Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Legacy of "Conservatism"

An interesting question: what now amid the wreckage can be seen as the legacy of "conservative" governance over the past 38 years (from the time of Reagan's ascendance) - what did it accomplish? The answer that begs to be spoken: not much. Or maybe: too much (destruction).

By standard measures the record looks poor. While the stock market is higher than it was in the 1980s, a good deal of its rise was the result of the fiscally responsible Clinton 90's. The national mood is about where it was at the end of Carter's term. Military morale is likely higher than it was when Reagan took office, but it's not soaring, and military families are bearing the huge brunt of our "war" against terror. More or less unlimited abortion remains the law of the land - though the actual numbers of abortions dropped during the Clinton presidency. Meanwhile, our culture is coarser, more baldly pornographic and replete with sarcasm. Most young people get their news from "The Daily Show" or the "Colbert Report." Many of America's major industries - banking, airlines, automobiles, and most of its manufacturing base - is catatonic. Oil prices - while they have dropped in anticipation of our descent into a new Depression - remain historically high, and will rise again when economic activity reasserts itself, since the fundamental story remains supply constraint and the growth of China and India. We import a far greater percentage of oil for domestic consumption now than when the "conservative era" began: approximately 28% in 1981, compared to 67% now. Recall that one of Ronald Reagan's first official acts upon assuming the Presidency was to tear down the solar panels that Jimmy Carter had had installed. The size of government has everywhere increased; the national deficit is larger than ever; our indebtedness to foreign nations is massive; housing foreclosures are rampant, housing values are plummeting, and people are more insecure than I've seen in my lifetime. We are on the verge of witnessing the largest government bailout of "private" industry in the nation's history, an act being urged by a "conservative" President and the barons of Wall Street.

But still - we will be told that THE great legacy of conservative governance, and Ronald Reagan especially, was the defeat of the Soviet Union. Well, yes. But really - did we win? For twenty years we have crowed about the fall of the Soviet Union, and it was right to celebrate its demise. But did their defeat really constitute our "victory?" The story is that Reagan defeated the Soviets by massively increasing defense spending, resulting in their effort to keep up and subsequent financial strains that could not be sustained. To achieve this end, Reagan increased spending without cutting significantly elsewhere in the budget, committing us to years of deficits that were momentarily brought under control by Clinton. At the same time, he abandoned Carter's commitment to make us energy independent from "foreign oil" (read: oil), setting up our current military engagements in that area of "vital national interests" - the Middle East. That money pit is draining billions of dollars from our national pockets, a legacy of what was once quaintly called "the peace dividend."

However, this narrative may not even be quite true, as I've written about previously. A number of analysts (some with solid conservative credentials) have argued that what actually defeated the Soviets was America's ability to persuade the Saudi's to flood the markets with oil, thereby leading the Soviet's resource-based economy to collapse. If so, this was likely a Pyhrric victory, since current constraints in Saudi production (accelerated by the overproduction in the 1980s) are helping to make those same natural gas and oil reserves in Russia immensely valuable. Their increasing wealth - dominated by a small cadre of strong nationalists - is supporting a reassertion of national power and international ambitions (e.g., their recent "deal" with Venezuela). They have proven that we can't do anything about their sphere of influence (Georgia) but that they can play in our backyard.

One thing is certain: the American century is officially over. It may be the Chinese or the Russian century, or the beginning of the second Dark Age. But yesterday we saw clearly that we've all been fiddling while America drowned.

What must Vlad be thinking as he watches America's financial collapse and its own descent into socialism? Perhaps he is reflecting on the vaunted Russian sense of history, its understanding that nations rise and fall, and that Russia was never to be counted out. Perhaps he is paging through old clippings of American leaders declaring victory, crowing about a "uni-polar" world, the "indispensable" nation, the new Rome (perhaps he smiles, "how fitting"). Regardless, from his perspective - and ours - one rightly wonders about the legacy of the rise of a peculiar "conservatism" that was defined by a kind of Emersonian optimism, financial profligacy, disregard of conservation, neglect of culture in the name of "freedom" and individualism, the dismantling of jobs done by hand, and a disregard of history. It is breathtaking to consider.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Peak Education

A few - very few - in the world of the university are beginning to catch on. Sheltered as (we think) we are from the slings and arrows of worldly fortune, most of us blithely work under the assumption that what matters most is how many times our names appear in the index of obscure books published by obscure academics, and not some fundamental material conditions that have led to the rise of the contemporary university in its current form. As I've written here in a post over a year and a half ago, the end of the era of cheap energy (and therefore cheap money) means the end of higher education as we have known it. Then I wrote, "An issue close to home to readers of this essay, as it were, will be significant implications and challenges for higher education. Elite institutions have increasingly embraced a role as global or cosmopolitan institutions. As globalization itself declines, these institutions will necessarily return to a more local identification, including their student bodies and even faculty. Cosmopolitanism as a governing philosophy will again be the fancies of slightly kooky philosophers [e.g., Diogenes]. However, before this happens, the era of ever-growing endowments will end, and with it, the growth of the modern University. Those institutions that survive will nevertheless shrink, and the educational objective will return to providing an education for the benefit of localities and regions rather than for a globalized economy. The land-grant institutions, in particular, will return to their original mission and will bear a special responsibility in re-educating a populace in the arts of farming and cultivation."

Right on schedule, someone else has noticed the "Great Downsizing" is underway. An article in today's "Inside Higher Education" bears the tidings that "the party's over" (this happens to be the title of a book by Richard Heinberg on Peak Oil, as well). Its author notes that all of the sources of monetary expansion that have driven growth of the university system over the past fifty-plus years are about to decrease - the ability to raise tuition; endowment growth through fundraising; reliance on public funds. He also notes that the fantastic growth through market investments is also going to slow to a standstill and even reverse for the foreseeable future.

The author, Timothy Burke, also rightly notes that this decrease in higher education's monetary base will also have tremendous implications on the role and mission of the university, though he wryly notes that "I'm not hearing a lot of preparation for what higher education will look like if growth is over." It's not just a matter of belt-tightening - "There’s a different mindset involved." Among these changes in thinking that will be required are reconsiderations about the reality of "growth" of knowledge creation, mostly a phantasm by which growth of disciplines and faculty, as well as increasingly specialized journals publishing unread articles, is a stand-in for actual "knowledge creation." The most important challenge we face - not only in academia, but throughout the nation - is to face the reality that the era of easy and thoughtless growth is over. After all, when something biological grows forever, we call it cancer. Burke writes, "I think the most important but subtle thing that has to happen is just that every stakeholder in academia is going to have to develop new mental habits, to stop assuming or believing that growth is the default. At least at selective institutions, I find that in everyday conversation about curricular questions, administrative choices, and so on, the assumption of growth or plenitude is deeply ingrained."

While this essay is on the mark on many points, what is remarkable is how "deeply ingrained" reigning assumptions are even in the mind of this insightful author. He fails to mention, even in passing, that "the end of growth" will mean a fundamental re-thinking of the current mission of the university (notice how difficult it is for him to forswear the language of "progress"). He fails to connect the reality that this will impose on university budgets and research assumptions with how and what we will have to teach our students in the future. Most of us are incapable of entertaining the idea that growth will cease, and thus we're wholly unprepared to live in a world where that fact reigns. As Wendell Berry asked 2007's graduating class at Bellarmine College, oops, University (another grandiose term we'll have to downsize), "What more than you have so far learned will you need to know in order to live at home? (I don’t mean 'home' as a house for sale.) If you decide, or if you are required by circumstances, to live all your life in one place, what will you need to know about it and about yourself? At present our economy and society are founded on the assumption that energy will always be unlimited and cheap; but what will you have to learn to live in a world in which energy is limited and expensive? What will you have to know – and know how to do – when your community can no longer be supplied by cheap transportation? Will you be satisfied to live in a world owned or controlled by a few great corporations? If not, would you consider the alternative: self-employment in a small local enterprise owned by you, offering honest goods or services to your neighbors and responsible stewardship to your community?"

