Ora sono ubriaco d'universo. (Ungaretti)

Tag: conservatism (page 1 of 3)

On Conservatism, 1/6/14

1. Nowadays, all I want to do is write.

Not read, not think, not analyze, but express myself as if I have a single, immutable truth. I made my New Year’s resolution to be less angry and more confident.

But I’m not sure I should give up my anger. Anger is the sign one feels wronged, and I’d be lying if I said I weren’t wronged. Or, to be more accurate: that we weren’t wronged.

2. The realities of class and race play out right in front of my eyes every day. At numerous times, I’ve watched whites get second, third, fourth, fifth chances that minorities will never see. I know they’ll never see them because I saw what happened with other races in the exact same situation. People with no support thrown out at the slightest misstep, as if they had support. And I’ve watched people with money pride themselves on their work – as well they should – but as if the job itself could be had by anyone with a little drive or savvy. As if no one else was combing job listings or begging friends for contacts or trying to self-improve with limited time and resources.

What I’ve realized is that all the inequality, all the anger, turns into a strange political phenomenon. It translates messily into class warfare. There’s always a “them” taking from “us,” but the “them” is confused. It’s almost always a straw man, a hypothetical. Maybe it is corporate overlords or government elites or people of other races or religions. What matters is “our” moral purity: we’re the ones who don’t take. We’re the ones who earn.

Except we do take, all of us. One of the things that has me burning is the exploitation of Christianity to dodge the inconvenient fact we’re all sinners. This happens consistently with extreme prejudice by people who in many cases don’t know the difference between the Trinity and One Direction. What they “know” is what they feel, and they haven’t really paid much attention to knowing or feeling. They want to hear there are rules that if obeyed get them into heaven. They do not care at all if those rules bear a striking resemblance to nostalgia more than morality, if they are using a romanticized portrait of their own past to guide them at best. (The biggest problem with me is that I assume people are attentive.)

I’m lucky in a way. My parents’ faults – God bless them – are very evident. That I’m recognized as having next to no prudence helps me remember that in terms of forming a serious moral judgment, I’m on my own. I had better take everything I have – as much of what’s considered human and divine wisdom as possible – and evaluate seriously. I had better do my best to judge and accept judgment, not avoid it.

3. My more liberal friends who want to reach out to everyone aren’t realizing that snakes are everywhere. Conservatives exaggerate their numbers and point at the wrong people, but the idea that some people will take everything if given a chance is correct. Only: every single snake I know nowadays is a self-proclaimed conservative. Right now I’m dealing with some of the most vicious ones, ones who continually take, never giving back, always asking for more. To even listen to them is to walk into a trap. They think their survival is at stake (it isn’t); they see themselves as different (they aren’t); they could care less how you feel or whether you’re being stolen from because you have (you don’t) and they need to survive anyway (as if trust wasn’t worth having). To listen to them is to implicitly justify the fact that they plan on taking from you. You won’t utter a peep as you’re tired of talking to them.

One major reason why I consider myself politically conservative is that I try to stay away from the illusion that people can be better than killing each other over $5 or a place in line at Pizza Hut. That sort of tragedy will always happen. But what’s happening now is that the worst stereotypes about a culture of dependency are manifest. People have been told they’re frauds, cheats, liars, or simply not worthy before even having the chance to do or get anything. Or they think they deserve everything because by their standard, they earn.

What they’ve lost is any sense of shame. Without shame, you can’t have morality. People have to want to stand for something at some point. If they don’t understand why that’s important, they’ll do anything to anyone else. A friend watched a person take several hundred dollars from another who was making less money than he was. And this isn’t the only thing I’ve seen or heard in the last couple of months. There were the libertarians who failed to distinguish between freedom and addiction; the roommate who muscled his way into another apartment and kicked out another who had graciously taken in him when homeless. There are bad people out there, and words alone will not fight them.

4. We are beyond shame. We’ll tweet hate at the President, Republican or Democrat. We’ll say anything to justify ourselves and at times allow ourselves to be purposely consumed by hysteria. We know if we get hysterical or neurotic we can get what we want. The only question left is why we haven’t eaten each other.

But that’s only a matter of time. In the richest country ever in the history of the planet, food banks have shortages. We have hunger on an increasingly epidemic scale. Get out and work, growls the gentleman whose entire income comes from the federal government. I’m working says the leech taking advantage of everyone else – milking every advantage he has – while using the disguise of work.

To have shame is to have a rough equality. I do not expect that we will ever meet the standard of Plato’s Laws, where the richest citizen only has 7 times what the poorest has. But maybe we should look at the Arab world, where a great tumult broke out. Islam offers many that sense of equality, that sense “we’re in this together,” while elites stay secular and cynical, often exacerbating social divisions to the point of violence. But the shame before the law (sharia) has not set in; rather, the law is used to bully others or used in reverse to ostracize its true adherents. With people far more passionate about the possibility of democracy than in our own country – with people who in many cases overcame greater odds to lead and work for others – they might fail. It isn’t religion that’s the problem (the hardline Islamists kill more Muslims than anyone else), or even the awful legacy of U.S. Cold War policy, where merely proclaiming yourself “anti-communist” got you weapons and dollars. The problem is that the spirit of the law is what we must work toward. The law only matters because of unity. Again, look at – maybe to – the Arab world. We are far more comfortable, far from grudges that go back centuries, but we’re at each others’ throats over nothing. To have shame is to know that you are no better than the people you think must serve you, the ones you claim to hate.

Let’s talk about the ways fundamentalists can abuse each other and create a society of 10 year olds

I don’t think the author meant to be bullying, and I do think this attempts to be more satirical than mean, but experience has taught me that this is not innocuous in the least

So that link above is a really good look at where I go to school. A lot of things I’ve struggled to explain to you can be seen very clearly through it. I should say that as far as I can tell, most women on campus dress modestly or decently and there was little or no need for the editorial’s call for – well, I’ll let the author explain:

…“long skirt” signifies more than a daily clothing choice; it is a frame of mind that values modesty for the sake of holiness. You can be a long skirt, and you should encourage all the women in your life to adopt the modesty and prudence of long skirtness for the sake of their beauty and the benefit of everyone who has to look at them.

The problem with this kind of talk isn’t that a lack of modesty is a good thing. The problem is that there are a lot of people who are, to say the least, not-very-nice hiding behind this sort of rhetoric. I’ve known fundamentalist families and friends who will yell at anyone over anything. I don’t think I need to spell out where and how I’ve met them. And while no school should be connected to what at times might be termed “abuse,” the unfortunate reality is that a university’s culture can reinforce some of the worst things human beings can do to each other.

