Saturday, December 08, 2007

On Banning, Being Banned, And Hurt Feelings On The Internet

ER addresses a person who has betrayed his real name, called him un-Christian, and done other things one would think were beneath a minister of the gospel. This same person has the habit of serially "banning" individuals from his web log when they provoke interesting, or even heated discussion through disagreement.

Now, in the recent past, I have engaged in heated discussions with others both here and on their own web logs. I have removed myself from those kinds of discussions for the most part, and do not venture to their internet sites for the simple reason that I do not need the aggravation. The approach most of those persons take is one not of a willingness to engage the ideas of others, but to confront disagreement as error, sometimes dangerous error. Some engage in personal attacks of the meanest sort, bullying rather than doing the hard work of engaging in an exchange of ideas. Some admit they will not consider the thoughts and positions of those who believe differently, a wonderful display of open-mindedness.

Banning is the last resort of the fearful. Even though I have removed myself from engaging others on their territory and their terms does not mean I would ever even consider banning anyone here. Anyone and everyone is welcome - as long as they do not get too personal, too profane, or express ideas that are hateful towards others. I still will not "ban" them, because that is impossible short of turning on message review via email, which I do not have the time to do.

It seems that Pastor Timothy is think-skinned, and unwilling to deal with those who disagree with him. I suppose I have been accused of the same faults, but my problems with others on the internet have little to do with me, and more to do with a style of interaction, a style that sometimes includes an apparent lack of understanding, or deliberate misrepresentation of my own express ideas.

One thing I have little patience for is ignorance. If one admits one does not know something, but is willing to listen and learn, and perhaps argue a point or two along the way - that's wonderful. If one admits one knows nothing, but plows ahead without fear, however, that is a horse of a different color. The phrase, "not suffering fools gladly" is one I apply to myself. Not because I am a genius and know everything; not because I expect people to understand every word I write, because very often what I write is a muddle, and not clear even to me. The "fools" I do not "suffer" are those who, through some strange alchemy of ignorance and arrogance, concoct the strangest blog posts I have ever read.

So, once again - I will not ban anyone here. I think "banning" is a sign of cowardice, and something to be laughed at rather than anything else. Finally, yes, feelings do get hurt, arguments get heated, people go away angry, or confused, sometimes even betrayed a bit by others. I suppose the trick is to decide where one will draw the line in discussing various issues. My line is simple - no one is allowed their own facts, no one is allowed to claim that black is white, and no one - and I mean NO ONE - is allowed to call in to question either the faith, or ultimate status before God of any other human being, ever, for any reason. Beyond that, the door is always open, someday if I figure out how, the radio will always be on, and we can carry on these little discussions as long as need be.

The Dodgers

This week has seen two examples of President Bush trying desperately to dodge responsibility for which he clearly he clearly should have known. First, the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran said that it was the considered judgment of all 16 intelligence agencies of the United States government that Iran halted its research in to nuclear weapons in 2003. The NIE was available internally to the Administration months ago; yet the President, through press secretary Dana Perrino, insists he was not aware of it until a few days before it was made public. He claims he was only told "there was new information". The new information was four years old.

Yesterday, it was revealed that the Central Intelligence Agency destroyed videotapes of interrogations of terror suspects that quite possibly could have included torture. Again, he claimed to have no knowledge either of the tapes, or their destruction, even though they were part of the criminal case against Jose Padilla.

The "I don't recall", or "I don't know" defense is a great dodge. It suddenly becomes a matter of psychology - what might be in the President's head? - rather than a matter of evidence. It changes the nature of the debate. Since it is impossible to determine what a person might or might not remember, there is an almost automatic presumption of truth-telling on the part of the person who claims ignorance, or failed memory. Thus, we had the almost hysterically funny serial appearances of former Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez before the Senate Judiciary Committee, constantly claiming, "I don't recall".

For the Party of Personal Responsibility (for others, especially those who aren't Republicans, apparently) this is hypocrisy on a grand scale, the kind of thing that renders parody almost impossible, and satire moot. It seems we can't even have a decent discussion of policy without some part of the Bush Administration insisting that something that should have been obvious to those paying attention just wasn't available to them. "I didn't know Iran was only pursuing peaceful uses of nuclear energy" sounds good, except it is what the IAEA has been saying for years, repeatedly. "I didn't know the tapes existed" sounds good, even though their existence was part and parcel of a federal criminal case, one of the most high profile terrorism cases since the September 11 attacks.

It forces those who wish to claim that such knowledge should have been known to start searching for ways to prove that the "I don't know"/"I don't recall" dodge is a lie. What it should do is open up an entirely new line of questions. Who makes the decisions in this Administration? What is the chain of command, and how is information funneled up and down said chain? What is the general content of the President's daily security briefing from the National Security Council?

It also re-opens the "incompetence" dodge we hear so often, at least in reference to Iraq. "Iraq would have fine if they had only planned it/executed it/understood it better" is a nice way of saying "Their intentions were good; all that was flawed was the execution." Except, of course, their intentions weren't good. While I doubt the anarchy in place right now is what the Administration wanted, everyone who criticized this entire Iraq fiasco from before it began said this would be the result. No one listened, and we were told repeatedly how much planning and effort went in to it. Until it all went wrong, when we were told that not enough planning and effort went in to it. This is the beginning of this particular dodge, and the exemplar of such ducking and weaving.

One grows weary of these people. Truly. I was angry at myself for not being outraged by yesterday's revelations about the torture videos. Yet, how much outrage can one have? What other result was even possible with this Administration but that they destroyed the tapes, stonewalled for years, only to admit that they might have existed at one time, but were destroyed, despite Congressional demands to view these tapes and not to destroy them? If we had a functioning government, where the branches of government performed their duties, Bush and the rest of them would have been long gone from office, and quite probably under indictment if not convicted of all sorts of crimes years ago. Alas, the entire system is broken right now.

This is why I yearn for the elections next year. I do not believe that they will mean a new day in Washington. I do not believe that, even if some miracle were to occur and Dennis Kucinich were elected President, it would transform Washington insider-politics. Yet, any step away from the gangsters, hucksters, and paranoid schizophrenics who currently run our country is a step in the right direction. We have a long way to go, and it is a measure of just how much damage to our nation and its institutions the Bush Administration has wrought that I would welcome a Clinton Presidency because . . . at least it isn't another Bush!

Like the pundits who endlessly type all sorts of gag-inducing drivel, obsessing over haircuts and who said what in kindergarten (aren't those people just plain awful?), there is no accountability for the members of this Administration. Personal responsibility is a PR phrase, meant for the consumption of audiences who believe that poor people, people of color, and young people are too stupid, lazy, shiftless, or apathetic to do anything about how horrible their lives are. They are poor, discriminated against, and ignorant because of all the failings in their own lives, not because there are all sorts of structural barriers preventing them from becoming less poor, have equal opportunity, and actually know things.

It is a lie that people don't want impeachment. Just check this out. One of the commenters there writes, "Madam Speaker, put impeachment back on the table." Indeed. Force these people to stop dodging.

Saturday Rock Show

I suppose I am getting the easy stuff out of the way.

Last night at work, I was talking music with a co-worker. We started talking about Yes, Asia, Steve Howe, Rick Wakeman, etc., and the following song got stuck in my head. At least, the opening interplay between the guitar and keyboards, especially the Moog counter-melody.

Without a doubt, I have spent more of my adult life listening, analyzing, sifting, music from Yes than from any other group. There was a period, roughly 1989 through 1994 or so, when I listened to little else. My wife and I went to see Yes on their Talk tour at the Virginia State Fairgrounds in Richmond in the summer of 1994. She often says that I taught her to love Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman. They are easy to mock now - the capes, the sometimes pompous, sometimes self-consciously overly complex melody/harmony lines. Yet, through it all, I think they were no less honest about what they were doing than the Rolling Stones or the Beatles. The only difference was they had different influences - jazz, English folk music, English church music, classical, and country (Bill Bruford says the rhythm that opens this song is a rip-off of the Bonanza TV theme; they used the strings from Death Valley Days for the cover of Richie Havens song, "No Opportunity Necessary, No Experience Required"), rather than the R&B and blues that influenced the previously named bands.

Some people thought that was bad. Me? I think it still rocks. From Yessongs, this is "Yours Is No Disgrace":

Friday, December 07, 2007

Getting It Right And Wrong On Conservatism IV

It's been a long slog, and I doubt anyone's paid close attention, but we're at the end. Finally.

We're at the end of our critical examination of Philip Agre's article on conservatism. It's been an adventure in intellectual dishonesty, historical inaccuracy, and generally muddled thinking. We now turn to the final part of Agre's article:
//5 How to Defeat Conservatism

Conservatism is almost gone. People no longer worship the pharaohs. If the gentry were among us today we would have no notion of what they were talking about. For thousands of years, countless people have worked for the values of democracy in ways large and small. The industrialized vituperations of conservative propaganda measure their success. To defeat conservatism today, the main thing we have to do is to explain what it is and what is wrong with it. This is easy enough.