There is tremendous upside to this confrontation with limits, itself a salutary lesson that was once at the heart of a liberal arts education. How much healthier for us all if we released some of the pressure from the higher education balloon, returning it to its role and function as the place where civic elites and the intellectual classes received a decent training in the liberal arts, classic works of literature and art, and the arts of responsibility that are the hallmark of those privileged with the gift of higher education? How much better if admission to a few elite schools weren't interpreted to signify success or failure in the global sweepstakes to join the roving corporate class of itinerant vandals? How much better for our children (and ourselves) if they had a proper perspective on the benefits of a university education, viewing it rightly as the time and place for refinement and learning, not the capstone on a young lifetime of resume padding?

We, the adults, the grown ups, the teachers and leaders as a whole, are woefully ill-equipped to prepare our students for a world in which they will have less growth, less wealth, and less "upward mobility" than recent generations. We view such a prospect as a horrible civilizational failure, rather than as an opportunity to live with dignity closer to home, exploiting the world less and fostering communities and ways of life where memory and care begin to reassert themselves. We are unprepared to return to a curriculum that transmits a culture that has at its core the recognition of limits, care, and fidelity, rather than the wholly thoughtless rejection of culture in the name of "growth." Thus, because we refuse - are incapable - of recognizing the future we are entering, we are above all ill-prepared to equip our students for the great challenge and promise of this future, a future that most teachers will enter bitterly and grudgingly, viewing this time as one of failure and tragedy, a grand betrayal of everything they believed in. Essays such as this one may become more common in coming years, but until we face the real question of how we will begin to prepare our young to live in an age of growth's end, we will fail our students as surely as we have failed to educate ourselves.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Debating

I put words in McCain's and Obama's mouths over at the Culture 11 website. In it, implicitly I suggest that McCain should play to his strengths - using analogies of military self-sacrifice and his correctness about the "Surge" - to speak with authority about the economic crisis. Also - quite implausibly - I suggest that he should issue a national call for self-reflection about our own complicity in the crisis, and devote a McCain presidency to restoring virtues of frugality and self-governance. Unlikely, from a man who taunted Obama for suggesting that we could save gas by properly inflating our tires. Obama was right, and more generally, should have been praised for recommending ways that changes in our personal behavior can have significant public benefits.

By contrast, I suggest (again, implicitly) that Obama must overcome his greatest weakness - his inability to connect to "Red" America, or Reagan Democrats. I offer a bit of red meat populism, a call for an economy that rewards the lower and middle class, not the wealthiest, and an effort to paint these commitments as the most fundamental form of "traditional values." Obama began his campaign by an attempt to appeal to "values voters" and the Left swooned, but the fact is, he has never succeeded in attracting them (they seem to like the female candidates this year). He will likely win the election by default against a cratering economy and a clueless McCain, but his inability to draw these voters to his side intimates that he will be a one-term President unless he can build an electoral base that goes beyond easily-disillusioned and distracted college students.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Progressivism

The high priest of American progressivism was John Dewey. Dewey remains revered in education theory, as well as (increasingly) in Departments of Philosophy, Religion, and Political Science. He is admired for his rejection of doctrines or belief in unchanging Truths, of arguments based upon objective and unchangeable criteria. Rather, as a proponent of "pragmatism," Dewey sought to show that human interaction with the world and one another constantly altered each, leaving us constantly in the position of having to adjust our own approach to circumstances with the willingness of scientific experimentation.

Deep in the backdrop of his progressivism - necessarily - is a theory of progress. A theory of progress posits that some vanguard of civilization is necessarily more advanced than others - normally those who are open to the pragmatic approach and have overcome their antiquated adherence to a belief in unchanging truths. In this regard, Dewey shares fundamental progressive commitments and beliefs with the likes of Marx, Mill, and many contemporary liberal thinkers (e.g., Rawls). In its baldest moments, the basic presuppositions of this progressivism are revealed in all their boldness, and no amount of hedging and excuse-giving can circumvent this fact. In particular, such progressivism is based on two basic and abhorrent presuppositions: 1. the backwardness of "savages" (or, if you like, substitute "savage" with the term "people from small towns" or even "Wasilla" for a contemporary shorthand); and 2. a belief in the malleability (or, one of Dewey's favorite words, "plasticity") of the world, and hence justification of human mastery of nature and circumstance. To wit:

"Why does a savage group perpetuate savagery, and a civilized group civilization...? In a sense the mind of savage peoples is an effect, rather than a cause, of their backward institutions. Their social activities are such as to restrict their objects of attention and interest, and hence to limit the stimuli to mental development. Even as regards the objects that come within the scope of attention and interest, and hence to limit the stimuli to mental development. Even as regards the objects that come within the scope of attention, primitive social customs tend to arrest observation and imagination upon qualities which do not fructify in the mind. Lack of control of natural forces means that a scant number of natural objects enter into associated behavior. Only a small number of natural resources are utilized and they are not worked for what they are worth. The advance of civilization means that a larger number of natural forces and objects have been transformed into instrumentalities of action, into means for securing ends....

"A savage tribe manages to live on a desert plain. It adapts itself. But its adaptation involves a maximum of accepting, tolerating, putting up with things as they are [e.g., babies conceived with Down's syndrome?], a maximum of passive acquiescence, and a minimum of active control, of subjection to use. A civilized people enters upon the scene. It adapts itself. It introduces irrigation; it searches the world for plants and animals that will flourish under such conditions; it improves, by careful selection, those which are growing there. As a consequence, th wilderness blossoms as a rose. The savage is merely habituated; the civilized man has habits which transform the environment."

These passages are drawn from Dewey's book Democracy and Education. They form, at heart, the basic presuppositions of much of modern education, especially modern higher education. For all the claims to embrace "environmentalism" that one hears today on college campuses, the basic presupposition is that we can exercise our technology to be green - that we can invent devices and methods that will allow us to be "green" on autopilot. Behind these fantasies is still the dream of control and mastery - the very opposite of an attitude of "accepting, tolerating, putting up with things as they are ... and a minimum of active control, of subjection to use."

And, one sees a continuity between Dewey's time and our own of the view of a world divided between the "civilized" and the "savage." Belief in this division underlies the visceral dismissiveness and condescension exhibited towards the likes of Sarah Palin. Nothing is more horrifying than the prospect of the backward and uneducated - the "savage" - disrupting the dreams of progress. If McCain is disliked, Palin is abhorred, for precisely this reason. We should see this hatred for what it is - not simply the prospects of electoral defeat, but a clash of worldviews that pits the self-styled agents of civilization against the recidivism of the savage.

Whack a Mole

The Fed and Treasury's massive and unprecedented bailout of the financial industry has given momentary respite to the American economic system, but the assumption of over a trillion dollars in new public debt has now raised the specter of national insolvency and runaway inflation. The economy is still in decline and the only way that the government will "pay" for these bad loans is by printing money. Accordingly, the price of gold has jumped in the past week from the mid-$700's per ounce to $910, including a $45 per ounce jump today alone. The dollar has fallen over 2% against the Euro, meaning that we are effectively poorer relative to the world economy. In the meantime, oil has returned to being an alternative to the U.S. dollar - combined with the belief that an economy that doesn't outright collapse will again return absorb all available oil production - resulting in a rise in the price of oil as high as $23 to $127 bbl. Having prevented one crisis, we are fueling (no pun intended) the next crisis, particularly a reinflation of commodity prices and a corresponding drop in the purchasing power of Americans. Pick your poison - insolvency through financial collapse or commodity inflation.

