Saturday, June 27, 2009

Revolution Over

It looks like Michael Jackson's death has more or less ended the whole Iranian revolution thing. Yeah, there were other factors, such as the Iranian government's crackdown on dissidents, but the MJ saga pushed it off the front page pretty quickly, meaning that the mullahs could get away with murder. (Literally, in some cases). I never thought the revolutionaries had much of chance, but it's sad to see it end.

Michael Jackson R.I.P.

Michael Jackson is dead at fifty. And the reaction to his death is fitting. Every cable news and entertainment channel, and most every radio station, is running (or at least was running—it has been more than twenty-four hours since Jackson died) wall-to-wall coverage of his death. The death of Michael Jackson is a lucrative business—aside from the monster television ratings to be had, Jackson’s albums are selling again—Thriller hit #1 on Amazon.

This orgy of profit is appropriate, given Jackson’s career arc. He was deprived of any sort of childhood by his abusive father, forced to practice singing and not much else. His success as a child star condemned him to a sort of eternal childhood—his handlers injected him with female hormones to preserve his youthful voice, and he was encouraged to live in a Peter Pan, never-grow-up world.

Jackson bore some responsibility for his increasingly eccentric actions—but he never really had a chance. No one could do much given his circumstances—instant fame, but incredible pressure and dreadful and sometimes abusive authority figures. His fame would have nigh-impossible for even the most balanced person to handle. In Michael Jackson’s case, the results were horrible.

He went a little mad, ruining his face with plastic surgeries, allegedly molesting children, and going from riches to rags, dying a poor man. Michael Jackson was an icon, a legend, one of pop music’s greatest figures—but also an American tragedy.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Big Government Bubble

Over the past seventy years, Americans have seen an incredible growth in their country’s standard of living and position in the world. America is the world’s undisputed superpower, militarily and especially economically. The dollar is the world’s standard currency, and the American economy drives that of the rest of the world.

Americans also live luxuriously. America consumes twenty-five percent of the world’s resources, and only a few countries have a higher standard of living. The American Dream—a house, two cars, and a college education (or well-paying blue collar work) is a widespread reality in America, and America is one of the few countries in which every citizen has a chance at such a lifestyle.

This sort of lifestyle started after the Second World War. True, before that, America was known as a country that offered good living conditions, and played an important part in the world economy, but living conditions in America were not notably better than in Europe, and the richest Europeans probably lived better than the richest Americans.

(Certainly, Western culture was centered in Europe at the time. The magician Harry Houdini, for example, traveled to England to gain legitimacy by wowing English audiences before returning to America a success. Now European stars like Simon Cowell have to impress American audiences to get the highest praise in their home countries.)

After World War II, however, things changed, and American became the superpower it is today. (The Soviet Union offered some competition, but never came anywhere near American living conditions or economic strength, and eventually spectacularly collapsed). So, what changed after World War II to make America to powerful?

To some degree, it was World War II itself, and the subsequent Cold War. War provides the most powerful incentive for innovation and production, and America progressed technologically and economically during the war. (Indeed, the war lifted America out of the Great Depression).

And World War II eliminated some of the competition, too. Most of Europe was trying to rebuild after seven years of total war. America became the world’s economic leader partly because the foundations of the rest of the world had been shaken.

But that doesn’t explain why the U.S. economy kept growing in the seventy years after the war. There must be another explanation for the U.S.’s growth.

I think that that the reason for America’s growth is due, in part, to the federal government’s spending. Education is important. After World War II, the GI Bill provided housing and college education to hundreds of thousands of young Americans. Worries about retirement cause hoarding, which slows spending. But Social Security eased worries about retirement. Housing is expensive—but it’s not so bad when Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac can (indirectly) provide you with a mortgage. Medical care is expensive too—but since only about 10% of Americans pay for their health insurance out of their own pocket, Americans don’t have to worry about that so much.

All those programs are expensive to pay for. So the federal government, displaying real American ingenuity and know-how, devised a clever solution to that problem: it stopped paying for it. The federal debt skyrocketed—but it didn’t affect your average American, and nobody cared.

You might remember the housing bubble, which recently burst and had a lot in common with what we are dealing with today. Housing prices went higher and higher, and people borrowed more and more money on the value of their homes. Then people realized there was a surplus of housing, and the housing market shrank. But since many people had borrowed on their homes, they were forced to default on their loans, which hurt the banks, and threw the whole economy into chaos.

Like the housing market of the Bush years, the government is growing too fast and has too many liabilities built into it. When the government is forced to deal with its debt—and it will be, eventually, it will no longer be able to keep up its lavish welfare system.

And when that happens, the whole system will come crashing down. Americans will be forced to reach into their own pockets to pay for their health care, housing, education, and retirement. The government bubble will burst. And while it’s impossible to predict the precise effect that will have on the economy, it is certain it will not be pretty.

