Friday, October 31, 2008

magical thinking in a partisan age

Chances are I don't need to inform you of Reihan Salam's credentials. He is one of conservatism brightest lights, and he has earned many laurels commensurate with his abilities. He deserves this praise and more. Recently, he penned an endorsement of McCain in the Guardian.

Reihan's piece is a disturbing document, one which shows that even the smartest among us can fall prey to cognitive dissonance. Reihan's justification for supporting McCain, I say without malice, is an endorsement of falling 100% into the hands of fantasy. It is an explicit rejection of empiricism as a method to determine political contests.

Reihan's argument, such as it is, is that we have not just gone through 20 months of campaigning by John McCain. No, we've been laboring under the misconception that the man who appears before us is the real McCain; that crass politician who has stoked the flames of cultural hatred and partisan divide is a construct designed, somehow, merely to win an election, and then be discarded once he ceases to be of use-- never mind the utter failure of that construct to actually build any lead in the polls. Reihan avers "We haven't seen the real McCain in this campaign." Let me be plain: that is a nonfalsifiable, evidence-resistant assertion that can only be supported by faith.

Even if it were possible for a candidate to hide his true self for the entire years-long grind of a Presidential campaign-- if it were possible that we haven't, actually, seen the real McCain, that the man on stage telling you he is the man he claims to be is in fact a Manchurian candidate who hides decency and level-headedness-- even in that case, I cannot imagine a worse framework in which to evaluate a political contest. Consider what this notion asks of us, as a democratic polity. Beneath every candidate's public persona, apparently, their rests a true self, which we are forced to divine. Voters could not rely on evaluation of the various candidates' stated positions, but would instead have to divine the secret meanings within. Even those who support Reihan's candidate would have a hard time endorsing this framework.

One of the dominant memes of the campaign, of course, has been to say that Obama's supporters are cheering for a cypher. We who are voting for Obama, the idea goes, are really just projecting onto him all of our hopes, and are able to do so because of his supposed emptiness and lack of substance. I find this notion strange, given Obama's very clear and readily-available policy proposals. But fair enough, it would indeed be a mistake to project onto any candidate the virtues one would most like to see. Surely, though, it is more logical to project those virtues onto a supposedly blank canvas, than to ascribed positive aspects to a candidate in the face of what that man and his campaign has been saying and doing. Again, the notion of who, precisely, is being naive is troubled. If an Obama supporter insisted that there was a "real Obama" beneath the public persona, god, the howls that would emerge from the Republican commentariat. It's exactly the attitude that's been so mocked by the Clintons and McCain.

The campaign's rhetoric, the stump speeches, the written platforms, the website, what was said at the debates, everything John McCain has said he is about and believes in-- none of this is his true self, I guess I'm meant to believe. We know this, because Rehain swears "we haven't seen the real John McCain in this campaign." No, inside, there is a different man entirely, a different man from the one who sneers out claims about terrorist sympathizing, and socialism, and an opponent who is supposedly an unknown and unvetted bogeyman. He isn't, Reihan would have us believe, the man he, his campaign, and their surrogates tell us he is.

Where have I heard this sort of notion before? Why, of course, it's the right's entire critique of Barack Obama. At the end of the day, when so many other narratives had failed to work, the McCain/Palin campaign decided that their only road to defeating Obama was to insist to the American people that they didn't know the real Obama. No, Obama the technocrat, Obama the moderate Dem, Obama the loving and mainstream family man-- that was a costume, a media-approved shell. Lurking underneath, we were told, and are told, is a radical socialist with disturbing ties, who would probably take your money and give it away to the poor, and probably secretly hates Israel, too. This is the Obama campaign's true crime, presenting one face to the public, while hiding another inside.

How quickly vice changes to virtue when partisan and ideological identification are switched. Where Barack Obama's supposed two-facedness is a part of the danger surrounding him, and the duplicity with which he is attempting to gain office, McCain's two selves are instead a sign of his integrity. Deep inside, Reihan sees the candidate he fell in love with long ago. Apparently, it's permissible for candidates to misrepresent who they really are, and what they really stand for, when the stakes are this high, and you're on the right side of the aisle.

Even if were true that, at one point, John McCain was the principled, bipartisan maverick the press so lovingly stylized him to be, this notion that the American electorate should suspend their affection for making decisions based on real-world evidence would be outrageous folly. But it isn't even true that McCain ever was the character he and the press made him out to be. (McCain and the press have since fallen out of love with each other, of course, as the press has had the audacity to accurately report that McCain was losing the election.) Matt Welch (fixed) documented the myth of McCain meticulously in his book, but that kind of reportage has been done in many different places. McCain appears to have always been a fairly conventional Republican, one who took part in precisely the kind of partisanship anyone must if they want to survive over 20 years in the Senate.

Reihan goes on to assert that
During Bush's first term in office, McCain served as a kind of leader of the opposition. Because the Democrats were so weak and divided, McCain became a rallying point for conservatives and liberals who opposed Bush on issues ranging from taxes and spending to the conduct of the war on terrorism.
I'm sorry, but this is simply untrue. It's just not so. The fact that McCain voted 95% of the time in line with the Bush administrations wishes has become an Obama campaign talking point, so anyone can be forgiven for tuning it out. But it's not just a talking point, it's also true. It is an empirical fact that can be verified by studying McCain's voting record, as he himself knew when he bragged about his nearly unquestioning fidelity to the Bush administration's legislative agenda.

Reihan says "Now, in the last days of the campaign, he must find his voice, and make it clear that he's not in the race out of personal ambition - indeed, he would be well advised to make a one-term pledge." How does Reihan now that McCain isn't motivated by personal ambition? What possible politician could not be motivated by personal ambition? I'd love to hear some evidence that this is the case. As it stands, I find a lack of personal ambition neither a virtue for a presidential candidate, nor the sort of thing that can be known with enough certainty by anyone but the candidate himself to be of any use for a discriminating voter.

Reihan says in closing "Rather than win the election for a party or faction, he must promise to work with all parties and all talents to build a safer, more prosperous world." Again-- this is precisely the kind of post-partisan vision that has been endlessly mocked and derided when found in Obama supporters. And it is again a time when I shake my head in wonder. Where is Reihan deriving the notion that this candidate and his apparatus are in a position to bring this new ecumenicalism? This candidate, with this running mate, is someone interested in, or capable of, uniting the country? The one whose campaign has dedicated every available resource to rhetorically dividing the country into the pure and impure sections? This candidate, whose rallies without exception involve incitement against some supposedly malign segment of the American people? This candidate, who literally said there is a real Virginia, and a fake Virginia? It's incredible. Sarah Palin, the second-in-command of a great uniter?

The truth of the matter is, there is one candidate who has operated in this campaign with more decency and respect for his opponent than the other, and his name is Barack Obama.This is a candidate who has endured explicitly personal attacks, attacks on his integrity, patriotism and character, for the entire campaign, and yet has responded with arguments about policy. At times these are tough, negative arguments about policy, and even at times unfair ones, but they are about policy, not character. This is a man who has never even hinted at an attack on the patriotism of his opponent. This is a man who speaks with equanimity, who actually speaks about real post-partisanship, rather than making partisanship and cultural war his brand. That may be political pablum; but it's a far sight from "real American, fake America." This is a candidate who actually has some positive ads running. This is a man who, in a 30 minute campaign ad that ran this past week, never once mentioned his opponent. It's also a man who, at a campaign rally the other day in Florida, upon hearing his opponent's name booed, stopped the crowd and said "You don't have to boo, you just have to vote." That's precisely the kind of integrity that the myth of John McCain has insisted he operates under. I await the time when McCain interrupts Sarah Palin to stop the boos that she is inciting against Obama.

We are in a part of the calendar when people are fond of saying "your side does it too." Well, both sides do most things that the other side does. But it simply is not true that the Democrats or the Obama campaign has engaged in the same kind of cultural war that the Republicans and McCain have. That is just not true. I find few people with the gall to suggest it is. So I read with great confusion when Reihan insists that it is John McCain who can heal this gulf.

I am a partisan, and an idealogue. I am not a big fan of times when others suggest that they are not. Reihan, to his credit, is open about his ideological and partisan affinities. But this has been a rough campaign for Reihan, or so it seems to me. He often appears to be frustrated by his interlocutors' inability to see what he sees in John McCain. He really wants people, I think, to believe in the John McCain he believes in.

