Monday, July 31, 2006

Bueller? Bueller?

One hopes, maybe against hope, that this absurd strain of thinking stays where it belongs: under John Podhoretz's thankfully infrequent byline. That the last piece of his to be archived by the prestigious and always dead-on National Review Online is this paean to Will Smith's cinematic career is instructive.

What to make of the litany of questions that comprise the editorial? Are they to be understood as rhetorical? I can't see how any thinking person would assume so, so I'll try to answer a few (with an occasional rhetorical question, of course):

"What if liberal democracies have now evolved to a point where they can no longer wage war effectively because they have achieved a level of humanitarian concern for others that dwarfs any really cold-eyed pursuit of their own national interests?"

Is Podhoretz holding that what is really making this long war so difficult to win is a burdensome excess of "humanitarian concern?" In light of the recent tragedy at Qana (which ought for now only to be called that), could this be any less prescient as a framework for comprehending these incomprehensible things?

"What if the universalist idea of liberal democracy - the idea that all people are created equal - has sunk in so deeply that we no longer assign special value to the lives and interests of our own people as opposed to those in other countries?"

In other words, the root cause of our plight is that because the equal rights of all people has become axiomatic, it's becoming increasingly difficult for us not to mind killing each other? This is what makes fighting long wars against despicable enemies so excruciating? Of course, claims Podhoretz:

"Didn't the willingness of their leaders to inflict mass casualties on civilians indicate a cold-eyed singleness of purpose that helped break the will and the back of their enemies? Didn't that singleness of purpose extend down to the populations in those countries in those days, who would have and did support almost any action at any time that would lead to the deaths of Germans and Japanese?

What if the tactical mistake we made in Iraq was that we didn't kill enough Sunnis in the early going to intimidate them and make them so afraid of us they would go along with anything? Wasn't the survival of Sunni men between the ages of 15 and 35 the reason there was an insurgency and the basic cause of the sectarian violence now?"

There you have it - the "singleness of purpose" which enabled us to triumph in previous major wars never was derived from strategic ingenuity, or from the constancy of our commitment to defending the nation against an impending, amassing threat of global violence and coercion. It came from the ephemeral decisions, at the bleakest moments of these wars, that impelled us to kill rather indiscriminately. Because, after all, better safe than sorry.

Podhoretz asks but one truly useful question: "Where do these questions lead us?"

He seems to think he knows.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Some Mid-Afternoon Impropriety

I'm not sure when the statute of limitations expires for negatively commenting on dead people. Here's hoping it's less than 19 days. Via this Gene Healy post, I came across the record of former Enron CEO Kenneth Lay's political contributions. (Apparently I'm a faster mouse-clicker than Gene; I only wasted 5 or 6 minutes of my life on this.) I expected to see that of a GOP shill. I was a little surprised. Martin Frost? Sheila Jackson Lee? Both of the Clintons? Chuck Schumer? Apparently Ken Lay really wasn't beholden to partisan rigidity. Just abject mediocrity.

Bill Buckley Hates America, Freedom, and Our Troops

Unsurprisingly, the crux of Saturday's CBS News interview with William F. Buckley, the founder of National Review, (and perhaps of modern American conservatism, may it rest in peace) seems to have bypassed every influential American conservative: as a foreign policy president, or wartime president, George W. Bush faces the legacy either of a cipher or a failure. Iraq, to Buckley, is of course the axial event:

"I think Mr. Bush faces a singular problem best defined, I think, as an absence of effective conservative ideology, with the result that he ended up being very extravagant in domestic spending, extremely tolerant of excesses by Congress...[a]nd in respect of foreign policy, incapable of bringing together such forces as apparently were necessary to conclude the Iraq challenge."

"There will be no legacy for Mr. Bush. I don't believe his successor would re-enunciate the words he used in his second inaugural address because they were too ambitious. So therefore I think his legacy is indecipherable."

I mostly disagree with the latter points. I would expect this president's legacy to calcify quicker than most, as I'm inclined to think that the Bush record will ease successive future ones out of any qualms preventing them from (mis)behaving as Bush has. Where has been the challenge or the rebuke, the checks and the balances and everything else? In the opinion polls, and there only. And as luck would have it, this is one president who won't be shoved around by polling data. Too bad it had to be a presidency defined by enormity, negligent of the bonds of tradition, convention, or law - an administration for which the ends justify the means so long as raw political power is in its highest possible concentration. And with that, he has granted himself a conservative wing in philosophical and electoral crisis, and inspired in the country something to hope for - short-term memory loss. Buckley is growing sanguine in his old age if he really thinks this president's legacy will prove "indecipherable."

I'm eager to read a reply to Buckley from any one of the neoconservative stalwarts who have been living it up in the house that Buckley built. In light of this, Jonah Goldberg's recent debate with Reason Magazine's Nick Gillespie seems far, far beside the point. The future of conservative-libertarian "fusion" is a lofty matter, and as my politics hardly resemble Buckley's, this for me is really a matter of objective curiosity. But any proud conservative with an optimistic view of this president, like Goldberg, ought to worry first about reconciling true conservatism with whatever the president's current partisans wish to call their political standpoint. It's the internal consistency, stupid.