Of course, economics is tricky, even for experts, and maybe none of this will come to pass. But I think it will, though I hope I’m wrong.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Iran and Liberals

The recent elections in Iran have gotten a great deal of worldwide attention, and rightly so. Iran’s mullah’s handled the election horribly—they chose which candidates would be eligible to run, and of those candidates handpicked Mamoud Ahmadinejad to win. It didn’t do a very good job of doing so, and apparently didn’t anticipate any unrest following the election. These oversights gave the world an excellent glimpse of a brutal dictatorship in action.

Nobody much is defending Iran’s leaders. Conservatives, moderates and liberals are united in their disgust and anger over the brutality of Iran’s ruling class. But America’s newfound distaste for Iran raises some questions of consistency. For example, a year ago many liberals and moderates were saying that Iran was worth talking to, and that its ruling class are rational actors. And while Iran rates condemnatory 24/7 news coverage, other countries, countries that are every bit as dictatorial and brutal as Iran, are allowed to skate by without criticism.

When George W. Bush inserted Iran into his “axis of evil,” many, perhaps most, liberals were horrified. Some, perhaps rightly, pointed out that very publicly singling out three widely separated countries as “evil” might not be smart diplomacy. (And in hindsight, Bush was only able to deal with one of them; the one that was the least dangerous, and allowed the more dangerous two to continue their pursuit of nuclear weapons). But most were outraged that Bush called Iran evil at all, at any time.

These critics thought that Iran, if not a Western style liberal democracy, was essentially a benign country. Matt Yglesias (who is a fairly mainstream liberal, far from the lunatic fringe) wrote blog posts suggesting that any attempts by Iran to appease the United States would be unwise, since the U.S. (this was during the Bush Administration) was run by neocons (with ties to AIPAC) who would be perfectly willing to attack Iran without provocation. Yglesias also penned a surreal post in which he said that Ahmadinejad had a “pretty sweet hipster style” (because he addressed the U.N. General Assembly tieless), and suggested that Bush might want to try some Iran-style diplomacy.

Yglesias is hardly the only liberal writer to have been so ridiculously easy on Iran—such attitudes were the rule rather than the exception on the Left until the Iran elections made Iran persona non grata in the West. But when considering the Left’s angry denunciations of Iran (now, Yglesias goes so far as to compare Admadinejad to Sarah Palin), it should be remembered that until a few weeks ago, most on the Left were making excuses for the same brutal regime.

Everyone condemns Iran’s brutality. But it is far too often forgotten that in most of the world, such violence is the rule, not the exception. Most countries on Earth are dictatorships; few are democracies. But most Americans are content to shut their eyes to that fact, unless the occasional foreign PR disaster ensures that evidence of dictatorship is thrust in their faces.

China’s government, for instance, is far more evil than Iran’s. (China’s one child policy is just one example). But it also has the capacity (achieved by using what often amounts to slave labor) to manufacture goods cheaply and efficiently. So Americans ignore China’s abysmal human rights record, and happily consume Chinese products.

Or take Cuba. Fidel Castro has ruled that country with an iron first for a half century. But he is admired by many on the Left, apparently for no other reason than that he looked cool forty years ago. Or take Saudi Arabia, whose human rights abuses are tolerated because it supplies U.S. demand for oil. Or Libya, whose human rights abuses are ignored because it is obscure and unimportant.

What is going on in Iran is the norm in most of the world. Those who live in the West forget that the rights they enjoy are very uncommon, and rarely found outside of Europe and America. They are the exception—in most places, dictatorship, corruption, and brutality are the norm.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Palin and the Media

David Letterman’s comments about Sarah Palin’s daughter were undeniably in bad taste. Jokes about fourteen-year-old Willow Palin are clearly outside the pale, and even jokes about eighteen-year-old Bristol, while less offensive, still push the boundaries of taste and decency. While Bristol is of age, and something of a public figure (aside from her mother’s political involvement, she has given speeches and appeared on television), she does not court the spotlight, and hasn’t done anything newsworthy for quite some time.

Everyone knows about Letterman’s joke—that Willow, while in New York, would be propositioned by Eliot Spitzer and seduced by Alex Rodriguez. Letterman says that his intended target was Bristol, and I believe him, since the joke wouldn’t be funny unless it was.

And Palin responded angrily, accusing Letterman of joking about the statutory rape of her daughter and forcing him to apologize twice while leveling veiled accusations of pedophilia. Her outrage was understandable—whatever Letterman’s intentions, his joke ended up being about her young daughter.

Most people have made up their minds about whether Letterman’s joke was unconscionable (it was) and whether Palin’s response was excessive (it was). To me, the most interesting aspect of an overblown and generally unremarkable incident is the media’s attitude towards Palin concerning this incident.

