Thursday, April 28, 2005

Education and liberation: What it means to be a Straussian, Part I

Pardon the length of this post, but the nature of the subject matter demands it. Please bear with me:

I received a friendly e-mail today from a reader whose understanding of Straussians is that they (we) want society to be governed by an "elite" that essentially lies to the masses to secure and sustain its rule. This reader, who seems open to be persuaded otherwise, asked me to write a post addressing this understanding and explaining in further detail what I mean by "diversity" among Straussians.

There is much to say on the topic of Strauss, Straussians, and Straussianism -- far too much for a single post. For now, I will make a few points and provide links to some interesting articles on the web. Although this is not a blog specifically about Strauss, I do plan to return to this topic from time to time in the future, as it is worth further consideration and very much underpins everything I write here at The Reaction -- I am, after all, a Straussian, and I continue to wrestle with what it means to be one, not least because I tend to be on the left of what I consider a fairly diverse community. When you keep hearing that Straussianism is akin to, if not identical to, neoconservatism, and when you yourself are quite liberal, more or less, you need to ask some basic questions about what it means to be a Straussian.

In short, is it possible to be a liberal Straussian, as I claim to be?


My reader's understanding, which he himself admits is fairly "crude," is a common one that in recent years has been introduced by left-wing critics in academia and the media to discredit Strauss, Straussians, and Straussianism, not least because there are a number of Straussians working in or affiliated with or who support the Bush Administration. Thus, to discredit Strauss, Straussians, and Straussianism means in particular means to discredit the Bush Administration in general. As a liberal and a Democrat, I am all for discrediting the Bush Administration, not to mention the Republican Party, but I reject the notion that Strauss is the "godfather of neoconservatism," as he has been called, and that Straussians are by definition conservatives, or even neoconservatives. More, I reject the notion that Strauss and/or Straussianism are the driving intellectual forces behind the Bush Administration.

There are certainly Straussians in high places in the Bush Administration. Paul Wolfowitz, for example, took courses with Strauss at The University of Chicago, although he is not a self-defined Straussian. Similarly, there are Straussians in high places in the conservative media. For example, Bill Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, did his doctorate at Harvard with Harvey Mansfield, a leading Straussian, although his father, Irving, was actually the founder of neoconservatism, and Bill seems to be much more neoconservative and partisan Republican than Straussian. What is true is that there are more public Straussians on the right than on the left, and a number of policy-oriented Straussians have found a political home in the Republican Party, more so than in the Democratic Party. But these public Straussians, the face of Straussianism, are far outnumbered by the many academic Straussians who teach all across North America. Is it possible to generalize and to label them all as one? Did Strauss provide a single political teaching, or can a political teaching even be divined from his philosophical teaching? Do all Straussians think alike? Do we all collectively -- academics, policy wonks, political commentators, etc. -- form a monolith that admits of absolutely no dissent or internal diversity? Is there an inexorable link between Strauss and political conservatism (especially American (neo)conservatism)? To all these questions my answer is a clear one: No.

And I say this as someone who has been part of the Straussian "community" for many years. Even the word "community" doesn't work. After all, what is a Straussian? Well, someone whose academic or otherwise intellectual ancestry can be traced back, now across several generations, back to Leo Strauss. But there is no such family tree. Yes, Strauss had his students and they had their students and they had their students -- and there can be, for some Straussians, including me, a direct line back to Strauss. But this linear model doesn't always hold. First, not all Straussians think alike. Even Strauss's own students disagree with one another on certain fundamental points. For example, Harry Jaffa, a prominent "west-coast" Straussian, disagrees sharply with Harvey Mansfield, an "east-coast" Straussian, on the very meaning of America, for all Straussians one of the central questions of modern political philosophy. For more on this debate, see here. It is only one of the more public of many such disagreements among Straussians.

But even this east-west divide doesn't hold. After all, what I have seen -- and I have been on the inside, at the University of Toronto, long a bastion of Straussian political thought -- is a healthy, diverse, and fluid community of scholars dedicated to debating one another (and others) and questioning the central questions of political life. If there is anything we agree on, it is that the Socratic philosophical undertaking -- the attempt to ascend from the darkness of the cave (convention/opinion) to the light of the sun (nature/truth), a life dedicated to the proposition that the unexamined life is not worth living -- is worthy of emulation. Furthermore, the linear model implies a community closed to outsiders, which is obviously not the case. Yes, there are Straussians who have studied mostly (and almost exclusively) with other Straussians, but most Straussians (and certainly most of the best and most interesting Straussians) can point to a number of different influences, of which Strauss and Straussians may or may not be the most important. Anyone who has ever studied with a Straussian may be called a Straussian, I suppose, but, clearly, it's never as simple as that, no matter how hard our critics may try to lump as all together under a single banner.

