (and would have been more insistent had I had the time), we “reform conservatives” don’t agree with complacent Kochian or WSJ Republicans that all that we need to do is cut taxes and deregulate our guts out.  It’s far from clear these days that the resulting activity of “job creators” will stimulate economic growth in a way that will put struggling Americans back to work and take care of all those pesky relational issues, beginning with increasingly pathological families, single moms, and superfluous men. Our libertarianism needs to be selective, even on the economic front.

At dinner, it goes without saying, Ross and I (with Liz and our Carl) mainly talked TV. Ross certainly did well in defending his love of Girls from those who are repulsed by the various forms of ugliness prominently displayed on the show. I told him of our Ralph’s choice of Ray Donovan over Girls for both moral and artistic reasons. Ross, it turns out, has seen very little of Ray. Why? ”Nobody likes the show.” Ross isn’t simply succumbing to peer pressure.  It turns out that many fairly sophisticated and unpuritanical people are repulsed by Showtime’s pushing the envelope when it comes to both violence and sex. The people we get to see naked and doing stuff on Ray, beginning with finely sculpted Ray himself, might be understood to more reliably arouse viewers than those, beginning with Hannah herself, that we get to see naked on Girls.

It is true that I was joking when I said that Lena Dunham had an esoteric teaching. But still: What esoteric writing does is to make prose like good poetry. Poets (including novelists and so forth) never say what they think, they show it. So the key to “evaluating” Girls is its moral and psychological realism. Does it sentimentalize the pathologies that flow from the moral cluelessness of our inauthentic sophisticates? Does it deny that said pathologies are sort of the inevitable “collateral damage” of the unfolding of individualism? Does it show truthfully the psychological damage caused by “the culture of narcissism?”  In my view, a good criticism of Girls might be that it goes overboard in its display of relational cluelessness, not to mention the vapidness of someone graduating from Oberlin with a “studies” major. But good poetry (see Aristophanes or Tom Wolfe) often teaches through instructive exaggeration. The cost of that “teaching method” can be turning fully fleshed-out characters into caricatures. I actually think that “Girls” is pretty successful in not having to pay that cost.

I too prefer Ray Donovan and even Shameless. One reason is that the acting is so much better (Jon Voight! William C. Macy! — they play two really memorable pretty [although not perfectly] sociopathological dads). Another is that the characters are from Irish, working-class, rather post-Catholic families. One theme is the collapse of the institutional-relational context in which such families used to flourish in America.  Both shows feature admirable people — especially smart and promising kids — doing the best they can in tough circumstances. A big difference, of course, is that the kids are rich on Ray and almost desperately poor on Shameless. Voight and Macy treat us time and again with the eloquence of the Irish, especially in their rationalizations for criminal behavior.

I will say more about Shameless another time. For now, I will say that the most “Catholic” part of the show is that it’s so insistently pro-life. Another is the way it shows the irreducible longing for family as the place where unique and irreplaceable beings flourish just as they are and find responsible personal significance.

I will agree with Ralph that Ray has a basically conservative message in showing that the Catholic understanding of sin is true, and that various “liberal” or “libertine” excesses of the church failed ordinary believers most of all.

Having said that:  Ralph’s question of whether Ray is a better person than Hannah may not be a profitable one. Hannah is very weak and self-absorbed in every way. She doesn’t take care of herself or others. Ray has incredible self-control. His brilliant mind is constantly calculating, and his physical strength is, as they say, both awesome and of indispensable service to his mind. He makes a lot of delicate moral judgments, and he does what he can to save innocents, even if it means he goes to prison.  He doesn’t kill out of rage (well, with the exception of shooting the priest who raped him as a kid).  He is also very loyal to every member of his family (except his dad, who deserves, if any one does, to be an exception), and he does everything he can to protect them from the consequences of his “work.”  Certainly they all benefit from his great wealth.

Ray’s job, as he puts it, is to use [two expletives deleted] for their money.  His job is to save slimy celebrities from the consequences of their criminal — even murderous – behavior again, for huge, huge bucks. That means that there’s no one around who matches Ray for lying or the manipulation of “the social construction of reality.” He hires an infamous psychopath hit man to kill his father. It doesn’t work out, but plenty there’s plenty of killing of innocents along the way. Ray shoots the criminal he works for who thinks he has no choice but to shoot Ray’s daughter. It is sort of Ray’s fault that she was in that situation, but it’s also true that only Ray could have figured out how to save her. Telling the truth to the police would have been her death warrant.

Ray, we can say, doesn’t feel as bad as he should about all that, operating, in his own mind, in a kind of a state of nature of his own choosing. He does know he’s screwed up and a moment away from a breakdown. He even chose prison as a way out, as well as a way of saving his genuinely Catholic brother. That choice hasn’t worked out for him so far. The show, as Ralph says, has been so riveting because it’s been so “off the rails.” 

Hannah does the world and other people a lot less harm. Nobody gets shot because she screws up, and she doesn’t include enabling and committing felonies among her marketable skills and competencies.

Nobody is happy on Girls, nobody is happy on Ray Donovan. Ray may want to make his family happy, but he fails rather miserably. His wife is one of the most unpleasant characters on TV, but even she finds a man who promises to be her ticket out of the hellish world constructed by Ray.

If you want a fine (and astute) portrayal of a realistically (and so unevenly) happy family, watch Parenthood, which appears on neither HBO nor Showtime.

All TV analysis on blogs and such depends on decaying personal memory and is probably rife with errors of detail.

Tough Stuff


This ad by Elbert Guillory has been getting a lot of praise from the right. In some ways it is quite good. It has a far more powerful narrative than the ads that came out of Karl Rove’s shop in 2012. I had forgotten what an emotionally engaging center-right ad even looked like.

The substantive elements of the ad were less good. The line about food stamps and Kool -Aid was a jaw dropper in a bad way. The stuff about Mary Landrieu’s house will only work if people have already been given a reason not to like her.

What the ad lacks is an appeal to issues that can separate a bloc of voters from their pre-existing partisan loyalties. A larger fraction of Latino and African American voters avow center-right policy preferences on the economy and social policy than voted for Mitt Romney. Those voters won’t be won over by talking about the home size of prominent Democrats. They might be won over if those voters can be presented with a clearer choice between their values on the one hand and their partisan loyalty on the other. If Democrats can be presented as the party of middle-class tax increases, late-term abortions, and higher health insurance premiums, while Republican present a middle-class-oriented agenda of their own, then those right-leaning Obama voters might eventually be brought over to voting for a politics that combines moderate social conservatism with moderate economic conservatism.

What the Guillory ad gets right is the tone. Breaking one’s partisan voting habit is hard. Those right-leaning Obama voters are going to need powerful reasons. Those reasons could include the national Democratic party’s extremism on the subject of late-term fetuses, and the way that the left’s spending priorities are going to impact people who aren’t rich.

The Republican campaigns that make those points won’t have to be mean, but they will have to be tough. Those Republican campaigns will sound a lot more like Elbert Guillory’s ad than Ken Mehlman’s  apologies to the NAACP. A necessary (but insufficient) condition of any successful GOP strategy for winning over nonwhites is that it will make liberal journalists and activists howl in pain rather than purr with self-satisfaction.