This is the first mention of pharaohs, and to my knowledge, limited as it may be, Egyptians weren't conservatives. Since Agre has been arguing that conservatives rely upon an aristocracy, and that such an aristocracy gave us the Constitutions, his claim that "the gentry" is no longer "among us" is a bit of a factual contradiction. Or perhaps a mere rhetorical one, since his argument seems to be that conservatives want to create an aristocracy, although, he also argues aristocrats who already existed relied upon conservative political thought to give them legitimacy.

In all honesty . . . I'm not sure what in the world this paragraph means.

The first "prescription" should be obvious. Sadly, Agre makes a muddle of the obvious:
* Rebut conservative arguments

This is my most important prescription. Liberals win political victories through rational debate. But after a victory is won, liberals tend to drop the issue and move along. As a result, whole generations have grown up without ever hearing the arguments in favor of, for example, Social Security. Instead they have heard massive numbers of conservative arguments against liberalism, and these arguments have generally gone unrebutted. In order to save civilization, liberals need a new language, one in which it is easy to express rebuttals to the particular crop of conservative arguments of the last few decades. And the way to invent that language is just to start rebutting the arguments, all of them. This means literally dozens of new arguments each day.

What does Social Security have to do with this?

* Benchmark the Wall Street Journal

The Wall Street Journal's opinion page is the most important conservative publication, and it is often described as a bulletin board for the conservatism. A better metaphor, however, would be a war room. Day by day, the Wall Street Journal's editors detect liberal arguments coming over the horizon, and immediately they gather up and distribute the arguments that conservatives will need to rebut them. Since the retirement of its late editor Robert Bartley, the Journal's opinion page has become more sophisticated. The crude lies and belligerent irrationality of the Bartley era have not disappeared, but they have certainly been attenuated. Daniel Henninger in particular does something interesting with clouds of associations that are subrational but not quite fallacious.

Liberals should not imitate the antireason of the Journal or other distribution channels of conservative opinion. Instead, as part of the hard work of inventing democracy, it will be necessary to tell the difference between methods that liberals ought to be applying in their own work, such as the day-to-day rebuttal of arguments, and methods that liberals need to analyze and place in the same category as the priesthood of Egypt.

Here we have Egypt again, only this time it's Egyptian priests, not the pharaohs.

I'm almost ready to concede defeat here. This is just awful stuff.

Much of what follows, from "build a better pundit" (where are the catalogs with the order forms?), through teaching logic (since logic is a tool that can be used for good or ill, I'm not sure what this has to do with anything at all), to building up the Democratic Party are also pretty standard stuff. Two items, however, catch the eye:
* Ditch Marx

Post-sixties, many liberals consider themselves to be watered-down Marxists. They subscribe to a left-to-right spectrum model of politics in which they, as democrats, are located in some hard-to-identify place sort-of-somewhat-to-the-left-of-center, whereas the Marxists have the high ground of a clear and definite location at the end of the spectrum. These liberals would be further out on the left if they could find a politically viable way to do it. Conservative rhetors concur with this model, and indiscriminately calling liberals communists is back in style. This is all nonsense. Marxism is not located anywhere on a spectrum. It is just mistaken. It fails to describe the real world. Attempts to implement it simply created an ugly and shallow imitation of conservatism at its worst. Democracy is the right way to live, and conservatism is the wrong way.

Marx was a brilliant analyst for his time. His analysis of technology's role in the economy was wholly original. He was the first to analyze the structural dynamism of a capitalist economy. But his theory of modern society was superficial. It overgeneralized from the situation of its time: the recent discovery of economies of scale, crude market institutions, no modern separation of ownership and control, and a small middle class. Marx followed the political economy of his day in analyzing markets as essentially independent of the state. But this is not remotely the case.

One difficulty with Marx, which is the topic of a vast literature, is that his theory requires a periodization of history that does not correspond to historical reality. Capitalism, for example, is supposed to be a discrete totality, but claimed starting dates for this totality range across a good four hundred years. His economistic analysis of society, though indisputably productive in the way that many powerfully wrong ideas are, makes history seem more discontinuous than it is. In fact, the relationship between conservatism and democracy is more or less constant throughout thousands of years of history. One evidence of this, for example, is Orlando Patterson's stunning discovery that Western notions of freedom were invented by former slaves in the ancient world and have remained more or less constant ever since.

In economic terms, Marx's theory is mistaken because he did not analyze the role the capitalist plays as entrepreneur. The entrepreneur does an important and distinctive type of work in inventing new ways to bring together diverse factors of production. Now in fact the nature of this work has remained largely hidden throughout history for a wide variety of reasons. Because Marx had no notion of it, the capitalist's profit seemed to him simple theft. It does not follow, though, that entrepreneurs earn all of their money. The theories of mainstream economics notwithstanding, serious how-to manuals for entrepreneurs are quite clear that the entrepreneur is trying to identify a market failure, because market failures are how you make money. The relationship between entrepreneurship and the state is much more complicated than economics has even tried to theorize. Capitalists, moreover, are not a class. Particular networks of capitalists and other well-off or otherwise connected personages may well try to constitute themselves as an aristocracy, but this is a phenomenon with several more dimensions than just economics.

Nor is Marxism of any use as politics. All that Marx offered to people who worked in deadening factory jobs was that they could take over the factory. While unions and collective bargaining exist in many contexts for good economic reasons, they are an essentially medieval system of negotiations among orders and classes. They presuppose a generally static economy and society. They are irrelevant to knowledge-intensive forms of work. Nor do they provide any kind of foundation for democratic politics. People want their kids to be professionals, not factory workers, and democracy helps people to knit themselves into the complicated set of institutions that enable people to build unique and productive lives.

It seems Agre hasn't actually read St. Karl, so perhaps for him it is easy to ditch him. There is still much analytical power, however, even if not prophetic or prescriptive power, in Marx. A tool is a tool is a tool, Marx, along with Chomsky, Derrida, Rorty, Foucault, Melville, Twain, Philip Roth - the whole panoply of modernist and post-modernist writers and thinkers are necessary to understand the way the world, and America, really is rather than what we want it to be. Since Agre exposes that he really doesn't understand Marx, I guess we could have skipped this one, but I think it is important to note that someone so woefully ignorant should dismiss out of hand - by buying in to right-wing talking points on the ubiquity of Marxist thought in the American left - an important tool for figuring out our world.

The other point is this:
* Tipper Gore is right

Snoop Dogg's music really is garbage. Some liberals, however, argue that racists hate rap and so therefore any disapproval of rap abets racism. This is bad logic and stupid politics. If racists hate rap then the logical, rational, politically efficacious thing to do is to say that some rap is good and some rap is bad, and that good rap is an art form like any other, and that the bad rap exists because the people who rap it are bad people.

Do not be afraid of losing contact with young people. If all you know about youth culture is Snoop Dogg, then I suppose it is time for some focus groups. Use the focus groups to identify language that Martin Luther King would approve of. Besides, there is plenty of good politics in mass culture, as cultural studies professors have explained at length.

Nor should you be afraid of losing campaign contributions from the entertainment industry. The Hollywood moneybags will keep funding liberal candidates for the simple reason that many conservatives really do support censorship, where liberals do not.

That said, there is certainly a disconnect between some liberal entertainers and the liberals who win elections. Some entertainers are willing to get up on stage and embarrass John Kerry. Scorn them.

All one can do is sigh, shake one's head, and move on. The aesthetic value of Snoop Dog's art is a matter of contention, and ultimately personal preference; yet Tipper Gore was more concerned about Prince singing about a woman masturbating in a hotel lobby, rather than Snoop Dog singing about "Gin and Juice".

The reason I have taken the time to criticize this piece is simple - intellectual shallowness, ignorance, and dishonesty are to be fought regardless of political persuasion. One of the best arguments the Left has going for it is, for the most part, it has greater intellectual integrity than the right. A piece such as this undermines that claim, especially when it is cited and used by influential writers, such as Digby at Hulabaloo.

It is all well and good to oppose conservative political thought. It is much better to use actual facts, and have a familiarity with the terms one is using, their history, and the relationships among ideas and political acts than to just make stuff up as one goes, writing in the heat of anger.

We can do better. We should do better.

Mitt Romney's "Religion" Speech

I suppose I should confess that I really was not all that interested in Mitt Romney's "JFK moment" speech on his Mormon faith. There are a variety of reasons, the biggest being that I really don't care about Romney's membership in the LDS Church, anymore than I care or not about Obama's membership in the UCC, Hillary Clinton's United Methodism, or Mike Huckabee's ordination as a Baptist preacher. Hard as I try, however, the candidates continue to drag their personal religious beliefs in to the campaign, and so we are confronted with this moment where Romney talks about the relevance on his religious beliefs, which are different from the run-of-the-mill mainstream or evangelical Christianity.

The biggest difference between Romney's speech and Kennedy's can be summed up in one word - audience. Kennedy's audience was the Harvard-educated elite of the Democratic Party, suspicious of religion in general, and certainly wary of what was considered the "mummery" of the Catholic Church in pre-Vatican II days. In many ways, Roman Catholicism seemed antithetical to the American Spirit in those heady days of post-Cold War Baby Boom American triumphalism. The mass was still recited in Latin. A 19th century papal encyclical listing democracy, religious freedom, and liberalism as among the evils of the modern world to be resisted by Roman Catholics had yet to be repudiated. One of the biggest radio personalities of the time (and, yes, radio was a media player at the time) was Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, among the most reactionary public figures America produced, next to Joseph McCarthy.