For example, I have studied at the University of Toronto with two leading Straussians, Thomas Pangle and Clifford Orwin, but I did my undergraduate work at Tufts University, where I studied history but took a number of political theory courses with Robert Devigne, who never studied with Straussians but who introduced me to Strauss. But, more than that, is it not possible even for the most insulated Straussians to think for themselves? I have encountered a number of sycophants among the Straussians I have met, but that is true anywhere. In fact, there are likely more narrowminded sycophants among those who reject the Socratic philosophical undertaking and simply accept without question the reigning orthodoxies of postmodernism. For my part, I have encountered interesting people from diverse backgrounds who do not simply regurgitate some reductionist Straussian claptrap. That anecdotal evidence may or may not be of universal application, but it is, I think, more true than not.

On the diversity of Straussians, I recommend reading this piece by Leslie Friedman Goldstein, a professor at the University of Delaware who studied with Strauss and a number of leading Straussians, including Joseph Cropsey, Herbert Storing, Walter Berns, Allan Bloom, and Werner Dannhauser, as well as with such leading liberals theorists as Hannah Arendt and Richard Flathman. Goldstein rejects the notion that there is any sort of "Straussian political orthodoxy". He lists a number of liberal Straussians, including William Galston, former domestic policy advisor to President Clinton, and argues that many conservatives who are called Straussians are simply not, such as neoconservative defence analyst Richard Perle and Yale History Professor Donald Kagan. Some other key passages:

"So what unifies 'Straussians'? They are unified by a belief about reading and a belief about the value of political philosophy. They share the view that reading texts closely is a wise approach, that trying to discern the view of the author as the author understood him- or herself is the best starting point for understanding a text, and that authors may have more than one message intended for more than one level of anticipated reader."

"They also share the view that the belief that social science can and should be value-free is problematic and many levels. A subspecies of this value-free social science was the approach dominant in the fifties and sixties in many philosophy departments that limited moral or political philosophy to language analysis: instead of asking, 'What is justice?', scholars of this approach reduced the horizon to their questioning to, 'What do people mean by "justice" or by "rights"?' Leo Strauss urged students to attempt to recapture the power of the original question by reading with an open mind philosophers of the past from periods in which these questions were deemed, in principle, answerable. Consequently, Straussians are at least willing to entertain seriously the possibility that there might be a human nature, and to ponder what that nature might entail."

Very well put. Instead of succumbing to, and bowing before, the reigning orthodoxies of our time, be they Marxist or postmodern or whatever, Strauss teaches us to read with an open mind, to consider the most fundamental questions of human nature and the human condition, and to pursue, as far as possible, the Socratic philosophical undertaking. This is not a political teaching, nor does it lead inexorably to some "Straussian political orthodoxy".

As Joshua Muravchik, a non-Straussian conservative, put it in an essay on neoconservatism for the American Enterprise Institute, a prominent conservative think-tank (see link, right), "reading political counsel into Strauss is altogether a misplaced exercise. He was not a politico but a philosopher whose life's work was devoted to deepening our understanding of earlier thinkers and who rarely if ever engaged in contemporary politics". (Muravchik goes on to say that "attempts to link neoconservatives to Strauss... are based on misidentification and misconstruction".)

Many Straussians have made these or similar points about the diversity of Straussians and the philosophical (and non-political in partisan terms) character of Strauss's teaching. For example, in a celebrated article about Strauss published not long after Strauss's death, Allan Bloom, author of The Closing of the American Mind and one of the more renowned Straussians (and, notably, a lifelong Democrat), makes the invaluable point that "[Strauss's] politics were the politics of philosophy and not the politics of a particular regime". However, "[f]rom both experience and study, he knew that liberal democracy is the only decent and just alternative available to modern man". Further:

"Leo Strauss believed that the Platonic image of the cave described the essential human condition. All men begin, and most men end, as prisoners of the authoritative opinions of their time and place. Education is a liberation from those bonds, the ascent to a standpoint from which the cave can be seen for what it is."

(See also the online bibliography of Strauss's works and secondary works on Strauss at

Contrary to popular misconceptions, Strauss does not provide the philosophical basis for strictly conservative politics or political partisanship of any kind. Rather, he guides us back to Socrates -- and, from there, through the long history of political philosophy -- precisely in order to liberate us from all such conventional opinions about the good and the just, and to challenge us to pursue the truth about human nature and the human condition, a truth that transcends historical context and the conventional opinions of particular regimes. Individual Straussians may pick and choose from the complexities of Strauss's teaching in order to reconcile that teaching, or the teaching of other Straussians, with their own political preconceptions, or they may derive certain political conclusions, conservative or otherwise, from such selective picking and choosing, but the essence of what it means to be a Straussian, however understood and however broad that label, lies in living a philosophical life that is not bound by such limitations. If anything, the lesson of Socrates is precisely that there is an irreconcilable tension between philosophy and politics, or between the philosopher and the city (or any civil society), and that it is simply foolish to direct philosophy to political rule: one of the central lessons of Plato's Republic, of which Socrates is the main character, is that the rule of philosophy is good neither for the city nor for philosophy itself. It is that tension, a fundamental and seemingly unavoidable political problem, that animated much of Strauss's thinking.

Contrary to popular misconceptions, Strauss liberates us from the shackles that bind us to our self-made caves. He is the ultimate liberal.

(In Part II, I will consider the accusation that Straussians advocate the rule of an elite and the use by said elite of some noble lie to control the masses. Please check back soon. I will continue to post daily on a number of different topics, and my next post on Strauss should appear tomorrow or over the weekend.)