There is one thing that some of the commentary on the Guillory ad gets wrong. Robert Tracinski writes that the right needs a strategy to “convert black voters by finding and promoting leaders who can speak to them convincingly about the failure of the Democrats’ welfare state”.

I think that gets the strategy backwards. There is not going to be a savior or a pack of saviors who convince nonwhite voters to vote Republican.  Colin Powell wasn’t going to do it. J.C. Watts and Herman Cain weren’t going to do it, and neither will six dozen Elbert Guillorys. Republicans will convert more nonwhite voters when they find something convincing to say and then invest the time and money it takes to get a hearing from voters who don’t consume much right-leaning media. When Republicans figure out a strategy to win over a larger share of the nonwhite vote, that strategy will work about as well for reasonably competent candidates of all backgrounds. Until then, there will be no saviors, and no appeals to personal experience will be enough.

Tags: Elbert Guillory

Mark Shiffman & Leo Strauss:the Limits of Limited Government


Mark Shiffman, one of our friendliest rivals or least rivalrous friends at Front Porch Republic has posted some important reflections on Christian personhood and limited government.  Here’s a major take-away: 

Over the course of the history of “Christendom” the consensus of limited government has been developed and maintained by the fact that the communion of personhood which constitutes the human transcendence of the state’s purview is sustained and publicly acknowledged in practices belonging to “civil society” (i.e. non-state practices and institutions).  That consensus is now disappearing, because the practices that cultivate and sustain our experiential awareness of our transcendent personhood are ceasing to shape our souls.

This is very well said in my view, and for that matter, just plain true.   The trick embedded in this formulation is a fragile dialectic between transcendence and immanence, religion and politics.  Liberty depends upon “personhood” understood as grounded in a personal God who absolutely transcends the political realm (and its “civil religion”); but at this same time this ground must be “public acknowledged” — it must be anchored in beliefs and practices that are shared by and authoritative for an actual community.  ”Civil Society” is the apparently simple name that we use for this fragile dialectic which holds together the beyond and the concretely authoritative.  

It is worth comparing the nice statement in Catherine and Michael Zuckert’s recent Leo Strauss and the Problem of Political Philosophy of Strauss’s classical grounds for modern limited government:

1-The limitations of the rule of wisdom and thus the practical necessity of the rule of law.

2-The mixed regime as the best strategy for moderating the respective claims of the few and the many.

3- Scriptural religion as the best means of education the people in moral restraint.  The Zuckerts write:

In the first stages of the development of modern liberal democracies, Strauss observes, the solution to this problem was sought “in the religious education of the people,” that is, in an education, based on the Bible, that led people to regard themselves as responsible for both their actions and their thoughts to a God who would judge them (“LER,” 15). (According to Strauss, “the premodern thought of our western tradition” thus supplies much of the content, as well as an emphasis on the necessity, of the education of citizens.)

Shiffman’s and Strauss’s perspectives seem to me to be complementary, but not easy to hold together in practice.  Strauss’s emphasis on moral restraint suggests a civic religion that understates the importance of a transcendent reference — not only the divine guarantor of a moral sanction, that is, but an openness to a higher meaning that provides purpose beyond the material (and technological) frenzy of a democratic society.  As Shiffman writes;

The practices of communion of personhood are those of prayer, penitential examination of conscience and acknowledgment of sin, an imagination of praiseworthy life shaped by reflection on the Bible and the Saints, liturgical and sacramental participation in worship, and in general the receptivity (actual or intended) to grace.

Religious Freedom emerged in a moment of marvelous (not to say perfect) equilibrium between the power of a personal truth beyond politics and the social authority of a moral-political truth.  (This is very well seen, by the way, in Steven D. Smith’s very important and very sobering The Rise and Decline of American Religious Freedom.)  Mark Shiffman is very right that the transcendent dimension of this freedom is imminently threatened by the eclipse of transcendent Christian personhood.  And Leo Strauss was right that this moral-political truth is imminently threatened by the onward march of democracy-technology.

Tags: Marc Shiffman , Front Porch Republic , Leo Strauss , Person , Technology , Zuckerts , Steven D. Smith , Religious Freedom


Globally Conscious Americanism That Ain’t Globalist: Thoughts on Bayles, Tocqueville, Whitman, and Manent


This post is an essay.  I dedicate it to my foreign-yet-partly-American friends who love their homelands, and America too.

What I tout in this essay is a sympathy and mindset that has some relation to what is talked about as a “globalist” perspective, but which is different.  “Globally Conscious Americanism” is for the time being the best I can do terminology-wise to describe it, although what I mean will be better understood by noticing how it is exhibited by a particular person, namely by Martha Bayles in her new book Through a Screen Darkly:  Popular Culture, Public Diplomacy, and America’s Image Abroad. 

While America’s foreign policy in the short-term sense is not the primary subject here, know from the outset that the phrase that best encapsulates my foreign policy thinking is self-limitation.  (It comes from the title of an Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn essay “Repentance and Self-Limitation in the Life of Nations.”)  America needs to limit itself, and that means reminding itself that even if it is the most unusual and important of nations, it still is a nation.  It means that America’s long-term goal cannot be either the one of nudging more and more of the world’s nations to adopt constitutional democracy until tyranny is no more, nor the one of working with international organizations to progressively develop and entrench a system of liberal world governance.  Nor can America’s goal be a combination of the two. 

Some readers, rightly concerned by the way the present relative retreat of American geo-strategic power and purpose is making the world less secure, might regard this word in favor of self-limitation as an untimely one.  Others, who have gathered from other posts that I largely defend America’s decision made under George W. Bush’s leadership to overthrow Saddam Hussein, might regard it as one I have not earned the right to say.  Well, they can say what they like in comments, and I’ll do my best to respond.  But herein my eyes are straining to see past the refracted glare of present debates.

Regular Carl’s Rock Songbook readers know that Martha Bayles is not just anyone to me.  I have the highest regard for her other book, Hole in our Soul:  The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music, published back in 1994.  Indeed, I judge it to be our best single-volume work of pop-music criticism.  I’m going to largely praise Through a Screen Darkly here, but it cannot touch Hole in Our Soul in terms of overall importance and brilliance.  Here is a review from The Weekly Standard, and here is how Bayles herself summarizes the book’s main arguments:

The main argument of Part Two is that the culture war played a significant role in the decline of US public diplomacy, even before the end of the Cold War, and that it continues to hamper our intermittent efforts to revive public diplomacy for the twenty-first century.  This is related to the argument of Part One, which is that the entertainment industry is not an adequate substitute for a robust and effective public diplomacy. 

