James Dobson, making Obama’s point

Dr. James Dobson’s attack on a two-year-old speech by Barack Obama seems to me to be a very good example of the way incivility in discourse can be self-defeating. Dobson took issue with an Obama speech on the role of faith in political life — certainly a topic well worth discussing, and one on which Obama and Dobson both have something to say. But Dobson’s tirade largely avoided the issues actually presented, and instead leveled charges that are difficult to reconcile either with each other or with what Obama actually said.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Charity Gap: What Does It Mean?

When it comes to translating political positions to moral ones, I’m as transparent as they come.  I have some qualms with the standard righty portfolio of views, but general I find plain vanilla lefties distasteful.  They almost always strike me either as straightforwardly selfish, hypocritical (views vs. actual life practices), or borderline “character deformed” to use Scott Peck’s terminology.  (The extremes on either side, by the way, are horrifying, and I’m not talking about “Minister” Farrakan or David Duke here.)

And since I’m lazy, I really want to take George Will’s article and conclude that the charity gap is clear evidence that, in general, righties are better people than lefties.  And the explanation that lefties believe it’s the job of government to be charitable, taking them off the hook, is hollow — the guy who takes the biggest pieces of pizza without hesitation is not exhonorated by explaining that he has to look after himself first because he can’t count on anyone else to do it.  That’s what being a selfish asshole is.

I’m the first to admit that as a huge fan of simplicity I often miss the subtleties, and what better place than Reasonableminds.org to go to for instruction on the complex nature of being a cheap bastard.

Have a read, and tell the crowd what your take is!

What’s a Catholic Voter to Do? (Part I)

A few weeks ago, a friend asked me, “When are you going to write something on the blog about how Catholics are supposed to vote?” We had a brief but thoughtful discussion about it, noting that the question is hard to answer because it is partly about objective morality and partly about practical considerations that depend on the options actually available. And when one looks at those “options actually available,” the question seems almost moot: Exactly which candidate are we supposed to vote for if we are not permitted to vote for anyone whose views are at odds with Catholic teaching? But it is a fascinating topic, and a well-crafted blog post about it might count as “views you can use.” For now, though, I’m still thinking.

In the meantime, another friend calls my attention to a recent piece by Douglas Kmiec, first published I-don’t-know-where and later posted on the Mirror of Justice blog by Michael Perry. It’s not a systematic analysis of the extent to which our votes should be influenced by our religious beliefs; it’s not even a systematic analysis of Catholic teaching on that score. Read the rest of this entry »

Bush on McCain

The Washington Post‘s online headline really grabbed my attention this time:

Bush: McCain a ‘Conservative’

My immediate, involuntary reaction was, “How would he know?”

To be fair to the President, there is currently no consensus on what conservatism is all about. I’ve tried to suggest a few important elements of authentic conservatism on this blog from time to time, including

Reason and Progress

Sometime before Christmas, I quoted extensively from Les Misérables by Victor Hugo and suggested there was one idea about which Hugo was “dogmatically immoderate.” That idea is the idea of Progress. By happy accident, the beginning of a new year is a pretty good time to reflect on the extent to which a belief in Progress is at all reasonable.

First, though, let’s get an idea of what a true believer Hugo was on the subject of Progress. “There is no backward flow of ideas more than of rivers,” Hugo proclaimed, and indeed he portrayed the forward march of moral and intellectual progress almost as a natural phenomenon: Read the rest of this entry »

A More Practical Quiz

In the wake of the “civics” quiz featured in the last post, I thought I’d make up my own multiple choice question this time. This is not a research question; it’s designed to test what you’ve picked up from your normal participation in society, so don’t look it up. The question is:

Under the Defense Authorization Act of 2006, if a terrorist incident occurs on U.S. soil, or if the President determines for any other reason that there has been a breakdown of “public order,” the President may:

A. declare a federal emergency in the affected area(s);
B. detail federal troops to the affected area(s), to work under the direction of state and local officials;
C. declare martial law throughout the United States; or
D. none of the above.

Hint: This legislation passed the Senate by unanimous consent (on Sept. 30, 2006), so how controversial can it be?

Give up? Read the rest of this entry »

What’s Wrong with Party Politics?

A lot of what’s wrong with politics was on display in yesterday’s Washington Post profile of Representative Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma), the chairman of the National Republican Campaign Committee. I think the article itself tended to flatter Cole, but it also highlighted some of the central problems with the art at which he excels.

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The Best Moment Since 9/11?

It’s a little embarrassing to mention torture here, particularly after I was recently accused of shooting some other fish in President Bush’s barrel. But Anne Applebaum has an interesting piece in Slate in which she argues that the widespread semi-indifference to the confession of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed proves that torture is counterproductive. [UPDATE:  The piece also appeared in The Washington Post.]  This is not the first time Anne has argued that torture doesn’t work; she had an earlier piece in The Washington Post that focused on the unreliability of the information one gets through torture. This time, her focus is on the perception rather than the reality. By the way, Anne knows a thing or two about torture thanks to her Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the Soviet Gulag.

