Friday, February 27, 2009

Friday Morning Videos: "Money for Nothing"

Last week's "Beat It" may be about as popular and influential a music video as was ever made during its heydey, but I would argue that this video of the Dire Straits song as the more important video by far. The song was already a pretty unconventional one, to say the least, just on the basis of the lyrics; the self-referential, experimental nature of the video only emphasized the possibility that the power and general coolness of pop music could be extended and actually supplemented by videos, and not just merely complemented by them. Seriously, it's a great song, but how well would it have done without all that weird, funny, sometimes outrageous imagery? Speaking of which, this is the first time most of us--certainly it was the first time I--had ever seen a computer-generated visual that actually moved, so that's a bit of groundbreaking right there. I wanted my MTV indeed.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Defending Malaise (or, Lenten Thoughts on Obamanomics)

The reaction I seem to be reading everywhere (try here and here and here) is that Obama's speech last night was, above all, "ambitious" and "serious" and all about "getting down to business." For myself, I confess I liked it--liked it very much. I liked the focus on job, energy, health care, and education, in that order. I liked that he began with a big slab of honesty:

[W]e have lived through an era where too often, short-term gains were prized over long-term prosperity; where we failed to look beyond the next payment, the next quarter, or the next election. A surplus became an excuse to transfer wealth to the wealthy instead of an opportunity to invest in our future. Regulations were gutted for the sake of a quick profit at the expense of a healthy market. People bought homes they knew they couldn't afford from banks and lenders who pushed those bad loans anyway. And all the while, critical debates and difficult decisions were put off for some other time on some other day.

I liked his smart, succinct description of why lending has become crucial to the modern capitalist society, and thus why the credit crisis matters to ordinary Americans who don't have a thing to do with the world of high finance:

The ability to get a loan is how you finance the purchase of everything from a home to a car to a college education; how stores stock their shelves, farms buy equipment, and businesses make payroll. But credit has stopped flowing the way it should. Too many bad loans from the housing crisis have made their way onto the books of too many banks. With so much debt and so little confidence, these banks are now fearful of lending out any more money to households, to businesses, or to each other. When there is no lending, families can't afford to buy homes or cars. So businesses are forced to make layoffs. Our economy suffers even more.

And most of all, I liked his short, powerful history lesson about the relationship between government and the common good of all:

I reject the view that says our problems will simply take care of themselves; that says government has no role in laying the foundation for our common prosperity. For history tells a different story. History reminds us that at every moment of economic upheaval and transformation, this nation has responded with bold action and big ideas. In the midst of civil war, we laid railroad tracks from one coast to another that spurred commerce and industry. From the turmoil of the Industrial Revolution came a system of public high schools that prepared our citizens for a new age. In the wake of war and depression, the GI Bill sent a generation to college and created the largest middle-class in history. And a twilight struggle for freedom led to a nation of highways, an American on the moon, and an explosion of technology that still shapes our world. In each case, government didn't supplant private enterprise; it catalyzed private enterprise. It created the conditions for thousands of entrepreneurs and new businesses to adapt and to thrive.

So all together I should be delighted with this near-comprehensive, thoughtful, and pretty straightforward and unapologetic defense of progressive political solutions to our problems. And certain I am delighted that this was the speech given by our president, and not the one given by Governor Jindal (about whose atrocious response to Obama I will say nothing, and just let Jindal's own fans tear him apart). Still, I'm little troubled, and I think it has to do with the day.

The complaints of various secularist and atheist malcontents aside, we're not a Constantinian nation--and even if we were, even moderately so, the civic religion around which American policies and holidays and expectations might be formulated probably wouldn't reflect the specifics of traditional Western Christian rites; we're too Protestant and evangelical for all that. But still, it struck me as incongruent that the morning after Obama's speech was Ash Wednesday and the beginnings, for many believers anyway, of Lent, a period of repentance, sacrifice, and humility, in preparation for Easter. Say what you want about Obama's speech, and its aims and its determination--one thing it definitely wasn't was humble.

Is humility something that we should want at the present moment? Strictly speaking, seeing as how modern finance and entrepreneur capitalism depends so much on investor confidence and a willingness to take risks, perhaps not. But I can only see that as unfortunate, because I think we could use a little bit more chastisement, a little bit more penitence, than Obama's expansive determination to see America recover and grow and achieve allows. In the end, his vision is not, despite what some may say, a particularly populist one, at least not if one takes populism seriously; condemning "CEOs [who]...use taxpayer money to pad their paychecks or buy fancy drapes or disappear on a private jet," does not translate into a focus on collective economic empowerment and local cultural enrichment. Rather, Obama's vision is a progressive one, one that insists that government investment and oversight can help individual Americans achieve--or get back to, depending on how you look at our economic history--full and equal "responsible" participation in the credit-driven world of opportunity which a healthy, diverse, technologically advanced economic environment makes possible. That's hardly a bad thing; as I've said before, the compromises with the power of capital and the individuating force of the market (both of which are arguably all the greater is a large, pluralistic, mobile country like our own) which the Progressives historically made are perhaps the most sensible kind of responses that can be made to our present socio-economic and political moment--assuming, that is, that you value the communitarian principles and virtues which a certain form of progressive, egalitarian participatory policies at least potentially seems to support. And I believe that Obama is, sometimes anyway, aware of and sympathetic to that point; hence his invocations of parental responsibility and charter schools and national service legislation. Still, I think I think the speech would have been bettered--I think we would have been bettered--if its ambitious progressivism acknowledged some real limits, and the value of humbling ourselves and sacrificing part of our ambitions to them.

As a speech or a program, of course, the route of "humility" and "limits" calls to mind President Carter's infamous "Malaise Speech"; the way that speech was--unfairly!--interpreted and responded to might seem to argue against any kind of humility in presidential rhetoric. And maybe so; humility, in the modern world, is mostly a personal, moral, and religious concept, and the modern presidency is not constructed to be a forum for therapists or prophets. But still, consider some of the language of Carter's speech, and how it might well have integrated with Obama's:

As a people we know our past and we are proud of it. Our progress has been part of the living history of America, even the world. We always believed that we were part of a great movement of humanity itself called democracy, involved in the search for freedom, and that belief has always strengthened us in our purpose. But just as we are losing our confidence in the future, we are also beginning to close the door on our past. In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we've discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We've learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose....There are two paths to choose. One is a path I've warned about tonight, the path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility. It is a certain route to failure. All the traditions of our past, all the lessons of our heritage, all the promises of our future point to another path, the path of common purpose and the restoration of American values.

Too subjective, too spiritual, too earnest? Perhaps. But Obama has already demonstrated his facility with the language of "service, sacrifice, duties, the common good, responsibility, citizenship"; why not extend his criticisms of bankers who lent money frivolously, of neighbors who bought homes they could never pay for, of corporations who pushed against any kind of regulation of their transactions, a further reflection on how American habits of consumption and self-interest make it hard for us to recognize the malaise and cynicism and uncharitableness that frequently, in good times as well as bad--but particularly during bad--takes hold of us all. Perhaps that would have undermined his ambitious tone, somewhat. But then again, a little Lenten humility, a little guilty and self-critical awareness, can go a long way to lifting one's seriousness of purpose into something more than determination--something that makes the goal into more than just getting back on track, but rather into an invocation of a different, better track. A steadier track, a less self-interested track. (For a national market economy, you ask? Well, it's not as though alternate models aren't available...)