The book does present itself as speaking to an American audience about the way our public diplomacy, both of the intentional and unintentional kind, impacts our foreign policy interests, and in particular, our interest in the organic spread and maintenance of democracy.  But the above summary doesn’t convey what I think is particularly distinctive and fascinating about her accomplishment here, which is the way Bayles exhibits a sympathetic awareness of and concern for the current development of globalized culture.  The TWS reviewer Sam Schulman is tuned to this side of the book:

Bayles is sore about what’s happened to American entertainment and our government’s inability to restart public diplomacy, and she has interesting ideas about what has gone wrong. But the emotional focus of Through a Screen Darkly is not public diplomacy’s message or medium; it’s the audience that fascinates her. Broadly, she defines the t­arget audience as consisting of “restive populations under authoritarian governments.” They are largely, but not completely, non-Christian. And what distinguishes this audience from its Cold War predecessors is not any specific religious difference, but the nature of its relationship to religion as part of a traditional way of life that is all-encompassing.

A slight interjection.  Bayles’s argument extends to non-Western populations not under authoritarian governments, and more broadly applies to populations everywhere outside the older democracies.  To take one example, she discusses India’s responses to our cultural imports at length.   In any case, Schulman continues, with reference to her writing about the international popularity of the television series Friends in the chapter “The American Way of Sex,” as follows:

Our fellow Friends-viewers abroad are bound by ties of kinship, custom, and belief closer to those of continental Europe during the ancien régime than to those of the world of the Founders—or even our fathers. Our devout neighbors may be offended by Friends’s treatment of casual sex and immodesty, but the shock of a traditionalist family viewing it is of another order. People bound up in family and clan relationships, who feel duties to parents, siblings, and spouses, and who have regional, tribal, and sectarian loyalties, see a world they can hardly believe, but which they believe to be ours: a grouping of utterly unmoored individuals with no human affections they can recognize, no religion, no sense of honor, and free of any social or family expectations.

Bayles tells us about an Egyptian exchange student who “was astonished to see how much time Americans spend with their families,” because in the American entertainments she was familiar with, there were “no families, just individuals.”  You can take that as a public diplomacy problem, in which we fail to communicate to the world that we are living better than we show, but you can also take it as a sign of how the sexual revolution (not to mention the freedom from arranged marriage it presumes), might reorder life around the world, particularly when its hold is exaggerated by pop culture.  If it is unfair to say about our pop culture that it “is filth,” as John Derbyshire once categorically put it, it might be correct enough to say that it “is individualism.” 


Keep reading this post . . .

Tags: global education , globalism , Martha Bayles , Pierre Manent , Alexis de Tocqueville , Friends , Walt Whitman , Pop Culture

Ray Donovan or Hannah Horvath – Who is a Better Person?


The ultra-manly but increasingly criminal Ray Donovan, played magnificently by Liev Schreiber?  Or  the narcissistic girl created and played by Lena Dunham? No doubt I’ve already skewed the question, not to say missed the point entirely, by asking who is the better person?  A more appropriate or polite or sophisticated question would not doubt be more purely aesthetic and non-judgmental.  But read on, if you please.

Peter Lawler argues for a conservative appreciation of “Girls” on the grounds that it shows the destitution of expressive individualism taken to the limit.  When there are no serious moral boundaries, and hardly anyone even remembers when it was necessary to attack laws and customs that limited consensual gratification, then the hollowness of the purely anthropocentric worldview becomes fully apparent. 

Does it matter that the author (Ms. Dunham) seems wholly oblivious to the moral-religious implications of her send-up of expressive liberalism?  (Peter flirts amusingly with the possibility that Dunham, in her non-fiction self-presentation, is exercising an esotericism of the most rigorous kind, but I don’t suppose he expects anyone to see this as really plausible.)  It does seem that “Girls” portrays the dead-end of purely secular liberalism in various manifestations that are surely not intended as attractive.  (I am relying mostly on what Peter and Ross Douthat have written, because I’ve only seen an episode or two of the series.)  But is there even the slightest hint of a moral judgment?  We can see the defect of character education, but should we allow ourselves to hope that Ms. Dunham sees what we see?  (If she did, would she be the utterly secular-permissive liberal that she is?)

No doubt “Girls” is susceptible to a kind of aesthetic appreciation of the inadequacies of a purely secular and naturalistic understanding of humanity.  No doubt the send-up of superficiality indicates some slight opening to transcendence, some crash in the “Immanent Frame” of our liberal-progressive existence.

“Immanent Frame” is a term some will recognize from Charles Taylor’s huge, rich, sprawling, brilliant and self-indulgent A Secular Age.  (Happily this unwieldy tome has recently been made more wielding in a fine homage authored by James K.A. Smith: How (Not) To Be Secular.  Much to his credit, although the main point of the book is to praise Taylor and digest his ideas for a wider audience, Smith proves himself capable of hinting at and sometimes beginning to state a trenchant critique on a key point or two.  But that for another post I hope.)  According to Taylor, we moderns all live now in an “Immanent Frame,” the frame of secularism, and even those of us who want to be believers have to accept the historical fate of “believing” within and in response to this frame – believing almost as if we didn’t (my phrase, not Taylor’s or Smith’s).  The most we can hope for is to pick up on certain “cross-pressures” that send ripples over the otherwise calm self-satisfaction of a purely secular age.  These ripples must not be taken to point to some authoritatively transcendent reality, but only to disturb the surface of pure secularism and keep our sensibilities (if not exactly our minds) open to some undefined otherness, some dim possibility beyond the purely this-worldly.

These exquisite little ripples that politely disturb the surface of a massively secular age are represented by writers such as Ivan Illich and (for Smith) David Foster Wallace.  But one can see how “Girls” as appreciated by Peter Lawler and Ross Douthat would fulfill the criterion as well: uneasiness with the absolute victory of the secular is suggested, but no alternatives are taken seriously – certainly not an alternative in which a religion with some moral teeth in it is reconsidered.

This is where I find Ray Donovan far superior (and these I have all watched, though with my video filter removing all nudity and F-bombs, the 52-minute episodes are reduced to a manageable 7 minutes, just the time I need on my elliptical machine).  To be sure, Ray has gotten completely out of control in recent episodes, being sucked fully into the world of ruthless crime, whereas at first he seemed to be somewhat precariously on its margins.  Ray is now a lost soul, and he appears on the verge of losing everything.  But his attachment to a real family and even to his Catholic faith are not forgotten; nor is it transformed into an aesthetically interesting “cross-pressure”.  When Ray is asked (by his lover!) if he loves his wife, the answer is a morally convicted “yes” (to be sure, this was before she … gave up on  him).  When Ray is asked if he is Catholic, there is more than aesthetic sensibility in his trembling: “I used to be.” 

The real moral seriousness of the show comes out especially, though, in Ray’s brother Terry.  You have to see the scene in the best episode, “Bridget,” when Terry goes to confess to a Priest.  The Priest doesn’t even take sin seriously, and just wants to help Terry “get over it” – but Terry needs something stronger than a faint “cross-pressure” within an “immanent frame,” and he leaves the Priest in disgust:  “You’re not helping me.”  And then in the last episode, Terry is shown directly confronting the fact that he is “not a good person” – and forcing Ray to confront it, too.

Now this is a real “cross-pressure.”  It frames the question of transcendence in terms of how we live, and not just in terms of aesthetic sensibility.  This is “Ray Donovan” is not only much  more morally serious, but also much more seriously open to transcendence than “Girls.”  And yes, much more beautiful.  If Lena ever asks whether she is “a good person,” then I’ll take her seriously.