In this case, it absolutely is the case that this kind of talk encourages self-hate and paranoia over nothing. Witness this comment:

This article really made me re-think about what I’m wearing. I don’t usually wear leggings, but I do wear semi-fitted to fitted pants (which the majority of the world wears now). Still, it made me aware of the fact that I need to exercise modesty.

I hope this is a joke, because it has absolutely nothing to do with faith or treating people well or loving justice or walking humbly with one’s God. The way it is written, it seems to have everything to do with jumping through arbitrary hoops and saying that’s the essence of faith. What’s at play is fundamentalist peer pressure. I’m not saying the author of the comment shouldn’t be more aware of what she already wants to do, i.e. be more modest. If that’s what she wants, fine. I can see how that might generate something people would consider holy. But it looks to me that the article has achieved something that can only be called sinister.

There’s an additional problem. Not only is there implicit (and in some cases, explicit – read some of the comments by the article’s defenders) bullying. It’s also the case that now, instead of talking about whether French intervention in Mali will be successful or Platonic thoughts about justice carry over into Augustine, we’re stuck on this. All of a sudden, in one bold stroke, everything a school tries to be intellectually is gone. And the price is more than intellectual. After all, what’s happening is some form of bullying. What is lost as an educational institution is any sense of maturity.

We lose the ability to produce people who can talk about relevant issues. We lose the ability to seriously critique the worst aspects of our culture. We lose the ability to create leaders who can be trusted by everyone. Does it surprise you that the article sounds like a number of people who are thought to be unelectable? What makes someone unelectable is when they create an “us” vs. “them” with no credible reconciliation of the gap. That was what made Romney’s “47%” remark fatal: there’s no real attempt to try and say “we.” There’s only “good” and “bad” with one group always being “bad.”

No one’s saying there can’t be a more conservative culture or calls for decency. But this is what you get on a conservative campus, and yes, it probably is related to the GOP’s current problems. To be blunt: I couldn’t stand Leftist causes at state university. But at least those Leftist causes were aware, in large part, that there were other people in the world and that those other people deserved better. What is so striking about the next generation of conservatives, from what I can see, is an almost endless amount of self-absorption. As if morality were only a personal code of conduct – as if “love thy neighbor” was an option.

Conservative Self-Pity and the Demagoguery that Enables It: A Response to Mark Levin

I vote Republican and have given money to GOP candidates. I’ve worked on one campaign in a fairly substantial role and I was happy to chip in when I could in smaller ways throughout the years for the cause.

I am going to continue voting Republican, but I want a different party, one not overcome by fear and anger, one that can reach out to all Americans and be seen by the world over as something positive. That means something about conservatism as it is articulated has to change. In what follows, I’m going to take apart a rant of Mark Levin’s point-by-point and leave nothing standing. It is a rant representative of an over-hyped frustration that could not possibly be uttered in a country less free, one not as willing to let radio demagogues make obscene amounts of money by stoking people’s worst fears and hatred.

I wish I could hit a “reset” button on all conservative media once and for all. There’s so much implicit and explicit racism out there, hatred for anyone different, get-tough rhetoric that doesn’t even come close to understanding the very real pain of others, conspiracy theory that shows no shame in accusing everyone and everything of plotting murder and theft that someone has to say enough. (Today on my facebook feed: someone seriously accused the President of trying to stage a kidnapping of the Libyan ambassador.) The worst part about all this hate is that it dresses itself up with flag-waving and Bible-quoting. I want my country back, and I want those who profit off hate to have some small doubt that Judgement Day will go well for them.

Mr. Levin’s rant is here, for those who want to follow along.

1. The Pretense of Theory

Mr. Levin’s rant moves so fast that one has trouble seeing what his complaint is. In one sentence, he says the government is run by lilliputians – tiny, trivial people. Then he right away says the President exercises no less than imperial authority and implies that the media is under his control:

But I’m just telling you, from an emotional point of view, it is just so damned infuriating to see the greatest country on the face of the earth run by a bunch of lilliputians, who are constantly attacking it from within. No discussion on the news programs about an imperial president exercising an authority he does not have under our constitution.

You could say this is a trivial complaint I’m raising. But remember that a number of right-wingers look to Mr. Levin to teach them what Tocqueville and the Federalist say about liberty. That sort of discussion turns on theoretical points like this: Would it be better for a government to be incompetent or efficient as regards our freedom? (The Federalist, btw, comes out very clearly in favor of a strong, efficient executive: “secrecy and dispatch.”)

So maybe the President is incompetent and tyrannical: who knows? Who cares? Levin’s whole game – the game of all conservative media nowadays – is that no matter what you think, you’re ready to vent. The venting is what’s important. It keeps you listening for hours upon hours every day, instead of reading books or talking to people or enjoying sunshine. It keeps people younger than 30 far, far away from conservative causes, has turned off every single minority in the United States, and perhaps worst of all, filters down into the indoctrination of a number of children. Trust me on this: no amount of conservative complaints about “leftist mind control” compare to what I’ve seen happen in isolated communities on the right.

2. Call everyone Hitler so you can ignore the fact they actually have to govern

There is, of course, no serious argument of how the President is actually “attacking [America] from within.” I assume, given Levin’s statement about the Second Amendment that follows, that this is about guns:

No discussion about all the lives saved and all the people protected as a result of the Second Amendment. Nothing. They continue to perpetuate the lie, the big lie that somehow, some new regulation, some new government fiat would have prevented what happened in Newtown, Connecticut. And then they pretend that they’re for law enforcement. They pretend that they’re hard on crime when they’re not.

So let’s talk about those executive orders the President’s been considering. The story on Drudge, of course, was that the President was going to outright ban guns. Everyone should know this is laughable. Weigel reports that what the President was working with was 3 “tweaks” of current law: more active prosecution of people who are already prohibited from purchasing guns, having a permanent ATF director, getting other feds to report mental health records. That was what prompted Drudge to post a picture of Hitler and Stalin over a headline about “executive orders” on guns.

Levin seems to have a talent for talking right past contradictions. Guns obviously can make policing harder in some circumstances, easier in others (i.e. if you live out in the middle of nowhere, you should have a gun and know how to use it). It would seem that if we’re talking about executive orders to make the government more efficient at tracking and prosecuting people already banned from having guns, then we’re talking about a government that is working to be “hard on crime.” As for Newtown: I literally have had conservative friends tell me that the only reason it was news was that liberals wanted to make guns look bad. Not a single, serious thought that maybe people in the media are actually people and were horrified just like anyone else with a pulse. I don’t know that “liberals” have problems with guns because they’re emotional and hate guns. I think they’re serious people responding to a serious problem. I may not like their solution, but at the same time, countries where you hear of massacre after massacre are countries with names like “Syria” and “Afghanistan.”

3. I thought Jesus said something about visiting him in prison. Apparently that has nothing to do with modern conservatism.

