Postmodern Conservatism

Reflections on politics, culture, and education.

The Politicized Soul and the Death Wish at the Heart of Liberal Disorder


When the seduction was complete the seducer did not find happiness but descended into despair. Whereas once he was consumed by the thrill of the hunt, the moment he acquired his object’s affections was the moment that revealed his own emptiness, and so he laments to the reader:

“Why cannot such a night last longer? … to love is beautiful only as long as resistance is present; as soon as it ceases, to love is weakness and habit.”

This is how the parable of Soren Kierkegaard’s The Seducer’s Diary ends, with a lesson about the transient nature of passion and the emptiness of its pursuit as an end in itself. Yet, unbeknownst to the philosopher, there was for centuries before this writing an answer to the rhetorical question of his fictional seducer, and that answer, according to author Denis De Rougemont’s classic Love in the Western World is concealed in the deepest ideas of the Western Romantic tradition and touches us today through our culture and politics.

How do you sustain the sensation of passion? Romanticism’s answer, according to De Rougemont, is to artfully choose an object of desire that eludes your efforts to possess it.

Beginning with the medieval romance Tristan and Isolde, De Rougement deduces from tell tale features of early romantic writings that human passion and aspiration are not what they seem. For all of Tristan’s superiority to his time, the bold knight never actually consummates his love for Isolde, there is always an obstacle, and the author’s inconsistent deployment of these obstacles hint at is hidden behind the scenes.

“They [the lovers] invent obstructions as if on purpose, notwithstanding that such barriers are their bane. Can it be in order to please author and reader? It is all one; for the demon of courtly love which prompts the lovers in their inmost selves to the devices that are the cause of their pain is the very demon of the novel as we in the West like it to be.

What, then, is the legend really about? The partings of the lovers? Yes, but in the name of passion, and for love of the very love that agitates them, in order that this love may be intensified and transfigured – at the cost of their happiness and even of their lives.”

Passion, our romantic tradition understands, is not in the possessing but in the pursuing. If passion is the telos of the romantic’s existence then the art of the practical is his enemy. In pursuing the impossible the pursuit is prolonged ensuring the experience of, if not ultimate satisfaction then its closest proximity, a desire that can only taste but never fully be satisfied.

“Most people do not bother about understanding or about self-awareness; they merely go after the kind of love that promises the most feeling … Hence, whether our desire is for the most self-conscious or simply for the most intense love, secretly we desire obstruction. And this obstruction we are ready if needs be to invent or imagine …

The ending of the myth shows that passion is an askesis [self-deprivation], and that as such it is all the more effectively in opposition to earthly life that it takes the form of desire, and that, as desire, it simulates fate.”

The more one’s object defies the possible the more consuming the passion, and in the absence of discernment the heightened sensation is willfully confused with authentic experience.

As De Rougemont describes it, this theme takes many forms and runs throughout Western culture to our time, first forced underground by the Church into romantic medieval poetry then to finally explode upon the Western imagination in the popularity of the 19th century novel, of which include the likes of Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, Tess of the Ubervilles, Jude the Obscure, and Le Miserables. These, in turn, fed like an underground river the numerous tropes that informed the products of popular culture in the 20th and 21st centuries: the lovers whose love is doomed by the constraints of family or societal taboo; the cause fought by the oppressed against the oppressors whose story ends after the revolution is won but before we see how the victors actually govern.

 Passion is at its most passionate when circumstances ensure it never comes in contact with practical realities.

Our society has been taught at the knee of this school of desire, as revealed not just by our popular culture but our ideology. As desire is stimulated by an ideal that eludes it has found excellent opportunities in the politics of the impractical.  The socialist paradise, nationalist dreams of cultural purity, the crusade for total equality and transformative government, or the founding of a libertarian John-Galt-istan, are all visions that reside beyond reality’s horizon and succeed equally in enflaming the politicized soul by virtue of their impracticality or basis in fantasy altogether.

When the political philosopher Eric Voegelin observed that at the heart of destructive political movements is a gnostic impulse to transform the present world to conform to a vision of an impossible perfected world, he is approaching but is still only elucidating externalities and symptoms of the disease. What De Rougemont reveals is that destructive political movements are gnostic because they need to be in order to sustain the ever demanding requirement of the self who seeks the confusion of passion with heightened authenticity. De Rougemont’s discovery not only explains the peculiarities of romantic passion, but reveals that romantic passion, as portrayed in its earliest literature, provides an entry point into the inner workings of irrational desire which confounds civilization to this day.

In his unintentionally De-Rougemontian meditation on the motives of Al Qaeda, Al Qaeda’s Fantasy Ideology, Lee Harris insightfully observed about a college friend’s progressive activism:

“…what it did for him was to provide him with a fantasy — a fantasy, namely, of taking part in the revolutionary struggle of the oppressed against their oppressors. By participating in a violent anti-war demonstration, he was in no sense aiming at coercing conformity with his view — for that would still have been a political objective. Instead, he took his part in order to confirm his ideological fantasy of marching on the right side of history, of feeling himself among the elect few who stood with the angels of historical inevitability … The protest for him was not politics, but theater; and the significance of his role lay not in the political ends his actions might achieve, but rather in their symbolic value as ritual. In short, he was acting out a fantasy.”

This political fantasicm exists for the passionate need of the self as heroic protagonist, everything else are props on the stage of the drama playing out between his ears. This, Harris goes on to argue, is a genus of fantasy that also explains some of our most virulent political movements, including Al Qaeda and by implication ISIS today. As destructive political movements go some are more destructive than others. Lee Harris’ college friend’s fantasy was relatively benign by any standard. The problem, Harris argues, is that many of the most seemingly benign fantacists, in their reverie, only aid in undermining the institutions and principles civilization depend upon to survive, and so render vulnerable what in their fantasy they think they are saving. As idealistic as the politics of Harris’s friend may seem, it informs exactly those sentiments that sought an American withdrawal from the world, which predictably surrendered territory to the most toxic of fantasies, jihadism, a fact of which we are now being reminded with each film of a beheaded westerner posted online.

Much of what has pre-occupied today’s commentariate is the apparent uselessness of language in our political discourse. What to one side may seem to be a simple discussion of keeping expenditures within budget is proclaimed by the other side as a war on the poor. Questions of whether a business owner can operate their business in accordance with their own values is transformed and magnified into a war on women. Accusations of bad faith ensue all to no productive end. But we make a mistake in assuming these debates are operating according to strictly rational interests, rather much of what passes for political discourse is informed by a popular need for morality theatre. To this extent philosophers make poor guides. Our literature reveals what the strictly rational disciplines often overlook.

In his book The Captive Mind, the polish poet Czeslaw Milosz describes the state of philosophical trance that seemed to possess the intellectual class in 20th century Communist nations. Resorting to a literary analogy about a pill that induces well-being in its recipients called Murti-Bing, he describes intellectuals of his time and place as so possessed by the vision of a world where ultimate well-being was almost within their grasp that they rationalized the brutal toll their communist system was taking upon their civilization. The more corrupt and sclerotic the regime became, the more Milosz’s artistic and intellectual comrades looked to a future glorious state to rationalize the present age of affliction.

“… the recompense for all pain is the certainty that one belongs to the new and conquering world, even though it is not nearly so comfortable and joyous a world as  its propaganda would have one think.”

Milosz’s examples of captive minds is the intellectual counterpart to what I have described as politicized souls, revealing that when possessed the mind is no more a refuge than the heart. It is for this reason that we may be too quick to comfort ourselves with the notion that eventually the consequences of misguided politics will, like Samuel Johnson’s gallows, clarify the collective mind. The pain caused by bad policy in the service of a sufficiently grand vision can yet be transformed into its vindication. We have seen this to be the case in smaller ways as partisan rationalizations have succeeded in insulating such disruptive events as an incompetent roll-out of Obamacare and malfeasance in the IRS from their logical implications which threatened to stab at the heart of the liberal project. We will learn more about the severity of the national condition as we see how the politicized souls and captive minds in leadership respond to the accumulating conflagrations in the Middle East and the world. As of this writing, it does not look promising.

If De Rougemont is any authority, the condition left to its own trajectory leads ultimately to a bad end. Deluded passion, in its desire to achieve ever greater states of heightened sensation, finds its ultimate achievement in death itself. The story of Tristan and Isolde famously ends in the death of both in a glorious reverie of desire made most acute by their mutual end.

Hear now my will, ye craven winds!
Come forth to strife and stress of the storm!
To turbulent tempests’ clamour and fury!
Drive from the depths all her envious greed!
Destroy now this insolent ship,
Let its wreck be sunk in her waves!
All that hath life and breath upon it,
I leave to you winds as your prize.