The pre-modern tradition was right: moral seriousness and intellectual insight are finally inseparable.  Amoral aesthetic spirituality is very hard to distinguish from conformist relativism and shallowness.  A God who cannot in the slightest govern our sexual desires cannot really open up a dimension of transcendence.

And by the way: Thielism is incapable of resistance to this decadence, this relativism and shallowness.

Tags: Ray Donovan; Girls; Charles Taylor; Secularism

Civic Engagement and the Teaching of American Government


Here is a little article I wrote on the connection between higher education and civic engagement. It refers to a longer and more solid article written by our friend Joe Knippenberg.

I don’t want to create the impression that I know how to teach. As Socrates says, the complete theory of education would include the technical competence of the sophists, the devoted concern of the citizen, the prudence and greatness of the statesman,  and room for faith, high culture, and philosophy (including Socratic, Stoic, Thomistic, Cartesian, and maybe existentialist). Or, as Strauss says, a civilized country does justice to both science and morality, and our form of high civilization does justice to the place and limits of political life in informing the soul of the free and relational person.

Political education is tougher in a country where people know so well that they’re both more and less than citizens, and so they know that civic education and technical education are far from the whole of education. Or for Straussians: Teaching “the American regime” is tough because America isn’t really a regime. Or for libertarians: It might be true that we’re not, deep down, citizens, but where would we be if people really didn’t think of themselves as citizens at least some of the time?

Socrates said he never claimed to be a teacher. And he was better at being critical or showing limitations than coming up with some comprehensive alternative. Living an examined life is short on specificity and not much of a guide in most practical and relational situations. Self-examination can become obsessive and suck up all your time — and it can seem to provide you a really good excuse for not doing anyone else any good at all. Rousseau, by contrast, was surely right that if we took our duties to our friends, families, country, and the unfortunate as seriously as we should, we wouldn’t have time for anything else at all. Rousseau, of course, didn’t actually live like that.

If I never claimed to be a teacher, I wouldn’t get paid. By getting paid, I’m more like the sophists than Socrates or even the citizen. So I have to feign competence and give grades based on assessable learning outcomes.

I do know we have no business giving grades for civic engagement. I’m all for students working on campaigns, going to church, serving the poor, and making money. But those things can be what they are only if they’re separated from giving credit. All those forms of service and worthwhile work flourish so well at Berry College because we’re so careful to separate them from the academic program.

I do teach American government mainly with the intention of preparing students to function ably as engaged American citizens. The prelude to engagement is understanding the principles and issues that inform our very complicated, long-lasting, and deeply text-based constitutional democracy. And I’m in the process of updating my selection of the best texts from the American political tradition.

So my question for you: What are the most significant speeches, Court opinions, etc. for the last five years?

Blame the Nineties!


Here’s another challenging brief article by Walter Russell Mead.

My takeaway: What’s wrong today can be traced, in large measure, to really irresponsible decisions made in the 1990s — the kind of decisions associated with thinking attuned to “the end of history” or “the victory of globalism” or even the easy-maintenance “new world order.” The Nineties turned out, of course, to be a kind of feckless vacation from history, at least as self-indulgent as the one the president sometimes seems to be taking now.

What’s happened to the United States — a rapid decline in global respect and deference, not to mention self-confidence and fiscal solvency — can be traced to a kind of smug overconfidence that led to unguided and too-rapid deregulation, producing a kind of state-of-nature competitive environment (abetted, to be sure, by risk-faciliating government policy from Fannie and Freddie and such) that culminated in the collapse of 2007. What kind of country, the world asks, would allow that to happen? The same sort of irresponsible overconfidence drove our policy toward Russia, where, it turns out, the kind of spontaneous order we can believe in did not develop. What order there was came through the ruthless practice of what Hobbes calls the virtues of a world without effective government — force and fraud.

In my view, if you want blame the dream team or high-I.Q. sleaze team that was Clinton and Gingrich, this is your article. And, of course, Bush the elder did his share of squandering opportunities too. Blame away, remembering that’s there always plenty of that to go around.

Too much blaming — too much anger, studies show, is bad for your health and bad for your soul. Compensatory therapy here includes, of course, blaming Bush the young and Obama less. It might even allow you to feel the president’s pain, just a bit.

Mead reasonably adds that the failure of self-indulgent and self-satisfied leadership should not be a reason for abandoning our faith in liberal institutions or the benefits of high-tech economic growth. The fault is neither in the stars nor in our machines.

Still, we can agree with Solzhenitsyn that our general inability to harness technological progress with worthy human purposes became more pronounced after the Cold War.

On Not Ranking Romney, Christie, and Bush — Part 2: Jeb Bush


I’m still don’t have the heart to take up Ramesh Ponnuru’s challenge and pick among those three, but, just as I compared Christie and Romney earlier, I would like to compare Romney and Jeb Bush today:

Jeb Bush is more of a conviction politician and more of a political natural than Romney. Unlike with Romney, Bush’s positions on guns are not, I get the sense, driven entirely by coalitional politics. I remember hearing a 2009 forum that included Romney and Jeb Bush. Bush was by far the better speaker. As a candidate, Bush would very likely be more likeable than Romney, and he would need less prodding to build a campaign around center-right solutions for the middle class.

The problem with Jeb Bush (other than the political baggage of his surname) has to do with immigration. He seems to genuinely believe in increasing future immigration flows for all skill levels. This is a pretty common position among Republican political elites, but Bush seems more serious about it than most.

I don’t doubt that Chris Christie and Scott Walker share the opinion of the majority of GOP lobbyists, consultants, and donors. It is the social world they live in. The serious people believe in Gang of Eight–style immigration reform, and the intraparty opposition is made up of the kind of folks who wear funny hats and wave around flags with snakes. Romney probably believed in much the same thing before he stated running for president and figured out the politics of the GOP nominating electorate.

Maybe the immigration-policy preferences of Christie and Walker are as lightly held as those of Romney. If that is the case, then maybe opponents of Gang of Eight–style immigration reform might reach a reasonable compromise with those candidates.

Bush is another case. He seems to strongly believe this stuff — and good for him for having principles. While Bush might have a theoretical limit on the amount of future immigration he might want, I doubt that limit is likely to be reached by any outcome of our current politics. He is a pragmatic politician and will take what he can get, but he will always be looking for more. Anything about enforcement is just boob bait. The enforcement will be structured to be implemented sometime after the legalization of the current population of unauthorized immigrants, the increase of future immigration flows, and the conclusion of a conference to be held by Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the next pro-life Democrat president. A Jeb Bush presidency is a virtual guarantee that internal enforcement measures will not be implemented — just as internal enforcement was not implemented under his brother’s presidency. When it comes to immigration, the best that we can hope for from a Jeb Bush presidency is a continuation of our present policy stalemate. If immigration is a deal breaker, I guess there you go.

Tags: Jeb Bush , Mitt Romney

Stopping a Republican Wave


The GOP has been in a pretty good position to pick up the six seats needed to gain a majority in the Senate. The president is very unpopular, the GOP Senate candidates have been vetted to be unoffensive, and they have run their campaigns to be as boring as possible. It looked good enough.