While the drop in oil prices was interpreted by many as a passing of the insanity and the harbinger of a return to modest gas prices of previous decades, the fact remains that the long-term trend in oil prices is up - and way up. An article on today's Fortune/CNN website discusses oil investor and 2001 Cheney Energy Commission member Matthew Simmons educated view on the matter, who foresees a not-too-distant price of $500 bbl. If we think the economy is in danger of imploding due to bad debt, we ain't seen nothing yet. And, unlike our current situation, where salvation can come from overworking of government printing presses, there's no government program imaginable that can come up with a way to replace rapidly decreasing quantities of oil. Our military can expect to be working overtime - more than ever - to secure what overseas oil reserves are still underground, while we lazily and heedlessly continue our happy motoring paradise blithely unaware of the coming day when we won't be able to afford to fill our tanks with worthless dollars. Neither of our Presidential candidates dare speak the truth about this issue to the American electorate, with the one candidate who claims "country first" telling us that our future energy policy will be "drill, baby, drill" and the other candidate delusively pandering to the eco-Left by promising that we can run our military-industrial civilization on diffused sunlight and french fry oil. Neither is willing to level with the public that we have to change our behavior, because each knows that such a suggestion is the sure path to electoral defeat. Simmons, on the other hand - having no public office in his future - tells it like it has to be:

Simmons believes that a radical change in the way we live is inevitable. "We should basically be going back to creating a village economy, so that we really reduce the energy intensity of how we live," he says. "We need bigtime conservation, not feel-good conservation. Make things where they're used. You'll end long-distance commuting, and we have the tools to do that now with webcams. Grow food locally. Grow food in your backyard. If they're not commuting, people will have time to do that.


A democracy that cannot govern itself is arguably not a democracy at all, which makes the craven appeals that mark each candidate in the upcoming election less a symbol and accomplishment of our self-sovereignty than an indication of our enslavement to appetites over which we have no control. This latter condition was defined by the ancients as a condition of servitude, not liberty. Our leaders fear to tell us the truth, but their fear of electoral defeat pales in comparison to our unwillingness to level with ourselves.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Stick a Fork in Him

In the wake of the economic news, polls have tightened, but the most telling indicator of the direction of the election is the decline of PDS, "Palin Derangement Syndrome." The media has lost interest in playing "gotcha" because they largely realize that not only does Sarah not know anything about the current economic situation, but neither do they. Economic events have sucked all the air out of the room, and while many will complain that Obama does not have a great handle on the economic situation, it's above all clear that McCain is completely lost. His game plan - to crow about Iraq and scare us a bit about Iran - is in the dumpster. He has already admitted he doesn't know anything about the economy, and it's clear that this admission was the straightest talk we've gotten from him in quite some time.

Sarah's brief spot in the bright white glare and the bump in the polls that she induced did show that the path to Republican victory largely remains where it has been since the days of Nixon (read Pearlstein's Nixonland for some insight here): stoking resentments of lower- and middle-class white voters in the heartland against the eggheads in the big cities. Frankly, the eggheads walked clumsily and willingly right into the trap that McCain had set for them by naming Palin, showing that the strategy had legs (no pun intended). Deriding small town losers who believe in God and shoot guns is not the best strategy when you're trying to win a few counties in western Pennsylvania and southern Ohio. However, it's clear that other than stoking resentment, the Republican well is empty and the Democratic well is at least half full. It will be enough to win the election, if barely. While the Democrats will celebrate a victory, smarter heads should worry why it was so close in the first place.

A question remains: can either party move beyond either its Politics of Resentment or its Politics of Condescension? One of "my students," Matthew Sitman, has written a very fine essay on the need for conservatives to move beyond the narrow and caustic prejudices that often motivate the Politics of Resentment. The Left needs its own Sitman to encourage its better angels to move beyond the Politics of Condescension (a new Christopher Lasch, frankly). I predict that whichever party is able to do this in a genuine way will put together a winning coalition that will have legs for a good while. Obama will win mainly because he's not a Republican. That will not be enough to give any staying power to the Democratic coalition. To do so, Obama will either need to resist all his basic instincts and impulses to talk down to bitter people who cling to guns and religion, or the Democrats will have to come up with a better gameplan and a different candidate (Jim Webb, anyone?). The Republicans - perhaps blessed with some years in the wilderness - may have the benefit of thinking their way forward without the burden of ruling during some very challenging times. They have good talent in the minor league system with Ross Douthat, Reihan Salam, Yuval Levin, crunchies, and the likes of Matt Sitman, and some good potential younger candidates like Palin and Jindal. I don't see any corresponding strength in the Democratic minor league system - particulary in moving past the Politics of Condescension. Still, at the moment there is a populace without a Party. Game on.

It's All About YOU

Just in case there was any confusion, childbearing and childrearing is an act of personal expression. This is part of the inherent logic of extreme forms of liberal and libertarian autonomy, one which justifies marriage as a personal lifestyle choice (and thus fully disassociated from its communal and temporal dimensions, especially childbearing) and now tells us that childbearing itself is an expression of personal fashion. So writes Nicholas Provenzo on the website "Rule of Reason" where he asserts (condemning Sarah Palin for her choice to bear a child with Down's syndrome, a child she should have aborted):

that opportunity for challenge [of raising a child with Down's syndrome] is little more than a lifetime of endless burden. In this light, it is completely legitimate for a woman to look at the circumstances of her life and decide that having a child with Down syndrome (or any child for that matter) is not an obligation that she can accept. After all, the choice to have a child is a profoundly selfish choice; that is, a choice that is an expression of the parent's personal desire to create new life.


Viewing childbearing as "a profoundly selfish choice" tells us nearly everything we need to know about why birth rates in the "advanced" Western world has dropped below replacement rates. After all, how can anyone who simultaneously views children as a "burden" and a "selfish choice" really justify having children at all? That would be an illogical imposition on one's personal autonomy, after all - an unbearable burden.

Further - a point that comes out clearly in Provenzo's argument - the assumption that such a momentous obligation to the future and other human beings represents "a selfish choice" underlies the fundamental eugenicist assumptions at the root of this worldview. When we undertake any choice - including bearing children - for reasons of personal self-satisfaction, then like any consumer choice, we want the nicest fashion accessory possible. If choice dominates our calculus, then reasonably it should extend to exactly the kind of baby that I WANT. It's my selfish choice, after all. Thus, today according to Provenzo it's immoral and obscene to knowingly bear a child with Down's syndrome. Tomorrow it will be immoral and obscene to bear a child who will be short, who will have brown hair, who will not have the finest genetic package that money can buy. Gattaca meets Children of Men. Those with such "imperfections" will at times wish they had been aborted in a world in which they will be only good enough for a thrift store, a "seconds" sale, or the island of misfit toys. Anyone who doubts the return of a new eugenics needs only to read, and understand, the implications of arguments such as this.

Political Philosophy in the Details

With recent Fed and Treasury interventions to bail out the entire U.S. market, we can begin to see more clearly a fundamental truth about our economic and political system. It hides in plain view.

This crisis has revealed that our "free market" system is wholly skewed toward one object: growth and mastery. It is not a fundamentally free market, which presumably would be allowed to fall when conditions demanded. By absorbing the bad loans on the books of countless financial institutions, we have now officially revealed the basic philosophy of our economic system: privatized gain and socialized loss. By suspending short selling (betting AGAINST the market) it has been plainly revealed that the official stance toward our market system is to encouragement of increase. Neither the market nor the government are neutral about ends - as liberal theory purports to argue. Rather, THE fundamental end of human life under liberalism becomes economic growth, increase, and mastery of nature and circumstance.