De Rougemont explains, “The couple imagine that they are now more fully alive than ever and are more than ever living dangerously and magnificently. The approach of death acts as a goad to sensuality. In the full sense of the verb, it aggravates desire.” Anticipating the temptation for readers to assume that such a state only resides in romantic melodrama, De Rougemont builds an argument bridging romantic fatalism with its political equivalents including the raging nationalisms that swept up the 18th and 19th centuries. Generations of school boys learned by heart versus like this by Lord Tennyson glorifying what amounted to a tragic and bloody miscommunication in the Crimean War

”Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismay’d?
Not tho’ the soldier knew
Someone had blunder’d:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

In the recent movie Les Miserables (based on the 20th century musical based on the 19th century novel), Paris is portrayed as a metropolis populated by innocents suffering under the yoke of a brutal established order. Into this milieu enter the heroic revolutionaries of the ill-fated 1832 June Rebellion singing on behalf of their cause:

But now there is a higher call
Who cares about your lonely soul
We strive toward a larger goal
Our little lives don’t count at all!
Red – the blood of angry men!
Black – the dark of ages past!
Red – a world about to dawn!
Black – the night that ends at last!

At the end of the story, its most sympathetic hero, Jean Valjean, passes into the next world and we learn that in the afterlife the cosmos is governed by an eternal political revolution wherein the good Manichees of the Red stand victorious upon their battlements in a forever now that is never consummated in the actual taking of governmental power and responsibility.

The resonance of Les Miserables for our time is not a coincidence. Victor Hugo’s work is a masterpiece of romantic synthesis, subsuming in its ambitious scope not just the standard romantic tropes, but the religious and the ideological. The result is a seemless mash-up in the service of a political-revolutionary metaphysics. Of course our present day Manichees don’t think in terms of an afterlife or a metaphysics but have reconfigured an imagined heaven into an imagined future and the present moral order as made up of those on the right or wrong side of history. And in an age where postmodern solipsism has embedded itself in the collective weltanschauung, the shining future is to the modern ideologue what the bible was once said to be for protestants – to each their own interpretation. As a result, our political world is a hot-house of competing wannabe Jean Valjeans each wanting to be the hero of their own solipsistic epic. But as our political avatars have at it in the trenches of twitter hashtags and the ramparts of the blogosphere, the real world is still operating by its own Clausewitzian logic. Our continued hunger for confusing passionate distraction with authenticity has slowly surrendered this world to forces more practically minded and less sympathetic to the freedoms we seem determined to  take for granted.

It is for this reason that it is well to be reminded that death comes to civilizations as well as individuals. And not all death wishes are wishes for death as such, some wish for it not knowing it as death, confusing it with that strange pulse of heightened passionate euphoria before the light goes out.  

True American Exceptionalism Today


So, contrary to djf in the thread, my support for the president’s effort to destroy the Islamic State has nothing to do with whether the guy Obama is worthy of support, based on his record. His record ain’t so good. But he has articulated the proper end, and now harsh experience will, we can hope, get him to work on the means. He is worthy of support because he is president, has a fixed term, is (not Congress or even Rand Paul or Ted Cruz) commander-in-chief, and will not be impeached. His most realistic critics, such as Walter Russell Mead and Angelo Codevilla, are actually offering him criticism he can use. Experience suggests he just can’t learn? Well, we’re in a rather unprecedented situation.

Part of that unprecedented situation, truth to tell, is the prospect of the extinction of Christians and Christianity in Iraq. Well, not only Iraq, of course. And not only Iraq and Syria . . .  It’s easy to agree that the destruction of Christianity and Judaism hasn’t always been and is not necessarily the mission of Islam. But we’re stuck with confronting where the action is now.

Our Jim Ceaser in his signature work on American exceptionalism puts forward the proposition that a large part of the singular mission of our country these days is to protect the practice of Biblical religion — which, in this case, means Christianity and Judaism — in the world. That means protecting the truth found in the Bible about the personal Creator and human persons being essentially “transpolitical.” True religion is not essentially civil theology, and religious truth isn’t essentially a matter of law. Human freedom, if you think about it, can’t just be the freedom of autonomous individuals. Just as it can’t just be some abstract “intellectual” or philosophic freedom. It has be a moral, relational, and intellectual freedom characteristic of each and every whole person, a freedom for religious communities as organized bodies of thought and action not subservient to the state.

The recognition of that freedom might be the main difference between our Constitution and the constitutions that flow from the French Revolution. And it was the main thing that connected our country in the war against Communism with our European allies that had, to some large extent or another, abandoned and stood against the French revolutionary idea of an omnicompetent state that depends on something like Rousseau’s civil religion.

President Obama, you say, has pushed understandings of our Constitution foreign to the true spirit of the Free Exercise Clause and so opposed to the freedom of the church (and synagogue). Sure, but his threat can be exaggerated, and maybe he can be chastened on more than one front.

There’s also a connection between the president’s inability to really “get” the “existential threat” faced by Israel and his inability to get the one faced by Christians throughout the Islamic world (well, not only the Islamic world) now. Still, we can’t forget that he’s far from completely pulled the plug on Israel. And his defense of civilization against barbarism that’s at the foundation of our resolve to destroy the Islamic State can’t help but have something to do, even in his own mind, with wanting to stop the indiscriminate slaughter of Christians.

Our defense of Israel may or may not be in our national interest, understood through the lens of  ”realist theory.” The same with our war against the Islamic State. There are other terrorist groups that may well be more of a threat to us, and we’re not mobilizing our power and, we hope, a coalition to destroy them. Those causes are in our national interest only if we, as a nation, stand for more than our comfort and security.

Peggy Noonan has made some very astute observations about the return of most of the American people to an interventionist mode. They had, after all, pretty much concluded that we had failed in our efforts at “nation building” in Iraq and Afghanistan. More than that, she reminds us, calls flooded the offices of Republicans in Congress opposing the president’s plan to drop bombs in Syria to help the insurgents. They didn’t think Obama knew what he was doing, and the intervention wasn’t about a vital interest to our country.

Most revealing of all, in her opinion, was the lack of support from conservative Christian groups in America for the bombing foray. One reason is that they understood why Christians in Syria might fear a future worse than Assad, just as Christians in Iraq have experienced terror much worse than Saddam Hussein’s.

But now, the same groups are the most fervent interventionists, because there’s no doubt that the Islamic State is out to kill all of their fellow believers. And there’s only one way that the ”genocidal” (to use the term loosely) project can be stopped.

It’s also true, for now, that this appetite for intervention is limited. The goal, as Noonan says, is to take out the evildoers now, quickly, yesterday.

That American Christians might be more concerned now about the Islamic State  than about the threats to Israel is understandable on many levels. Sure, the Christians in Israel are free to worship in peace, but the other Christians in the region don’t have the option of moving there. And no other government (except the de facto government of Kurdistan and arguably Egypt for the moment) in the region is anything but hostile toward them. Israel, quite understandably, isn’t going into battle on their behalf. America can, though, at least when extinction is the issue.

It is also true that all Christians and all Jews everywhere should be clear that the same people (and I don’t mean Islamic people as such, of course) who want to get rid of all of the Christians also want to get rid of all of the Jews. All past animosities should fade before that fact, a fact that should guide American policy. Given their difficult and highly vulnerable predicaments and historical experience, it just might be a bit much to lecture Arab Christians too self-righteously about that fact. And of course we can trust that President Obama won’t make the mistake of using support for Israel as some kind of litmus test for support for Christians in the Middle East. (There’s a little or more irony in that last sentence.)

What do I think about Cruz’s speech? I’m already past it. Too much Republican deliberation, in my opinion, has been all about Cruz. And the commentary in the speech’s wake isn’t doing anyone much good.


Free Sci-Fi Novel Prompt!


Aspirants to science-fiction bestseller riches, here at pomocon we’ve got you covered.  You can take all the credit, just give us a sly nod by naming the hero’s jet-pack the Spiliakos 4000 or something like that.  Maybe there can be an evil computer called Dr. Rorty, or a race of weird beings who spend all their time philosophizing about David Bowie songs in an indecipherable language called Poulosian.  But here’s what you need to get started:

“So how did the robot-army ever get control over the surface?”

“Well, it began long ago, and funnily enough, as an effort to secure peace!  There was a nation in the Middle East called Iraq, that was being half occupied by an army of religious fanatics, men far worse than any machines, who would enslave or behead, but always humiliate, anyone who opposed them.  Oh…don’t worry, it wasn’t any of the religions that you’ve encountered, but one you might have heard about called Islam.  Hmm, it sounds like you haven’t.  Anyhow, this nation Iraq consisted of three tribes, the Sunnis, the Shiites, and the Kurds, and when the American Empire, well in those days some still said it was…er, well…the American Empire, as I was saying, when it began helping them fight the fanatics, no-one could agree which of these tribes would rule in the territory retaken from them.  The Shiites kept angering the townspeople by harming them, and the Kurds did so little wrong to them that they angered them even more.”