But maybe this is all asking too much; maybe I'm letting the day and all sorts of other crisis-related thoughts get in the way of my thinking, making me wish that what was in essence a State of the Union address--and a very fine one at that--was something like Lincoln's Second Inaurgural. Which is silly, I suppose. Obama's a progressive politician, and on the basis of the past month or so, a very good one. I hope he keeps it up. Hoping for more than that may not be a bad thing, but it is, perhaps, a somewhat unreasonable...maybe even "ambitious" thing. In which case, perhaps I need to do some repenting myself.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Good Communitarian Movies

So last week the National Review gang has come out with a list of "the best conservative movies", focusing just on the past 25 years. The list isn't nearly as risible as one might hope; it's mostly filled with middlebrow but adequate films, has a few pretty good ones, and with a couple of selections they managed not just to name a genuinely interesting movie but also make a decent case for seeing it as "conservative" in some substantial manner. (I would file "Metropolitan" and "Blast from the Past"--a terribly overlooked comic gem, in my opinion--in this category.) But then you have all the usual it-must-be-conservative-because-it-praises-the-little-guy-against-the-eggheads/fights-bloody-battles-against-foreign-enemies/glorifies-the-military-or-farmers-or-white-Southerners/etc. junk: "300," "Red Dawn" (which I dug as a kid too, but, I mean, come on), "Braveheart," "Forrest Gump," "Heartbreak Ridge," and so forth. And you also have a bunch of it-must-be-conservative-if-we-can-connect-it-with-religion-or-basic-virtue-or-human-nature-somehow: "A Simple Plan," "Groundhog Day," "Gattaca," "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe." That last one was a shoo-in thanks to the source material by C.S. Lewis; the same way that The Lord of the Rings films all get labeled as conservative due to J.R.R. Tolkien. None of which is to say that Lewis and Tolkien and the works they produced weren't "conservative"--they were! But the lame justifications which the NRO crowd provides (Tolkien speaks to the War on Terror? Lewis was attacking those who dislike Christmas?) demonstrates no interest in engaging in what any of these "conservative" labels are substantively supposed to mean. And don't even get me started in wondering how "The Lives of Others" or "Brazil" ended up on that list.

Well, all this and more is said in the comments sections kindly provided by John Holbo and Daniel Larison. And I suppose I shouldn't snark too much; figuring out just what conservatism means today (much less which mainstream Hollywood movies communicate it, however partially) is a pretty difficult question. But still, I just have to wonder: do liberals have to struggle to figure out what counts as a "liberal" film? Does National Review accept that any movie in which the bad guy is rich a liberal movie? Does that mean that if the film features a rich good guy, it's automatically conservative? The whole question is really just a mess.

Still, it gives me an excuse to trot out something I've been sitting on for a while: communitarian movies. And not just any communitarian movies, but good ones. Are there any? Well, I would say at least a few. Here, I don't have to mess around with vague, inchoate, impressionistic takes on this or that conservative or liberal point; instead, I can take the overarching general principle of communitarianism--namely, that human beings do, and should, belong to (and thus are invariably somewhat defined and limited by) communities within which, and through which, traditions and associations and virtues are strengthened, examined, and made meaningful--and ask myself: which movies make that claim explicitly? I don't want to fall into NRO's mostly nonsensical quest to draw out some arguably "conservative" element from any particular movie one happens to like, but stick with obvious, major themes. Sometimes it seems as if every other film Hollywood releases is explicitly about some individual hero breaking the rules, going their own way, making their own decisions, finding their own truth, fighting against the system, etc., etc. It's our "romantic loner/rugged individual" trope, and we love it, and that's fine. But how about movies--truly good ones--that take the other route: that tell us about the importance of sticking with (and sticking up for) the group, of being part a larger unit, of finding yourself by going along with the whole? I can think of five good ones to start with:

1) Whale Rider

The best produced, most thoughtful engagement with tradition and belonging that I have ever seen. We have Pai, the young girl whose twin brother and mother died in childbirth, driving her father Porourangi--who was next in line to be chief of their Maori tribe--to despair and to abandon his tribal duties, his people, and to a degree even his daughter. Pai by contrast embraces the traditions of the tribe, and the sometimes censorious role of leader, despite the fact her grandfather Koro, while showing real kindness to her, dismisses her talents and beliefs, and condemns her aspirations, telling her that women cannot become chiefs and--after Porourangi briefly returns, rejects his father's overtures once again, and attempts to take Pai away with him, only to be rebuffed by her--seeking out other boys that might be able to step up into that position. These boys are alternately intimated by or jealous of Pai's skill, knowledge, and internal strength as she secretly trains with the taiaha (their ceremonial fighting stick) for the same thing they are, especially Hemi, whose father has drifted into gang life and crime. Her determination, her devotion to their way of life, and her embrace of their central myth--the legend of her namesake Paikea, the whale rider--brings responsibility and possibilities back into the life of her layabout uncle Rawiri, to Hemi's father, and ultimately to the whole tribe, as Koro repents of his intransigence, recognizes his granddaughter as one through whom their traditions have been revived, and leads her into her place as chief. It is an absolutely triumphant, beautiful film. It may sound like just another weepy tale of overcoming the odds, and it is partly that. But it also tells a story about the costs and pain of living with and within authoritatively prescribed roles, as well as acknowledging both that those prescriptions are, inevitably, always changing, and--more importantly--that they are sources of renewal and power and reconciliation which are unavailable to those who refuse to engage them, but simply reject them instead. The final panoramic scene, surveying the whole tribe in full regalia, chanting their haka, ceremoniously launching their long unfinished longboat into the sea with a joyful Pai leading the way, hammers that point home with an emotion that I at least think is honestly come by.

2) Cars

If anything, I would consider this film an even more pedantic and ideological Pixar movie than Wall-E; fortunately, it doesn't get in the way of the story one bit. Lightning McQueen is the hot-shot, self-centered hot-rod who needs a lesson in slowing down, making friends, putting down roots, and respecting tradition. He learns it in Radiator Springs, and as a result he's happier there than anywhere he'd ever been before; when he leaves town and heads to Los Angeles for the big race, his thoughts keep drifting back to his new home, and after the race, he returns to Radiator Springs to make it his new base of operations. This film shows us the value of hands-on, one-on-one instruction, of quality over quantity, of taking one's time. Plus, you've even got a Randy Newman/James Taylor song mourning the economic decline of small towns. You don't much more gemeinschaftlichkeit than that.

3) It's A Wonderful Life

Yes, it's a good movie; don't give any of that "too cool for sentimentality" crap. Everyone knows it's a great film. The question is, what kind of film is it? Liberal, what with George Bailey working to provide affordable homes to Bedford Falls's working poor, despite the machinations of the evil slumlord, Mr. Potter? Well, okay, but what about all that religion, with angels and all? So maybe it's a conservative film, what with its invocations of traditional family values, its thoroughly domesticated view of women, its negative take on dance clubs? But then, what about Patrick Deneen's point that George Bailey, with his ambition to build and "lift up" those around him, is actually contributing to the suburban destruction and transformation of the Bedford Falls which he belated realizes he loves? Patrick's point is, I think, far too tendentious to take entirely seriously, but he's right about one thing: however nostalgically viewers may relate to that film, its focal point is not a conservation of a specific way of life, any more than it is a condemnation of wealth and growth. What it is then? It's a communitarian movie, a film about authenticity and accepting one's place in an always changing--and yet always enduring--whole. That whole includes all the material particularities of Bedford Falls, of course, but what it fundamentally begins and ends with is the trust and fellowship and sacrifice that friends can and do make for one another. In the midst of all the tear-inducing commonweal of the final act, comes the film's true coda: George Baily, having made himself essential to the lives of his fellow citizens of the community, is pronounced "the richest man in town." And, of course, it's true.

4) Witness

This film is really more an oddly satisfying mix of good-cop-bad-cop and fish-out-of-water storylines than anything else. And it certainly isn't the way the film portrays the Amish which makes it a communitarian film; since most everything is presented to us from the perspective of Harrison Ford's character John Book, the Amish, rightly, seem mostly strange and alternately creepy or quaint (this ignoring the oddity of Kelly McGillis's sexy and smart-alecky Amish widow). No, it is a few, mostly visual notes and plotting choices, rather than anything about the story overall, which serve to emphasize the power of the group. When the evil police chief and his henchmen arrive in the early morning hours where Book has been hiding out, they descend into a misted landscape, which sets the community apart like it was a kind of Brigadoon. And then, in the climactic confrontation, Lukas Hass's little boy Samuel rejects the temptation presented by Book's approach to responding to violence, turns aside from the gun hidden in the cabinet, and instead does as his grandfather told him to do: ring the bell, calling the neighbors from across the fields to come running to help. The imagine of the desperate, murderous corrupt chief, looking into the eyes of all these ordinary farmers (with more emerging from the fields every moment), is better filmmaking than most of the many screen shoot-outs I've ever seen.