A fundamental premise of liberalism itself stands revealed this week. Liberalism is a theory which holds that unleashed self-interest is a predictable driver of human behavior and can be harnessed to ensure stable political institutions and dynamic economic activity. Because it unleashes such dynamic activity, it allows for - indeed, encourages - massive differentiation of material conditions within society. Aristotle, for instance, and Aquinas following him, argued against such extremes of wealth and poverty in the name of commonweal. More fundamentally, Aristotle and Aquinas alike argued against unleashed self-interest inasmuch as its free rein led to the deformation of the human soul - a form of enslavement to the desires. Among its most pernicious effects was the incitement of envy and its cousin resentment (remember, the seven deadly sins? Dante wrote of envy that it was "love of one's own good perverted to a desire to deprive other men of theirs"). The founders of liberalism were sufficiently informed by the Christian tradition (in spite of their heterodoxy) to know that envy was a great challenge for a society defined by unleashed self-interest. Their answer was ingenious: envy could be minimized by the prospect of universal economic growth and increased overall gain. Locke sought to remind his readers that even a "day laborer" was immensely more wealthy than the richest Indian king in the Americas. A dynamic economic system reduced resentment by promising increase even to the poorest. A rising tide raises all boats, one might say, but more importantly, a rising tide renders resentments politically tractable.

Thus, liberalism prides itself on its neutrality to human ends and goods - purportedly. It claims that it cannot pronounce a preference for certain ends, and insists that it must remain neutral between competing claims about the good - whether religious, social, moral, etc. What this week's episode throws into relief, however, is that liberalism is NOT fundamentally neutral about ends, for what it seeks above all is the promotion of economic growth and material pursuit as the main activity of human activity. It can afford to be neutral about ends because by emphasizing that one end - growth and material gain - it effectively demotes all other ends. However, it tempts social and political turmoil by unleashing greed and envy, and controls them NOT by arguments for their temperance (as would the ancients and Christians), but by the structural promise of universal societal increase. Liberalism's raison d'etre is thus most fundamentally threatened when those conditions do not apply - when the pie shrinks and the society faces decrease. Liberal societies have almost always fallen apart under such conditions (witness Weimar, and the temptations to fascism and socialism during the Depression). Thus, in the midst of an election season when Pelosi and Reid and Paulson might not otherwise want to be seen together under any circumstance, the fact that they appear together reveals the deepest point of agreement in a society seemingly riven with political and philosophical differences. On this point - mastery, growth and increase - there can be no difference. Not merely a finger on the scales, but rather the heavy hand of government will weigh in as extensively as possible to forestall decrease. Correspondingly, no party of the government will call for virtue and restraint as a possible solution, since that would contradict the fundamental wellspring of human behavior necessary for increase and dominion (in a wholly ham-handed and inadequate way, Joe Biden came close, justifying a tax increase as a form of patriotism, but only one to be borne by the wealthy - thus implicitly suggesting that the poor and middle class were to be motivated by patriotism's opposite, self-seeking, since they are promised tax cuts). This week some of our most basic commitments have been revealed, though we are wont to miss them if we mistake them as mere "policy" and fail to see a more fundamental philosophy underlying public and private actions.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

How to Set New Highs on the Dow

Here's a recipe for success:

Remove AIG from the Dow 30. Add Kraft Foods. Stir.

If the Dow were still composed of its original dozen companies, its average would be hovering around zero - since most of its original companies no longer exist, and those that do are moribund. The only company from the original index still doing any work in the index is General Electric. Ironically, though, the original Dow was composed mainly of companies that produced commodities. Once America stopped producing things, the Dow had to change - and thus the current thirty stocks of the index include roughly a third that are devoted to finance or information technology - industries that don't actually produce anything. The addition of Kraft Foods - and particularly as a replacement for a financial company - is striking as a revealing throwback to the days of yore. What it reveals is a prediction on the part of the Dow Jones company that stuff will matter again - above all, food. While Kraft Foods is a massive producer and packager of industrial foods (once part of Philip Morris), it's still a good bet that its addition will help the Dow index rise in the future - since food is not going out of style in the way that derivatives are, and is only likely to rise in price in the future as we will once again discover that our biggest problem is not the disappearance of money, but the disappearance of the money-creator, petroleum. Thinking about it, including Kraft Foods in the Dow 30 is really like adding another oil company, given the that its "food" is really oil. So, it's a good bet that the index will go up and up.

Abstraction

Nearly every explanation of our current financial crisis eventually settles on the claim that the problem is most fundamentally due to housing. Our housing sector was floated on cheap money and bad loans, and as defaults increased a financial house of cards began tumbling down.

While it's certainly true that the most visible cause of this unraveling is attributable to the collapse of housing prices and mortgage defaults, reflection suggests that the root cause is deeper still: it lies in a culture of abstraction. At nearly every level this financial collapse was precipitated by transforming reality into abstraction, unmooring grounded commitments and obligations and fostering new patterns of fantastical behavior throughout the populace.

It begins with an altered perception of one's abode. A rootless people - abstracted from particular places and settled patterns of life - perceive their abodes as investments, as notional assets that are packaged and bartered. In the 1980s and 90's - at the height of the American build-out into the exurban wasteland, the transformation of farmland into cul-de-sacs, six-lane feeder roads and blighted vistas of strip malls and box stores - a generation of people clung to the advice of Martha Stewart on how to create a country home with both peasant and aristocratic touches by means of purchasing bedding and paint colors at K-Mart. Houses in developments called "Hunter's Glen" and "Meadow Run" - built usually by destroying whatever the development was named after, as Kunstler wryly has pointed out - were built in a faux Victorian or classical style, using materials that wouldn't likely last 25 years without need for replacement. Designed for indoor living, with professional kitchens in which little cooking was done and separate living spaces for every member of the family, these cookie-cutter houses were paeans to a domestic idyll that was crushed under a reality of abstraction. Far-flung commutes, deadening institutionalized public school days bookended by chaotic bus rides, a younger generation that lacked meaningful interaction with adults who were not paid to be with them, lives that could not be lived without large streams of electronically supplied entertainment and "news" (increasingly indistinguishable), and frequent automobile drives to places that supplied essentials and detritus of life at the end of worldwide supply lines fueled by decreasing quantities of petroleum were the hallmarks of our disconnection with everyone and everything. This is what we called "home." The abstraction of this existence was further supported by words that had lost their meaning.

Their houses were purchased with loans that were immediately shipped out of their "communities," appearing as electronic 1s and 0s on a 23-year old broker's screen who sliced and diced them until they were bundled into a variety of derivatives (the word itself suggests its greater abstraction) and sold to "investors" overseas who recombined and flipped them again.

Most of these "homeowners" worked in distant "office parks" (another combination of words abstracted from meaning) where their daily activity bore no relation to anything in their immediate surroundings. Local and regional differences had long ago ceased to have any bearing on their financial or economic fortunes - they were part of a globalized system that made them more interested in the closing price of the Nikkei than the local rainfall. They were more apt to have an interest in the atrocities in Darfur or the hurricanes forming off the coast of Africa than the impoverished areas of the city into which they commuted, and out of which they gladly left each night. Their children were up to date on the latest computer games and unlikely to know anything about the local history or traditions of their area, since that had been obscured or rendered irrelevant, and in all likelihood it was a place into which they had moved and from which they would depart when a new "opportunity" came along.

We inhabit a world which we have made obscure to ourselves. The height of our civilization has been to render the world unknown to us. The modern project seeking the conquest of nature has resulted in the imperative that we become ignorant. We know much, but little of substance or based in the reality of the existence we inhabit. We are distant from where, what, and who we are.