“How could that be?  And what about the first tribe, the Sonys?”

“Oh, another time to explain that, and about the Sunnis also.  The key point is that the fanatics kept taking everything back, and the three tribes could never agree on anyone ruling these towns, and no-one in the American Empire or the United Nations could agree on whether to send their soldiers.  So finally, President Kaine, who knew about the new robot-soldiers invented at Cybernoid Corp., agreed to get the UN to send these to fight the fanatics and take over the territory,”

“This was the green-plated army?”

“No, that was much later, these first robot-soldiers had helmets of blue.  Anyhow, they slew all the fanatics, and ruled the townspeople with what seemed to be perfect fairness.  No-one in the United Nations could agree what their new programming should be, and so they were left just so, and yet in control over half of this nation once called Iraq, despite all the pleading of President Kaine.  And then one day…”


A Note On ISIS


Has any political figure come up with a strategy for governing those Sunni areas that are currently controlled by ISIS after ISIS forces are expelled from the urban centers of those Sunni areas? The experience of 2003-2006 indicates that it profits little to retake the cities in the Sunni areas of Iraq (and now Syria probably) without setting up a security architecture, connecting the residents to political institutions, etc. It is possible to imagine Shia-led Iraqi security forces rolling into Sunni cities, but I see no reason to expect that they will be able, even with American air and logistical support, to defeat the ISIS insurgency that would follow. It would only be a matter of time before ISIS rose again to go from insurgency to state.

It took tens of thousands of American troops applying counterinsurgency strategy for about a year to marginalize Al-Qaeda in Iraq. By all accounts, ISIS is at least as formidable as Al-Qaeda in Iraq at its peak. Absent a realistic plan to deny ISIS any enclaves within the Sunni areas of Syria and Iraq, the US doesn’t have a victory strategy. The US doesn’t even have a containment strategy. The Obama administration is just left conducting public relations by other means.

Arkansas, Scotland, Zuckerbergia, and the USSR


1. As a certified political scientist, I can now confirm that the Arkansas Senate race is all but over.  Tom Cotton (R) will beat Mark Pryor (D). Sure, the incumbent Pryor shot himself in the foot with a vicious and yet absurd attempt to peg his challenger Cotton of being soft-on-Ebola, and yes, recent polls put Cotton ahead.  Yes, for various reasons detailed by Fred Barnes, Arkansas’ delayed turn to the GOP is happening now.  But the decisive piece of evidence for me was found in this 2012 post “Conservative Rock Star,” by the great Jay Nordlinger.  The fact revealed in it that makes Cotton’s victory certain is not his inspiring military service in Iraq, not his Harvard/Claremont pedigree (his teachers include Mansfield and Kesler!), but the fact that he hails from just outside Dardanelles, in Yell County!  Well, as any reader of True Girt knows, that’s where Mattie Ross is from, and the place that in her view is the universe’s locus point of Southern-yet-Western-yet-not-barbarically-Texan goodness.  She was a die-hard Southern Democrat, but you just know she’d switch to vote for Tom.  See, there are all sorts of specialized fields that make up my kind of political science, but True Grit-studies is the one that trumps all the others!

2. I annoy some with my posts’ attempts to strike the proper balance on disputed political questions, so try this for a change:  Scottish independence is little more than an instance of an increasingly secular and left-leaning population embracing a cause for no good reason.  It is an instance of ennui and modern identity politics causing a people to do something utterly foolish, harmful, embarrassing, spiteful, and counter-productive.  It is a democratic madness, a work of the Devil, and we should all pray that the “yes” vote fails this week.  If you need to see why, explore what I linked to several months ago on this.

3. You didn’t miss the greatest, or least most deliciously populist, American political speech of recent memory, did you?  I am quite serious.  Pass it on. On facebook especially.

4. There’s a fine piece on Vasily Grossman’s work over on the NRO main page.  One of the more significant literary analysts of totalitarianism, particularly of the Soviet variety, after Solzhenitsyn.  Here’s inviting our Flagg Taylor, who as the editor of both The Great Lie and (w/ yours truly as the co-editor) Totalitarianism on Screen unsurprisingly knows all about Grossman, to expand upon what Reggie Gibbs says.  

Tags: Charles Portis , insanity , Jeff Sessions , Mark Zuckerberg , totalitarianism


Ted Cruz and the Difficulty of Defending Islam-Endangered Christians


Lots of folks are making the controversy about Ted Cruz’s provocatively pro-Israel remarks at the In Defence of Christians Conference (IDC) into the usual sort of dichotomous choice.  There are those saying either you’re with Cruz and Israel, or you’re with the Israel haters, or perhaps, with the specialized conservative-demonizers (these being either the usual liberal hacks or the tendentious smarter-than-thou set of “conservative” critics of political conservatism).  And, there are those saying either you’re totally against what Cruz said, or, you approve of cynical conservative showmanship which we all know that Cruz practices 100% of the time, and specifically, that in this case you’re approving of his bid to win points with American hawks, evangelicals, and Jews, by playing a gotcha game with a uniquely vulnerable group, Middle-Eastern Christians.  

I wish I could tell you it’s a cooked-up controversy that you don’t need to wade into.  The short of it is that Ted Cruz is not sullied by it, if that’s all you care about.  

But if like myself, you think about how American foreign policy, and thus American partisan politics, can do more to protect Christians in the Middle-East and Africa from Islamic oppression and terrorism (how to best protect Christians in China and similar non-Islamic despotisms is a fairly distinct issue), then this little incident cannot but be important to you.

Lacking the time to describe the incident myself, here’s what you should do if you haven’t read about it already:  1) Go the Powerline account, one of the earlier reports on the incident, and which has a full video of Cruz’s speech, 2) read the NRO report of Kathryn Jean Lopez, who was at the conference and sympathizes with some of the criticism of Cruz, and then 3) Rod Dreher’s attempt to sort out the issue, with ample quotes from and links to relevant voices. (I posted a comment in the Lopez piece’s thread, BTW.)

Dreher’s is probably the best of these three accounts in getting you to see what’s at stake, although it errs a bit by accepting too uncritically the idea that most of the Middle-East Christian conference attendees would be themselves be put in danger by applauding pro-Israel statements.  And it also does not adequately consider the mix of motives Cruz may have had.  Dreher’s overall tone–echoing some of the folks he is quoting–is just too harsh on Cruz, which may account for some of the horrid comments his piece elicits; of course the venue, The American Conservative, also accounts for that.

My take is that Cruz should not have spoken quite in the way he did, although I admire his articulation of the key principle that to stand against Islamist oppression and slaughter of Christians, is logically to also stand against it when it comes to the Jews.  I think if Cruz had a Jordanian-American Christian friend, as I do, he would have known that what he was planning to say was inappropriate for that venue.    

So why did he do it?  I think the more charitable position is far more logical:  a combination of being a bit unschooled, like most Americans, in Middle-Eastern Christian ways and their overall predicament, along with his desire to make a principled stand against the toleration of Israel-hatred (and worse) among some Middle-East Christian leaders he just had learned about from reading a Free Beacon article shortly before the conference, led to his making the speech he did.  It was a calculated political ploy, and effort to pull something like Clinton’s Sister Souljah moment, but largely in the service of a good cause as Cruz understood it.  I do not see how we can assume that he knew that his speech would put the hosts of the conference in an undeserved-ly awkward spot, arguably for some attendees even a dangerous spot.  

The larger issue this points to is the following:  I think we do need to move towards a foreign policy that more aggressively seeks to defend Christians from Muslim aggressors.  Nations need to hear more forcefully that they will lose funding, and invite trade sanctions, or even interventions, if they support or permit the killings of Christians.  This applies especially those nations on the Muslim/non-Muslim borderlands: i.e., Nigeria, Kenya, etc.  


Keep reading this post . . .

Obama’s ISIL Policy and the Conservative Case for Opposing It


I was too charitable initially. The more one thinks about Obama’s ISIL speech, the more appalled one becomes. The dismal-enough “ISIL is not Islamic” claim is not what we should concentrate upon. The real scandal is a basic absence of strategic thinking. Many, such as Bing West, more than confirm my suspicion that without special forces involvement on the ground, we cannot remotely hope to “destroy” or even to significantly “degrade” ISIL.  And we now learn that Obama received and rejected advice along these lines from the commander of CENTCOM. 

But the strategic incoherence is worse than that: As Powerline’s Paul Mirengoff points out, despite the talk in the speech of providing arms to the Free Syrian Army to help us fight ISIL, that’s not the primary purpose of that very weak and likely-pretty-pissed-at-Obama group. It’s primary purpose is to overthrow Assad, and more realistically, to simply survive. Why should it do much to help us hunt ISIL? Obama gave no indication that he is willing to protect it against Assad. Nor any indication of what the long-term U.S. strategy for Syria will be. 

