Once You Pop…

July 22, 2009

It’s almost impossible to stop. Executive power is funny like that:

President Barack Obama has irked close allies in Congress by declaring he has the right to ignore legislation on constitutional grounds after having criticized George W. Bush for doing the same.

Four senior House Democrats on Tuesday said they were “surprised” and “chagrined” by Obama’s declaration in June that he doesn’t have to comply with provisions in a war spending bill that puts conditions on aid provided to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

In a signing statement accompanying the $106 billion bill, Obama said he wouldn’t allow the legislation to interfere with his authority as president to conduct foreign policy and negotiate with other governments.

I apologize for the light posting over the last couple days… Job search stuff occasionally winds up being amazingly time consuming, especially when it seems to be productive. Unfortunately it looks like this most recent glimmer of opportunity was for nought and so I’m back to hoop jumping for at least a few more weeks.  And of course, dear readers, to blogging.

Which brings me to this essay, which Peter Lawler recommends and I am puzzled by.  So far as I can tell, its central argument is that America is aging and finding less space for the kind of expansive, manly excess that characterized the world of The Right Stuff. Instead we are getting older, finding that government dependency is easy, and sopping at the consumer trough.  All of this with nary a mention of women’s exclusion, the rampant alcoholism, the miserable children, the suicidal closeted homosexuals. (Or heaven forbid, the south.) What really mattered about that era was that a miniscule portion of the population went really fucking fast and could have killed themselves doing so, and they were real men for doing so.

But setting aside the historical blindness necessary to write this kind of essay, maybe the most bizarre part of Domenach’s thinking is the fact that the world he mourns did exist less than two years ago, on Wall Street, among bankers whose belief in their testicular infallibility drove the economy off a cliff. And its their failed heroics now forcing the rest of us, unwillingly I might add, to rediscover the values of dependence, whose gifts include such unmanly traits as gratitude and humility.  But this could only be a signal of decline, goes Domenech’s thinking, because we weren’t being manly anymore, and dammit, manliness built ‘merica.

There’s a metaphor involving heroin withdrawl here but somehow I think my point has been made. Good riddance in any case.

*Cease rant.*

Edit: As if on cue, Will finds the best Craigslist ad ever.

(Cross-posted at Post Right)

It’s probably a bad idea to get into the habit of linking as heavily to the Times as I have been in the last few week, but, I was really quite impressed by this weekend’s profile of David Cameron…  Go take a peek:

Conservatives — or Tories, as they are also called — are counting on Cameron to rescue them from the ideological confusion and public contempt that has been their lot since New Labour, behind Tony Blair, drove them from power in 1997, handing the party its worst drubbing since its founding in the 1830s. Tories have spent 12 years mulling over, and fighting over, a version of the problem that now confronts American Republicans. Cameron’s rise has led some conservative thinkers in the United States, notably the Times Op-Ed columnist David Brooks, to suggest that Republicans follow his lead. Speaking to Charlie Rose in April, Brooks described Cameronism as the “natural alternative” to the “technocratic” politics of Barack Obama and summed up Cameron’s philosophy this way: “You’re going to champion the technocrats in government; I’m going to champion every other institution in society, whether it’s family, career associations, the church — every other association you can think of.” A pragmatic kind of communitarianism runs through a lot of Cameron’s policies. His advisers, particularly the party’s shadow education secretary, Michael Gove, argue in defense of local institutions, from schools with competitive enrollments to small post offices, whose contributions to community cohesion don’t appear on the bottom line and are often invisible to orthodox Thatcherites.

At times I’m inclined to agree with Brooks that the Cameron-model may be the only real alternative open to the Republican party in the age of Obama and Palin.  If the big business/big government model remains effectively dead, Paul-style libertarianism stays vibrant but fringey, and the Dems succeed in positioning themselves as the party of bureaucratic competence, then the kind of broad-minded communitarian ethos represented by someone like Cameron might very well have a chance. That is, of course, provided they can find the right leader for it, a mighty big if indeed.