Well, with the proviso that I am in the tank for Obama, and a partisan Democrat, and a liberal: John McCain is not the man Reihan Salam thinks he is. He has never been that man. The question before us is this: do we follow in Reihan's footsteps and give ourselves over entirely to irrationality and quasi-religious faith in the supposedly self-evident goodness of John McCain? Or do we make our political decisions on the basis of empiricism and rationality, and derive evidence from the world around us? If that weighing of the political realities of McCain and Obama leads you to vote for McCain, then I understand. But I can't understand the abandonment of adult discrimination in favor of the hope that someone represents something other than what he says. Could it really, possibly be the case that the last 20 months of campaigning has all been a show? If someone can give me some precedent for that notion, if real world evidence could be provided to support it, I might be able to open my mind to the possibility that there is another McCain hidden beneath the surface. Absent of some evidence beyond assertion, I have to engage in the democratic process the way it was intended, and judge John McCain by his record, and his rhetoric, and his campaign, insted of trying to see the great man that his campaign is for some reason desperately attempting to hide.

Guest Blogger: Martin van Buren

In what I hope will merely be the first correspondence, former President Martin van Buren has written to address me at length about this election, the 21st century media, and world affairs. Enjoy. --Freddie

An Open Letter to Mr. Frederick L’Hote

From Mr. Martin Van Buren, CITIZEN
Lindenwald in Kinderhook, New-York

Dearest Mr. L’Hote,

I must take Liberty to notify you, in the most withering airs of disapprobation that honourable printmen will allow, that you, sir, are a common reprobate and Jacobin dog.

As you will no doubt infer from my career in the political fore, I, sir, consider myself a CITIZEN of our grand Republic. And, as any man of true virtue is wont and encouraged to do, I fancy myself an avid trencherman of all things politick.

Thus, of late, I have become a ready reader of your news-journal broadsides (what do you Jacobin dandies style it? Le Blogg?). In recent weeks I have perused your Whiggish dawdlings in eager anticipation of your take on our nation’s gravest policy concerns — issues, dear sir, that resonate hard and true with the Voting Public, issues that will sway the conscience and chill the humors in this upcoming exercise of our Republic’s freedoms.

It is to my lasting regret, then, that your Francophile editorial airs have occluded the issues of real substance this Election-Day. Where, dear sir, is your commentary on the grave national threat posed by the Caroline affair? Have you not the scruples to critique our banks’ incompetencies in specie mismanagement? What of the hoarding of good American land by jackanape Cherokee speculators? You claim to be a meaningful part of the Publick Discourse, but I only spot folly upon folly. You, sir, are the literary equivalent of a duplicitous, shortsighted upstate Canal builder!

I equally read with disgust and contempt your cowardly recent resolution to eschew your politicking discourse until Election-Day. Your choice of LE BANAL in lieu of further commentary on the candidates makes this restive 225-year-old want to box your ears with the vigor of a sprightly young Henry Clay. O with such Kentuckian rage I should pummel you into submission…

Yet, I can see that your dereliction in duties can only be overcome by the brave act of one citizen: THIS CITIZEN. Thus, for the edification of your subscribers, I offer the following exposition on our candidates for the Executive:

Issue the First: The Economies

Although I am bewildered by the lack of emphasis on the tariffs in this autumnal campaign, it is much to my approbation that both Senators Obama and McCain favor taxation initiatives that will provide relief to the common cooper, mechanic, or shipwright. Yet I am flummoxed by their recent support for a “bailout” of the moneyed speculators from our largest banks. For Obama, the amiable Whig, this comes as little surprise. Undoubtedly, the Illinois senator has constituent steamboat or canal magnates sweetening his campaign coffers. But how can Mr. McCain, champion that he is of the limited Jeffersonian government, betray our Democratic Party principles with this tawdry COURTING OF THE BANK FIENDS? Are they such dullards that the Panic of 1837 is but a small thing, a will-o’-the-wisp of our nation’s collective memory? The choice is simple. We must elect an Executive who will regulate these banker brigands. They must force upon them ironclad directives!! Nay, I say, no more meat for the wolves to sup on! I will vote for the Candidate who will cluck his tongue at the wily moneyed men and cry: “Sirs, back your currency with sufficient gold and silver specie! Or back no notes ‘t all!” The Republic will be nowhere without proper confidence in the bullion supply.

Issue the Second: The Security of the Republic

Lamentably, Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain have presented cocksure, cavalier attitudes in quantum a vital issue of this autumn’s campaign: the protection of Our Republic’s borders. Why, pro unus exempoator, have the Candidates not taken a stand on the aggressions of our Jacobin enemies off the border of Maine? Why, against all sound logic, have they not begun to build walls to keep out these yellow Catholick scoundrels? I would like the Chief Executive to assuage the Publick’s fears of an Aroostook County teeming with Popish jacktars, their rogue lumberjacks raping our Virgin Wilderness of its fine hardwood timber! Is this not AMERICAN TIMBER?? Is this not the TIMBER given unto Our Great Nation by our Holy God himself? And then, is it not our duty to pledge to fight for said TIMBER? Shall we continue to fear the dastardly and wanton incursions of our swarthy Franco-Briton neighbors from the Northward? That Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain have yet to address this timely issue in their many public fora leads me to believe that they themselves may be in the pocket of Louis-Philippe and the Capetian Pretenders.

Issue the Third: The Virtue of the Candidates

In judging one’s qualifications for the executive, I only ask that our writers and publishers answer me a simple question: which of the candidates is a WORTHY MAN, and which the greater jacktar? Friends and fellow Citizens, it is the DUTY of Mr. L’Hote and his brethren to give us a better picture of the virtue, wisdom, and sobriety of our choices for the Executive. By this standard the men of print, to say nothing of the more heavily interested men of politicking (you Jacobins call them le pundits), continue to fail.

Unanswered queries abound. What sayeth Senator Obama on the annexation issue in Texas? How will the question of slavery be decided there? And what will Senator McCain do to improve relations with Prussia? Does either candidate have secret coalitions with MONARCHISTS?

The literati should, nay, MUST endeavor to answer these questions before we call out our ballots in the public square this November.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

"shoot 'em in the brain"

I'm a big fan of the original Night of the Living Dead, it's a classic. But I hate the ending, where [1968-era spoiler] our hero is shot to death by sheriffs who believe him to be a zombie, after he survives the all-night ordeal of zombie-killing. I know that they're trying to work in some message, or something, and that it's become a staple of zombie movies that everybody dies. I like the hero too much and I think it ruins the ending. So I always turn it off before he dies now. (The title of this post, actually, is a misquote and never appears in the original movie. But it's still the greatest.)

Incidentally, I'm really opposed to the whole "fast zombies" trend. Zombies aren't fast, they're slow. They're a slow, shuffling mob. That's one of the cool things about fighting zombies. You don't fear them because they'll race up to you and get you, and you aren't scared of an individual zombie-- at least, not too much. Your fear of zombies is that they will gradually overwhelm you with numbers, a slow doom. Plus, zombie-ism isn'ta virus! You can't catch zombie-ism when you're alive. They way you turn into a zombie is, the zombies kill you, and the same thing that raised the zombies from the dead in the first place happens to you, and you're a zombie.

Zombies are the ultimate villain you can feel no guilt about killing, of course. Followed by robots, orcs and Nazis. I would love to be able to kill some zombies, although you rarely make it out alive. That's why I'm really looking forward to someday getting to play Left for Dead, although I'll definitely need a new desktop before I'm able to play it.

extraordinarily dubious predictions about 2012

Since making wild predictions about an election four years from now is so in vogue-- even though the one five days from now is still anyone's game-- here's my extremely dubious prediction about 2012.

Sarah Palin wins a long and contentious GOP primary over Mike Huckabee. She initially asks Bobby Jindal to be her running mate, but Jindal, being no fool, recognizes a sinking ship when he sees it and begs off due to the pressure it would put on his family. Palin ultimately taps Connecticut Governor Jodi Rell, who has been working tirelessly from 2010 on to position herself more in line with conservative orthodoxy, and to burnish her Republican credentials. Her selection opens the door to a reinvigoration of the Republican brand in the Northeast and is a play to precisely the kind of moderates that Palin alienates. The two-women ticket is perceived as exactly the kind of huge gamble needed to unseat a popular incumbent. The failure to select Huckabee, however, causes dissent among much of the Republican rank and file.

Palin, correctly perceiving her campaign as a dark horse prospect, goes negative from the get-go, doubling down on the culture war mojo she displayed in the 2008 campaign. The Republican base loves her, and her rallies begin to be staffed with more and more security, as the attendees have become very difficult to rein in. She scores some early points with her aggressive demeanor and a slash-and-burn rhetorical style. Rell meanwhile works quietly in the Northeast and Rust Belt, reaching out to women voters and Reagan Democrats. Palin is also scoring points in unexpected places by proposing that the US finally withdraw from Afghanistan, which President Obama and his cabinet are reluctant to do. While liberals won't vote for Palin, many lack the enthusiasm for Obama they felt in 2008, due to his failure to pass real comprehensive health care legislation, and the three long years we remained in Iraq following his election. Pundits on TV talk excitedly about an expanded map to GOP victory. Florida seems in genuine danger of turning back to Red after a one-election blue turn. California shows a little Republican friskiness, thanks to Arnold's campaigning, but shows little real chances of flipping to the Republicans.