Most would agree that Letterman’s joke was tasteless, and the Palin family was wronged. (Even most liberals seemed to agree with this view). And Palin’s response, if excessive, was at least understandable, given that she was the victimized party.

That wasn’t the media’s view. Palin’s response was worse than the original wrong itself, and served as more proof of her intellectual and moral failings. Andrew Sullivan said, essentially, that Palin had it coming for taking her family on the campaign trail. Keith Olbermann called Letterman “the victim” who “took the high road,” while Palin was “power crazed” and a “delusional lunatic.” Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick allowed that Letterman’s comments were “stupid,” but claimed that Palin’s were “stupider.” All this because Sarah Palin was angered by a vicious and careless joke.

It’s become a conservative cliché to rhetorically wonder what would have happened had a conservative said what Letterman said about a family member of a Democrat. But that misses the point. Letterman would never have made that joke about the daughter of a Democrat. But he also wouldn’t have made the joke about the daughter of any other Republican.

Remember Jenna Bush? She was the target of some late night jokes a few years back, after being arrested for underage drinking and trying to use her grandmother’s ID to buy alcohol. (I wonder how she possibly thought using her grandmother’s ID would work). She came in for her share of jokes—but they stopped quickly, weren’t nearly as cruel or relentless as the jibes about Bristol Palin.

Sarah Palin is different from most Republican politicians. Most Republicans are tolerated by the media, and sometimes even admired (John McCain in 2000 is an example). But liberal media types fear Palin because they think she represents (in a way no other Republican does) the most superstitious, uneducated, and stupid portion of the American people—and they realize that she came very close to becoming the Vice President of the United States.

In the typical liberal mind, Sarah Palin in the Oval Office would be a bad dream come true, as bad as having Rush Limbaugh there. Palin represents liberalism’s worst nightmare: a very conservative politician who is also popular, at least among a niche of the population. They are afraid of the possibility that Palin could win the presidency in 2012, and usher in a new dark age of conservatism. Thus, the wild and hateful comments about Palin. The media doesn’t hate Palin—liberals are afraid of her.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

ObamaCare's Fatal Flaw

Reforming health care is next on Barack Obama’s agenda. Doing so will be difficult—any meaningful health care reform would be a massive project, and would be massively expense. And as Bill and Hillary Clinton found out, health care reform is a tricky thing—attempting to implement universal health care was a disaster that marred Clinton’s first term.

And health care is a very divisive issue, one that not only drives division between parties, but also within them. There have been significant disagreements about the proper health care plan among Democrats, and there is no cohesive outline for the overhaul even within that party. And, of course, Republicans are solidly opposed to any additional public health insurance.

There are many reasons Republicans oppose Obama’s plan. One is the cost—the original plan would have cost $1.6 trillion over 10 years, and while lawmakers are trying to get the cost under a trillion, the price will still be very great. Others oppose the bill for ideological reasons—they believe that the state should minimize its involvement in private life, and government run healthcare would be a too-big intrusion into the private sector.

Another reason to oppose government run healthcare is that it is unnecessary. America is the only developed country in the world without universal health care. Yet American life expectancy is only slightly lower than countries with universal health care. That stat is more impressive when you consider how poor American health habits are—most Americans are overweight (about two thirds), and many smoke (about a quarter) or take drugs. And still, American life expectancy does not differ in any significant way from health rates in other developed countries.

And, of course, even if government run health care was everything its supporters claimed it was, it has drawbacks. If the free market doesn’t run the health care system, then there will be some form of rationing—some treatments will be harder to find, or have longer wait times, than others, regardless of the patients ability to pay.

All those are compelling reasons to oppose government run health care. But there is another reason to stand against it. Assume that Obama’s plan works—it reduces health care costs, it cuts down on insurance premiums, and improves general health and life expectancy. It would still be a bad idea. Because it would only be as strong as the federal government’s balance sheet.

Take Social Security. It’s worked pretty well for a government program—people put in their money, and get it back when they retire. It depends on some dubious assumptions (the largest such assumption being the idea that there will always be more workers entering the workforce than leaving it), but so far there have been no major problems with it. In fact, for a government program, it has run pretty smoothly.

The problem is, it’s not substainable. Experts estimate the Social Security will run out of money around 2040—about thirty years from now. Presumably, the federal government will take some measures to stave off the collapse, but whatever happens there will probably be a great many people who will have to expensively reconsider their retirement plans.

It is much the same situation with Medicare, except the doomsday date is around 2020. Congress is already trying to figure how much of Medicare it can cut, which should probably worry some of those dependant on it.

Supporters of government run health care should consider these cases. If the government is responsible for health care, what happens when the government can’t provide it? The situation would be far worse than before the government stepped in.

Right now, the U.S. nation debt is over 10 trillion dollars. The deficit for this year alone is over one trillion. The U.S. is in danger of losing its AAA credit rating. Given the fact that the federal government can’t pay off the obligations it has, is it wise to saddle it with more of them?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Do Republicans Need to Change?