And that leadership vacuum is hardly the biggest problem faced by those sympathetic to Cameron’s thinking. Maybe the biggest issue is the danger that those ideals would amount to nothing more than another stale rehashing of compassionate conservatism, only this time with a communitarian gloss. Granted, the last time we contemplated the dreaded double-Cs, they were completely derailed by Bush’s foreign misadventures, profligate spending, shameless pandering to social issues divorced from concrete institutions, and generally lame policy approach.  That said, it seems the repeated failures of similar policies in the American scene are reflective of the fact that Americans just aren’t given to serious communitarian policy agendas… For all the civic vitality that characterized our early history, we’ve really wandered far from the place where those organizations play a significant role in our lives, and that ideologies based on them can inspire political action.  (The obvious exception here being churches, but as Putnam pointed out in Bowling Alone, if we take their vitality in the context of our broader civic decline, their growth is more indicative of the system’s failure to provide other outlets than indicative of genuine growth of social capital.)

The other problem, and to my mind the one most likely to damn an American Cameronism from the get-go, is the gulf separating our political situation from that of Britain. Cameron’s policies, for better or worse, are being articulated against a functional if debt-ridden welfare state with a working health care system, some measure of a social safety net, and a history of state involvement in civic life.  The questions that American politics is faced with right now drive primarily in the opposite direction, namely, how to get a functional health care system, solve educational dilemmas, and construct a energy system not based on the impoverishment of future generations, all of which have been construed primarily as government’s problems and will likely remain so.  Moreover, the primary issue we share with Britain, debt, won’t be solved by anything other than cuts in government and tax hikes, both of which fit comfortably into existing (or reviving) political categories.  To me, it seems these differences pose an insurmountable barrier to Republican absorption of Toryism’s better impulses, and barring some radical shift in the American situation, I see little chance of any serious communitarian options emerging in the next few years, though I wish it weren’t the case.

Friday Linkage

July 3, 2009

Because I am writers-blocked like nobody’s business:

1.) I imagine many readers already know about A Supposedly Fun Blog, a group blog on Infinite Jest.  So far it looks quite good. (Now that I have outside stimulus, its probably safe to say you’ll be seeing more posts like my very first in the future.)

2.) Having written my undergrad history thesis on the University of Chicago’s neo-Thomistic turn during the Hutchin’s years, I was tickled to see First Principles posting a profile of Sidney Hook.  That’s probably the most press the man’s gotten this decade.

3.) Hit by a car? Having an existential crisis? Hike up your skirts and move to Uzbekistan!

4.) The first in a series of posts on Nietzsche and the New Atheists.

Inspired by the recent slash-and-burn of Hayek up over at Post Right, I decided to go look up the cartoon version of the Road to Serfdom, and was tickled by panel 16. Apparently the coming dictatorship is a fan of Tom Friedman:


Art, Gods, Respect

June 29, 2009

Goya Saturn Devouring His Children (1)Spengler is feeling the horror:

I am, alas, not hopeful. “Cultural conservatism”—if I can thus label a movement that wants to regenerate the classic values of “Western culture” —does not recognize what it needs to conserve. To understand why, begin with Scruton’s reference to Plato’s belief in a “vision of this transient world as an icon of another and changeless order.” There is only one problem: Plato was unjustified in his belief.He wanted there to be a “changeless order.” But he had no way of knowing that such an order existed.

Plato had the ancient inheritance of Hellenic “art”: Homer, Hesiod, and the sculpted and painted representations of the gods in their stories. In Book II of The Republic,he rejected their stories, because they viewed the gods—Zeus, Apollo, Hermes, Ares, Hera, Aphrodite—as handing out good and evil without reason or justification, lying, violent and in all other ways morally corrupt. What he could not do  is explain whyone should reject the gods. A fundamental task in any philosophical argument is being able to show how one reaches one’s conclusion. (As in modern empirical science, the argument must be “reproducible.”) In Book III, Socrates repeats a long list of the stories of the gods, and encouraged by his interlocutor, responds that “they ought not to hear that sort of thing,” and “let us equally refuse to believe, or allow to be repeated” this or that account. Plato did not (and could not) prove that the “true” gods were not morally corrupt, he assumed it.

Later on:

Another son, Cronos , “hated his lecherous father.” He and his mother, Gaia, hatched a scheme: a Ouranos came down on her to mate, he cut off Ouranos’ genitalia and hurled them in the ocean. The foam in the water produced Aphrodite, the goddess of sexual passion, while the blood created the Furies, “chthonic deities of vengeance,…of the anger of the dead (Wikipedia).”