Ultimately, however, Palin's divisive style wounds her campaign as much as helps it. She is still too unpopular in the eyes of many secular independents (a growing constituency) and non-white or non-Christian centrists. The Republican apparatus is still distrustful of her, and many of the Republican apparatchiks any campaign needs to win still blame her for the failure of 2008. President Obama wins the endorsement of many moderate Republicans, and enjoys the popularity that comes with a stabilized but not resurgent economy. Whats more, the "can you trust this man" narrative that the GOP pushed so relentlessly in 2008 has been utterly undone by 4 years of steady (if not inspiring) leadership. Many of the people who once regarded Obama with suspicion, in fact, now look on him quite favorably; he is calming and pleasant to them, and his presidency helps assuage some of their discomfort at questions of race. To the dismay of both Bushite Republicans and liberals, Obama has revealed himself to be exactly the kind of earnest, affable moderate neither side wished him to be. Heading into October, he enjoys a double digit lead.

Then, on the anniversary of one of the 2008 Presidential debates, what pundits call the most devastating endorsement in Presidential history is announced: John McCain is coming out with his support for Barack Obama. He gives a speech in that irascible style of his, talking about his old rival and great friend Barack. It's the perfect turn for him; it satisfies all the narratives about himself that he enjoys. Having retired from the Senate in 2010, it's to be his last major appearance on the national stage. In his mind, and the mind of the media, it cements for once and all his maverick credentials, and proves that he was always his own man. And, best of all, it's one last kick in the pants to Sarah Palin, the disloyal phony who slit his throat in the press mere weeks after their defeat.

Democrats who loudly derided him four years earlier get a little choked up at his announcement. They say they always knew he was a better man than he showed in 2008. The press laps the story up, they live for this sort of thing. He's feted on all the political shows on cable; he makes the front page of Newsweek one last time. People talk about him again with reverence and respect. They say "there's a man who'll take on his party," and remark that, for him, it really is all about country first. His remarks about steady leadership and the need to move past partisanship strike exactly the right notes, in a way he was congenitally unable to do in his own campaign. As he stands on the stage, hearing the roar of the crowd, sealing Obama's reelection, a twinkle lights in his eye. The old maverick flyboy had done it again.

"And then what?" "Then we'll have a snack."

Go and read Conor, if you've a mind to, respond to a response from me earlier.

I think I've made my own point nearly well enough, and these back and forths can get a little tail-eating, so I'll let what I've said stand. What I would say just briefly is that, regarding the idea that charities and religious organizations should cover the slack for people who can't make ends meet-- well... it's be nice. They have an opportunity to do more now, and they don't, so I'm skeptical that they could ever do the job fully. Some say that the fact that there is a government safety net makes it so that this fuller charitable safety net does not exist. I doubt that's the case, though I can't know. The problem is, neither can the advocates of this private charitable system. This is another of my non-falsifiability problems; I am inherently skeptical of notions along the lines of "you can't know the benefits of our proposal until it's implemented." But that's hardly unique to conservatism.

It is gratifying to have this conversation. These questions, I think, should be asked, even absent of specific policy proposals. In my post about postmodernism and meaning, Will Wilkinson said in comments that I should remember the simple wisdom of how it feels to have the top down and your girl by your side, and he's right as rain-- life is the antitode to existential angst, to letting your thinking get too heavy. I'm content to let thoughts of life, the universe and everything go. I don't need to know the meaning of Truth, actually.

What I have a harder time letting go of is this: I believe there is a moral challenge in the face of another person. And what I'm trying to work out is how that challenge can be integrated into my ideas about truth, and postmodernity, and politics. When Rod Dreher linked to me so graciously and kindly, I think he understood that this is what I'm getting at, in my little online scribbles. What is right for me to do, and what does the reality of other people, other lives, mean for my responsibilities as a thinking being? That's a bigger deal, to me, than understanding, like, what it's really all about, man. I can't get from my belief in the human nature of systems of meaning to a place where I am confronted by a moral challenge in the reality of other people. But I believe in that challenge, and I'm bent on talking about it.

If all this sounds maximally heavy and quite a bit pretentious, guilty as charged. What I will ask is that you understand that my creation is not me, and that I'm not, actually, some effete tortured self-obsessed jerk. (Well... I mean, I don't think I'm one. YMMV.) It's simply that, in the day to day, I think most of us find many aspects of our lives rather demoralizing, and rather damaging to our sense of personal narrative. Anthony Lane once wrote that one of the joys of being young is that, at certain times, your life can take on the rhythms and cadence of literature. I'm alternatively emboldened and depressed by the sense of life-as-fiction; I never get more down than when people say that a moment in their life was so fun/meaningful/deep/dramatic/transcendent/whatever, it was "like a movie."

No! When movies are at their best, they're most like life! That's part of the reason so many people feel a sense of spiritual disconnection in their lives. They expect their lives to look and act and feel like movies, and that's a construct. That's why I've always loved the end of The Graduate, because when they rush out to that school bus, you think "Mrs. Robinson" is gonna come on and they'll cut to black and Ben and Elaine will live happier ever after. Only the camera lingers too long, and their smiles fade, and they're still on that bus, and "The Sound of Silence" comes on. Because life isn't a movie, and there's no happily ever after, or endings, except death. I think they'll be much better off, the two of them, now that they have each other. But narrative has the benefit of completion, and they've just got more life to live, with all the questions and problems that follow. And even The Graduate eventually fades to black.

Anyway... the point is, that one of the cool things about writing, and writing online, is the sense in which you can reduce the wild and fractured flow of the mind to something occasionally coherent, even meaningful. That, in turn, can help to lend a sense of the order and direction that exists in dramatic narrative and is lacking in life. The problem is, it can be unbearably pretentious, and I am the most vulnerable to my own excesses when I am feeling the most, well, dramatic. So let me assure you: I'm well aware of the sense of self-parody in my Shakespeare quote, my blog title from a French short story (and you should hear me struggle to pronounce the name of my own blog!), my earnest looking picture.... Here on this blog, sometimes I can take myself seriously, which is nice. When I take myself too seriously, meanwhile, real life has a habit of reminding me that I'm a somewhat ridiculous person. Which is a good, good thing.

So, yeah: I believe in a moral challenge in the face of other people and their suffering. That's unfortunately conducive to self-importance, preachiness and moralizing. I'll keep working on it, and I'll rely on all of you to help keep me in Czech. And one day, I'll walk away from this, of course. Sound like a deal?

This is not even close to Banal BloggingTM. Why can't I ever follow even my own rules! Oh well.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

teh gays in teh math lessins

How exactly would one mix the homosexual agenda into a math lesson?

"See, you have to isolate the variable on one side of the equal sign, so first we're gonna divide each side by 3. Speaking of equal signs, did you kids know that gay people are totally equal to everyone else?"

Honestly, the desperate attempts to make the denial of marriage rights to gay people a matter of protecting freedom would be funny if it wasn't so sad, and if Prop 8 didn't have a good shot of passing. I will say one more time: my belief in gay marriage stems from the fact that I believe in the equal dignity of gay love. But you can not feel that way, and still not oppose gay marriage. All you have to do is leave them alone. You don't have to condone gay relationships or gay marriage. You don't have approve of homosexuality. You don't have to let gay couples into your home, or befriend them, or do anything to support them in any way. And you can absolutely morally or religiously condemn them, if you so choose. You just have to believe that the government has no business telling two consenting adults that they can't enter the legal contract of marriage with one another.

Leaving other people alone is the greatest conservative value, and one which I hope the people of California remember on election day.

really, Tina?

I think something that's important to remember is the fact that even if someone can articulate a sophisticated or complex argument for something, it can still be, well, bullshit. I think we tend to imagine that if people put enough thought into something, it'll be at least internally consistent and contain some truth. That just isn't the case. I remember in an old Spin magazine Elijah Wood was given space to talk about the music he liked. And he had very sophisticated opinions about music-- he was obviously informed and knew a lot about music history. But his taste in music was still incredibly bad. Just being sophisticated about music wasn't enough to make him like actually good music.

Now, music appreciation is purely subjective, and Frodo's favorite bands is a rather inconsequential topic. Less subject and more important is this election. I think this piece is a good example of how knowing a lot about politics and developing a long argument about the election still can leave you with a truly, embarrassingly horrid article. Let me be simple and plain: the election has been going on for almost 2 years. I've read, certainly, several thousand blog posts, articles and stories about this election. If this isn't the worst... it's close.

When we first met, Obama and I had a nice conversation about speeches and writing, and at the end of the meeting I handed him a pocket-sized bottle of Grey Poupon mustard so he wouldn’t have to ask staff if it was okay to put it on his hamburger. At the bottom of the bottle was the logo for “The South Beach Diet” and he snapped, “Oh so you read People magazine.” He seemed to think that I was commenting on his bathing suit picture.