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Wednesday, April 27, 2005

The march of freedom, part d'oh!

Best buddies II: President Bush and House
Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Posted by Hello

First it was Bush and Abdullah, now it's Bush and DeLay. A Middle-Eastern dictator who oppresses his own people and holds the world hostage for Saudi oil, and a Texas Republican whose narrow partisanship, rampant corruption, and myriad ethics violations stand out even in the morass that is Washington, D.C. Can you not judge a man by the company he keeps?

Indeed, you can.

One piece of good news coming out of Washington today was Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert's (belated) decision to reverse a January decision that restricted investigations of alleged ethics violations by House members. It's a fairly technical matter, but the Republican move to restrict investigations essentially shielded members like DeLay from Democratic attempts to look into his alleged (although pretty obvious) ethics violations. "I'm willing to take a step back," said Hastert. Oh, really? Was it not more like bowing to political pressure? After all, the January decision did nothing but make Republicans look bad, not least because of new revelations about DeLay's unethical behaviour: foreign trips paid by lobbyists of dubious repute (including Jack Abramoff, prominent Bush fundraiser), gerrymandering in Texas to secure Republican Congressional victories, etc.'' Now that we again will have bipartisan rules in place, we can begin to rebuild Americans trust in the ethics committee,'' said Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. Well, that might be a bit hopeful, but at least it's a move in the right direction. Said DeLay to a group of reporters: "You guys better get out of my way. Where's our security?" Time to bring the hammer down on The Hammer, once and for all.

But, hey, that obviously didn't stop Bush from spending time with DeLay in Texas. Said Bush: "I appreciate the leadership of Congressman Tom DeLay in working on important issues that matter to the country." I see. Like Bush's wholly unpopular effort to privatize part of Social Security? Or like Republican efforts to meddle with the independent judiciary in the Schiavo case (and like DeLay's pitchfork-populist opposition to the judiciary generally)? Or like DeLay's persistent pandering to the evangelical right on all sorts of issues that appeal to social "conservatives"?

Shall we add Bolton to Abdullah and DeLay? Today, the Bush Administration reaffirmed its supported for its beleaguered nominee for U.N. ambassador. "John Bolton is someone we are very confident will be confirmed," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. "We urge the Senate to move forward quickly on his nomination so that he can get about doing the much-needed business of reform at the United Nations." Notice how the debate is now being framed? It's not about Bolton anymore, because even the White House must realize that Bolton's reputation is justifiably covered in mud. Now it's about "reform at the United Nations". If so, then send a real reformer, not a hardcore unilateralist who questions the very legitimacy of the U.N. But, the truth is, it's not about reform. America's U.N. ambassador is a diplomat, not a bureaucrat. He or she represents America's interests and engages with the international community. That's it. He or she does not spend his or her time working to reform the entire institution. As Thomas Friedman, who is annoying right on so many issues, puts it in today's New York Times, "'Reforming the U.N.' is without question one of the most tired, vacuous conservative mantras ever invented." Friedman makes a strong case, however obvious given what we know of the man, that Bolton is the wrong man for the job. Whether or not the White House agrees, Bolton's nomination is stuck in neutral as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee continues its investigations. Hence the (lame) attempt to shift the debate to U.N. reform -- and away from the nominee himself. Given what's come out about Bolton, it might be a good strategy, better than backing down and admitting defeat (and a huge mistake), which the White House never likes to do. But it's just so transparent.

So is Bush's character when he spends his time with Abdullah and DeLay and revs up support for Bolton. What's next? A photo-op with Michael Jackson?

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Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Microsoft: Prepare to defenestrate!

From AP:

"Microsoft Corp. may rethink its decision to withdraw support for state legislation that would ban discrimination against gays and lesbians, Chairman Bill Gates says. In an interview with The Seattle Times, Gates said he was surprised by the fierce criticism that followed the company's decision to no longer back a state gay rights bill it had supported in previous years."

Yes, there's something wrong with that. Microsoft was once a leading corporate defender of same-sex relationships, at a time when it wasn't exactly popular to take such stances (not that it is now, to be sure, though it's becoming increasingly more acceptable to do so -- i.e., to reject intolerance). Given Microsoft's relatively liberal past, I'm not yet prepared to give up on them -- and, besides, I'm not one to boycott lightly -- but I understand that this may be yet another reason to switch to Apple (as Mac users have been trying to persuade me to do for years, despite the convenience of Windows). It's just so pathetic -- and disappointing, despite low expectations to start with -- to see the world's most powerful company, and the world's richest man, succumb to such pressure and back away from doing the right thing.

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The revenge of the moderates

They're back!