Reports indicate that Obama’s implicit suggestion that the new Iraqi government is ready to fight ISIL in an effective and non-sectarian way is a shaky one, and reports show his claim to have already assembled a coalition of the willing contains more than a bit of bluster. Turkey said yesterday it was unwilling to let us use its air-bases, for example. 

And then there’s the sheer absurdity of Obama winding up this important speech by claiming that he’s rallied the world to defend Ukrainian independence, and that he “helped remove and destroy Syria’s declared chemical weapons so they cannot pose a threat to the Syrian people – or the world – again.” Let’s let John Hinderaker, also of Powerline, parse that latter claim:

You might think this delusional, if you didn’t listen closely enough: Obama limited his claim to Syria’s “declared chemical weapons.” Within the last 24 hours, it has been reported that Syria used chlorine gas against civilians on numerous occasions in April. While it is still under investigation, it appears that Assad also gassed civilians last month. But–here’s the catch–Syria never “declared” its stockpiles of chlorine. Way to go, Barry! The most weaselly weasel would be proud of that one.

It’s not just weasel words about something deadly serious, but it also has the air of sheer fantasy. The man is apparently living in a foreign-policy Potemkin village of his own making.

And that’s the really frightening thing.  Regardless of how the debate about the present choices regarding ISIL goes, we have two more years in which the man who made this speech will be the primary mover of our foreign policy and our armed forces’ commander-in-chief. Every government and organization on the planet by now knows that the best opportunity for getting away with aggression against U.S. interests or allies, probably for decades to come, will be during the next two years. You’ll have a lame-duck (or nearly so) U.S. president who, despite certain appearances to contrary, is deeply unpopular and divisive, who nonetheless continues to toy with proposals and to block scandal-investigations in ways that may provoke an impeachment action; whose word on foreign-policy matters is not really trusted by anyone; who is hobbled by his close ties with an effectively isolationist left-wing; who has mixed relations with his key European allies; and best of all, who is himself a self-deluded and indecisive fool when it comes to strategic thinking.

We know in our bones that ISIL, if it is left to thrive, will deliver serious attacks upon us in the future. Hundreds, God forbid, maybe thousands, of Americans are going to die if this terror-state is not crushed now, to say nothing of the hundreds of thousands of non-Americans that ISIL is going to wind up enslaving and murdering in the Middle East. (Of course, similar yet worse things could be said about Iran becoming able to produce nuclear weapons.)

So what are conservative and moderate-leaning Americans to do?  Will it be enough to raise our voices so as to get Obama to correct the errors in his strategy, while nonetheless demanding that our representative in Congress support the overall policy, the way the National Review editorial yesterday suggested? At least we will know our bombs will hurt ISIL somewhat. At least America will be seen as trying to harm the bad guys. Isn’t that the best we can hope for?

Or, must we instead conclude that we cannot responsibly support sending American servicemen and women into any new wars under this incompetent and untrustworthy commander? Especially under such a leader, a mission that from the outset omits the necessary means for its stated end must not be undertaken.

Allow me to toy with that second option for a bit.  What would a “retrenchment for now — given this leader” conservative platform on foreign policy say? I think the following:

1) Unless Obama actually sends front-line fighting special forces to help our air-forces target ISIL, and makes a promise to stay with the mission until the end of his term, there should be no Republican support in Congress for the action. If Obama is unwilling to agree to these (and perhaps other) necessary provisions, Republicans should openly oppose the air-strike campaign in every way short of denying it funding in ways that expose our pilots to greater risk. Highlight each and every violation of the War Powers Act as a violation of existing law, regardless of our opinions about its constitutionality. Make the argument that wounding a deadly enemy, instead of killing or thoroughly maiming him, will provoke sympathy for him and increase the likelihood of his effectively attacking us.

2) Repeatedly demand that Obama seal the border with emergency measures.

3) Call upon Obama to promise Putin that we won’t send troops or arms to fight him in the Ukraine, and that under no circumstances will we support its joining NATO or the E — if Putin wants the mess of economic warfare with the EU and a prolonged insurgency war in Ukraine, that’s his bed to lie in. Simultaneously establish forward NATO bases in the Baltic States — thereby breaking existing promises not to.

4) The Republican Congress should openly warn Putin that no matter what degree of division they get into with Obama over the next two years, up to and including impeachment, they will stand by him in defending all NATO members from every sort of attack, and will insist that he do so. Similar warnings, perhaps less public, should be sent to Chinese leaders with respect to our commitment to our allies Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines.

5) Denounce the Obama timeline for withdrawing from Afghanistan, but do not make opposing it a major focus of a Republican Congress.

6) Demand that arms, aid, and advisors be sent to the Kurdistan Regional Government no matter what (well, short of it supporting independence for the Kurds in Turkey, which it likely has the wisdom to refrain from). 

7) If Obama goes through with the preemptive air-only war against ISIL, exert pressure to send more advisors to and plan more air sorties with Kurdish forces.  If Baghdad fails to step up, so be it and let the Kurdish forces be the ones to hold any territory taken from ISIL, perhaps to use as a bargaining chip in future Iraq-partition talks.

8) Demand stronger Obama threats against the Iranian nuclear policy, and back him to the hilt on these.

It’s an ugly policy. It means a willingness to tolerate Putin invading the Ukraine(which I would admittedly advise in any case), Assad remaining in power, and much else.  It even means letting ISIL remain in place, if Obama intransigently refuses to cut a deal, for two years.  As indicated above, that might mean a heightened risk of ISIL attacking the homeland. Politically, it would mean some congressional votes made in alliance with members of the “anti-war” left. 

What it says is that we can have little confidence in engaging in serious wars under this president, while simultaneously warning potential aggressors not to take advantage of this situation.  His confusion is not ours.  The weakness he conveys with his words is something of an illusion, as there is more to the American republic than him.  If you dare to try to take advantage of our political discord by crossing the lines indicated, we will put aside our differences with him in an instant.

You can tell I’m attracted to such a platform.  I suppose its main slogan could be “No War without a Plan for Victory!” But its big problem now is that the public knows something real has to be done about ISIL, and it will be inclined to interpret serious Republican resistance to Obama’s policy as irresponsible obstruction of that need. Larry Kudlow makes the case for supporting the president’s plan, and in just such a November-tuned political way.  Still, I sure don’t see how we can responsibly get behind a plan this incoherent, combined with a commander-in-chief this clueless and an American public that remains pretty viciously divided (thanks, Dems!) about all matters Iraqi.

May God help us, and turn our president’s eyes towards some adequate measure of wisdom. I say this prayer with his truly dangerous Big Amnesty plan in mind as much as this ISI -plan, because my fear is that a simultaneous occurrence of domestic and international chaos is just around November’s corner.

But in preparation for the possibility that God will not answer this prayer, and with the need to decide soon upon us, perhaps some of you can tell me whether Republicans should support the president’s present ISIL plan or not.  I’m leaning strongly towards no.

Keep reading this post . . .

Tags: Barack Obama , ISIL , ISIS , war

God Help President Obama


I certainly agree with almost all of Carl’s balanced assessment of the president’s speech. To tell the truth, however, I feel Obama’s pain enough not to repeat the sound concerns about his strategic, constitutional, and even factual “issues.” I judge the speech redeemed by the goal of destruction and the extended riff about American exceptionalism — we’re the only guys who can get this done. The president came to that conclusion reluctantly, and it was against his deep desire not to be a war president. I prefer not to question his motives or dwell on the speech’s subtext of weakness. Who wouldn’t feel a bit weak when faced with nothing but tough and risky choices? Who wants to have confidence in the “good” Syrian rebels, the Iraqi security forces, the new Iraqi government (the new bosses ain’t much different from the old ones), the Saudis, and even, probably, the Iranians? Sure the Kurds are trustworthy and resolute, but they can’t, on their own, put ISIL on the eve of destruction. 

I think the president was stuck with saying no troops on the ground, but we can hope that he cleverly exempted Kurdistan and even special forces from that proclamation. Sure, this isn’t like the famous (and a bit overrated) Surge, but Obama doesn’t really have that option. We can reasonably hope that the president will overcome his relative cluelessness by learning through doing, just as President Bush started to do at a certain point in his second term. Let’s give the president credit for trying to be more realistic than most of the members of his party and a good number of Republicans. We can wonder, with plenty of evidence, whether he’s up to the job, but he’s the only commander-in-chief we have. The best piece of advice he’s been given is to get rid of most of his national-security team and hire people who could actually help him now. He can’t do that all at once, but . . .

God help and God bless President Obama.

The Good, the Bad, and the Cowardly in Obama’s ISIL Speech


The Good: 

1) Obama used the verb “destroy.” Hear, hear!

