Squaring the Culture

"...and I will make justice the plumb line, and righteousness the level;
then hail will sweep away the refuge of lies,
and the waters will overflow the secret place."
Isaiah 28:17

11/30/2008 (11:31 pm)

Slander Gene?

I’m frequently appalled at what passes for analysis on the left, so I guess Neal Gabler’s unbelievably vapid analysis at the Los Angeles Times, claiming that conservatism was really started by Joe McCarthy, and that what we’re seeing from conservatism is a “McCarthyism Gene,” is no real suprise.

As political science, Gabler’s article is simply incoherent. He liberally switches between “republican” and “conservative” in his descriptions of his targets, but really means neither; when he’s done staggering from pillar to post, he arrives leaning on the pillar of “paranoia in American politics” — the tactic of winning elections by scaring people.

If his criteria included populism and anti-intellectualism, as he suggests at first (before abandoning those), he’s on good ground connecting Ronald Reagan to Joe McCarthy; both led populist movements that were rejected by Washington elites, Reagan with greater success. But surely he understands that those are not sufficient criteria to define a political movement, doesn’t he?

“Use of scare tactics” is hardly a more robust criterion. By the time he lands on “scare tactics” as the common thread of conservatism (or is it Republicanism?) he’s tied McCarthy to Richard Nixon, George W. Bush, and Sarah Palin.

He accuses Nixon of “fueling resentments as McCarthy had,” without a single word explaining who resented what, or for what reason. It’s a meaningless assertion. Nixon probably won the 1968 election because the Democrats were hobbled by the Vietnam war and by the riots at the Democratic convention; the Democrats’ position that year was not very different from the Republicans’ position this year. He won the 1972 election because George McGovern was a blithering idiot and everybody knew it; nobody expected McGovern to win, and nobody really wanted to run against Nixon.

His sole reason for including George H.W. Bush in the list is the Willie Horton campaign ad, which was hardly the reason Bush was elected; he won because he was a Republican following one of the most popular Presidents in modern history. Michael Dukakis was an unapologetic liberal in an era where the American people identified “liberal” with social policies they detested. The elevation of the Horton ad to the role of chief identifying mark of Republicanism, ignoring every other factor in the election, strikes me as nothing but convenient cherry-picking (I would have said the same about his assertions about Nixon, except that there were not any cherries for him to pick, so he simply asserts his point without support of any kind.)

The anti-intellectual political science continues with George W. Bush. He includes George W. Bush in the list because of his success in tarnishing John Kerry’s war record, skipping right over the 2000 election because it does not fit his narrative. It’s to no avail. Tarnishing Kerry’s record is not even anything George W. Bush did. The Swiftboat Veterans for Truth were a private organization who advertised in only 3 states, and their message was carried by talk radio and the blogosphere, not by the Bush campaign. Ultimately, though, Kerry’s dishonor on this topic is the fault of John Kerry, who acted as the public face for the military anti-war movement in the 1970s, complete with false accusations of military atrocities. The opposition of Vietnam veterans to the Kerry candidacy was the most predictable political event of my lifetime, and to blame this on Karl Rove (who probably was not even involved in it) is the worst sort of infantile whining.

Palin, finally, earns inclusion in Gabler’s Hall of Shame merely by insisting that the link between Bill Ayers and Barack Obama contains relevant information. Readers of this blog know that that link goes a lot deeper than anything Sarah Palin said about it, and that Barack Obama cannot be defended as anything but a wholehearted neo-Stalinist who has adopted centrist policies just within the last 2 years in order deceive the public and win an election; readers who are new here should begin here, here, and here for background information. Be that as it may, however, one finds it hard to imagine that Gabler could possibly be serious when claiming that simply thinking the Ayers connection is important constitutes the primary criterion linking all conservatives — except, he really is serious.

This is truly the ultimate in slander politics; the mere mention of a negative characteristic of liberalism makes one a “conservative,” and thus a “genetic McCarthyite.” It’s political science without any attempt to assemble relevant facts. There’s no rebuttal for this level of silliness; one simply shrugs one’s shoulders and mutters, “Whatever.”

