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Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Back to Bryan (Left Conservatism Returns)

A couple of months ago I had an e-mail exchange with Caleb Stegall, he of the late, great New Pantagruel, over William Jennings Bryan, and what his example does or does not teach us about how to preserve or construct a genuinely conservative/agrarian but also a populist/egalitarian social order. He was responding to this paper of mine, and I promised him that I'd blog some more about the issue soon. That paper was given at an Association of Political Theory meeting back in November, along with scholars like Patrick Deneen, and I promised them I'd follow up on my blog regarding some of what my paper said then too. And, even earlier, back when I wrote my post on "left conservatism," I said there was something more to say about the connection between the kind of perspective I was advocating and the American experience with populism and progressivism. So consider this post an attempt to fulfill all three promises.

I am, as readers of this blog know, a pretty big fan of William Jennings Bryan, though my appreciation of him is admittedly selective, admiring some aspects of his politics and his style and greatly disliking others. But the basic problem which Bryan poses to people like Caleb is not, for the most part, at least so far as I can tell, one that has to do with any of the specific positions he took throughout his career. The early Bryan of the 1890s and 1900s was an advocate of producerism, of the working man with a family to support and a small, mostly self-sustaining community to be a part of; bimetallism, his opposition to monopolies and trusts, his desire to regulate the railroads--all of that and more was grounded in his conviction that real autonomy and equality depended upon a socio-economic structure in which the power over loans, prices, wages and currency was to kept in public hands, rather than concentrated in private ones. And the moralistic thread which ran through all his arguments, becoming ever more explicit as times and society and demographics changed in the 1910s and 20s, was itself drawn clearly from a respect for and commitment to the localized Protestant Christian (and white) cultures and audiences that he campaigned successfully amongst and long preached to throughout the American South, Midwest, and Great Plains. No populist could seriously complain about any of that.

No, the problem posed by Bryan is not so much his principles, as what he believed his principles required in terms of political action. His moralistic egalitarianism became, over the years, a central component of the progressive liberalism of early the 20th-century Democrats (and to a lesser extent Republicans too), thus contributing to or at least not proposing any real alternative to the centralizing social and economic policies of Democrats Woodrow Wilson and later Franklin Delano Roosevelt. As Caleb put it to me, "I cannot accept [Bryan's] progressive liberalism, and in fact believe that this was Byran and the late-19th C. populists greatest failure/mistake."

Caleb's not alone; plenty of Kansas and Nebraska populists felt the same way. They were convinced that the "fusion" of 1896 with the Democrats was not just the end of their movement, but the first step towards the ultimate betrayal of its ideals. I'm no major fan of "progressive liberalism" myself, at least not in its final form. However, I think it is only fair to recognize the early Progressives and New Dealers as proposing solutions to real problems, and not just stealing rhetoric from the Populist Party for the sake of advancing their own agenda in the face of rapacious capitalism. Bryan was an imperfect vessel for making populism viable in cities, amongst non-Protestants, outside the Great Plains, but the attempt to make populist policies viable in such contexts had to made, regardless. The roots of the Great Plains populists' inability to come up with wholly sustainable and defendable alternative to the emerging corporate/capitalist order go deep into the basic structures of "opportunity" in the American order. This means, to me at least, that an achievable populism will have to be one that is sufficiently nationalized so as to be able to interact with that order.

Consider the absolute centrality of fears about the railroad trusts to the great majority of populist complaints. Why were the railroads, and the way they unfairly scaled freight charges, and pitted city against city throughout the Great Plains, such a motivating factor in the votes and concerns of so many farmers? Obviously, because a great many farmers were already in the process, by the 1890s, of choosing and/or being forced to adapt to a less self-sufficient, more cash-driven economy. They weren't an enemy of railroads; they wanted to make the railroads work for them. The same thing can be said about the huge role which paranoia over the money supply, and the demand for bimetallism, had in the Populist and People's parties: why was free silver such a vote getter? Because lots of farmers, rather than building their own farms and homes over the years from scratch through collective efforts, were themselves immigrants to the Great Plains, lured by opportunity, and consequently mortgaged up to their hilts. The very platforms that the Populist party adopted over the 1890s, and the producerist principles Bryan advocated, revealed the deep tension felt by farmers and other small-town folk who were actively trying to realize their personal economic and social vision in the midst of an already nationalizing environment.

Now, none of this is to say that the "progressive" fusion represented by Bryan was the only or best possible route to that preserving and constructing that vision. But I respect and accept progressive liberalism, and the New Deal which came later, as at least containing within itself the possibility of such a route, and it is Bryan for whom we have to thank for that.

