Saturday, January 28, 2012

Politics as team sport

We've been forced to endure a lot of invective to the tune that we are now more divided than ever. This is dubious, insofar as the division within a nation is a difficult thing to quantify. In any event, it seems to presuppose that the two parties to the division have radically different views which render compromise impossible. And the paucity of government action at the federal level--no budget for two and a half years, just continuing resolutions to make sure the State doesn't shut down--would seem to give credence to this theory. Yet when it comes to Congress, one should be careful about confusing cowardice for principle. Our representatives are reluctant to do anything which might lessen their chances of reelection. So punting has become the pastime of Washington.

To the contrary, I think the division stems from an essential agreement about the way government is run. This sounds paradoxical, but it should not be surprising that vehemence and vitriol tend to increase as difference diminishes. Partisan politics is like sports: one roots for one's team and against the other. Yet it is clear that the much vaunted difference between the teams dissipates rather quickly once a new team wins the electoral game. Bush II was supposed to slash government, but he gave us No Child Left Behind, Medicare Part D, and deficits as far as the eye could see. Obama was supposed to overturn those Bush policies liberals found so troublesome. But instead of reversing the Patriot Act, he expanded its powers under the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act. True, the war in Iraq sort of ended, albeit after three years. But with our soldiers still mired in the region--many of them in Kuwait--it's hardly unthinkable that we shall find ourselves obligated to go to war in Iraq for a third time in as many decades. Moreover, Obama expanded the war in Afghanistan, and launched a few more besides.

If Obama governs like Bush, and Bush like Obama, it clearly doesn't matter who runs the country: we shall continue spending far more than we can afford, adding to the debt, and starting more foolish wars that are neither affordable nor advisable. Disgusted withdrawal is a sensible option, but it's one many are unlikely to take because of the ingrained views both sides share about voting: that it somehow matters and that it is the way responsible and civilized people work out their conflicts. This is rank nonsense, but it's not especially pernicious in and of itself: voters tend to be engaged citizens, which renders them valuable outside the electoral process. Where it becomes pernicious is in the degradation of our national discourse. With no actual differences between the way the parties govern, differences must be invented. So Obama is a secret Muslim communist, and Newt Romney will turn out pregnant women and minorities to die in the streets should he obtain power. Absurdities, all.

This same nonsense has manifested itself in the search for the Republican nominee to oppose Obama. Having passed over the only candidate who has presented a plan to reduce our deficit within a single term--because he has dared suggest that the military wastes money and thus should see its budget cut, and because he doesn't pine to start a war with Iran--the GOP finds itself confronted with a demagogue and a charlatan: Newt Romney. Both candidates have previously staked out positions contrary to those they now espouse, which is to say that both are unprincipled moderates who will now say almost anything to get elected. The difference then, is one of style, not of substance. The primary process has devolved into teens squabbling over whether Team Edward is better than Team Jacob.

(I've gone link happy in this post, but I'll refrain from linking to any specific examples of the asinine arguments over whether Romney or Gingrich is the true conservative. Find a piece that takes a position, and the comment thread will brim over with opposition. The short answer, of course, is that neither candidate will do anything to reduce Federal spending, but don't think that will prevent Republicans from bickering like school children over the matter.)

The most interesting aspect of the right's new found love of Newt is that it is actually a manifestation of politics as a team sport. If Obama supports something, it must be bad. No thinking necessary. Similarly, if establishment Republicans--who are seen as complicit, but are still reliably reelected by the rank and file--and the media oppose Gingrich, that must mean they fear him, and that must make him good. Yet sometimes, the enemy of my enemy is still my enemy. Comprehending this has proven a bit difficult for the base, hence the otherwise inexplicable support for the consummate Washington insider.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Why Not Newt

I read a good number of books. Arguably the most important I've read in the last several years was After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre. I cannot summarize it here, but the main thrust of the book is a critique of the moral philosophy of the Enlightenment, which attempted to derive rules for good living based on reason, with a suggestion that we return to the ethical approach of Aristotle, that is, one which emphasizes virtues.

I often find myself returning to MacIntyre's approach. For instance, those of us who follow politics might attempt to come up with rules--term limits, limits on the money a campaign can spend, etc.---to try to cajole Congress into better serving the interests of the people. There is some value in this approach, but our best laid plans falter if those we seek to restrain circumvent our rules. In short, and as per MacIntyre, the best way to ensure our government is honorable and virtuous is to elect men who are honorable and virtuous.