This is the beginning. Look long and hard; think carefully before you choose to praise it. Art comes from the ground, the dark soil of human passion, greed, and rage, the incestuous intertwinings of lust and loathing.

Fear all art.

Setting aside the other issues I have with this post, the operative claim here seems to be this: the kind of account of the world offered by Greek mythology is horrendous, frightening, and expresses the most base parts of human nature.  As such, it represents (a) the truth and (b) a threat.  Therefore, the correct response to art/myth is fear.

To begin with, I think Goldman’s underlying characterization of Plato’s take on mythology (and hence cultural conservatism that values myth) really doesn’t do justice to the complexities of what Plato’s take on myth drives at. As often as his later work emphasized the necessity of hiding myth, the Socratic dialogues exhibit more or less the opposite attitude, and provide just such a method (dialectic) to explore the dilemmas posed to us by a mythological worldview and to reach the universal by that process. (Which isn’t even to mention how essential struggling with Hesiod was for the Pre-Socratics… I could go on.) The fact that Plato later turned on this view shouldn’t make us follow him there, provided the arguments aren’t compelling.

That said, a full understanding of the danger posed by our mythological and artistic traditions is merited, but the correct response to that danger should not be fear but respect. Spengler’s preference for obscuring the gods denies what there is to learn from them, firstly concerning ourselves, as JL has astutely argued, but also about forces wildly outside of ourselves;  almost all mythology plays in the space between anthropocentrism’s necessity and it’s futility, personifying forces so impersonal that even putting a name to them borders on blasphemy, but that nonetheless allows us to discuss them in a way that, oddly enough, winds up being completely human.   Consider these stories about the incestuous, multi-sexual, violent pre-Olympians; are they human? No, though they’re moody, they ain’t moody like us, not even remotely. They do things beyond the pale, because, like it or not, nature is often just as foreign, and showing them up as humans lets us grapple with their pre-social nature in ways that would otherwise be impossible. But the only way that that understanding (which incidentally lies at the origin of both law and science) can move forward is if it’s allowed a space to exist, either as art, or sacrifice, or myth.

Article on Slate today about McDonald’s conquest of the French market… Very interesting case of corporate co-option of local customs without actually changing the substance of the product:

What especially cheesed off Daguin and other chefs was that McDonald’s was being taxed as a carryout establishment even though the overwhelming majority of its customers actually chose to dine chez McDo. French diners tended to treat McDonald’s as if it were no different than the bistro around the corner: They came, they ate, and they lingered. As Gravier artfully put it, “The French population uses McDonald’s in a very French way; it is fast food, but not that fast.” The data the company collected bore this out. Americans visited McDonald’s more often than the French, at all hours of the day, frequently alone, and opted for takeout 70 percent of the time. The French spent more money per visit, came in groups more often than Americans, and did 70 percent of their eating during regular lunch and dinner hours. “We have a food culture in France; eating is not a feeding moment, it is a social moment,” Gravier said.

Though I’ve often found myself intrigued by Scott Payne’s many posts on the subject of glocalism, part of me wonders if McDo won’t wind up being the end outcome of a globalization-friendly, “unity-without-violence-to-particulars” agenda, unity here being represented by global brands aggressively adapting themselves to local cultures with very little modification to their actual products.  Certainly there are echoes here of the daily, face-to-face contact advocated by the localists, even semi-local (okay, just domestic) ingredients, but it seems that the absence of genuine difference at the level of food should be troubling… It may be localized monoculture, but its still monoculture, with many of the attendant problems that come with that.

I know I’m a bit late to this, but I’ve been ruminating on something that was said in the Conor/Riehl debate… As Conor later summed it up:

As best I can tell, Dan thinks that Ronald Reagan was a conservative, that people who favor an economy free of government interference are conservatives, and that religious conservatives who dissent from the Club for Growth orthodoxy are perpetrating a fraud if they call themselves conservative. Never mind that these folks don’t actually hide their supposedly heretical views, and are very upfront about where they stand on any specific matter you ask them about. They are still somehow being duplicitous or at least misleading if they invoke the c-word as a general descriptor.