Kennedy was seekiing to reassure those who might want to support him that his allegiance was to the American Constitution and our history of separation between church and state. There were many who just couldn't bring themselves to support a man who, it seemed, was willing to lay his conscience and faith life at the feet of a Roman Prince.

Romney's speech is not at all directed at non-sectarian, anti-Catholic liberals. Romney's speech is directed at zealot evangelicals who view his particular brand of religious belief as heresy. It is all well and good that Romney has seemed to toss aside a lifetime's worth of political achievements and beliefs in order to pander to the religious conservatives who, mostly for ill, still control the nominating process in the Republican Party. Yet, for all that, he is still a Mormon, and to many evangelical Christians, this is little different from calling oneself a Wiccan - error is error, heresy is heresy, and Mormonism is both.

By giving this speech, Romney hit all the right notes for his target audience. Here's a sample:
There are some who may feel that religion is not a matter to be seriously considered in the context of the weighty threats that face us. If so, they are at odds with the nation's founders, for they, when our nation faced its greatest peril, sought the blessings of the Creator. And further, they discovered the essential connection between the survival of a free land and the protection of religious freedom. In John Adams' words: "We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. ... Our Constitution," he said, "was made for a moral and religious people."

Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom. Freedom opens the windows of the soul so that man can discover his most profound beliefs and commune with God. Freedom and religion endure together, or perish alone.

This is standard boilerplate, historically inaccurate, philosophically and factually dubious, but what we've been hearing for decades from people who wish to turn our founders from careful, rational Deists in to frothing, tongue-speaking charismatics. That's fine, because no matter how often this tripe is refuted, it keeps popping up, so my dismissal of it is as de rigeur as Romney's recitation - it is to be expected.

There is more of this kind of thing, what I call "standard boilerplate", a little further down. I do not know whether or not Gov. Romney actually believes any of this or not; I do not really care. His record as governor of Massachusetts belies much of the rhetoric presented here, and so my deeper concern is with the crass opportunism and sheer audacity Romney displays by suddenly spouting out tropes set forth two decades ago by such egregious persons as Jerry Falwell. Here's one passage that some, including Ezra Klein, have highlighted, as troubling:
[I]n recent years, the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning. They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God. Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life.
It's as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America - the religion of secularism.
They are wrong.

The founders proscribed the establishment of a state religion, but they did not countenance the elimination of religion from the public square. We are a nation "under God" and in God, we do indeed trust.(emphasis added)

This is the classic bait and switch, along with the declaration that "secularism" is actually a "religion". The bait and switch is easy to see: the bait is religious freedom as a good; the switch is the dire warning of "taking God out of the public square". This kind of thing first appeared when the Supreme Court declared that school prayers, written by officials and required of all students, was unconstitutional. It is nonsensical, and dangerous, as well as theologically inane. Yet, Romney repeats it here for no other reason than that it is part and parcel of the rhetoric of the Christian right.

All in all, this was an uninspired performance, leaving as many questions as answers in my own mind. For his intended audience, however, I am quite sure it served the purpose of reassuring them that he could hit all the right notes of the song they've been singing for years. One does wonder, however, if this song should be sung.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Getting It Right And Wrong On Conservatism III

After writing the two previous posts about this piece, I wondered this morning if I should even bother. Yet, it is important to do this kind of thing because someone, somewhere, needs to note that something as influential as this particular little bit of writing is deeply flawed. Relying on flawed source material leads to problems. It is one thing to say that conservative political thought is flawed. It is another thing altogether to concoct out of whole-cloth ahistorical arguments that purport to show a vast conspiracy stretching back thousands of years of conservatives battling liberals for control of the world. We deserve better than garbage like this.

In my continuing critical review of this essay by Philip Agre on conservative political thought, we have moved from, first, flawed historical thinking to the intellectually dishonest claims that conservative political thought has a thousands-of-years history of destroying conscience, reason, democracy (that should be a given), and language. After reading this section one wonders if rescue of this particular piece is possible.

I keep giving a disclaimer, and I wonder why, because it should be obvious that I am not a political conservative. Yet, criticizing a criticism of political conservatism might lead one to assume that I am. Far from it. It should be important to political liberals, regardless of their intellectual achievements, to have a defense of political liberalism and a criticism of political conservatism be at least historically accurate and some minimal amount of intellectual integrity. Alas, this piece doesn't even come close. By distorting what conservative thought is, by implicating it in all sorts of nefarious anti-social tendencies, we miss that there are some ideas traditionally linked with Anglo-American conservative political thought that are actually of a great deal of value, and can be arguably understood to be a part of left-leaning political thought in the United States today.

Now that the disclaimer is out there (and it should be read in one of those hushed, extremely fast tones, like the legal gloss on various radio commercials), we turn to Agre's piece. Again.

We now turn to Agre's view of conservative political thought in American history.
//3 Conservatism in American History

Almost all of the early immigrants to America left behind societies that had been oppressed by conservatism. The democratic culture that Americans have built is truly one of the monuments of civilization. And American culture remains vibrant to this day despite centuries of conservative attack. Yet the history of American democracy has generally been taught in confused ways. This history might be sketched in terms of the great turning points that happened to occur around 1800 and 1900, followed by the great reaction that gathered steam in the decades leading up to 2000.

Isn't it convenient that our turning points happened at centuries' ends? Except, of course, they didn't. Now, the first (small "d") democratic revolution in America was indeed the election of 1800, when Thomas Jefferson defeated John Adams for the Presidency. Yet Agre misses the equally important Jacksonian revolution of the 1820's. The whole period from the end of the Mexican War to the end of Reconstruction - with the Civil War in the middle - was also revolutionary. The biggest realigning election in American history until 1932 occurred not in 1900, but in 1896, in which the Republican Party established its new identity as the Party of Business rather than what it had been, the Party of (Northern) regional resistance to southern intransigence (immortalized in the derogatory appellation "rum, Romanism, and rebellion" attached to the Democratic Party by Republican Presidential candidate James Blaine). Finally there were the reactions to the whole Progressive Era-First World War from 1919 to 1930, and the emergence of the New Deal coalition in response to the Great Depression.

By contrast, the slowly morphing of the Republican Party from its Establishment base ("Rockefeller Republicans") to the vast right-wing conspiracy with which we live today happened over the period of Richard Nixon's election in 1968 to Ronald Reagan's election in 1980, with the final icing being complete with the 1994 mid-term switch of party control in the House of Representatives. Please note that all but one of these developments occurred in years other than those stated by Agre. Also, please note that the political realignments and reactions were the result of social changes that had been accruing for years. The political result of the social changes was usually the final signal that the changes through which the nation was moving were complete, as various groups and coalitions accepted their allegiance to one political party or label or another. Conservative political thought, as it has been traditionally understood, played no part in any of these various socio-political moments. At least, most historians do not think they did, and there is little evidence that they did.

Rather, what has been in contention has been two different strands of political liberalism. Both of these are rooted in the political thought of British theorists from John Locke to John Stuart Mill, as well as French philosophe Montesquieu. In one strand, the tendency has been to focus on the "natural" aspects of social life, and the ways in which interference in such "natural" processes is harmful. This particular strand was given a boost by the theorizing of (poorly named) Social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer in the 19th century.

The other strand of political liberalism stressed the reciprocity involved in the contractual nature of American political organization, and the obligations various sectors of society owed each other. Rooted not just in philosophy, this strand also relied upon readings of the United States Constitution to uphold their arguments that American political life is not constituted of atomized individuals, but is rather an interconnected web of groups, each of which has been granted certain privileges (or had its rights recognized, in other more literal readings) in exchange for the carrying out of certain obligatory social acts.

The former reading is what most in the United States call "conservative". The latter is what is called "liberal". In fact, both are strands of traditional liberal political thought, and highlight the difficulties and contradictions inherent in liberalism, understood from a traditional point of view.

I'm really not sure what Agre is talking about here. I am only slightly mollified by the notion that he doesn't really know, either. That he moves on manfully, however, is testimony only to the bravery of ignorance, rather than to the wisdom of his insight.

I want to quote a longish paragraph from his discussion of what Agre sees as the political revolution of 1900, because the last sentence contains a howler that needs to be addressed.
The complicated institutional and ideological events of this era can be understood in microcosm through the subsequent history of the word "liberal", which forked into two quite different meanings. The word "liberal" had originally been part of an intramural dispute within the conservative alliance between the aristocracy and the rising business class. Their compromise, as I have noted, is that the aristocracy would maintain its social control for the benefit of both groups mainly through psychological means rather than through terror, and that economic regulation would henceforth be designed to benefit the business class. And both of these conditions would perversely be called "freedom". The word "liberal" thus took its modern meaning in a struggle against the aristocracy's control of the state. Around 1900, however, the corporation emerged in a society in which democracy was relatively strong and the aristocracy was relatively weak. Antitrust and many other types of state regulation were not part of traditional aristocratic control, but were part of democracy. And this is why the word "liberal" forked. Democrats continued using the word in its original sense, to signify the struggle against aristocracy, in this case the new aristocracy of corporate power. Business interests, however, reinvented the word to signify a struggle against something conceptualized very abstractly as "government". In reality the new business meaning of the word, as worked out in detail by people like Hayek, went in an opposite direction from its original meaning: a struggle against the people, rather than against the aristocracy.(emphasis added)

Friedrich von Hayek was an economist from Europe, a refugee from Nazi tyranny, who wrote his most important and influential works in the 1940's. His popular writings involved a European perspective on European events. Indeed, he wrote an essay entitled "Why I am Not a Conservative" to point out to American audiences that he was not, in fact, a conservative, but firmly with the tradition of Enlightenment liberalism that was at the root of the American political experiment.