5) Shane

Most of the best Westerns, the ones that take seriously the conventions of the genre, acknowledge on some level or another the fundamental tension between the individual and the group, recognizing that history and human nature is on the side of the latter. Cowboy movies are, of course, filled with lone gunmen, but they operate best, I think, when placed in a context that shows the transience, the limits, of the individual explorer or fighter, and how the settlers and farmers and town builders who come afterwards bring with them the level of civilization which makes life possible for more than just the lucky, talented, or foolhardy few. Westerns that subvert this trope are either being wilfully perverse (not to mention historically inaccurate), or else, if their truly well-made, are telling an entirely different sort of story. (It's not for nothing that Clint Eastwood's "man with no name" films, with their isolated, nameless, friendless drifter heroes, were sometimes called "anti-Westerns.") There are a lot of examples of well-made Westerns which deal with this basic communitarian truism, but few do it as forthrightly as Shane. Alan Ladd's gunfighter is given no backstory, no history, yet his discomfort--and longing--as he deals with the subdued affection of Marian Starrett and the open admiration of her son Joey, speaks volumes. The conflict is one of a cattle barons versus homesteaders, but the particulars almost don't matter: what matters is that Shane knows that (and shows in his actions that he knows that) he's missing something. In missing that something, he is capable of doing what the homesteaders and family people can't easily afford to do, though they are willing to try--namely, risk their lives to put an end to the threat posed by Rufus Ryker and his hired assassin, Jack Wilson--but what he lacks as a person (a willingness to settle, perhaps), he also recognizes that he's a threat to the trust which the homesteaders need to thrive. Hence the end of the film, where Shane rides off, and Joey chases after him, uncomprehending why his new idol must leave. The point is a sobering one: community may not be for everyone. But the morale is also clear: the fact that community may not be for everyone is a sad reality, and something to mourn.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

14 Hours in the Van With Nothing But CDs to Keep Us Company

I was out pretty much all of last week. It started with seven of us--six students, ages 18 to 25, and one faculty advisor, age 40--driving the seven hours in a cramped, rented Town and Country minivan to St. Louis so our student delegation could attend the Midwest Model United Nations Conference (the first such conference which Friends University has sent anyone to in several years); then, after three very busy days, it ended with an identical return trip. We all got home and collapsed late last night. I have to admit, I was nervous, as I'd never been responsible for a long student trip before. I wasn't particularly nervous about the conference itself, or how the students would conduct themselves--they're all good, smart kids, and besides, if there was some organizational mix-up I'm pretty good at seeking help from those more experienced than I and, if necessary, talking myself and others out of a jam. No, what I was mostly nervous about was the drive. 14 hours in a van, and me driving all the way; how will we pass the time?

Fortunately, I learned once again that music is the universal language. To wit, eight things I learned or was reminded of, as we all shared CDs, commented on our favorites, and occasionally sung along. (And no, in case you're wondering: no one had an MP3 player or Ipod. No individualists in our group; we act collectively at Friends.)

1) The power and glory of 70s and 80s MOR radio appears to be as popular as ever--I was concerned that I bring music that didn't render me as completely beyond the pale, but I may not have needed to worry; among the road-trip CDs produced by our merry gang, was a large concentration of songs by Huey Lewis and the News, Def Leppard, and yes, The Steve Miller Band. "Jungle Love" lives on!

2) U2 is the greatest rock and roll band of the past quarter century; this is simply an indisputable fact. The only band that may have given them a run for their money was perhaps The Police, but they just didn't have the staying power. I will happily grant the title of world's greatest rock and roll band of the previous twenty-five years to the Rolling Stones, but from the early 80s on, no band has consistently produced so much good rock and pop so well.

3) Even when everyone acknowledges his skill as a musician and songwriter, Robyn Hitchcock still really weirds people out.

4) The one song that every one of could sing at least snatches to, while the rest bobbed their heads along to the parts they didn't know? Barenaked Ladies's "One Week." (Voted best line, by popular acclaim: "Like Kurosawa I make mad films / okay I don't make films / But if I did they'd have a samurai.")

5) Apparently, the fact that I listen to and like Belle and Sebastian, but have never listened to any Death Cab for Cutie, strikes some people as strange and possibly perverse. I guess need to do some catching up.

6) There was one person from Texas in a group, someone who has presented himself as being something of a strong Texas partisan. I had some music along by Los Super Seven, Terry Allen, Joe Ely, and the Flatlanders, all of whom have been introduced to me over the years by my good friend Scott in Dallas. He hadn't heard of any of them, and didn't care for them either. Not even the Flatlanders? And this is a guy from Texas? I swear, there ought to be a law.

7) After more than 40 years of writing and singing folk, pop and rock and roll songs, you can't really blame Paul Simon for letting Brian Eno do some of the heavy lifting, and producing a record where on half the tracks he just talks while Eno's "sonic landscapes" make the music. But the real surprise is that Simon's ability to string together outight maudlin and intellectually opaque sentences into lyrics of astonishing and moving beauty remains unparalleled. Being the father of four girls, I annoyed everyone in the van by insisting on listening to "Father and Daughter" three times in a row.

8) When I told everyone to shut up while I listened to The Beatles sing "Let it Be," they did. So I guess there's still hope for the next generation after all.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Friday Morning Videos: "Beat It"

Well, if I'm going to tip my hat to the big, famous, popular videos, how can I ignore Michael Jackson's masterpiece, arguably the most influential music video of all time? I can't; it's just that simple. Look at it today: it's camp, it's narcissistic, it's silly. But man, it rocks. Remember all those crazy rumors we all used to share with each other about this video, some true, most false? That Eddie Van Halen performed his guitar solo for free because he was honored that Quincy Jones gave him a call? That the choreographer had gone out on the streets of LA, and rounded up actual gang thugs for the story-line? Heh. For a short while there in the early 80s, it was all Michael Jackson's post-racial world; we were just living in it.

Friday, February 13, 2009

My Advisor Is Blogging...

...and he's pretty good at it too.

I graduated with my doctorate in political theory from Catholic University of America in 2001; my dissertation advisor there--and really my closest academic associate the whole six years I spent in Washington DC--was Stephen F. Schneck. Steve was a generous and gentle and unfailingly easygoing prodder of me and my work during my time in the program; many people have all sorts of horror stories about graduate school and dissertation advisors, but I'm not one of them. Going on a decade later, I still look back on my years at CUA as pretty much a delight, and Steve is one of the largest reasons for that.

For that reason, I was pretty delighted to discover that he'd been brought into the blogging world through his association with Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, an organization I'd heard about before, but hadn't really looked into. Now I'm looking into it a good deal--and particular checking out their blog, "Just Words"--and I'm liking what I see very much. But of course, I would, wouldn't I? Community, common good, social justice...just throw some populism in there, and I'm sold.

The blog--which appears to have about a half-dozen contributors--has thus far covered issues of abortion, poverty, family values, and children's health from a firm though not pedantic Catholic perspective; Steve's contributions have ranged over matters pertaining to religion and public life, property and stewardship, and "common good" principles generally. If you're interested in discussions of how Catholicism (or indeed, just Christianity generally) can apply itself in an orthodox, just, and socially aware way to matters of public import, do check the blog (and the whole website) out. You might become hooked, which is what's happening with me.

Friday Morning Videos: "Mad About You"

Well, today is a Friday the 13th, an unlucky day for some, but a lucky day for my wife and I, since we were married on a Friday the 13th, and have made a habit of going out on a special celebratory date every time one rolls around (usually about twice a year). Plus, tomorrow is Valentine's Day, a day which we generally don't celebrate, because my wife thinks it's a lame holiday. You may disagree. To each their own, I guess. But in the meantime, in honor of today (and possibly tomorrow), I asked Melissa to name her favorite 80s pop love song. And here it is, for your listening and viewing pleasure. Not to knock her work with the Go-Go's, but this tune is when Belinda Carlisle really began to hit her stride.

(Oh, and apologies for those of you who get hit with an advertisement; YouTube is clamping down on embedding, so I had to look elsewhere for the video, and this is what I found.)