But leaving aside such thanks...why, despite his best efforts, might Bryan nonetheless be a poor guide to any kind of serious thinking regarding populism today? What's the deep flaw that prevented his solutions, and the solutions of the party he shaped, from really doing what farmers hoped it would do? (That it did a lot to keep small farmers and small towns afloat is indisputable; that it also did a lot of damage all its own along the way is something that thoughtful agrarians have been aware of ever since I'll Take My Stand.) The way Caleb sees it, the real problem was--and is--methodological, or perhaps sociological (or both): "Byran’s populism is liberal because it is entirely procedural. This is the liberal flaw." That is, as I read his concerns, Bryan did not really respect the pre-existent world that he drew his ethics and religion from, however much he may have seemed to, because when it came time to fight on behalf of that world, he wanted to align larger, procedural forces on its behalf, as if it were something static just waiting for lift or an opportunity or a bestowal of new federal funding. This is, I think, a good point. Liberalism, at least in its later 2oth-century forms, has a real "best and the brightest" problem, a tendency to look almost anthropologically out upon the masses and try to figure out how to make them equal with those elites who have already survived and thrived within out socio-economic system. In other words, as Jeff Taylor (another fan of Bryan, though I think he places much too much of a libertarian spin on Bryan's policies) has argued, the liberalism of the post-Bryan Democratic party wasn't particularly Jeffersonian. The question is, to what degree did Bryan's moralistic progressive proposals create that result?

That the fusion liberalism of 1896, and the subsequent liberalism of the Progressives and New Dealers, was increasingly elitist and procedural (a fact that intellectuals like Richard Hofstadter gloried in, condemning the populist sentiments amongst early 20th-century reformers as an unfortunate ideological leftover), I understand and agree with. I also agree that, by the time proceduralism came to dominate liberal thinking, liberalism itself was all but unsalvageable, having committed itself wholly to "management" as conceived by already-well-positioned members of the "vital center." Such management is always, invariably, individualistic, conceived solely along lines connecting the specific, studied individual to those managers who take care of opposing economic and social forces of his or her behalf. Nothing populist there, I'll admit. But part of my point in the paper Caleb is commenting on was that Bryan's proceduralism (if you want to call it that) always presumed the existence of a non-individualistic, pre-existent historical/social/economic construct, the cultural substrate which grounds and subsumes all particular actions; this is the communal context which Rousseau--who plays a major role in my analysis of Bryan and Wendell Berry's respective approaches to democracy--refashioned for the modern world. (I say "refashioned" because there were, of course, plenty of thinkers, like Burke or de Maistre for example, who remained committed in different ways to some sort of conservative continuity into modernity, something that Rousseau assumed--rightly, I believe--was impossible.)

Bryan surely had no real philosophical grasp on the necessity of a lived context for resisting the long-term consequences of the secular liberal order. But he did know that everything he valued kind of presumed a world of Protestant farmers. (White ones, it must be said; Bryan's unwillingness to challenge the racism of the Bourbon Democrats, and even worse his apparent embrace of it later in his life, was his true greatest sin and failure.) Now it is true that this localized, dynamic, and not-easily-reducible Christian agrarian world was one that he was never truly part of, and in fact chose never to be fully a part of, being instead fully committed to a party and a religious ideology that admittedly often were agents of reduction. But isn't it plausible that Bryan never stopped campaigning, never abandoned the reductive and proceduralist methodologies of travel and communication and policy-making of the emerging progressive and liberal elite, never permanently grounded himself in the local knowledge of Nebraska or Kansas or elsewhere, because he knew that wasn't a context he internalize, but rather one he could only serve and thus help conserve for others, and for the nation as a whole? If so, then perhaps what we ought to wonder if it isn't the case that Bryanism, while not sufficient for populism on its own, nonetheless has its place--that given the actually existing world of desire and movement and opportunity that gives this nation (and, increasingly, this world) power over the preferably localized and placed individual, we need actors and policies and provisions on the state and national and even international level to secure places wherein individuals can build the communities they desire. To allow for such is, of course, to walk a tightrope: allowing for this conceptual option makes it easy to sometimes sound like a mere liberal "fan" of culture and community, which brings in the same condescending sociological temptation that Christopher Lasch rightly diagnosed in both the work of the Progressives and their later proceduralist critics like Hofstadter. But to not attempt to walk that tightrope, to not allow for the possibility that populist concerns can, sometimes, be expressed in centralized and procedural terms, is ultimately, I think to become contemptuous of one's fellow man, to hate them for shopping at Wal-Mart, or for not wanting to go all the way back to the Anti-Federalists, in essence. And no good post-Lincolnian American democrat--which Bryan plainly was--should do that.

A little bit more about what Rousseau has to contribute to this argument. As my old "left conservatism" post made clear, I think Rousseau's philosophy is what helps us see the tightrope: the delicate and often tragic line which marks out the path that people, for whom the historical socio-economic condition of today has robbed of a natural basis for community and equality, must walk if they are going to find equality as well as embeddedness in the present world. To hold to embeddedness only is to, I fear, engage in fetishism. "Conservatism" must be willing to continually create something new out of the old in the midst of the modern market and state. That something is, I admit, precarious. I suppose one could argue that Rousseau, in (I think) correctly diagnosing the problem (or at least one of them) with modernity, tried too hard to repair it; he conceived of a way of alienating oneself to a community that, while in theory it would produce that kind of equality of recognition that true populist democracy requires, in practice produces something even worse than alienated individuals: a whole community held together solely by the (often dictatorially expressed) will of all. Further, I suppose one could argue that those "willed communities" are themselves often obsessive, static creations, thoroughly ideological and thus without much substance of their own. They thus become easy marks for monied classes that want to sell them connections and concessions.