It still looks good enough but . . . The president’s RCP approval rating has recently been bouncing around from 41 percent to 43 percent. That is noticeably worse than his approval rating this time in 2010. Obama’s disapproval rating is also higher. Basically, the usual floating voters are unanimously not approving, and some Democrats are demoralized. If 2010 is the standard, Obama’s approval rating is 3 percent lower and his disapproval rating is 4 percent higher. That’s the good news.  

The bad news is that Obama is now at the high end of the band for his approval rating. He is almost at 43 percent, the good jobs report has yet to sink into public consciousness, and gas prices are falling. I’ve never seen an improving economy rescue an unpopular incumbent during his second term, but then again, I’ve never seen an economy this bad for this long. A shift of a few points in Obama’s approval rating could make it a little easier for Democrats to turn out some Democratic voters and make a few of the usual floating voters a little more open to voting Democratic. The Republicans are (were?) on track to win a lot of Senate races very narrowly. Circumstances might turn their narrow victories into narrow defeats.

Then the Republicans might regret not having a positive agenda and counting on Obama’s unpopularity to do the work. Or else, establishment Republicans could just blame the Tea Party, and the tea-partiers could blame the establishment.

The Social-Conservative Subtext of the Art of Lena Dunham?


So my friend Ross Douthat has defended Lena Dunham against those obtuse conservative critics who rail on and on about her annoyingly stupid and self-satisfied political correctness. Well, it is true that her efforts at being a public intellectual, including her book, are just bad in any number of ways. But, for all we know, all that posturing might be cover. As Ross points out, various conservatives are fans of her HBO show Girls, which, as Ross explains, does show very effectively that the expressive individualism displayed by her characters is just not making anyone happy. I am actually one of those fans, and I’ve written about the show in several places. I don’t think I’ve been very persuasive. Hoping that the problem is turning out to be simply that my timing was off, I’m bringing my case before the conservative public again. Here’s a heapin’ helping from one of my articles, which is, as you will find out if you click on the link, followed by a brief presentation of trajectory of the show’s season two:

We could also wax indignant about the show’s vulgar language and disgusting incidents. Maybe Girls goes too far, but for diagnostic purposes good art can exaggerate what’s revolting. And everything that is genuinely revolting here is portrayed that way. We see time and again, for example, that there’s little more degrading than casual sex in the absence of love. When we’re shown an abortion clinic, or women contracting STDs, or a string of pathetic hookups, and whiny, brittle, pretend marriages, we see the stupidity and misery of an abysmally clueless life. The show’s bitter, intended irony is this: while these girls are so proudly pro-choice, they lack what it takes to choose well.

What’s wrong with these Girls (and their boys) is that they lack character. Their easygoing world of privilege has saved them from any experiences that might build it. Their affluent parents are hardly “role models,” and they’re too flaccid to give their kids the “tough love” they need. Aristotle was right: your skill at soundly using your moral freedom depends a lot on how you were raised.

We also see plenty of evidence that what these girls really want is meaningful work and personal love. But they have not the first clue on how to get them.

Their education has failed them — another piece of realism. Hannah majored in film studies at a school in Ohio that we know is really Oberlin (Dunham is an Obie). Her major was neither “liberal” nor “vocational.” She learned nothing that would help make a living, but she did glean enough vanity to make her unfit for the “entry-level” jobs for which she barely qualifies. She also fancies that she can earn a living as a writer. While her prose style is pleasing, she has nothing “real” to write about. She didn’t read with passionate care any “real” books in college. Her education taught nothing “real” about her responsibilities as a free and relational being.

So here’s another solid takeaway from the show: few students whose majors end in “studies” have the education, talent, or discipline to succeed. In lieu of marketable skills and a work ethic, they boast a rich sense of entitlement. They spend lots of time, quite shamelessly, figuring out how to thrive as parasites. Their extended undergraduate adolescence prepared them only to scheme to stretch dependency out ever further. The girls aren’t becoming women. They do know they’re supposed to grow up, to change in a maturely relational direction. But they lack most of the resources — beyond mixed-up longings — to figure out how.

Aggressive Gradualism On Abortion


I’m too tired to write about Jeb Bush tonight, so here is my First Things column on how Republicans are running scared on abortion when they should be fighting smart.

Two Reflections on Thielism


So I’ve really gotten a lot of mail in various places on Peter Thiel. It might be a sad commentary on the state of most conservative imaginations today that the theme of most of it is basically that guy is nuts. One very smart exception is the comment from Richard Schweitzer at Law and Liberty:

I said: “For the libertarian Thiel, the startup has replaced the country as the object of the highest human ambition.”

Richard’s commentary:

If we are to take “singularity” as “individuality,” or as having some relation to it, and we are looking to where individuality can find “liberty” (of objectives, choices of means and indeed in significance of existence), then the “country” (nation or political organization) which tends to constrain, often repress, individually desired expression of individuality, loses its priority of instrumentality to the “startup” as vehicle for finding commonality and significance with and to others.

My response: Spoken like a true Silicon Valley libertarian. That kind of thinking is somewhat pathetic from a deeply relational point of view. But it’s not nuts to think of the startup as the place where personal significance — or some combination of love and work — is found on the grandest scale these days. There’s no denying that the best and the brightest –or at least the brightest — are flocking to the Valley. Our biggest startups guys much more than our political leaders seem to be the dominant “role models.” And, of course, much, much more than the Koch brothers or anyone on Wall Street or the entertainment industry.

This innovative libertarianism might actually be, in a way, worse than nuts, though. Thielism might be, in the precise sense, Satanic. Another distinguished conservative sent me the following by Pope Benedict XVI to account for it:

The human being does not trust God. Tempted by the serpent, he harbors the suspicion that, in the end, God takes something away from his life, that God is a rival who curtails our freedom and that we will be fully human only when we have cast him aside; in brief, that only in this way can we fully achieve our freedom. The human being lives in the suspicion that God’s love creates a dependence and that he must rid himself of this dependency if he is to be fully himself.

Man does not want to receive his existence and the fullness of his life from God. He himself wants to obtain from the tree of knowledge the power to shape the world, to make himself a god, raising himself to God’s level, and to overcome death and darkness with his own efforts. He does not want to rely on love that to him seems untrustworthy; he relies solely on his own knowledge, since it confers power on him. Rather than on love, he sets his sights on power, with which he desires to take his own life autonomously in hand. And in doing so, he trusts in deceit rather than in truth and thereby sinks with his life into emptiness, into death.

Peter is, from the view of the pope emeritus, unrealistically weak on God, love, personal and relational trust, and on acceptance of death and dependency, just as he puts way too much hope in what we can do with our power and freedom. But that doesn’t mean he’s nuts. It means he’s succumbed quite fully to a characteristically modern temptation. It doesn’t mean he should be branded a bad guy, though. Quite the contrary, he means well, even if he “trusts in deceit rather than truth.” He hasn’t come to terms with who he really is. Sin, as Saint Augustine says, is based on a mistaken judgment about who we should love and how we should direct our will.