Thursday, February 12, 2009

British Conservatives are Better

The latest round of "end of conservatism" discussions, prompted by last week's TNR piece by Sam Tanenhaus, and which I talked about here, is still ongoing. See here and here and here and here, for example, and that's just within the pages of TNR. The exchange between Andrew Bacevich and Damon Linker has prompted some e-mail discussion between he and I, and now Patrick Deneen has joined in too, with a further response from Damon. There are some things worth saying about the argument over "authoritarianism" and its relationship to conservatism and liberalism; I touch on it slightly below, and I may blog about it more later (though then again, maybe I've already made my point back when I was talking about the authoritarian John Paul II's relevance to progressive politics, something I up out in the midst of the whole Schiavo mess), but for now, I want to pick up on an earlier post by Patrick on the same general topic.

Patrick writes that the whole "end of conservatism" debate is misnamed:

[C]onservatism was never tried. A version of liberalism was implemented, particularly a toxic combination of Wilsonian visions of remaking the world combined with a particular brand of laissez-faire economics that gave particular favor to Bigness. BOTH of these pursuits, perfectly combined during the Presidency of George W. Bush, but present in various iterations throughout the years of Republican rule, are purely distilled varieties of liberalism. We called it "conservative" because it wasn't the more potent version of Statism. However, all the same, it relied upon basic liberal assumptions of self-interest, privatism, large and centralized government and growth economics that place a stress upon large scale, mobility, debt, and consumption.

So, his argument is that it isn't conservatism that has run it's course; it is a particular brand of liberalism. Fair enough; I'm not sure that Tanenhaus himself would dispute that point, though he might disagree with the preferred nomenclature. One of Tanenhaus's primary historical contentions was that what has called itself "American conservatism" over the past 30 or 40 years abandoned the British conservative wisdom which once animated it, and reaped the whirlwind through its often ignorant interactions with the global capitalist economy and the populist resentments that economy (rightly) creates. Patrick is only pushing this idea slightly further, by implicitly arguing--as I read him, anyway--that said British wisdom was of a piece with the larger liberal tradition which, whatever its caveats in its different varieties, always ended up empowering the private over the public, self-interest over common interest, and consumption over conservation. And so, yes: "conservatism" has never been tried.

Now, an obvious snark at this point is to observe that Patrick is sounding like your stereotypical classroom Marxist, who insists (again, probably rightly) that "communism" has never been tried either, so why use the Soviet Union to dump on Marx? But as much as could be done with that snark, I'd like to instead explore his contention more seriously. Has there never truly been a modern "conservative" polity, or even attempts to create one? Well, arguably the Confederacy comes to mind, as well as the Southern Agrarians two generations later. But even there, one might claim that liberalism, or some version of it, sneaks in: one thinks of the good classical liberal Lord Acton defending the secession of the Southern states as a perfect expression of personal liberty, and echoes of the same argument can be found in the writings of the Vanderbilt School, with their speaking out on behalf of local independence and farmers markets in the face of industrialization. Of course, a great many conservatives would argue that such personal, local, and economic liberty is exactly what they are trying to "conserve" against the state, and they have a point. But that is also what classical liberals and libertarians (most of them, anyway) want to do, to say nothing of the populists with all their arguably leftist ideas.

The point is, I suspect, that trying to extricate liberal ideas in all their varieties from any political argument that doesn't address capitalism (and the mostly or at least increasingly democratic forms of modern life it presumes to be valuable) itself directly is probably always going to end up failing. Burke himself, who is usually held as the very font of modern conservatism, was a liberal, or at least was liberal; as Jacob Levy (among others) has persuasively argued, Burke was a Whig whose "pluralist liberalism" led him to greatly respect the "ancient liberties--of churches, guilds, parlements, provinces, cities, nobles, and all the rest--[that] provided a place to stand against absolutism." So from the beginning, any conservatism which speaks of liberty in the context of modern democratic capitalism--the arena within which different groups (the small platoons!) as we know them today can form and seek the freedom and power to live their lives as they see fit in the first place--is going to be, at most, a form of liberalism, one that is, as Alasdair MacIntyre once put it, a "conservative liberalism," a liberalism more pluralist in its devotions, more sensitive to history and less rational in its ambitions, but a liberalism nonetheless.

Now in some ways this is obviously a kind of silly point to make. Political theorists like Jacob and Patrick (and, sometimes, me) can argue all we like about the conceptual and/or historical connections between Burke and other early modern liberals, but in historical fact it is the conservatives--certainly at least since Russell Kirk--that have seen in Burke's appreciation of tradition and natural limits a conservative response to Rousseau and thus to all the revolutionary or egalitarian implications of liberalism. And, of course, the liberal reading of Burke can itself be contested: the man did rhapsodize about how moved he was by the glorious presence of Marie Antoinette, after all. So (perhaps to allude back to the aforementioned debate between Patrick and Damon) there are elements of a fundamentally illiberal appreciation of authority in his thought. Still, overall, I think the general point stands: every successful modern conservative political argument has been, to a degree, in the same position as that which Michael Walzer once famously said about the relevance of communitarianism to our modern liberal world (about which, more here); namely, that it is, however interesting and important an ideology, nonetheless parasitic on liberalism, a "recurrent critique," at best.

So does this mean that Patrick's search for a conservatism that can truly be tried and made fruitful is, in the end, in vain? Not necessarily--it just means that one needs to get clear on what it is you're searching for, and think again about where to find it and what one hopes to accomplish There are different sorts of recurrent critiques, after all. Some--I'm thinking here in particular of Albert Jay Nock's work--very explicitly see themselves as having no other justification than to provide solace to the "remnant" out there, the folks that will be left behind to pick up the pieces once civilization has gone to the dogs. The way some conservatives--including Patrick--have flirted with the interesting elements of agrarianism and anarchism partakes of this attitude. But a political conservatism, a movement of reform and direction, an agenda and theory of governance...well, that is something different. In the United States, thoroughly Lockean country that it is, any such conservative theory is going to have a very difficult time finding some way of thinking that will allow it to address liberalism and modernity on a conceptually equal level; without that, all you have is a pleasantly angry dissidence (or, again, an outright or at least quasi-religious faith in a remnant out there). As Rod Dreher--the conservative thinker who has probably done the most to package this kind of conservatism as practicable and accessible to his audience--is himself nonetheless quick to admit, his "crunchy conservative" movement isn't one that can likely function as a political movement in America; rather, it points, once again, towards the (honorable, important, but not all that public) "Benedict Option" of retreat. I have contrasted that option for conservatives (and John Schwenkler joined in as well), in light of Obama's maybe-not-entirely-impressive-but-nonetheless-important victory for conventional liberalism, with Ross Douthat's and Reihan Salan's "reform conservatism", and perhaps those two choices pretty much exhaust the political possibilities for conservatism in America: try a different (but not radically so) sort of engagement with liberalism, or simply turn one's conservatism into a kind of libertarian-secessionism, and just bail. However, there is another, better response, one that that Patrick and his commenters touch on. They toss back and forth several possible labels--"Christian Democrats," "Traditionalists," etc.--but pass too quickly over the one I think best (because, of course, it's the one I would prefer): "Red Tories."

I've talked about the Red Tory option before, specifically in reference to the role it plays in how conservatism is thought about in Canada. More recently, I've contrasted it with a variation upon the same kind of libertarian-secessionist mentality I mentioned above: on the one hand, we have the belief that creating communities of order, virtue and "conservation" (itself very much a "Tory" goal) has to involve an oppositional stance to any kind of substantive collective action; on the other, the conviction that the "egalitarian corollaries which must (or at least should) attend [such communities] in our democratic age...will not emerge without at least some kind of structuring or maintenance of the socio-economic playing field" upon which they are built (that would be the "Red" side of things). But this is in an argument mostly abstracted from any real political least, so far. But Rod's recent infatuation with David Cameron and the possible revival of Red Toryism through the Conservative Party in Great Britain suggests that the argument--assuming those with conservative inclinations of any sort are willing to learn once again from the British tradition--may have some real political traction after all. Here's how Phillip Bond describes what Rod calls "what crunchy conservatism could be if it got serious about politics":

[P]hilosophical liberalism was born out of an 18th-century critique of absolute monarchies. It sought to protect the rights of the individual from arbitrary abuse by the king. But so extreme did the defence of individual liberty become that each man was obliged to refuse the dictates of any other—-for that would be simply to replace rule by one man's will (the king) with rule by another. As such, the most extreme form of liberal autonomy requires the repudiation of society—for human community influences and shapes the individual before any sovereign capacity to choose has taken shape....Conservatives who believe in value, culture and truth should therefore think twice before calling themselves liberal. Liberalism can only be a virtue when linked to a politics of the common good, a problem which the best liberals--[John Stuart] Mill, Adam Smith, and [William] Gladstone...recognised but could never resolve....