Is this the only kind of populism/communitarianism which Bryan's progressivism politics conserves the possibility of: a Potemkin community, living off gnostic aspirations, dependent upon elites who themselves want nothing to do with them? (Why am I thinking about Thomas Frank's description of Republican politicians and their evangelical supporters in the megachurches here?) Perhaps that is the case. But I'm not willing to say so. "Proceduralism" may be a dead-end liberal ideology, but not all liberal procedures partake of that ideology. Some are, I think, genuine attempts to address the passing/weakening of conservative verities in the liberal order. If every single liberal procedure always carries these elitist ideological assumptions along with it like a virus, then Wendell Berry is a sell-out for supporting the Burley Tobacco Program, or for praising the insight of that William Allen White, a turn-of-the-century Kansas progressive and "Middle American" Republican who came to support the New Deal, because, though he attacked the populist People's Party (an attack he later regretted) as well as William Jennings Bryan in the 1890s, he accepted throughout his career and tried to see implemented widely their original agrarian insight: that the wealth that really matters is one that can be generated and held by the productive arts of a community of working people.

Those communities are mostly gone now. If the ideals behind them are to be realized again, it certain won't be the government or a new progressive program which will recreate them--that will happen family by family, community by community, away from the rush to modern media and markets. But families and communities are no longer, if they ever were in our theoretically classless and mobile society, locked in one place, able to allow their dynamism who work them deeper into the land they occupy. To provide some security for those few who do try to lock themselves down for the sake of the future and more permanent things, some assistance will be needed. Bryan's kind of assistance--the moralistic, Jeffersonian, and even "conservative" or populist assistance which he weaved into the fabric of the contemporary liberal Democratic party--probably wasn't the best possible kind of assistance. But it was a noble effort, one that I, for one, would love to see the likes of again.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The "Sovereignty Left"?

This post is, in some ways, a follow-up to my thoughts about my own and others' past support for the Iraq war, but mostly it's an elaboration of some themes I see being discussed throughout the long (and growing!) thread beneath Michael Bérubé's Crooked Timber post on the complicated arguments amongst liberals and leftists about their opposition to the war. In other words, it's my observations about the justifications and reasons employed by people who were, for the most part, smarter than me.

Bérubé's complaint is with those he refers to as the "Z/Counterpunch left," who continue to attack liberals like himself "and Michael Walzer and Todd Gitlin and Marc Cooper and David Corn (all of whom opposed war but favored UN inspections and/or no-fly zones and/or revised sanctions) as supporters of war in Iraq." Or if not outright supporters, than at least people who were supposedly squeamish enough in their taste for confrontational politics, or seduced enough by the universalist rhetoric of the liberal hawks, to not be willing to reject all American actions against Iraq. In the minds of folks like Alexander Cockburn, as Bérubé sees it, this animosity has deep roots, going back to the division between certain liberals and leftists over the appropriateness of NATO's intervention into the civil conflict in Kosovo, to say nothing of America's attack on the Taliban in Afghanistan. He sums up:

[I]f Alexander Cockburn is going to wonder whether I’ve had any dark nights in the past few years, I suppose I can wonder in return if he’s had any moments of regret for inveighing against people like me and Gitlin as insufficiently anti-imperialist and unacceptably willing to consider violations of Saddam’s sovereignty. Because although the Sovereignty Left has achieved a remarkable consistency in defending Milosevic and the Taliban from international interventions, they also did their part to make the antiwar movement in the US smaller and less effective than it might have been when it came to Iraq.

Bérubé's label for this group--the "Sovereignty Left"--is an interesting one. Many of the commenters that have shown up on the thread have denounced it as unfair; the primary concern of anti-intervention absolutists is repelling imperialism, they claim, not defending national borders. Still, it's a revealing enough label to prompt this thought from Timothy Burke:

[W]hen and how did one faction of the Western left come to regard sovereignty as the singular inviolate principle that left politics is called upon to defend, and by which people who are truly “left” may be separated from riff-raff moderates and popular frontists of various kinds? Seen against the long history of the left in the West, this strikes me as a very late and in many ways markedly odd development.

The question of "sovereignty" has weighed on Tim's mind for a long time. Years ago, he wrote a fine post on the topic that has stayed with me ever since:

When you defend sovereignty as the only moral principle in all the world, and say that all intrusions, forcible or otherwise, are wrong by their very nature, you ought at the same moment to deny yourself any and all judgments about the places and peoples you deem sovereign. If East is East and West is West, then the twain really must never meet, and humanity is sundered from itself, the globe inhabited by ten times ten thousand variants of the genus Homo. If you rise to sovereignty as the singular sacred principle, then human rights, civil liberties, democracy, and freedom are no more than local and parochial virtues.