Somehow, I do not think he had any influence on events in 1900.

Were I a college professor and been given this paper, right here at this point I would give it an "F". Yet, Agre moves gamely on, not worrying over much about such a historical miscue as this.

Along with his (a)historical review of America, Agre has an additional historical section, entitled "The Discovery of Democracy". It starts out with a couple paragraphs so remarkably ignorant one wonders how a person could write them with a straight face:
Humanity has struggled for thousands of years to emerge from the darkness of conservatism. At every step of the way, conservatism has always had the advantage of a long historical learning curve. There have always been experts in the running of conservative society. Most of the stupid mistakes have been made and forgotten centuries ago. Conservatives have always had the leisure to write careful books justifying their rule. Democracy, by contrast, is still very much in an experimental phase. And so, for example, the 1960's were one of the great episodes of civilization in human history, and they were also a time when people did a lot of stupid things like take drugs.

The history of democracy has scarcely been written.
Of what has been written, the great majority of "democratic theory" is based on the ancient Greek model of deliberative democracy. Much has been written about the Greeks' limitation of citizenship to perhaps 10% of the population. But this is not the reason why the Greek model is inapplicable to the modern world. The real reason is that Greek democracy was emphatically predicated on a small city-state of a few thousand people, whereas modern societies have populations in the tens and hundreds of millions.

Lower-case "r" republican political theorizing was revived in Italy by Machiavelli, and moved north to such persons as Grotius and Hobbes, Locke, and Montesquieu - during the 16th and 17th centuries. By the time Edmund Burke was writing his musings of the French Revolution (usually considered the most concise statement of conservative political thought in the English language) and Joseph de Maistre was writing, in exile in Russia, on the necessity of hierarchy and violence as tools of social control, political liberalism had been well-established, and even given birth to the American experiment, as well as the not-quite-as-humane French Revolution and First Republic. In other words, contemporary conservative political thought is actually younger, historically speaking, than liberal political thought. Its patrimony is more distinguished and diverse; while Burke is to be admired for many reasons, de Maistre has been villified, quite rightly in my estimation, by many, including Isaiah Berlin for, among other sins, being an early theorist of what emerged in the 20th century as fascism (Berlin also thinks Burke's writings should be lumped with de Maistre's; I disagree).

There were precursors to much of what became Enlightenment political liberalism as early as the 13th century, when theologian and philosopher William Ockham, writing in exile and on the run from Papal authorities in Avignon, penned several treatises on the right of resistance to tyranny. Erasmus, the cynical interlocutor of, among others Martin Luther, is considered the father and founder of an entire strain of Catholic humanist thought that emerged through the 17th century, culminating in St. Ignatius Loyola and the founding of the Society of Jesus.

To say that, somehow, "the history of democracy has scarcely been written" is just a whopper. To say that the 1960's were a grand experiment in popular democracy that is marred only by massive drug use is equally stupid, and ignorant.

American leftists and liberals deserve better than garbage like this as a defense. Even a popular rendering of the history of conservative political thought, and a critique of it, should have some intellectual merit to it. This is the meandering musings of someone who is sitting around pulling stuff out of his ass and typing it after he wipes it off and sets it next to his keyboard.

Tomorrow (thankfully) we come to the end - Agre's prescription for doing battle with the centuries-long conspiracy of conservatism that includes The Wall Street Journal op-ed page. And, some final, concluding remarks.

When Is A Question Not A Question?

Each week, the Newsweek/Washington Post "On Faith" on-line forum asks "a question" and elicits answers from a panel of "religious experts" (which include, for some inexplicable reason, syndicated columnist Cal Thomas). The following is the question for this week:
Rick Warren's Saddleback Church just hosted its third "Global Summit on AIDS and the Church." Do you think the world's biggest social problems -- poverty, disease, homelessness -- can be cured by well-intentioned religious believers?

It's certainly a humdinger of a question, isn't it? Yet, does anyone think it is an actual question?

One of the things one learns from graduate and post-graduate education is to consider the questions one asks. The best questions are those that are worded carefully, with a serious consideration of the meaning and placement of each and every word. It is often the case that what appears, at first blush, to be an honest question full of meaning, turns out to be full of problems. I believe we have a classic example of that kind of question here.

First, there is the relevance of the mention of Rick Warren's "summit". Warren is a popular religious figure, selling millions of copies of his The Purpose Driven Life. He also is a popular speaker on matters of the emerging new evangelical consensus on any number of issues, from AIDS and poverty to global warming. His church is active in any number of spheres. Hosting a conference such as this seems both natural and a good step forward, as evangelicals move away from captivity to anti-gay rhetoric toward a more compassionate response to the AIDS pandemic.

What, however, does any of this have to do with the relative impact of religious institutions and non-religious institutions on the problems of health, poverty, and other issues? Religious institutions have worked hard in any number of these areas, whether it is the local food bank or soup kitchen to entire networks of church-owned hospitals, such as Adventist, Methodist, and OSF hospitals. The United Methodist Church's General Committee on Relief is often in place in troubled areas before the Red Cross/Crescent and other relief agencies, and stays in place once the headlines have receded from view. They do not seek publicity, so this often goes unmentioned, but it is a reality.

The biggest red flag in this question is the modifier "well intentioned" describing religious believers who seek to address issues of social ills. The implication would be, it seems to me, that while their hearts are in the right place, they are neither experts in the issue areas they are attempting to address, nor are they (as a result of lacking such expertise) able to address the problems in a systemic way that non-sectarian agencies might. Such a slam misses the point that many church-run agencies that deal with problems, whether poverty, health and well-being, or disaster relief are usually staffed by persons trained to deal with them. They are not modeled on 19th century mission programs. Rather, based upon the book of James, they do not see the relevance of saying to someone who does not have a coat, "Be of good cheer!" without offering that person a coat. There is nothing Christian about telling hungry people God loves them, then moving on without feeding them. There is nothing Christian about telling someone with AIDS they are a child of God without relieving their suffering. There is nothing Christian about telling someone made homeless by Katrina, "Have faith!" and not building them a new house.

Church run relief agencies are no better or worse than secular agencies, and occasionally they achieve far more because they have a more broader financial base, and a mandate to continue operating once the initial crisis evaporates from the minds of the public at large. There are still United Methodist teams in southern Mississippi and Louisiana, helping victims of Hurricane Katriana. There are United Methodist doctors and nurses in Africa, as well as Adventists and Roman Catholics, helping with the AIDS pandemic. They are not putting their faith before their obligation to help people in need; rather their faith informs their understanding of their work, pushing them to assist those most in need.

The systemic changes necessary to alleviate suffering in the worst cases are also addressed by churches. These efforts are always hampered by the reticence of non-sectarian groups and individuals who see such faith-based activism through the prism of experience wrought by the religious Right in the United States. That criticism is justifiable, and understandable. The pursuit of justice, however, which includes systemic changes that would prevent social ills from arising and creating a need for crisis management, is also part of the Gospel message, and is not to be neglected. It should be pursued with humility and an understanding of the limitations inherent in such work.

By modifying the question in this way, we are already on the way to seeing this question as not quite the question it seems to be. Upon further examination, taking the question as a whole, the simple answer should be, "Obviously not." No one group, "well intentioned" or not, will ever "solve" our social ills. Yet, religious and church-based institutions and programs are an important part of the network of relief and crisis management that is necessary to alleviate the stresses and human pain in any place and time where people are suffering. They should not relinquish their role because some might view them as only well-intentioned. Their work is part of the general call to discipleship all Christians receive at their baptism.

And not just the work of Christian Church-based agencies. Jewish and Muslim agencies are also hard at work around the world, as are, I am sure, groups from other religious faiths. Along with other agencies, they are part of the human impulse to relieve the suffering of fellow human beings. I see nothing either well-intentioned or wrong with this. All those who seek to end our endemic problems should be congratulated, and encouraged to continue.

In my opinion, this question is about as silly and irrelevant as can be imagined.

What Is John Bolton Doing On The Op-Ed Pages of The Post?

John Bolton was so bad, even when the Republicans controlled Congress he couldn't get approved as UN ambassador, so Bush had to put him there through a recess appointment. He was a dismal failure, one of the first to be chucked overboard when the Democrats took over Congress. He is the least diplomatic diplomat, a UN Ambassador who thinks the institution is not only irrelevant but dangerous, and a bearer of pretty much every insane, discredited idea that neo-conservatives carry around in their heads.

