Archive for March, 2008

Peripatetic Potpourri

As Becky Hogge of Machine-Envy reminds us bloggers in The New Statesman:  “Blogs are like gym memberships – it’s not creating them that’s important, it’s keeping them up.”  And like the regular workout, that’s not easy to do when you are on the road.  Your Paripatetic Prattler is just back from a wonderfully refreshing trip to Paris with his wife, dad, step-mom, and, as it turned out, John McCain (not technically with us, but still…)–hence the gap in posts.  As one look would confirm, your Prattler is not often to be found on the Stairmaster.  But travel for him means lots of walking, bag carrying (especially bags crammed heavy with newly purchased books), and plenty of fresh air.  So, even though he indulged hearily in French Cuisine, travel to Paris was good for him…but bad for blogging.

So let’s see…what’s been going on?

Playwright David Mamet has discovered that he is no longer a “brain-dead liberal.”  He’s the writer, so you should read his confession for yourself.  The upshot is that a “liberal” thinks both that (a) institutions like government and corporations are always corrupt, and that (b) people are “generally good at heart.”  “Brain-dead” would indicate that a “liberal” fails to see this contradiction.  In order to be a playwright, says Mamet, you’d have to recognize that people are not always good, “that people, in circumstances of stress, can behave like swine, and that this, indeed, is not only a fit subject, but the only subject, of drama.”

And the dramatist should see the genius of constitutionalism.  Mamet writes:

I’d observed that lust, greed, envy, sloth, and their pals are giving the world a good run for its money, but that nonetheless, people in general seem to get from day to day; and that we in the United States get from day to day under rather wonderful and privileged circumstances—that we are not and never have been the villains that some of the world and some of our citizens make us out to be, but that we are a confection of normal (greedy, lustful, duplicitous, corrupt, inspired—in short, human) individuals living under a spectacularly effective compact called the Constitution, and lucky to get it.

For the Constitution, rather than suggesting that all behave in a godlike manner, recognizes that, to the contrary, people are swine and will take any opportunity to subvert any agreement in order to pursue what they consider to be their proper interests.

To that end, the Constitution separates the power of the state into those three branches which are for most of us (I include myself) the only thing we remember from 12 years of schooling.

The Constitution, written by men with some experience of actual government, assumes that the chief executive will work to be king, the Parliament will scheme to sell off the silverware, and the judiciary will consider itself Olympian and do everything it can to much improve (destroy) the work of the other two branches. So the Constitution pits them against each other, in the attempt not to achieve stasis, but rather to allow for the constant corrections necessary to prevent one branch from getting too much power for too long.

Rather brilliant. For, in the abstract, we may envision an Olympian perfection of perfect beings in Washington doing the business of their employers, the people, but any of us who has ever been at a zoning meeting with our property at stake is aware of the urge to cut through all the pernicious bullshit and go straight to firearms.

There’s plenty more where that came from. 

But this raises a question:  if one were no longer “brain-dead” or “liberal” (in the sense described), could one vote for, say, Barack Obama?  Andrew C. Bacevich, in the American Conservative, seems to think one could (and this year, maybe even should). 

Readers of this blog know that there are significant challenges to defining “left” and “right,” “conservative” and “liberal.”  Bacevich knows this too and lays his definitional cards on the table up front.  For him, “authentic conservatism” entails the following:

  • a commitment to individual liberty, tempered by the conviction that genuine freedom entails more than simply an absence of restraint;
  • a belief in limited government, fiscal responsibility, and the rule of law;
  • veneration for our cultural inheritance combined with a sense of stewardship for Creation;
  • a reluctance to discard or tamper with traditional social arrangements;
  • respect for the market as the generator of wealth combined with a wariness of the market’s corrosive impact on humane values;
  • a deep suspicion of utopian promises, rooted in an appreciation of the sinfulness of man and the recalcitrance of history.

Why might someone who holds to these views consider Obama?  Not because Obama, too, holds to these views.  Rather, it all boils down to one issue:  Iraq.  Here’s why:  The Republican Party, argues Bacevich, is no longer “authentically conservative.”  It does not oppose big government; it grows government.  It does not respect constitutionalism; it promotes the idea of the unitary executive and, thus, an imperial presidency.  It no longer fears “the market’s corrosive impact on humane values;” it provides big business with endless supplies of corporate welfare.  It has lost its “suspicion of utopian promises,” and instead roams the earth in an effort to install “democracy” through force of arms.

The Iraq war is emblematic of this neo-conservative (and, hence, non-conservative) ideology.  An Obama presidency would be a indisputable rebuke to this ideology, held steadfastly by candidate McCain.  The crux of Bacevich’s argument is this:

So why consider Obama? For one reason only: because this liberal Democrat has promised to end the U.S. combat role in Iraq. Contained within that promise, if fulfilled, lies some modest prospect of a conservative revival.