And not even that. Because once sovereignty becomes an impermeable barrier to intervention, we have to ask, "Are nations the proper unit of sovereignty?" The answer is clearly no: peoples or “cultures”, in the ethnographic sense of the world, are what assert the most meaningful claims of sovereignty, of an inalienable right to difference. Meaning that from such a perspective imposing Roe vs. Wade as the law of the land on a town of Southern Baptists in Georgia is morally little different than invading Iraq with tanks: the difference is only in scale and method of imposition. The Constitution itself is then an imposition, as is any law which intrudes a larger political power onto the scene of some bounded, well-defined practice of everyday life in the name of enforcing a larger system of rights and obligations which the smaller community refuses....

A journey through that hall of mirrors always brings us back to interventionism. We are all interventionists now. We should be able to spare a gentle thought or three for late 19th and early 20th Century British imperialists as a result. The question of the 21st Century is not whether interventions should happen, but how they should happen. It is a question of method and result, not of yes or no....

If we are bringing democracy to the world, then let us bring democracy, and follow the best traditions and instincts of the United States. Intervention is a double-edged sword. If we act against sovereignties in the name of human rights, then we must be open to being acted against. If humanity as a whole rejects capital punishment as a fundamental violation of human rights, for example, then the United States has no business pursuing it--not if we want the right to intervene on behalf of human rights ourselves.

That is the crystalline moment where interventionism become immoral imperialism: when the pursuit of human emancipation is not a reciprocal obligation that binds the actor as well as the acted upon, when the honest pursuit of freedom everywhere curdles into cynical oppression.

When I first read that essay, the phrase "we are all interventionists now" rang forth as a terribly true description of the post-9/11 global reality. But I wonder how much I may have misunderstood Tim: he was clearly talking about the failure of both national actors (like the U.S.) and existing international actors (like the U.N.) to fail to appreciate the reciprocity which an ethical interventionary liberalism ought to demand, but nonetheless I read his essay as forwarding a prescription for interventionary liberalism as an unavoidable burden--seeing his comments through Michael Ignatieff lenses, as it were. I suppose that if I got him wrong, then that is all the Sovereignty Left requires: positive proof that failing to be an absolutist on matters of sovereignty results in blank-check writing to supporters of war, even fairly doubtful one's like myself. Tim, of course, shouldn't be blamed for my misreading of him, or rather for my ideological appropriation of his ideas. But nonetheless, I think, thanks to a few years of pondering over what liberalism and universalism and their opposites mean, I can give a slightly more charitable reading of what Bérubé's and Burke's opponents saw in statements like this, and what might yet be learned from such claims, however much they failed to grasp our real situation both in 2003 and today.

Cockburn and Co. obvious consider themselves leftists. Clearly, any position that is even remotely leftist is going to be unwilling to credit the historical construction of power and elites within state borders with normative authority; the willingness to dispute the claimed “naturalness” or “rightness” of capitalist/colonial hierarchies is pretty much fundamental of leftist critiques. And so, in that sense, to attribute to them an obsession with state sovereignty is either to accuse them of deep confusion, serious hypocrisy, or to have misunderstood their position. Surely leftists, from Marx's call to working men of all countries onward, have been internationalists, supporters of international agreements and movements that would limit the crimes that can be covered in the name of sovereign privacy.

However, state power doesn’t necessarily exhaust all the possible meanings of "sovereignty"; one might also be talking about populist/culturalist notions of power, in which case the defense of sovereignty is a way of defending the self-determination and democratic development of peoples. That is, one might argue that progress/the revolution/liberation has to happen solely through the organic efforts of the oppressed, and if that’s going to happen then some sort of space that is truly their own and not subject to intervention needs to be in principle defended. This is a way of thinking on the left that, far from being recent, has been with us for a while; it is a mix of Gramsci and realpolitik, and as subsequent comments Tim makes in the CT thread reveal, it has deep roots in the anticolonial leftism of the 80s and 90s and perhaps earlier.

How does this map on to the supposed internationalism of the left? That internationalism obviously underwent a crisis over the past decade, as leftists of numerous persuasions came to recognize that hegemonic power was no longer being exercised by states and governments but rather by corporations and media empires, both of which benefited enormously from--indeed, were the largest supporters of--free trade and open borders and liberated populations. In this new world, international law served the upwardly mobile (and thus incipiently liberal and Westernized) classes; international institutions, far from being a tool of the oppressed, became components of an interventionary world system.The resistance to globalism thus became paired with a kind of defensive, anticapitalist organicism, and sovereignty, all of sudden, made more than just anti-imperial sense: it because the very heart of certain quite narrow, quite pure, leftism.

