Saturday, May 30, 2009

Obama's Foreign Policy

Maybe all the economic news is distracting, but I find it incredible that so many people seem to have forgotten all about the War on Terror. Obama didn’t really run on a strong foreign policy, but he did promise to end the Iraq War, and to talk to our enemies. The talking would be without preconditions, of course, and while that strategy might have its weak points it would have been an interesting change from the Bush policy of alternately completely flattening (Iraq) our enemies and blithely ignoring them (Iran).

But Obama hasn’t done any of that. North Korea seems to have nuclear missiles, and is engaging in some pretty provocative saber rattling. Iran is continuing its quest for nuclear weapons, and Hamas and Hezbollah aren’t behaving either.

Yet Obama hasn’t met with any of them. Okay, he hasn’t been president for very long, but given the gravity of the Iran and (especially) North Korean situations, some preliminary discussions towards that goal might be in order. Instead, Obama is containing Bush’s post-Iraq foreign policy—ignore the problem and hope that it will go away.

The problem with that strategy is that Bush, for all his flaws, had one thing Obama lacks—credibility. He was willing to invade Iraq looking for weapons of mass destruction that weren’t there—it was a pretty good bet that if Iran or North Korea went too far, he would stop them (or in Iran’s case, let Israel stop them).

Obama doesn’t have that sort of credibility. Lacking that kind of “nuke-em-if-they-can’t-take-a-joke” diplomatic credibility isn’t necessarily a bad thing—Eisenhower, for example, got mostly good foreign policy results without being too aggressive.

But Obama doesn’t have either sort of diplomatic credibility. He emphasizes his understanding of other countries, which isn’t altogether bad (though his constant apologies for America’s past are). But there has to be at least the threat of force behind Obama’s understanding exterior. And there isn’t.

Iran, if left unchecked, will probably get a nuclear weapon this year. North Korea already (probably) has one, and it is possible (though not, right now, very probable) that it could invade South Korea, or at least very convincingly threaten to do so.

Obama will have to handle those situations somehow, and the threat of force will have to be involved. Obama will have to make such a threat believable. If he can do so while talking to our enemies, well and good—but he will have to do so some way.

One of Obama’s central campaign promises, especially at the beginning of his campaign, was his pledge to quickly wind down the Iraq War.

As the campaign went on, though, Bush finally got his act together and transformed Iraq from a total hellhole to a state approaching order. This took Iraq off the front pages, and unfortunately everyone pretty much forgot about it.

Now, Obama’s plan for Iraq is pretty much identical to Bush’s—have troops start leaving around 2010, and essentially keep a permanent presence there.

Given the Iran situation, having 120,000 troops stationed right next door might not be a bad idea. On the other hand, we are still spending hundreds of millions of dollars over there, and American soldiers are still being killed, and Iraq is on a somewhat stable footing, which means it might be a good idea to speed the withdrawal up just a tad.

And the situation in Afghanistan continues to deteriorate, though most Americans took that war off their radar screens years ago.

Iran and North Korea are dangerous threats, and there are other, less obvious dangers out there as well. Yet very few Americans seem very worried. That is reminiscent of another time in the recent past in which few Americans worried overmuch about foreign policy. As a result of that attitude, 3,000 Americans died. I hope that history doesn’t repeat itself—but I’m afraid it will.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

A Few Thoughts About Racism

Racism is second only to pedophilia in the catalogue of socially unacceptable sins, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s obviously wrong, and unnecessary (can a sin be necessary for society? I would argue yes—abortion is necessary for modern society as we know it), and anti-intellectual. Given the gravity of this crime, it’s not surprising that people love to throw around accusations of racism, since being convicted of racism in the court of public opinion can destroy credibility and careers.

Sadly, a lot of people forget (or never knew) what racism really is; they just equate “racist” with “bad person.” The actual dictionary definition defines racism as “the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, esp. so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.” Presumably, “superior” and “inferior” refers to moral superiority or inferiority; that people of one race are worth more than a person of another race.

Using this definition, many, perhaps most, accusations of racism can be debunked. One example is the case of the Golf Channel anchor who said that the only way Tiger Woods could be beaten is if his competitors “lynched him in a dark alley.” That comment, while arguably in poor taste, certainly wasn’t racist according to the dictionary definition. (Trent Lott’s Strom Thurmond comments, while also in bad taste, aren’t really racist either).

