The American Scene

An ongoing review of politics and culture

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Nothing Is Written, Even In Code

Catching up on Ross this morning after writing yesterday’s account at Pomocon of how technology really threatens (small-l) liberalism was a nice synergy, if by no means a destiny. For Ross has excerpted a fascinating but awful mental exercise, by a particularly futurist David Gelernter, that shows even better than I could hint what loomed behind the themes of my own, closer-to-the-ground account.

For the sake of conversation, I will limit myself to five points:

1. Gelernter’s cheery fatalism on the private machines-vs-Cloud debate unnerves me greatly. It’s not that I hope for, or would fight for, a world without clouds. But I do hope for, and might even fight for, a world without a Cloud.

2. The Cloud problem is itself merely a symptom of Gelernter’s insistence on seeing the internet as a single, universal System — driven, as I suggested at Pomocon, by a captivation with the vast possibilities unleashed by treating the internet as a System. This element of geek psychology is a serious problem — less because the field of human possibilities can and should be dramatically reduced, and more because I detect, paradoxically, a failure of the imagination among geeks who gravitate with such pubescent enthusiasm to technological unitarian universalism. I’m profoundly unconvinced that the possibility-maximizing framework is, and must be, the unitary and universalist one.

3. This is to leave aside the whole issue of the inadequacy of our theory of possibility itself. Gelernter is hard on today’s internet for greatly increasing the quantity of information and transactions without increasing their quality. For some, quantity IS quality, or is quality’s main ingredient; Gelernter would therefore seem not to be one of these people, but his relentless fantasizing about our uni-uni System Destiny seems to me to undermine our confidence that this is the case. There are imported assumptions about what a possibility IS that need to be, in the parlance of our times, ‘unpacked’ and ‘interrogated’.

4. The revealing characteristic about the fantasy that there can be a singularity — the point at which the uni-uni System Destiny is consummated or realized — is its apparent inability to theorize possibility outside the frame of destiny itself. We are told repeatedly, and I think exclusively, that the singularity can exist only because it must. Any causal theory of omnipossibility that requires destiny already fails, doesn’t it? What’s more, any theory of possibility that imagines it even possible for all possibilities to be contained within a single system depends on the logically defective assumption that no possibility requires system plurality, or at least binarity. At least some possibilities are being excluded from any uni-uni System that contains even all the possibilities that an open-ended number of human beings can experience ever.

5. This implies that our experience as human beings points to the realization that the scope of experience is of necessity narrower than the scope of possibility. Though this realization has fueled secular unitarian universalist projects since Saint-Simon, Comte, and Hegel — if possibility must be limited even when it functions for us as infinite, then why not opt for the System? — there are well-known problems that re-present them in this post-internet context. The model for a unitary universal system of dramatically limited possibility is, of course, Biblical creation and the Biblical God. The attempt to escape the good judgment of God — both as a consequence of our being and its cause — leaves us with two choices: the judgment of particular humans and the judgment of the System. The destiny theory of singularity ultimately fails because it claims that the System Destiny has already escaped the good judgment of the particular humans who have created the system — in other words, that the singularity has already happened in the future, has come back to the present from the future to make itself happen. Whose standard of good judgment would ratify this as our best point of departure for figuring out what to do with the internet?

Thiel's Error

Time! Time…there is no time to do this post right, but go read Thiel’s hugely important piece in Policy Review and thank PEG, who tipped me off. Thiel’s piece is not only crucial reading but it’s very good, except for a certain interpretation of the history of political thought that leads him unnaturally into the arms of all-or-nothing eschatology. The idea of globalization, he claims,

is not new. It is coeval with the modern West. Starting in the seventeenth century, the dawn of the modern era, the global state or market has become the sine qua non for this-worldly peace and security.

This already is implicit in the writings of Thomas Hobbes, the definitive political philosopher of modernity. For Hobbes, the natural state must be replaced by an artificial or virtual world over which humans have full mastery and control. The telos is replaced by the fear of the end, or the fear of death. And so the classical virtues, such as courage, magnanimity, or wisdom, give way to peaceableness as the greatest good. In the state of nature, the war of all against all prevails; but under the artificial human world of the social contract, humans will become citizens by giving a monopoly on violence to the figure of Leviathan, a powerful monster that lives at sea. To make explicit what is implicit, Leviathan cannot be merely the master of a given nation or kingdom, since then the state of nature would still prevail amongst nations and kingdoms. For Hobbes ’ City of Man to be built, Leviathan must rule all nations and kingdoms and truly be the prince of this world. He is the “mortal god” created by the mind of man.

I can only focus on the essential error here, which is that Hobbes’ theory of order is (or, on another telling that might also be at work here, should and must be) scalable: once the problem of natural disorder is ‘solved’ at the level of the state, the leap of contractual faith ushering in the first, tribal Leviathan must be replicated, cascading upward, until it is consummated at the higher level of all humanity. This imputes categories of thought and motives derivative from those categories at once far too purely scientific and far too purely Christian for Hobbes. Reread that phrase of Thiel’s — “to make explicit what is implicit” is to read into Hobbes what, unless you are coming at him from a perspective, inherited but in turn unmoored from Christianity, that holds the flesh cannot comprehend the spirit, is not there. Even if Hegel, as Strauss alleges, did appear to consummate Hobbes, that consummation only appears to exist from within a scientized Christian view: the flesh of Hobbes is overcome by the spirit of Hegel.