Homes were replaced with interchangeable houses. Neighborhoods were abandoned for exurbs. Actual work was outsourced and replaced by jobs in "information technology." Local banks were eaten by conglomerates and mortgages became hedge funds. Things ceased to bear any real relation in a proper order and proportion.

As the media (more abstraction) seeks to expose what caused the financial crisis, we are advised to consider the cause that will go unexplored: the abstraction of our lives in an abstracted world. A world of homes, paid for with work, passed on to generations, embedded in communities, sustained by practices and memory and by fidelity and trust, based in faith in and faithfulness to a created world that we did not create and a Creator who wishes for us to know this creation (and not to abstract ourselves from it), is a world where at least the failure of some investment banks far away in New York is not all that interesting. The rainfall, the harvest, whether the birds are beginning to fly south, the passing on of one's culture and history to one's children, and the recollection of those who have died - but still live in one's midst - is what matters, or ought to matter, far more.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Unraveling

The failure of Lehman Brothers today was the first instance that the public treasury was not used to "backstop" a large financial player since this crisis rose to public awareness in summer 2007. The market was allowed to do the work that its proponents demand most loudly when its trend is upward. Today the market plunged over 500 points out of fear that the entire financial system would unravel. The fear is not that several thousand people at Lehman will be out of work; rather, the fear is that numerous financial institutions that held Lehman-backed securities will in turn face the prospect of failure. While banks have been failing at increasing rates, it's possible we have only seen the beginning of a wave of failures. There is the prospect that numerous money market funds will begin to "break the buck." [Update - the first money market fund with Lehman connections fell below a dollar today, September 16. I don't think it will be the last]. With the financial system locked up, there will be little money for mortgages and a corresponding further drop in housing prices as desperate sellers compete for fewer eligible buyers. Cash is king - if cash is understood to be gold. Gold rose $25 an ounce today, among the only asset classes to rise amid the turmoil.

A complex set of phenomena led to today's rout - a rout that has been building for years, and which erupted today only because the market was finally forced to face a reality without taxpayer dollars to cushion the blow. An unsustainable accumulation of debt, overleverage by consumers and financiers, a bubble in housing and shoddy lending practices, stresses in the system that were exacerbated by high energy prices, rising inflation and rising unemployment. In a day, billions of dollars ceased to exist - 900 billion by one estimate on the front page of today's Washington Post. Those notional dollars are no longer. The nation is considerably poorer.

One can see a longer narrative that goes to the heart of our loss of self-governance as a democratic republic. Following the Civil War and truly taking flight in the 20th-century, the American industrial era produced vast amounts of wealth that would had been unimaginable to countless previous generations. Built to a great extent on plentiful natural resources - particularly American and then international oil - the rise of the Dow traces the growth of this American and increasingly international wealth to its peak in October, 2007.



The rise of American wealth was premised on the strength of its industrial production through the 1970s. Until that time, American workers participated in the growing wealth of the nation, giving rise to a comfortable and growing middle class. From that base of widespread wealth arose the belief - at least for a time - that poverty could be eliminated from the world. That moment in the nation's history witnessed the growing belief in actual human autonomy, exemplified in the 1960's aspiration to thoroughgoing liberation and in formalized in law in 1973. The period of the late 1960's until the 1970's was simultaneously the moment of the nation's greatest wealth and the end of an era. In 1971 the nation began producing less oil than in the previous year, a trend that was geological destiny. At the moment of America's most optimistic belief in its financial invincibility - even to the point of transforming the world and all human relationships within it - was the same moment when the nation began its long descent into moral and financial impoverishment.

With its growing reliance on "foreign oil" (a phrase that never fails to amuse me, since it smuggles in the implicit self-deception that denies what we really mean is just "oil"), the nation began a long and sustained overseas transfer of its century-old accumulated wealth. Rather than cutting back - as Jimmy Carter recommended in 1979, the one conservative speech that may have been given in the past 30 years, subsequently called the "malaise speech" - we were ready for a fairy tale. Rather than facing the limits of our domestic wealth and the corresponding need to exercise self-governance over our appetites, we readily grasped at the fairy tale that Ronald Reagan weaved, telling us that it was "morning in America" even as he plunged the nation into massive debt while setting a tone that sanctioned personal indebtedness and generational myopia at the same time. Everyone, regardless of political belief, called this "conservatism." Words had already lost their meaning.

Still, the nation was awash in dollars that needed employment. Without actually producing national wealth anymore, the post-70's era saw the rise of a series of bubble economies. From M&A and junk bond bubbles of the 1980s to the dot-com bubble of the 1990s, the nation's perception of wealth creation became unmoored from reality - perception and belief, not things of value, became the sources of investment wealth. Take, for instance, the "dot-com" bubble: its promise lay in a new form of advertising. In the end, enthusiasm ran high in the belief that consumers would be encouraged to consume more via a new electronic medium. The wealth that would allow this greater consumption? Winning from their sale of dot.com stock portfolios and the greater abuse of credit cards. It was an economy based on pure fantasy, and reality eventually intervened as the bubble popped.

The vulture began to feed on itself, and - in these years of worldwide peak oil - wealth began to be "created" by money itself. The logic of capitalism came full circle: money unleashed the power of money. A larger and larger portion of the American market were financial firms who conjured money out of money. The market made money from itself - meaning that its so-called wealth was increasingly a fiction.





Resembling a grandiose Ponzi scheme, a new last person had to be sought who would hold the bag of debt. The American "consumer" - already tapped out - was encouraged to take on further debt based on the prospect of ever-increasing housing values. A frenzy of borrowing and lending became the national pastime, to the point that one could not attend a barbeque or cocktail party without hearing about someone's daily increase in home equity. Anyone who could drag their debt-ridden overweight carcass across a lender's threshold was given a loan to buy a house in the belief that housing values could never fall. Bank and brokerage firms saw their stocks rise based on the amount of debt that they generated: absence was mistaken for substance, belief was confused with worth.

Tonight, as I scan channels and read explanations online, numberless narratives look for someone to blame. George W. Bush. Predatory lenders. A craven government that refused to regulate. Big corporations. Big government. Someone. Anyone.

We refuse to consider our own complicity. We started "paying" for things using credit cards. We demanded everyday low prices, and assented to the American military to secure a firesale on the goods of the earth. We began misusing language, like calling fantasy equity sources our "homes." Lemming-like we threw our children into the maw of a meritocratic meat-grinder, desperately seeking to ensure their successful corporate future by enrolling them in the best pre-schools - convinced that only an entry-level job at Lehman Brothers insured a successful life.

The symptoms were countless. The source was a loss of self-government, lodged most deeply in the fantasy that something could be gotten for nothing. If the fantasy continues to unravel - as every indication now suggests - we may re-enter a reality-based world. We will be poorer, but perhaps not in spirit. We may begin to value well and aright. While the world quakes tonight in the fear of plunging values, in that impending fall I see the inklings of a phoenix in the ashes that may arise and illuminate a fundamental truth: things of actual value - whether crafted by human hand or born of human relationships - are the products of work, memory, care, and fidelity. Dazzled by fantasy, we have been blinded to this truth, but a dimming of New York's neon glare may yet make this reality newly visible and even beautiful to behold.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

My Googleganger

Yes, "googleganger" - yet another new contribution to the English language that this ubiquitous company has generated.

Given that Patrick Deneen is likely to be on the U.S. Olympic ski team, it's probably not too soon to point out that while I have been known to put on some skis, I'm not THIS good.

Though, perhaps any confusion of identity might be beneficial for my reputation. Probably not his, however.

I wish my googleganger well!