That doesn’t mean, I hasten to add, that we shouldn’t think that technological innovation can make our lives in many ways better. It’s just that it won’t free us from time and chance by bringing all of being under our rational control. And the technological progress we do enjoy, if we don’t think clearly about what it should be for, can come with the cost of a degradation of the conditions in which most people find personal significance through love and worthwhile work. That kind of thought isn’t going to come from Silicon Valley.

Peter responds, of course: Why should he trust in a providential God who, as far as we can see, hasn’t given us much of value but our brains and our freedom? And we have lots of evidence for what we can do for ourselves. And lots of reasons to think that our techno-progress has, in some ways, only just begun. That objection isn’t nuts or even un-American. It’s pretty much Lockean. It’s also in accord with our general libertarian drift these days, which Peter wants to transform into an intelligent or industrious and rational plan.

We (maybe we Straussians, among others) can say that Peter is in the thrall of a post-political, post-familial, post-religious, and even post-biological fantasy. He could respond that the history of the Enlightenment so far is overcoming what we wrongly believed to be necessary or natural and/or divine limits to our liberty. What John Lennon imagines (sort of) can continue to become real, but only if we work harder — and more intelligently – than ever to make it real.

On Not Ranking Romney, Christie, and Bush — Part 1: Chris Christie


I’m not man enough to take up Ramesh Ponnuru’s challenge to choose from Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, and Mitt Romney, but here are some thoughts on Christie relative to Romney:

As NR has pointed out, Christie as governor is well to the right of Mitt Romney prior to Romney’s attempt to reinvent himself as an orthodox conservative. I urged Christie to run, in a post that I can’t seem to locate at the moment, and I would still like him to take a shot. But . . .

The dynamics of running for president are just so different from those of state-level politics. Look at Tim Pawlenty. He is easy to make fun of, but he was a tough and successful governor in a swing state. And yet, he seemed lost when talking to conservative Republican voters in a national context. He started by displaying absurdly hyperbolic (and obviously inauthentic) aggression toward Obama and ended with a preposterous plan with unearthly economic growth projections. From start to finish, Pawlenty related to conservatives like a clumsy anthropologist who just made contact with a lost Stone Age tribe.

And it wasn’t just Pawlenty. Do you think that Rick Perry ever imagined that, in running for president, he would be hit from the right by . . . Mitt Romney? Once again, it is easy to mock Perry as  dumb, but the reality is that running for president is complicated and has lots of hidden minefields.

Romney wasn’t a natural politician and he wasn’t an ideological conservative, but he worked very hard, for a very long time, studying how to win the acquiescence (if not the enthusiastic support) of the party’s base. He never became a natural. A natural would never have called himself “severely conservative.” But he generally knew what buttons to push. His debate answers on Romneycare were beautifully constructed to soothe his audience by playing to their lower-spending, lower-tax, federalist, and localist beliefs.

I’m not sure Christie is ready to play at that level. Christie is a favorite of the big-money donors, and he will likely get plenty of support from former officeholders and consultants. These groups don’t always have the best sense of how to relate to the Republican nominating electorate. Pawlenty and Perry had consultants too. One of the curses of the GOP is the contempt of the establishment for the base. A lot of it comes down to the feel of the candidate for the national nominating electorate. By 2011, Romney had basically been running for president full-time for about five years. Christie still has a real job. If he runs, his advisors won’t be able to avoid every potential error, and they might even steer him into a few ditches.

How Christie handles those missteps will be key. Consider his clash with Rand Paul. Christie’s first instinct in intraparty scraps is to go into his Hulk Smash act. Christie isn’t some mentally unstable lout. He has rhetorical modes beyond self-righteous rage. In a state context, he usually knows when to deploy anger to his advantage (usually in response to rudeness from one of his opponents). It is a small sample, but the combination of inexperience at the national level and an instinct to respond to being challenged with self-destructive anger could hurt Christie. On the other hand, if Christie and his team are aware of this risk, they should be able to minimize it.    

My thoughts on Romney and Jeb Bush later in the week.

Class-Based Questions


This article, opening with a revealing map of residential patterns in our most sophisticated and “livable” city, provoked the following questions: Are we dividing, maybe more than ever, into a “creative class” and a “service class?” (There’s actually a third class composed of those who neither create nor serve — the unemployed, or superfluous class.) Another way of expressing this difference: The knowledge-or brains class versus the work-from-someone-else’s-script class. One class does the grunt part of the work required to provide amenities (and more essential services) for the other but doesn’t live anywhere near or typically enjoy said amenities. Does this mean, properly updated for the division of labor as it exists today, that Marx was not completely wrong? Does this mean, as the libertarian futurist writes, that “average is over?” Or is all this kind of prattling exaggerated whining designed to provoke class-based envy by not thinking of people as free individuals? Or things have always been kind of this way, but people just haven’t noticed as much? If I really knew the answers, I wouldn’t torture you by putting all this in the form of questions.



Here are some more sustained observations on the Peter Thiel moment. It might be a public airing of the highest form of libertarianism and a telling piece of evidence that our techno-brainpower is now securely located in Silicon Valley. Certainly Peter soars above Zuckerberg, Gates, and Bezos and is, in fact, doing less than they are to screw up America. He’s in a different universe from the Koch brothers. But he endorses, as I’ve said before, the impulse of Google toward total control of nature and human nature. But the goal is not merely profit. For businesses, money is either important or all-important, Peter explains. The Silicon Valley startup monopolies are moving beyond the dog-eat-dog world of the competitive quest for survival toward higher ethical goals and finally toward the overcoming of chance or luck with the sustainability of the the singular existence of each and every person in mind. If we’re being manipulated, it’s for our good. That’s why there’s nothing more glorious than founding a startup these days, even though we don’t honor those founders’ greatness in the way we still honor our political founders.

UPDATE: So I got a tweet from some Straussian group praising Peter Thiel for hanging with the Straussians while still being able to think of himself.  That praise might carry with it the unfortunate (and somewhat or more untrue) implication that being a Straussian means being unable to think outside the Strauss Box.  I think my intention was to praise Thiel for using Straussian insights to serve his own purposes.  Not only that, being a Straussian doesn’t mean having any definite orientation toward the modern techno-project of Bacon, Descartes, and the rest.  I know one top Straussian who really does anticipate with hope the possible coming of a world characterized by indefinite longevity and in which the repression of moral virtue has almost become unnecessary.  And I’m sure there are others. Many young Straussians, like much of the country, are moving in the left-libertarian direction.  Straussian conservative isn’t a redundancy; those Straussians who are most reliably conservative bring more than Strauss to the table, so to speak.  Think here of our friends Leon Kass and Yuval Levin, both of whom have their Straussian critics.

My appreciative criticism of Thiel is from, at most, an ambiguously Straussian point of view. 

Barack Obama and the Difference Between Attaining Office and Attaining Power


Like most months of any other year, little changed in the nature of the cosmos on January of 2013. The planets continued to revolve about the sun. Aggregate prices were still a function of the economic laws of supply and demand. The geopolitical world still operated by the Hobbesian realities of balance of power and spheres of influence. And unicorns still did not exist. As it happens none of these features of the cosmos changed, even though America had just elected a president to a second term whose policies seemed to operate as though they had.