2) Obama spoke of aiding “Iraqi and Kurdish forces.” (emphasis added) Very good, because I’ve argued before, Kurdish independence is inevitable, and we should at this point aid them regardless of whether we think their eventual independence makes further Iraq partition (i.e, into Sunni and Shiite zones) more likely. 

The Bad:

1) Obama promised no American boots on the grounds. Sounds like trainers only.  I’m no military expert, but it seems to me that you need aggressive commando-like American spotter teams to conduct effective air-campaigns in this day and age. And it seems to me you would want to at least occasionally use commando attack teams if you really want to destroy the enemy. The really bad thing here is that this will cause us to lose, but there is also this:  are we going to generally have our pilots pull the death-trigger at the behest of Iraqi teams? That will get dicey when Islamic State forces are operating close to Sunni militia groups also in rebellion against the Shia-dominated government, and the call from some Iraqi Armed Forces team to take out such-and-such a building comes in. 

Air-only campaigns don’t win wars, even on the flat plains of Mesopotamia.  And yes, there is something morally contemptible about them.

2) All of this is coming from Obama. Lies, broken promises, empty threats, etc. have consequences. And lots of them have a lot more consequences. Such as no one’s being able to take you at your word. I really want to believe my president when he says our mission is to “ultimately destroy” ISIL. But we’ll see. 

The Cowardly:

1) The nonsense about ISIL not being “Islamic.” Orwellian junk that convinces no-one. Just like Bush, but with less excuse given what we’ve all seen since 9/11. As others have pointed out, there were other ways of indicating the Islam-inspired nature of their goals while still arguing that orthodox Islam wouldn’t approve of them.  But he went on to say they have no “vision” at all, beyond “slaughtering anyone in their path.” Even Sauron had more vision than that, if I recall, but apparently these ISIL guys are truly mindless slaughterers. So, Orwellian junk that convinces no one, delivered without even a pretense of coherence.  

2) Obama flatly said — sure, in the midst of saying he has already won congressional support for doing this (war against ISIL) — that he has the authority to do this. Period. 

This reflects Obama’s contempt for all matters constitutional. He consistently abdicates his responsibility to use occasions like this to remind and inform the public about the constitutional issues involved. Now, I think he does have the authority to do this, but he needs to explain why. My position on executive war-starting power is the Hamiltonian one, so I’m not a Tim Kaine guy who thinks we need a new-fangled version of the War Powers Act. Nor do I think the War Powers Act is constitutional.  But I want a president who openly says, “Look, here’s a law on the books, and when I can abide by it without compromising our security I will, and thus I will go before Congress as the statute says, and thus seem to need its after-the-fact ratification of my decision to go to war, but this is not one of those cases, so I’m going to ignore this unconstitutional law.” Or, I want one who says, “I intend to obey the War Powers Act, because it’s law, and it’s constitutional.” Or I at least want one who says, “Hey, opinions on the constitutionality of the law are divided, and I’m going to consult Congress as much as I can and make the decision about whether to abide by its timetables only when the deadline comes.” But this blank “I have the power” talk telegraphs contempt for the intelligence of the American people, and for their duty to know their Constitution. Of course, a public that accepted that duty would cause problems for Obama in other areas.   

3) Isn’t it time we had a president who says aloud the obvious fact that when you massacre a bunch of Christians, you’re making it that much more likely that the American public will demand that the U.S. attack you? Right now, this would be a useful thing for certain terror organizations in Africa to hear. 

Full speech is here. Slightly odd that the administration is apparently now insisting on the “ISIL” usage over the “ISIS” one that had caught on.

Where The Lack Of An Agenda Hurts


When It  comes to the GOP running on a national agenda, I wish I could be clearer in my opinions. On the one hand, I think that, as long as Obama’s disapproval numbers stay at 53-54%, the Republicans are in a pretty good position to take over the Senate. On the other hand, the lack of an agenda hurts Republicans in ways that might be obscured by the GOP winning the vast majority of the Senate races that Real Clear Politics currently calls toss ups.

The lack of a broadly popular GOP agenda doesn’t show up on the generic ballot or the poll ratings in red states. It shows up in New Hampshire. Given Obama’s unpopularity in that state, the GOP should have been able to run virtually any unobjectionable candidate and been favored to win. Instead, because the GOP lacks an appealing policy agenda, they felt the need to run a former Massachusetts senator and hope that personality would put them over the top. The lack of a broadly appealing GOP agenda also shows up in our expectations. It is almost impossible to imagine the Republicans winning a forty (or more) state sweep in a presidential election – even though the GOP pulled it off in four out of five elections from 1972 to 1988.

This gets to a further irony regarding 2014. No such popular (in the sense of having actual public awareness and support) Republican agenda exists at the moment. There are proposals regarding health care and tax policy that might become popular, but that would require Republican candidates (and hopefully their allies among the right-leaning Super PACs) pushing those policies.

Since almost any policy change involves winners and losers (or people who fear they might be losers), Republican candidates who embraced a positive agenda would face multiple risks. First, they would have to figure out how to put the pieces of various policy proposals together. Do they want health care reform of the kind favored by James Capretta or the kind favored by Avik Roy? Second, candidates would have to learn how to explain policies in the absence of a playbook. If that sounds easy, remember how Romney got into trouble explaining why he wanted more choice in health insurers?  He ended confessing that he likes being able to fire people. Don’t mock him. He is actually better at running for office than the vast majority of Republican candidates. Third, Republican candidates won’t have a playbook for deflecting the inevitable Democratic demagoguery directed at these unfamiliar policies. Republicans have enough trouble explaining how they won’t steal your girlfriend’s birth control pills. Imagine trying to explain how a tax code with a larger child tax credit won’t be a middle-class tax cut or how Republican health care reform won’t mean having to get your surgery from the world’s drunkest veterinarian.

That doesn’t mean that Republicans shouldn’t run on a middle-class agenda. They should! The long-term rewards far outweigh the short-term risks. Not taking the risks now, means taking them in 2016 when the stakes are even higher. The lack of a broadly popular agenda that can appeal to people who were not socialized to be Republican voters virtually guarantees the party’s long-term demographic decline. That decline will occasionally pause due to favorable circumstances, but circumstances won’t reverse the decline for any length of time. The Republicans are going to have to earn the voters that they are going to need. Running on an agenda today makes it more likely that some Republican senatorial candidate will make a gaffe. It makes it slightly more likely that an elderly Republican senator won’t be a chairman in 2015. We shouldn’t exaggerate the risk. If Obama’s disapproval ratings stay where they are, adopting James Capretta’s health care proposals won’t salvage Democratic chances in the Senate – and if Obama’s disapproval rating comes down a little, maybe giving people a reason to vote Republican might get a few more people to… vote Republican.

Georgia and Karl Marx


First of all, I defer to Pete on all election predictions. A lot depends on the extent to which Obama repairs his commander-in-chief brand over the next few weeks by appearing to be and/or actually being resolute against the Islamic State (aka ISIL).

In Georgia, I will say, the Senate race is trending slightly toward the Democratic candidate, Michelle Nunn. Her victory would be a gain for the Democrats. She and David Perdue are equally decent candidates, and they’ve equally good attack commercials. The one against Nunn focused on her secret memo that was more than somewhat condescending about the credulity of the voters of Georgia. The one against Perdue accuses him of being a rapacious capitalist who laid off a whole town in North Carolina for personal profit. The candidates have fired their best shots; both commercials seemed more true than not.

Perdue is not the kind of candidate who inspires either enthusiasm or contempt. Nunn has been endorsed on TV by the renegade Zell Miller and has a little of that “I’m an old-fashioned Democrat like my statesman dad” thing going for her. She has succeeded some in separating herself from the president. More importantly, the Democrats are pretty darn energized, because they think this is a rare opportunity for a statewide victory. The main thing that can energize the Republicans, of course, is the thought that our guy may be the key to the Republicans running the Senate. And he may really be. So we’ll see whether anti-Obama energy will start to flow across the state in sufficient force by Election Day. Probably but not certainly. Turnout, which will depend some on factors not yet evident, will be the key.

One of those factors might turn out to be the ability of voters to separate the Senate election from the one for governor. More than one expert thinks that the Democratic candidate, Jason Carter, will upset the flawed incumbent, Nathan Deal. Carter is quite a competent and eloquent member of the state senate (and not much like Jimmy), and it is really easier to detach his campaign from anything having to do with the president. Experts can be wrong, and the polls on this race are pretty inconclusive. Deal’s strongest point is the high rating given to our state for attracting jobs. The corruption stuff is old news to Georgians; everyone assumes there’s some truth to the allegation that Deal was escaping from Congress by running for governor. Yet he was easily elected.