If there is one thing that all political observers agree about, it is that if the Republican party is to survive, it must change a great deal. The platform that George Bush ran on, and the ideals of his Republican party, are dead. In 2010 and 2012, Republicans must run on a whole new set of principles, updating and adapting for the 21st century.

The amount the change the party needs is up for debate. Some, such as David Frum, Meghan McCain, and Christopher Buckley, think that the party needs to adapt and try to appeal to younger, more environmentally conscious, more socially liberal voters. These figures don’t get much attention from actual Republicans, but do serve as useful quotes sources for journalists doing pieces about why the GOP must change.

Others, such as Patrick Ruffini, Ross Douthat, and Soren Dayton, think the basic message is good, but the packaging is weak and outdated. For example, Douthat believes that social conservatives’ focus on abortion and gay marriage is limiting and impractical, and does nothing to address the larger issues such as the breakdown of the family. Ruffini points out that the Democrats have a considerable technological edge over the Republicans, and says that Republicans should start networking via blogs and using applications such as Twitter. The attitude of this group can be summed up by a Douthat quote “Reagan was right for his time, but now it’s a different time.” Douthat, Ruffini, and like minded people believe that Republicans should shift their focus to issues such as immigration, energy, and the environment.

There is, to be sure, some truth to both points of view. However, I believe both are wrong. Reagan ran on low taxes and spending, less government involvement in the private sector, a strong military, and an opposition to abortion (and now, gay marriage). Bush ran on much the same issues, with the addition of “compassionate conservatism.” (Basically, the welfare that Republicans deem acceptable). There is no reason to assume that these issues are less effective now than when Reagan used them.

The United States has one of the highest corporate tax rates in the world. Social Security and Medicare (the two biggest government intrusions into the private sector) are on the verge of bankruptcy. The national debt is out of control, and probably unpayable.

All these are extremely important issues—and ones that play to traditional Republican strengths. And as Obama expands the government, that growth will give Republicans even more material for attacks.

Many of the reformers see Republican opposition to abortion and gay marriage as real weaknesses, especially with young voters. I have never been able to understand, given that pro-life evangelicals and conservative Catholics form much of the GOP base, why so many believe that Republicans would be better off dropping their opposition to abortion and gay marriage.

True, the Republican stand on those issues probably drives off young voters. But even if the GOP were more socially liberal, are there that many young voters who favor an aggressive military and small government, but draw the line at supporting a party that takes a conservative stand on social issues?

The one area where relatively few conservatives seem to see the need for change is foreign policy. That is odd, considering that most of former president Bush’s unpopularity rose from his handling of the Iraq War. If there is one issue that presents a legitimate weak point for Republicans, it is foreign policy.

Those Republicans who think the party needs to change its focus don’t seem to have considered what sort of voter they actually want. They seem to want voters concerned with gay rights, the environment, energy policy, and immigration. There is a name for that kind of voter: a Democrat. Given that Republicans tend to oppose gay marriage, environmental regulations, alternate energies, and immigration, there really isn’t much room to make these issues the Republicans’ own, at least not without alienating virtually the entire base. And while many Republicans probably wouldn’t mind doing so, that base also happens to be the ones who vote in Republican primaries.

I predict that the next Republican president—whether he is elected in 2012, 2016, or 2020—will run on a platform very similar to that of George W. Bush. Those issues just work—and will as long as Americans groan about taxes, or care to win wars, or worry about the morality of abortion.

Not that winning on Bush’s issues is altogether a good thing. Bush did run on compassionate conservatism, after all, which most conservatives agree wasn’t a very good idea. Republican opposition to gay marriage disturbs me a little, given how unimportant it is compared to other, more pressing issues. And taxes are about as low as they can get, considering the amount of spending by the federal government.

But good for the country or not, traditional Republican issues work. (And the frontrunners for 2012 seem to agree—Bobby Jindal, Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, and Mitt Romney are all pretty traditional Republicans). These issues have worked in the past—and will probably work in the future.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Extremism In America

By now, everyone has heard of the white supremist and anti-Semite who went on a shooting spree in the Holocaust Museum, killing one guard and injuring another visitor.

The attack was horrible, and served as a reminder of the need for a reminder of the Holocaust, and of the fact that anti-Semitism is still an issue today. The shooter was a man called James W. von Brunn, an eighty-eight year old white supremist who was convinced that Bush was behind 9/11 and that Obama is a puppet of the Jews. Von Brunn felt the proper response to these facts was violence.

He’s pretty alone in that line of thought. A white supremist group condemned his actions, saying that “the responsible white separatist community condemns this. It makes us look bad.” (Actually, I wasn’t aware that there was a responsible white separatist community, nor that it was possible to make it look any worse). Conservatives were horrified at the blatant and violent anti-Semitism, while liberals alternated between expressing horror and trying to tie the attacks to conservatives. (Because the party that essentially thinks Israel can do no wrong is filled with anti-Semites).