What I mean is that the Hobbesian Leviathan, though patently a Christian state, is not a New Testament construction but a most forceful attempt to reassert the validity of Old Testament wisdom against the transgressive and chaotic potentialities of post-Lutheran Christianity – in which Christ, no matter what he said, really did come to put the old covenant in the dustbin of history. Hobbes wants to insist that the Mosaic experience is foundational, of a piece with human nature. To stray into the primacy of possibility unleashed by a political theology in which the flesh of the old law is to be entirely replaced by the explosive interpretive anarchy of the spirit of the new law is to fall once again into the murderous superstition of the Jews at the foot of the golden calf. Leviathan is a tribal survival mechanism that hedges conservatively in two directions: first, against the narrowing, incestuous, fragmenting destruction of irrational pagan power worship, and, second, against the expanding, contagious, universalizing mania of apocalyptic eschatology that emerges when the spirit is unmoored from the flesh.

To come down into practical particulars, the bottom line is that Hobbes is actually a profoundly anti-globalization theorist; to put it provocatively, the state of Israel is more Hobbesian in its order than the international scientific community. Because Thiel does not recognize this, he does not recognize the way in which a more or less catastrophic end to the current globalization boom might not result either in one big anarchy or many small tyrannies. His claim that no one can win the next world war is provocative but without justification. I would bet on whichever powerful participants are most Hobbesian in the respect I present here. And that still speaks pretty well of America.

Tea & Culture

At Plumb Lines, David Schaengold raises a good question about my latest round of teablogging:

Isn’t there some worry that Friedman might be right? That we’ve reached precisely that stage of history where innovation requires despotism? Hence all the articles about the future of Authoritarian Capitalism. In which case despotism would still be despotism and liberty still liberty, but Friedman, while wrong to prefer despotism, would be right in a technical way. And of course the friends of liberty would in that case face a much more diabolical foe than the Mustache of Understanding. […]

This folly hardly seems unique to Friedman. Isn’t it shared by most thinkers about what we now call politics? Is this the same as the Front-Porch critique of the GWB “go shopping” moment or the persistent reference to American citizens as “consumers”?

As potent as the critique of go-shopping Republicanism can be, anyone who’s followed this past year’s back-and-forth between FPR and Pomocon probably at least senses that my line of attack is fairly different. It’s not that I think organic food is ridiculous, or that I want Walmart to finish conquering the world and deliver cheap, safe drugs to the masses in partnership with the federal government. A Rieffian insistence on the importance of cultural authority does not need to extend, I think, to the culture-first communitarianism often advanced by conservatives utterly disenchanted with the American political environment in general and movement conservatism in particular.

Again, it isn’t that I don’t appreciate the possibilities and disciplines opened up in one’s life by a Porcheresque or Crunchy Con turn. After all, starting a family, as I did last year, is an absolute obstacle to careerism, especially of the type that requires long idle thoughtful moments at the keyboard; after all, a family demands a certain amount of space, and I’m in the process of moving into a residence with a front yard, a back yard (with garden plot!), and — lo! — a front porch. Though I will not be raising chickens, I will be painting large canvases in the sun, etc.

What is it, then? I won’t accuse my culture-first friends of being antipolitical; they’re often fans of Christopher Lasch, for whom any culture worthy of the name had to craft true citizens. Lasch’s left conservatism deserves, in this bottom-up way, a comeback that its top-down, Carteresque complement does not. But it still seems to me that critics of go-shopping Republicanism most often take proper citizenship to be an offshoot or consequence of a certain kind of culture. The right politics, that is, is derivative from the right culture. I don’t think they mean this in the way somebody would who sought to focus our attention on the kind of citizen a free individual will be when he or she is religious. Rather, the desired orientation is toward the kinds of citizens that believing members of religious communities will be.

There’s no reason why Americans sympathetic to one or the other of these approaches shouldn’t be natural political allies — especially when the partisan alternatives they confront are animated by economic individualism on the one hand and economic collectivism on the other. Yet this array of allies and adversaries tends to mask, and has masked, the degree to which a certain strain of conservatism — the one I am associating with the tea partiers — opposes the excesses of economic individualism and collectivism more for politically foundational than culturally foundational reasons. Those who make culture foundational see individualist and collectivist economic thinking (and let’s make no mistake: these go together well) as inimical primarily because they destroy the social character of culture that rightly orders everyday life. Those whose problem with individualist and collectivist economic thinking is grounded in politics, not culture, have a much different issue. For them, economic individualism and collectivism are bad because both erode political liberty and our taste for it.