Ah, the old "he wasn't nice to me" justification for not voting for someone. I continue to be shocked at how many people who have worked inside Washington base their opinion on whether or not someone is the best candidate for office on whether or not that person was nice to them personally. Barack Obama, and every one in a similar position,works with thousands of people. Eventually, he's not going to be perfectly cordial with some of them. Adults understand that. And, by the way, John Edwards, who you seem to have so much affection for? He's done some not very nice things in the past himself.

The final straw came the other week when Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher (a.k.a Joe the Plumber) asked a question about higher taxes for small businesses. Instead of celebrating his aspirations, they were mocked. He wasn’t “a real plumber,” and “They’re fighting for Joe the Hedge-Fund manager,” and the patronizing, “I’ve got nothing but love for Joe the Plumber.”

More than anything, this is a woman with no conception whatsoever that Obama is not synonomous with the media that covers him. I defy you-- I defy anyone-- to find anything remotely negative that Obama had to say about "Joe the Plumber". Can't do it, cause it hasn't happened. Again and again in this piece, she acts as though pretty much anyone in the media is a surrogate for Barack Obama. Why? By what logic? On whose authority? This is a patently juvenile way of looking at the world. What's more, many people (like me) have been critical of the Joe the Plumber media narrative, because it's an insulting distraction. That doesn't mean we're being unfair to Joe the Plumber, beyond the fact that he is clearly grubbing for media attention.

As the nation slouches toward disaster, the level of political discourse is unworthy of this moment in history. We have Republicans raising Ayers and Democrats fostering ageism with “erratic” and jokes about Depends. Sexism. Racism. Ageism and maybe some Socialism have all made their ugly cameos in election 2008. It’s not inspiring. Perhaps this is why I found the initial mocking of Joe so offensive and I realized an old line applied: “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party; the Democratic Party left me.”

See, this is a plain old case of incoherence. What is she saying? Is she saying that the discourse is unworthy because we talk about stupid stuff? She makes it absolutely clear later on that she thinks that sexism is a major issue in this campaign. So how can this be "unworthy discourse"? Surely, if she really thinks that socialism is at issue here, she can't think that's trivial. She seems to contrast "inspiring" issues with these issues, as if only things that are inspiring are relevantly political. And anyway, she says she switches political identities because of these concerns! Isn't that the definition of relevance? And anyway, she criticizes the Ayers talking point! How is that an example of the Democratic Party leaving her? And she doesn't like political issues that aren't inspiring, but she cares about the Joe the Plumber saga, the most trivial, asinine excuse for a political issue imaginable. Gah.

The party I believed in wouldn’t look down on working people under any circumstance. And Joe the Plumber is right. This is the absolutely worst time to raise taxes on anyone: the rich, the middle class, the poor, small businesses and corporations.

Ah, yes. Those working people. Memo, my dear: no working people make $250,000 a year! This is cognitive dissonance that simply can't be believed. Working people are precisely who Barack Obama's tax cuts would benefit. Not Joe the Plumber, because Joe the Plumber isn't working class. Being called Joe and having a culturally-branded working class (but not really working class) occupation doesn't make you working class. Joe makes more money than the vast majority of his fellow citizens.

On the "this is the absolute[] worst time to raise taxes on anyone" front-- oh, but it's a great time to enact a total government spending freeze? That's a workable economic policy in response to recession?

Our economy is in the tank for many complicated reasons, especially because people don’t have enough money. So let them keep it. Let businesses keep it so they can create jobs and stay here and weather this storm. And yet, the Democratic ideology remains the same. Our approach to problems—big government solutions paid for by taxing the rich and big and smaller companies—is just as tired and out of date as trickle down economics.

Uh, trickle down economics is what you're talking about. When you say that more money for businesses will create jobs and profits for everyone, that's trickle down economics. And trickle down economics don't work. Which you seem to understand!

That’s not exactly the philosophy of a Democrat. Not only has this party belittled working people in this campaign from Joe the Plumber to the bitter comments, it has also been part of tearing down two female candidates. At first, certain Democrats and the press called Senator Clinton “dishonest.” They went after her cleavage. They said her experience as First Lady consisted of having tea parties. There was no outrage over “Bros before Hoes” or “Iron My Shirt.” Did Senator Clinton make mistakes? Of course. She’s human.

First of all, I remember quite a bit gnashing of teeth over the treatment of Hilary, thanks. Second of all, again-- why is Barack Obama responsible for "certain Democrats and the press"? How is their opinion dispositive of his campaign's worth? And what if Hilary really is "a liar"? And why does it matter if two female candidates are torn down, if they aren't the best candidates running? If you'd like to make the positive case for Hilary or Palin, make it.

Governor Palin and I don’t agree on a lot of things, mostly social issues. But I have grown to appreciate the Governor. I was one of those initial skeptics and would laugh at the pictures. Not anymore. When someone takes on a corrupt political machine and a sitting governor, that is not done by someone with a low I.Q. or a moral core made of tissue paper.

That would be more impressive if she had actually taken on a corrupt political machine, rather than cozying up to convicted felon Ted Stevens.

When someone fights her way to get scholarships and work her way through college even in a jagged line, that shows determination and humility you can’t learn from reading Reinhold Niebuhr.

Hey, I worked my way through college in a jagged line. I'd like to think it took some determination and humility. I also know lots of people who went through college in a jagged line because they were more interested in smoking weed. I am proud of my public access college diploma, and my great grades. I work hard to prove that my unusual college resume isn't a knock against me. But I don't pretend it's some feather in my cap, either.

When a mother brings her son with special needs onto the national stage with love, honesty, and pride, that gives hope to families like mine as my older brother lives with a mental disability.

Or it causes people like me to recoil at the rank political opportunism of using an infant as a political prop to be used crassly in the service of gaining votes.

Has she made mistakes? Of course, she’s human too. But the attention paid to her mistakes has been unprecedented compared to Senator Obama’s “57 states” remarks or Senator Biden using a version of the Samuel Johnson quote, “There’s nothing like a hanging in the morning to focus a man’s thoughts.”

In other words, you want her to reap all the benefits of positive attention, but not have to withstand the negative attention. Double standards cut both ways, and I encounter this one again and again. When people say they don't want Palin to be judged differently, they mean they don't want her to be judged, period. If Joe Biden had stumbled through interviews like a drunkard, would he have been spared any negativity? Of course not. But Biden wouldn't have stumbled in that way, because Joe Biden is actually qualified to be the Vice President. The idea that we should remove any expectation of accountability from female politicians is the opposite of feminism.

But thank God for election 2008. We can talk about the wardrobe and make-up even though most people don’t understand the details about Senator Obama’s plan with Iraq. When he says, “all combat troops,” he’s not talking about all troops—it leaves a residual force of as large as 55,000 indefinitely. That’s not ending the war; that’s half a war.

Can someone get this woman a book deal? I haven't encountered logic this penetrating since I graded essays for middle school.

I can no longer justify what this party has done and can’t dismiss the treatment of women and working people as just part of the new kind of politics.

it wasn't "the party" who did that, it was a few people, some in the party, some not, and anyway you're exaggerating this nonsense, and anyway, allowing your political affiliation to change because you have such bizarre ideas about message surrogacy is beyond childish and stupid...

It’s wrong and someone has to say that. And also say that the Democratic Party’s talking points—that Senator John McCain is just four more years of the same and that he’s President Bush—are now just hooker lines that fit a very effective and perhaps wave-winning political argument…doesn’t mean they’re true. After all, he is the only one who’s worked in a bipartisan way on big challenges.

That's just asserted garbage. Just totally non-supported nonsense. By his own bragging admission, McCain voted 95% of the time with George Bush. That's the stuff of bipartisanship?

Before I cast my vote, I will correct my party affiliation and change it to No Party or Independent. Then, in the spirit of election 2008, I’ll get a manicure, pedicure, and my hair done. Might as well look pretty when I am unemployed in a city swimming with “D’s.”

Haha, yeah! Cause it's the party critical of a woman whose sole rationale for being the Vice Presidential nominee is that she's good looking that cares too much about appearance. Right?

Whatever inspiration I had in Chapel Hill two years ago is gone. When people say how excited they are about this election, I can now say, “Maybe for you. But I lost my home.”

You know who will benefit from Barack Obama's policies? People who have actually, literally lost their physical homes. You know, people who are more interested in an election based on pragmatic policy concerns, and less on whiny metaphorical bullshit and ham-handed emotionalism? You know, actual working class people? Yeah. They like Barack.

The fact that this woman worked as a speechwriter for major presidential nominees, by the way, puts another nail in the coffin in the "America is a meritocracy" idea.


Hey, you know what would help us coastal-types convince "flyover country" that we don't condescend to them?