After almost six years, the effects of the administration’s decision tree has cascaded through the universe of logical causality and culminated into the storm of global crises which we are now watching unfold. And while it’s tempting to say that there simply was no way of anticipating events, anyone who revisits certain presidential debates and speeches in 2012 will be surprised to find that either Mitt Romney was endowed with great prophetic powers, or more plausibly that, as Dan Balz’s book Collision 2012: Obama vs. Romney and the Future of Elections In America shows us, a state of the art campaign apparatus combined with a healthy dose of political cynicism, and an unintentionally cooperative rival, can salvage even the most misguided of candidacies.  But an examination of that campaign victory in light of the subsequent failures of the Obama administration points to a larger problem which is that our political culture and its predisposition to privilege candidates with a mastery over the politics of perception has cultivated a leadership class that is particularly ill-disposed to governing in a world of harsh truths.

This is not to say that the Obama administration isn’t capable of adapting to inconvenient realities. In the aftermath of the president’s “shellacking” in the 2010 midterms Obama’s campaign team, led by Jim Messina, realized that success in 2012 meant leaving the “Yes we can” optimism of the 2008 election behind and instead “develop and refine a message that somehow leapfrogged the debate about the current state of the economy” to a narrative that would “disqualify their opponent.” As their research in the battleground states revealed, however, this would not be easy.

 I haven’t had a raise in five years. I’m paying more for health insurance and getting less. My 401(k) that was supposed to be the reward for doing everything the right way is gone. I am sick and tired of giving bailouts to the folks at the top and handouts to the folks at the bottom. I’m going to fire people until my life gets better.

These were the words from one man in Des Moines, Iowa, which captured the sentiment in the surveys performed by Obama’s team. What is perhaps most revealing about how Obama and his team responded to this feedback is how little it affected the president’s own views of his own leadership. Balz writes,

In all other ways, Obama resisted interpretations that suggested shortcomings on his part. Not the big health care initiative that had divided the country. Not the government spending that so many independents objected to. Not the distance that now existed between the country and a younger leader whom so many Americans had embraced with such passion just two years earlier.

This predisposition of the Obama administration to avoid harsh self-scrutiny seems to be not just limited to matters of political temperament. After almost six years it appears to be a central tenet of his administration’s pattern of decision making. In one of the more insightful post-mortems on the mismanaged Obamacare roll-out, and the Gulf Between Planning and Reality, Clay Shirky, a subject matter expert on the technology of the internet, observed that the administration demonstrated a classic feature of dysfunctional leadership: the natural tendency to confuse what is desirable with reality, that behind the failures of the roll-out of lay an organizational culture that was unwilling to submit its assumptions to the very necessary, and humbling, experience of product testing.

The management question, when trying anything new, is “When does reality trump planning?” For the officials overseeing, the preferred answer was “Never.” Every time there was a chance to create some sort of public experimentation, or even just some clarity about its methods and goals, the imperative was to avoid giving the opposition anything to criticize.

Recent accounts of the administration’s decision making process regarding ISIS and the Middle East appear to reinforce an image of epistemic closure in the presidential decision making process.  Among recent criticisms includes those of the president’s previous Secretaries of Defense Bob Gates and Leon Pannetta, and divulges that the decision to withdraw troops from Iraq and avoid involvement in Syria was decided against military recommendations, and in the latter case against the recommendation of his entire national security staff. For all of the military expertise that counseled the president otherwise, it seemed the president refused in deference to a vision of an America and a geopolitics that has since been proven to have insufficient contact with realities on the ground.  As has already been noted by his critics, many of Obama’s second term mistakes appear to share a common family resemblance: a refusal to submit cherished preconceptions to the facts of reality.

But if 2012 is any indication, what fails in governance appears to succeed in our political culture. When the Obama team had completed their research in anticipation of the 2012 election much of what they learned wasn’t surprising: frustration of the middle class, a sense of grievance toward the government’s apparent indifference to their plight, a willingness to vote the president out if the Republican alternative looked more promising. However, on this last point there was good news for the Obama team.

In October of 2011, the campaign had conducted focus groups in three battleground states – Ohio, Florida, and New Hampshire – and had shown participants a famous photo taken of Romney and his partners at Bain as they were forming the company. They were holding dollar bills and smiling broadly, and more bills were stuffed in their pockets and in their mouths and in their shirt collars. After seeing that Messina said, “People were like, ‘Game Over.’

While the Romney campaign lamely attempted to find their range against their rival, the Obama team capitalized on the opportunities Romney represented as a caricature in their political melodrama.

No one expected Campaign 2012 to be positive, or uplifting. But what was most striking at that point in the race was not just the negativity or the sheer volume of attack ads raining down on voters in the swing states. It was the sense that all restraints were gone, the guardrails had disappeared, and there was no incentive for anyone to hold back.

The caricatures of Romney as industrialist villain became so over the top Democratic leaders with ties to industry and finance began to make noise about the Obama campaign’s strategy. But the strategy worked. What informed much of the Obama team’s success was the understanding that political campaigns are more about emotional catharsis than policy and leadership. When the Washington Post came out with their exit poll of the election, under the section “Which one of these four candidate qualities mattered most in deciding how you voted for president?” Obama only beat Romney in one of the four categories, but by 63%. The category was “Cares for people like me.”  Dan Balz quotes Kevin Madden from the Romney campaign, “We were teaching an economics class, they were writing love songs.”

But along the way, reality disrupted the psychodrama, however briefly.  Looking back at the events of Benghazi we now know that it wasn’t a blip but a foreshadowing of what would transpire in the second term of the soon to be re-elected president.  On the day after Ambassador Stevens and three other American’s were killed Mitt Romney would be roundly criticized for the cynical impulsiveness of making a public statement that included these, now rather apt, observations.

The attacks in Libya and Egypt underscore that the world remains a dangerous place and that American leadership is still sorely needed. In the face of this violence, America cannot shrink from the responsibility to lead. American leadership is necessary to ensure that events in the region don’t spin out of control. We cannot hesitate to use our influence in the region to support those who share our values and our interests.

As controversies go, the Benghazi affair has proven to be the box of chocolates that keeps on giving. Journalist Sharyl Attkisson leaves CBS because of what she characterizes as internal stonewalling against her investigation. Edward Klein in his recent expose Blood Feud: The Clintons vs the Obamas claims to have two witnesses that can confirm that, according to Bill Clinton, Hillary was given direct instructions by president Obama to mislead the public as to the cause of Benghazi. More recently a State Department official has come out to confirm that Hillary had directed her department to conceal incriminating documents.

But rather than litigate Benghazi, it is perhaps more instructive to draw the larger implications about our political situation from the fact that, in an election that was ultimately determined by emotivist theatre, global realities interfered with the festivities only to be unceremoniously escorted off the national stage so that the political melodrama could proceed.