In the crude terms of our current understanding, the former camp is paleoconservative and the latter camp is neoconservative. But some of those in the latter camp — a more significant number, I bet, than we’ve got ourselves thinking — are just as seriously religious as their paleo or paleo-ish brethren. Their faith, however, is much more individualist and stoic in a manner neither at all captured by, say, moralistic therapeutic Deism. Sometimes, they are mega-church evangelicals, but the strain of faith I’m thinking of is much better symbolized by the semi-rural chapel than by the buddy-Jesus superdome. If you want an oversimplification, think of the country-gentleman’s piety of Lee and Jackson. I suspect their kind of piety has an underinvestigated lot to do with their appeal, where that appeal exists. True, as an organized strain of faith it was shattered by the failure to adequately confront slavery on the one hand and the decimation of the South’s cultural officer class during and after the Civil War. But it is a powerful ribbon running through the history of American Christianity, and the frustrations it has faced in maintaining political liberty through coalition-building have been coming to a head for some time now. To one side, economic individualists and Perot quirkiness; to the other, ’80s and ’90s-‘00s evangelicals, whose moral agenda, though generally shared, was so intense that too much in the way of political liberty was up for trade or sacrifice. Those coalitions having failed, along with, in a stroke of nice timing, establishmentarian party politics, there is a fresh opening for a fresh coalition. The working out of this coalition is what makes watching the tea partiers so fascinating, and the practical stakes so high.

The T-Word

Ordinary Gentlemen Erik Kain and Chris Dierkes have mixed reviews of my recent post on the tea partiers. Rather than responding to each point, here’s a restatement that, I think, touches on them all.

Read the full article

Tea & Me

Below, Conor beats me to that NYT piece on the tea partiers. My take is a bit different. When it comes to reforming the right, a phrase I use advisedly, Conor and I are allied — as has been clear enough for at least a year — in some important respects. In others, however, there are important divergences. The latest reflection on the demise of Culture11 (yes, these are still being written) is worth a read, but I must disavow impressions like the following:

Culture 11 writers like Conor Friedersdorf and James Poulos are are in bad odor with most who consider themselves “real” conservatives, largely because they sometimes speak well of liberals and take a decidedly less ideological approach to their writings.

I hope I’m not in bad odor with self-identified real conservatives for a number of reasons, but at the top of the list is my own self-identification as — well, let’s say a ‘mere conservative’. I suppose any confusion on this count is my own doing. During and immediately after the Culture11 years (2008-2009), my ‘project’, such as it was, involved what now strikes me as a far too academic move to peck tactically at the edges of certain debates while taking up strategically, for purposes of criticism, a position too readily mistaken for a view from nowhere. Even on its own terms, I can’t say that approach worked. But trying to match my dispositions, commitments, and convictions — to speak the language I tried to work with back then — to events on the ground in such a way as to ‘declare for’ one team or another seemed like an exercise in pundit theater. Often, in DC, if you want to make it as a pundit the first thing you must do (and sometimes the only thing) is pick, defend, and advocate for a team with the enthusiasm, if not the sophistication, of a well-paid lawyer. I hoped my unwillingness to sign up for an ism — neocon, paleo, libertarian, whatever — would be made good by the sweeping changes of ’09: the election of Obama, the defeat of the Clintons and Clintonism, the waning of the Iraq War, and, of course, the Econopocalypse. I bet that those things would make it possible again to speak intelligibly and successfully as an undifferentiated or otherwise unclassifiable conservative.

In the best post-mortem on Culture11, I was described as “far too idiosyncratic in [my] own politics” to get wrapped up in the “self-immolating Hindenburg of movement conservatism.” Since it’s movement conservatism itself that has started to change that formulation — courtesy, in no small part, of the tea partiers, I’m obliged, I think, to return the favor and step out from behind the mannered meta-critiques of yesteryear. This is a good place to start.

Read the full article


I’m flattered, but not surprised, that Conor’s carefully considered broadside against we critics of Avatar, below, counts me among the characteristically persuasive but touches none of my specific lines of argument. I feel some chagrin, however, in imagining that readers of the Scene will think I really believe Avatar to be “a simplistic denunciation of capitalism and humankind generally,” especially because I’m ‘secure in my worldview’ — which, in other, far-flung precincts of the internet, can only be translated as “he’s a shallow, self-satisfied ass, incapable of personal or even concept-based reflection.”

My critique had a lot less to do with capitalism than with science and poetry, so let me double down on that angle to secure its legacy in blog meme history. In fact, let me go so far as to suggest that the word ‘capitalism’ did not appear in my analysis of Avatar because it plays no essential role in the mythopoetry of the film. As I suggested, as I see it, the central conflict is between science enslaved to will — incarnate in militarized violence, and science enslaved to whim — incarnate in love. Please, let’s not make the mistake of thinking that any technologically advanced civilization with a rapacious interest in natural resources and a willingness to kill to acquire them is, therefore, capitalist. Conor is right that the corporation in the film isn’t “meant to stand in for all corporations,” especially insofar as it doesn’t even need to be a corporation for the meaning behind the plot to roll out in identical fashion. To chalk Cameron up to a mere anticapitalist is to bark up the same wrong tree as those who imagine conflicts over oil would end with the end of oil companies. No, Messers and Madams Green: capitalism is just a red herring.

Just so, I don’t think it’s even well advised to go chasing after Cameron’s ‘negative’ portrayal of humans. We all already know well enough how bad humans can be, and Avatar is hardly the most selectively negative showcase of human being to hit the big screen. (Casino, a film that actually is a bitter indictment of capitalism, is worse.) Cameron isn’t trying to debunk a particular false idol — money — but show us the one true path to our salvation. And to understand that, we need to change the conversation from what he denigrates to what he holds up for awe and worship.