UPDATE: On National Review Online's site, I count not one, but two banner advertisements for the Cato Institute. Ha, appeasers.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

The Open Society and its Rugrat Enemies

Everyone agrees that today's Right stands as a historical paragon of intellectual rigor, honesty, and sophistication. But, hey, kids these days, am I right?

Not to oversell the outrage, but I'll be darned if this doesn't inherit every ounce of the the initial problem of crudity and pettiness in current conservative politics - they are just exactly this puerile. I clearly recall a good several hours at some point late in my high school career when I thought myself probably suited to march alongside my generation's "Hipublicans." So it goes that I'm becoming more and more acclimated to standing with lefties of the Campus Progress model with every passing day. I can't even claim to mind much. One of Ben Franklin's less remembered entries into Poor Richard's Almanack was the eloquent axiom "Force shites upon Reason's back." There is argument, and there is cowardice. The late drift of the Right has been toward the latter. With each successive Mattera, each new self-promoting, place-holding hack disguising force as reason, we'll soon come to suspect that the kids are not alright. And unless some basic objections one day irk the Right without provoking a snide "LOL", or some cognate, this will, in the good Lord's great phrase, always be with us. What true conservative can any longer tolerate this obvious fact of fundamentalism replacing principle? Grow the hell up, in other words.

Hat tip Julian Sanchez.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Quote for the Day

As congressional Republicans ponder new and innovative ways of ostracizing the press into submission (but only because, if you haven't heard, our country is at war), here's the author of our Constitution:

"...to the press alone, checkered as it is with abuses, the world is indebted for all the triumphs which have been gained by reason and humanity over error and oppression."

Is Madison treading gently here, in speaking of those "abuses"? Probably. So should we. Give it a rest. We need, and should venerate, a free and independent press. It isn't a luxury or an appurtenance, despite what this administration insinuates. Before the likes of Rep. Duncan Hunter sink their teeth into it, we should remember Madison also said: "It is proper to take alarm at the first experiment on our liberties."

Friday, July 07, 2006

Sullivan vs. Ponnuru

If you've been following the late bickering between NRO's Ramesh Ponnuru and Andrew Sullivan, I think you can stop now. Here's the KO punch, from Sullivan:


"I'm for balanced budgets, low taxes, cuts in entitlements, welfare reform, more military manpower, privately run healthcare, free speech, religious liberty, a stronger commitment to Iraq, and gun rights. I'm against affirmative action, federally-funded abortion and embryonic stem-cell research, protectionism, hate crime laws, the Medicare prescription drug program, pork barrel spending, torture, an untrammeled executive, and censoring anyone anywhere to appease Islamist extremists. And, according to Ponnuru, no "serious" conservative regards me as a conservative any more. What does that tell you?"

Say uncle, Ramesh. I count precisely one issue above on which the current president has staked a genuine, unequivocal conservative claim - denying federal funding to abortion and stem-cell research. He has either directly opposed, or failed spectacularly to effect, every other policy position above. Every single one. If that is not a failed presidency in general, there is no way out of saying it is a failed presidency for conservatism. But the naked intent of Bush partisans like Ponnuru is to hide the corpse of political principle long enough to exculpate George Bush - to be a meager functionary rather than a thinking human being, in other words.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Thank You Sir, Can I Have Another

And now, the political commentary smackdown of the week. Coming out swinging against private charity is Jonathan Chait, writing in the LA Times. After an obtuse swipe at estate tax-cutters, we get the most logically-challenged argument I have read, on any topic, in any outlet, in - let's just say - recent memory. Warren Buffett shelled out $31 billion to the Gates Foundation. Chait avers that, to "put that number in perspective," we must - must - understand that "the federal government spends 1000 times as much money every year." That's it. No, really. The whole argument. Look. There you have it. One number is bigger than another number. Which, cryptically, demonstrates to Chait "the limits of private fortune compared with public policy."

Had Chait taken but a minute to read Wilkinson's recent post on the fairly uncomplicated phenomenon of "confirmation bias", he might have saved the "happiness policy" maven the trouble of responding, by pointing out that this is "like sniffing at a $100 million yacht because it costs a mere 3% of a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier."

But still, the public-spiritedness - what about that? You know, because the government is the public sphere. And charity is the private sphere. But for the patient reader, there is an entertainingly ornamental remainder of the article. He goes on to say that "the overarching problem is that American business has become rapacious and narrowly self-interested." This doesn't quite explain what is deleterious about the business class behaving in exactly the opposite manner. Why Chait doesn't at this point come right out and say that he simply prefers coerced, standardized corruption and graft and negligence to the "narrowly self-interested" same I have no idea. But then again, how any public policy argument against voluntary generosity could make its way into a major publication is a complete mystery. Unless we take the premise that public policy is inherently good, and thus more of it is better - which seems to be the implied logical premise of this piece.