However, most accusations of racism aren’t like the ones above. Rather, both sides of the political aisle accuse the other of institutional racism. Liberals accuse conservatives of subtle racism evidenced by their opposition to social programs designed to help blacks and other racial minorities. Conservatives accuse liberals of reverse racism—of preferring minorities to whites in retaliation for white bigotry from the past.

The first accusation is easily the most common—it is a central liberal belief that the Republican party’s success is dependant upon pandering to racists. They point to Nixon’s Southern Strategy as evidence of this, ignoring the fact that that strategy attempted to woo voters whom were angry with the Democratic party’s positions on the Vietnam War and social issues, not race. (Of course, many of those voters were angry about the Democrat position on race too, but unfortunately for them Nixon was pretty progressive on race). The Southern Strategy was based on disgust with “amnesty, acid, and abortion,” not integration.

The accusation that conservatives’ opposition to social programs shows that they don’t much care for the problems of black people is also mostly flawed. There is actually a grain of truth to that, I think—blacks seldom vote Republican, so few Republican lawmakers really worry about the problems of that constituency.

But most conservative opposition to social programs arises from libertarian philosophy, which holds that the less government involvement, the better. And the truth of that philosophy has been borne out by the effectiveness of such social programs over time—since the Great Society transformed America into a welfare state, the lot of the poorest people (disproportionately black) has improved little, if at all.

On this issue, conservatives aren’t being racists—they are being realists. Social programs don’t (or at least haven’t) work—and conservatives realize that.

As for the accusation that liberals are reverse racists, there is a grain of truth in that accusation as well. There are some liberals who think that all whites are indelibly stained by their culture’s past racial sins, and are therefore inferior to other, less wicked races. This, of course, is as racist as anything the Ku Klux Klan believes.

However, there aren’t many liberals who think that way. The most common rationale for affirmative action is the idea that generations of racial discrimination have set the black community so far behind the mainstream culture that minorities need some sort of help to succeed. This idea isn’t altogether false—it is undeniable that decades of discrimination haven’t done much for black society—but it ignores that facts that a) giving blacks access to positions they aren’t qualified for won’t help them in the long run, and b) it is unjust to those who do deserve the position. The son shouldn’t suffer for the sins of the father.

However, unjust as affirmative action may be, it is merely racial prejudice, not racism.

Even if neither the right nor the left goes in for racism, that is not to say that our society is free from racism. There is, sadly, a great deal of racism in the black community, where acting “white” is an ultimate insult. And the white world is not as free of racism as it thinks it is—few whites know many blacks, and it is difficult to succeed as a minority in the white world. Overt racism is dead—but mistrust and distain between black and white lives on.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Sotomayor Nomination

President Obama announcing his pick for David Souter’s Supreme Court seat today, choosing Sonia Sotomayor for the position. His choice was predictable—Sotomayor was known to be one of the finalists for the job—and the reaction on both sides to the choice was pretty unsurprising as well, as liberals tended to be happy, or at least content, with the pick, while few conservatives saw the Sotomayor pick as a good one.

Sotomayor is a safe pick for Obama—the White House compares her with David Souter, and while few consider Souter a really great justice, he was hardly a major voice on the Court. While Republicans won’t be happy with Sotomayor, they probably won’t (and can’t) go to any great lengths to block her nomination.

Even if Republicans aren’t willing or able to block Sotomayor, she still isn’t a very good pick. She is clearly a liberal judicial activist—she is on record saying that the Court of Appeals is “where policy is made.” According the New Republic’s Jeffery Rosen, her opinions, while decent, are hardly impressive, and she is considered (by some) to be obnoxious on the bench. Some of her decisions don’t look very good in retrospect—in a case involving white firefighters passed over for promotion in favor of less qualified black ones, Sotomayor issued a one paragraph statement that upheld the original decision and ignored any points made by the plaintiffs. (The case is now on its way to the Supreme Court).

Sotomayor’s views on race are another liability—her views come very close to being racist (or since they display a bias against whites, reverse racist). She has said that she “would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life,” which implies that white males can’t have rich experiences as well.

So, Sona Sotomayor is a very liberal judicial activist. Should Republicans fight her nomination? Those who favor opposing the nomination point to her many gaffes as opportunities to damage Obama’s reputation for good judgment, and possibly (with a lot of luck) force Sotomayor to withdraw her nomination, a la Harriet Myers.