That would appear to be the Na’vi. Conor writes:

In Avatar, we’re shown a foreign world where creatures and nature are similar enough to our world that we understand them, different enough that they can help us reflect on ourselves and our planet as never before, and rendered so spectacularly that as much as any movie I’ve ever seen, we’re able to conduct this mental exercise by really feeling that the creatures and habitat we’re viewing are authentically there and different.

How tremendously coincidental that the Na’vi are just exotic enough to be erotically and intellectually attractive (though not TOO much, as that sex scene attests), yet just humanoid enough to be — yes, erotically and intellectually attractive, etc. It’s the ultimate diversity training wet dream. Call it xenotopia — the fantasy realm in which the alien Other is, by some divine stroke of luck, discovered to thrive at the perfectly optimized nexus of difference and identity with the Self. Cameron ex machina. The deck is quite deliberately — and, I’d say, ridiculously — stacked to produce the rational-and-emotional response Cameron desires: a profound attraction to the Na’vi, accompanied by profound admiration, which is actually a means to the end of redeeming our attraction to, and admiration of, our human selves! (I owe much of this insight to one Lauren Bans, courtesy of PEG and Tyler Cowen.)

Yes, it’s humanity that Cameron holds up even higher than the Na’vi for our awe and our worship — idealized, yes, but not in any way deeper or more powerful than any poetry can manage. The Na’vi, remember, aren’t real — they’re a poetic creation, like any of the wondrous and captivating beings that Homer devised to sing of Odysseus, his representative man. Cameron goes far beyond Homer, however, by pouring the old wine of poetry into the new bottles of the latest science:

“The audacity of Cameron’s movie is to make believe that the artificial world of computer-generated graphics offers a truer realm of nature than our own.”

When poetry reaches the inherent limit of its ability to inspire us, along comes science to convert poetry into something that looks so much like reality that we stand transfixed — slack-jawed, open-eyed, and wide-open receptive to that humble poetic magic. Avatar is the world’s most expensive cheap trick. Cheap, but effective! Yes, as Conor claims, “Avatar is a film whose purpose is allowing humanity to reflect on its circumstances and fallen nature in a novel way.” But it’s precisely the newfangledness of the means that makes possible our subservient complicity in the oldfangled end.

That end isn’t simply enjoying poetry. The stakes are much higher than entertainment. And no, it isn’t simply ‘allowing ourselves to be inspired.’ In an age so casually nihilist as ours, it only makes sense to worship entertainment as the one thing, just maybe, that can turn us back into credulous children with big hearts and soggy hankies. But the only way that can really work on a soul-deep level is for the entertainment to accomplish something more than what we mean so superficially by inspiration. I don’t mean some kind of spiritual conversion or cathartic experience. I mean something that might be just as pedestrian or fleeting as inspiration, but of a different, and higher, order: not poetic at all, but philosophical.

And that’s the real trick of Avatar, I suppose. The poetry itself is a means to an end — and the end is a philosophy, the central claim of which is that our humanity, as shown by the supposed inevitability of open-ended scientific and technological progress, can only be redeemed by freeing our rational minds from our irrational wills and enslaving them to the whims of love. Now, some people far down in the weeds of political theory might have a lot to say about whether this message is actually what poetry is in its nature and philosophy, in its nature, is not, but I don’t think I’m prepared to assent to that, no matter how secure my worldview. Pantheism, no matter how poetic, at long last is not poetry.

Total Request Taped

No hay garaje. No hay banda.

Virginia Country Gentleman – The Handpicked Successors

Letterman and the Abolition of Cruelty

Cruelty, the famous theorist Judith Shklar tells us, is the worst thing we do. For small-l and big-L liberals as different as Richard Rorty and George Kateb, cruelty is borne of moral solipsism, an overly me-centric attitude toward experience that blinds us to the truth about the reality of other people. (Obviously there is a popular conservative variant of this position as well.) Rorty and Kateb follow Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman in agreeing that life outside of politics can be made less cruel to the extent that we realize our unique identity is part of a symbiotic relationship with the ultimate diversity and novelty of democratic life, including the uniqueness and multitudinousness of others. But far and away most liberals think that the most important way to diminish cruelty is through politics. Making politics safe for democracy is itself a task dedicated to getting rid of the politics of cruelty — memorably described by Benjamin Constant as a politics driven by ‘conquest and usurpation’, with oppression sure to follow. The positive upshot of this political project is a thoroughly rights-based liberalism.

As Isaiah Berlin can tell us, however, rights-based liberalism is caught up in its very essence with our understanding of the difference between — to quote Constant again — the liberty of the ancients and that of the moderns. To put it simply, the classical Greeks had nothing of the public/private distinction that we recognize today, because the whole public sphere was political. Today, we care more about civic life than political life, and our individualist civic liberty looks a lot different than, and does work much different from, the anti-individualist political liberty of, say, Sparta. The point of all this for us today is that even a robust rights-based liberalism is going to draw the public/private line somewhere, demurring from the a totalistic administrative extension of rights and corresponding duties into the minute details of intimate life.