Not having every post about a NASCAR driver endorsing Obama be framed as "Holy shit, a NASCAR driver endorsing Obama?!?!" I mean, really. It's that crazy to you? NASCAR drivers just have to be conservative? Or racist? Or whatever else? It's totally wild that someone could both be an elite (or former elite) racecar driver, and a liberal, or a Democrat, or just prefer Obama? What about driving a racecar, do you think, disqualifies someone from voting for Obama?

Texas is going to vote no less than 40% for Obama, OK? Vermont will have thousands of people voting for McCain. The bluest blue states have tons of Republicans. The reddest red states have tons of Democrats. Stop playing into these ignorant stereotypes by acting like people outside of the liberal stereotype can't vote for Obama. If that was true, he would have no chance of winning at all.


Tuesday, October 28, 2008

I suppose this isn't Banal Bloggingtm, but oh well.

Reihan and I just can't talk about Iraq with each other. I'm giving up on that. I think it's okay, to give up on things like that. I care for Reihan as much as it's possible to care for someone when you have only ever having engaged with them online. But we can't talk about Iraq.

It's not just that we disagree so deeply on the issue. It's not just that foreign policy is important to both of us. I think it's that we have overlapping areas of sensitivity on that issue, and that's likely to always be the case. Things that are self-evident to me are crazy to him, and vice versa; and those disagreements become emotional. Too much investment, I imagine, on both sides.

There are incommesurabilities, in life. There are things we can't talk about, sometimes, and honest and fair discussion won't, actually, resolve away every division, or even most.

Sometime we'll bring them home. I hope it's true that, someday, this country will fall out of love with sending its armies to wage war around the globe....

Final Draft

So I'm not much of a creative writer, but (obviously) I enjoy writing, and lots of times I want to write stories and such.

I really enjoy Final Draft for that reason. It's a program for screenplay writing which does all of the formatting for you. (There are other programs which do the same thing, I think, and they would probably be just as good.) Whats cool about it is that the structure is limiting, in the good way-- structure gives form, and form gives power, after all. When you have a constricting format like screenwriting has, it really focuses you, and it strangely makes it easier for you to tell the story you want to tell. For me, when I try to creatively write (like a short story or novel) I spend most of my time stressing about how I'm gonna tell the story-- "he walked in" versus "he ambled in" versus "he stepped into the room" versus whatever-- and screenwriting, with its emphasis on simply what happens and not on how it's expressed, removes that burdened. And because films can't show thoughts, I don't feel the need to express the internal aspects of characters.

Lots of times I'll just write up a scene or two, or even just turn something that happened in my real life into screenplay form. I really recommend it, it's a great outlet for stress-busting and creativity.

(Uh, Final Draft didn't pay me, or anything.)

Monday, October 27, 2008

I'm gonna write a novel. It's gonna be about this adult son who's trying to convince his dying father not to convert from Judaism to Christianity on his deathbed, as the father's current wife (and the son's stepmother) desires.

I'm gonna call it Do Not Go Gentile Into That Good Night.

Thanks, folks. I'll be here all week. Don't forget to tip your waitress.

From an email

This is from an email I just got (reprinted with permission). Lightly excerpted:

"I read Scott Payne's post that mentioned your almost exclusively conservative reading habits, when it comes to blogs, [that's here--Freddie] and... yeah. I think that says an awful lot.

I read your stuff, and I quite enjoy it. But I often find that, when you are talking about conservatives, I'm nodding my head yes, and when you're talking about liberals, I'm shaking my head and saying, "are you kidding?" .... I think you are far too quick to dismiss certain bad habits and nasty attitudes among people of your own ideology, and I think that's the product of never reading the activist blogs, not getting a real handle on the amount of liberal snark and vitriol that's out there. So when you get into arguments with someone like Conor, the two of you are talking past one another.... You're not really arguing in the same environment.

I also think this is why you come across as aggressive sometimes. Because you're reading the same conservative tropes over and over without getting an adequate dose of the other side. So you feel like you're in an atmosphere where you are besieged....  The thing is, those feelings are self-chosen, because of your reading habits. You wouldn't feel like you're fighting a tide if you had a better understanding of the amount of liberal argument that's out there.

It's certainly better to read your opposition than to operate in a cocoon, like a lot of liberals who frequent blogs. But if you only read the opposition, it's just as distorting, and I think it's to the detriment of your own blog."

saaaaaaaaaaved by zeeeeeeeeeero

Given the now overpowering ability of jingle writers to pen little commercial ditties that stick in your head, it should be illegal to run this kind of commercial more than once an hour.

Sa-aved by ze-ero!
Saved by zero!
Saved by zero!


The election is about a week away. In the interest of preserving my sanity, your patience, and a healthy respect for the opinions of those with whom I disagree, I will be Banal Blogging until Election day. Enjoy.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

tuning the strings

When you tune a guitar, you can't tune every string at once. You tune one string according to another, and when the two of them are in tune, you turn to the next string, and tune that, again, two at a time. The thing is, if you aren't tuning them just so, two strings can sound more or less in tune with each other. But as you move up the neck, each string is a little off with the next one, and a little off with the next one-- so when you play a chord, it's all out of tune. Microtones off on each string adds up to a dissonant mess.

I think that's how people in our little idiosyncratic tributary of the roaring river Blog can end up so annoyed with each other. Dedication to respect, intellectual curiosity and the assumption of good faith isn't enough, actually, to preserve everyone's feelings, every time. Because we read the different posts, and we interpret them a little bit off, a little out of tune; and then we reply. And then that reply is read, and analyzed, and that analysis is a little past true, a little wrong, and then the inevitable response comes, and is in turn not read quite right....

I cannot wait for this election to be over. Two years of this, really. Two years. I'm so ready for it to be over.

A lot of people talk about getting rid of Bush, so that we can restore dignity to the White House, or whatever. I don't know much about dignity. I just want normalcy. I just want not to constantly feel like the world's on fire. Events, though, are conspiring against us. I'm opposed to teleology, because I don't think it's true to real life. So I kind of have been happy to see various Fukuyaman notions of the end of history fail. That doesn't mean a part of me doesn't want them to be true. You know, the 90s, being the decade in which I grew up, are inevitably going to get a lot of false nostalgia from me. I guess I just look back and want things to feel normal again, so that time can just sort of stretch out, and the sun can shine on these United States....


Anytime I phrase something along the lines "group X do this", unless I specifically say I really mean all of them, assume I mean "lots of group X" or even "some of group X".

I should have the discipline to do that on my own. Turns out I don't!

the crucial question, continued

Interesting thing, about being a liberal. Conservatives complain about liberal attacks on morality, or our refusal to partake in the language of morals and "oughts". But if you actually do talk about the moral consequences of political opinions, you're going to be regarded as another preachy liberal. So let me give fair warning to one and all: my politics is a politics of morality, and I will argue about morality, which means that, yes, I'll moralize. If you don't like it, there are many other places on the web to point your browser.

Conor Friedersdorf has penned a reply to my post on conservative incompleteness.

First of all: I very much doubt you can find any conservatives who think Katrina victims shouldn’t have been helped. Link please?

How many do you want, exactly? I suppose you could say that claiming that people deserve something and saying that they shouldn't be helped are two different things. But then, you can find people who will say simply that they shouldn't be helped. It's very strange to me that Conor very much doubts this. Yes, they're crazies. They exist, in greater numbers than I imagine Conor would care to know. Moving on.

Suffering exists in the world, and in the United States. That is an inevitable consequence of life. The fact that it is inevitable does not obviate our responsibility, as individuals or a society, to make good faith efforts to ameliorate that suffering. In a sense, any individual's thoughts about how far that responsibility extends determines whether they are a liberal, or a conservative, or a libertarian, or a socialist, or whatever else. I believe that we have a duty to provide a robust social safety net for people who have failed to provide for themselves, while I recognize the loss of efficiency and the danger of dependency that such a stance ensures. My disappointment and frustration with conservatism comes from the fact that so much of conservatism seems to rest not on the insistence that we must choose to leave some behind, but on the refusal to admit to the fact that there are those who are left behind at all. And despite his efforts to refute me, this is precisely the refusal that Conor perpetuates.

Conor first seems to suggest that there are no people who say that we shouldn't have a safety net. This is kind of mad to me. I find it hard to believe that Conor has never encountered an extremist (or, depending on your point of a view, a real) libertarian. He says "find me a conservative who would say, 'Let the child starve.'" Let me assure Friedersdorf: there is, in fact, a small but vocal minority of people who would say just that. Did Conor not go to college? Or never have a dorm room conversation when he was there? Has he never met anyone who believes that, indeed, people have no positive rights? The fact that he's talking about a baby, of course, is a way to rig the game. But, yes, there are some people who would say let the baby starve. (Go to an objectivist convention. Ask around.)