Yet, while he has proved again and again to be not only wrong, but ignorant, the Washington Post provides him with some of the most coveted opinion space in the United States press to push the paranoid delusion that the National Intelligence Estimate released on Iran's nuclear program - you know, the one that said Iran shut down its research in to nuclear weapons four years ago - actually writes the following sentence after an incoherent attack upon the NIE:
Ironically, the NIE opens the way for Iran to achieve its military nuclear ambitions in an essentially unmolested fashion, to the detriment of us all.

In other words, the Iranians can now pursue what they have not pursued, and achieve what they have not attempted to achieve, because the United States correctly assessed that they are not doing anything.

Only paranoid schizophrenics "think" this way. This is the logic of conspiracy mongers, not policy analysts.

Again - what in the world is John Bolton - who looks like Professor Whovee from the Chuck Jones adaptation of Horton Hears a Who - doing on the op-ed page of the Washington Post?

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Getting It Right And Wrong On Conservatism II

Yesterday I began a review of this essay by Philip Agre on political conservatism. I focused yesterday on what I saw as historical inaccuracies in Agre's discussion of aristocracy and political conservatism. Today I will be focusing on what I find to be intellectually dishonest descriptions of the relationship between political conservatism and questions of public integrity.

I should preface this by stating, again, that I am not a politically conservative (!!!) person. There are elements of traditional conservative thought that I think are important elements of honest social thought; I just do not draw the same conclusions from them as conservatives might. My argument here is not that liberalism or conservatism is "better". Rather, I find the entire piece to be intellectually flawed. Better defenses of political liberalism, and critiques of conservative thought, exist. I think this piece in particular fails to be a serious challenge of conservative thought not because it is weak, but because it misrepresents both liberalism and conservatism.

Today, we shall look at Agre's discussion of the following point:
To impose its order on society, conservatism must destroy civilization. In particular conservatism must destroy conscience, democracy, reason, and language.

That's a pretty hefty charge. Let's see what he has to say.
* The Destruction of Conscience

Liberalism is a movement of conscience. Liberals speak endlessly of conscience. Yet conservative rhetors have taken to acting as if they owned the language of conscience. They even routinely assert that liberals disparage conscience. The magnitude of the falsehood here is so great that decent people have been set back on their heels.

Conservatism continually twists the language of conscience into its opposite. It has no choice: conservatism is unjust, and cannot survive except by pretending to be the opposite of what it is.

Conservative arguments are often arbitrary in nature. Consider, for example, the controversy over Elian Gonzalez. Conservatism claims that the universe is ordered by absolutes. This would certainly make life easier if it was true. The difficulty is that the absolutes constantly conflict with one another. When the absolutes do not conflict, there is rarely any controversy. But when absolutes do conflict, conservatism is forced into sophistry. In the case of Elian Gonzalez, two absolutes conflicted: keeping families together and not making people return to tyrannies. In a democratic society, the decision would be made through rational debate. Conservatism, however, required picking one of the two absolutes arbitrarily (based perhaps on tactical politics in Florida) and simply accusing anyone who disagreed of flouting absolutes and thereby nihilistically denying the fundamental order of the universe. This happens every day. Arbitrariness replaces reason with authority. When arbitrariness becomes established in the culture, democracy decays and it becomes possible for aristocracies to dominate people's minds.

First of all, I can in no way understand the Republican reaction to the Elian Gonzalez story in terms of "political conservatism". The entire structure of the American response to communist Cuba is irrational, which is not necessarily a surprise, since much of politics is determined by emotive responses rather than a rational consideration of various alternatives. In this respect, liberalism is no different from conservative political thought.

I am also unclear as to how what Agre calls the conservative response to Elian Gonzalez was in some way a destruction of conscience. He is at least correct that, in that case, there was a clash between two values the United States hold as important (I would hesitate to use the term "absolute" because I don't believe in such things; this was a conflict between two social goods, nothing more and nothing less). On the one hand, it is good for refugees from totalitarian states who seek asylum in the US to have it granted (although our policy here is much more lenient in regards Cuban refugees than those from other countries). It is also good that families should not be separated, that children be raised by their parents. In this case, one half of a divorced couple fled Cuba with her child. She died, but the child lived. The remaining parent insisted his child be returned to him; he had not consented to his child being removed from the country in the first place.

"Conscience" has little to do with this scenario. Indeed, the Clinton Administration acted with remarkable restraint, mulling the varying demands of the competing social goods and concluding that the boy belonged with his father, whose parental rights had been usurped by his ex-wife anyway. It might have been nice for the boy to remain in the US, but the boy's father had determined that he wished to stay in Cuba. The competition between goods was decided by that single, salient fact.

After this particular example, I'm not sure what Agre's point was at all.

The next section is a doozy.
* The Destruction of Democracy

For thousands of years, conservatism was universally understood as being in opposition to democracy. Having lost much of its ability to attack democracy openly, conservatism has tried in recent years to redefine the word "democracy" while engaging in deception to make the substance of democracy unthinkable.

Conservative rhetors, for example, have been using the word "government" in a way that does not distinguish between legitimate democracy and totalitarianism.

Then there is the notion that politicians who offer health care reforms, for example, are claiming to be better people than the rest of us. This is a particularly toxic distortion. Offering reforms is a basic part of democracy, something that every citizen can do.

Even more toxic is the notion that those who criticize the president are claiming to be better people than he is. This is authoritarianism.

Some conservative rhetors have taken to literally demonizing the very notion of a democratic opposition. Rush Limbaugh has argued at length that Tom Daschle resembles Satan simply because he opposes George Bush's policies. Ever since then, Limbaugh has regularly identified Daschle as "el diablo". This is the emotional heart of conservatism: the notion that the conservative order is ordained by God and that anyone and anything that opposes the conservative order is infinitely evil.

Conservative political thought emerged coherently at the end of the 18th century. Not quite thousands of years. This entire section, while perhaps factually accurate (since no examples are given, and I'm not quite sure what he is talking about in any case; this is standard political hyperbole, not "authoritarianism"), is also nonsensical. As for "the emotional heart" of conservatism being the divine nature of it, that may be true in some cases (especially among Roman Catholic conservatives such as William Buckley), but not all. Somehow mentioning Rush Limbaugh's name here doesn't bolster Agre's argument at all.

We tread even further onto even thinner ice now.
* The Destruction of Reason

Conservatism has opposed rational thought for thousands of years. What most people know nowadays as conservatism is basically a public relations campaign aimed at persuading them to lay down their capacity for rational thought.

Again with the thousands of years? What is "rational thought" anyway? We are knee-to-hip deep in philosophical mire here, and there just aren't any ropes tossed our way to help us get out. Best to just close our eyes and wish ourselves to a happy place rather than try to make heads or tails of this. Except for this:
Conservatism has used a wide variety of methods to destroy reason throughout history. Fortunately, many of these methods, such as the suppression of popular literacy, are incompatible with a modern economy. Once the common people started becoming educated, more sophisticated methods of domination were required. Thus the invention of public relations, which is a kind of rationalized irrationality. The great innovation of conservatism in recent decades has been the systematic reinvention of politics using the technology of public relations.

Bait and switch! Bait and switch! He moves from "democracy" to "economy", as if the terms were interchangeable. As if he had been speaking of "economy" rather than "democracy" all along. As for public relations, it emerged in the 1920's as a way to market goods, economically speaking.

Agre's head is so far up his ass right now, he can chew his food after he swallows. Venturing forward he actually manages to have his head emerge from his own mouth, a feat even M. C. Escher wouldn't attempt to draw:
* The Destruction of Language

Reason occurs mostly through the medium of language, and so the destruction of reason requires the destruction of language. An underlying notion of conservative politics is that words and phrases of language are like territory in warfare: owned and controlled by one side or the other. One of the central goals of conservatism, as for example with Newt Gingrich's lists of words, is to take control of every word and phrase in the English language.

Has Agre ever read Michele Foucault? Or Ludwig Wittgenstein? Richard Rorty, perhaps? Shoot, even Lewis Carroll's Alice Through the Looking Glass has some good stuff on the philosophy of language. Suffice it to say, in the words of Thomist philosopher Josef Pieper, the abuse of language always goes hand in hand with the abuse of power, and this is neither new nor confined to political liberalism. It was liberals who invented all the bureaucratic lingo surrounding nuclear war that sounds innocuous but hides horror. It was liberals who attempted to spin the worsening Depression in 1938 by calling it "the Roosevelt Recession". Shoot, it was liberals who gave us the Cold War! If Agre actually thinks it has only ever been nefarious political conservatives working for thousands of years who have abused language, is there any reason to continue paying attention to him?

I suppose so. Tomorrow.

A Ready Defense

Bear with the link chain here. From this at Oliver Willis' blog, I went here to a commentary upon this post at TPM Cafe by Brian McLaren.

McLaren's piece is pretty innocuous, but the issue isn't McLaren or his piece. Rather, it is the reaction it elicited from readers. The writer at Revolution in Jesus Land" is all hurt that some folks might not be as respectful of Christianity and Christian clergy as they might deserve.

In the past, I have been troubled by some of the hostility that many on the left express when discussing not just Christianity, but religion in general. I am still somewhat taken aback by the occasional comment that floats to the surface, but I do not summarily dismiss the comments, nor do I whine about how horribly I am treated. Rather, I gird my loins (metaphorically speaking) and respond.