Levin now gets to the closest he possibly can to an argument. Liberals are soft on crime and want to take away your guns. By implication (he doesn’t say this, that would involve making an argument), their fear of violence is going to punish the good and reward the bad:

We have evidence over one decade after another of how the very same people pushing for gun control against law-abiding American citizens support radical left-wing judges who are soft on criminals, support weakened sentencing rules, decriminalizing this and that. Since when was Obama strong on fighting crime? Since when has Obama supported law enforcement? But here he is, you know, ‘we have to stop gun violence.’ No, we have to stop violent criminals.

You can see very clearly this is no argument. This is just “we let criminals walk around free.” Btw, it’s absolutely not true: we have the highest incarceration rate in the world – we throw everyone and their mother in prison. It is estimated one-third of those in prison are non-violent offenders. We get, as a result, a slightly lower crime rate than we would otherwise have. It isn’t anything to brag about: it injures many communities as well as many individuals. And don’t think for a second that we don’t throw people in prison that have no business being there. A get-tough-on-crime attitude invariably means people will have to face the legal system for all the wrong reasons.

To make things worse – and shame on modern conservatism for ever letting children think this way – I remember having a discussion about prison reform with a few friends. A young man joined in, who was seriously thinking of being a priest. We were talking about the AIDS rate of the prison population and recidivism programs we’d heard about. He listened, and without the slightest pretense of a joke, he declared that to solve crime, people should be thrown in prison and the key should be thrown away. (His ideological background: army brat & more conservative than Pat Buchanan). I’ll never forget that: the hate you spew and indulge in spreads to every corner.

Levin’s argument depends on a luxury. You can’t sit around feeling sorry for yourself, feeling like things are going to hell, unless you have time for self-pity. Therein lies my biggest problem with modern conservative media: it fosters an attitude of victimization that is usually completely unfounded. People are being trained to lie to themselves for the cause. Meanwhile, people who have real problems on the right and the left suffer.

Also, it goes without saying: “how many guns does one need to stand up to violent criminals” is the question, not Levin’s declaration that the government wants to take away your guns and let you be eaten by whomever comes along.

4. Why does the radio host have to hint that the government is out to take everything away?

Levin does not end his rant subtly. He wonders why we need a national gun database. In doing so, he calls the VP a “moron,” because that’s a classy way to talk about policy when we have the problem that every other day we have shootings. Obviously no one might be able to use info about guns with reports about mental health to check in with people before anything happens. Nope. He implies that it’s all an excuse for something more sinister, something I’ve heard from the Right nonstop for 10 years now (remember when we were all supposed to be in FEMA camps? Remember when that didn’t happen? No? I have gold to sell you…):

Now, there’s a fury in me — I’m just being honest with you — that I’m trying to contain. Biden, the moron Senator from Delaware, taking his train back and forth and back and forth on Amtrak. Oh wow, what a guy. Anyway, so they may do by executive fiat — I’m trying to read between the lines — a national gun database. Now, why would we need a national gun database? Well, listen, we need to know who has the weapons, at all times, and how many weapons they have and what weapons they have. How come? Why? The guy that killed all those people in Newtown, Connecticut, we know who he was and we know who had the weapons, his mother. So what does this national database have to do with anything? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Oh, okay, but we need one anyway, right? To prevent what exactly? To prevent what?

Levin’s not going to complete this thought on the radio. He can’t. He’s built up to some version of “they’re coming for you,” but he can’t say that because his job is to sucker you into giving him your money and time every day, not get caught in an investigation. He’s either a nutcase or a scumbag. Right now, I don’t really care which: he’s dishonest and hurting my party and my country. None of this ranting is going to stop gun control. It makes all those who go “yeah! Levin’s right” be sighed at by the rest of America. And I’ve been really clear that it offends and hurts a host of others, from minorities who do have to deal with discrimination on an everyday level to homeschooled kids who hear this and only this from their parents nonstop for 18 years.


Viola to Orsino, Act V of “Twelfth Night,” lines 2471-4

I. Something about love actually can be tender:

And all those sayings will I overswear;
And those swearings keep as true in soul
As doth that orbed continent the fire
That severs day from night.

Viola to Orsino in Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” Act 5

Finished a close read of Twelfth Night and this just leapt out at me. You say you love someone and want to wed them. That isn’t just feeling a certain way and having words to match the feeling. You make a pledge beyond yourself (“overswear”). Those “swearings” (not mere “sayings”) are the plane of the sun, a realm to itself. The sun is the brightness that marks the heavens. By itself, it is nothing – you’ve pledged beyond yourself. But the metaphor brings us to the time and space the sun creates. That time and space is being married; the pledge is its fulfillment. The swearings “keep as true in soul” because one is living them out, daily.

II. And yet. Charles Johnson of LGF linked to an extremely ugly piece at NR, singling it out rightly for shame: Kevin Williamson’s “Like a Boss.” Look, I hang around a lot of young people who take conservatism as seriously as they do their religion. I know for a fact it is possible to teach sexism and set the dignity of women back centuries. You don’t need laws, all you need is dogma and bullying. That can happen at any level, anywhere, and I can’t stress the need for vigilance.

I think it’s time for me to put an end to this conservative fascination with manliness. It is an important topic in terms of critiquing heroes and gods in literature. It does have political implications when the questions become that of “spiritedness” and the relation of war to the state. It is critical to any historical understanding of an aristocracy. But enough is enough. Those are serious topics for people who are not out to score cheap political points. They’re for people who are grown men and women and understand that what we do as human beings is valuable, somehow. They’re for people who are not willing to rob others of dignity because they can.

Justice, Equality, “Clientelism” and Faction: A Response to Jay Cost

Jay Cost, “Spoiling Julia Rotten”

1. The core of Cost’s critique – republicanism is compromised when the electorate that matters is nothing but special interests. To wit:

And that is what “The Life of Julia” [Obama campaign advertising] is all about. It is liberalism, for sure, but it certainly is not a republican brand of it. It is almost a perfect articulation of antirepublican, client group liberalism, which unhappily has come to define the Democratic party under Obama. Put simply, the message of the ad is that this woman should vote for Obama because of all the great benefits he will offer her.

Michael Barone has often referred to Obama’s political approach as the “Chicago way,” and here we can see a version of that method at work. It was the urban political machines—like Chicago’s Daley operation and before it New York’s Tammany Hall—that mastered the decidedly antirepublican relationship of patron and client as well as any organization in world history.

I’ll agree that things can get very ugly for our country when local politics become national politics. I personally think the Founders bet on the “enlarged orbit,” the sheer size of the United States, so that way once in a while people like Dennis Kucinich could be mayor of Cleveland or Jan Brewer could become governor of Arizona and that local factionalism would not play out onto the national level.