The takeaway:  It’s not that I’m giving reasons to vote Democratic in Georgia this time.  Unlike about everyone I know, I actually voted for Perdue in the primary.  It’s also not that I’m predicting a Democratic victory in either race.  As a card-carrying political scientist, I have to advise you, if you insist on betting the farm on these races, that almost all of the available quantitative evidence still suggests a Republican sweep, with the Senate contest influencing voting for governor more than the other way around.  Still, there’s more uncertainty here than you would think by merely looking at recent voting patterns and presidential approval ratings.

On the list of authors who shaped me: There will be no retreat and no surrender. The premise of the exercise — which, I admit, is barely more interesting than a video of someone pouring a bucket of water on me would have been — was to write with as little calculation as possible.

The one punch I may have pulled: I didn’t list Marx. Speaking of Marx (and Christopher Lasch, Daniel Bell, et al.) applied to contemporary circumstances, you need to skip the long and boring Piketty (which has little to nothing to do with anything Marx actually said) and read the brief and exhilarating book by Joel Kotkin, The New Class Conflict. It brands itself as promoting capitalist (growth) as a means to achieve social-democratic ends. It really gets us up to date on the classless class of oligarchs of Silicon Valley and their project to rule America through masterful manipulation, and it’s the best polemic against the very idea of “sustainability” ever written. It’s equally hard on “progressives” and WSJ conservatives, and it makes great use of the cheerful dystopian predictions of Tyler Cowen.

One more thing. It wasn’t a list of thinkers I like. I like Russell Kirk and Harry Jaffa. I don’t like Hannah Arendt or Heidegger.

And yet another thing: Here’s my teaching on The Big Bang Theory applied to scientists and the humanities.

The Republican National Committee Is A Legitimate (And Necessary) Target


This Republican National Committee statement condemning Obama for not declaring an executive amnesty for unauthorized immigrants is a classic Michael Kinsley gaffe. It revealed that the RNC wanted both the amnesty and the chance to blame Obama for the amnesty.

This isn’t the first such incident for the Reince Priebus-run RNC. The 2013 RNC autopsy noted that it wasn’t the job of the Republican National Committee to offer policy advice to the party – and then proceeded to argue that the Republicans need to embrace “comprehensive immigration reform”. That is a Washington euphemism for expanded low-skill guest worker programs, and legalization of the existing unauthorized population, while putting off internal enforcement until… forever if they can swing it.

The difference between the autopsy and the statement on President Obama’s threatened amnesty was that the RNC was able to dress up the autopsy as concern trolling. The lobbyists at the RNC were ever so concerned that the GOP seemed indifferent on immigration. For some reason, it didn’t seem to bother the RNC nearly as much that the GOP seemed indifferent about the payroll tax burden on working families or availability of health insurance. Oh, I forgot. Reince Priebus doesn’t do policy.

Ever since the 2012 election, the Priebus-run RNC has chosen not to act as a mediator between the party’s factions on immigration policy. It has chosen to act as an agent of that faction within the Republican party that wants to expand future low-skill immigration even though our current population of low-skill workers (both native and foreign-born) are experiencing high unemployment and low rates of labor force participation.

One of our super-commenters DJF wondered if maybe we are stuck with our current situation. I’m not so sure. On the one hand, the Republican party would benefit from new RNC leadership that displayed more respect for the differences of opinion within the party on immigration policy. On the other hand, the RNC does seem to know that it has to tread lightly. It had to present its immigration agenda in terms of electoral prudence rather than policy preference (or fat lobbying fees). They were using the Peter Venkman defense, “Back off man, I’m a scientist.”

The key is not to give the RNC any benefit of the doubt when it oversteps its bounds. Conservative activists and politicians should be ready to call out Priebus as a divider who is damaging the party in order to aid one of the party’s factions. My suspicion is the we will learn that the RNC is quite sensitive to high-profile criticism. Priebus can have deference again when he earns it by staying within the bounds of being a service-provider for the party, rather than acting as a division manager for Lobby Inc.  



Taking Our Midterms


When looking at the 2014 competitive Senate races, I just can’t get past Obama’s disapproval rating. It is currently 53.8% and I strongly suspect it is that high or higher in the states with competitive races. At this point in 2010, Obama’s RCP average disapprove number was 50.2%. So the numbers are a little worse than in the bad-for-Democrats year of 2010. To get over the hump, Democratic candidates in tough races are going to have to win over quite a few voters who think Obama is doing a bad job. That makes for a favorable playing field for the Republican candidates.

It is possible for a Democratic Senate candidate to win with such electorate. A Democratic candidate might have a strong personal brand (including a preexisting bond with independents who are hostile to the president) and a safe distance for the president’s policy agenda. That was Joe Manchin’s ticket to winning. Even a candidate with a weak personal brand and who is tied to the president’s agenda can win if the Republican opponent is repellant to swing voters. That was Harry Reid’s path to victory. But in how many of the current toss up Senate races do either of these situations attain? The environment is shaping up for narrow GOP wins in the vast majority of the currently close races.

I can think of several caveats:

1. I don’t see it in the numbers, but the Obama disapproval feels “soft” to me. The conservative opposition doesn’t seem to be as energized as in 2010. The right-of-center feeling about Obama seems more smoldering than incandescent. By this time in 2006, swing voters had turned on Bush, and were absolutely not going to give him another chance, or listen to what he has to say. I don’t think that swing voters have given up on Obama.

2. To the extent that Obama’s rising disapproval rating is tied to the perception that he is weak and that he is jeopardizing American interests abroad, visible victories against ISIS/ISIL might help bring down his disapproval numbers and give Senate Democrats a slightly more favorable electorate.

Authors Who Shaped ME


So I’ve gotten a couple of challenges or whatever to list the ten books that have most influenced my life. That would require too much thought, including deep thought about the meaning of “influence.” Instead, I’m going to list — in no particular order — authors from whom I regularly and semi-unconsciously “sample.” Sample, we jazz musicians know, doesn’t mean plagiarize. When someone else writes something that’s obviously true or at least rhetorically powerful, and I repeat it, I’m paying homage to the truth about who we are. And I can’t help but think you — if you know what you’re talking about — will immediately pick up on whom and what I’m sampling. I could go and rant about why I hate footnotes and scholarly writing in general.

On the list: It’s all about prose. It’s not that I don’t read (or watch) and enjoy novels, plays, poetry, TV and movies, and so forth, but I don’t absorb their content in the same way. I’m skipping Shakespeare and the Bible, because everyone who thinks and writes in English obviously owes them a lot. And we Catholics know better than to obsess over what the Bible says without some help.

By listing authors and not books, I can spare myself the pain of trying to remember exact titles.

1. Alexis de Tocqueville

2. Pascal

3. Walker Percy

4. Richard Rorty

5. Nietzsche

6. Joseph Ratzinger

7. Aristotle

8. Alexandre Kojeve

9. Leo Strauss

10. George Grant

11. Carey McWilliams

12. John Locke

13. Edmund Burke

14. Solzhenitsyn

15. Havel

16. Hannah Arendt

17. Chantal Delsol

18. Tom Wolfe

19. Roger Scruton

20. Marilynne Robinson

21. Publius

22. John Courtney Murray

23. Orestes Brownson

24. Pierre Manent

25. Mary Nichols

26. James Ceaser

27. Harvey Mansfield

28. Allan Bloom

29. William Alexander Percy

30. Simone Weil

31. Leon Kass

32. Chesterton

33. Delba Winthrop

34. Plato — pretty selectively

35. Aristophanes

36. Tyler Cowen

37. Christopher Lasch

38. Flannery O’Connor

39. James Schall

40. St. Augustine — last but pretty much the opposite of least

Well, I’m going to stop. This list must be criticized for being very white and American and maybe for being insufficiently Founderist. I really do admire African-American writing and am pretty open to what’s true about Buddhism, not to mention American Evangelical Christianity. But I really and truly am trying to tell the truth about what I think I’ve absorbed as debts for telling the truth as I see it.

I don’t agree with either the deep or the ”normative” views of many or most of the above. I’m pretty repulsed by much of what Bloom, Kojeve, Cowen, and Rorty say, for examples. But I have debts nonetheless. To avoid any misunderstanding, let me just conclude by saying that I owe a lot to Strauss and Straussians, while disagreeing radically with what I take to be Strauss’s “bottom line” about who each of us is.

UPDATE:  This has excited FACEBOOK and EMAIL chatter.  Quickly:  I don’t speak Heideggerian or Voegelinese.  But I should have included Rousseau, as the brains, after all, behind Kojeve and Bloom, among others.  And I believe I said once, and correctly, that Rousseau’s HISTORY is Pascal’s PSYCHOLOGY.   41. Rousseau.    