If we don't pick an example that makes Friederdorf's position the easiest to argue, you'll find things more complicated still. Many people are happy to extend positive rights (like food and shelter) to children but not to adults. So, okay-- how about those adults? Again, there are questions of fairness, and efficacy. Those questions are important, and legitimate. Again, those questions don't remove the question of what happens next: if an adult is in a position where no one but the government is willing to care for him or her, and needs care, what then? If the answer is "tough noogies", that's at least an answer, and a more popular one than I think Conor gives credit for. Does Friedersdorf think we should provide a safety net for them? He seems to say that we should, up to an extent. Fair enough, although I think that this gives the game away, when it comes to limiting the intellectual and philosophical scope of government, to a degree that Conor hasn't begun to unpack.

I promise you, there are very many people who think we should do nothing at all about suffering adults. In fact, I'd wager that their number includes the majority of libertarians and many conservatives. So... what happens to those people? What happens to those people if government does not provide for them? Again, you will hear reasons why it's bad for government to provide for him, from conservatives, and you'll hear reasons why it's unfair for government to provide for him. But you'll find precious few conservatives that will have anything whatsoever to say about what, exactly, will happen to such a person. You can say that they'll just continue to suffer, or you can say that we should care for them, or you can come up with an alternative scheme for how they can be cared for. You can't, however, act like pointing out the difficulties inherent in this caring for people amounts to an answer about what exactly will happen to them without government.

That's what I want to see on the right. I want the right to move past the point where ignoring or denying the existence of need is an essential part of their discourse. Yet in the midst of attempting to refute me, Conor does exactly what drives me to distraction:

Again, I’m inclined to house poor people too, but not if the consequences of doing so are worse than them being homeless. If doing something is a net minus, I say do nothing for the good of those who’ll be harmed.

Here. This, exactly. And what then, Conor? This is exactly what drives me so crazy! What I am asking conservatives like Friedersdorf is to drop the other shoe. So Conor thinks there are some prices that are too high to be paid in order to house people. This is a fair position. Now say what this means: there are times when I, Conor Friedersdorf, will choose to leave some people homeless. Say it! Admit that you are condemning some people to homelessness. Don't wander off without making that clear. This is exactly what I'm addressing. Tell them, and tell us, what exactly you're willing to let people endure. It's a tough world. Maybe the most responsible thing is to have a tough answer to these questions. Could be. I remain open to the opinion that a working public policy apparatus might have to leave some people in a very tough position. I refuse to allow that opinion to be buttressed by ignoring the fact that people will be left in tough positions, or by pretending that it isn't so. I refuse.

I rarely get emotional, about this stuff, but I got a little emotional about this. And why? Ultimately, it's the attitude that, somehow, a real inability to provide for oneself just doesn't happen, or that it's so rare as to be unmentionable. It's this fundamental incredulity that people could have these wants and needs. The notion that hungry people are some liberal construct. This idea that, when I say "there are people who are going to be cared for by government, or not be cared for at all", it's some irrelevant gotcha, instead of a very frank and simple statement about the reality of suffering, here, now, in this country.

So let's be clear: there are millions and millions of people in this country who don't have what I would call an even basic ability to provide for themselves. There are something like 37 million people in poverty, in this country, today, now. There are something like 45 million Americans with no health care, no way to secure coverage, and no recourse from the government, in this country, today, now. There are some 3 to 3.5 million people who are homeless, in this country, today, now. Friedersdorf snorts at the idea that anyone is starving in this country. Well, yeah, on the large scale, there are vanishingly few people who are actually starving in this country, the way they starve in other countries-- although if you think there is literally no one like that, out there on the streets, you're wrong. Even though there are few people in this country literally starving, does Conor think that there aren't far, far too many who go to bed hungry? That there aren't people who can't procure enough food to satisfy their hunger, or their nutritional needs? I hope he doesn't think that way. I'm told it's the liberals who are naive, after all.

No conservatives come out and say "There are no poor" or "there are no suffering" in America. Cognitively, theoretically, they understand these things. But in actual practice, in practical conversation, many elide these facts, sweep by them, dance around them. Conor is incredulous at the idea that conservatives would say "Don't feed the starving child". So am I! The difference is, Conor thinks its implausible because he assumes the answer of everyone is "feed that child". I think it's implausible because conservatives are so invested in not talking about the starving child at all. They slip by the starving baby, the way Conor expressed his willingness to leave people homeless without actually saying he was willing to do so.

Let’s simplify this. A car accident kills two parents, but their infant survives. There is no family. They belonged to no church. they had no life insurance. Do I think the government should pay the baby’s hospital bill? Yes. Do I think it should facilitate adoptive parents? Yes. In the unlikely event that there are no adoptive parents, should it be raised as a ward of the state? Yes.

With respect-- this says so much about the way people like Friedersdorf see the world. To your average conservative, human suffering is a strange mistake, a weird exception that has to be confronted with skepticism and doubt. Never mind the statistics-- those things are notional, abstract, at arms length. How could there really be no one to care for you, if you were an orphaned child? Could that really happen? Let me say from personal experience that this skepticism towards the idea of the genuine inability to provide for yourself, or to have a community around you to provide for you-- that's conservative fantasy. I'm sure it seems very hard to believe for some people, because they have been raised with the privilege of a robust community safety net. Good for them. They shouldn't kid themselves that these things don't happen. Conor says "self-sufficiency and community are superior options for everyone involved in the vast majority of cases when they are feasible alternatives". Ah, well. Those conservative alternatives. Those conservative shoulds. Just like when they say "children should be raised by two loving parents". Lots of things should be the case. Sometimes I feel like I'm awash in shoulds.

Ross Douthat posted last week about Jacob Weisberg's comparison of libertarianism to socialism. Ross did a very curious, and in my mind indefensible, thing. He wrote a post that suggested that the only victims of capitalism are those suffering from the financial crisis. I wrote him an email (as he no longer allows comments). I said, isn't there something wrong, here? Those are the only victims? What about the poor? What about poverty? What about those left behind? I'm no socialist. I'm not longing for Marxist revolution. I recognize that, maybe, this is the best system. But does being a good capitalist now really require that we just pretend that the system has no flaws, that no one falls through the cracks? Are we required now to be such unthinking cheerleaders of this capitalist enterprise that we can act like only this financial crisis has produced losers? I can take a conservatism that says that we must make tough choices about the good of the many at the expense of the few. I can't take one that acts as if the few doesn't exist, or as if they are so miniscule they present no moral quandrary to us at all. Ross never replied to my email.

We are living in a period of conservative realignment. One way or another, conservatism is going to change. The changes that confront conservatism, however, will largely be procedural: the great failings of conservatism in the public mind have been in how its proponents have argued, not in what they are arguing. Questions of honesty. Questions of integrity. Questions of strategy and tactics, questions of respect for dissenters, questions of loyalty and free-thinking. But I am stuck on this question of content. As much rot in terms of process as there seems to be in the conservative mainstream, it's this question that most concerns me.

When I was in high school, a conservative friend of mine assailed me for not reading enough conservative books and magazines, saying I was in the cocoon. He was right. I worked on it. I keep working at it. I try hard to be cordial with my conservative interlocutors. I try hard to keep an open mind, and I try hard to listen. But if we are going to be honest, and open, I can't get past this fundamental conservative failing, this shrinking from the face of the reality of human need and human suffering. Most conservatives, I suspect, must deny this suffering. They have to. They have to, because somewhere along the way they decided that in fact it was our duty to help those incapable of helping themselves. This is a victory, in some ways, for liberalism, in that it inevitably privileges systems that expand the role of government. I don't think the average conservative recognizes the degree to which an ethic that requires us to feed that starving child is profoundly unconservative. I think this is responsible for the feeling many conservatives have that movement towards liberalism is inevitable. But it creates an irresponsible dialogue, one that invites denial as a principle mechanism.

As long as conservatism is under girded by people who deny human need to suit their conception of America, American conservatism will be an immature ideology. It will be an ideology full of fabulists and fantasists, people who tell themselves convenient lies, people telling a false story about the lack of suffering in America, back and forth, back and forth, assuring each other that there are no such suffering people, it's all just some liberal ploy....

Tonight, American children will go to bed hungry, because no one can afford to give them enough to eat. Tonight someone huddles in an alleyway with nowhere else to sleep. Tonight someone falls deeper into alcoholism because he has no ability to enter a rehab facility. It's happening, in this country, now. Is this a self-parody of liberal thought? Sure. Do I sometimes devolve to caricature when discussing these first principles? I'm sure. But there is this fundamental dishonesty that I encounter in conservatism again and again, and I have to point it out, even in the face of my own pretension and self-importance. The bigger question is this: is the existence of that suffering the only question a responsible government has to concern itself with? Of course not. Do I also have to balance questions of the many versus the few? I do. I believe strongly that whenever the question is whether we can afford to offer basic social services in the face of truly immediate and necessary needs-- needs of housing, food, health care, clothing-- the answer is yes. And I believe that the negative consequences of providing that safety net has been dramatically exaggerated by those who have the privilege of never having to take advantage of it. But, it's true, at some point I may face a situation where the negative consequences of helping someone outweigh the benefits. Then I'll have to confront my own "and then whats". I swear to you I will confront them honestly and with a full appreciation of the consequences.