Still, despite the strength of the primary contention, that interest groups receiving benefits can be detrimental to republicanism if they become primary focus, I think we can isolate several problems. Can we really distinguish what Cost calls “client group liberalism” from the practice of politics? If that proves problematic, what are compelling reasons for working with “client group liberalism?” Finally, what truly unites us as Americans, what makes our republicanism work? How abstract is the appeal to principle?

2. Cost is aware that it is tricky to distinguish giving stuff to your base and giving too much stuff to your base. Prior to saying that “The Life of Julia” represents a a major antirepublican trend in the Democratic agenda, he says:

Both liberals and conservatives believe they are republicans, that their policies will benefit all Americans, not just a privileged elite. Furthermore, both political parties pay lip service to this republican view of government, but in reality they are often ready, willing, and able to play favorites, doling out government benefits to their supporters (paid for, usually, by their political opponents).

One gets the impression that this paragraph exists to say that the problem with Obama’s advertising is that it is too direct. This isn’t necessarily a trivial complaint. How things are articulated by our leaders matters. Setting the right tone has huge implications for how we deal with each other, what we think is acceptable.

Then again: isn’t it the case we vote for people based on what they do for us? If you want to counter the “hey! free lunch!” promotion, you have to make a coherent case that an emphasis on limited government will help us at the moment. Cost mentions the “public good” as something Democrats are ignoring at the moment, and it is hard to argue with his indictment:

The stimulus, the health care bill, cap and trade, and the financial reform package were all designed with heavy input from the party’s clients, and ultimately each reflects their priorities, so much so that any kind of national purpose the legislation might have served was totally undermined. The stimulus catered far too much to Democratic clients, hence its measly effect on the economy; Obamacare was a veritable smorgasbord of goodies for Democratic backers, from feminists to unions to big business, while the average American will see no material improvement in the cost or security of his health insurance; and financial reform ultimately won the backing of the mega-banks on Wall Street, which not coincidentally had given overwhelmingly to Democrats in the 2008 cycle.

You’ll get no argument from me on that front. The only thing I’ll say is that since I don’t think the Obama administration terribly competent, I’m not sure how much this reflects a serious ideology as much as a gimmick. And it’s the ideological overtones that matter (“antirepublican”). I can conceive of a number of types of governments wanting to give benefits to various interest groups for reasons that matter. Heck, we need to do this. Last I checked, tax cuts don’t help people on reservations where there may be a 60% alcoholism rate and any sort of intervention in a place like Gary, Indiana is a good thing.

To be even blunter: you don’t get justice and equality through limited government necessarily. For that to happen, we all have to be the same, with the same income, the same priorities, the same circumstances. Then strict constitutionalism and fewer laws and less spending work like a charm.

3. One of the more compelling arguments for liberal prescriptions is economic collapse. It isn’t that one wants too much regulation or spending. But it’s also the case one shouldn’t want to cut services in a recession. It’s less a disincentive to work and more giving people one less thing to worry about while we recover.

Unfortunately, when one is arguing more or less based on ideology, FDR has to be seen as not someone dealing with a problem, but just as much a relentless partisan:

Ironically, it was Franklin Roosevelt—the very president who destroyed the Tammany operation—who adapted its clientelism to national government. This is how the antirepublican practices of urban politics found their way into the national Democratic party. FDR had two purposes in mind with his New Deal: to use the vast regulatory and redistributive potential of the federal government to fight off the Great Depression and to establish a permanent Democratic majority. Whereas Tammany had once been limited to ticky-tacky items like contracts and jobs, FDR could use sweeping legislation like the Agricultural Adjustment Act to buy off the entire Southern plantation gentry at a stroke of the presidential pen.

Cost rightly moves away from this narrative and starts seeing how many other factions the Democrats brought under their umbrella in the coming years. The trouble with the story as he presents it is a hundredfold. One reason why Republicans stayed in power for years after the Civil War was that they gave out exceedingly generous veterans’ benefits. You have to pretend that the time before FDR was this mythic time for republicanism in America, where debates were fought earnestly and with tremendous respect for the Constitution and the rights of others. And of course we didn’t have 10 year olds work in mines! Of course there was no economic instability and a ridiculous lack of oversight! We only had the Great Depression because of the Federal Reserve (I love when friends tell this story. The consensus among scholars, as far as I can tell, is that the Fed’s refusal to act was the catalyst for some of the worst damage)!

Can we get serious for a second? I think one can have some issues with FDR’s governance. But there’s no way to look at the “Great Depression” and say this is some insignificant problem that isn’t going to involve a drastic reordering of priorities. As ticked as I am that 50% of the federal budget goes to Social Security and Medicare, I’d be scared to death if I lived in a country where taking care of the old and sick wasn’t important.

Once we see that some “clientelism” isn’t the end of the world – it’s a way of tracking whether government is actually doing good for someone – we can start seeing what a healthy alternative to Obama style liberalism is.

4. The first thing we have to do is come clean and admit that conservatism is, for the most part nowadays, identity politics. There’s no other way to explain how people like this were allowed to thrive at National Review for as long as they did. I’m not saying all conservatism is identity politics that vicious; I’ve made the case above that I think some identity politics (obviously, not the one in the immediately prior link) is good.

But we have to understand that it isn’t clear that the modern Republican party, as constituted at this moment, can offer a “public good.”

The truth is that there is a public good to be had, but it doesn’t really lie in ideological economics. It has something to do with what Cost articulated above, which I’ll fashion into something stronger: you can’t use all of the national treasury to pay off your friends.

You can see that’s more basic than arguing ideological degeneration. It more or less contends that as political science has given us insight into winning elections, we’re using that insight a bit too much. The ability to offer voters a choice between competing but salutary and reasonable alternatives has been compromised by our factionalism and the strategies which engage and exacerbate that factionalism. I’m not placing blame here. To be a viable politician, you have to work with what you’ve got.

We need unity. I used to think bipartisanship was just a lame talking point. Now I think it’s one of the greatest blessings we had and we’re too blind to realize how much we need it. The President is very partisan and I know thoughtful liberals should ask whether the Congressional majorities were handled correctly. If you want this place to be more like Europe, you need to do a lot of convincing, not just win at the ballot box and pass some laws and make a few rounds at talk shows and town halls. And I don’t really want to say anything about the more disgraceful behavior of my party (re: that last link – that is, for all practical purposes, a violation of someone’s civil rights. Real Presidents stand by their staff on such things). The real ideological question is whether we can move beyond a politics of cynicism, apathy and outright hatred, instead articulating a coherent, optimistic vision for the future that’s practical. One that truly benefits all Americans and gets politicians talking to each other about what matters.