Now frankly, I think this is a terribly flawed position. Admittedly, it is "conservative" in all sorts of ways I find interesting, but it also fails to provide any sort of grounding for what it aims to "conserve"--in this case, a localized space for "authentic" liberation--besides that which the status quo provides. In short, it fails the Rousseau test; it does not allow for, or even properly acknowledge, the tragic reality and history of interventions of all sorts in any sort of spatial or social or public construction; it takes what is there (Kosovo in the midst of war, Afghanistan under the Taliban, Iraq under Saddam, Zimbabwe under Mugabe) and calls it a will worth respecting. Which, of course, it often isn't...and just not from some elite universalist position (though obviously it is often that also, of course), but from the position of the people themselves. But I will give this to the “sovereignty left”: there’s a conceptual clarity to their anti-universalism, one which allows them (in the end wrongly, but not without some insight all the same) to see at least part of where liberal nationalists and communitarian social democrats from Christopher Hitchens to Michael Walzer and everyone in between got their thinking somewhat confused (though obviously some of the above were far more confused than others, myself included!). There’s a reason, I suppose, why Cockburn et al, get so inflamed at certain leftists: because they expect them, demand of them really, a willingness to denounce any kind of interventionary liberalism—that is, universalism—both root and branch. Their antiliberal leftism is both silly and self-defeating given the actual world we live in. Even a communitarian and anticosmopolitan like myself can and should recognize that there are good, prudent reasons to be liberal, and that means--at the very least!--recognizing the occasional justice of intervening on behalf of the liberation and security of individuals in the face of whatever remains of the Westphalian system. Still, that alone--that observation about sovereignty that I turned into a support for my own theoretical take on the Iraq War--is hardly sufficient to justify a pre-emptive war; and I have to say that I find it bracing, and even a little bit salutary, to have radical leftists-cum-paleoconservative anticapitalist cranks like Cockburn remind weak thinkers like myself of that fact, when necessary.

Monday, March 19, 2007

March 2003 and Me

About a week and a half ago, via Crooked Timber, I heard about the challenge: "If you are a blogger who was active in March 2003, link to that month’s archive and write an entry called 'What I was wrong about in March 2003.'" I was planning an anniversary post this weekend anyway, as today is the fourth anniversary of my entry into the blogosphere. And given that the overwhelming majority of my posts when I started blogging were about Iraq, and that tomorrow is the fourth anniversary of the beginning of the war...well, it made sense to respond.

Here are my posts from March 2003; I wrote 17 posts in 12 days, a rate that I'm certain I've never matched since. I wish I could say those posts were filled with informed and prescient commentary about Sunnis and Shi'ites and Baathists and so forth...but they weren't. The best I can say is that I knew my posts supportive of the war weren't constructed out of the latest empirical and predictive scholarship; my thinking about the Iraq war was admittedly driven by theory, as I put it in my very first post:

My assessment of the arguments both for and against an invasion [of Iraq have] never depended, at least not too much, on a solid understanding of the "facts": whether Saddam actually had WMDs, and if so which ones and how many, and what he intend[ed] to do with them or whether that could actually be known, and whether regardless of Saddam's intentions we could be certain that he could be prevented from ever making them available to terrorist organizations, and what his actual relationship with such organizations really is anyway, and for that matter what Bush's relationship with Saddam really is and what his intentions are, etc., etc., etc. I've never attempted to develop anything like any real expertise in these areas; while I'll read with interest reports on U.N. resolutions, the Iraqi opposition, neoconservative ideologues at the Pentagon, al-Qaeda, Bush the First's deals with Saudi Arabia and so forth, I lack confidence in my ability to work out all the contrasting military, strategic, political and conspiratorial claims.

So why have an opinion at all? Because, in the end, the language of the pro-war argument fits well with an intellectual and moral paradigm I find persuasive. It's a theory--usually called "liberal nationalism" by political theorists--which holds that the international order depends upon expressions of national conviction and power. If you're not a fan of the existing "international order" (and I am one, though with some big reservations), you could just as well replace that phrase with "human rights" or "the spread of democracy": either way, the idea is that the accomplishment of certain humane, liberal conditions depends upon national action....Translated to questions of international politics, this attitude suggests that the use of national power to accomplish liberal ends is not necessarily corrupting of those ends; on the contrary, it is possible that without real, specific, national engagements with the liberal project, those ends will never emerge.

In other words, to talk about the United States acting forcefully on behalf of liberal goals, even if such action takes place outside the procedures of the presently-existing international community, even if such action is pre-emptive and not premised upon any sort of immediate threat as has been traditionally recognized, shouldn't be dismissed as incoherent outright. The foundation of liberalism--for the oppressed people of Iraq, or anyone for that matter, anywhere--is the work of liberal nations, not an ungrounded ideology which exists to constrain such nations. Does this mean that asymmetrical--even hegemonic--relations between national actors is not, in itself, an obstacle to liberal ideals: that you could have a "liberal empire"? The answer, as best as I can see it, is "maybe so."

Yes, I was a "liberal hawk," though I disliked calling myself one. Nonetheless, my posts for the remainder of the month were filled with proof of my attitude: I talked about Tony Blair and the "Anglosphere" and Michael Ignatieff and neo-Wilsonianism and "liberal interventionism" and "democratic imperialism" and Islamic fundamentalism and all the rest. The need to create a "decent left" seemed obvious to me; I would have signed the Euston Manifesto in an instant.