One thing that virtually everyone agrees on is that von Brunn acted more or less alone; that virtually no one actually agrees with him, and such extremism is limited to a few eccentric loners. Most of us in the Western world feel that extremism just isn’t done anymore, that the extremists out there either belong to a different culture (Islam), or a small, creepy cult, or in their basement furiously posting stuff on their favorite forum. But extremism, of any kind, isn’t something that more than a few people could get in to. Most people believe that extremism exists only as an eccentricity, but rarely or never as a movement, at least not in the Western world.

They could be wrong, and in fact I think they are. Scary, extremist movements aren’t nice to think about—they summon up images of Nazi Germany and racist mobs—but they exist. And while predicting the future is difficult, and foolish, I think there is reason to believe they could grow.

Case in point: England. The United Kingdom is very liberal compared to the U.S.—accepted political figures in America like Jim DeMint or Bobby Jindal would be off the political map there. Britain looks down on America as a backwards, conservative country dominated by reactionaries.

So guess which country saw a racist, white supremist party make significant gains in their recent elections?

The British National Party (BNP) is more or less unapologetically fascist—its domestic policies are fairly similar to the British Labour Party, with the caveats that the BNP favors discrimination against gays, immigrants, and blacks. It’s a nasty, unnecessary party. It also won over six percent of the vote in Britain’s recent elections.

There were reasons for that—turnout was low, and many Britons are disgusted over recent expenses scandals in their government. But then, that sort of thing isn’t exactly unprecedented. If all it takes to give an extremist party power is corrupt politicians and low turnout, then the United States is ready for an extremist takeover right now.

That’s hyperbole, maybe, but it’s not as insane as one might think. In America today, both sides see the other as a rational person might see a party like the BNP—as immoral, over-the-edge extremists. Conservatives see themselves as a beleaguered, silent majority, with their rights trampled on by elites in the government and the media. Liberals see conservatives as evil, backwards monsters willing to stop at nothing to achieve their aims.

Both sides try to paint the other as extremists, but the liberal movement takes this demonization the farthest. Take David Letterman’s joke about Bristol Palin getting knocked up at a Mets game, or Leonard Zesnick’s assertion that Sean Hannity gives white supremists “rational justification,” or HuffPo writer Michael Rowe’s (wholly false) claim that Sarah Palin supporters waved watermelon slices and stuffed monkeys at her rallies. These comments are supposed to be taken seriously, yet are total nonsense (or deeply offensive, in Letterman’s case). Yet many people believe them.

You can find similar, though generally not as egregious, comments on the conservative side as well. And this sort of attitude paints the other side as wholly alien and other, and paints the “right” side as the only legitimate ideology. This sort of attitude distorts the middle. For example, Rush Limbaugh and Barack Obama are fine as examples of the right and left in American politics, respectively. But I wouldn’t like to live in an America where either represented the center—in such an America, people like Michael Savage or Michael Moore would represent legitimate viewpoints. And that is not a good thing.

Our current polarization is somewhat inevitable, and neither side really bears the blame for it. Given the wide gap between left and right in this country, reducing the animosity between the two sides is a difficult task. Failing to do so won’t necessarily result in a growth of extremism. But it will give extremism a better chance to thrive. 

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Conservatives And Hollywood

Generally, conservatives disapprove of Hollywood, or at least of Hollywood’s liberal values. With good reason, too—it’s common knowledge that prevailing Hollywood values skew heavily liberal, and that conservative beliefs are often demonized and mocked.

For myself, Hollywood’s lack of originality annoys me more than its liberalism—does every movie have to be a reboot of some Eighties franchise? (Star Trek, X-Men, Terminator, Transformers, Watchmen, etc). I would gladly put up with a liberal Hollywood if it were also an inventive, clever Hollywood. But it isn’t, and Hollywood’s liberal bias is evident, and it annoys me.

I don’t know why conservatives can’t seem to infiltrate Hollywood, though I suspect that the reason, whatever it is, is the same as the reason they can’t seem to do much in the mainstream media. Discrimination against conservatives (mostly unconscious, probably, but still discrimination) might play a role, but almost certainly not a major one. And it’s possible that more creative people might also tend to be more naïve and idealistic, making them more sympathetic to liberal views.

And, of course, there is the fact that hard-headed capitalists and enthusiastic soldiers don’t always make for the most sympathetic heroes. A reluctant hero going up against The Man is seen as more exciting than, say, the inner workings of a massive corporation.

Hollywood’s liberal bias is, obviously, not good for conservatives. But there are things conservatives can do to make things in that area better. Two the most obvious are to grow up and man up.