In respect of liberalism, the left has twice sinned. It has produced a managerial state that has destroyed the old mutualism of the working class. And it has destroyed both middle and working class morality; in the name of permissiveness, it commodified sex and the body, creating the licentious empty pleasure-seeking drones of the late 1960s. This left-libertarianism repudiated all ties of kith and kin and, though it was utopian in aspiration, its true legacy has been the dystopia of divided families, unparented children and the lazy moral relativism of the liberal professional elite. In this sense, the left was right wing years before the right, and it created the conditions for universal self-interest under Thatcher. The current political consensus is left-liberal in culture and right-liberal in economics. And this is precisely the wrong place to be....

What must Cameron's priorities be, and how can he begin to build a new communitarian Tory settlement? He could restoring capital to labour. Cameron should reject the Marxist narrative that paints Tories as wedded to a disenfranchised proletariat. On the contrary: conservatives believe in the extension of wealth and prosperity to all. Yet the great disaster of the last 30 years is the destruction of the capital, assets and savings of the poor: in Britain, the share of wealth (excluding property) enjoyed by the bottom 50 per cent of the population fell from 12 per cent in 1976 to just 1 per cent in 2003. A radical communitarian civic conservatism must be committed to reversing this trend. This requires a considered rejection of social mobility, meritocracy and the statist and neoliberal language of opportunity, education and choice. Why? Because this language says that unless you are in the golden circle of the top 10 to 15 per cent of top-rate taxpayers you are essentially insecure, unsuccessful and without merit or value. The Tories should leave this bankrupt ideology to New Labour and embrace instead an organic communitarianism that graces every level of society with merit, security, wealth and worth....

The final piece of the puzzle is for Conservatives to break with big business. We must end a model in which competition is reduced to a cartel of vast corporations maximising profits by discouraging competitors and minimising wages by joining with the liberal left to encourage mass immigration. A covert alliance between the liberal left and liberal right has destroyed incomes and identity at the bottom of the scale....Taken together, such policies will help conservatives create a transformative red Tory manifesto. They would build a new economic and capital base that decentralises power and extends wealth and also makes a final break with the logic of monopoly and debt-financed capitalism. In doing so, Cameron can finally bring together the Tory tradition of Disraeli's reform of capitalism with his own entirely justified desire to be a "social radical."

That's a lot to digest, and it is highly debatable how many American conservatives looking to engage public life broadly could really embrace or at least take seriously the majority of it. As much as conservatives in the U.S. may aspire to borrow from the British tradition--and as much as Tanenhaus thought that they sometimes did manage to do so--nonetheless they do not have a Disraeli in their background. That is, we Americans do not have an intuitive class consciousness of what capitalism does to community, and so have yet to produce a political figure who is able to talk about creation--or, if you prefer, the "conservation"--of a national community, an instantiation of social solidarity, that doesn't become bogged down in arguments over the First Amendment. That's not to say that "culture war" arguments are absent in Great Britain; that's hardly the case. But still, when Americans (liberals and conservatives alike) try to talk about the "common good," we end up arguing over religion and lifestyle and choice, rather than capital and labor and equality and distribution. And as important as the former are, the almost complete absence of the latter amongst conservative arguments is a shame, and something that it would be good to be able to change.

Perhaps this is simply our Lockean inheritance again, meaning that anything which is to be ideologically, politically, built in America is just going to have to begin and end with individual liberty, both economic and personal, and thus anything that is to be conserved has to be done along such lines. Conservatism has to happen within liberalism...unlike that distant option still available to older societies, where people for the most part didn't have the luxury which many Americans had to back away from and--most of the time, anyway, if they were lucky--catch a ride on the wave of the Industrial Revolution and modern capitalism and be carried forward by it as it swept across the social landscape, and thus instead had to fight against it and within it to hold onto what they already had. In such political contexts (or those that were born from them, like Canada), there is a way of thinking which recognizes, as Disraeli did, liberalism as a tool towards communitarian, egalitarian, and conservative ends. Practically speaking, what does that mean? It means attacking corporations and big business, it means redistributing property and sources of wealth, it means recognizing the harms of the meritocracy, and the myth that treating people equally means creating legal regimes that are blind to differences in wealth and opportunity but are thrown into a panic if different types of people, living in different types of places, believing different types of things, aren't obliged treat their choices as pretty much identical to everyone else's. This goes back to the argument over Burke, and how one is to associate his pluralism with liberal and/or conservative ways of thinking. American conservatives, in some ways beneficially but in many others ways not, have celebrated and praised what the diverse little platoons--the families, the churches, the civic associations--which individuals form actually do, but they have been too often blind to how they all operate on a larger field, and need support and networks to do what the people who form them seek to accomplish in the first place. A "Red Toryism"--a Disraeli conservatism--recognizes how egalitarian, empowering, collective agents (and these can vary, of course; Disraeli supported trade unions, while Cameron sees them as an obstacle) can actually create more diversity. But how can you be comfortable with an arrangement that allows that different levels of society must be entrusted to agents to orient them to some common end, when you believe--as so many Americans do--that the very idea of "levels" in society is a distraction, and that the ends that matter first and foremost need no coordination, as they are products of individual choice and individual choice alone?

Well, all this is not to say that David Cameron has solved American conservatives problems for them, or even that he has come up with a formula for putting my beloved left conservatism into power. As Madeleine Bunting tartly notes, Tony Blair used to sound the communitarianism trumpet too (which used to make me excited too...), and yet, "in the pressure of office and the need to get results for public sector reform, all such rhetoric about devolving to community groups disappeared." Moreover, there are gaps in Blond's construction of the Red Tory argument; while social solidarity through distributive (and, necessarily, at least some redistributive) means forms the heart of his conservative agenda, it may not supply the lifeblood to keep the heart beating. There is still the question of, as John Milbank puts it, "objective values and virtues," and that opens to the door to religious identity (something that Blond hints at in his references to immigration), and the possible relevance of some kind of Christianity (radical orthodoxy, perhaps?) to this whole project. But, in any case, the fact remains that British conservatism is a deep and diverse tradition, one that has, I think, clearly articulated more and better responses to the problems that capitalism and modernity pose to conserving communities...which are--as I, left conservative that I am, have long insisted--the only contexts within which claims of social justice and popular sovereignty can make sense. Hence, we should all, conservatives and progressives (and communitarians!) alike, want to be liberal in the way these British conservatives have been and may yet again be. As always, though, I won't be holding my breath.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Yes, Even More Notes On Obamanomics

1) The stimulus bill passed the Senate, and I'm glad.

I'm glad because in a world of high finance and high debt, of credit and mortgages and investments, of economic obligations and dependencies and opportunities too numerous to count, throwing a wrench into the shaky, oversized, souped-up machine of American capitalism and hoping the whole thing collapses--which, whether they admit it to others or even just to themselves or not, is really what the House and Senate Republicans who attempted to stop or at least undermine the stimulus package were trying to do--is, if not madness, then something very close to it. I'd be willing to give the dissenting Republicans some real ideological and intellectual credit for the stand they're taking (hell, I'd be tempted to sign up with them) if they demonstrated some real thought about actual alternatives to the socio-economic world we're living in today--that is, if they were thinking and talking seriously about a world where people were more self-sufficient and more empowered to care for themselves in their own places, a world where corporations and banks didn't have the power to move capital and jobs and resources around the globe on the basis of tenuous and elite lines of credit, a world where expansion and growth and choice and consumption were not the secret keys to financial security and success. In other words, if they were all reading Rod Dreher, E.F. Schumacher, Gar Alperovitz, or Wendell Berry. But they aren't doing that; instead, they're insisting--to give them the most charitable reading one can--that there's no real mess in our present corporation-dominated, loan-addicted economy that more selective (and less overall) spending combined with more broad (and larger overall) tax cuts won't solve. They are, in other words, still living in Reagan's world.