Seconded. But on top of that, there’s another aspect of Riehl’s definition that’s worth exploring.  If the meaning of “conservative” is to be explicitly political, and any variance from that political definition is duplicitous, then the door is closed, not only to political reform, but also to the broader cultural sensibility  that supposedly underpins the political dimension.  That kind of small “c” conservatism, the conservatism that calls our attention to the small inescapable givens of life, must of necessity have a larger field than politics. This is because there is no simple political answer to the questions we face daily, be it how we treat ourselves, our families, our surroundings, our traditions, or those we are in community with.  Conservatism at its best is about how we square these questions with the big picture, but denying their complexity by over-politicizing them them drains the politics of ideas and the ideas of vibrancy.  This all but guarantees a hidebound ideology, not a vital force in the culture.

So if we’re looking for an explanation for the horrendous Young Cons, this would actually be a good place to start.  Making a conservative piece of culture in America is hard for a lot of reasons, but under the current conditions, when the movement has fatted itself on Happy Meal talking points, it shouldn’t be surprising that the best it can come up with is basically more of the same.

Fighting over Facades

June 19, 2009

I have to second Dreher and Waugh on this one; Prince Charles’s opposition to Chelsea Barracks, if not entirely democratic, is not entirely stupid either.  I don’t know if the alternative will be pure schmaltz or not once constructed, but whatever it is I’m guessing it’ll beat Roger’s pastless modernism hand over fist, at least so far as surface aesthetics go.

But then again, how far do surfaces go? Though there are certainly great differences in the aesthetics of the two options, and in the spaces they set up, we can’t forget that this fight, for better or worse, is over facades. The underlying construction of the buildings will likely be the same modern steel-girder system with whatever cultural sensibility we might imagine tacked on top, so that whatever comes out of it will be, so to speak, modern in its bones. The kind of stone-pile architecture it’s supposed to imitate will remain as dead as it was in Roger’s design, so if we’re looking for a model of traditional architectural sensibility, of really long-lived buildings, Chelsea Barracks ain’t gonna be it.   What it may be (more livable, prettier on the eyes) should be kept in balance with what it can’t be (genuinely permanent.)

Unless of course, Quinlin Terry will actually buck the trend and build something beautiful and lasting at enormous expense. Yet somehow I doubt that.

Bartlett, Taxes, Etc.

June 11, 2009

Via NeoMugwump‘s aptly-titled post on the same topic, here’s Bruce Bartlett on taxation:

I think conservatives would better spend their diminished political capital figuring out how to finance the welfare state at the least cost to the economy and individual liberty, rather than fighting a losing battle to slash popular spending programs. But this will require them to accept the necessity of higher revenues.
It is simply unrealistic to think that tax cuts will continue to be a viable political strategy when the budget deficit exceeds $1 trillion, as it will this year. Nor is it realistic to think that taxes can be kept at 19 percent of GDP when spending is projected to grow by about 50 percent of GDP over the next generation, according to both the Congressional Budget Office and the Government Accountability Office. And that’s without any new spending programs being enacted.

In the end, the welfare state is not going away, and it will be paid for one way or another. The sooner conservatives accept that fact, the sooner they will regain political power.

This isn’t just a politically relevant point either. On principle, the first enemy for fiscal conservatives ought to be the deficit, not taxation. This is why I think there’s a strong case to be made that Norway and Canada represent far more viable models for fiscal conservatism than the United States: both have comparatively large social safety nets, but they are by and large paid for. Both regulate their banking system so as to avoid catastrophic bailouts. Perhaps most importantly, both maintain political cultures based around a right-wing aversion to debt, so the issue of a conservative government running up the deficit isn’t really an issue.

I recognize all of this should be old hat to most readers. But I continue harping on it not just because its true but also because I think it lies in the long term interests of the Right to return anti-deficit policy to the center of their thinking.  Though favoring some tax increases will be unpopular with the base, to a nation who’s savings rate just jumped a good four percentage points, that kind of anti-debt policy could prove popular. Moreover, should Republicans commit to actually doing some good old fashioned deficit reduction, it would go a long way to redeeming their profligate spending during the Bush years, and to regaining the moral high ground on the issue. (Which, incidentally, they must regain in order to have any hope at all in this environment; so long as Obama can portray the Right as incapable of making the tough decisions, .)