I wish Anne had not claimed to have proven anything — I don’t think that’s the “way of knowing” that is involved here. And many would argue that it doesn’t particularly matter whether torture “works” in the sense usually intended, because it is intrinsically evil and we diminish ourselves by employing it. I’m with them.

But the question of perception is still an interesting one. Read the rest of this entry »

The Myth of the Political Spectrum

A political science professor and a journalist have an interesting piece in this morning’s Washington Post entitled “The Myth of the Middle.” They aim to refute the notion that the 2006 election showed the public wanted bipartisanship, and they cite polling data to show that Americans are just as divided as their representatives in Congress.

The visual representation of the nation’s voters isn’t a nicely shaped bell, with most voters in the moderate middle. It’s a sharp V.

I think there is a legitimate question who is following and who is leading on this one, but I do not think the one-dimensional, left-center-right way of viewing the electorate is very useful. Journalists and political scientists seem to love it, but I have questioned that metaphor for at least 20 years, ever since I noticed liberal and conservative judges making common cause on civil liberties issues. Read the rest of this entry »

Reagan, Emerson, and Conservatism

I have now read or heard three favorable reviews of Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom, and the Making of History, by John Patrick Diggins. Russell Baker’s review in The New York Review of Books was the first; George F. Will’s column of February 11 was the second; and finally a neighbor, a Reagan appointee who has written too many books for me to count and is usually an exacting critic, read the book and praised it effusively.

The central thesis, according to Baker, is that Ronald Reagan was an intellectual disciple of Ralph Waldo Emerson,

the nineteenth-century poet, essayist, and philosopher. At the peak of his intellectual powers in the 1830s and 1840s, Emerson was instrumental in creating the Transcendentalist movement, a philosophical reaction against orthodox Calvinism and the Unitarian Church’s rationalism. The Transcendentalists developed their own faith, which held that God is present—immanent, in theological language—within man and nature. This gave man an important, even rarefied status. . . . The individual was no longer a doomed sinner in the hands of an angry God; he was now divine, now himself part or parcel of God. The political consequence of this, which is what interests Diggins, is enhanced importance for the individual. What emerges is a new optimistic individualism.

“Optimistic individualism” — that summary of Reagan’s views rang true for me. It fit in with George Schultz’s remark that Reagan “appealed to people’s best hopes, not their fears, to their confidence rather than their doubts.”

Upon reading Baker’s review, I realized that I did not know much about Emerson, and certainly never thought of him as a political thinker of any sort. And indeed, I found not a single mention of him in Leo Strauss’s History of Political Philosophy, a very thick book. But Russell Kirk, in The Conservative Mind from Burke to Eliot, seemed to have no trouble appreciating Emerson’s political importance, and condemning it:

The whole melioristic, abstract, individualistic tendency of [the Transcendentalists'] philosophy was destructive of conservative values. Reliance upon private judgment and personal emotion, contempt for prescription and the experience of the species, a social morality alternately and bewilderingly eccentric and all-embracing (the contradiction so frequently encountered in Rousseau) — these qualities of Emerson’s thought gratified a popular American craving which ever since has fed upon Emersonian “Self-Reliance” and “Experience” and “Nature” and his other individualistic manifestoes.

Kirk actually had quite a bit to say about Emerson, almost none of it good. For example,

Emerson’s specific political notions are almost shocking — frightening in the first instance for their perilous naivete, in the second instance for their easy indifference to uncomfortable facts. Shrugging aside constitutional safeguards, checks and balances, devices to secure freedom, prescriptive authorities, he declares that all we require in government is good will. We must found our political systems upon “absolute right” and then we will have nothing to fear. This from a professed admirer of Montesquieu and Burke! The most optimistic of the philosophes was not more puerile in statecraft.

George Will picks up this same theme of contradiction, especially with Burke:

The 1980s, [Diggins] says, thoroughly joined politics to political theory. But he notes that Reagan’s theory was radically unlike that of Edmund Burke, the founder of modern conservatism, and very like that of Burke’s nemesis, Thomas Paine. Burke believed that the past is prescriptive because tradition is a repository of moral wisdom. Reagan frequently quoted Paine’s preposterous cry that “we have it in our power to begin the world over again.”

I have some doubt whether a majority of self-described conservatives could tell you whether their views are closer to Burke’s or Paine’s, but I do think basic beliefs about the perfectibility of human nature are an important fault line in that modern-day political constituency. As Kirk put it,

Recognition of the abiding power of sin is a cardinal tenet in conservatism. . . . For conservative thinkers believe that man is corrupt, that his appetites need restraint, and that the forces of custom, authority, law, and government, as well as moral discipline, are required to keep sin in check. One may trace this conviction back through [John] Adams to the Calvinists and Augustine, or through Burke to Hooker and the Schoolmen and presently, in turn, to St. Augustine — and, perhaps (as Henry Adams does) beyond Augustine to Marcus Aurelius and his Stoic preceptors, as well as to St. Paul and the Hebrews. Emerson, impatient of tradition, dismisses such disturbing theories.

I have some thoughts on this, thoughts about conservatism not as an ideological extreme but as a moderating influence. But that will have to wait for another time. On Ash Wednesday, it is only fitting for Kirk’s opinion to be the final word.


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