What was I wrong about? To the extent that I developed specific predictions about the war (and I didn't develop many), they were almost wholly wrong. As for the war plan itself, it took me a while, but I finally was able to put into words how screwed up my acceptance of Bush's claiming of my preferred theoretical mantle had been here. That leaves the theory itself. Has Iraq disproved to my mind the very possibility of an interventionary (inter)national liberalism?

I always insisted that there was an important difference between the liberal nationalist/internationalist position and the neoconservative one, and despite the depressing track record of many liberal hawks, I still believe that to be the case. The latter group had a tendency to insert "liberalism" and "democracy" into all their supposed conservative calculations in the place of "culture," and thus arrived at descriptions and prescriptions for the development of nations and civilizations that were explicitly ideological. (And they continue to do so, waxing lyrical about the easy intersection of partisan politics and cosmic struggles over the centuries, as this Slate article makes clear.) Whereas the liberal hawks simply wanted to do the right, "liberal," thing, issues of sovereignty be damned--or at least, be trumped by human rights and so forth. By so arguing, the liberal hawks were ironically far more respectful of the cultural--and thus the "conservative"--roots of their subjects than the neoconservatives were: they at least did not delude themselves into thinking that their ideological preferences captured the movement of history through culture, but instead acknowledged that, if they were going to remake the Middle East, they were going to have to muscle their way into doing so. This was the tough, "realistic" aspect of liberal hawk thought that some of us found so appealing...perhaps especially those pseudo-conservative leftists like myself who are really more communitarian than liberal, and who were thus, as I wrote a while ago, delighted to discern in the liberal hawks' worldview a theory of international relations which allowed America, and the liberal nations of Western world, to be acknowledged--in direct contrast to the preferences of Islamic terrorists--as representing "a culture and a way of life...that wasn't a function of, or susceptible to, the abstract forces of globalization...not just a site of media and market exchanges [but] a community worth loving." The prospect of a nation intervening and fighting on behalf of liberal principles gave both "national" and "liberal" a meaning and a force that I desperately wanted them, and still want them, to have.

However, at the time, I couldn't really tell you where my theory ended and where ranting about the imperative of responding militarily to the Islamic fascist challenge to universal human rights began; my biggest intellectual error, complete aside from whatever might be conceptually wrong about all of the above, was that I didn't even really try. Because if I had tried--if I'd really done the work to flesh out my theoretical paradigm, to relate it to what was going on in Washington DC and in Iraq--then I might have realized that it was genuinely stupid to allow myself to believe that just because I could explain the value of seeing certain actions in a certain light, that therefore any such actions thus undertaken would conform to that light, as if my value set (even assuming anyone else held it, and in retrospect it's clear that even fewer people did than I thought) was the only one out there. No, the banal and obvious truth is that there were a million things--things revealed by all those "facts" I failed to pay adequate attention to--which were being valued or pursued or elided in and through the Iraq war, and even if it is the case that one ought not allow the inability account for every possible intention to prevent one from acting on theory and hope when the need is great enough, a better effort could have and should have been made by me and many others who supported this war to least account for some of what was or wasn't being prepared for. Forget prudence--amongst the theory-driven supporters of the war like myself, basic intellectual responsibility was what was needed here.

People like Michael Walzer, who did try to work things out in the light of a worldview very similar to the liberal hawks' and to my own, refused to support the war; they knew, as Peter Beinart has learned, that just because events may arise that allow one to describe the United States differently than the superficialities of our current world system usually allow, that doesn't mean the U.S. is, in fact, a "different country." Not that my blogging four years ago made any kind of difference, but still: I wish I'd learned it sooner too.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Bloggers That Make You Think

Peter Levine was kind enough to tag me as a "thinking blogger," which coming from him is really equal to or better than all the other compliments as I've received in the four years since I've started blogging. (Hey, that's right...my anniversary is coming up.) I wish I could repay the compliment by tagging him, as there are very few--if any--bloggers that consistently produce the kind of thoughtful, engaging, opinionated yet open-minded material that Peter does, and has for a long time. Unfortunately, Richard at Philosophy, et cetera, had already tagged him. So let me see if I can come up with five more....

1. Jacob T. Levy. He was probably my earliest blogging inspiration. I followed him to the Volokh Conspiracy, I waited through his hiatus, and now that he's back to his own digs I couldn't be happier. Everyone knows this, but let's say it again for the record: Jacob is smart, sharp, surprising, and always worth reading. He doesn't produce as much original material as the country (or Canada, for that matter) needs, but what he does produce is first rate.

2. Lee at A Thinking Reed. I've enjoyed Lee's contrarian-if-mostly-conservative-in-some-sense perspective for a long time now. He recently rebaptized his blog, formally Verbum Ipsum, into something that will focus somewhat less on politics and more on the Bible, Christianity, social justice, philosophy, and ethics. The level of high thinking hasn't changed a bit.