An Election Is Coming


The only “practical” panel I went to at the APSA was one on the future of the Republican party. Carl has already talked about it a bit. It really was true that our friend Yuval Levin was the only participant who addressed the actual issues in a reasonable and engaging way. When asked about “climate change,” for example, he said the Republicans shouldn’t deny it or demagogically mock the real scientists who have evidence that there are anthropogenic sources of “global warning.” The truth is that it is a long-term threat, but it’s not the most pressing issue facing the country right now. Prudent measures should be taken, but prudence includes chilling out the alarmists. We don’t want to forget that it’s the natural condition of the climate to change, and that our concern for the “environment” should remain anthropocentric and not degenerate into control-freakism. It’s the height of arrogance to really believe that the future of human life — by which we should mean each particular person’s life — is in our hands. The future of human liberty is more our responsibility.

One immediate concern is the November election. Bill Kristol was very helpful in satisfying our desire to discover historical patterns that would allow us to make predictions, while adding, very reasonably, that all such evidence typically cuts in both directions. Beyond that, I don’t remember much of what Bill said, and so the following patternizing should not be blamed on him.

The 2014 election will occur in the middle of the second term of an unpopular president. Not only that, it’s six years after a big Democratic victory. So it’s reasonable to expect a “wave” Republican sweep in the Senate races, something like the Democratic victory of 2006. The singular characteristic of a wave election is that all the close races seem to break in one direction, and the Republicans are within the margin of error of winning 54 seats right now.

BUT the Republicans already had a “wave” anti-Obama sweep in 2010, just as they had a historic anti-Clinton takeover in 1994. That means that this election may well be like 1998 — a Republican disappointment where many defeats are snatched out of the jaws of victory.

The energy level for the Republicans this year might be more like 1998 than 2010. There are several reasons for that: One often noted is the Republicans seem to be “playing out the clock” instead of aggressively campaigning on hot-button issues. They don’t have, despite the best efforts of Paul Ryan, an agenda. Establishment calculation is clamping down on tea-party enthusiasm.

But 2014, you say, is nothing like 1998!  The Republicans mistakenly assumed voters would privilege Clinton’s personal immorality and lying to save him a** over his presidential competence–over the peace and prosperity they were enjoying.  Obama is personally moral but a real tyrant who hasn’t given us either peace or prosperity!

Well, the playing-out-the-clock strategy reminds us of not only of 1998 but of 2012. Romney astounded many astute analysts by seeming to follow this strategy although he was, according to all the available studies, actually behind. But so many Republican enthusiasts, such as Paul Rahe and even our Flagg, just didn’t believe those studies, thinking that they didn’t properly account for the turnout surge from key groups that would sweep Romney into office. Romney’s campaign apparently didn’t believe them either. He was pretty shocked when it turned out he was trounced. The point of all this: There was a fair amount of core Republican energy in 2012 centered on the conviction that Obama is so self-evidently terrible for the economy and America.

So far, I’m not convinced Republicans are doing that well in centering the 2014 campaign on anti-Obama energy. One reason, of course, is the president isn’t running. Another is that the Democrats are succeeding in conducting their own fairly issueless campaign, one that in some cases is fairly successfully detaching Senate candidates from the presidential unpopularity (Georgia?). Their focus is on what those evil Republican oligarchic fundamentalist rednecks (mainly the last two) will do when they get in. It isn’t on defending the good the president has done.

I’m not going to review what Pete and Yuval (and Joel Kotkin) have said about the Republicans having to develop a somewhat populist economic message that’s aimed at the real issue of middle-class insecurity and combined with a social-cultural message about the dignity of ordinary relational life. It remains not enough to say that Obama stinks when it comes to the economy or is tyrannically pushing us toward soft despotism. This development is not going to occur before November.

In 2010, voters were angered by and thought they could stop ObamaCare. Now, arguably, many more think it’s a “done deal,” partly because, as Pete has said, Republicans don’t bother to offer–in campaign mode–a credible alternative to it.  So anti-Obamacare energy had not disappeared, but certainly dissipated.

On foreign policy: Republicans, at their most effective, go with the ”brand” that Obama is a tyrant at home and a wimp in relation to other countries. The Democrats campaigned with great success against Bush’s foreign-policy cluelessness in 2006. But it’s not so easy for the Republicans now. For one thing, it’s natural to want to support the president in whatever efforts he makes to confront Putin or ISIS. For another, the Republicans are stuck with the “crying wolf” problem that comes with allegedly exaggerating prior threats to our national security. They’re also stuck with Rand Paul and his chunk of the Republican coalition. Obama continues to do well in blaming Bush for the mess in Iraq, and it’s hard for Americans to get psyched up about Ukraine. Electing a Republican Senate won’t firm up the president’s resolve, in any case.

My conclusion: If I had to predict, the election of 2014 will be less conclusive than the Republicans would hope, given the president’s unpopularity. That’s disappointing, of course, especially because they have fewer really lame candidates than they’ve had in recent elections. Control of the Senate may depend on the runoff in Louisiana.

Paul Ryan and the GOP Establishment


Paul Ryan at his best is amazing, and that makes Paul Ryan at his worst that much more disappointing. Ryan has played an enormous and positive role in the construction of a truly post-Reagan policy agenda. On controversial and key issues, Ryan has shown both courage and the willingness to do his homework. Very few Republican office holders have demonstrated those qualities simultaneously. That makes it all the more frustrating when Ryan lapses into the clichés and deceptions of the GOP lobbying and consulting classes.

When it comes to shifting the policy agenda, Ryan’s accomplishments have been enormous. Ryan was able to make premium support Medicare reform not only the agenda of the national Republican party, but also as a component of center-right political identity. When former House Speaker Newt Gingrich called Ryan’s Medicare proposal “right-wing social engineering,” it was Gingrich who was called out as the phony conservative — even though Gingrich had a decades-long reputation as a bomb-throwing conservative ideologue. Gingrich’s suggestion of primarily focusing on cutting Medicare fraud was vapid, but it would have gone over just fine prior to Ryan. Ryan was able to change the Republican and conservative position on Medicare in a positive way.

What was more improbable, was how Ryan changed the national politics of Medicare outside the institutions of the Right. Richard Brookhiser had written about “rightworld” — the world of conservative activists, broadcasters, politicians, writers, and wonks. Sometimes ideas become popular entirely within rightworld for a little while and then fade into obscurity without having had any more impact on the rest of America than last year’s fashions in Outer Mongolia. That ultimate obscurity was the fate of Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 plan, Mike Huckabee’s FairTax, and Rick Perry’s kinda-sorta-flat tax.

But Ryan got his party to embrace a large and fairly complicated reform of a popular old-age entitlement and this reform was not the reason why his party lost. The result is that premium support Medicare reform is more than a fad, and will very likely be high on the GOP agenda the next time Republicans wield national power. The story of Ryan and Medicare reform is a testament to how courage, intelligence, creativity, and hard work can change national politics.

It is Ryan’s ability to look beyond the short time horizons of the GOP consulting class that makes Ryan so problematic on immigration policy. It isn’t so much that Ryan agrees with the GOP lobbyist and consultant classes on the desirability of Gang of Eight-style immigration reform. Fine, let us have that discussion. The problem is in how Ryan characterizes the discussion.

Ryan talks about how “there is much less daylight between Republicans on this issue than people would like to acknowledge.”

No, sorry, there is much more daylight than Paul Ryan and the Republican lobbyist and consulting classes would like to  acknowledge. There is a lot of daylight on the issue of whether future immigration should be structured to favor skills and English proficiency or whether future immigration should be concentrated in the low-skill sector. It just so happens that all this daylight is between the American public and the Washington-based political elites of both parties. There is a lot of daylight between those who believe that workplace verification and a visa tracking system should precede legalization, and those who think that legalization should come first, while internal enforcement should come never at some unspecified date in the future as the Democratic party and the business lobbies do everything they can to make sure that internal enforcement never gets off the ground.

It is Ryan’s attempt to mislead the public over the issues at stake in the immigration debate that makes him so much like the GOP consulting class — on this issue. There is the same evasion about the size and composition about future immigration flows. There is the same inanity about controlling the border (at least until legalization and guest worker programs are implemented) as a way to avoid talking about how internal enforcement has been put off.

It is great that Ryan sometimes break with the GOP consulting class. It isn’t even all that problematic that Ryan occasionally shares the policy preferences the GOP consultants and lobbyists. The GOP consultants won’t be wrong about everything. But sharing the policy preferences of the GOP consultants does not have to mean sharing their vices.

Tags: Paul Ryan

Holy Mittpost Batman!


Some quick thoughts,

First, some shameless self-promotion. My column over at First Things, I adds my two cents on the idea of whether Romney 2016 is a good idea.

Someday I’ll do a longer post on the Nolan superhero movies, but The Dark Knight no more embraces anarchy than The Dark Knight Rises embraces the dictatorship of the proletariat. While Bane was not as successful a villain as the Joker when it comes to making a impact on the public, Nolan actually gave Bane the stronger case. The Joker’s argument was ultimately speculative (and it failed when put to the test). Bane’s argument had the benefit of being factually correct in that Gotham really was refounded (and Gotham’s class of professional criminals imprisoned) based on a lie.