After years in the wilderness, drowned out by the loud voices of extremism, moderates are finally returning to prominence in American politics. Yes, both Bush and Kerry played to the center leading up to last year's presidential election, but they did so largely to try to carve out narrow victories in swing states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida. I have little doubt that both Bush and Kerry are moderates of the center-right and center-left, respectively, however much Bush has been pulled to the right by his evangelical base and neoconservative boosters, but the nature of American politics -- and, in particular, of presidential politics -- is such that both Republican and Democratic candidates tend to play to the more extremist elements in their parties, especially in the primaries. I have already complained vigorously about these "drunk" extremes, and I won't repeat myself here. Suffice it to say that moderates are, finally, as mad as hell. And, hopefully, they're not going to take it anymore. According to E.J. Dionne, in today's Washington Post, what we're witnessing now is a replay of pre-1992, when Perot emerged as a centrist alternative to the left-right stalemate and Clinton successfully ran as a centrist New Democrat, tapping very much into that same sense of middle- of-the-road alienation. Writes Dionne:
  • The accepted view in politics is that moderates don't get angry, don't scream and don't demonstrate. Politics these days is said to be dominated by ideological enthusiasts. Moderates are thought of as people who sit on the sidelines and decide which batch of true believers they can most easily live with. But something important has happened since President Bush's inauguration. America's moderates may not be screaming, but they're in revolt. Many who reluctantly supported the president and the Republicans in 2004 are turning away. The party's agenda on Social Security, judges and the Terri Schiavo case is out of touch with where moderate voters stand. Worse for Bush and his party, most moderates have a practical, problem-solving view of government and think these issues are far less important than shoring up a shaky economy and improving living standards.

Is this just a mirage? Maybe. But Bush's problems -- from the failure of his social security privatization scheme (which is going nowhere, fast) to his loss of traction on foreign policy (notice how little is being said about Iraq these days?) to his association with the moral absolutists in Congress (notably in the Schiavo case) to the Democrats' admirable resistance to Republican efforts to do away with the filibuster in the Senate (and thereby push through extremist judicial nominees) -- are real. It was 9/11 and the so-called "war on terror," successfully manipulated to portray Bush as a "war" leader, that allowed Bush to get through a disastrous first term without plunging approval ratings. It was the trumped-up fear of imminent terrorism that won the election for Bush, not "moral values". Who knows? There may be another terrorist attack, or there may be another foreign crisis that can be manipulated to Bush's gain. But it now seems that the honeymoon is finally over. And what we're witnessing is the return of reality-based reality, not the faith-based reality favoured by Bush-pumping ideologues on the right. And the reality-based reality is that most Americans, and especially most moderate Americans who inhabit the silent majority of the center, do not agree with Bush on most core issues. They reject his pandering to the evangelical right, they reject his class warfare, and they finally seem to be realizing that there isn't much going on behind the farce known as the war on terror. Plus, they recoil from the extremism of the Republican Party.

Conservatives like to think that America is a conservative place. It may be, in a sense. I have no doubt that most Americans loathe taxes, prefer smaller, less intrusive government, support their military, reject utopian schemes of both the left and right, and are generally quite proud and patriotic to be American. (Yes, we Canadians could learn a lot from America's conservatism.) But, on the whole, Americans are also tolerant and just, and, in the end, they know bullshit when they smell it. And, right now, Bush and the Republican Party are stinking up Washington with massive budget deficits, a ballooning national debt, highly intrusive government, poorly planned military excursions, chauvenistic unilateralism, and the twin utopian schemes of domestic evangelical theocracy and global American hegemony (which may or may not be equally theocratic). As I've said before, there's nothing conservative about any of that, no matter how hard conservatives try to justify themselves.

A sign of the times: A recent poll conducted by Democracy Corps, a Democratic organization, shows Bill Clinton ahead of George W. Bush in a hypothetical 2008 presidential election by the substantial margin of 53 to 43 percent.

The real center of American politics, not the false center mythologized by the right-wing media, is there for the taking, and, with Bush ever more exposed for what he is and what he stands for, Democrats are poised to move back in, as they did in '92. But it won't be easy. Moderates take comfort, but don't back down.

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Monday, April 25, 2005

The march of freedom?

Best buddies: President Bush and
Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah at
the ranch in Crawford. Posted by Hello

Quiz: What's more important?

a) liberty
b) democracy
c) human rights
b) lower oil prices

The picture speaks for itself, no?

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Conservatism in America: Embarrassment of riches or monolithic evil?

(Hey, two posts in a row and not a papabile in sight!)

A few weeks ago, New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks – one of just two “conservatives” on that lofty, high-falutin’ op-ed page (John Tierney, William Safire’s successor, is the other) – wrote that the recent success of conservatism in America may be attributed to its internal diversity:

“Conservatives have not triumphed because they have built a disciplined and efficient message machine. Conservatives have thrived because they are split into feuding factions that squabble incessantly. As these factions have multiplied, more people have come to call themselves conservatives because they've found one faction to agree with.”

“In disunity there is strength,” he concludes.

I have found two interesting responses from the left to Brooks’s column, one from Mark Schmitt, who blogs as "The Decembrist" (see link, right), the other from Jon Chait, filling in for Noam Scheiber at The New Republic’s "&c." blog. Schmitt agrees with Brooks, Chait doesn’t. Typically, I’m somewhere in the middle.