First, conservatives should grow up. It’s possible that they would be more respected (if only marginally more so) if their taste in movies were a bit better. This year, National Review released a list of the Top Twenty-Five Conservative Movies. Number five on the list (and bear in mind, this list only covered movie released after about 1984) was 300, because it is a film about “martial honor, unflinching courage, and the oft-ignored truth that freedom isn’t free.” Translation: a lot of bad guys get killed.

(Although I haven’t watched 300, I am familiar with the basic premise, which is that buff guys in bikinis thrust long, hard objects into other men. Does anyone else see any Freudian overtones there?)

Red Dawn (lots of Communists get killed) and Heartbreak Ridge (ditto) are fifteen and twenty-one, respectively. The conservative message of these three films is that killing bad guys is a great idea. And while that premise isn’t something I would disagree with, are these movies (none of which are considered particularly good by most critics) the best way to get this message across? Conservatives hated anti-war movies like Rendition and In the Valley of Elah (both of which bombed). But compared to, say, Red Dawn, the message in Hollywood’s recent anti-war movies was subtle and understated. It’s okay, even desirable, for conservatives to want to celebrate Americans at war through film. But couldn’t they at least pick good films with which to do so?

The rest of National Review’s list was pretty predictable. The Lord of the Rings, The Dark Knight, Braveheart, The Chronicles of Narnia, and We Were Soldiers are films in the Red Dawn/300 category of “war can be good.” Forrest Gump, Ghostbusters, and The Pursuit of Happyness all celebrate small government. The Incredibles and Juno celebrate social conservatism. Somehow, South Park: Team America got onto the list, in the “bashing celebs who bash America” category. 24 isn’t a movie, but God knows conservatives praise it enough, seemingly because of Jack Bauer’s willingness to torture terrorists.

Most of these movies are good, but hardly great films. (The Lord of the Rings probably is a great film, as are Forrest Gump and Groundhog Day). But quality of moviemaking aside, what is striking about these movies is the flimsiness of the conservatism in them. Ghostbusters is on the list only because an comical EPA official releases ghosts on New York. Juno’s pro-life message is tenuous at best. Most of the other movies have similarly flimsy conservative messages.

Can’t conservatives find any better movies to represent their beliefs? Few of the movies here really raise any difficult questions, or provoke much thought. No Country for Old Men examined the essential character of man. Crash looked at racial relations in America. Million Dollar Baby tried to find what love really is. A Beautiful Mind explored insanity and genius. Any of those are good, serious films; films that conservatives can watch. And I picked those just out of Best Picture winners from the last decade. Conservatives, apparently, can’t be bothered to watch those movies—they’d rather watch Red Dawn again.

(Am I being unfair to conservatives here? Maybe a little, since liberals aren’t much more discriminating with their films, and there were some serious films on NR’s list. Still, conservatives will probably find it hard to be taken seriously in Hollywood as long as 300 and an American Carol rank up there in their favorite movies).

Granted, liking better movies isn’t a sure way for conservatives to become more accepted in Hollywood. In fact, there are conservatives in Hollywood, some of whom are quite respected in the industry (at least according to what they write in conservative publications). But no one knows who they are.

Apparently, being openly conservative in Hollywood is bad for one’s career. It’s the ultimate in political uncorrectness there, and few are brave enough to face the criticism. Therefore, Hollywood conservatives tend to remain closeted, and only share their beliefs with close friends.

They shouldn’t. It’s going to be hard for conservatives do much of anything to change Hollywood’s politics if they insist on remaining closeted. Will being openly conservative hurt their careers? Maybe. But if they feel strongly about being censored, they should speak out and let their voices be heard.

If Hollywood conservatives feel that doing so would simply hurt their careers too much, fine, that’s acceptable. But they should shut up about anti-conservative blacklists and witchhunts. In my mind, if you aren’t willing to do something about a problem, you lose the right to complain about it. Conservatives in Hollywood should either put up or shut up.

Friday, June 5, 2009

What Islam Is, and Isn't

I thought Obama’s Islam speech was pretty good, as are most of his speeches. True, there wasn’t a lot of content there, but those types of speeches rarely have much in the way of substantive policy. The goal of this speech was to tell Islamic nations that the United States is not their enemy, and I think Obama succeeded.

One line in his speech stood out. Obama said “my experience guides my conviction that partnership between America and Islam must be based on what Islam is, not what it isn't.” That’s very true—America should know what it is dealing with. It’s also something Obama ignored throughout his speech. In reality, Islam is significantly different from the version present in Obama’s speech.

Obama explained that he knew “civilization’s debt to Islam.” Islam has contributed its share to the West, and the Muslim world was a great center of science at one time, but really, modern civilization doesn’t owe very much at all to Islam. Our modern culture evolved from the Middle Ages and feudalism through the Renaissance and Enlightenment down to the present day. The primary influence during the Middle Ages was Christianity, the primary influences on the Renaissance were ancient Greece and Rome (that’s why they call it the Renaissance; “Renaissance” means “rebirth”), and reason and science were the basis for the Enlightenment.