On the other hand, others point out that Republicans don’t have the votes to vote the nomination down, and attacking the first Hispanic female nominated to the court could hurt Republicans among Hispanic voters.

I find the last theory unconvincing—if Republicans oppose amnesty for illegal immigrants, which they will for the foreseeable future, they will already have lost most of that portion of the Hispanic vote likely to be angry over their opposition to a Hispanic justice. Some observers think that Sotomayor was picked partially because Obama reasoned that Republicans would be wary of attacking a Hispanic. If so, he shouldn’t have worried, since Republicans would have a difficult time turning the Hispanic community against them any more than it already is.

There are, however, other considerations besides the Hispanic vote. Sotomayor is, at least from a conservative standpoint, an unqualified judge, and Republicans should take care to emphasize this. She should not be given a free pass; Republicans should underline her shortcomings.

However, it would only be counterproductive to expend too much political capital on opposing Sona Sotomayor. Whether or not one agrees with her judicial philosophy, she is an experienced jurist with lots of experience. While she will probably never be a major player on the Court, she will (unlike Harriet Myers) probably not be an embarrassment.

And even if Republicans wanted to oppose her, they don’t have a practical way to do so. By the time the nomination comes to a vote, the Democrats will almost certainly have sixty Senate seats, making a filibuster impossible. Trying to block the nomination would be impossible, and embarrassing in its futility.

If there is any bright side to the Sotomayor nomination, it is this: she just doesn’t seem very smart, at least not for a Supreme Court justice. Her decisions aren’t particularly good, she has a tendency to stupid things, and her personal life is more than a little eccentric—she has no family, so she bonds with her law clerks, hosting card games and movie nights, which seems like something out of The Office.

Barring something unforeseen, Sotomayor will be on the Supreme Court this time next year. Her selection is bad news for conservatives—but probably as good as they could hope for given the president and congress.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

What's Going On Here

If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you’ve probably noticed some changes here over the past six weeks or so. I’m not posting as regularly as I did—I’m around 2-3 posts per week now, down from a good five a week in the past. So my posts, which were never very numerous compared to other blogs, are getting rarer.

There are a few reasons for that. One is that while I enjoy writing, writing about politics constantly is getting a little old. After the tenth post comparing the efficiency of the American and European model health care systems, you start to feel like you’ve just about exhausted the subject. And while every day, Obama gives conservatives something new to complain about, it’s basically the same complaint every day. Obama gave a big speech about terrorism today (well, yesterday; it’s after midnight now)—and while I’m not writing about it (at least right now), I bet you can more or less tell what I’m going to say.

That’s not to say that politics won’t ever become interesting to me again—it’s just that right now, what’s happening in Washington isn’t as interesting as other things I could write about.

Another reason for the decrease in posts is that I don’t get angry about politics anymore. I hope that I was never one of the angry bloggers, the sort who basically fill their posts with angry rants about the other side. But as I have learned more about politics, I have learned (at least, I think this is a valid conclusion) that there are some people who, while they are liars espousing absurd theories, are nonetheless talented communicators who will draw large followers. I don’t like seeing that sort of thing, but I feel that getting angry about it is just counterproductive, since that is what that sort of person wants rational people to do. So when I hear that Michael Moore is releasing another film, this one about the financial crisis, I might cringe a bit, and hope that none of my friends see it so I don’t have to talk about it with them—but I don’t feel any anger or hate for Michael Moore.

Overall, I think that’s a good attitude, at least for me, but it does rob me of a certain impetus to get up and write.

All this stuff might seem a little over explanatory, but I wanted to give some sort of idea of what I’m feeling. Obviously, I’m going to make some changes to this blog. For the time being, those changes are probably going to be what you’ve been seeing—my typical posts, about 2-3 times a week. In the longer term future, I might go back up to four or five posts, or maybe start writing a more typical blog, with more, shorter posts and lots of links to other blogs. I’m not sure, but at this point I just wanted to give those still reading this blog some idea of what to expect.

Also, for those of you are reading this, thanks for taking the time to visit here. I know I rarely respond to comments (I must be the worst commenter in the world—my comments rarely rise above the level of “nice post” for some reason), but I do read them all, and appreciate the visits.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Dan Brown Vs. History

Ross Douthat is one of my favorite columnists. He is one of the few conservative pundits who can envision a realistic template for a new Republican party that is more responsive to voters’ needs, while retaining its conservative principles. He is unapologetically and rationally pro-life, and orthodox member of the Catholic Church. He’s always a joy to read, and I was extremely happy to see that the New York Times had exhibited some rare good judgment and put him on its editorial page.