1) Schmitt – a senior fellow at the New America Foundation (see link, right), one of Washington’s finer think-tanks – makes the following points, inter alia:

"I'm familiar with the right and it's think tanks and magazines, and I know what goes on in them. What goes on is that people argue. They argue endlessly, not just about their philosophies (because, frankly, very few people think in those terms even if they've read all their Oakeshott and Burke and Hayek), but about practical politics and policies. Sometimes they stop speaking to each other, and sometimes, having aired their disagreements, they find a way to work together. They learn, they adapt, they develop their voice. They argue for their viewpoints knowing that no one viewpoint will dominate."

"What I'm talking about here, and what Brooks is talking about, is not partisan unity or disunity, which is a separate question… I'm talking about the process by which ideas and ideology are developed. Many of those who want to build up the "progressive intellectual infrastructure" see the right-wing institutions, such as the American Enterprise Institute and magazines such as the Weekly Standard as simply part of a disciplined message infrastructure. That leads to a particular conclusion about what a counterpart would look like. And it's wrong: those institutions are loci of great internal debate. Does that debate then lead to ideological clarity, which can be the basis for greater partisan unity later? Absolutely."

2) Chait points out that Brooks’s argument "hinges" on his assertion that "[t]he major conservative magazines -- The Weekly Standard, National Review, Reason, The American Conservative, The National Interest, Commentary -- agree on almost nothing". However, two of these magazines, Reason (libertarian) and The American Conservative (populist), aren’t "conservative". So, as is often the case, Brooks has conveniently stacked the deck:

"If you look at the major organs of conservative opinion, you'd start with the Standard and National Review, add in The Wall Street Journal editorial page, and probably include columnists like Brooks, George Will, Charles Krauthammer, and Robert Novak. You could toss in The Washington Times editorial page and, arguably, talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. Depending on your definition, you could add or subtract from this group and have a good sense of all the opinion outlets that wield any significant influence over the conservative movement and the Republican Party.

"So, what major issues do these conservative intellectuals disagree on? They all supported the Iraq war, with the exception of Novak, who has tellingly muted his criticism. They all supported every one of Bush's tax cuts and Social Security privatization. They all clucked their tongues at Bush's Medicare drug benefit but, like the White House, have refused to recognize any connection between the deficit and Bush's tax cuts. They all passionately supported Bush's judicial nominees. They all basically endorse Karl Rove's political strategy. They all see Bush as a towering Churchillian figure of compassion, wisdom, vision, homespun virtue, and basic decency.

"Basically, these organs agree on everything--certainly every major political issue of the last five years."

He concludes:

"[O]n every important debate of his presidency, Bush has enjoyed a solid phalanx of conservative pundits all repeating the same talking points on his behalf. It's a successful arrangement. It also worked for the Comintern, for a while. I'm sure the communist intellectuals who relentlessly backed Moscow's every move liked to flatter themselves by insisting they were a bunch of squabbling freethinkers, too."


Each of these views is partly true. There is a good deal of diversity within the so-called conservative movement. Like Schmitt, I know some of what goes on in that movement because I have been a part of it for many years. Not as a conservative myself – although I am conservative in some fundamentally important ways and do not automatically reject the label – but as a Straussian at the University of Toronto. I have long argued that Leo Strauss was not a conservative as that term is presently understood in America’s left-right spectrum and that not all Straussians are conservatives, let alone neoconservatives, despite efforts on the left to link us all together under one banner. Straussians are actually a fairly diverse, loose-knit collection of academics, policy wonks, public intellectuals, and government officials who have some connection, now via several degrees of separation, back to Strauss (that is, he took a course with so-and-so, who studied with so-and-so, who was one of Strauss’s students way back when…).

Paul Wolfowitz and Bill Kristol are often tagged as two of the most visible Straussians – even though the former is only a Straussian by association and the latter is more of a neoconservative than anything else – but saying that all Straussians agree with them, and their right-wing ilk, is like saying that all Christians agree with the pope. For my part, I might, like Wolfowitz and Kristol, trace a good deal of my academic ancestry back to Strauss, but, unlike them, I would describe myself as a liberal Straussian with somewhat conservative philosophical inclinations. I am enormously indebted to the work of Strauss and his students, not to mention to my Straussian teachers at the University of Toronto, Clifford Orwin and Thomas Pangle, but Straussian political thought, and a Straussian understanding of (and appreciation for) the history of political philosophy, is not inextricably linked to conservative politics. My current affiliation may be with the Democratic Party, but what I really want in this context is for liberalism to re-emerge as an effective counter-balance to conservatism. Simply, the pendulum has swung too far to the right.

Regardless, what I can say with confidence is that what I know of conservatism – beyond the ranting and raving and drooling of the O'Reillys, Limbaughs, Hannitys, Coulters, Malkins, etc. (ad nauseam) – is intellectually diverse and self-reflective. In this sense, Brooks and Schmitt are right. And this regeneration of conservatism stems, I suspect, from being out of favour in American life for decades. After all, it was accepted without much question that liberalism in the vein of FDR and LBJ was America's only true political philosophy. To its credit, the American right rediscovered itself in the '70s behind such influential publications as The Public Interest and with the support of wealthy donors (which always helps mightily when you want to get something done).