Yet we’ve all watched as sexual-harrassment regulations have advanced into intimate life. Such regulations — and the whole battery of sensitivity-enforcement mechanisms that have come to reflect the utter dominance of Human Resources departments over the businesses and industries that host them — obviously don’t descend on high from Washington. But they’re also clearly tied up with the rights-based view of liberalism, and the liberal political project dedicated to minimizing, if not abolishing, cruelty. Ultimately, the viability of anti-cruelty measures packaged in our sensitivity-enforcement laws depends on a certain kind of constitutional interpretation. So it’s not much of a stretch to say that such laws, although they flourish in the gray area where public seems to mix itself up with private, contribute to a change in the way we segregate life spheres in America. The public/private distinction seems increasingly strained or incoherent in the face of a new divide between the official and unofficial spheres of life — the first a sphere of longitudinal legal regulation, the second a sphere in which we are free to take unregulated latitudes. Sometimes these latitudes look plainly like ‘private’ choices; sometimes they just as plainly involve very ‘public’ conduct.

As soon as we recognize the ways in which we’ve abandoned the public/private divide, however, we begin to see that the official/unofficial divide that replaces it labors under a certain strain. The organizing project of official life — fighting the political war on cruelty — is frustrated and undermined by many of the organizing projects of unofficial life — which, in their toleration or even celebration of mutual use and abuse, subvert or deconstruct the very concept of the cruel. Just as it’s become increasingly difficult to take seriously the principle that we know obscenity when we see it, so are we beginning to lose the ability to know cruelty when we see it. Among Dave Letterman, the girl who slept with him, and the boyfriend who had just moved in with her, who is predator and who prey? For whom does the bell toll? Anyone? Everyone? In our contemporary economy of lusts, longings, and limited-term gratifications, the term ‘cruelty’ — at least as political liberalism understands it — drops out. When liberals dreamed of abolishing cruelty, this isn’t what they had in mind.

And none of this, I think, is happening because we’re becoming ‘less sensitive’. In many ways, we’re more sensitive than ever, sensitive to a fault, neurotically or obsessively sensitive. No, it seems rather that the kind of individuality we’re apt to pursue in unofficial life helps dissolve the unit of analysis on which our definition of cruelty depends. Paradoxically, the latitudinous pursuit of Emersonian individuality in unofficial life seems to be destabilizing and calling into question the solidity of our individual being. Rorty and Kateb lead us to believe that the temptation to be cruel outside of politics is best mitigated, educated, and corrected by the liberal virtue of curiosity. But you have got to be, as our own Peter Lawler has put it, especially ‘old and lame’ not to realize that curiosity is the very motto of those whose individuality destroys the credibility of the concept of cruelty. By the sign of curiosity, they have been conquering and usurping outside official life for quite some time now. It’s true that things aren’t nearly so dire as they were when our great social critics of the ’70s and ’80s (Kristol, Bell, Lasch, Rieff, MacIntyre) were writing. But given the uncanny way in which we’re making cruelty less comprehensible, it’s hard to congratulate ourselves for it.


Glenn Beck Is Not A Pomocon

Rod tells me that Nate Silver, who gained fame as the best, most readable electoral statistician around, has made a mistake. And so he has:

Beck is a PoMoCon — a post-modern conservative. And his philosophy is not all that difficult to articulate. It borrows a couple of things from traditional American conservatism:
— It shares an extreme distrust for government, particularly the Federal Government.
— It shares the notion that American society is in some sort of state of existential decline.
On the other hand, it also features some important differences:
— It is much more distrustful of non-governmental institutions, such as labor unions, corporations, political parties, community groups, the media, and scientific institutions.
— It is largely indifferent toward ‘social issues’.
— It is much less explicitly aligned with the Republican Party.
— It has much less use for elites, which it also distrusts.
The PoMoCons are not so much less self-consistent as they are less concerned with consistency, as compared with traditional conservatives. Theirs is a bric-a-brac, skeptical (sometimes to the point of paranoid), play-it-by-ear, relatively spontaneous reaction to the here-and-now — not something cooked up by a K Street thinktank. There is no future, no past — there is only today. And today is a pretty good day to be Glenn Beck.

Silver’s thumbnail anatomy of Beck’s politics is plausible enough, but on its face there’s nothing here it makes any sense to call postmodern. From a wider view, this is perhaps an opportune time to set the record straight on a few points about what is and isn’t postmodern-conservative.

So first consider Silver’s list of differences. Distrust of the non-governmental institutions Silver identifies has been a hallmark of social conservatives now for decades, which makes it somewhat discordant for Silver to suggest that ‘indifference’ toward social issues is in some way postmodern. The postmodern left is obsessed with power, viewing politics through a lens in which all social relations are function of power relations; and since I imagine Silver’s understanding of postmodernism is, unlike the one we actual pomocons tend to share, based on left postmodernism — about which more later — it’s unclear how or why he thinks social-issue indifference is pomo. And anyone who has followed our recent long exchange with the Front Porch Republic community knows that they, not we, are “much less explicitly aligned with the Republican party,” and in some important ways have “much less use for elites” than we do. These traits are more likely to be evidence of left conservatism than postmodern conservatism well understood!