His latest column is interesting—it is unassailably correct, as far as it goes, but I can’t help but feel it is missing a part of a larger picture. The column examines the Dan Brown phenomenon, which has produced two monster bestsellers (The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons), and two hit movies.

Brown’s books are, apparently (I haven’t read them), thrillers that revolve around conspiracy theories, but you already knew that, given that almost everyone must have had some contact with the books. Brown acknowledges that his plots are fiction; the conspiracies, he maintains, are based on fact.

The theory in Angels and Demons involves the Illuminati, which in the Brownverse is apparently a secret organization dedicated to fighting religion (which is supposed to hate science) so that science can spread, although the real villain is an archconservative cardinal. The Da Vinci Code’s hook is the idea that Leonardo Da Vinci found out that Mary Magdalene and Jesus had a son, and that that knowledge is only revealed in a code based on Leonardo da Vinci’s works. Both ideas are wholly and obviously false, and no one with any taste or discrimination takes the books seriously. Unfortunately, that leaves a lot of people who lack either, and both books have become huge bestsellers, meaning that millions of people are being few what amounts to anti-Catholic propaganda.

Douthat argues that Brown’s themes advocate a sort of do-it-yourself, nondemanding religion; the sort of spirituality practiced by those people who say that they’re spiritual, but not religious,” which is true. Douthat also argues that Brown’s books incite these kinds of beliefs, which is more debatable.

There are two sorts of people who read Brown’s books for their theology or history—people wishing for “comfort reading” in books that confirm what they already know (in much the same way especially hawkish conservatives watch Red Dawn for footage of Communists being massacred), and people who are intellectual lost causes who will believe anything they hear.

Brown isn’t driving either sort from traditional Christianity. The first kind would leave anyway—they boost Brown’s sales figures but in these cases he is simply preaching to the converted. The second sort would fall for conspiracy theories regardless of what Brown writes—if anything, if is fortunate that they fall for such easily and widely debunked ones.

Dan Brown’s works are indicators of American society’s attitudes towards religion—but they don’t shape it much. If they aren’t doing religion much good, they aren’t doing it very much in the way of real harm either. They attract only the already converted and the historically illiterate.

Brown’s books do as much or more damage, I think, to real history and art as they do religion. Of all the fascinating things to be found in the world of art, the Brown’s readers (and there are a lot of them) only learn about inane conspiracy theories.

And Brown’s writings are anti-intellectual as well—they ask readers to unquestioningly swallow ideas that ten minutes on Wikipedia would utterly debunk. The books are utterly irrational—yet Brown attempts to persuade his readers that the work done by legitimate historians is flawed, while the stuff dreamed up by conspiracy theorists is hard fact.

Dan Brown’s books might lead some people away from traditional Christianity—but they almost certainly lead many more away from legitimate history. The study of history might not be as important as the study of God—but it is still worth condemning Dan Brown’s abuses on this front.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Obama, Notre Dame, and Abortion

A great many conservative Catholics were very upset about the fact that Barack Obama was asked to give the commencement address at Notre Dame’s graduation, and was given an honorary degree by the university. U.S. Catholic bishops have decreed that Catholic institutions should not honor anyone who supports abortion, and Obama is as pro-abortion as it is possible to be in American politics. A conservative friend summed up the feelings of many in his Facebook status—that he was going to boycott everything Notre Dame—alumni, sports, everything.

I’d consider a boycott too, but I don’t know anyone who goes there, and the only contact I have with the university’s sports teams is watching Notre Dame get crushed by USC every year. The fact that Notre Dame is a liberal institution, and one not altogether in step with Rome, is something that is pretty well known. The fact that Notre Dame invited Obama to give its commencement address, while symptomic of the university’s attitude towards Catholic teaching, is hardly unexpected nor especially revealing.

What are revealing are Obama’s remarks at the event, which are a perfect example of his movement’s inability to understand the other sides’ argument. Obama made two real points about abortion in his speech, a) that abortion is a “heart-wrenching decision for any woman is not made casually, [and] it has both moral and spiritual dimensions,” and b) that when considering the abortion issue, it is important to reach for common ground.