With this in mind, we can examine Newt Gingrich, and the recent interview of one of his ex-wives. Now, many of the Republicans are insisting that this is a past transgression, and therefore irrelevant in determining whether or not Gingrich is qualified to be president. Yet while the story is an old one, it's hardly immaterial in helping qualify the character of the prospective nominee, for two reasons.

First, it's imperative that a candidate be virtuous if we wish him to govern well. So much of the focus of the campaign revolves around the debates--whether candidate A handled a tough question well, etc. Yet possessing the skill to speak extemporaneously does not necessarily make a good president. Coolidge was famously laconic, but that didn't prevent him from being an exceptional president. Similarly, Obama's ability to charm the masses has failed to translate into executive ability. Moreover, one may say all of the right things, but then govern differently when one obtains power. Sniffing out the sophists ought to be the most important task of the political process.

Second, Gingrich's adultery represents more than a lapse: it exposes a pattern of vice. There is a grave difference between sin and living in a state of it. Gingrich did not make a solitary mistake: he chose a degenerate lifestyle for a prolonged period of time. And he did so while the Republican Congress was hounding the President for the exact same behavior. As Evelyn Waugh has Julia express it in Brideshead Revisited, Gingrich was:

Living in sin, with sin, by sin, for sin, every hour, every day, year in, year out. Waking up with sin in the morning, seeing curtains drawn on sin, bathing in it, dressing it, clipping diamonds to it, feeding it, showing it around, giving it a good time, putting it to sleep at night with a tablet of Dial if it’s fretful.

As Aristotle understood, habituation with sin mars one's character. Just as a man who practices acts of courage becomes courageous, a man who practices infidelity becomes unfaithful. Virtue can, in time, be restored, but without further information, voters should be suspicious of Gingrich's virtue. He may be as unfaithful to his constituents as he was to his wife. We cannot hazard a test.

Gingrich claims to have repented. This is between him and his God. I do not wish him ill, nor do I begrudge him the forgiveness and grace of the Almighty. But while he may still play a role in the conservative movement, conservatives cannot, in good conscience, support someone who has reveals himself to be so lacking in virtue for such an important office. Were he an honorable man, Gingrich would have stepped aside. There is still time to practice honor, by behaving honorably this time.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Irrationality begets the same

There are too many contradictions in US foreign policy to tease out in a single post, but as the drum beats ever louder for war with Iran, I wanted to take the opportunity to examine at least some of them.

During the Cold War, the United States operated under a paradigm of mutually assured destruction. While those who ran the Soviet Union weren't concerned with the deaths of the proletariat in whose name they were ostensibly ruling--and who they were actually murdering by the millions--the leaders weren't too keen on suffering bodily harm to themselves.

Since nuking the United States would produce a retaliatory strike, the Russians were disinclined to exercise that option, however much they loathed us capitalist pigs. The two great powers managed to muddle through without the war turning hot.

The same logic ought to apply in our war against Islamic extremism--or terrorism, or Al-Qaeda, or whoever it is we're supposed to be fighting. But it does not, we are told, because the enemy is inherently irrational; he longs for death and therefore will not be disinclined to wipe Israel and the US off the map.

Now it is true that some people--suicide bombers, for instance--value other things more than their own lives. Since suicide bombing has been a weapon on the arsenal of the terrorists, it seems to follow that Islamic leaders would have no problem bombing some part of the Great Satan.

Yet this argument only make sense if we assume that the terrorists act only to inhibit the enemy, rather than to further some other goal. But the head terrorist himself, Osama bin Laden, has stated that such goals do exist. The aim of Islamic terrorism is not to destroy the west so much as it is to bleed and bankrupt the United States, forcing it to relinquish its presence in the Arabian world. Ironically then, U.S. military policy has proven indispensable in advancing bin Laden's objectives.

The argument that the terrorist hates us for our freedoms is imbecilic, but it is requisite for our foreign policy. If the terrorist has real objectives, he is at least partially rational. We are then faced with a decision to fight to thwart these aims or abjure them and refuse to fight. Only if the terrorists are totally consumed with hate are the wars essential.

Or are they? Are they not then even more futile than if our enemy were partially rational? If we assume that the leaders of Iran, let us say, cannot be reasoned with, this implies that they will answer only to force. Yet this is the very thing which they most desire. Those who wish to avoid another war are deemed appeasers, yet, in another irony, if Iran wants a civilization conflict, the warmongers are the real appeasers.