3. Joel at Far Outliers. Joel rarely writes extensively about his own perspectives and opinions; what visitors to his blog instead find are excerpts from fascinating and provocative and often little-noticed or long-forgotten books and articles and internet finds. Mostly it'll have something to do with Asian history or politics or society, or the historical experience of expats and immigrants with such; however, sometimes it'll be American politics or film reviews or just about anything else. I link him in my mind with Eomann Fitzgerald's Rainy Day or Geitner Simmons's gone-but-not-to-be-forgotten Regions of Mind--a couple of great old blogs that, like Joel's, show what happens when a curious and insatiable intellect meets a high-speed internet connection.

4. TNR's Open University. It hasn't lived up to its promise yet as another Crooked Timber, but with Michael Kazin, John McWhorter, Linda Hirshman, Sanford Levinson, David Greenberg, and Alan Wolfe all regularly posting, it's succeeding much better at providing scholarly blog-thoughts than some other academic-heavy blogs ever did.

5. Finally, two graduate students, whose respective political positions are probably about as distant from each other as any graph could record, and who both produce a lot of tremendously thoughtful, often provocative and just as often persuasive posts: Rob Jubb, and Daniel Larison. Read them both every day.

I Heart Am Not Unalterably Opposed To Huckabee

Daniel Larison, looking at the numbers from another meaningless straw poll, observes that "virtually nobody hearts Huckabee." Meanwhile, Ogged and Becks at Unfogged are wondering why nobody on the Republican side seems to be taking former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee seriously as a Republican candidate. Myself, I couldn't guess. I mean, I figure I know enough about the nature of the presidential primary and funding and media cycles to come up with some decent explanations as to why Huckabee isn't outpolling Sam Brownback for the Christian right vote, or Mitt Romney for the support of the Republican establishment, but I wouldn't wager money on any of them. The higher mysteries of becoming a presidential candidate are beyond me. Moreover, I don't particularly care too much, as I can't see myself voting for Huckabee for president anyway, even assuming he got that far; his approach to taxes, immigration, labor and a dozen other issues are pretty standard corporate GOP fare, and that's nothing I care to support.

Still, all things considered, there are things I kind of like about Huckabee, things that I wouldn't mind seeing injected into a presidential campaign. We lived in Arkansas for three years, and in that time, Huckabee handled some hard issues as responsibly as I think anybody could, and he stood firm on some important, simple ones as well. It could well be that it is these very things that I like about him--mostly, Minivet notes, involving the "Carter-y social-activism side of the Christian political tradition"--that are making him less than popular with the Republican primary base; if so, so much the worse for the Republican base (though, honestly, I probably couldn't have a much lower opinion of them than I do already). Anyway, herewith three reasons why someone like myself thinks well of Huckabee:

1. He resolutely opposed, and forced the Republican party in the state to oppose, any move towards establishing a state lottery. The pressure to do so from various interest groups and government agencies was immense; every state surrounding Arkansas has a lottery, and the mournful cries about dollars lost to other states were (and still are) constant. But Huckabee's line in the sand was the right one to draw: lotteries draw money away from the most at-risk populations and families, and their returns simply aren't worth the civic costs. This may seem like a small point--and a question which would be moot for a presidential candidate anyway--but it connects to a much larger and harder stand Huckabee took.

2. Huckabee dealt with a peculiar public education crisis in Arkansas, and he pushed through a solution to it--a partial and incomplete solution, to be sure, but a solution nonetheless--that avoided the typical delusion that lottery money would save the schools (a delusion that those contesting for the governor's chair after him appear willing to give in to). Lots of states have a hard time raising revenue for their schools, of course; what made Arkansas's crisis peculiar was, as I explained in part here, it was driven by a long series of state court cases arising out of extreme inequities of funding between various school districts in the state. Obviously, any real solution to the terrible unfairness in the level of public education available to different populations around the country has got to involve, among other things, rethinking the property-tax basis for school funding; outside such egalitarian reforms, however--and the political will for such certain wasn't present in Arkansas--you either have to raise taxes, cut costs, or find some better way to move the existing money around. Huckabee proposed the latter, struggling to get a controversial school district consolidation act through the legislature which would have significantly redistributed state funds to many of the newer, larger districts. This made him extremely unpopular with conservative rural white voters across much of the state. (Even though, as it happened, the school districts most frequently affected by the plan finally adopted were majority African-American ones from the eastern Delta region, since for historical and economic reasons those were the districts whose tax base and demographic stability--some would occasionally have fewer than 70 students in the whole district--were so low as to defy efforts to make them self-sustaining.) A communitarian with populist and localist sympathies like me shouldn't like school consolidation, and I don't--in principle. There were teachers I knew in small school districts who were appalled at what their Republican governor was doing. But in the real world, to deny that the state itself is also a community, one which can claim the allegiance of its citizens and thus impress upon them their mutual obligations to every child in its borders, is foolish. Huckabee's plan wasn't perfect, he didn't get exactly what he wanted, and its application has been slow, regardless. Still, it was a realistic plan, it provided more money, played no favorites, allowed for exceptions for particularly isolated or well-performing districts, and took some of the pressure off poor schools. It's what governors are supposed to do.