Taking the first observation first, it might be worth noting that while the decision to have an abortion is no doubt “heart-wrenching,” the decision to have an abortion seems usually to be driven by economics. According to the website, over eighty-five percent of abortions are carried out on women making less than $60,000 a year, 80% are unmarried, and 52% are under the age of twenty-five. 93% of abortions are performed for social reasons, as opposed to rape or incest to for health considerations.

It would be a stretch to say that the decision to have an abortion is decided “casually,” but then, I think it also a stretch to say that all, or even most, women having abortions really consider the “moral and spiritual dimensions.” Given the statistics regarding the age, martial status, and income levels of most women who have abortions, it seems reasonable to infer that most abortions are the result of panic and the desperation that comes with the knowledge that one faces a nigh-impossible challenge. Morality tends to be pushed aside by such factors.

Obama’s second point is just stupid. He calls for finding middle ground, and working to together to resolve the abortion dilemma. But you can’t have a middle ground between two absolutes. Either abortion is, generally, permissible, or it is an awful crime. It isn’t both, and there is no real middle ground. Working together to prevent unplanned pregnancies is a worthy goal, and so is improving social conditions so that fewer women are faced with the challenge of raising a child without the handicaps of youth, illegitimacy, or poverty. The Democrats’ vision of an America of a nation where abortion is “safe, legal, and rare” is not acceptable from a pro-life standpoint, but it would be preferable to the one we have.

Such a situation would be better than the status quo—but abortion would still be, at least from a Catholic point of view, an intrinsically immoral act, and the fact that there were fewer of them performed would not make the crime of abortion any less great. It is this that Obama fails to understand.

Abortion, for those on both sides, is not a political issue, where compromise is necessary and admirable, but a moral one, with an objective answer. That answer differs with one’s moral beliefs—but both pro-life and pro-choice people believe there is one. Obama doesn’t understand this—and sadly, it seems those who run Notre Dame don’t either.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Talk Radio As Marketing

After the Republican party’s election embarrassment, there has been a dispute over the coming direction of the party. At present, talk radio in general, and Rush Limbaugh in particular, wields most of the power in what is left of the conservative movement. But many people feel that that is a bad thing; that talk radio is useful only for inflaming the base and useless, and indeed counterproductive, apart from that.

These people usually believe that talk radio is a least common denominator sort of activity, and that few if any talk radio hosts attempt to logically persuade the other side or engage in intellectual arguments. Rather, they see Rush Limbaugh and his ilk as rabblerousers, irresponsibly inflaming the passions of the base rather than engaging in sophisticated, rational arguments. We need more William F. Buckleys, this line of thinking goes, and fewer Rush Limbaughs.

Of course, this ignores the fact that Buckley was a big fan of Limbaugh, and Limbaugh admired Buckley immensely. But this thinking does hit upon a difference between the two styles. Buckley and his emulators engaged in debate, in which the two sides took turns alternately making their points while finding the weak points in those of their opponents. And seen as a debate show, The Rush Limbaugh Show, and most other talk radio programs, isn’t very good. There is an occasional bit of real debate to be found, but most talk radio is far from being real debate.

But Rush Limbaugh isn’t into debate. Seen a debate show, his show is pretty poor. But seen as advertising, his show is absolutely brilliant. It is literally impossible to imagine a better way of marketing conservatism to the largest possible audience. Rush Limbaugh’s, and talk radio’s role isn’t debate—its marketing.

Consider a talk radio show—say Sean Hannity’s, because he is the best illustration of talk radio as pure political advertising. He’s an attractive person with a good radio (and TV) presence, and a strong, trustworthy voice. He delivers the same messages over and over (and over and over) in an interesting, entertaining way. He even has callers who attest to the brilliance of his product, and the occasional liberal who gets on his show invariably loses (invariably, since Hannity doesn’t play fair when he argues) to Hannity’s reasoning. So the audience member is left with a) a favorable image of conservative thought, b) the knowledge that many other people share conservative views, and c) the perception that the liberal counterarguments have been utterly destroyed by Sean Hannity. As marketing, it’s brilliant.

Not all radio hosts are like Sean Hannity, of course. Some, like Rush Limbaugh, do inject a great deal of interesting thought and insight into their show, while others are extremists (Michael Savage; while it was quite wrong of Britain to ban him from the country, I couldn’t help feeling a bit envious of them) who do the conservative movement more harm than good. But generally, Sean Hannity is a good template for talk radio as marketing.