Re: “Some Open Questions for Conservatives”

Paula at It’s Only Words has a post looking for some feedback. From the post:

My question was, and is, how many conservative positions must one hold on the issues in order to be considered a conservative? The person who started the controversy contends that you must hold the conservative position on every issue, “with some minor variations.”

I left a rambling comment later in the thread that didn’t answer the question:

One thing that I think important that I’m not seeing in these comments: Is it possible to get a definition of “conservative” that doesn’t reduce “liberal” to stereotypes?

I think we have to start with the notion that conservatism and liberalism are ideologies and necessarily imperfect. An ideology by definition is not a search for wisdom: it already assumes it knows everything in order to move people’s passions. This can more easily explain why extremes on the Right and Left are both prone to embracing New World Order conspiracy theories where “Obama = Bush” and all that junk. Now of course, the crucial point is that when someone does that, they become apolitical – no less than Aristotle says that a democracy that is too much a democracy ceases to be a democracy.

It also would be very prudent to distinguish American conservatism from European strands. In some ways, American conservatism is becoming more like European, where fascism is a genuine threat. Just because the Obama administration will label anyone the worst enemy of mankind ever doesn’t mean that things aren’t getting ugly over here: I’ve run into way too many militias and openly white supremacist groups talking about things like Glenn Beck to find common ground with more reasonable people. There’s a lot on the line when one attempts to define conservatism, and one has to be very careful with even the most innocuous sounding rhetoric. While there are exceptions, the main reason why anyone brings up “states’ rights” is to say that the Civil War was inherently unjust. I’m sorry, but I’ll take big government over slavery any day. And our institutions work, as evidenced by the fact that just winning an election can make the opposition think twice.

I hope you’ll comment there and help her get some quality answers to her question.

Rant: The Banality of Conservatism

I certainly don’t want to go “look how smart I am,” because if the latter is said people might actually start looking and I might get in trouble. But this passage from Joseph Epstein’s obituary of Irving Kristol leaped out at me:

At the same time, he liked to play with ideas. I remember a Chinese dinner with him at which he tried out the idea that Modernism in the arts was the devil’s work. He meant the actual capital-D Devil. Was he serious? I’m not certain even now, but the discussion, in which Irving argued that Modernist art undermined tradition and as such human confidence in institutions, was provocative in the best sense, causing a true believer (that would be me) to defend Modernism by arguing that the best of it was based precisely on tradition.

Dear readers, that’s not playing with ideas unless one is 14 years old and trying to be an intellectual in high school. And not just any high school – this is the kind of debate homeschooled kids who’ve never left the house otherwise and have encountered “modernism” in art history textbooks have (a few of you will know that I am not exaggerating one bit here). In fact, what’s stunning is how dull, trite, and ultimately cliched such a debate is, and yet Epstein has somehow remembered this as if it is the most significant experience in the world.

Garry Wills’ remembrance of Bill Buckley is another case in point; I’m no fan of Wills, not one bit: I think he’s a strange liberal with some Southern apologist tendencies (Paul Rahe’s review of “Lincoln at Gettysburg” does a very good job of showing his biases). But much of the article strikes me as probably being true. Conservatives don’t care to learn, by and large: they want to win the argument, and part of this has to do with the essential nature of conservatism. Conservatism has an “answer” for everything already – it doesn’t matter what it is, or what it could be, someone’s already written something or there’s some body of thought telling you why it’s bad and not as good as some other thing. In this respect, many of the liberals I find utterly mindless defenders of the status quo are very conservative: they’ve never had an independent thought in their lives, they already know what’s good and what’s bad. Congrats – you have your reward.

I think I’m going to ramp up criticism of the right-wing in this country in the coming weeks. I’m not sure yet, because I don’t want to get involved in a lot of petty debates. But it’s clear to me that my views are not represented the way they should be: I’m pro-life, want lower taxes, want much less regulation so people in this country can actually go into business for themselves, want a very strong and competently run foreign policy that does not cry every time military force is used,  want free trade, want school vouchers, want comprehensive reform at the University level (we may not need affirmative action for conservatives, but it really is a disgrace I teach more in my blog than I was taught in undergrad – far more). Now I have a tremendous respect for the Republican Party, despite its problems, and I think a lot of bloggers who are attacking that party don’t realize how hard it is to govern, not in the least.

However, I don’t see why wanting the things listed above should tie me in with groups that are openly racist and secessionist (bloggers far more than Republicans are responsible for this, but Republicans are increasingly listening to bloggers, partly because of the experience with DailyKos and the Left). I don’t see why in order to criticize those groups, I would have to ally with liberals who would in some cases make fun of me or call me a bigot for being pro-life, as if abortion was obviously a good.

And at another level, I just refuse to be defined intellectually by people who don’t go out and look for the interesting things others have to say; again, there are quite a few who only want to hear their own voices, and apply the notion of the Devil to anything foreign. I think a large part of my work as a political scientist is making sure other voices are heard and understood, but the more I think about it, the more I wonder how that task is different from that of any given citizen, anywhere.

John Derbyshire’s “How Radio Wrecks the Right” is a waste of time

1. Short take: ugh, don’t read his article, it’s a waste of time and indirectly supports his poorly presented idiotic views. I’m writing because better conservative media exists: that’s what this blog is.

2. John Derbyshire’s “How Radio Wrecks the Right” has some significant flaws. I didn’t really want to write on it – I had seen it before aldaily linked to it – but now I feel compelled to say something.

The most significant flaw stems from his attempt to make conservatism dogmatic theology. I kid you not – that’s the only import this passage has:

…are there some downsides to conservative talk radio? Taking the conservative project as a whole—limited government, fiscal prudence, equality under law, personal liberty, patriotism, realism abroad—has talk radio helped or hurt? All those good things are plainly off the table for the next four years at least, a prospect that conservatives can only view with anguish. Did the Limbaughs, Hannitys, Savages, and Ingrahams lead us to this sorry state of affairs?

They surely did. At the very least, by yoking themselves to the clueless George W. Bush and his free-spending administration, they helped create the great debt bubble that has now burst so spectacularly. The big names, too, were all uncritical of the decade-long (at least) efforts to “build democracy” in no-account nations with politically primitive populations. Sean Hannity called the Iraq War a “massive success,” and in January 2008 deemed the U.S. economy “phenomenal.”

Conservatives can reasonably disagree on those things; the objection, from Derbyshire, has to stem from liking the Bush administration for purely populist reasons. He doesn’t make that case: he just dismisses one set of views as if he knows better. Notice Derbyshire’s incredibly crude swipe at Iraq: “politically primitive populations?” Is this really how you want to characterize the country that’s lost more people in the War on Terror than any other? That’s not just populist, that’s outright bigotry, and you’re not doing the Right any favors with that. Moreover, Phil Gramm was arguing that the economy was far stronger than people thought during the campaign; there’s a perfectly solid line of argument emerging now saying that the Obama administration’s continual talk of how bad things are is making things worse.