3. Finally, Huckabee's actions regarding social policy as governor show him to be a lot closer to the kind of thoughtful "compassionate conservative" that John DiIulio thought George W. Bush would be, but wasn't. He seems to be fully aware--or, at least, more aware than most Republicans--that when it comes to people making moral and healthy (and thus beneficial in a civic sense) lifestyle choices, one's economic and environmental context matters. So he leaned on school districts to cut their reliance on junk food sales to raise money, and pushed through laws banning the sale of sugar-loaded sodas in the elementary schools and making regular BMI testing available. He's a proponent of "covenant marriage," recognizing that fighting poverty--not just the pure lack of jobs and/or terrible wages for the underclass (though he did do something about that latter point), but also the financial and emotional disarray which perpetuates many people's existence in that category--often means fighting the culture of easy divorce and the lack of enforcement of economic obligations which comes along with it. Does this make him "moralistic" or "judgmental"? Darn straight it does. But his moralistic interference, at least insofar as his actions in Arkansas indicate, flows from an aggressive, even egalitarian concern for social betterment, not a crusade to convert.

So, is he a real egalitarian? Probably not. But he, like Governor Bob Riley of Alabama, has at least attempted to introduce socially and morally egalitarian policies and arguments into the Republican playbook. If conservatives are truly interested in "conserving" families and civic health and decency, they'd give Huckabee another--and much longer--look.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Our Two Localist Resolutions

I've written before about the relationship between health and the land, about being "crunchy" and countercultural, and a whole lot about simplicity. The question should be asked then: what do we actually do to live in accordance with all of the above? And the answer is: not enough.

Mostly, I read, write, and think about all these issues, rather than agitate on their behalf. (Melissa is the same; over the next two months, she'll lead a couple of book groups through both Wendell Berry and Rod Dreher.) This is not because I lack good examples--on the contrary, I regularly check up on bloggers who all, in one or way or another, strive to work these kind of environmentalist/localist/anticorporate values and practices into their daily lives (I'm thinking in particular of Hugo Schwyzer, Lee at A Thinking Reed, Kim-loi Mergenthaler, Daniel and Maclin at Caelum et Terra, and Rick Saenz, an agrarian blogger I've just discovered who recently wrote a post teaching me everything I'll ever need to know about having one's own pig). But getting inspired while sitting here at my desk, reading the computer in between classes and committee meetings and student conferences, doesn't always translate into a plan for action once I get home. We do a few things fairly well, I think. I ride my bike to work, we shop at the farmer's market, support local companies and avoid Wal-Mart when we can. But surely, if I'm as serious about this stuff as my long posts would suggest, we ought to take it to the next level, shouldn't we?

Well, this year Melissa and I have stumbled upon a couple of programs that--well, to be truthful, we're not really going to live fully in accordance with, but which we are using as guidelines to try to orient ourselves a little bit more to this kind of simpler, more producer-oriented life. One is the 100-mile Diet: a commitment to "eating locally," or specifically eating nothing produced outside of a 100-mile limit from one's home, for a full year. The other is The Compact: a commitment to avoid the consumer culture by refusing to by anything new--to only barter, borrow, or buy used--for a full year.

As I said, we're talking "guidelines" here. The founders of the 100-mile Diet movement, Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon, jumped headfirst into their commitment, and found it enormously difficult...and they lived in Vancouver, Canada, and had no kids. Raising four children in Wichita, KS, having just moved into a new home, with money fairly tight, is an entirely different proposition. So we're taking it a step at a time--slowly working all the meat out of our diet that doesn't come from local producers (though I doubt I'll ever be able to content myself with Kansas catfish alone...), finding local honey and butter, searching for various non-typical Kansas items--beverages, some fruits, etc.--available within a short drive from our home, and, of course, planning for a real garden for the first time. It's a work in progress. Given how much Melissa and enjoy fine food (to say nothing of deserts), we'll probably never want to subject everything we eat or feed our children to the 100-mile rule, whether within this coming year or ever. But the benefits of at least trying--developing relationships with local farmers and producers, eating fresher food and healthier diet (less processed food, more vegetables), teaching ourselves some local discipline--will be more than worth it, I think.

Similarly with The Compact. Once again, this is a program started by childless urban professionals, this bunch in San Francisco. And so, again, our adoption of it has to go at a different pace. Rather than saying "no" to buying new stuff and then making a few exceptions here and there, we've started with the exceptions: no new clothes (Melissa has become a master at scoping out consignment stores) or toys (garage sales are our friend) or furniture (which means that, over three months after moving in to our house, the upstairs living room is still bare carpet) or appliances. If we can make that work for a year--and I think we can--perhaps we'll be ready to take it to yet a higher level. And in any case, if this means we have a family commitment to fall back on when we feel pressured to buy one of the girls some crappy Barbie to take to a birthday party she may have been invited to, and instead we'll be obliged to actually, say, think about the gift to be given for more than a day or two beforehand, and perhaps be able to actually involve our daughter in making that gift...well, there's a teaching moment and a family project, all wrapped up into one.

Perhaps, come the winter, I'll blog on how we've done with these two resolutions. In the meantime, wish us luck.