This fact is no slight on talk radio—after all, the art of oratory has been used for persuasive purposes for a long time, and talk radio has a lot in common with, for example, Mark Anthony’s speech from Julius Caesar. Marketing is a legitimate job, and a tough one, Republicans should be glad that they have such talented people backing them up.

Nor is it a bad thing for conservatism to have its leader come from the ranks of talk radio; if Rush Limbaugh leads the movement, that’s not a bad thing. If anything, it is beneficial that the man who sells the conservative movement should also be one of those most influential in shaping it.

But if talk radio is good for the Republican party, then it doesn’t follow that debate isn’t beneficial as well. It is, and it is necessary. At present, there are few if any radio or television shows that provide rational, ordered debate, rather, most so-called “debates” consist of angry pundits flinging insults at each other across the studio, or increasingly (as in the case of Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olbermann), across networks. Talk radio’s template is a good one—but debate is important too, and is too often neglected by conservatives.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Rush's Longevity

One of the nice things about my college semester ending is the opportunity to listen to Rush Limbaugh again. It wasn’t impossible for me to listen to his show during the school year, but it was inconvenient, and I fell out of the habit of listening to Rush. (It didn’t help that Limbaugh is the only talk radio host I enjoy, as the rest of talk radio combines paranoia with echo chamber repetitiveness). But since classes have ended, I’ve had the opportunity to experience Rush Limbaugh again.

I mostly stopped listening to Rush in August, when his influence was at its lowest ebb. The Republican party was more or less clearly doomed to defeat, and it had picked the nominee he had most detested and one he could barely bring himself to support. None of the possible Republican candidates had met with his seal of approval, and the national media had last paid him attention during his ambitious and daring, but rather pathetic, Operation Chaos stunt.

When I started listening again, over the last few weeks, Rush had somehow become the de facto leader of the Republican party, and the most powerful media figure in America. This change in status was partly due to the lack of any other viable Republican figure, but also in large part due to Rush Limbaugh’s amazing capacity for self-promotion.

This talent explains how Rush has managed to stay both relevant and wildly popular for twenty years. Staying relevant that long is incredibly rare. Limbaugh started national syndication in 1988. A lot has changed since then.

In 1988, CNN was the only cable news channel. Now, it is one of three, and is in a weak second place to Fox News.

Mikhail Gorbachev, as leader of the Soviet Union, was probably the second most powerful man in the world, and was Time magazine’s Man of the Decade. Now, he’s a bit less powerful—his statement on the 2008 Russia-Georgia war was ignored, and he was last seen touring Eureka College, Ronald Reagan’s alma mater.

Cher won the 1988 Oscar for Best Actress for the movie Moonstruck. Now, she performs at the Colosseum casino in Las Vegas.

Michael Douglas won the Best Actor Award that year for Wall Street. His big movie of 2009 was Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, which scored a poor 31% on Rotten Tomatoes. He hopes to reprise his famous Gordon Gecko character in Wall Street 2, currently in pre-production.

The Grammy for Best Record was taken by Paul Simon (of Simon and Garfunkel), for Graceland. He released his last album in 2006. It got good but not great reviews, but limited commercial success. Now, he spends most of his time touring.

The Emmy winner for Best Drama Series was thirtysomethings. Now, that show isn’t even shown on reruns. The leading actor of that show, Ken Olin, now occasionally stars in a show called Brothers & Sisters, which airs on Sunday nights on ABC.

The Tony Award for Best Musical was given to The Phantom of the Opera by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Now, that musical is still loved, and Webber is still quite popular.

Very few of those people or institutions most powerful and influential twenty years ago have retained their popular weight. (Granted, the examples I picked were from the year Rush was ascending, while these people were in the prime of their careers, but looking at the same things from, say, 1992 doesn’t change things much). Rush Limbaugh has. His show was a hit from the beginning, but he came into his own in 1993, when National Review called him the “Leader of the Opposition.” Now, sixteen years later, he is the leader of the opposition again. To retain that much influence over that period of time is staggering.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

DeMint Was Right

Senator Jim DeMint created a lot of controversy when he said that he “would rather have 30 Republicans in the Senate who really believe in principles of limited government, free markets, free people, than to have 60 that don’t have a set of beliefs.” Liberals pointed to this comment as proof that the Republican party is effectively marginalized, while conservatives sighed sadly and tried to distance themselves from DeMint. Virtually no one agreed with him.

They should have. Because he’s right.