The whining going on is pretty pathetic, if you ask me. McLaren is a big boy, and can take care of himself. If he can't deal with a bunch of criticisms and complaints about Christianity, then perhaps he shouldn't be a pastor. In America, it is perfectly all right for a Christian to speak out. It is also perfectly all right for non-Christians (and even some Christians) to tell the person speaking they are full of crap and their beliefs are a tissue of lies and vague illusions. If the one being so addressed gets his or her feelings hurt, I guess I have reached the point now where I can only respond thusly - grow up.


In order to get his interlocutors' heads around the special theory of relativity, Albert Einstein often relied upon what he called a gedankenexperiment, a "thought experiment". That is, he asked his highly blinkered listeners, for most of whom physics was the be-all and end-all of reality, to enter in to a world where what we call the laws of physics were only applicable within a very limited range of cases, proscribed by the relationship to the velocity of light. For Einstein, not a university-trained physicist, and one who had lived quite a bit of his life within the confines of his imagination, such imaginative forays were easy.

Today's column by David Broder put me in mind of such a gedankenexperiment. In essence, Broder's piece, summed up well at the very beginning in his own words, is an imaginative foray in to an alternate universe, where America is powerful, internationally legitimate and credible, has a strong military, has not completely messed up two wars and two countries, and the current occupant of the White House is powerful, popular, and intellectually agile enough to face the challenges of the world with surprising innovation and finesse. In such a world, even though the economy was slowing down as it is here, we would not have to be concerned about the realities facing us abroad, because the strengths of American foreign policy would be in place. This is world David Broder has written about today. Take a look, and see how wonderful it would be to live there:
[C]onsider the major international headlines of the past few weeks. A Middle East conference including almost all the major players in that troubled region produced an agreement by leaders of Israel and the Palestinians to negotiate toward a peace agreement within the next year.

All the major players, except Iran, of course. And, also of course, the Israelis, Palestinians, and the rest of them keep promising peace, yet none of these "powers" is willing to expend the political and diplomatic effort to actually support the Palestinians. Everyone - to a man - remembers Anwar Sadat's bullet-riddled body on a public parade reviewing stand. They also know that the anti-Israeli militants within their own populations will not support one moment of serious diplomatic compromise. This always remains unsaid, because to say it is to accuse the leaders of Syria, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, and the rest of the Arab world (Jordan and Egypt have formal diplomatic relations with Israel, but do nothing for the Palestinians) of cowardice. One doesn't forward a diplomatic agenda by calling potential partners a bunch of chicken-hearted pansies.
In Iraq, the level of violence has subsided and the first troop withdrawals are planned, while tribal leaders -- without waiting for the central government -- are negotiating among themselves and forming anti-al-Qaeda militias.

The violence in Iraq has abated somewhat, but only because the process of sectarian cleansing has ended, and the separation of the Sunni and Shi'a populations in the most densely populated areas is mostly complete. The process of political reconciliation and relative stabilization, however, has not even begun. The troop drawdown will still leave more American service personnel in Iraq than before the "surge" began last spring. In other words, by leaving out more salient facts, it sounds good, but it is really horrible.
In Iran, U.S. intelligence reported this week that work on a nuclear weapons program was suspended in 2003, apparently in response to U.S.-led and U.N.-sanctioned pressure. President Bush says this is no guarantee that the Iranian regime can be trusted to stay disarmed. But to others, at the very least, it opens a window for negotiations.

OK, this is where one has to imagine real hard. First, the NIE stated that Iran ended its pursuit of nuclear weapons research in 2003. That means that all the crap we've listened to over the past two years about how dangerous Iran is has been one big lie. There seems to be no relationship between the blustering of the Bush Administration and Iran's decision not to research nuclear weapons, so that's on the same level as "Reagan won the Cold War" nonsense we still hear. As for the rest of the paragraph - we have no guarantees that Belgium won't decide to declare war on the US either, but we have good relations with them right now, too. The lack of any coherence in a sentence like this - "President Bush says this is no guarantee that the Iranian regime can be trusted to stay disarmed." - is staggering . . . unless we imagine.
Now, it was not all good news.

Yah think?
In Russia, Vladimir Putin engineered parliamentary elections that solidified his control and moved that country, with its growing oil-fueled wealth, further away from genuine democracy.

But . . . but . . . President Bush saw in to Putin's soul! Apparently the transcription was wrong, and Bush was talking about his "sole" - what the chef prepared for dinner during that summit. It was reflected in Putin's contact lenses.
In Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf shed his uniform but kept his hold on the presidency, and his emergency controls have made it questionable whether the opposition will have a real opportunity in the coming elections.

Musharraf declared a state of emergency, has had protesters beaten and arrested, and silenced the opposition, including placing former PM Benazir Bhutto under house arrest after allowing her to return to the country from exile. Yeah, I'd say it's a safe bet the "it is questionable" whether or not he gives a rip about elections, or democracy, or civil society, or anything other than maintaining his grip on power.
And in Afghanistan, the Taliban, exploiting the security it now enjoys in the border area with Pakistan, has become more aggressive against U.S. and NATO forces.

The Taliban - the Nazi du jour before Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath regime in Iraq sauntered to center stage - controls most of Afghanistan, except for the capital, where the bulk of NATO forces are. We are losing, and will most likely lose, like the Greeks, the Romans, the Persians, the British, and the Soviet Union.
All of this suggests that this is a world full of challenges -- but fortunately one not facing a crisis or the likelihood of another major war.

I don't think it's unfair to say that this sentence could have been penned on September 10, 2001.
Bush's stance is likely to be copied by most of the major Republican presidential candidates. They can take heart from the successes the administration is beginning to score with its foreign policy. Surely, their position is stronger than the one they were defending early this year -- when Iraq looked to be lost, the Middle East was in turmoil and the threat of war with Iran loomed.

Bush has all but disappeared from the Republican Party. Unlike Ronald Reagan, whose name is still invoked with reverence, not a single candidate for the Republican nomination is calling forth the spirit of George W. Bush to bless their campaigns. I'm not sure what successes Bush has had, and I am convinced that he has no foreign policy other than war forever in Iraq, but, again, these are imaginings, not reality, so let's just give Broder his due here. By the way, the "looming" war with Iran was all about the war mongering of Cheney and such publicists as Norman Podhoretz and William Kristol. It was as detached from reality as this column appears to be.

He ends with a whimper, as usual, so we shall return to his opening paragraph, where the conditio sine qua non for any of these imaginings to make sense is stated boldly and explicitly:
The shape of the world has changed again, signaling the possibility of a new American foreign policy and national security strategy. The portents are hopeful if U.S. leaders have the imagination and courage to seize some of the opportunities.

The leaders of the United States lack imagination, courage, political strength, international legitimacy and credibility, and even the vaguest notions of the way things really are in the world. In a relatively sane world, one might imagine the US would have people in charge who had the qualities Broder insists are necessary for success. Alas, we do not, and no gedanken will change that. Even if most of what Broder has written here is utter nonsense.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Getting It Right And Wrong On Conservatism I

Via this essay by Digby at the Campaign for America's Future, I have come across this 3-year-old essay by Philip Agre on Conservative political thought. While there is quite a bit that is correct - especially on the relationship between conservative political thought and social hierarchy - the article is deeply flawed in many respects as well. There are things wrong with traditional conservative political thought. At the same time, there are elements to conservative political thought - a distrust of social innovation for its own sake; a preference for the social and political status quo over and against the wild ideas of reformers and revolutionaries; the idea that society is a web not only of relationships, but that these relationships entail obligation among society's many parts - that are not only attractive, but I believe necessary for a proper understanding of the way societies operate and should operate. Indeed, I think there is a deeply conservative element in much of contemporary American left-leaning political ideology, especially in its distrust of unfettered capitalism and its desire for a thorough-going ecological policy (the goal, after all, is conserving the environment).

Anyway, here is a tidbit from the beginning of Agre's piece that has a howler right at the get-go:
The tactics of conservatism vary widely by place and time. But the most central feature of conservatism is deference: a psychologically internalized attitude on the part of the common people that the aristocracy are better people than they are. Modern-day liberals often theorize that conservatives use "social issues" as a way to mask economic objectives, but this is almost backward: the true goal of conservatism is to establish an aristocracy, which is a social and psychological condition of inequality. Economic inequality and regressive taxation, while certainly welcomed by the aristocracy, are best understood as a means to their actual goal, which is simply to be aristocrats. More generally, it is crucial to conservatism that the people must literally love the order that dominates them. Of course this notion sounds bizarre to modern ears, but it is perfectly overt in the writings of leading conservative theorists such as Burke. Democracy, for them, is not about the mechanisms of voting and office-holding. In fact conservatives hold a wide variety of opinions about such secondary formal matters. For conservatives, rather, democracy is a psychological condition. People who believe that the aristocracy rightfully dominates society because of its intrinsic superiority are conservatives; democrats, by contrast, believe that they are of equal social worth. Conservatism is the antithesis of democracy. This has been true for thousands of years.(emphasis added)

Burkean conservatism, for all its flaws, was not proscriptive, but descriptive. British conservatism was successful precisely because it was the way British society operated. Unlike France, Prussia, and Russia, which all held variants of Monarchical Absolutism as their reigning political thought, the British prided themselves as successfully avoiding the pitfalls of tyranny through the assertion of the inherent rights of aristocrats, embodied in the British Constitution and Parliament, with the House of Lords, at the time, as the pinnacle of anti-monarchical Institutionalization. The reason France, and later Russia, went through such bloody revolutions was that there was no social infrastructure in place which could serve as a check on authoritarianism. The calling of the Estates General in France, and the creation of the Russian Duma in response to the 1905 Revolution were the last attempts by monarchs to hold on to absolute power, rather than concessions to a growing democratic spirit. In both cases, the weak occupiers of the thrones in the respective countries thought they could manipulate the proceedings to their advantages; both rulers and families paid with their lives for their enormous miscalculations.