So again, these people, who are real and alive, today, now. What does conservatism have to say to these people?

For some, it's "life's tough". That's a fair position. For some, it's "let's help you". That's also fair, although I think most conservatives dramatically underestimate how complicating and immense the consequences of that thinking are, or how, once you start down the road of providing for people who can't provide for themselves, the question of where to stop gets a lot more difficult to answer than you expect. I'll take either of those answers, at the end of the day. I won't take the unspoken conservative meme that there just isn't this need out there, because that notion has this to say to those people: nothing. Nothing at all.

Update: You want to say that conservatives do not truly understand or care about the real problems of the lower class in America.

No. When they argue against the continuation of certain aspects of the social safety net, I want them to either propose a realistic alternative or honestly discuss what the removal of that program will mean in human terms. Neither arguments of the type "the negative consequences of program X are..." or "program X is unfair because..." answer the question: what are the human consequences of denying this social service?

Update II: Again, I didn't say most conservatives don't care. I think most conservatives do care, which is why they need to act as though American poverty and suffering are some sort of strange occurrence. In order to maintain a largely conservative set of policy positions, while also maintaining that society is responsible for providing basic needs in an emergency capacity, they have to think that there just isn't that many people out there in a state of need. That isn't true. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in conservative opposition to universal health care. MAny conservatives are profoundly uncomfortable with the status quo. But they can't, for reasons of ideological consistency, support real government funded universal health care. So they argue against the 47 million figure (because, you know, if it was 25 million, it wouldn't be a problem). Then they argue that it's inefficient for government to provide health care. Then they argue that it's unfair to those with coverage currently.

Those arguments have varying degrees of salience. But even the effective ones are essentially dodges: saying that universal health care has negative consequences doesn't answer the question of what we should do with so many people with no health care. Very often, those opposed to governmental programs for universal health care mention the problems, and then drop it. I'm asking them to not drop it. If the answer is simply to say "we're going to have people with no health care," that is a defensible position, but articulate it-- don't leave us hanging.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

So I've got a niece who's right smack dab in the tween demographic, and so she is of course a huge High School Musical fan. My sister and her husband took her to see High School Musical 3 at the theater last night. They reported back that the kids somehow knew most of the lines to all the songs and sang along, and almost everyone danced the whole time. It was like a middle school dance in the aisles of the movie theater, and the kids whooped and laughed and applauded the whole time.

Now don't you wish you could have that much fun at the movies?

strange bedfellows

An op/ed about health care penned by Billy Beane (the general manager of the Oakland A's of Major League Baseball), Newt Gingrich and John Kerry?

Strange times.

If you can tell someone not to go, isn't there somewhere they'd be leaving from?

John Schwenkler disagrees with me about the divide.

First, Schwenkler is right to say that I would perhaps have been better served, at times, in replacing "conservative" with "Republican". Still, I think it's fair to talk about conservatism in these terms.

Probably due to my own inability to articulate, Schwenkler seems to have misunderstood this point: I'm talking about the common American conservative majority, and the majority of conservative bloggers and pundits. I'm not suggesting that the willingness to exclude ideological enemies is a meaningful philosophical barometer for conservativism. I'm disinterested, in this context, in what is really conservative. What I'm pointing out seems to me to be a simple fact: that among most conservatives, the rank and file, the hoi polloi, the conservative proletariat, the masses, the people-- in the main-- whether or not you express loyalty towards the Republican party is dispositive of whether or not you are a conservative. Thus, when people at the Corner, or at Red State, or PajamasMedia, or similar criticize conservative McCain/Palin skeptics, they are likely to do so by insinuating or stating outright that the person in question is not a conservative. And, being not conservatives, they are a part of illegitimate America. My point, as ragged as it is, is simply that. To a large number of conservatives today, the willingness to divide the world between worthy and unworthy Americans is the meaningful test of whether or not someone is conservative. That's not a statement by me about who is really conservative, about ideology. It's an observation by me (perhaps untrue) about what the conservative center of gravity thinks.

I'm trying to figure out how seriously Schwenkler is arguing that there is no such thing as a conservative center. Look, for all of conservatives' "not an ideology" pretension, conservatism is a movement, that movement has something we might consider a center, and reasonable people can reasonably make observations about that center. Of course that's an enormously reductive notion. There are exceptions, and there are unique situations, and any of these notions are necessarily generalizations of generalizations. But as I took pangs to speak about the general, in that post, I don't think I'm so off base.

He cites Conor Friedersdorf and Daniel Larison and Ross Douthat, etc., as examples of conservatives who don't cotton to the movement conservative party lines. As anyone who reads here often knows, I have offered praise to all three of these bloggers. (And criticism, as they are conservatives, and I am a liberal.) But I think Schwenkler would be served by recognizing that Friedersdorf and Douthat have both also taken pains to swerve back in step at various predictable times in this election season. I think they do so in part because they recognize the damage that could be done to their careers if they don't get in line, and visibly so, at certain intervals. This isn't a suggestion that Friedersdorf or Douthat don't "really think" what they've posted. It merely means that I think they are being particularly vocal about certain issues in which they agree with the broad conservative consensus. It isn't an insult to their integrity to suggest that they are likely to ensure that they stress the ways in which they agree with the conservative consensus out of professional or social need. It's not a question of changing what one thinks about an issue, but simply of being a little more strident in articulating their agreement on issues with the base, particularly in such a polarized and embittered electoral season. It must be difficult to be "every liberal's favorite conservative" in such times. If I had anything resembling a liberal intellectual community that I felt a part of, and I was similarly out of tune as often as they are, I would probably take special care to point out how I agree with the majority of that community myself. It's human nature.

In this effort to be clear about their fidelity to the conservative project, I think two simple facts are suggested: first, that there is such a thing as a conservative mass, or majority, and people have an intrinsic sense of where it stands on issues. Second, that this conservative majority is in the habit of punishing dissent.

There are some thinkers who find loyalty to the project an inherent conservative ideological assumption, and we have been told for a long time that message discipline and party orthodoxy have been among the most important tools of the right in their long ascendency. Conservatism, after all, is an insurgent ideology. Like any insurgency, it inspires near-fanatical loyatly among many of its adherents. The problem comes when the insurgency has become the dominant power. No longer requiring the focus of discipline and loyalty, entrenched power needs instead the critical eye of the free thinker and the inventiveness and playfulness that only come from dissent. That's the sort of thinking that is represented by Douthat, Friedersdorf, and Larison-- and Schwenkler-- but it needs to be nourished and allowed to grow. If people like the crew at The Corner are the gatekeepers to conservative institutions, that won't happen.

Friday, October 24, 2008

and then what?

This is the closest I'll come to cogently explaining my political identity.

The central question of liberalism, and the central challenge to conservatism, is three little words: and then what?

Conor Friedersdorf approvingly links to this piece by Will Wilkinson where Will points out that he doesn't believe that equal opportunity is feasible in the real world. It's as smart as most things Wilkinson writes (which is to say, very smart indeed). I have some disagreements with what Wilkinson says. And as always, I would say that if the fact that something is a practical impossibility means we shouldn't pursue it, it's time for our species to give up on morality, ethics, justice, love, right living, happiness, self-fulfilment.... But look, let's set those concerns aside. Say Wilkinson is right, and we are foolish to pursue equal opportunity. And then what, Will? What if you are one of those who is denied equal opportunity? What if you're prevented from pursuing the aspects of human life which will leave you fulfilled and actualized? What if you're the one who is stuck in inequality, to the point where you can't live the life that you have dreamed of, and that the American dream (that conservative god) has promised you?

This is the question, for conservatives, the crucial, intelligent question. And then what? When a conservative argues that food stamps create a culture of dependency and should be abolished, the question that must be asked of him is, and then what? There are still hungry people, and they will not be fed without these food stamps. He might be right, and he might be wrong, when it comes to the negative consequences of such programs. But right or wrong, these people still exist, and they still need to eat. Conservatives love to say that conservatism is non-ideological, but damn, does it seem to be concerned with hypotheticals and purely notional constructs. The actual flesh-and-blood consequences of shrinking the government is often ignored in favor of complaining about the negative aspects of the social programs in question, or simply talking about pure ideology.