To a point, then, Schmitt is right to say that conservatives argue amongst themselves endlessly. And that diversity and tension is indeed a source of their strength. But what conservatives have discovered is that it is possible to maintain diversity of thought behind a unified front. (Schmitt, too, acknowledges that there is much partisan unity among conservatives.) This is how they have been able to translate intellectual diversity and productive debate into political success, as the Republican Party has effectively become the bottleneck for conservative thought in America. Meanwhile, on the other side, liberals have grown smug and self-righteous, and they have not learned to put aside their internecine squabbles for the sake of unity. This is why they often look disorganized, discombobulated, and, at times, simply unelectable.

Contrary to Brooks's assertions – and who is he exactly to give advice to liberals? – liberals do need a more effective message machine, a unified front along the lines of what has worked so well for the Republican Party. In America's bipolar political climate, where it's one side or the other, you need to stand up to force with equal or greater force if you have any hope of winning. That's just the way the game is played.

With Chait, however, I would agree that Brooks overplays the diversity of conservatism. As healthy as it may be, it is in danger of stagnating, if not finally collapsing upon itself or at least breaking apart into warring tribes. The signs are already out there. Power, which corrupts, will do that to any movement, and the evangelical right-turn that the Republicans seem to be taking (moral absolutism, anti-judiciary populism, etc.), even as it continues to wage class warfare on behalf of its libertarian, supply-side wing (the wing with all the money), is nothing if not evidence of almost absolute power corrupting almost absolutely. If conservatism is all about sustaining the electoral successes of the Republican Party, as seems to be the case with such partisan outposts as The Weekly Standard, then it won't for much longer be what Brooks thinks it is. What passes for conservatism in the United States may not be the Comintern, but it’s certainly moving in that direction – which means that it isn’t really all that conservative anymore, it's becoming (if it isn't already) just another utopian ideology bound to wreak havoc on the world stage before finally succumbing to exhaustion and ending up in the dustbin of history. (There's nothing conservative about neoconservatism.)

Brooks, a partisan who has no interest in seeing the Democrats gain ground, advises liberals to focus their energies on introspection rather than on electoral success. Well, that figures. He’s like the anti-religious Machiavelli advising Pope Leo X in The Prince to focus the Church’s energies on prayer and salvation rather than on politics. But liberals need both to follow Brooks's advice (which many are already doing, for the sake of re-energizing liberalism as a healthy, diverse, and profoundly American alternative to the conservative ascendancy of the last couple of decades) and to build an effective "front" that can translate internal diversity into political success.

Liberals want liberalism to succeed in the real world, after all, not just to be a think-tank curiosity. So should the rest of America.

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Sunday, April 24, 2005

On comedy: You might be an idiot if...

Okay. Let's take a breather. I didn't necessarily have a specific vision of what this blog would become, other than a vehicle for commentary on a variety of topics, but, obviously, it's been overwhelmingly pope-related thus far. There are other "pope" blogs out there, believe it or not, but I've certainly done my bit, and, as I mentioned yesterday, there's yet more to come.

But let's change it up a bit. Roger Waters once commented that the biggest problem with The Wall -- Pink Floyd's masterpiece and, in my view, one of the greatest albums of all time, perhaps rivalled only by Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon and The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band -- is that it lacks a sense of humour. Which is to say, it lacks comedy. Can I not say the same thing about The Reaction? Too much gravitas, not enough laughter. And when my favourite TV shows are Seinfeld, The Simpsons, The Family Guy, and The Daily Show (not to mention great BBC comedies like Yes, Minister, Yes, Prime Minister, and the Blackadder series), and when I can make the case that Woody Allen is one of the true geniuses of American cinema (with Annie Hall and Manhattan among my top-15 favourite movies of all time), I wonder if I'm being true to myself (and diverse enough as a blogger) with all this deadly serious talk of world-historical events, limit situations, moral absolutism, and the dictatorship of relativism. (Not to mention John Bolton, who's not funny at all.) Alas... perhaps not entirely.

So let's talk comedy, and begin with a trivia question:

Who is the best-selling comedy recording artist of all-time?

Jerry Seinfeld? Bob Newhart? Richard Pryor? Bill Cosby? Lenny Bruce? George Carlin? Steve Martin?

Uh, no. Based on album sales, the #1 comedy artist of all time (in the U.S.) is:

Jeff Foxworthy.

Yup, Jeff Foxworthy. As in "You might be a redneck if..." In total, he has sold -- wait for it -- 15 million albums. Yup, 15 million albums. According to a recent piece in Slate, Foxworthy has successfully tapped into the surge of country music -- really, the surge of country-music culture that includes Nascar and other such red-state amusements detested by elitist coastal liberals (such as the author of The Reaction) -- that has in recent years refashioned the American entertainment industry as much as hip-hop (Clinton, Gore, and, to a much lesser extent, Kerry tapped into this surge in order to try to prove their all-American bona fides, so mainstream has the country-music culture become -- unlike hip-hop, which is often perceived, wrongly, as un-American, and, rightly, as somehow a threat to mainstream culture -- not necessarily a bad thing). His 1997 sitcom, a shameless effort to capitalize on his country-music credentials by going "mainstream," may have failed miserably, but, according to Slate, he now markets himself as a spoken-word country artist, rather than as a straightforward comedian, hosts a popular country-music radio show, and plays "a wide range of casinos, country-music gigs, and rodeos". His albums can be found in the country-music sections of record stores, alongside the genre's superstars, rather than in the abandoned recesses of the comedy section. And he has aligned himself with... Wal-Mart, evil-of-corporate-evils, where his albums are "prominently displayed".