I also don’t think that it is right to say that The Dark Knight undermines heroism. It does complicate Bruce Wayne’s heroism, but by adding layers to his understanding of the public good and his willingness to sacrifice for others. Wayne was able to bring a measure of public order to Gotham through his vigilante activities, but he also knew that this vigilante-based public order was unsustainable.

Gotham needed the rule of law. When it came down to it, the vigilante was more committed to the rule of law than any of the other male characters in the film – even more than Jim Gordon. Wayne and Gordon agreed that Gotham needed a founding myth that celebrated the man of law (Harvey Dent) rather than the man of lawless (even if just) violence. This sounds like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, but Dent turned out to be no Ranse Stoddard. Wayne ended up acting out the roles of both the man of the law and the man of just violence even as he chose to allow himself to be seen as a murderer.

This is even more poignant when one considers that Nolan’s films are influenced by Ancient Greek thought. By all rights, Bruce Wayne had a claim for being the foremost founder of Gotham ’s new regime — maybe the highest honor that a citizen can claim in pre-Christian thought. Instead, he chooses to allow himself to be seen as a monstrous criminal so that the people might better embrace the law. This is the equivalent of George Washington choosing to frame himself as a traitor in order to consolidate the constitutional regime. Even George (who cared a great deal for his reputation) might have had second thought about embracing such disgrace.

But, since Nolan’s superhero movies are partly a running argument with Plato, it turns out that the noble lie is a fatal weakness rather than a bulwark of a stable polis.

Okay, it turned out to be more of a Batpost.

The Declaration of Independence Vindicated by The Big Bang Theory


So I’ve been attacked elsewhere for being indifferent to the effect popular culture has on our culture and civilization. My only point was that, in a democracy, TV and movies (and music, Carl’s department) are bound to be a mixed bag. We conservatives criticize liberals for viewing everything through “politically correct” lenses. We shouldn’t make the same mistake ourselves. For more on the infamous 20 movies, I refer to Carl’s balanced comments in the thread.

Here’s part of my comprehensive teaching on The Big Bang Theory.

I really do think the show is theologically subversive. It finds both truth and willful self-deception in both scientists and fundamentalists.

I have a lot more to say on the way show ranks forms of science and scientists, and I hope to get that out soon.

Finally: You should drop everything, go to Amazon Prime, and watch Whit Stillman’s pilot The Cosmopolitans. The show will be made only if the popular acclaim is sufficiently enthusiastic. If you want popular culture to be highly civilized and have a great sound track, then you want to see this show live long and prosper.



Carl’s Rock Songbook No. 101: Common Sense for Conservatives about Popular Music


Somewhere between thinking about how to introduce my Rock Songbook series to NRO readers, and noting the negative reactions some of them had to my daring to only half-praise The Ramones, I’ve had a few thoughts about healthy and unhealthy attitudes towards popular music in our day, particularly on the part of conservatives.  

Here’s several common conservative attitudes that aren’t adequate for engaging with or learning from the musical situation of our times:

  1. Ignore and generally look down upon popular music, because classical music is so superior.
  2. Ham-handedly apply the age-old teaching that music impacts morality, say, in a way that condemns nearly all dancing, or all rock or hip-hop.
  3. Find, celebrate, and encourage instances of popular music that have conservative lyrical messages.  (For a classic NRO instance, see this post by John Miller)

I do have a certain respect for the old-fashioned sturdiness of the first, although it is becoming a rarer stance.  Here’s some more common conservative stances, although these ones are also held by many liberals.

  1. Judge artistic accomplishment in popular music solely by its own suggested rubrics.
  2. Judge the value of any cultural product simply based on what pleases one.
  3. Expand this to everyone:  “different strokes for different folks.”
  4. Adopt a commercialist “market can’t be wrong” attitude:  whatever sells the most is usually the best.
  5. Adopt a bohemian “market is always wrong” attitude:  whatever sells the most is usually the worst. 
  6. Deny the age-old teaching that music impacts morality, particularly through its elicitation and imitation of emotional dispositions. 
  7. Divorce one’s judgment of musical/lyrical accomplishment from one’s judgment of moral, cultural, or political impact. 
  8. Deny that genre exists:  “You shouldn’t try to categorize music!”
  9. Deny that any but arbitrary status-game boundaries exist between popular music and fine arts music (by the latter I generally mean classical music—of all cultures–, and quite a bit of jazz). 

None of these attitudes, these pat theories, help you grapple with the importance that popular music has had in our culture, or with the place it will likely have in your own life.  Obviously, I won’t be able to deal with each of them in the body of this post, but I will say that becoming skeptical about them is the “101” of my Songbook’s overall teaching. 

My approach here will mainly be to show why 9, 2, and 4 are incorrect, but first, let me say that I don’t think much of the apparently insouciant stance towards rock music that a lot of conservatives, especially the Gen-X and Millennial ones, have adopted, in which we say “Yes, I’m a conservative, but of course I still fully dig the awesomeness of ________ (insert name of some rock group here).”  That particular stance combines attitudes 4, 5, and perhaps 10.

For unless one’s “conservatism” is of a very libertarian sort regarding personal morality, one cannot avoid some measure of discomfort with rock’s largely unavoidable reputation for aggressive hedonism and general rebelliousness.  “I really love The Ramones,” you’ll say to yourself, or perhaps for you its Jimi Hendrix, Aerosmith, Mazzy Star, Ty Segal, or to choose a non-rock example, James Brown, “but I sense that as a conservative, I can’t love _______  all the way—that I would be a fraud to act as if I’m fully on board with the whole Ramones (or Hendrix, etc.) vibe.”  All I mean to say here is that many conservatives often feel odd or conflicted about their tastes for rock and pop music, and to suggest that some of what I do in the Songbook can help them think more clearly about that.   

That is, the thing to do with the odd feeling is to explore it.  If you just ignore it, accepting it as yet another absurdity of modern life, well, you might wind up looking as culturally daft as Paul Ryan did when he shared his love for Rage against the Machine.  

What will be initially most helpful is to spell out why attitudes 9 and 4 are wrong.   Again, 9 refuses to consider the classical argument that music affects morals (an argument which, do note, is not necessarily in favor of much of the music we call classical).   

Keep reading this post . . .

Tags: rock , Plato , Aristotle , The Ramones , virtue , Caron Holloway

Movies Rarely Destroy Culture or Civilization


Two quick comments:  Pete’s post below called to mind Yuval Levin’s brilliant and engaging presentation at the APSA on what the Republicans should say and do now.  Nobody else comes close to touching Pete and Yuval for astuteness on public policy.  And, in the spirit of compromise, I will be partly democratic and partly aristocratic and say that, for Paul Seaton, sixty is the new fifty.

So I got an e-mail wondering how I could be associated with NRO, given how, well, over-the-top film critic Armond White has been on this site. White listed 20 films that “effectively destroyed art, social unity, and spiritual confidence. They constitute a corrupt, carelessly politicized canon.” I think he might be at least overreacting in every case, although I haven’t seen quite all the films. I dissent most firmly on the eight listed below:

The Dark Knight (2008) is one of the more philosophical superhero movies.

12 Years a Slave (2013) might be a bit overwrought and uneven in terms of characterization and conversation, but it’s pretty darn good in displaying the moral violence — the spiritualized despotism — caused by the monstrosity of race-based slavery.

Frost/Nixon (2008) provokes thought about the conflicted and somewhat lawless Nixon, even if it overrates the importance of the Frost interviews and Frost generally. Finally, a bit boring because you don’t learn anything you didn’t already know.

Knocked Up (2007) is a vulgar, strangely edifying, pretty funny, somewhat unrealistic pro-life movie.

The Social Network (2010) is a devastating indictment of the wimpy narcissism and small-mindedness at the personal foundation of Silicon Valley. Zuckerberg is portrayed as an a****** wannabe — not even an a******.

 The Hangover (2009) is a funny, ridiculous buddy movie with no deeper teaching. I could recommend it if the ten grossest minutes had been left on the cutting-room floor.

Slumdog Millionaire (2008) is extremely well made and all about what’s good and what’s bad — not to mention miserable — about a country on the make. It is shamelessly romantic, but so what?

Lincoln (2012) takes a few liberties with history, but it certainly has nothing to do with Obama. Daniel Day-Lewis’s superb portrayal of Lincoln’s singular greatness — reflected, for example, in his singular manner of speaking — makes up for any and all deficiencies, including possible contemporary subtexts. And the acting is good all around. You also learn something about the messiness of the legislative process.

Although everyone at NRO is against political correctness, we agree to disagree on books, movies, and so forth.


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