Which leaves us with Silver’s catchall claim that pomocons are simply eclectic or ecumenical. Silver seems to confuse or conflate ideological eclecticism with the sort of political posture or practice that people without consultants adopt. And he seems to confuse both of these with a disinterest in the future that, at least to my eye, would utterly suck the wind out of Beck’s sails. Glenn Beck’s fame and identity derive entirely from a gripping fear that They are Taking Our Country Away From Us — horrible not because life has become unbearable today (the cry of leftist revolutionaries) but because the life we have lived will be made irrecoverable tomorrow. That’s a good-old-fashioned, white-bread conservative trope, as far as I can tell.

Now: there’s another incorrect vision of postmodern conservatism making the rounds — one we could associate with someone like Alan Wolfe, whose bugaboo is Carl Schmitt. The story goes like this: conservatism is no longer popular enough to command electoral success on its own strength. Very smart conservatives who know this realize that the only way they can stay in power is by scaring America’s rubes into a heightened, unnatural, protracted state of activism. So politics becomes crisis theater, and the task of very smart conservatives is to convince a bare majority of people that we live in a world where only giving very smart conservatives arbitrary ‘emergency’ power can save us. Very smart conservatives, of course, may or may not believe this to be true; what matters is ensuring that they can rule and preserve their own way of life. Since there is no longer any legitimate or honest way of doing this, they must become actors first and statesmen or philosophers later, if at all.

This is the brush that some have used to tar the Straussians and neocons. We needn’t pass judgment on the wisdom or merits of their critique in order to observe that the kind of stance attacked really has to be called conservative postmodernism and not postmodern conservatism. It’s is a postmodern position through and through, assured that all social relations are power relations and that all individual identities are masks. The conservatism is incidental — the mere ‘preference’ that motivates the use and abuse of the ‘facts’.

But recall that Strauss’s own critique of Max Weber — one in which he was joined by Philip Rieff, no neocon — insisted that the strict separation of ‘facts’ and ‘values’ at the heart of Weber’s sociology created the very conditions under which all social relations could become power theater: Weber begets Foucault. One point we pomocons have made before is that warm fuzzy left postmoderns like Richard Rorty are actually hypermodernists. Unlike the Foucauldians, Rorty wants to map facts and values onto liberalism’s public/private divide such that we can be John Stuart Mill in our social realtions and Nietzsche in our own fantasies. Rorty tells us that this strategic polarization will allow us to carry on a politics in which fact and value can actually live in harmony. This is not to abandon secular modernism but to go to extremes in the hopes of redeeming it.

For we pomocons, a postmodern conservatism is postmodern because it rejects Rorty’s project as kookily devoted to the modern longing to eradicate even the concept of eternity from human life; it is postmodern because it rejects the extension of Weber’s modern scientific heuristic to a conviction about what human nature really is. But these postmodern approaches open us onto an understanding of the wisdom of conservative dispositions, commitments, and convictions. We’re not pomo for pomo’s sake; we’re not conservative for pomo’s sake; and we’re not conservative simply because we feel like it or wound up that way and pomo because we have to be in order to get what we want.

A word about Glenn Beck. Glenn Beck is the worst. But why? Not so much because of who he distrusts or why. From where I’m standing, Beck is so awful because he theatrically combines and conflates performances of ultimate sincerity with performances of ultimate sarcasm. I think this is a telltale sign of a soul disordered by a confusion of love, power, and resentment. It becomes impossible, in such a person, to tell quite where their selfless solidarity, their egotism, and their hatred borne of weakness begin or end. And the titillating quality of this unstable charisma is precisely what they latch onto and exploit to become less a famous person than a famous happening. Their individual being becomes incidental to the phenomenon they represent. They actually corrode or dissolve their own identity in order to experience some hugeness that seems impossible to experience as a normal, integral human being. Any actual pomocon looks on that kind of allure as troublesome and dangerous, and the kind of person in thrall to it as no pomocon.


Kristol's Purple Persuasion

One thing we didn’t have time for: Irving Kristol’s attitude toward foreign policy. Kristol made two main points. One, it is in the good nature of America to defend democracies wherever and whenever attacked. Two, and in part (but only in part) for that reason, America should defend Israel. This second point Kristol made in the context of the spending debate: America should defend Israel even if that means a bigger-than-otherwise military budget — and Jews should, likewise, favor a bigger military budget than they might otherwise (i.e., if Israel didn’t need so much American support).

I think this monetary spin on the enduring Israel issue is now rather naive or outdated, and everyone seems to agree that the issue when it comes to a neoconservative foreign policy isn’t captured in dollars and cents but in passions and deeds. Which brings me to point one. Kristol’s affirmation of democratic defense was merely a Cold War truism which carried over quite plausibly, and mostly uncontroversially, right up until 9/11. The right’s problem with Clintonian interventions was that they inserted America into internal conflicts. And indeed the left’s problem with Bush’s war in Iraq was in its essentials the same.