I don't know why this interests me. Probably because I expect more from comedy than self-referential redneck humour that appeals to good ol' Bush voters in the former Confederacy. I don't expect Lenny Bruce, but is comedy-as-social commentary too much to ask for? Or comedy-as-political satire? Or comedy-as-reflection on the human condition? Or even comedy-as-limit-pushing observations of the world? Good comedy -- even good physical humour, as in the work of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton -- comes from the fringes of society, which is why, it has been argued, so many of America's leading comedians have been Jews and Canadians. Even Seinfeld's comedy about nothing offers subtle commentary on (and criticism of) the myriad banalities of modern life -- actually, it's comedy about everything. But Foxworthy speaks to those who have no interest in questioning themselves or the world around them. For them, comedy is a diversion -- a healthy one, perhaps, but still a mindless diversion. They're rednecks, after all, and they live in oblivion. Jeff Foxworthy is their comedian. To me, he's a harmless, good-natured, and occasionally amusing nuisance. More troubling, though, he's a cultural indicator of the state of America in 2005.

It's enough to make you cry.

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Bolton update: More good news

It looks more and more like Bolton's going down:

The Washington Post (click here): "The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has set a vote on John R. Bolton's nomination as ambassador to the United Nations for May 12 -- a delay that Bush administration officials acknowledged yesterday is increasing their anxieties about Bolton's prospects." Good stuff. The more anxious, the better. Signs of desperation: Cheney has come out of his underground bunker to counter Powell's now-public reservations about Bolton's nomination, and various right-wing groups are poised to attack Senator Voinovich and other Republicans who side with the Democrats. Yes, friends, they're turning on their own in order to purify themselves, their party, and their movement. The end is near.

More from the Post: "Republican sources on the Foreign Relations panel said that one of the committee's GOP senators, Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), told colleagues she is particularly troubled by the allegation that Bolton, as a private lawyer in 1994, became so angry at a government contractor that he chased her through a Moscow hotel, hurling objects and verbal threats, and later spread rumors about her." Nice guy, eh?

The New York Times (click here): "Recently declassified e-mail messages provide new details of the bruising battle that John R. Bolton, then an under secretary of state, waged with analysts at the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency in 2002 as he sought to deliver a speech reflecting a hard-line view of Cuba and its possible efforts to acquire biological weapons." Yet more evidence of Bush Administration evidence-manipulation leading up to the Iraq invasion. It's one thing to get it wrong, as many governments and intelligence services did, quite another to manipulate the evidence and thereby mislead the American people (and the rest of us). Where's the outrage?

There will be more reprehensible nominations to come, not least for the Supreme Court. Let's hope the Democrats are able to maintain this momentum. And let's hope that at least some good and decent Republicans have the courage to do the right thing.

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Habemus papam, Part I: How did Ratzinger win?

Just how did this man win? Posted by Hello

(This is the first of at least two posts on the recent papal election. Whereas this one looks at the election itself, the next will address the reaction to Ratzinger’s victory and the views of Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) himself, with particular attention on what he has called the “dictatorship of relativism”. In our media-saturated culture, the papal election is already a long-forgotten story, but it is important, in my view, to continue to think seriously about what happened, and why, and what it all means. The story may go away, after all, but the substance remains. And the substance of such a world-historical event is nothing if not important to us all.)

I picked Tettamanzi (Italy), but it was Ratzinger (Germany) who, after the smoke had cleared, emerged on that balcony last Tuesday as Pope Benedict XVI to give his Urbi et Orbi blessing as the new head of the Roman Catholic Church. Ratzinger was my second choice – at least in terms of prediction, if not personal preference. My reasoning was that Razinger, one of the heavy favourites (if not the favourite) going into the conclave, would not be able to secure the two-thirds super-majority needed for victory, despite strong initial support from loyalists; that an alliance of liberals, moderates, and reform-minded cardinals, including Martini (Italy), Antonielli (Italy), Kasper (Germany), and Danneels (Belgium), would resist Ratzinger’s candidacy; and that, barring the emergence of a leading anti-Ratzinger candidate, such as Martini, a compromise candidate would emerge as a “third way” between the two entrenched camps. I did not think that that “third way” candidate would be, say, Arinze (Nigeria), nor any of the Latin Americans, such as Hummes (Brazil) or Maradiaga (Honduras). On the contrary, as I argued in a recent post, I thought that the papacy would stay in Europe, likely back in Italy, and that Tettamanzi – or, as a long-shot, Policarpo (Portugal) – would end up being elected.