In the end what won was a politics that by virtue of good theatre and a great ground game aggregated enough votes from voters sympathetic to the boutique political interests of the center-left. What won, in other words, was a strategy that capitalized on the dynamics of a culture under the influence of what I described in my previous post as the Politicized Soul. In the end of that article I write that our politics of passionate distraction “has slowly surrendered this world to forces more practically minded and less sympathetic to the freedoms we seem determined to take for granted.” As I post this, reports are that Putin has already made noise about expanding his European ambitions, Jihadi recruiting continues to go wonderfully in Europe, ISIS forces are now one mile out of Baghdad, and the president continues to ignore what we learned in the Surge and insist on a strategy which, in its reliance on air support and no prominent role for American troops, bears an unfortunate resemblance to his catastrophic approach in Libya.

In many ways 2012 was a crystallization of a politics fixated on empathy and evasive of the realities of the larger world. But what wins in such elections fails in practical policy, and therein lies the fundamental difference between attaining office and attaining power. If the qualities that ensure electoral victory are the same qualities that ensure blindness to practical realities then even the resources of the United States will prove an inadequate defense against the facts of the real world. And try as we might, electing candidates with a talent for geopolitical wishful thinking will not make it otherwise. The fact that we seem to think so tells us that, ultimately, this isn’t a problem about a particular politician, but our political class and our culture.

Tags: Barack Obama

A Story About A Race That Was Lost


There was this group of drivers that had the same sponsors and fan base. They all entered a grueling, months-long cross country race. They also had to drive and maintain the same car all through the race. The drivers all chose to drive one model of car that had been built many years ago, and had been designed for a totally different terrain. The cars were all beat up, leaked oil, tended to overheat and – after much use – handled rather badly.

Some of the drivers couldn’t handle either the speed of the race or the challenges of driving their broken-down car. The cars would stall out and then, after repairs, catch on fire when the driver turned the ignition. A couple of drivers dropped their cars off the mountainside. Tough to blame that one on the car.

A few of the drivers managed to baby their cars all the way to the finish line. There were times when the cars stalled out and had to be pushed to the side of the road to make repairs. The drivers sometimes made a wrong turn, but they got back on the right road. These drivers went the distance, but they lost to competitors who had newer cars and GPS.

One driver did the best out of the group. He had spent the months before the race taking care of his car so it rarely stalled out – even if it didn’t have the best engine. He had studied maps of the course, so he never got lost. He lost some time on the turns, but it isn’t clear if the problem was his driving or the car’s steering. He spun out a few times, but he always stayed on the road. He finished ahead of all the other drivers who had his model car, but he finished behind a competitor who drove a new car that was designed for the exact terrain of the race.

The metaphor should be obvious. The candidates who crashed and burned were the majority of the Republican presidential candidates from the 2012 cycle. The competent drivers who finished the race but lost, were candidates like Wisconsin’s Tommy Thompson and Virginia’s George Allen. These were experienced and accomplished 1990s Republican politicians who lost Senate races in 2012. The last driver was Mitt Romney – who not only got the Republican presidential nomination, but also outperformed Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin and George Allen in Virginia. But he lost the race

Forget about the drivers for a second. Think about the cars. The cars were the interlocking attitudes and institutions of the right. Think about the complete inability to comprehend the worldviews of the various populations of swing-voters, the failure to create an agenda that was relevant for people’s lives as they are lived today, and an inability to effectively use new media to reach rising voting populations. The GOP was either living in a past of Kemp-Roth tax cuts forever, or living in a dream world where the only thing people wanted to hear about was the awesomeness of business owners. And it wasn’t just Romney. The Republicans were all driving the same kind of car. Romney was just a little better at driving and maintaining his.

But being a little better than the other Republicans wasn’t enough to win the race. Maybe someone should have worked on designing a new and better car, that would have given any competent driver a better chance of winning. One thing is certain. Romney was never going to be the guy to build that car or even to imagine what that car might look like.

That better car has yet to be designed and built. Maybe it will be designed by a team of geniuses. Maybe the new design will emerge from aggregating dozens of incremental modifications of the old model made by different drivers at different times. Republicans will be missing a chance in 2016 if they try to win with the same car and the same driver – or the same car with a different driver.

Person, Family, Law (Ralphistic Heresies cont.)


I appreciate Peter Lawler’s continuing efforts to give the term “Ralphism” currency among the great schools of thought of our times – or at least as a little one-person subdivision of the growing intellectual movement that is Postmodern Conservatism.  And he may point to the essence of this Ralphian (Ralphistic?  Ralphological?) position when he describes me as “more political and more familial than both [creedal, Trinitarian] Christians and [Orthodox High Transerotic] Straussians.  Peter even generously grants that “there may be a lot right about” my political-familial twist on Pomoconology.

Peter chooses to pick up my questioning by the Strauss/Voegelin handle, which is of course pertinent (and certainly the plainest way to approach initially the great Hancock/Walsh debate).   And he helpfully frames the fundamental question in terms of the Christian discrediting of both pagan natural theology and pagan civil theology.  So far, so good – but note that the proximate source of my line of questioning was an intra-Christian debate between a certain Old Thomism (De Konnink) and the Personalist Natural Law of Jacques Maritain.  It seemed to me that the former had a good and prescient point in his warning of the vulnerability of the latter to liberal individualism.   So I was really just asking, does this seem right? And is the warning relevant to what Lawler means by “Personalism”?  (And the genealogical question: is Lawler’s Personalism continuous with the French school of that name? – perhaps a mere scholarly question of provenance, but perhaps not without interest.) 

To be sure, I am not at all a follower of De Konnink’s old Thomism.  Indeed I suppose it’s fair to say I risk backsliding towards something like pagan “civil theology” – and this is where my Straussian residues are significant.  And no doubt my familialism has some connection with what is called “Mormonism” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints indeed holds that familial relations are eternal in such a way that would seem to compromise the trans-familial transparency of Peter’s creedal Christianity.  (For my Mormon reflections on Christ’s infinite atonement, see this at Patheos)

But my question was really primarily a question of political philosophy concerning the notion of transparent personhood beyond both family and city.  At bottom, it’s a very simple (which is not to say easy) question: can we even know what “relational” means, and can we even helpfully modify and determine the meaning of “personhood” with the term “relational,” without contaminating the infinite transparency of personhood by concrete contents grounded in the political and familial orders.  My worry about the terms “personal” and “relational” is parallel to a concern I have with the term “community” as in “communitarian.”  A communitarian (like Michael Sandel, and maybe Charles Taylor) is a critic of the idea of the individual as independent of “community.”  But what community?  If we say: a community that imposes no particular beliefs or obligations on the individual, then we’re back where we started from.  Our academic communitarians thus believe in “community,” but not in any real community that ever has existed or will exist.  Similiarly, if we take our bearings from a “person” whose relationality is not defined by any concrete and determinate relationship (familial, political, or religious), then we’re back to the open-ended “individual” (who in fact represents a vacuum to be filled philosophically by materialism and politically by the State).

Or religious, I said.   The content of this Christian personhood depends, obviously, upon Christianity – and perhaps upon its liturgies and sacraments as much as upon any creeds.  And upon Christian commandments, I would say, upon concrete laws not irrelevant under the reign of Personal Grace. 

But here with my emphasis on Law I am succumbing again to my Straussian/Mormon heresies.   I submit them for what they’re worth as a spur to thinking about personhood.



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