Everyone, at least everyone outside the conservative movement, thinks that the best way for the GOP to become relevant again is to expand the party’s base to make it attractive to every voter. The defection of Arlen Specter is seen as a major problem for the party—if moderates like Specter continue to leave, the thinking goes, who will be left?

One problem with this line of thought—it ignores the fact that not so long ago the Republican party was in a situation very close to the one DeMint rejected. The Republican party didn’t have sixty Senators, but it did have fifty-five, and while those Senators were not wholly without principles, they didn’t have very many.

That didn’t work out. The Republican government was fairly moderate—they threw the occasional bone to their conservative base, but mostly spent their time on moderate projects that weren’t so different from what the Democrats would support.

And they got voted out. Moderation wasn’t the only reason the GOP lost Congress, and later the presidency. Corruption was an issue, and President Bush was oddly incapable of effectively communicating his plan for Iraq. And Republican fatigue was an issue too—after ten years of Republicans running the government, many voters wanted something new.

But a large part of the GOP’s decline arose because it didn’t have any real message. You can’t play the social conservative card forever, especially when you deliver as little in the way of results as the GOP did. And Bush’s confusing management and constantly shifting rationale for the Iraq War negated foreign policy as a viable issue for Republicans. Bush’s huge deficit meant that fiscal issues weren’t an option. The Republican party sold its soul for immediate electoral success—and it hurt them in the end.

Right now, the GOP’s situation is very close to the first one described by DeMint—they have more than 30 Senators, but not many more. And they have two possible ways of staging their comeback. The first is the popular choice, that they need to open the party up and make it attractive to the sort of voters who vote for Arlen Specter. The second is to try to build a strong foundation for the party on solid conservative principles.

American politics are usually pretty cyclical, so either strategy would probably work eventually. The question is which one would build a stronger, more enduring base for the party. And I think it obvious that the second option—using a small, ideologically consistent base to form the new shape of the party—would be healthier for the party in the long term.

That doesn’t mean that every Republican candidate has to be at least as conservative as (and preferably more conservative than) Rush Limbaugh. Moderates should have their place in the party. For example, Tom Ridge and Charlie Christ (both very moderate) will probably run for office again soon; both men are useful and should be encouraged. But Republicans should try to find strong conservatives to run whenever possible, and make it clear that the Republican party exists to advance conservative principles.

This approach will be difficult, and will require that the GOP change its basic way of thinking. It will also lose some voters, but will hopefully gain many more. If the Republican party doesn’t follow this prescription, they will become little more than Democrats Lite, and if they do that, they are ultimately doomed to irrelevancy.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Conservative Radicals

In our modern politics, the labels of each side are pretty well understood. Liberals are those who want to move the culture and government towards something new, and change the world. Conservatives are those who want to keep things the way they are, and even move back towards a more traditional culture. William F. Buckley summed this view up by saying that conservatism is “standing atwart history, yelling ‘stop.’” The root of the word “conservatism,” of course, is “conserve,” and that is how most conservatives see their movement’s goal—to conserve the past.

That’s a bad goal, and one conservatives should move away from. In order to have a really conservative society, it will be necessary to attain at least the same amount of societal change that liberals try to achieve. “Conservatism” should be about conserving—its goal should be to try to incite an entire cultural revolution.

Conservatives spend a great deal of time wishing for the “old days,” and bemoaning change. (Or “yelling stop,” if you will). But they rarely consider precisely what decade they would choose if given the choice. The fifties? The period of McCarthyism, Jim Crow, and the beginning of the welfare state? Or the thirties, during the New Deal? Maybe the twenties, during Prohibition (an incredibly intrusive act of government) and the beginnings of the collapse of the traditional family, or the teens, where the federal government was passing constitutional amendments giving it increasingly broad powers?

Conservatives are over-affected by nostalgia, and nostalgia is all to often unsupported by fact. The past wasn’t really all that great, and it’s hard to imagine a point where yelling “stop” would have been worthwhile.

In fact, throughout the past century of American history, there has been one dominant theme: liberalism has advanced while conservatism has retreated. (Actually, that holds true for most of American history). Given that that is the case, why should conservatives feel nostalgic for the past?

Right now, abortion is recognized by most people as a legal right, if not a moral one. Aside from pro-lifers, there aren’t many who want to change the status quo. The welfare state, too, is now part of American government, and has been for some time. Most Americans literally can’t imagine changing Social Security or Medicare in any meaningful way. And Americans have gotten used to high levels of government spending—any attempt to slash the federal budget would be met with stunned disbelief by the American people.