What Burke described was the actual reality in Britain. This made his description enormously successful there, and almost impossible to export, even to us here in America. In his history of contemporary American conservatism, Turning the World Right Side Up, journalist Godfrey Hodgson describes Burkes biggest fan and publicist in post-WWII America, Russell Kirk, discovering Burke in the wee hours of his time in the Army. Like many who read Ayn Rand and saw themselves as the embodiment of Rand's heroic individual whose greatness was denied by a society bent on unnatural egalitarianism, Kirk saw himself as a rose among weeds. His discovery of Burke led him to dismiss his comrades in arms, and to loathe his time in the military (which sounds ironic, but in fact points up the democratizing influence of the American military, a subject for another post). Kirk thought that America's experiment with political democracy and social equality was flawed because it ignored Burke's assertion that hierarchy was not only natural, but was in need of no defense. The American experiment was, in its own way, as unnatural and deadly to the way the world works as was the French Revolution.

We have another howler ready:
The defenders of aristocracy represent aristocracy as a natural phenomenon, but in reality it is the most artificial thing on earth. Although one of the goals of every aristocracy is to make its preferred social order seem permanent and timeless, in reality conservatism must be reinvented in every generation. This is true for many reasons, including internal conflicts among the aristocrats; institutional shifts due to climate, markets, or warfare; and ideological gains and losses in the perpetual struggle against democracy. In some societies the aristocracy is rigid, closed, and stratified, while in others it is more of an aspiration among various fluid and factionalized groups. The situation in the United States right now is toward the latter end of the spectrum. A main goal in life of all aristocrats, however, is to pass on their positions of privilege to their children, and many of the aspiring aristocrats of the United States are appointing their children to positions in government and in the archipelago of think tanks that promote conservative theories.

Conservatism in every place and time is founded on deception. The deceptions of conservatism today are especially sophisticated, simply because culture today is sufficiently democratic that the myths of earlier times will no longer suffice.(emphasis added)

See, Agre agrees to the extent that he says that hierarchy is presented as "natural". His argument that it is not natural ignores the fact that, for the most part, social stratification has been the rule. Every society imagines that then-current social arrangements are not only the most natural thing in the world, but are the sine qua non for all societies at all times. Contemporary American democrats and egalitarians are no different (as evidenced by Agre's dismissal of conservative appeals to aristocracy). The deception, of course, is the naturalness of aristocracy. Except it is only deceptive to the extent that it might be possible for a person to have the kind of angelic position necessary to see the relativity and limitations of one's own social order.

Please note well that I am not arguing that I have such a position. I am a thoroughgoing egalitarian and small-"d" democrat. I think that the world would be a much better place if most of the countries in the world operated on social and political lines as America does. On the other hand, American social egalitarianism and political democracy are helped by social and civil institutions and practices deeply embedded in our history, institutions and practices, habits and ideas that take time to grow, be nurtured, and embed themselves within a society. More than anything else, this is the flaw at the heart of exporting democracy. Having an election or two does not make a society democratic; there needs to be all sorts of institutions and habits ingrained in a society in order for democracy to work properly. Again, the argument here is a conservative one - there is something organic, rather than artificial (of the nature of a "social contract"), about what a society is. It, and the political superstructure it erects, cannot be changed willy-nilly.

This is turning in to a long post. I shall continue tomorrow.

Your Android Neo-Conservatives

Yesterday, I wrote that the right-wing would waste no time trotting out the tired line that the CIA was a bunch of traitorous swine, liberals who love Islam and hate America, or something like that. The release of a National Intelligence Estimate stating that Iran had halted its research in to the military application of nuclear energy in 2003 would be the catalyst for all sorts of raving on the right. I didn't have to wait 24 hours for Norman "Bomb Iran Yesterday" Podhoretz to start the ball rolling. From Think Progress:
Yesterday’s NIE proved Podhoretz’s claims were false. Rather than modify his views on Iran, Podhoretz — who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004 — aired a nasty conspiracy theory yesterday, attacking the authors of the NIE and accusing the intelligence community of deliberately “leaking material calculated to undermine George W. Bush:”
I entertain an even darker suspicion. It is that the intelligence community, which has for some years now been leaking material calculated to undermine George W. Bush, is doing it again. This time the purpose is to head off the possibility that the President may order air strikes on the Iranian nuclear installations.

Helpfully, TP notes in an update that Podhoretz is not alone in calling America's intelligence gathering agencies a bunch of terrorist-hugging defeatists:
Strata-Strata: “This smells like another leak by forces in our intel community trying to — once again — influence our national elections.”

Powerline: “But the report offers no reason to be less concerned about the likelihood that Iran will possess nuclear weapons in the near future, and no reason to doubt that our own willingness to take military action is one of the factors that will influence decision-making in Tehran.”

Michelle Malkin: “What’s not making headlines (the certainty that Iran indeed had a nuke program) is as telling as what is making news (the halting of the program in 2003).”

Seth Liebelson at the Corner: If Iran shut its program down in the fall of 2003 MIGHT, MIGHT, MIGHT it have anything to do with it noticing that the US militarily took out its neighbor (another enemy of the U.S.) earlier that year for, among other things, having a concealed WMD program?

Michael Rubin at the Corner: “If Iran was working on a nuclear weapons program until 2003, what does this say about U.S. policy in the late Clinton period and European engagement?”

Rather than discuss the real implications of facts upon policy, it is so much easier for people to discount facts that do not agree with their theory of the world. It is also more fun to feel embattled by dark forces bent on your destruction, rather than face up to the reality that you are a doofus.

One idea that is emerging is typified by the quote from insane cheerleader Michelle Malkin, and is noted by Gavin M. at Sadly, No, in a quote from Victor Davis Hanson:
Are [liberal Democrats] now to suggest that Republicans have been warmongering over a nonexistent threat for partisan purposes? But to advance that belief is also to concede that Iran, like Libya, likely came to a conjecture (around say early spring 2003?) that it was not wise for regimes to conceal WMD programs, given the unpredictable, but lethal American military reaction.

This is the same kind of thing we hear when we read that it was Reagan's plan all along to bankrupt the Soviet Union with a nuclear arms race, thus hastening the day when it would crumble like dust, vindicating all the insanity we had to put up with during the 1980's. In this case, the argument goes something like this: The invasion of Iraq may be a cock-up, but it was successful because we got (Libya/Iran/North Korea) to act in the way we wanted them to.

I have to wipe the coffee I just spit-taked all over my computer screen. These people have no shame. Then again, we all knew that, didn't we.

Monday, December 03, 2007

The Traitorous CIA - A Right-Wing Article Of Faith With Many Lives

The National Intelligence Estimate released today is explicit - Iran halted its nuclear weapons research program four years ago. As recently as last week, I heard an analyst for Israeli intelligence throw out all sorts of numbers about how soon Iran would have "the bomb", but insisting they were on the path.

It's. All. A. Lie.

Now, obviously, we will hear all sorts of things about how wrong the CIA was about Iraqi WMDs - which Bush and Congress apparently swallowed whole, and about which we never hear a twinge of regret.

Except, of course, that is a lie, too. Like Karl Rove all over the gab fests insisting it was the Democrats in Congress who wanted a vote on the AUMF Iraq resolution before the 2002 mid-term elections, they lie even when they know the facts are out there to disprove their lies.

It's like this. In the run-up to the invasion, there was much concern over what the "intelligence community" thought was going on. The answer, repeatedly, was "nothing". No aluminum tubes. No underground research labs. No mobile biological weapons labs. Nothing. Zero. Zilch. Nada. The whole thing was dismantled, erased, eradicated.

The Vice President didn't like that, so he set up Paul Wolfowitz as the head of something innocuously called The Office of Special Plans. In essence, unvetted, unanalyzed reports from CIA sources were put in a pipeline to Cheney's office, and this was the report that Cheney, through his ability to manipulate the bureaucracy, forced the CIA to sign off on, and that Congress read. In other words, when it is said that the CIA was "wrong" about WMDs - it's a lie. Period.