Moreover, it becomes impossible to levy criticism against foreign policy in respect to the allegedly irrational countries. Republicans have been claiming that Obama is showing weakness in front of Iran. The implication is that Iran would cease to agitate if confronted with strength, but this argument only makes sense if Iran is behaving with some modicum of rationality. Yet this alleged irrationality is the whole reason weakness is being decried; it's not as if any Americans fulminated when, say, Israel obtained nuclear weapons.

This illustrates that one cannot assume irrationality among others without falling into hopeless contradictions. Unless we have incontrovertible evidence that Iran's leaders are irrational--and I don't see how we could ever know this with any degree of certainty--it behooves us to treat them as at least passably rational beings. This would have the effect of returning our own policy into the realm of rationality, which would be a pleasant change indeed.

Monday, January 02, 2012

2012 Reading List

I read a fair number of books. This year, I'll use this post to keep track of books I've read as well as those which I'm currently reading. This is partially because I'm curious to know how many books I read in a given year, and partially on the remote chance that someone is interested on my take regarding a particular tome.

At the end of the year, I'll try to give a bit of feedback regarding each book--at a minimum, something like this.

Bourgeois Virtues - Deirdre McCloskey
Deer Hunting with Jesus - Joe Bageant
Bourgeois Dignity - Deirdre McCloskey
Fear and Loathing: on the Campaign Trail '72 - Hunter S. Thompson
Conscientious Objections - Neil Postman
The Golden Bough - James Frazer (the one volume abridgement)
Coming Apart - Charles Murray
The Crusader – Timothy Stanley
Les Miserables - Victor Hugo
The Merry Wives of Windsor - Shakespeare
A Treatise of Human Nature - David Hume
Conceived in Liberty vol. I - Murray Rothbard
Elizabeth I - Paul Johnson
Diamond Age - Neal Stephenson
The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana - Umberto Eco
Thank You, Jeeves! - P. G. Wodehouse
The Bell Curve - Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray
Jesus: A Biography From a Believer - Paul Johnson
Sophist - Plato
Renaissance in Italy: The Age of the Despots - John Addington Symonds
Technopoly - Neil Postman
The Right Stuff - Tom Wolfe
Statesman - Plato
Renaissance in Italy: The Revival of Learning - John Addington Symonds
Eating the Dinosaur - Chuck Klosterman
Bowling Alone - Robert Putnam
Renaissance in Italy: The Fine Arts - John Addington Symonds
The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism - Max Weber
2001: A Space Odyssey - Arthur C. Clarke
Evelyn Waugh: The Early Years, 1903-1939 - Martin Stannard
Introduction to Moral Theology - Romanus Cessario, O.P.
A Game of Thrones - George R. R. Martin 
Not Taco Bell Material - Adam Carolla
Evelyn Waugh: The Later Years, 1939-1966 - Martin Stannard
A Clash of Kings - George R. R. Martin
The Theory of Education in the United States - Albert Jay Nock
Renaissance in Italy: Italian Literature (I-II) - John Addington Symonds
Bobos in Paradise - David Brooks
Truth and Tolerance - Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
A Storm of Swords - George R. R. Martin
Renaissance in Italy: The Catholic Reaction (I-II) - John Addington Symonds
Marriage: The Rock on Which the Family is Built - William E. May
A Feast for Crows - George R. R. Martin
The Papacy - Paul Johnson
Parmenides - Plato
A History of Ancient Greek Literature - Gilbert Murray
In the Beginning... Was the Command Line - Neal Stephenson
A Dance with Dragons - George R. R. Martin
The Church Impotent - Leon Podles
Popular Crime - Bill James
Bad Religion - Ross Douthat
The Cambridge Medieval History vol. II
The Prague Cemetery - Umberto Eco
The Praise of Folly - Erasmus
The Degradation of the Democratic Dogma - Henry Adams
Glittering Images - Camile Paglia
Back to Blood - Tom Wolfe
One for the Books - Joe Queenan
The Complete Joy of Homebrewing - Charles Papazian
The Crisis of Western Education - Christopher Dawson
Napoleon - Emil Ludwig
The Revolt of the Elites - Christopher Lasch
Frankenstein - Mary Shelley
Into the Cannibal's Pot - Ilana Mercer
A World Lit Only by Fire - William Manchester
The Complete Poems and Plays: 1909-1950 - T. S. Eliot
The Story of Philosophy - Will Durant
Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy
The History - Herodotus
Lives of the Eminent Philosophers (I-II) - Diogenes Laertius
Reamde - Neal Stephenson
Family and Civilization - Carle Zimmerman