Patrick Deneen 08 Nor-Am and World Cup Competition Runs

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Dissonance

Last night I happened to catch Sarah's arrival in Fairbanks, Alaska - covered with breathless expectation by CNN (has there ever been a VICE-Presidential candidate whose arrival by plane has been awaited with such expectation?). She gave what appeared to be an extemporaneous talk (maybe - there were teleprompters, of course) in which she gushed enthusiasm to be back in Alaska, spoke fervently about electing McCain, and used a few lines from "the Speech" now with less freshness. The one policy area she DID talk about was energy: namely, that a McCain administration would pursue nuclear (ah me, she actually said Nucylar, I think), renewable energy, and yes, would "drill, baby, drill." She did have the virtue of arguing that increasing domestic sources was a matter of national security, a point that should be stressed constantly in the shadow of several wars we have fought in recent years in the Middle East.

It was a brief appearance, but what struck me was here, on the eve of the attacks of 9/11, there was no actual mention of sacrifice that such a vital matter of national security might require from the American people. She - no more than McCain - has mentioned, much less stressed, the word sacrifice with any regularity. Coming out of a convention devoted to the theme "country first," what little policy tidbits we are now being fed by the Republicans is that we don't have to change our behavior one single bit. In spite of being in a war - a war that was started as a result of attacks on our mainland seven years ago today - not once has the current President, nor the current candidates, in any real way called on the American citizenry for sacrifice. We were told in the days after 9/11 that we should go shopping, and we are still effectively told the same thing today. Both candidates are running on an economic program that stresses tax cuts and magical energy solutions that will require no change in behavior on our parts. Neither can find the nerve to highlight the word "conservation." Both fear calling forth the better angels of the American electorate's nature, suspecting - perhaps correctly - that a generation of pandering Presidents (beginning with Ronald Reagan, I dare say, who taunted Jimmy Carter's call for conservation) has allowed to atrophy.

I have written of an encounter with Senator Obama in which he spoke with rhetorical brilliance about the need for sacrifice, but in fact called for none. I do not see any particular change in this basic fact in subsequent months. Senator McCain has run his campaign on the example of his own great sacrifice - no one can doubt he made extraordinary sacrifices for his nation, evident every time he raises his arms only to his shoulders - yet, an example he has not momentarily suggested that the American people might consider emulating, even if in the smallest way.

Democracy was classically understood to be a form of governance that called upon great reservoirs of self-governance. For this reason Montesquieu considered democracy to be the regime, above all, based upon virtue. Modern democracy, by contrast, is premised upon a philosophy that understands human motivations to be exclusively based on self-interest. Tocqueville observed in the 1830s that Americans speak constantly about self-interest, but that in fact they acted often out of altruism - thus, he wrote discerningly, they "do more honor to their philosophy than to themselves." The absence of any sustained or noteworthy call for sacrifice by either of our candidates suggests that we have tended, over time, to conform our actions to our words. Even a candidate whose life of sacrifice is exemplary and whose campaign motto is "Country First" can't bring himself to call for restraint and virtue from his countrymen. All the candidates rightly praise our military men and women, but in a society of severe subdivision of labor, we place upon them alone the burden of self-sacrifice while we change our behaviors not a jot. Members of our military protect our access to Middle East oil so that we can continue to shop. 9/11 was a terrible day, but perhaps what has been most terrible is the opportunity that was missed to call upon the willing reservoirs of sacrifice that was exhibited by the entire citizenry in the days that followed those attacks, and instead was allowed to fall back into the torpor induced by "Leaders" whose motto is more likely and honestly to be "drill, baby, drill" than "Country First."

Patriotic Vision

Shortly after the attacks on 9/11 seven years ago, I was invited along with a few others to offer reflections on patriotism which were intended for publication in the Intercollegiate Review. The essay that resulted was entitled "Patriotic Vision: At Home in a World Made Strange." The full essay is available via the link, but I provide some excerpts below (well, a LONG exerpt), in recollection of, and out of honor for, the events of this day.


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Patriotic Vision: At Home in a World Made Strange


Patrick J. Deneen



Love and Mistrust of One’s Own

Patriotism exhibits a form of unarticulated agreement with Aristotle’s great and challenging assertion, “all men are by nature political animals.” According to Aristotle, humanity in full flourishing requires the goods that a polity affords – those material goods of sustenance, shelter, protection provided by organized defense, and the less quantifiable goods of education, bonds of friendship, the opportunity for contemplation. Patriotism is a recognition of a debt that individual human flourishing rests upon a sufficiently good regime, that full-blown individuality exists not “by nature” but instead requires the antecedent institutions and practices of a city that lead to full individuation. Thus, Aristotle argues, “the city is by nature prior to the household and to each one of us taken singly.” To be fully human requires cultivation in political communities, cultivation that is unnecessary to “beasts or gods” since they are incapable or not in need of such sustenance, but necessary to humans ironically in order that they can become fully human. Patriotism, as an acknowledgment of the debts owed by humans to specific origins, and as a defense of those institutions and practices that constitute us, is a resonant echo of this Aristotleian understanding of the relation of wholes to parts.

Yet, if patriotism is regarded as a laudable expression of gratitude for the possibility, even a requirement, of human nobility, at the same time Aristotle also reminds us that a “good citizen” is only rarely “a good man.” It is a rare polity that does not call upon its citizens at times to act ignobly in ways at odds with Aristotle’s understanding of virtue. Thus, if the love of one’s own is a core political requirement, at the same time it remains one of the most persistent threats to political justice. Patriotism, as that form of loyalty that extends us beyond the familial and the amicable, presents one of the most potentially ennobling and degrading forms of love, at once directing our devotion to that which makes human flourishing possible – the polity – and yet ever portends the transformation of that devotion into blind obeisance, impassioned intolerance of a perceived enemy, and willing collaboration with that which is unjust and even evil.

Thought and virtue demand a limit to our love. We should not love that which is unjust, or that which inclines us to act unjustly or accept injustice. We should not love that person or place that would make us worse by dint of our love. We should love no one, or nothing, without reservation. And yet loyalty, to be meaningful, requires that we love that which is imperfect, even morally frail. The core feature of loyalty would be lost if we abandoned those people or places we otherwise cherish at the first sign of moral imperfection. Indeed, such inclination to avoid all forms of immorality would preclude the possibility of our loving in the first instance. At critical moments it is precisely our loyalty that compels us to remain with that to which we have dedicated ourselves, even given these frailties. Indeed, perhaps because of those imperfections our loyalty demands that we re-double efforts to support, reprimand, and improve those people, things, or places we love.

Clearly there can be no formula for navigating the calm seas and the submerged shoals of patriotism: it is neither morally defensible to demand an unreflective patriotism from a citizenry nor humanly virtuous to call for its cessation. Yet the idea of “balancing” patriotism with the critical distance demanded of morality seems ultimately to defeat the necessary priority required by patriotism. How can this tension be maintained without betraying the demands of each? If “balance” eviscerates the core loyalties of patriotism, then must one simply decide between the love of one’s own and the love of one’s own virtue?

Vision and Politics

To love one’s own seems to be the “default” position of most humans – we begin our lives loving what is nearest to us, including our parents, our siblings, our childhood friends, as well as our hometown, our region, our homeland. We understand the essence of growing up and the central purpose of education to be the process of moving us away from such automatic loves. Without necessarily leaving behind our first loves, we learn that our parents are not omnipotent, that our hometowns are repositories of conventionality and parochialism, that our country is marred by episodes of injustice and cruelty. We move psychically and physically away from these people and places, choosing our own friends and lovers, creating our own families, exploring new towns and regions and nations, creating at all points ever greater critical distance between unchosen primary loves and conscious mature loyalties.