The right-wing distrust of the CIA dates back to the end of the Vietnam War. After Nixon resigned, and the right increasingly flexed its muscles on the Ford Administration, many wanted a return to Cold War posturing with the Soviet Union. Ford wasn't really all that game; neither was Kissinger, who thought the right wingers were bonkers. Ford decided the best way to give them what they wanted was to create a panel to analyze pretty much everything about the Soviet Union. Summing up, the report said that, while formidable, the Soviet Union's ability to counter the United States was severely limited. While their defense budget was much larger as a percentage of their overall national expenditures, their budget was less than half that of the US. There were systemic problems of corruption and a lack of broad legitimacy that further weakened the Soveits vis-a-vis the US.

The right didn't like that report at all. They thought it far too rosy a scenario. They forced Ford to form another team, called Team B (the other report became known as the Team A report). Team B was led by then-CIA Director George H. W. Bush. The Team B report was a frightening mix of nonsense and bogus reporting; unvetted, unanalyzed material became authentic fact. There was no comparison at all between the relative values of the ruble and dollar, the question of political legitimacy, or the relative sizes of the budgets. The Team B report was, in essence, made up of all the fears the Right harbored about the dangers of the Evil Empire, and it was bullshit from beginning to end.

It also became the blueprint for right-wing intelligence work. This is one of the reasons they seemed flat-footed in 1989 as the Warsaw Pact crumbled, and in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed in a failed coup attempt. It wasn't that they weren't receiving good reports from the folks in the field. The reigning ideology of the CIA refused to acknowledge the inherent weakness of the Soviet system. Thus the reports were discounted.

When the CIA was revamped a few years back, Florida Congressman and former CIA officer Porter Goss was made director. It was trumpeted throughout the press that he would be "cleaning house" of all the "traitors". In fact, he left less than a year later because morale at the Agency was so low; apparently some right-wingers actually believe this nonsense about all these America-hating liberals infesting the CIA with defeatism, and Goss was one of them. In the end, however, he had to go because he was destroying the Agency from the inside.

One would think that the catastrophic failure of pretty much every right-wing idea would make people laugh when they try to resurrect them. Alas, our memory is shorter than a pithed minnow's, so I am quite sure we will hear all about how stupid and untrustworthy the CIA is. Except, it's really the right wing that is stupid and untrustworthy.

Music Monday

I am becoming an increasingly large fan of the Baroque composer George Telemann. Let me indulge my newest passion.
From the cantata, Machet die Tore Welt, this is soprano Teresa Stich-Randall singing the aria "Jesu, komm in meiner Seele":

This is the Concerto for Transverse Flute:

Finally, his Viola Concerto 2 - not many viola concertos out there, and this one is lovely:


Yesterday, my wife began Advent with a sermon on Hope. Her text was from Romans. When she and I were talking about her sermon, I was struck by how clear she was on the active nature of hope.

Three weeks from today is Christmas Eve. There are few seasons where waiting, counting the days until the Big Event, are as painful and awful as Christmas. Indeed, the kid in all of us secretly wishes that all this waiting could be over, and we could be gathered around an already-decorated tree, with already-wrapped presents, enjoying already-made hot chocolate. Instant gratification, thy name is not the Christmas season.

Yet, Advent calls us not only to wait, to anticipate, to look forward to this "new thing" that God is doing. We are called, should we heed the prophet Isaiah, to be comforted, because the time is at hand when God will deliver us. We live, however, in a time when that doesn't seem to be a meaningful statement. The fact is, all the blather of "redemption" and "grace" seem pretty meaningless in our world right now (actually, they seem pretty meaningless most of the time, because, in truth, our world is a shitty mess most of the time). What possible reason can the Church give for us to hope for something better? Should one consider the topics taken up by this blog, our leaders are cowardly liars, our press is sycophantic stenographers, and there just doesn't seem to be a way to get some of those in charge to listen to what the people of America want. The political process seems detached from anything we say or do. Hope, in this instance, is frustrated time and again by a radical disconnect between the public's desire for action and the politicians' desires for nothing at all to happen.

This is why Advent is important. We are called upon to wait. To watch. To look. Hope is not something passive (as the good Rev. Lisa said, "I hope I get a Wii" isn't really hope at all; neither is "I hope I win the lottery"). Hope is doing something about the way things are, and are wrong. She used the example of the woman who was the driving force behind the Landmine Convention, signed by the civilized world, but not the United States. We could add others - William Sloane Coffin and SANE/Freeze; Clara Barton and the Red Cross; Florence Nightingale and the professionalization of nursing; the Berrigans and the anti-war movement. There are others, most of whom go unremarked and unremembered by grand histories, who nonetheless make a difference, maybe in the neighborhoods in which we live. The thing is - this is the source of our hope.

They don't have to be specifically Christian. In fact, most "Christian" efforts to make the world a better place end up not doing very well. Yet, this is what Advent is about. We are waiting, not just for December 25, but for the promise of Isaiah, and John the Baptist, and even Jesus, to become a reality. In the meantime, it isn't in God's hands to be about the work of making our world better, safer, saner. Or, perhaps, a better way to put it is to say that we are God's hands in this effort. We are the ones who should be making the world better, safer, and saner.

I do not look to politics or politicians to make much of a difference, because the system itself is pretty corrupt, and nothing will make much of dent there. I do look to individuals and groups who are gathered together to make just one small change. Like the birth of a baby in a small town in a forgotten corner of the world so long ago, these have far more potential impact than something done in some seat of power somewhere. My hope does not lie in thinking anything I do, or others do, will change the world. I would like to think, however, that it is possible to change my own little corner of the world.

I hope so.

No Credit Where No Credit Is Due

Paul Krugman's discussion of the current credit crunch (I detest the word "crisis", because this isn't one; a crisis is a momentary problem where difficult choices confront us; we are in the midst of the contraction of the credit markets) is very good, and needs to be studied. I would like to add a thought or two (pretty big of me, huh, "adding" to Paul Krugman; maybe I'm not as humble as I advertise . . .).

First, the collapse of the housing bubble is not "the crisis". The collapse of the subprime mortgage market is not "the crisis". As Krugman rightly notes, these are symptoms of, and precursors to, a larger collapse not so much of consumer and home-owner credit, but of liquidity in general. That is, while it is indeed a human tragedy that thousands, and perhaps even a million or two, folks will be foreclosed upon, while the Bush Administration lectures us all on the wisdom and propriety of free markets. The systemic problem, however, is that the foundation upon which so much of business to business lending (via banks) depends no longer exists. Not just the subprime mortgages, but mortgages in general - second mortgages, taken out on over-valued properties; regular mortgages taken on over-valued properties - are in many ways the key ingredient, the "lubricant" as Krugman calls it, of lending. Most of those mortgages are worhtless, not because the people who are paying in to them are shiftless, lazy, and looking for a way to dodge their financial obligations, but because the homes for which these mortgages are supposed to pay have suddenly become less valuable. Imagine paying $10 for something, only to discover the real price was $5. You would feel ripped off. Now, imagine taking out a mortgage for $750,000 for a home now valued at $375,000. Not only would you feel ripped off, but you might be a tad annoyed at the bank that is suddenly demanding more collateral on the mortgage because the value of the primary asset is less than the amount of the mortgage.

Like yesterday's post on what happens to a nursing home when it's owned by investment bankers, this is a story about what happens when people look to financial instruments as a means toward personal wealth. Some people got incredibly wealthy, trading and re-trading all these loans, until it became clear the underlying real-world value upon which these loans were made couldn't cover them. It is nice that predatory lending services are taking a hit. It is nice that big banks are taking a bath. It isn't so nice, however, that credit in general is contracting; the loss in value of property is becoming a loss in the confidence between lenders and debtors.

The last time the United States had a liquidity crisis, it was called the Great Depression. In the weeks running up to the March 4 inauguration of newly elected President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, thousands of banks, and more and more states went under. There was no longer any real cash in the system for it to operate; what's more, there was no confidence it could operate. People hoarded what little money they had, refusing to spend it. What starts out as a collapse of credit markets could very easily, given a few wrong notes and some bad news, become a liquidity collapse. I don't know if that will happen, but the facts do not bode well for the near-term. Consumer prices are up sharply, durable goods orders are down, which means we will probably be facing a recession sometime in the next year. It could get nasty, however, if consumer prices continue to rise and there isn't the kind of cash-flow in the system to support purchases of necessity, especially of those consumer items for which elasticity is pretty low - like gas and milk (our local Wal-Mart raised the price of a gallon of milk 55 cents in one day last week).

While the bankers are looking to the Fed for a bail-out, I think the situation has passed the point where intervention could do much good. In fact, the point where intervention was needed was two years ago when some folks, like Paul Krugman, started talking about how ridiculously over-priced home values were, and how ridiculously easy it was to take out a mortgage on an overpriced home with little or no down payment or collateral other than the over-priced home itself. Whenever someone on Wall Street or in a Big Bank starts saying the old financial rules don't apply - that's when it's time to zipper your wallet shut and run in the opposite direction. That is also the time Financial Services Regulators should be doing some policing; of course, our current Administration thinks that is tantamount to blaspheming the Holy Spirit, so I'm not surprised there wasn't much help there.

My prediction is simple. Things are going to get quite nasty over the next twelve months. There isn't much anyone can do to ease the pain we are all going to feel, however, so I do think we need to fasten our seat belts, because the ride is going to get bumpy.

Virtual Tin Cup

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