From a conservative point of view, all these things are unsustainable, and must be reversed. But they won’t be reversed by calling on the traditions of the past. It was the past that got us to where we are today. Trying to return to some past utopia is pointless.

Rather, conservatives must attempt to totally remake society in a conservative image, moving on from America’s liberal premises. (Not that all of the premises that shape American culture are liberal, but many are). It is conservatives who are (or should be) the true radicals in today’s culture—their mission should be to wholly change the American landscape.

This will necessarily be a difficult challenge, maybe an impossible one. Social revolutions are hard to pull off. American liberals tried during the sixties, and succeeded in pushing through some legislative successes and pushing American culture to the left, but they failed in their larger goal of creating a really liberal society.

Conservatives have had their share of victories as well. But they want anything more, and want to really make America into a conservative nation, they will have to overcome their fascination for a past that never existed and try to claim the future of America.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Two Year Anniversary

Unfortunately, I don't have a post to celebrate, but this is my two year blogging anniversary. It's been fun. There won't be a post today (finals week). Still, I thought it'd be a good opportunity to thank all you people who read my blog.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Is Torture Justified?

Since Obama’s release of Bush Administration memos, there has been a great deal of debate about torture—its place in our society, and what penalties (if any) should be dealt out to those Bush Administration officials who performed torture. There is no doubt that the United States performed torture (if you count waterboarding as torture, and most do), and very little doubt that that torture worked, and that information was extracted that saved lives. The question is: was that torture acceptable, and if not, should anyone be punished for it?

There can be little doubt that torture works, if “works” is defined as “getting information from detainees that would not otherwise have been acquired.” Virtually every country and culture across history has engaged in torture at some point, which is a clue as to its effectiveness. And the CIA claims that waterboarding Khalid Sheik Mohammed produced information that prevented terrorist attacks, potentially saving many innocent lives.

The catch is, most people agree that, generally, torture is immoral and wrong. So, given that a) torture saves lives, and b) torture is wrong, was the United States justified in using torture?

No. If torture is wrong, then performing it is always unacceptable, regardless of the circumstances. It’s a cliché, but the end does not justify the means. Even if the act of torture produces a good (saving lives), the act is not any less evil.

Some consider that argument unconvincing, arguing that the greatest good of the greatest number is the primary concern here and that it would be immoral not to use torture if circumstances required it. But consider a (imperfect) parallel. Suppose the government developed of a method of brainwashing people so that the idea of crime was repugnant to them, a la A Clockwork Orange. Such a measure, if employed against dangerous criminals, would undoubtedly save lives. But such an act violates the inherent dignity of the human person, and most moral people would, I think, reject it. The case of waterboarding is similar to this hypothetical case.

And those people who find that ethical argument unconvincing might wish to consider that torture can lead to other, worse thing; that a government that rejects such ethical mores as a resistance to torture might later reject rights that hit closer to home. Torture does not directly affect the vast majority of Americans—but it might lead to precedents that do.

But right or wrong, the United States did perform torture. What should happen to those who did?

It would be very difficult to justify prosecuting those who actually did torture under orders. (The Abu Ghraib torturers are another story; they weren’t actually under orders and seemed to torture simply for sadistic fun). “Just following orders” doesn’t excuse all crimes, but torture resides in enough of a gray area that it works here. Some have suggested prosecuting those Bush Administration lawyers whom produced the legal justification for torture, but there is no crime to prosecute them for—can one be prosecuted for writing a legal opinion? In addition, doing so would probably be a case of an ex post facto law, and would set a dangerous precedent for any future presidents who want to go after the previous administration.

If you can’t prosecute those who actually waterboarded, nor the ones who provided the legal justification for it, who is left? Only those who approved it, and in this case those people are George Bush, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, and other top Bush officials. So should they be prosecuted?

No, for two reasons. The first is that trying to prosecute a former president would tear the country apart like nothing else since the Civil War, and would set a destructive precedent for future presidents. Under that sort of precedent, opponents of the current president aren’t just obstructionists—they may also be lawbreakers.

The second reason is that while Bush and company are the ones who authorized torture, they were hardly the only ones who knew about it. The Democratic congressional leadership was briefed about torture, and those who weren’t could easily have found out about it. But they remained silent, and tacitly supported torture. They are as guilty as Bush is.