I don’t want to be a Bush administration apologist, but I think one thing any intellectual has to admit is how hard things are practically speaking. Ideas are easy to throw around from a column or a paper. But try working with a State Dept. and CIA where only 20% of the staff support your policies. Try working with “conservatives” who see any problems on your part as a failure to advance their ideology. Try working with Democrats and needing to make sure their interests are represented, esp. as they won midterms in 2006.

The larger point is, Derbyshire needs to make a case for intellectual conservatives having a diversity of views, not just his views.

This most significant flaw, from above, makes the actual “substance” of his article very problematic:

In place of the permanent things, we get Happy Meal conservatism: cheap, childish, familiar. Gone are the internal tensions, the thought-provoking paradoxes, the ideological uneasiness that marked the early Right. But however much this dumbing down has damaged the conservative brand, it appeals to millions of Americans. McDonald’s profits rose 80 percent last year.

There is a lowbrow liberalism, too, but the Left hasn’t learned how to market it. Consider again the failure of liberals at the talk-radio format, with the bankruptcy of Air America always put forward as an example. Yet in fact liberals are very successful at talk radio. They are just no good at the lowbrow sort. The “Rush Limbaugh Show” may be first in those current Talkers magazine rankings, but second and third are National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered,” with 13 million weekly listeners each. It is easy to mock the studied gentility, affectless voices, and reflexive liberalism of NPR, but these are very successful radio programs.

“Studied gentility, affectless voices, and reflexive liberalism” is way too kind. I read The Nation and The American Prospect and a host of openly Leftist publications, and I’ll be honest: NPR’s problem is its dishonesty. Yeah, there are times they’ll talk about the work Chomsky’s doing in linguistics, or interview an author or playwright, but I don’t see American liberals getting any smarter because of this. In fact, all I see is more arrogance and just an outright dismissal of those on the Right. There’s a complete inability on the part of the Left in this country to formulate what would be the best objection to any given stance they have.

Derbyshire then goes on to say, without any irony, that “liberals can’t do populism.” I’m not sure he and I live in the same country. He also claims that Colbert, Stewart and Maher aren’t exactly lowbrow populists, but masters of irony. I think he’s off the deep end here: Bill Maher is ironic? To some degree, yes, of course. But is that his defining trait? All three of the hosts mentioned set up people in “gotcha” scenarios: that’s not irony. That’s the worst form of populism, where truth (which the host has but never articulates, of course) only exists by destroying the credibility of others. Routinely all three hosts use any sort of perceived hypocrisy to unleash populist rage and mockery at anyone who might claim to know anything they disagree with.

Derbyshire conflates how something is marketed with whether it is lowbrow or middlebrow. Truth be told, Limbaugh’s editorial in the WSJ arguing for the halving of the corporate income tax was way more direct and interesting than anything Colbert, Stewart, Maher or NPR say. He wasn’t blaming anyone for anything, he just wanted growth, and put forth a suggestion in line with classical economic theory. Most importantly, he actually took a stand: he didn’t just curse at the President or say everything was spin.

This brings us to the crucial point: Derbyshire is at best trying to argue for intellectuals as people divorced from the truth. He sometimes shows interest in how things are said, not what is said:

Why can’t conservatives do radio like that [BBC Radio 4]? Instead we have crude cheerleading for world-saving Wilsonianism, social utopianism, and a cloth-eared, moon-booted Republican administration. [boldface mine]

I want better talk radio too, so I’m being generous here and emphasizing “crude cheerleading,” and ignoring the fact that he went after specific positions. And I’ve made purely elitist arguments before: I still think it was a travesty when the Washington Post put Joshua Bell in the subway and no one cared about what was going on. (Yeah, people have to rush to work, but not everyone is rushing to work in the DC metro.) But again, if you want to make this case, you can’t just stereotype the positions of talk radio because of how they sound to you: it’s not like Derbyshire is offering any nuance himself here.

Derbyshire lets his true colors fly when he starts allying with the Ron Paul crowd and implies that the attacks on Dr. Paul are nothing but smears. There’s not a chance in hell that argument will stand serious scrutiny. It is true that populism is dangerous, and that talk radio does prevent the Right from seeing their intellectual origins.  I’ve said the Left can’t articulate the best arguments against their position, and a Right only beholden to talk radio certainly can’t.

But I don’t know that John Derbyshire is capable of serious critique, either. This piece has nothing intellectual in it: it’s pretty much an ad hominem attack. I’ve set forth a criterion for what I want Americans to do (i.e. be able to appreciate different sets of arguments); Derbyshire has only mentioned names and compared one aspect of our media to BBC X. The “middlebrow” intellectual conservatism he wants is a front for advancing what would be called paleoconservative ideas, i.e. isolationism, protectionism, etc. I’m not necessarily against some of those things, but if you’re going to argue people should be more intellectual, it means you need to be clear on how they can disagree with you.

If he were interested in ideas, he’d go back to his old columns, where he used to talk about things like his coursework in the UK and how unfocused he finds the curriculum at an American university. I’ve read parts of “Prime Obsession” and enjoyed them greatly. Don’t put forth views as much as information.

And put your money where your mouth is, Mr. Derbyshire. I’ve been writing and putting forth my work for years now, because I believe we can have a better political discourse. You’ve got way more attention than I’ll ever have from one stupid article, and all you’ve demonstrated is that you’re just as responsible for the collapse of the Right as anyone else.

What Can We Reasonably Expect from Partisanship?

Lincoln in 1857, “On the Republican Party:”

Upon those men who are, in sentiment, opposed to the spread, and nationalization of slavery, rests the task of preventing it. The Republican organization is the embodiment of that sentiment; though, as yet, it by no means embraces all the individuals holding that sentiment. The party is newly formed; and in forming, old party ties had to be broken, and the attractions of party pride, and influential leaders were wholly wanting. In spite of old differences, prejudices, and animosities, it’s [sic] members were drawn together by a paramount common danger. They formed and maneuvered in the face of the deciplined [sic] enemy, and in the teeth of all his persistent misrepresentations. Of course, they fell far short of gathering in all of their own. And yet, a year ago, they stood up, an army over thirteen hundred thousand strong. That army is, to-day, the best hope of the nation, and of the world. Their work is before them; and from which they may not guiltlessly turn away.

1. Over at Real Clear Politics, Jay Cost argues this election isn’t a “realignment” because there wasn’t an issue (slavery, the gold standard, the welfare state) that transformed the electoral landscape.