Except that, in all honesty, a lot of them seem to be living in Rush Limbaugh's world: oppose the stimulus plan, paint it all as more "liberal Democrat big spending" (and, to be honest, some of that is in there), rally around "fiscal conservatism and economic liberty" (which, of course, is exactly what the unemployed desperately want), wait for the economy to continue to tank, and then return to power in 2010 via an electorate feeling betrayed by Obama. Given that plan, if you were a Republican member of Congress, why would you need to take any kind of actual thoughtful stand? Just throw your wrench in; after all, it's not like your job is in danger.

2)One of the commeters on my previous Obamanomics posts responding to my comment on bank nationalization by writing:

"The solution to decades of government-incentivized irresponsible lending and spending is to nationalize irresponsible lending and spending?"

Er, no; the solution is to put an actually accountable body of people--that is, the government we elect--in charge of managing literally trillions of dollars of bad assets which are sinking banks across the country, and thereby putting real stress on those abroad. Is there any reason to think that direct government oversight and management would result in worse decisions being made than those that have driven these banks into the ditch? The latest iteration of the argument over what to do about the country's credit problems still involves, I would argue, essentially a kind of passive nationalization of these institutions; why not make it direct? I'm not making the argument for it, I'm just arguing that there's no clear historical reason not to consider it. For better or worse, our current crisis is making it necessary for us to either A) re-evaluate and, to some degree, abandon the kind of economic opportunities and assumptions that have guided this nation ever since the emergence of modern finance capitalism (and again, I note that I'm by no means opposed to such a retreat), or B) accept that European-style state solutions, tied to the protection and expansion of local and collective ways of working and living, are going to have to be experimented with. Obama seems grown-up enough to recognize the choice, and make it one way or another; those who are shielding themselves from acknowledging our present moment (which, admittedly, may soon pass...but then again, maybe not) are not.

3) Another commenter on one of my previous posts--my old friend Nate Oman--wrote:

"The Buy American portion of the bill is undoubtedly the worst provision in the whole thing, particularly if it leads to a retaliatory set of trade tit-for-tats. Globalization may not make the cockles of your neo-populist heart warm, but a world full of trade walls is worse. See, e.g., the global economic and poltical system ca. 1930 to 1945."

As I see it, there are a few things worth saying here. A) Any Buy American provisions which survive the conference committee between the Senate and House will invariably reflect a consciousness of the fact that we have numerous mutually beneficial trage agreements in place that no one seriously wants to lose. B) The focus of the really crucial Buy American provisions is the iron and steel industries, and enforcing strict domestic purchasing policies in regards to such basic industrial products is hardly going to have a domino effect that will result in every single Volkswagen or Toyota quadrupling in price. If anything, it'll just be a reminder to other countries of what they already do, and of what the value of such selective protectionist measures truly is. C) The obsession over "trade walls" reveals the common presumption that all economic talk worth the name is really about growth, consumption, wealth; a concern for jobs and security and work rarely seems to come into it. On this point, I'll just quote Patrick Deneen:

Why is [the argument against protectionism] so patently true for economists that it is proffered as if it didn't merit further thought? Because, of course, it's better when lots of people can purchase cheap goods that are manufactured in the lowest labor-cost areas of the world. Comparative advantage insists that everyone wins in this scenario....Yet, what if we were to widen our aperture a bit and consider whether a nation of self-defined consumers is a good thing? What if the very self-definition of ourselves as "consumers" - now used unselfconsciously as the one universally valid term to describe Americans (not "workers" and certainly not "citizens")--is deeply damaging to the civic and moral culture of a nation? What if economic and political policies that promote consumption over good, hard work induce very bad habits that in turn lead to very bad economic outcomes?...The economics of consumption is, in the first instance, a recipe for short-term thinking. It encourages the consumption of products intended very soon for the trash heap, thus promoting a culture of immediacy and waste. It is an ethic that encourages instant gratification, rather than encouraging virtues of thrift and deferred gratification....A culture of work--good, honest, hard work--on the other hand, promotes virtues of care and thrift. Where we have a sense that people near and around us will use our products, we work with pride and responsibility. Where we will have to live with the costs of our production, we work in ways that minimally damage our living places....A culture that values work over consumption is one that is likely to view manias with a jaundiced eye, aware that the cycle of nature is not one that offers quick rich rewards, but slow and steady earnings that are come by honestly and with patience and hard work.

If anything, the protectionist elements of the stimulus package may be the most important in the symbolic sense: they announce that, with this massive investment into the fundamentals of the American economy--and, of course, again, it's all a risk, or rather hundreds of tiny or not so tiny risks, any number of which may or may not add up in the end--America is looking to enable and reward the kind of learning and working that, perhaps, would have shown a little bit more resistance to the bizarre economic behaviors nostrums than Americans as a whole did over the past generation or two, during an era when the value (even the idea) of labor mostly went into a decline.

Maybe that's reading too much into it. But then, when you're looking at a bill that authorizes spending close to a trillion dollars, you can find just about anything between the lines.

Friday, February 06, 2009

One More Note on Obamanomics

I find it somewhat silly--and so it probably appears to people who know me well--that I'm sitting here at my computer, trying to follow the latest news and figure out and say something about whatever it is that I think of the stimulus package being crafted in rapid fits and starts by people a thousand miles away from me. No one reads this blog for breaking news (or at least I certainly hope not!), and I don't have anything like the kind of training in or familiarity with the buget choices and economic possibilities at stake in this whole mess to be a reliable guide. I'm an idea man, mostly, and ideas are taking a deep backseat at the moment.

But they're still there, of course, which is why Ross Douthat's piece this morning is a wise one:

[T]he empirical conclusions that undergird the pell-mell rush to spend as much money as possible are eminently contestable, and the contest tends to break down along, well, ideological lines. So smart liberals are more likely to find the Keynesian model libertarians and conservatives are more likely to raise doubts about its track record--and the question of which comes first, the ideology or the empirical analysis, is essentially unanswerable. Some people are Keynesians because they find the case for stimulus persuasive, presumably; some people find the evidence for Keynesianism persuasive because they're liberals, and thus predisposed to support government spending in general; and many people fall somewhere in between. And the same goes on the other side: I like to think that I'm interested in evidence-based policymaking, but I'm sure that I wouldn't find Tyler Cowen and Greg Mankiw's stimulus skepticism half so persuasive if I weren't already predisposed to tilt against trillion-dollar boosts to big government. In either case, where you place the burden of proof--about the stimulus, or about any government intervention to come--depends on the philosophical premises you start with.

So it is with me. When I mildly defended the stimulus package as it existed as of Wednesday against the accusation of it being a "disaster," I was speaking as someone who isn't necessarily bothered by the idea of the federal government coming to play an even larger role in funding, building, and organizing the provision of certain social programs and public goods and economic opportunities, perhaps mainly because I just don't feel the fear which many do that a centralized response to collective problems will necessarily result in undermining the sort of values I think our national community--which isn't the only one, and arguably not even the most important one, that we live in, but it is a good and essential, nonetheless--ought to make possible and defend. In short, assuming one's "leftism" or "socialism" or "progressivism" is genuinely democratic, community-minded, and participatory--admittedly, an often ignored component--then I don't see why big government (or, at least, a government which is big in selective ways) doesn't make (or at least can't make) local life and family life more healthy and humane. (See this fine back and forth between Ross Douthat, Henry Farrell, and Patrick Deneen for an argument over this point, which I've made again and again and again.) So bring the stimulus on, I say, and if there is--as I said before--crazy stuff in there that really doesn't seem to satisfy the burden of proof, let's at least see some rationales for cutting them out, rather then treating the whole package as fundamentally suspect. If anything, I support it not because I'm a doctrinaire Keynesian, but because Keynesianism seems the best way to get us at the kind of big, structure reforms that we really ought to be pursuing. Let's talk about nationalization. Let's talk about protectionism. The way I see it, anyone who wants to defend a genuine conservatism, to say nothing to those who see the pratical necessity of at least attempting to limit the financial damage which decades of irresponsible lending practices and spending habits have gotten us all, shouldn't be frightened off by those discussions. They should embrace them, if only to separate themselves from those good-hearted folk who appear to think simple constitutionalism (liberalism a la Herbert Hoover, perhaps), as honorable as that attitude may be, is the complete answer to the dilemmas of modern life.