Islam has made contributions to civilization—most obviously, they call our numbers “Arabic” numerals for a reason. But a glance at the modern word doesn’t really show much in the way of Islamic influence, and the Muslim influence there was essentially died out five hundred years ago.

Obama also made the claim that “America is not at war with Islam.” Let’s face it—it is, or at least Islam is at war with America. Take a look at a map of the Middle East, which is where the vast majority of Muslim countries are. (Two non-Middle East Muslim countries are Indonesia and Albania, neither of which are particularly unfriendly towards America.) The countries that make up the Middle East are: Egypt, Turkey, Kuwait, Oman, Yemen, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Palestine (defined as those states that are independent of Israel but not controlled by another country). Of those, seven (Kuwait, Oman, Yemen, United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Qatar, and Turkey) can be considered friendly towards the United States. The other eight—which include most of the powerful states in the region (the friendly nations, with the exceptions of Pakistan and Turkey, are almost powerless in the region) either have governments that are openly hostile to the United States and Israel or have significant anti-American sentiment among their population.

The most influential Muslim in the world is probably Osama bin Laden. The second is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Both are anti-American. The most powerful Islamic countries are probably Iran, Egypt, and Pakistan. Iran is an American enemy, Egypt is neutral but certainly no friend, and Pakistan, while an ally, is at the brink of collapse.

Not all Muslims hate America. But the ones that matter do. Moderate Muslims exist—but they don’t speak out. The men (and it’s only men) who have influence in Muslim countries are anti-America and anti-Israel. If the majority of Muslims do not in fact hate America (and it is very possible that this is the case), then they are a very silent majority. Islamic power, and the most vocal of the Muslim intelligentsia, are solidly against America.

Should Obama have included all this information in his speech? Of course not—it would be stupid to offend the people he is trying to attract. But he should realize what Islam is, and what it is not, and react accordingly.

Obama’s path to popularity in American and Europe has been very easy. But his philosophy may be much less popular in Muslim countries, and he should not count on his charm and biography to carry him through there.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Sotomayor In Context

In 2001, Sonia Sotomayor 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.” That statement has become one of the centerpieces of the campaign against Sotomayor, with her detractors (Rush Limbaugh being the loudest) accusing her of racism based on this statement. Sotomayor’s defenders claim that Sotomayor was guilty merely of expressing herself poorly.

That explanation really doesn’t work, given that Sotomayor uttered those words in a prepared speech at a UC Berkley event, and the transcript of the speech was published in a law journal. So these weren’t exactly off-the-cuff, impulsive remarks—Sotomayor said exactly what she intended to say. Her words can be taken at face value.

Taking these remarks at face value, many conclude that Sotomayor is a racist, or at least capable of racist remarks. I’m not sure how valid the “racist” accusation is—can you really judge someone’s racial attitudes on the strength of one comment?

According to the American media, you can, and liberals trying to smear conservatives as racist always have one (or two, if they do a lot of research) out-of-context quote that proves beyond all doubt that the conservative in question is a barely closeted racist.

When in Rome, do as the Romans do, so we’ll go along with this theory and assume that Sotomayor’s 2001 comments are enough to make a definite judgment about her racial attitudes.

First, the context in which the speech was made is important. Sotomayor made the speech at an event called “Raising the Bar: Latino and Latina Presence in the Judiciary and the Struggle for Representation.” Given her audience, it is possible that Sotomayor just wanted to say something nice about Latinos (and Latinas), and threw in something that possibly wasn’t strictly logical but sounded nice. (In fairness, had a Catholic judge said a similar comment about Catholic judges, something along the lines of “our Catholic faith gives us greater perspective from the bench,” I doubt there would be as great a furor over his or her comments).

In addition, this wasn’t Sotomayor’s best speech ever. In it, her audience learned that the year was 2002 (the speech was given in 2001), that Sotomayor apparently doesn’t realize that “woman” isn’t an adjective, and that women are an ethic minority.

Language issues aside, the point of Sotomayor’s speech was that while absolute impartiality among judges is the ideal, the reality is that all judges will find their personal experiences and beliefs inevitably color their decisions. Among Latinos, this bias should be used constructively to bring a different perspective to the mostly white world of the law.

(This point was a little confusing. Sotomayor said she was working towards “transcend[ing] [her] personal sympathies and prejudices,” but also wondered “whether by ignoring our differences as women or men of color we do a disservice both to the law and society.” I think there is a contradiction there, and if Sotomayor reconciled that discrepancy, I missed it).

This led up to Sotomayor’s now infamous comment: “Justice O'Connor has often been cited as saying that a wise old man and wise old woman will reach the same conclusion in deciding cases…I am not so sure that I agree with the statement. First, as Professor Martha Minnow has noted, there can never be a universal definition of wise. Second, I 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.” (I quoted this at length to provide context).