I don’t think “realignment” is the right term for what we’ve witnessed. My own thought is that the culture wars being so one-sided resulted in what we saw this election, and more importantly, the tantrum from the eventual victor that existed for 8 years before. There really are two Americas: modern, secular, progressive-radical America is not an aberration that took over some professorships in the 60’s and founded an ice cream company or two later. The elites have succeeded in creating far more like them in values, if not ability. What they want is for this country to embrace European social democracy.

What we have seen is the emergence of a voting bloc that is not partial to conservatism at all. The Democratic party doesn’t need to cater to the South or fiscal conservatism in any way anymore. Everyone knew – or should have known – that then Senator Obama’s numbers regarding his plans were a bit fuzzy. I say “emergence” because these voters are not at the peak of their power yet: more time will inevitably result in gains for them, as near complete control of the educational system is theirs.

2. Perhaps the reason why this isn’t a “realignment,” though, is because of the incredible amount on the line with issues such as slavery, industry and government relief in a Depression. Not just necessity but the question of “what is justice” were being considered at those times. Each “realignment,” quite obviously, reduced to the issue of equality – what is just is sharing freedom, opportunity or wealth as opposed to aggrandizement by one or the other party.

Right now, while the Left preaches social justice, we know the incredible materialism that underlies these claims. “Social justice” isn’t justice – all of us know this. It’s an attempt to overturn more established values for the sake of greater comforts by uniting some of the discontented. To some degree, this is acceptable – we can do things that are seemingly harmless, so why not? But the greatest comfort is feeling good about being moral, and “social justice” allows for people to have this feeling without actually being moral. All you need to do is blame everyone else for everything. The dangers are sequential – a politics dominated by (messianic) celebrity, complete with the rule of gossip over policy; the emergence of conspiracy theory and paranoia as mass movements; finally, overt violence against others based on perception. There are certain European nations that may be the prime example of degenerate politics (they also might not be: this is not as obvious a sort of judgment as it seems): they seem to think they’re better than everyone else even though they can’t defend their own leaders or citizens; they can’t even prevent the rise of actual fascists among themselves, despite calling everyone they disagree with a fascist.

3. The moral issue we face is very large, but not as large as the quite obvious and unacceptable attempt to spread slavery. I think, at best, we’re flirting with the first stage of degeneracy, and not even that. Only the mainstream media and a few loud, obnoxious idiots think Obama is the Messiah. But it’s dangerous because of what it means for the office of the Presidency, not because there was dancing in the streets election night. People have the right to celebrate what they think is progress, and certainly, this election was unthinkable 50 years ago. We can all celebrate the more fundamental progress that allowed it to happen.

The work that needs to be done is still that of unity: Lincoln’s first evaluation of the Republicans is the correct one. To that end, whining about social conservatives (see here) being a detriment to the party is babyish and stupid. I am not going to tell people who are disproportionately fighting for our freedom – 40% of the Armed Forces says they are evangelical, but knowing evangelicals, that number is undoubtedly higher – that they can take a hike. They actually value something more than their own wallets or security or winning elections – imagine that.

Moreover, continuing Bush-bashing, as is being done here, is even dumber. The pundit class – Brooks, Frum, Goldberg, O’Rourke and many others – is very problematic right now, but that’s because they never believed in education. They hold that conservatism is obvious, as if a change in media alone will make people wake up. Education serves media for them, not the other way around: “Liberal Fascism” was written so you would approach the news better.

To me, we have the conservative/alternative media we need already. Changing minds is going to take time, but we need to start in earnest, not just to win. We can reasonably expect a lot from partisanship, after all: once upon a time, it helped destroy slavery.

For Republicans: On Creating a Self-Sustaining, Educated Party

The latest plan [Congress is offering] is even worse than the spring round of $100 billion or so in tax rebate checks. At least rebates allowed taxpayers to spend their own money. Under this stimulus the government will tax or borrow $150 billion to $300 billion in order to spend the money on social and pork-barrel programs. The latest draft would direct dollars to food stamps, another expansion in unemployment insurance, home heating subsidies, more aid to states and cities, and “infrastructure” like roads, bridges and public transit. Because of Davis-Bacon wage requirements on these brick and mortar projects, a portion of the dollars would coincidentally flow to the Democrats’ biggest campaign contributors: unions. Call it a political “rebate” check.

– from “An Obamanomics Preview” in the WSJ

1. I have spoken at length about how conservatives and Republicans generally need to educate, and stop pretending that having alternative media sources will fix everything. We have a fairly large conservative media now, and all it does is say the same thing over and over again, and we’re clearly not any better for it.

One reason that conservatives became angry at President Bush was for all the spending that he refused to veto. Part of that spending went into things like “No Child Left Behind,” conservative alternatives to where more liberal policies would normally exist or come forth. I think the idea generally was for a class of conservative bureaucrats to emerge that would change Washington culture rightward. Perhaps this has happened, only time will tell.

The argument against having conservative policies or a bureaucracy, of course, is that government shouldn’t be spending or meddling in the first place. The problem with this argument is that if you try to make it on any given issue, you’re typically citing policy analysts who presuppose a government counterpart. That counterpart exists because legislation over these matters exists – blaming Bush for spending getting out of control is kind of like blaming the earth for being two-thirds water: the nature of the beast has not been recognized. The real issue has always been Congress’ willingness, backed by judicial activism, to legislate over everything or appoint bodies (i.e. the FCC, FDA, etc.) that wield virtual executive power. Why should Congress give up that power? Because we scream a lot and elect them back into office anyway? The President’s job is to keep us safe – nothing more. If he feels he needs Congressional “unity” in order to do his job, that’s his call, not ours. (The best argument for term limits: a President only gets to serve 8 years tops. Why should anyone in the government, except the Supreme Court, serve longer than that? If Congress serves longer, they have more authority by far over the federal bureaucracy, and whaddya know.)

It is possible to cut the government. But in order to do it, you would need a vast Congressional reform movement as well as a movement for increased state and local control that was serious. What would happen is that the rhetoric of “federalism” would be used in concert with policies where power could be taken from the federal government and given to states/localities immediately. When Gingrich led the “Contract with America” Republicans, they got half of this correct; changing state and local political culture, though, is near impossible. To wit: How does one just as a citizen keep up with the school board, the mayor’s office, the county government, the state legislature, the governor?

You’d need far more conservatives than we have now in order to try this, and they’d need to be skillful at understanding issues at all levels of government, keeping the public informed and engaged, and they’d need to be actually active in government in some way. In other words: you’d need a class of conservative bureaucrats or statesmen.

2. Conservatism isn’t “obvious,” it isn’t “common sense.” American conservatism is a fusion of ideologies with an effective agenda, and it needs people who are very capable to understand and implement that agenda.