This movement away from unchosen commitments by means of a contemplation of and eventual dedication to a particular choice between alternative forms of life is mimicked by the enterprise of political theory as an academic study and political theorizing as a way of thinking. As an educator in political theory, it is part of my vocation to challenge all those loyalties with which students enter college. Political theory often does, and by some lights always should, teach us one thing above all: a rejection of patriotism. Patriotism is one of those most impassioned “loves of one’s own,” a sentiment of affection for the place of one’s birth and upbringing, and for the ways of life and traditions of people and a place. Political theory, on the other hand, teaches us at some level about the conventionality of these ways of life. The theoretical study of politics compels us to recognize the insufficiencies of all political forms, to appreciate the virtues of regimes and traditions that are not our own, and points ultimately to a question of the best regime, a regime of perfect justice which, while implausible if not impossible, nevertheless always stands at least in principle as a standing accusation against all existing regimes, even, and perhaps especially one’s own.

It is no mistake that political theory should call patriotism into question. The word “theory” comes from the ancient Greek word theorein, meaning “to see.” Over time, it came to describe a special and intensified form of “seeing,” namely the vision that was required of specially designated city officials – theoroi – who were charged with the task of visiting other cities, to “see” special events such as religious or theatrical or athletic festivals, and to return to their home city where they would then give an account of what they had seen. To “theorize” was to take part in a sacred journey, an encounter with the “other” in which the theorist would attempt to comprehend, assess, compare and then in idiom of his own city, explain what had been seen to fellow citizens. This encounter would inevitably raise questions about customs or practices of the theorist’s own city – why do we do things this way? Might there be a better way of organizing the regime? Might there be a best way of life?

This tension between the theorist’s role as critic and the city’s imperative to protect its way of life is deeply embedded in the history and the practice of political theory. The full dimension and implications of that tension was revealed when Socrates was accused of impiety toward the gods of the city and “corrupting the youth” and subsequently put to death after being found guilty at his trial. Throughout the Platonic corpus – one that idealizes, dramatizes and “theorizes” the life of Socrates – there is constant evidence of the abiding tension between the role of the theorist and the exigencies of the city. In his most famous dialogue, the Republic, we discover that Socrates has “descended” beyond the walls of the city of Athens, to the multicultural port city of Piraeus, where he has gone to “see” a festival celebrating a new foreign goddess that is being accepted into the Athenian religious world. While he expresses appreciation for the Athenian procession, he expresses even greater admiration for that of the “foreigners,” namely the Thracian worshipers. It is then “outside” the city, in the midst of a “theoretical” enterprise that Socrates undertakes his most radical political enterprise, the consideration and description of the perfectly just political regime – one fundamentally at odds with the Athenian, and all existing regimes. By this estimation, a theorist is in some respects defined by a kind of “outsideness,” an alienation originally induced by the experience of physically moving from one place to another in order to assess the virtues and vices of one’s own particular cultural practices. Although we have largely forgotten the original meaning of the word, we still consider “theory” to involve at least the internal ability to raise questions about accepted norms and customs and to provide a critical distance that in many instances expressly confronts and even offends a nation’s patriotic sensibilities.

It is not surprising that theorists of many stripes have been suspicious, if not downright hostile toward patriotism. This has been as true, if not even more common, for thinkers on the Left – such as Emma Goldman, who wrote an essay entitled “Patriotism, A Menace to Liberty” – as it has been of thinkers on the Right, such as Samuel Johnson who more famously declared that “Patriotism is the last resort of scoundrels.” There are good and principled reasons for thoughtful people to be suspicious of Patriotism. We do not admire the evident patriotism of the German people under the Nazi regime. A story like “The Lottery” reminds us that the unquestioned acceptance of custom can promote wholly malignant and evil practices that might continue in the name of patriotism or "the way we do things here." An ancient play like Sophocles’ Antigone suggests the limits of patriotism when fundamental obligations, such as religious ones, conflict with the demands of the State. People of varying ethical and religious backgrounds, from St. Augustine writing as a Christian, to Martha Nussbaum writing as a secular liberal ethicist, criticize the place of primacy that nations hold under a widespread patriotic sentiment. A thoughtful person should never willingly or knowingly sacrifice his or her “theoretical” perspective before the altar of patriotism.

Patriotic Vision

Does this mean that it is impossible for a thoughtful person to be patriotic? Does this require that “theorists” should by default view the actions and claims of the State with a skeptical eye? Are “theoretical vision” and patriotism mutually exclusive?

Returning to the original practice of “theory,” one sees that quite the opposite is the case. The “theorist” was a designated office of the city. To “theorize” was a requirement of particular regimes in antiquity. Part of the self-definition of ancient cities involved the practice of calling its own practices into question. The activity of “seeing” foreign customs and events comprised only half of the theorist’s official duty. The other half – just as essential – was the “giving of account” of what the theorist had seen. This could not be done employing concepts and language of the foreign city, a possibility that might make it easier for a theorist to explain what he had seen (how much easier it would be for me to explain to friends my own experiences living in Germany if only they could understand German!), but one that would make it nearly impossible for one’s fellow citizens to begin to form an understanding of exotic foreign practices.

Instead, the “theorist” delivered his report firmly in the idiom of his own city: the position required one deeply versed in one’s own language, one’s own practices and ways of being, indeed, one sympathetic to the patterns of thought and action that characterized one’s own native city. A “theorist” would betray his office if he were, so to speak, to “go native”: no Athenian “theorist” could conceivably observe a Spartan gymnastic festival and then simply return in a condemnatory stance toward his own city. Even if a “theorist” were persuaded that foreign practices were superior to those of his own city, the sympathetic primacy of the theorist toward his own city demanded the careful, thoughtful, and prudent explanation of those practices to his fellow citizens, presented in ways that sought to evoke similar admiration by means of native assumptions, opinions and shared understandings. Such gradualist explanations were not handed down from a position of superiority or greater knowingness by the theorist, but rather indelibly informed by a prior respect for the practices of his own city which, even if imperfect, nevertheless were the source of other civic virtues – the bases of which might be undermined if insufficiently appreciated – as well as the source of limits or even prejudice that, if directly confronted, would produce a hostile reaction to the theorist’s account and defeat indefinitely the prospect of amelioration.

The theorist was chosen then, not only for a recognized ability to “see” and apprehend with sensitivity the new and unusual, but equally for an abiding appreciation for the customs and practices of his own way of life. These are not mutually exclusive qualities, but intimately connected. A theorist was, by definition a patriot – one who treasured his cultural inheritance, traditions, intimately knew the stories and histories of a place and saw these as fundamentally constitutive of his identity. At the same time, it was by means of deep familiarity and love for that cultural inheritance that the theorist was able to move fellow citizens to a renewed devotion to those practices, in some instances, or subtle questioning of dubious customs in others.

One sees a form of “patriotic theory” particularly in the works of the ancient playwrights. The connection between “theory” and “theater” was more than linguistic, for the ancient playwrights were a kind of “theorist” – people of intense vision – who by means of their “accounts” made possible a form of “theorizing” for the city’s greater populace as well. By means of retelling old stories about the city, by expanding on well-known tales and legends like those of Oedipus and Theseus and Orestes, a theatrical theorist at once tapped into the same constitutive material that informed his own vision and perception of the foreign, while altering or changing an emphasis in those ancient tales in a way that could open new vistas and ways of thinking for his audience. The Oresteia or the Theban trilogy might begin in foreign cities – like the theoretical journey itself, take one outside the city gates, if only figuratively – but, significantly, each of those play cycles concludes in Athens. In each case the trilogy demonstrated to the Athenians their own best qualities – its system of self-governance, for instance, or its openness to foreigners (thus reaffirming the value of “theorizing” and theater) – by means of recalling and recasting ancient stories. An Athenian audience could at once celebrate the unique features that constituted the Athenian character, leaving the theater more consciously patriotic, and yet also newly aware of potential shortcomings embedded as warnings in the subtle but familiar retellings by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and kindred theorists.