This is significant because it indicates something of a gap between Kristol’s foreign policy tilt and the agenda of full-dress neoconservatism as we know it today. Kristol at least implies that other democracies might not be so important as Israel — not that we wouldn’t come to their aid when invaded or assaulted, but that the people of Israel stood in a special relationship to the people of the US, unlike the people of at least some other democracies. It turns out to be consistent with ‘neocon values’, or at least Kristol’s values, to decide, especially in tough or ambiguous cases, that certain democracies facing certain perils ought not to be treated as if they were Israel facing the sort of peril Israel has characteristically faced. Georgia, to be perfectly blunt about it, is not Israel.

Nor, to push the point a step further, is the fate of Georgia inextricably linked to the fate of Israel — at least not in any way deeper than that in which the fate of all democracies is linked, which, as an empirical matter, is far from obvious, however intense or praiseworthy our natural pro-democratic passions may be. The attempt to universalize the Israeli predicament may have done more to harm the neocon cause than a blatantly ethnocentric approach might have done — another unnecessary misfortune we can hang around the neck of anti-Semitism. It’s okay to be forthrightly in the tank for Israel in the same way we’ve kept our cultivated pro-British sentiment pinned to our sleeves. After all, there are Israelis enough in Israel who find opportunity and reason enough to disagree with Bibi Netanyahu or your generic neocon. At any rate, Israel’s unique history points toward a clarity of affinity — at least in my estimation — which the unique history of Georgia, to stick with that example, just doesn’t. The end of the Cold War might have been a squeaky-clean affair here and in Germany, but further east it was a sloppy debacle. To try to impose onto the Georgias of the world a standard of moral clarity analogous to the one Kristol and his heirs would apply to Israel is to fall afoul of a category mistake. The only reason to tolerate this is a state of crisis so extreme as to validate the risks and costs of action. Jihadism might amount to such a crisis, but the behavior of, say, Russia does not.

Of course, there is one point at which the Russia/Georgia question intersects with the Jihad/Israel question — Iran. It’s still an open question as to whether even full Russian support for ‘our team’ could neutralize or even greatly mitigate the Iran problem. But this knotty intersection exists at the intersection of multiple policy frameworks, too. Both heirs and critics of Kristol’s foreign policy dispositions are capable of approaching the problem with a degree of finesse and nuance and a set of red lines and core commitments.

Dignity Panel

On Morning Joe a few minutes ago, Pat Buchanan described the fear behind the death panel debate as the fear that old people without anyone around who loves them will be steered in their final years toward elective euthanasia. Surely the steering power of a government authorized to command and control the health care economy would be profound indeed. But the root issue behind the death panel debate is not federal power — it’s human dignity.

The archetypal or stereotypical conservative would say that even an old, isolated person has a reason to reject suicide that reaches to the foundations of what makes us human and what gives humans dignity. The archetypal or stereotypical progressive would say that conservatives need to abandon their romantic and/or religious fantasies that a dying person finds more dignity in enduring great suffering until their body fails than in choosing to die beforehand. Liberals, who, technically speaking, are stuck or torn between conservatism and progressivism, would be torn on this issue too. Liberalism — the political philosophy and worldview, not the ideological position — struggles to square or reconcile two competing visions of human dignity.

It’s tempting to say the first or conservative vision defines dignity in terms of the human race or species, and that the second/progressive vision does so in individualistic terms. On the question of suicide, that may seem true; but on health care more broadly, it’s obviously false. Progressives, not conservatives, are the ones most apt to think that the power of social science to help us all comes from its ability to generate valid predictions based on large-n data inputs — data in which each individual is reduced to their minimal statistical significance, and made mutually interchangeable accordingly. It turns out that conservatives and progressives also harbor an internal tension between thinking of dignity as existing in virtue of our shared human being and dignity as existing in virtue of our individual human being. It’s almost as if that tension reflects something fundamental about being human — both as a member of the human species and as a unique individual person.

But that tension today is colored deeply by our disgusted, despairing sense of nihilism over individual suffering. It’s increasingly difficult for us to conceive of the decision to soldier through a terminal illness as dignified. The problem is exacerbated by the costs of such care. If the stoic sufferer has loved ones, he or she is insensitive to what he or she is “putting them through;” if not, the stoic sufferer is wasting their — if not other people’s — money. For what? Paradoxically, perhaps, even our individualistic attitude toward the worthlessness of suffering lowers our estimation of individualistic pride.

By now it might be clear that I’ve been sliding back and forth between the assumption that enduring a terminal illness will be a natural or hands-off process versus one full of medication, treatment, and care. Possibly the final question about dignity that bears on our health care debate pertains less to choosing suicide than accepting death. But even this question is conditioned by the reality that choosing between acceptance and choice is made more human by doing so with one’s family. Unfortunately, ‘more human’ might not mean more painless or even more uplifting. Struggling with mortality can often be harder and messier with family than in isolation.

So perhaps the root moral issue behind the death panel debate actually just throws us back onto the question of whether we should choose to permit the government to influence this, one of our most difficult decisions, at one of our most vulnerable or susceptible moments. Because it appears the government at that moment would tend strongly to have greater confidence, and less at stake, than any of us.