Absent from this analysis, of course, is any consideration of whether there’s anything to be scared of, or (to put the matter more objectively) any problem to be taken seriously. He simply asserts indirectly, without even making a positive claim, that everybody knows there were no communists in US government, that the Soviet Union was not an Evil Empire, and that radical Islam is not a real threat. He’s provably wrong on all points. The Venona project has settled the question of whether there were communist plants in the US government; we now know there were hundreds, and beyond that, McCarthy’s primary claim was simply that government personnel policies were irresponsible, which they provably were. The millions killed in the Gulag, and the murderous communist revolutions around the world that ceased for some reason after the fall of the Soviet Union (odd coincidence, that) stand as testimony to the evil of the Soviets, and their collapse vindicates Reagan’s policies. I’ve already pointed out that Kerry has nobody to blame for the reaction of Vietnam veterans aside from himself, and that Palin actually had a point about Obama.

Of course, it’s pretty difficult to listen to complaints about a proclivity for “scare tactics” or the “politics of resentment” from the political party whose most successful theme for the past two decades has been “soak the rich,” that has the government buying up the banking industry over an imminent credit freeze that nobody seems to be able to substantiate, that wants to turn American productive capacity over to a central economic planning organization in order to prevent a global warming crisis that is increasingly imaginary, or that insisted on electing a man with an empty resume’ on the dubious thesis that the only opposition to such a candidate arose from a sort of racism that the US has not exhibited since the 1960s. If Joe McCarthy were, in fact, guilty of scaremongering over a chimera (he’s not), his most direct political descendants would be Al Gore, John Kerry, and Barney Frank, not Sarah Palin and George W. Bush. I suppose Gabler excludes Gore and Frank because leftist intellectuals, for no reason having anything to do with facts, still think they’re right about a few things. It’s not a great reason.

I do think Joe McCarthy, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Sarah Palin have in common that they announced reason to be cautious and take sane measures against real threats. I think Al Gore, Barack Obama, and Barney Frank have in common their cynical opportunism based on illusory threats. But I don’t think any sound political science could associate them on this basis alone. This is the stuff of bad freshman Poli Sci papers, the kind that earn the sea of red ink in which they invariably swim.

If Gabler wants a genuine recent instance of an anti-elite populist, he should visit Newt Gingrich’s American Solutions project. The only problem is that Gabler would then have to admit that America really is a center-right nation; Gingrich produces copious polling data suggesting that politicians could easily draw 70% or more popular support on nearly any political subject by adopting a center-right policy line. His “Drill Here, Drill Now” theme (yes, that came from Gingrich, not from Michael Steele) arose from the poll suggesting that more than 70% of Americans, including a majority of Democrats, think it makes good sense for the US to develop its own internal oil sources.

In the end, Gabler’s “analysis” amounts to an unthinking, whining complaint about how unfair it is that when Republicans are on message, the American people find what he calls “liberalism” abhorrent. He’s disturbed that so many people think he supports policies that are just, plain bad policies. Tough. They’re bad policies nonetheless, and if saying so makes me a “genetic McCarthyite,” then I’ll be one proudly. Only, of course, it doesn’t; it just makes me Gabler’s political opponent, somebody he’s more comfortable calling names than he is engaging in anything resembling cogent discussion.

The impulse to character assassination of this sort does, in fact, run in political parties; only, he’s got the wrong party. Character assassination is the singular, unifying theme of every Democratic party initiative of the past 70 years; it’s the only thing they do well. Just ask Joe McCarthy. Or Dan Quayle, Robert Bork, Clarence Thomas, Newt Gingrich, Linda Tripp, Ken Starr, George W. Bush, Sarah Palin…

10/17/2008 (12:56 pm)

Sarah, Joe, and the Emperor’s Clothes

One of my regular readers who calls himself RM posted a comment to my deconstruction of an anti-Palin feminist screed, noting the hostility of the intellectual class towards Gov. Palin. They had a similar reaction to George W. Bush for similar reasons. RM asked me to comment, thus:

What has also become disturbing to me is the coldness and dislike toward Palin from some on the right. It seems to come at this point mainly from the salon-intellectual conservative crowd like Christopher Buckley, but it is seemingly becoming “hip” or “edgy” now for some conservatives to disdain her with sound bites like “What was he thinking about when he nominated the likes of HER?”

This kind of world weary, above it all, ad hominem dismissal without a shred of thoughtful, reasoned justification is to me contemptible. It smacks of the supercilious liberal “We know we’re right and anyone who disagrees is a moron not worthy of engagement” mindset. I have no problem taking a whack at our own when it is justified, but I’m very surprised at some of the potshots directed toward her from people who you would think would at least be somewhat in sync with her overall world view…

Would be interested if you turn your thoughts to this one day. I do not get it.