To appreciate that possibility requires seeing the Iraq War in perspective. As an episode in modern military history, Iraq qualifies at best as a very small war. Yet the ripples from this small war will extend far into the future, with remembrance of the event likely to have greater significance than the event itself. How Americans choose to incorporate Iraq into the nation’s historical narrative will either affirm our post-Cold War trajectory toward empire or create opportunities to set a saner course.

The neoconservatives understand this. If history renders a negative verdict on Iraq, that judgment will discredit the doctrine of preventive war. The “freedom agenda” will command as much authority as the domino theory. Advocates of “World War IV” will be treated with the derision they deserve. The claim that open-ended “global war” offers the proper antidote to Islamic radicalism will become subject to long overdue reconsideration.

Give the neocons this much: they appreciate the stakes. This explains the intensity with which they proclaim that, even with the fighting in Iraq entering its sixth year, we are now “winning”—as if war were an athletic contest in which nothing matters except the final score. The neoconservatives brazenly ignore or minimize all that we have flung away in lives, dollars, political influence, moral standing, and lost opportunities. They have to: once acknowledged, those costs make the folly of the entire neoconservative project apparent. All those confident manifestos calling for the United States to liberate the world’s oppressed, exercise benign global hegemony, and extend forever the “unipolar moment” end up getting filed under dumb ideas.

Yet history’s judgment of the Iraq War will affect matters well beyond the realm of foreign policy. As was true over 40 years ago when the issue was Vietnam, how we remember Iraq will have large political and even cultural implications.

Bacevich realizes the risk for conservatives:  It will certainly be the case that an Obama presidency would bouy the Left.  And there is no guarantee that the lessons of the neo-conservative moment will be genuinely learned.  But for Bacevich, electing McCain will just prolong any chance for a return to conservative principles.  This thoughtful essay is worth a read.

Chris Hedges, author of War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning and  American Fascists, has a new book out called, I Don’t Believe in Atheists.  In an interview, Hedges says:

Although I come out of a religious tradition — I grew up in the church, my father was a Presbyterian minister, I graduated from seminary — I’ve spent my life as a foreign correspondent, mostly for the New York Times, and I have a pretty hardheaded view of the world. I certainly understand that there is nothing intrinsically moral about being a believer or a nonbeliever, that many people of great moral probity and courage define themselves outside of religious structures, do not engage in religious ritual or use religious language, in the same way that many people who advocate intolerance, bigotry and even violence cloak themselves in the garb of religion and oftentimes have prominent positions within religious institutions. Unlike the religious fundamentalists or the New Atheists, I’m not willing to draw these kind of clean, institutional lines.

When asked whether he saw a connection between his new book and his critique of American religious fundamentalism, Hedges replied:

I do. I didn’t start out that way, because these guys were not on my radar screen. I think a lot of their popularity stems from a legitimate anger on the part of a lot of Americans toward the intolerance and chauvinism of the radical religious right in this country. Unfortunately, what they’ve done is offer a Utopian belief system that is as self-delusional as that offered by Christian fundamentalists. They adopt many of the foundational belief systems of fundamentalists. For example, they believe that the human species is marching forward, that there is an advancement toward some kind of collective moral progress — that we are moving towards, if not a Utopian, certainly a better, more perfected human society. That’s fundamental to the Christian right, and it’s also fundamental to the New Atheists.

You know, there is nothing in human nature or in human history that points to the idea that we are moving anywhere. Technology and science, though they are cumulative and have improved, in many ways, the lives of people within the industrialized nations, have also unleashed the most horrific forms of violence and death, and let’s not forget, environmental degradation, in human history. So, there’s nothing intrinsically moral about science. Science is morally neutral. It serves the good and the bad. I mean, industrial killing is a product of technological advance, just as is penicillin and modern medicine. So I think that I find the faith that these people place in science and reason as a route toward human salvation to be as delusional as the faith the Christian right places in miracles and angels.

You can read the full interview in Salon here.

There was a very informative piece by Noah Feldman on Shariah law which I read in the International Herald Tribune while in Paris.  You can read it here.  Feldman makes a persuasive case that understanding Shariah as fundamentally about the rule of law (rather than of men) is key to promoting “just and legitimate government in the much of the Muslim world.

Well, I began this post with thoughts of sloth and implied gluttony, but apparently there are some new sins I have to be concerned about.  Msgr. Gianfranco Girotti, head of the Apostolic Penitentiary, announced that “pollution, mind-damaging drugs, genetic experiments, and the accumulation of excess wealth” are officially sins.  A snide commentary is offered by Barry Gottlieb here.

And good news for guys like Barry:  “Being nice can ruin your life.”  He’ll probably live long and prosper.

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