The Trouble With Geeks

Titanic, a contrabulous fabtraption of a film that towered and tottered with huge follies and foibles, was redeemed by one, simple fact: it was a story about what’s true in us human beings. It took us as whole, integral persons. And it did so perhaps only as a convention of plot derived from historical necessity, a point made all the more poignant by implied and explicit content of Avatar. From the looks of it, two films couldn’t be more different. Titanic was about a love that could only be understood personally and historically, a love that transcended real human time and a real human being, even while residing and abiding completely within it and within her. Avatar looks to be a story about a trans-species love that can only be understood impersonally and ahistorically,* a love of the future (like that in Wall-E) which depends completely on a human perspective even while perversely alienating us from it in the extreme. There is something uncanny, and not in a good way, about a CGI-driven love story about a non-human alien and someone genetically engineered halfway out of their humanity by the government. And the trouble with geeks is that a fair number of them are likely to be so geeked out about the vast possibilities of scientific fantasy that their ability to recognize an uncanny valley when they see one is ruthlessly repressed. The trouble with geeks is that for them, a human love story isn’t cool enough — is simply boring.

*plus gigantic explosions.

The American Obsolescene

What’s new in obsolescence? Expert conversationalist Heather Hurlburt spent much of the day yesterday indulging me and the following questions: Is shoe-leather journalism obsolete? Is NATO? How about your aspirations to being well-read once you have a kid?

I had a lot of fun putting on and taking off my “neocon hat”. You might wind up bracing for some sexy brass instruments to start playing a BHTV rendition of “You Can Leave Your Hat On.” One thing we could’ve spent the whole hour talking about is the difference between political rationalism and deliberative reasonableness in politics. But how many people want to watch a revue of “The Rational Actor: No Longer a Fact, Not Yet a Fiction?”

Another thread that didn’t get woven into the final cloth was an important back and forth on the viability and suitability of “victory talk” in, and after, Afghanistan. Heather worried that talking victory, instead of ‘mere’ success, would continue to rhetorically distort our discourse and our expectations so badly that we’d remain prone to fight too many wars too readily and wind up too disappointed. I maintained that it’s important for us to remember that unconditional surrender and total conquest is a crazy and at least very narrow standard for victory, and that we still retain the capacity to understand that without having to abandon the language of victory, the aspiration for victory, or the American moxie and pride that’s historically been important to our simple military success. This was a majorly fun Bloggingheads.

Our Transatlantic Future

If you’re in DC, do drop by at 11 am tomorrow for The New Atlanticist’s roundtable on the future of the transatlantic alliance, hosted by The Atlantic Council. Friend of TAS and Foreign Policy senior editor Christian Brose will be joined by longtime friend of Pomocon and National Interest senior editor Nick Gvosdev, along with ex-NSC guru Damon Wilson and the illustrious James Joyner, who put the whole thing together. I’ll also be on the panel, waxing ecstatic on France’s return to NATO, Britain as the Hong Kong of Europe, and the end of Russophobia.

UPDATE: Here’s the audio.

The Sex Vote: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut

Back around Valentine’s Day this year, apropos of the dread liberaltarianism, I posted a few remarks on something called the Sex Vote. That cheap tryst has now been sublimated into a nice long (not too long) summer fling of a piece, up at Doublethink and free as love to all.

EPHRAIM'S SUMMER OF 2009, (Part 3)

Read part 2 (Peter Suderman)…Read part 1 (Reihan Salam).

There was David. On a horse. In Polo.

Read the full article

Public Service Announcement

The fat is in the fire; the salt is on the briar rose.

Borgesian Weekend

I have a copy of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. I received my copy shrink-wrapped, new, and unopened. While looking up an archaic d-word yesterday, the pages of Vol. I fell open, and not to one of the places marked by the OED’s fine blue ribbon bookmarks. No, a slip of paper had done the job — a slim, rectangular slip of paper torn off at one end. And on this piece of paper is a written message. In Chinese Japanese.

Help me decipher the text! I promise not to shoot you when I learn the secret.

Nightmares and Banalities

I wear stripes. He wears stripes. He sports facial hair. I sport facial hair. His bangs fall to your left. My bangs fall to your left. And those stylish spectacles! It could only be My First Bloggingheads Feat. Matt Yglesias…

With the benefit of 24 hrs in retrospect, I must say there is something lingeringly, hypnotically bizarre to me about the specter of Dick Cheney leading a new new Republicanism that’s soft on group marriage and torture. Could it really be getting less and less silly to say this is where the country’s collective headspace is headed? Horrors: Dick Cheney, clutching the zeitgeist by the whosenwhatsen…

I think I came off about as soft on Sotomayor as I wanna be, but, again, I’m really offput by the way some of Sotomayor’s offhand remarks seem to presage a world in which our nightmares are more banalized and our banalities grow more nightmarish. Saying “aspiration” instead of “inspiration,” without skipping a beat, is strangely unnerving even in a post-Bush America; many of our quantitatively superqualified, from high school on up, seem somehow to be qualitatively slipping. Never before has a culture been so credential-clogged yet so colossally casual. I’m still thinking — as the footage reveals — about how to best make sense of this. I will say I love the note of hope and healing on which Matt and I manage to end, shortly before my headset died.

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