At first glance, these words look pretty damning. After all, Sotomayor appears to be saying that Latina women (isn’t that a redundancy?), by virtue of their race, pretty much come with interesting experiences that “white males” don’t have. And if she had indeed been saying that, her statement would have been racist.

However, a look at her whole speech reveals a little more context. The only Latina Sotomayor talked about at any length was herself, and a great part of those comments involved her Latina heritage and upbringing. The only white males she talked about (at least as white males) were Supreme Court justices, particularly those during the civil rights era.

So, if by the “wise Latina”, Sotomayor meant herself, and by “white males” she meant twentieth century Supreme Court justices, her statement begins to make more sense. If one’s experiences do indeed make one a better judge (as Sotomayor believes), then growing up a racial minority in a ghetto would help one make better decisions than someone who has led a bland, ordinary life. That interpretation—and I believe it is the correct one—makes Sotomayor’s remarks much less offensive.

Maybe Sonia Sotomayor’s speech wasn’t racist, but it certainly wasn’t very good. Her “wise Latina” comment, though benign, was incredibly poorly phrased. And her overall line of reasoning is pretty flawed too—if judges are not to have sympathies and prejudices on the bench, perhaps Sotomayor should have talked about the best way to transcend her prejudices. (She might want to consider looking into the principle of charity). Sonia Sotomayor’s speech wasn’t racist—but it was poorly phrased and confusing, and endorsed a flawed argument.

Monday, June 1, 2009

What the Tiller Assassination Means

I was saddened and appalled, though not really shocked, over the news about the murder of noted abortionist George Tiller. Tiller was one of my least favorite people, and his work providing late term abortions was truly evil, though no worse than any other abortionist. However, slaughtering those who disagree with us on moral issues is both wrong and ineffective, and I, like all pro-lifers, condemn the murder and the man who committed it.

Some wonder why, if abortion is truly murder, it is not moral to kill as many abortionists as possible in order to reduce the number of abortions. (It is mostly, in fact almost exclusively, pro-choicers who pose this question). It is possible that Tiller’s murderer used that reasoning—Tiller was one of few abortionists who did late term abortions, so many of his potential clients will have nowhere else to go for abortions. Pro-lifers condemn the murder of George Tiller—but why, if it prevented murder?

There are, I think, two reasons such actions are wrong. The first is the ineffectiveness of such killings—any drop in the number of abortions as a result of Tiller’s death will probably be more than offset by the ill-will garnered by the pro-life movement as a result of the killing. Assassinations, as Brutus, Booth, and Čabrinović, found out, don’t usually work the way they are intended to.

The second reason is that we live in a democracy, and unless people consent to be governed by the laws made by the majority, democracy is meaningless. If the proper response to disagreement is violence, then democracy is undermined. Everyone owes allegiance to the state and to society, provided that society is just.

If the society is just, of course, rebellion may be a just and moral thing to do—those Germans who conspired against Hitler during World War II were probably justified in doing so. But I think it is hard to argue that contemporary American society is so unjust as to be illegitimate, and violence in this situation is quite wrong. An analogous situation is that of blacks during the forties, fifties, and sixties. The racial prejudice they faced was wrong—but the proper response was not murder. Had Martin Luther King used bullets instead of words, he would be remembered today as the same sort of monster as Scott Roeder, George Tiller’s murderer.

Pro-lifers who commit violence are in the wrong. Every pro-lifer realizes that. But the reaction of much of the media intentionally ignores this fact, and much of the analysis of this crime amounts to what is really nothing more than a smear job against those whom oppose abortion.

Pro-lifers have been protesting Tiller for years. Bill O’Reilly (who, by the way, isn’t pro-life—he supports abortion rights) has devoted a great many shows towards exposing Tiller. The idea is that all that protesting and exposing inspired Roeder to do what he did, making the pro-life movement partially responsible for Tiller’s murder.

This charge is slander, and honestly I cannot see how anyone could make it in good faith. No movement can be held accountable for the actions of everyone who shares its goals, and the pro-life movement is no exception. Roeder is a nut with a history of potential violence (he has been arrested before for having bomb materials in his car), and had little movement (aside from the odd blog comment) with the pro-life movement. Every pro-life group condemns, and has always condemned, violence, and Roeder acted without any encouragement from any pro-life group.

It is not only pro-life extremists who spread violence. Ecoterrorism is relatively common, and anti-war protesters are notorious for vandalism. Monday, a man shot and killed an army recruiter—he was a convert to Islam and his motive was almost certainly dissatisfaction with U.S. foreign policy, something that most liberals share. Are mainstream, anti-war liberals to be held accountable for the actions of this man?

Of course not, since they have always condemned such violence. Pro-lifers have always condemned such violence too, and bear no responsibility for the death of George Tiller.