Friday Morning Videos: "Sledgehammer"

So, I've been getting complaints from a few friends, asking me, why don't I ever choose any good videos, videos that, like, average people our age can remember? The easy answer is, those are the videos easily accessible on YouTube; half of the really famous ones have their embedding disabled. But the fuller answer is...well, I don't really know. Contrariness, I guess. I mean, there are hundreds of these, tucked away in the almost entirely forgotten recesses of our mind; why should I haul of just the most popular ones, the ones that everyone has seen dozens of times? But I take their point; I should intersperse lesser-known videos with critically acclaimed, award-winning ones. No pop-rock radio station, after all, no matter how hip, plays nothing but XTC or Belle and Sebastian over and over again, completely ignoring Peter Gabriel.

Speaking of whom, let's start with him, and perhaps the finest, most inventive, most original music video of them. Enjoy, everybody. Feel free to sing along.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

A Few Notes on Obamanomics

1) There is, to be sure, plenty to complain about in the stimulus bill that's winding its way through Congress. Some friends of mine have called it a "disaster." I wouldn't go that far--after all, if underneath all the pork there is, as Ryan Avent observes, $500 billion in real stimulus spending, then that's better than $100 billion in stimulus spending, or none at all. The difficult economic question may be whether the stimulus package that finally emerges and is signed will have enough of the sort of "timely, targeted, and temporary" spending needed to generate some real recovery momentum, and thus compensate in some manner or another for the deficits which all this spending will result in. And even beginning to answer that question requires a parsing that is pretty deeply speculative. Some of what counts as directly generating an economic boost along Keynesian lines is pretty obvious, but some is not. For example, the House plan increases the Department of Education's overall budget by more than 100%--from $60 billion in fiscal 2008 to $135 billion next year and $146 billion after that. Pure liberal House Democrat bureaucracy building, right? And yet, what if it were the case that such increases in spending were attached to reforms that made a difference in, say, high school drop-out rates? Cutting those rates in half, Robert Reich points out, would potentially translate into $45 billion in additional tax revenues every year, to say nothing off lower welfare rolls and incarceration rates.

Tough, speculative guesswork. I'd rather that we not run up and trillion dollar tab engaging in such guesswork, but neither would I want non-progressive forces on the Republican side to so intimidate all the partisans in this debate that they fall back on Reagan-era nostrums that are completely inappropriate for our present situation. Thankfully, that hasn't happened yet, though it does seem as if, sometimes, the old guard--and in particular the Republicans--are driving this debate.

2) If there is anything in the House bill that I hope most to survive the pressures which Team Obama face in creating something that Congress will sign off on, it's the provision that infrastructure projects paid for out of stimulus funds be required to use American steel. Protectionism? In the right place, at the right time, in the right way...absolutely. Let's have more of it!

3) And as for the talk about curbing corporate pay, my answer is again: let's have more of it. This is the right kind of populism, an anger that isn't, I think, random resentment, but which speaks to a desire to oblige--or, indeed, if necessary and appropriate, enforce--a level of solidarity between all those who are dealing with the same economic crisis. It connects well with Daschle stepping down, even though everyone acknowledges that his confirmation probably would have gone forward with very little trouble. It's not about saving money, ultimately; there are no doubt all sorts of ways in which accountants could show that requiring senators to drive themselves, or taking away competitive bonuses from chief executives, is inefficient and unproductive. Rather, it's about empowerment and equalization, even if that equalization is superficial. The principle of the civic equality--yes, sure, you make more money than me, you work harder than me, you're luckier than me, you're worth more than me, but dammit, you still don't get to jump to the front of the line!--still holds.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

The End of Conservatism, Again

Sam Tanenhaus's long, historically informed, analytically sharp history of the conservative movement's emergence, triumphs, breakdowns, and most recent collapse in The New Republic may not become required reading amongst the many hundreds (thousands?) of pundits, bloggers, scholars, and just interested observers out there involved in the ongoing "whither conservatism?" debate, but perhaps it ought to be. It's not perfect; there are some points I would dispute and some matters of significance I think Tanenhaus elides, and I mention a couple below. But I learned a good deal from it, and I doubt there any many people out there--and I certainly doubt there are many, if any, readers of this blog--about whom the same couldn't be said. Tanenhaus has long been about as informed and literate a commentator on the entwining of politics and ideas in American history as anyone else I can think of; if for no other reason, you owe it to yourself to read through it, to see how he puts it all together.

The essence of Tanenhaus's thesis, which plays out across an ideological history which most who have read anything about conservatism know the basics of (Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk, William F. Buckley, etc.), can, I think, be pretty much summed up by the following statement: modern conservatism (meaning, the conservatism that formed around Burke's legacy in Britain during the 19th century, the conservatism that takes its bearings from the French Revolution), whenever it has attempted to be something more than an Oakeshottian disposition, whenever it has attempted to address modern life as a political ideology, has been troubled by capitalism. Which should be apparent to anyone who understands either the basics of capitalist economics or the fundamental meanings of words. After all, what kind of social order can be "conserved" in conjunction with a market economy that encourages the evolution of tastes, the invention of labor-saving devices, the expansion of opportunities, the shifting of investments, the move to mass production, and all the other elements of that "creative destruction" which bring about so much diversification and wealth (and corruption)? Certainly not one that can be left to its own devices! Which is why Tanenhaus points to Benjamin Disraeli as the truly quintessential conservative (not to mention having been a hero to Whittaker Chambers, perhaps Tanenhaus's own personal hero).

There's more which can be said here than Tanenhau's essay allows. I would argue that Disraeli, besides recognizing that modern technology and the market economy were transforming the relations between the classes, besides recognizing the social and cultural costs of a rapidly expanding socio-economic whirlwind which was uprooting the farmers and concentrating new wealth and power in the commercial and trading and financial classes who congregated in the cities, besides, in response to all this, pushing forward--for eminently conservative reasons--policies favorable to trade unions, to public education, to improved worker conditions and so forth, grasped what may be the most important practical conservative ideological contribution to modern democratic life: the need act against an over-reliance upon the self-interest and individualism which liberal freedoms and market imperatives generate, and promulgate in its place a "One Nation" conservatism, wherein a shared cultural heritage is seen as something which requires collective action to be adequately tended to. For Disraeli himself, this required some kind of Tory-radical alliance (what some of his later followers called "Tory Democracy,"), but I see the same sort of thing in Canada's Red Tory tradition, and in elements of Progressive thought in the United States at the turn of the century. The Progressives are rarely understood as conservatives, and of course for the most part they weren't...except for the fact that, however one may criticize their specific policies (and there is plenty to criticize there, don't misunderstand me), they had borrowed from many of the radical Populists of the 19th century, and they carried forward well into the 20th (to some degree all the way up to and through the New Deal) a sense that helping the poor, that responding to deprivation and the accidents and harms of complex economic world in which so much power has been removed from the hands of the working class, was primarily about creating a national community that all could more fully be a part of, rather than an open field everyone would be equally free to run wild (and run over their neighbors, if they saw fit to do so).

Tanenhaus acknowledges this much, pointing out how, at a certain point in the history of the American conservative movement, thinkers and writers like Daniel Moynihan, Daniel Bell, and Irving Kristol were able to recognize in early 20th century liberals like Herbert Croly "reformers with essentially conservative goals." That conservative goal, obviously, required a sensible use of the state to achieve, which during the mid- to late-1960s, Tanenhaus believes many American conservatives were recognizing:

Buckley had begun to give serious thought to Chambers's equation: "how much to give in order not to give up the basic principles"...[A]mid the upheavals of the '60s citizens wanted government--specifically the federal government--to exert the authority Burke and Disraeli had claimed for it. It made no sense for conservatives to attack "statism" when it was institutions of "the State" that formed the bedrock of civil society. In 1967, when Reagan, soon after his election [as governor of California], was being accused of having sold out his anti-government principles--not least because he had submitted the highest budget in state history--Buckley wondered what exactly critics expected Reagan to do, "padlock the state treasury and give speeches on the Liberty amendment?"