So when a conservative says that subsidized housing creates inefficiencies in the market, and becomes a breeding ground for crime, and on and on and on.... Okay, and then what? There are people who need housing. The "free market" or whatever has left them in a place where they are unable to provide it for themselves; church and charity aren't, as a matter of fact, providing it for them and obviating the need for governmental intervention. It could very well be the case that many or most of these people are largely to blame for not being able to afford housing. I'm sure I and the average conservative will have profound disagreements about the degree of that blame. But look, even if every single person in subsidized housing needed it because of their own failures, what difference does that make? Do we have an obligation to house them, or not? And if the answer is no, are all of us, conservative or liberal, prepared to live with a homeless population that is totally dependent on the ability of people to pay for housing? Will conservatives walk uncomplaining through a New York that has become a Bombay, look at the teeming masses of homeless crowding the street, and have no complaints? When conservatives rushed to blame the victims of Katrina for their own dependence on government, the same question leapt to my mind. Even if they're all responsible for their own fate, what comes next? There are people literally drowning in the street. So what now? What next? Or should we be the kind of society where people see corpses floating on Bourbon street as an object lesson in being a responsible person?

My least favorite conservative trope-- my very least favorite-- is the "liberals are naive" meme. Drives me a little crazy, both because as I said above I have never seen a compelling reason why we should abandon pursuing impossible goods, and because conservatives simply have their own naivete. Where liberals are supposedly naive about the ability of government to create happiness/security/fulfillment, conservatives either naively think that the market, community or society will provide these things, or they elide those concerns altogether. I read so many articles and blog posts where I get to the end and I say to myself "Where's the second half? When does he explain what, exactly, people are going to do without this government intervention?" Happens literally ever day. Okay, you've explained why you're ideologically opposed to, say, free drug rehabilitation. Okay, you've explained the ways in which free drug rehab creates an incentive for addiction, or whatever the conservative argument du jour is. When do you get to the part where you explain what should be done about addicts who simply cannot get off of drugs without rehab paid for by government?

Those explanations never show up because conservatism has no answer to those questions. Conservatism doesn't know what to do with those who can't fend for themselves. Conservatism has no solution for people with needs that, their own fault or not, they can't fill themselves. That's conservative incompleteness. And this is why I long for Gordon Gecko. I long for a conservatism that publicly says what some conservatives say privately, that they don't care what happens to people with needs that they can't fill themselves. It used to be that libertarianism was a bastion for this kind of cruel but honest conservatism, where people were fine with saying "sucks for them". But libertarianism, as it has grown in popularity, has become just another ideology of free market utopianism, where people conveniently assert that, if government disappears, there won't be any suffering. Because the question of a real social safety net of last resort is so intractable for these thinkers, they think them away. They can't confront the problem of people who can't feed or house or clothe themselves in any responsible way, so they don't. Instead they contribute to the popular and growing project of asserting that capitalism is a system that eventually is going to mean no suffering, no one left behind.

I recently went to a conservative gathering where ideas were rigorously debated, where these kinds of very basic questions were considered thoughtfully and responsibly. These were all intelligent, principled, committed people, and they open their arms to me and invited me into their debate knowing full well that I was a leftist. Their courtesy and their intellectual integrity is a credit to conservatism, and reminds me that conservatism will have a bright intellectual and philosophical future to come.

But one moment sticks out above all others. I asked a question about people who truly can not fend for themselves: children, the mentally ill, those with severe cognitive and intellectual disabilities. I wanted to know what happens when, in fact, there is literally no one to take care of them outside of government. What if there are no relatives? What if there is no community? No friends of the family willing to take on that responsibility? The person I asked paused for a moment and said "Well, I don't want to get bogged down in that hypothetical." He was sure, as were some others, that you couldn't have a situation where there just isn't anyone to care for those who can't care for themselves.

I'm here to tell you that this just isn't the case. We want it to be true. We feel like it should be true. But it isn't true. I assure you, it isn't true. So the question remains for conservatism. And then what? What next. Some conservatives assert a world where there is never really a situation where only government can intervene, and then call me naive. Let me be clear: I have no illusions about the efficacy or efficiency of government solutions. It's true, often government hurts more than it helps. Of course, government should usually be the safety net of last resort. Of course there are negative consequences to most government intervention.

But there are two things I desire from conservatism. I want conservatives to admit that there are times when there really is no one else but government left to intervene. There are times when a lack of government intervention means, at the most extreme situations like Katrina, bodies floating in the street. And I want conservatism, or at least individual conservatives, to decide if society has an obligation to intervene, given that this is the case. It seems like less and less conservatives want to answer that question in the negative. That's better for my ideology, but it leaves us in a place where too much conservative argument is undone by my simple question. For those who will indeed say that government has no responsibility whatsoever to provide for people who have nothing else, I applaud your honesty. But I insist you admit that this means that sometimes, people will starve; sometimes, people will be homeless; sometimes, people will die. Because that's the sad simple truth of the matter.

Until we get those things sorted out, the question for conservatism remains. At the risk of being self-important and pretentious-- okay, the certainty of being self-important and pretentious-- I think that question for the right is "a whistle of wind in a crack, a knife thrust, a window thrown open on emptiness."

freedom has consequences

One of the things that annoys me about our democracy is the fact that people seem completely unable to recognize that our freedoms come with payoffs. There are some profound negative consequences to living in a free society, and there is always-- always-- going to be some kind of an attendant tradeoff in terms of safety. That's just how it is. Life doesn't give us perfect; it gives us difficult choices and requires us to choose. America is that country that has decided that being free is better than being safe. Sometimes that's really hard to live with. There are, of course, many countries that are safer than America, and you're free to pursue the process of emigrating to them. But they come with costs to your liberties. There are various degrees to these tradeoffs; eventually, the "safety over freedom" option leads you to Singapore. You're very safe, in Singapore, provided you think and act in just the way the government wants you to.

When I read posts like this one from Jezebel, I get discouraged, because I'm reading someone who simply doesn't understand that our rights come with necessary tradeoffs. Is this guy a scumbag? Yes-- and let's be perfectly clear, this guy is going back to jail, and so the most important and basic elements of justice will indeed by done. It's true, it's unfortunate that this woman has to live through this cross-examination. We cannot have rights of the accused without this kind of process. Can't, can't, can't. Having rights of the accused sometimes makes life more difficult for the victims of crime. But our system absolutely must have these protections, or risk losing any claim to being a vehicle of justice at all. The same protections that allow this scumbag to do this helps keep innocent men out of prison. And even with out vigorous system of rights for the accused, innocent men go to jail all the time. I could post dozens of examples of men who went to jail for rape erroneously and were later revealed to be innocent. If we further undercut the rights of the accused, cases like this will inevitably rise. I have tremendous sympathy for this woman; but she lives under a blanket of freedom that makes certain ugly and sad incidents like this cross-examination inevitable. You can't have both perfect freedom and perfect safety. Ever.

Likewise, the freedom of expression has negative connotations. The right to speak truth to power can only exist if that right also protects the rights of the worst to speak out. As soon as society decides what has "redeeming value" or not, the right to freedom of speech loses any meaning whatsoever. Living in a country where you are free to say what you think means living in a country where you are going to be offended by what your neighbors say, from time to time. There is no workable tradeoff that preserves the former and prevents the latter. None. And, by the way, those limits to free speech don't work to prevent those ideas, anyway. Germany has outlawed Nazism; they have a huge neo-Nazi problem. Forcing ugly ideas underground doesn't exterminate them, it empowers them, increasing their proponents' sense of alienation and victimhood in a way that drives them to further radicalism.

As an aside, people need to remember-- without the rights of the accused, none of our other rights have any meaning. Because if they are violated, it is only our rights of the accused that give us the ability to challenge that infringement. If you speak out politically, and they try to drag you away, your ability to fight that as unconstitutional only exists thanks to our rights of the accused. If you own a gun and they come and pry it away from you, your only legal recourse is to use your rights of the accused. Political freedom means nothing without habeas corpus. Social freedom means nothing without the right to a fair trial. I think we'd all do well to remember these things.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

the new banality of workplace safety

Conor Friedersdorf approvingly links to John Henke questioning the need for further workplace safety regulation. Peter Suderman publishes a pretty goofy memo from a government agency concerning employee safety.

People in me, Conor and Peter's age bracket, of course, have lived our entire lives during a period when there are robust governmental institutions to ensure safe and healthy workplace conditions. It's easy for younger people to question these institutions because they have the luxury of living in a world where they don't understand the consequences of not having them. It's precisely like parents who don't immunize their children; the incredible power of immunization is what allows them the ignorance of not understanding what these disease can do. Younger people have never lived in a country where, say, people who work at matchstick dipping factories inhale toxic chemicals every single day. Are there silly situations like the memo Suderman publishes? Sure. But you know what? If you're trying to pick an example of government failing, workplace safety is among the worst examples you can pick. Government actually has been wildly successful in promoting workplace safety, and in creating institutions capable of providing restitution to those who are hurt on the job. Both of those things have been vigorously opposed by conservatives at various times; both are absolutely essential to the American work experience. And if young conservatives weren't lucky enough to live in a period where those protections are guaranteed, they might recognize how privileged we are.

I would invite Henke or Peter or Conor to, say, take a tour of duty in a coal mine, and report back their feelings on workplace safety regulations.