This is incredibly relevant. We’re being offered by the Democrats a candidate who is appealing to the subtle, intellectual patrician in us all, a seductive combination of ordinary person and extraordinary intellect. “As for Senator Obama: He has exhibited throughout ‘a first-class temperament,’” wrote Chris Buckley in his recent announcement of support for Obama. “I have read Obama’s books, and they are first-rate.” He offers intellectually patrician reasons for his vote for Senator Obama, despite his recognition that Obama is a leftist while he, Buckley, is a small-government conservative. The one, positive thing we can say about Obama is that he’s intellectually robust, and articulates his thoughts well. He even seems to be able to do it without the teleprompter these days.

It’s no accident, but rather comes with the sort of irony that signals a divinely-delivered choice, that the cracks in Obama’s veneer have been provided first by a PTA mom from Alaska, and more recently a plumber from Toledo, OH. Governor Palin lacks education, erudition, polish, reflection, intellectual curiosity, so much so that Chris Buckley called her “an embarrassment, and a dangerous one at that,” and David Brooks referred to her as “a cancer on the Republican Party.” She lacks everything, except for something of which Obama possesses not one whit: a resume that demonstrates that she knows how to get things done, and done in opposition to political cronies. He has the appealing message and the erudite appearance we value. She has integrity and courage, and nothing else. Choose.

And then an even unkinder cut: an ordinary plumber, selected at random out of a crowd, asks the one question that prompts the candidate to expose his Marxist impulses. It’s like a vignette out of a Hans Christian Andersen story, the child who blurts out “Why is the Emperor naked?” Joe the Plumber is no philosopher, nor a pundit, nor a politician. He’s just one of us trying to make a living. We can’t even pronounce his last name, for crying out loud. And it’s this — please pardon me, Joe, I really do respect both you and plumbers generally — this nobody who manages to accomplish what the rest of us have been trying to accomplish for almost 2 years, namely expose the real Obama.

It’s as though the Almighty is asking us: “Do you really want to end corruption? REALLY? or do you prefer the trappings of erudition instead?” We’re offered the thing we say we want, but entirely devoid of the trappings that make it appealing to our egos. This is the cruelty of divine justice, the fierce love that does not allow the slightest quarter to our vanity. We can have the cure, but only at the cost of every crumb of the sin that made us sick in the first place. He sent someone to save us, and it’s Mom, dammit. How characteristic of Him. How tragic if we refuse. How costly to accept. (Author adds after publication: this is what G.K. Chesterton was talking about when he quipped, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting, it’s been found difficult and not tried.”)

CS Lewis writes in The Abolition of Man about the difference between obtaining knowledge because you love to learn, and obtaining knowledge because you love the idea that you’re learned. The first is real learning, and exhibits the sort of curiosity with which children seem to be born. The second is the sin the church fathers call “vanity,” and when followed to its logical conclusion, makes devils of those who exhibit it.

Most of us, when we learn, do both at some level, but those who have been raised as patricians are more susceptible to vanity, and doubly so those who aspire to look or act like patricians, or to be accepted among them. There’s an arrogance of being educated, powerful, and known that is hard to avoid even if you know it’s a danger.

While there’s some positive correlation between vanity and liberalism, not all vain people are liberals, nor are all liberals vain. Anybody can fall victim, particularly anyone with an education, even if they understand the central importance of classical virtues, and even if they understand economics. Not surprisingly, a huge percentage of the most educated among us exhibit symptoms, some near fatal. (Did I hear somebody mention Paul Krugman?)

In reaction to this, America has always had an anti-intellectual streak to it, one that sometimes exhibits a truly ugly side. At its core, though, American anti-intellectualism is an expression of something fundamentally sound: the awareness that wisdom and the cultural standard of learning are not necessarily the same thing, and that of the two, wisdom is the only one that’s worthwhile. There’s a wrong version of this that eschews learning; the correct version, though, puts learning in its proper place, as a support to virtue and decency, but a substitute for neither.

This seems to be a feature of our universe, and God seems to take delight in making fools of the most educated among us, just as He ultimately makes weaklings of the most powerful and paupers of the wealthiest. As an Italian proverb notes, at the end of the game the king and the pawn go back into the same box. God designed that. At the same time, He elevates those who grasp the central things, and He makes their lives good. That video from CatholicVote.org that I posted a few days ago expresses this truth very well: the core of what makes us decent is something simple, homey, and uncomplicated, something even the profoundly retarded can grasp. The Catholics call this being “centered.” Protestants don’t really have a name for it, apart from the general “humility.” In praise of it, the Almighty, who created us and knows our needs, counsels thus through the prophet Jeremiah:

“Let not a wise man boast of his wisdom, and let not a mighty man boast of his might, let not a rich man boast of his riches; but let him who boasts, boast of this, that he understands and knows me, that I am Yahveh, who exercises lovingkindness, justice, and righteousness on earth; for I delight in these things,” declares Yahveh.