That anti-government sensibility had, of course, always been part of the American conservative movement, that part of it which was always more interest in conserving classical liberal (or libertarian) freedoms than in actually ever conserving an order or way or life. This, obviously, touches on Alasdair McIntyre's well-known point that in America, politics is a family squabble between radical liberals, conservative liberals, and liberal liberals--no actual conservatives can be found. In a sense, this is unfair: amongst the Populists of the 19th century, the Southern Agrarians of the early 20th, and the various disorganized (but on the internet, quite loud) radical reactionaries of today, there are true antiliberals conservatives to be found. But of course, mixed in with that antiliberalism have been innumerable localist, socialist, agrarian and communitarian strands of thought. I should know: I hunt them down wherever I can find them, because they're what I find most inspiring and truthful when it comes to political and social matters, not to mention moral ones. But note I said "inspiring and truthful"; not "workable." Unless one truly wishes to embrace an angry dissidence, one has to accept and learn to appreciate one's own place, and the place of American conservatives is within the thoroughly liberal political order we enjoy. That means finding, as Disraeli did, some way of articulating and acting upon conservative priorities in a manner that rides and makes use of the liberal wave which has continued mostly unstopped ever since the revolutionary days of the late 1700s. Christian social democracy, One Nation Conservatism, Red Toryism, the Progressives: whatever form that way makes, it invariably involves a liberal state which ultimately is justified so long as it wields power on behalf of individuals rights and interests. The fact that so much conservative good can be done through such innovative policy-making should be seen as remarkable, not as a compromised to be brushed aside.

But, in Tanenhaus's reading, it was brushed aside, as the era of Richard Nixon, Watergate, and Vietnam made polarization an attractive option, for liberals and conservatives alike. I think Tanenhaus does an excellent job succinctly describing how the Great Society, crowded with the "best and the brightest" of the postwar world, effectively forgot about, or even undermined, the conservative/Progressive elements of the New Deal as the 60s carried on into the 70s:

The [New Deal] had been a response to an economic emergency. A fearful public had been clamoring for help, and the government had met it responsibly. But the Great Society was developed at a time of supreme confidence among the governing class, who were convinced they could pre-emptively cure ills invisible to others. Policy intellectuals had moved ahead of the public--perhaps too far ahead. The "war on poverty was not declared at the behest of the poor," Moynihan wrote in the first issue of The Public Interest in 1965. "Just the opposite. The poor were not only invisible .. . they were also silent." Coal miners in the Appalachians, the first targeted beneficiaries, "were desperately poor, shockingly unemployed, but neither radical nor in any significant way restive"....The poor--believers in the American dream, content to struggle upward on their own--had become "a project" for technocrats intoxicated with nostalgie de la boue. In his book Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding, Moynihan--disillusioned with the programs he helped instate--ridiculed the pretensions of social scientists, "who love poor people [and] ... get along fine with rich people" but "do not have much time for the people in between." "In particular," he wrote, "they would appear to have but little sympathy with the desire for order, and anxiety about change, that are commonly encountered among working-class and lower middle-class persons. The privileged children of the upper middle classes more and more devoted themselves, in the name of helping the oppressed, to outraging the people in between."

Anyone who has read Christopher Lasch is familiar with this argument, how a "new class" of American elites unwittingly (or wittingly, helped along by the righteous and tragically necessary struggle against racism and segregation in the South) heaped contempt upon the "authoritarian" middle-class morality that had inculcated the same respect for personal sovereignty and a particular way of life which previous reforming movements had brought into their coalitions. And that, of course, set the course of a conservative movement based on resentment and a rabid, anti-intellectual and narrowly libertarian American patriotism, in which property rights and flag-waving trumped all. For a religious believer like myself, perhaps the most frustrating part of this story was how the excesses of a liberalism of personal autonomy--establishment liberalism shorn of its connection to (and electoral dependency upon) the particular places and histories and beliefs which make up our national culture--drove so many people of faith into believing that the Democrats were the party of "acid, amnesty, and abortion," and feeling like the Republicans were the only party of responsibility around. Say something like that often enough, long enough, and folks on both sides will believe it's always been true.

Well, I've gone on with this too long. As I said, it's not perfect; I see problems with it. Tanenhaus is far too quick to assimilate Burke into Disraeli's canny 19th-century compromise with liberalism; as open to the possibilities of the modern world as Burke plainly was, and as wise as he was about the bedrock importance of social stability, it's wrong to allege, as Tanenhaus does, that Burke didn't seek to justify the ancien regime; read what he has to say in Reflections on the Revolution in France about the awesome gratitude he felt at having once been privy to meet the Queen of France in person. And also, Tanenhaus doesn't, I think, grap the full significance which Lasch found in the "new class"; he seems to believe that the complaint had a limited legitimacy, in its applicability to social reformers in the 1960s, but that it was mere demagoguery by the time Kristol--who soon repented of his innovative ideas and embrace the modern conservative movement in its most simplistic form--was railing against scientists, teachers, journalists, city planners, community activists, and so forth. Demagoguery it may have been, but that doesn't mean that a great many of those who hold those positions haven't absorbed elements of a placeless cosmopolitan liberalism which makes them, whether they know it or not, part of the establishment which any proper conservative-radical alliance needs to be on the watch against. And, of course, there's also a whole lot more to the story than Tanenhaus brings in (like, say, the whole Cold War). But enough of me. There have already been a fair number of obituaries written for the conservative movement since Obama's election, and there are likely a fair number more to be written yet. But don't miss this one, if you care about this stuff; it's worth your time.

Update: I barely finish this off, and I find that Damon has already, and typically, found some much more pointed things to say about the essay than I did, in probably less than half as many words. Do check out his thoughts, though I take exception to one of them. He writes that:

[T]he very closeness between [Andrew] Sullivan's and Tanenhaus's form of conservatism raises doubts of my own about its viability as a conservative governing philosophy....I admire the conservatism described and defended by Sullivan and Tanenhaus (and Michael Oakeshott), but it's a personal philosophy, a habit of mind or soul, a style of judgment, a disposition or temperament, not a political philosophy. Example: Sullivan, who considers himself a conservative in this sense, strongly supported Obama, whom he also considers to be a conservative. But of course when it comes to policy, Obama is not a conservative at all. He's a liberal. Tanenhaus thus seems to be saying something like: Conservatives need to be more like Obama. If that means they should be cautious, intelligent, reflective, articulate, then it makes a lot of sense. But what about their policies? Isn't that a big part of their problems, too?

I don't think this is what Tanenhaus is in fact getting at...and if it is, then I would argue that such isn't the best thing that can be obtained from his thoughtful essay. Tanenhaus does end with arguing that "What our politics has consistently demanded of its not the assertion but rather the renunciation of ideology." But it seems to me that what he is articulating here is not an attack upon ideology in general--upon the uniting of a political philosophy or at least the constituent elements of such with a practical road map of how to, perhaps, bring that philosophy to bear on actual political life--but upon ideology in a more cramped sense: ideology-as-groupthink, where the principles that are believed--and because they are believed, ought to be regularly tested and discussed and cautiously experimented upon--are instead reified into peer-group enforced dogma, where dissenters aren't part of the common project, but enemies. At its worst, that's what the Bush administration brought us (as did, as Tanenhaus notes, Nixon's). In rejecting that, I don't think Tanenhaus is rejecting all that which would be required of a "governing philosophy"; on the contrary, I think that, by making much of Disraeli and the early neocons like Moynihan, Bell, and Kristol (in his early 60s incarnation), Tanenhaus is advocating a conservatism which acknowledges that way capitalism has required civil society and the state to become interdependent in a way that a simple socio-economic world did not. In this sense, Obama's current struggles over the stimulus package are "conservative" not just because of some supposed Burkean mentality that lays behind his thinking about it, but also because it's an attempt to bring the state to bear on reviving the economy nationally, thereby securing ways of life which Americans have come to depend upon.

But of course, perhaps we could just wait until Tanenhaus himself clears this up.