I can safely tell you that the capability isn’t there right now. When you don’t have any control over education, the ability to shape the future is as good as finished.

As the quote from the WSJ demonstrates, there may be other issues besides education involved here. The major issue is the ability of Democrats to gather into their party elements that they can give real benefits to. They can get money and benefits to constituent groups; if you’re a defense contractor, that might be your only reason to vote Republican, and you still have to compete with other contractors to win a bid.

However, the most notable group in the Democratic party receiving benefits – the one that has virtual control over it – are the teacher’s unions. It is almost the height of irony that the major problem with conservatism today is education, and that the core fundamentalists of Democratic dogma control our schools. The problem with the teacher’s unions is so severe right now that even the Democratic party is torn over their influence: it’s pretty clear our schools are terrible in deep ways, and yet how do you tell a group that comprised nearly 10% of the delegates to your national convention that they’re doing a bad job? How do you do it knowing that some children do have to be left behind, that some people can’t be educated properly no matter what (if you doubt this, then answer: should the Columbine killers have gone to school? It’s a perfectly reasonable question – when you want everyone to do something, you have to own up to the consequences).

You shouldn’t take the Democrats’ wrangling over teachers’ unions too seriously, though: the fundamental issues are over technicalities, such as charter schools or national testing. The debate is between “experts” and unionists, and that debate is always going to resolve badly for those of us interested in having educated people. They’re interested in the “form” of education – we need to be interested in the “content.”

3. An emphasis on “form” will almost always result in an inability to think for oneself or be articulate on issues. For example, many homeschoolers I know are obsessed with getting “great books” in the hands of their kids. Ostensibly this is a nod to content, but given that there are about 4 people on Planet Earth I’d trust to work with on the Aeneid, it really is a brazen attempt to dictate “form:” the old stuff was good and rigorous, so any of it will do.

An emphasis on content starts with asking what sorts of people we consider educated. The most important thing to note is how diverse this group is: for me, it includes everything from statisticians who watch way too much football ( to musicians who are folk-rock stars (The Weakerthans) to hippies who know more about Eastern culture than I ever will to the usual answers of scholars or librarians or that dude who won more games on Jeopardy! than anyone else.

What we’re aiming for are people who can be free but be sensibly engaged. You might say at this point, “That’s not what I want. I want my kid to cure cancer” or “I want him to be able to survive and take care of himself” or “I would really like it if they’d stay pious.”

The last one is the most important problem I’ve confronted, so I’ll give you my personal experience. If you try to create kids more pious than yourself, it’ll work too well. Trust me on this – your kids will be lecturing you on what is holy without knowing any of the issues or having any of the experiences that led you to Truth. You think you want this, but you really don’t. As much as I love my evangelical and fundamentalist friends, if I started listing the various levels of dysfunction I’ve encountered over the years you’d think hardcore porn might be the only thing on this Earth that was honest with itself.

As for survival: congrats. Our emphasis on survival has succeeded beyond our wildest dreams: every one has access to large lines of credit, and there are part-time jobs everywhere. What? You mean to tell me people are spending most of their lives paying off debt, and that material comfort comes at a higher and higher price each day? That an emphasis on survival is almost indistinguishable practically from living comfortably? Yeah, our debt culture comes from this logic – since we set the bar so low in terms of what is good and didn’t bother to say anything intellectual was good, the only right one has is to get into debt. You can get whatever you want, all you have to do is pay for it, and since time is money, you’ll pay with years of your life. European-style social aid is an extension of the debt culture, strangely enough. They moved to that sort of thing because they had to rebuild after two extraordinarily devastating wars. We’re doing it because the right to get into debt pretty much sucks.

Finally, I’ve discussed the problems with training people for producing technology at length, but they’re quite obvious if you care to look. We do this every day now, and it’s not clear we’re better people even as we make the world more liveable.

So what I’m making here is the deep argument why people should be taught to be free: it has nothing to do with “being an American” as much as the ability to consider and choose what is good. A system of education needs to be in place to do that.

4. So what should the system look like? What I would like to see is a very decentralized network form now, where all of us as adults – forget the kids at this moment – start catching up on their reading and talk to someone who has competence with the book/work. This includes me: I’m pretty weak on Aristotle and the thinkers of the Middle Ages and could definitely use a few more Greek classes.

Now the neat thing for all of you is that you don’t need to be in class to learn about Lincoln and the Federalist, if you don’t know that stuff. I kinda need to be in class and listening to lectures, still, because the subject has gotten very specialized for me. But in terms of going over the Founding documents, most of the Federalist papers are a few pages long, the Gettysburg Address is less than 300 words, the Constitution isn’t very long. In terms of intellectual history, i.e. learning about nearly every political position that can be conceived, the Bible isn’t terribly hard reading, many Platonic dialogues are short, influences on the Founders like Francis Bacon have accessible works. Many of the best ideas are expressed in stories – there’s not much in modern thought that Thucydides didn’t cover and go beyond, and that’s all in The Peloponnesian War, which is perfectly readable even by a 15 year old.

So what are you going to do with this? Go around and brag that you know Thucydides and can rule? Shouldn’t the approach be more direct? Shouldn’t we run classes on how to run a campaign, shouldn’t you be learning about specifics of health-care policy and what not?

The problem with the “direct” approach is that you don’t have time to do that, and specializing weeds people out. If we’re going to educate as a party, then we need to be on the same page for the most part. We need to have a standard, and a fairly high one, but not one that excludes nearly everyone.

To me, the standard is the following. You should:

  1. Know your own heritage and how complicated it gets.
  2. Be able to articulate where you stand and discuss at length the best counterarguments to your position. This is a skill, not a recited series of positions, hence you can’t just read the news all the time.
  3. Be able to discuss other countries intelligently in terms of what matters to other peoples. The American Constitution emerged from English, Scottish, Roman and French thought, at the least. Even if you read no poetry, you should know just as an educated person who Neruda is and what his significance to Chile is.
  4. Be able to ask your fellow Americans questions and take their stories seriously, without having media do this for you.

Now quite obviously, while these aren’t the highest goals – I’m not asking everyone to read Plato necessarily and tell me about the nature of Being – this sort of thing takes a lifetime. But I think it is something a party can easily do with minimal resources. I’m not asking the people running for a link. All they’d have to do is put forth a reading list – something with stuff like Kirk’s “The Conservative Mind” or Friedman’s “Capitalism and Freedom” forward, and say that Republicans might want to acquaint themselves with these sorts of things whether they agree with them or not, and go a bit further and maybe link to discussions of the works they thought enlightening.

All the party needs to do is set up a slight standard for actually being Republican. That would get the ball rolling for the rest of us to understand what we’re doing better, and maybe convince others to join the party merely by what we’re doing in the party, not merely what we’re doing for the party.

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