Jeremiah 9:23

Ultimately, it’s he or she who grasps the author of life and His ways that does what is right; everyone else goes astray somewhere, despite their learning, riches, or power. To take a page from Citizen Kane, all of us, no matter how impressive or wealthy, find true contentment in our Rosebud, and if we spurn it because of its unpretentious crudeness or our love of wealth or recognition, we are fools, and lost.

It’s a fact that some of us were born with better brains than others; some of us understand more, and more easily, while others simply lack the equipment to produce correct logical syllogisms, grasp Einstein’s General Relativity, or explain in philosophical terms the meaning of life. However, I didn’t pick my brains, I was born with them; they’re on loan from God (no, I’m not quoting Rush Limbaugh, we’re both paraphrasing the same source.) I do logic damned well, but with a pipe wrench and a propane torch I’m about two notches north of retarded. Everybody’s got their own gifts, and if we all looked down on those who didn’t have what we have, none of us could ever stand each other. My brains don’t give me a reason to think myself better than others; they give me an obligation to help my fellow-man through what I can offer, something that turns out to be surprisingly humble — my logically accurate thoughts. To use my brain for anything else would constitute disobedience to my Maker, who gave them to me for the benefit of others. Certainly, to use them for self-aggrandizement would be blasphemy. It is my task to hone my thoughts, improve my learning, and become better and better at thinking and writing — for the purpose of elevating others, and making their lives better somehow.

This is one of the reasons I liked William F. Buckley so well. He was one of the best-educated men in the English-speaking world, but he never looked down on ordinary folks or simple pleasures; he was humble. I hold him as a model. It’s too bad his son has missed the source of his greatness.

I draw meaning from the thoughts of novelists. poets, playwrights and artists who understand the human condition and produce great art to communicate about it. Lots of folks who consider themselves intellectuals do likewise. It would be easy for me to regard someone who expresses no interest in such understanding as less human than I. It would also be sin. But it’s easy to forget that, and lots of people, even people who think correctly about liberty and economics, fall into that rut and have trouble getting out, or even seeing that they ought to.

It is the characteristic error of intellectuals to regard their own ability to reflect as the highest pinnacle of human achievement; it is also, sadly, characteristic of the Left to imagine that such ability is the central qualification to hold office. It’s the lack of bona fide membership in their intellectual club that leads them to uniformly regard conservatives as stupid. Ann Coulter has noted this habit, with some disdain and amusement; her book Slander contains a chapter taking the left to task for their complete lack of imagination in insulting the right, resorting more or less unthinkingly to a patrician version of “Yer dumm.” Anybody who regarded Ronald Reagan as unintelligent simply didn’t know what the word meant; and yet, Reagan lived by the inner wisdom of simplicity, not the outer trappings of erudition, and that’s what made Reagan seem so accessible, and at the same time so un-intellectual.

The thing that’s uncomfortable about Sarah Palin, and about George W. Bush, is that externally, they seem uninterested in the sorts of mental processing that intellectuals value. The folks you’re hearing are expressing their disdain for this — and sadly, exhibiting a sort of pride that reflects a lot more poorly on them than on those they’re belittling. Neither Palin nor Bush are unintelligent, they simply attach no value to the trappings of intellect that some others value. To a certain extent, I find that’s characteristic of certain types of very successful people; they’re focused like a laser on specific achievement, and truly don’t care much about things outside their field of vision, particularly about grappling with difficult ideas about the condition of man. David Brooks considers that a cancer; I consider it a testimony to the glory of God, who creates each of us with different talents that we can use for the common good. Reflection on the meaning of life is a wonderful thing, but some of the most useful humans in history never bothered with it; they simply did what they were created to do, which, ultimately, is all any of us ought to be doing.

It’s important to value learning, but it’s more important to recognize the inherent dignity of any person who performs well his task in life. John Gardner reminds us that the true standard is not how much one learns, but how much one applies oneself to excellence, regardless of the arena, whether learning, governing, hockey, or construction:

The society which scorns excellence in plumbing because plumbing is a humble activity, and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because philosophy is an exalted activity, will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.