As it turned out, however, Ratzinger won quickly – and easily. From what I can pull together from various sources in the international press (most basing their own accounts on post-conclave interviews and press conferences with several of the cardinal-electors, or, better, on insider information gathered by well-connected Italian vaticanistas), Ratzinger was much more of a favourite going in to the conclave than most had imagined. As dean of the College of Cardinals and head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Ratzinger was essentially John Paul’s #2. During John Paul’s long illness, stretching back quite a few years, he may even have been the unofficial #1. He was, therefore, John Paul’s natural successor, and, given both the length and breadth of John Paul’s papacy, not to mention the fact that John Paul had appointed most of the cardinal-electors himself, it makes sense, in the end, that those electors chose their own dean, the one papabile most likely to carry on in the spirit of John Paul’s papacy.

Although the conclave’s proceedings, not to mention the actual results of the four ballots (the first Monday afternoon, two Tuesday morning, the last Tuesday afternoon), remain shrouded in secrecy, reports in Italy’s La Repubblica indicate that both Ratzinger and Martini received around 40 votes on the first ballot – in fact, Martini may even have received more votes than Ratzinger on the first ballot. However, Ratzinger’s total may have been as high as 50. In addition, Sodano and various other Italian cardinals secured a few votes each, according to Italy’s Corriere della Serra, and, among the non-Europeans, Bergoglio (Argentina) is reported to have received a “handful” of votes. This much I more or less anticipated, though I expected Hummes or Maradiago to do at least fairly well as a Latin American alternative. What didn’t happen, however, was the expected showdown – and stalemate – between Ratzinger and, say, Martini, with a “third way” emerging after several ballots. On the contrary, reports indicate that Ratzinger’s support increased from ballot to ballot. No Latin American put up any real opposition, Tettamanzi never emerged as a compromise “moderate,” and Martini’s “liberal” supporters ended up switching over to Ratzinger by Tuesday morning. By Tuesday afternoon, according to La Repubblica, just ten or so cardinals were left in opposition to Ratzinger, and, needless to say, he was able to secure more than enough votes on the fourth ballot to win a decisive victory. Indeed, Ratzinger may have received as many as 107 votes on the fourth ballot, and likely no less than 90, well above the super-majority threshold of 77.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Ratzinger “arrived with a solid base of votes that staved off the emergence of any real challenger, culminating a juggernaut of a campaign months in the making”. Fair enough. What is interesting, however, is that John L. Allen, Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter and perhaps America’s leading vaticanista, did not list Ratzinger among the top ten papabili in his invaluable (and highly recommended) 2002 book Conclave (revised 2004), although he was mentioned as one of “Fifteen to Watch”. Allen cited Ratzinger’s gravitas, fame (“the best-known cardinal in the world”), and closeness to John Paul II, but determined that “his candidacy would run afoul of the pendulum law” (i.e., always follow a fat pope with a skinny pope, as the saying goes). As we have seen, however, the cardinal-electors seem not to have been too concerned about “the pendulum law”. What they were looking for was continuity.

Prior to the conclave, Allen identified three key complex “voting issues” facing the cardinals: governance, secularity, and Islam. Ratzinger qualified as a leading candidate with respect to two of these issues: governance and security. First, as a long-standing official of the Vatican curia, the Church bureaucracy, Ratzinger will likely “govern” the Church in a way that John Paul, who was more concerned with travelling and evangelizing than with running the Church’s day-to-day operations, didn’t. Second, prior to his election as pope, Ratzinger seemed to believe that Western secularism was the key crisis facing the Church; in his homily delivered just hours before the cardinals entered the Sistine Chapel, he now famously declared war on secularism in all of its pernicious (in his view) manifestations (including Marxism, liberalism, collectivism, radical individualism, and agnosticism – all essentially aspects of “relativism”).

But what may have put Ratzinger over the top – swept into the papacy by a veritable landslide – was what Allen called “the funeral effect”. The incredible outpouring of devotion surrounding John Paul’s death (and funeral) must have set the tone for the conclave. With so much love for John Paul, with so many issues to consider, with so many different forces pushing and pulling on the Church, with so many capable papabili from so many different parts of the world, with no clear front-runner, and with the entire world watching via media (such as the internet) that no conclave had ever known, the cardinals-electors went with the closest papabile to John Paul, someone who would, for all intents and purposes, carry on what John Paul had begun. Ratzinger – now Benedict XVI – may not be a John Paul’s clone, as his German nemesis Kasper has suggested, but he was John Paul’s most obvious successor and, in the conclave, the easy pick. (Kasper, by the way, made Allen's top-ten list in Conclave.) For all the talk in the Western press about the “political” aspects of Ratzinger’s election – notably the often misrepresented conservative-liberal divide, with the apparent victory of conservative elements in the Church – Ratzinger may simply have been the right man in the right place at the right time. The election of a non-European, or of a reformer looking to take the Church in a new direction, will have to wait until at least the next papal election, whenever that may be.

Note: I have benefitted immensely from some fine reporting, analysis, and commentary on the papabili and the papal election in a number of major publications, including The New Republic and various other American, Canadian, British, and European newspapers and magazines, but especially from John L. Allen’s excellent reporting from Rome for NCR. For some of his work related to the content of this post, see here and here.

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