The city, in effect, pre-committed itself to a course of potential change and improvement by means of selecting the appropriate theoroi: without knowing the kinds of accounts with which it would be confronted, the city relied upon and employed the theorist’s reservoir of patriotism to ensure that the city’s vital customs, practices, ways of life were, in the first instance valued and respected, and yet potentially subject to reconsideration. One might even say the prospects for patriotism were extended and broadened by this practice and by the city’s attentiveness to the selection of appropriate theoroi, precluding the possibility of encrusted forms of parochialism or unquestioned vile customs while also undermining the accusatory claims of ungrateful cosmopolitans, “citizens of nowhere” whose initial stance was always one of hostility and mistrust and ingratitude toward any existing city. “Theory” kept the city open to improvement without loosening the ancient loyalties. It helped to make the city a worthwhile object of devotion, in some respects anticipating Edmund Burke’s observation, “to make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely.”

Socratic Patriotism


The patriotic vision of the “theorist” eventually came to exist independently of the actual office sanctioned by the city, and in particular came to be closely associated with the form of inquiry of the ancient philosopher, most especially Socrates as portrayed by Plato. In a certain respect Socrates seems to represent the pure opposite of the activity of the “theorist” since Socrates famously did not travel outside the city of Athens except as a soldier during several battles in the Peloponnesian War. Yet the Platonic corpus featuring Socrates constantly alludes to and draws upon the ancient activity of the theorist, and demonstrates the manifold ways that Socrates “leaves” the city by means of contemplation, of imagination, through encounters with foreign guests (like Protagoras and Gorgias) and foreign teachers (like Diotima), through encounters with foreign teachings and deities (especially those of Sparta, Egypt and Persia), and through many small “journeys” within Athens that provide a setting for greater philosophic journeys (such as to Piraeus where the Republic unfolds, or to the banks of the Ilisus where Phaedrus transpires).

Generations of scholars have tried to explain the apparent contradiction that seems to exist at the core of Socrates’ relationship to Athens, exhibited on the one hand by his firm insistence that he will pursue his philosophic mission as he understands it even in spite of a prohibition from the city – as he announces in the Apology – and on the other hand, his deep commitment and gratitude to the city that “created” him, as expressed in the Crito. Most modern commentators, failing to see the “theoretical” character of the Socratic enterprise, often try to downplay or dismiss one or the other aspect of Socrates, ending with a portrait of Socrates as alienated critic or Socrates as devoted citizen. Yet these are not mutually exclusive, but indeed by ancient understandings are mutually reinforcing.

In the Apology – his defense speech before the Athenian jury, in which he defends himself against charges of corrupting the youth and introducing new gods into the city – Socrates reveals that he engages in his form of questioning at the behest of the gods who have declared him to be the wisest man and whom he seeks to disprove in his discussions with any purportedly wise person. His mission then seems to be potentially at odds with the interests and traditions of the city, and Socrates insists that he will not cease even if commanded by the city. Yet he goes on to explain to his fellow citizens that he will persist in this activity because of, not in spite of, his devotion to the city that, as the Laws say to him in the Crito, “begat, nourished, and educated you, and gave you and all the other citizens a share in all the noble things we could….” He insists in the Apology that he will continue to philosophize in order to rouse the “lazy thoroughbred” of Athens – a noble but insufficiently excellent regime – and that, while he will speak with anyone he happens to meet, “both foreigner and townsman,” he will dwell more with his fellow citizens “inasmuch as you are closer to me in kin.” His philosophic activity is undertaken on behalf of the city, born of the same gratitude and concern – if also futility – that prompted him to defend it bravely in the terrible Athenian defeats at Potidaea, Amphipolis and Delium. For Socrates, there is a unbreakable connection between this civic loyalty and his critical activity. We misunderstand ancient “theorizing” if we do not recognize the entwinement of patriotism and philosophy.

Theory without Vision: Against Patriotism


At some point, the practice of theory moved from this more integrated relationship between patriotic sympathy and critical distance born of the “sacred journey,” and became increasingly and almost exclusively a form of critique that started from an skeptical, untrusting, even accusatory perspective. While one can see such developments even in antiquity – Diogenes Laertius declared in the fourth-century B.C.E. that he was kosmou politēs, a “citizen of the cosmos” – the turning point that differentiated modern from ancient forms of theorizing, placing the theorist in an adversarial position with loyalty, can be arguably traced back to René Descartes.

Many people forget that much of the early section of Descartes’ seminal work on “theorizing,” Discourse on Method, begins with autobiographical details of Descartes’ many travels. His first engagement in the “thought experiment” by which he proceeds in a complete state of doubt about all inherited knowledge, all assumptions of what is true, all the most obvious facts of existence that arrive from the senses, notably occurs in a foreign country. During a winter spent in Germany, having “no cares or passions to trouble me, I remained the whole day shut up alone in a stove-heated room, where I had complete leisure to occupy myself with my own thoughts. One of the first of the considerations that occurred to me was that there is very often less perfection in works composed of several portions, and carried out by the hands of various masters, than in those on which one individual alone has worked.”

Descartes describes the perfect antithesis of the approach of the ancient theorist: rather than proceeding from a sympathetic stance toward the inheritance of his own legacy, Descartes begins with radical suspicion toward all that has preceded him in act or thought, and especially as an outcome of common endeavors like that of a community or a people. The fact that he is in Germany as he launches these considerations only highlights the variance of his own investigations from those of the ancient theorist. He purposefully eschews the insights and experiences offered to him by an alien culture, and instead shuts himself literally within a room and figuratively within his own mind.

Descartes’ presence in a foreign land is almost irrelevant as part of his approach, a conclusion he has reached as a result his previous travels that all human arrangements are wholly conventional, mere accrued custom and accretions of generations, and not a result of considered and purposive thought. Travel has taught him that there is nothing more to be learned from travel: he is now a cosmopolitan, a thinker without origin or destination, an occupant of earth who can contemplate equally well anywhere he should find himself. He is the precursor of and the model for the modern philosopher, a citizen of no-place but the realm of abstract thought, one who can presumably arrive at the same patterns of thought regardless of what nation he might find himself – all locations are accidental and tenuous. A thinker like Descartes would appear to be content to think anywhere on earth.
At the same time, Descartes reveals that this apparent lack of preference will result in certain preferences all the same – Descartes admits that ideally, such a philosopher is a kind of “free rider” on the wealth, security, generosity, and anonymity provided by modern nations and especially cosmopolitan cities, ones in particular that are sufficiently liberal as not to demand any loyalty in return. As Descartes relates, since his first investigations in Germany, “it is just eight years ago that this desire to remove myself from all places where any acquaintances were possible, and to retire to a country such as this [i.e., Holland], where the long-continued war has caused such order to be established that the armies which are maintained seem only to be of use in allowing the inhabitants to enjoy the fruits of peace with so much the more security; and where, in the crowded throng of a great and very active nation, which is more concerned with its own affairs than curious about those of others, without missing any of the conveniences of the most populous towns, I can live as solitary and retired as in deserts the most remote.”

Descartes inaugurates modern philosophy’s estrangement from the places where philosophy begins – among and with one’s fellow citizens – and ultimately from the world. G. K. Chesterton once suggested that the “main problem for philosophers” was to solve the problem of how to “contrive to be at once astonished at the world and yet at home in it” (he proposed a novel in which an Englishman sails the South Seas in search of new islands. He lands in England without realizing it, and all that was once familiar is now new. Chesterton describes an accidental theoretical journey, in effect). Descartes seemed not to have even acknowledged either “wonder” or “belonging” as of ultimate value, for by making oneself a stranger from one’s fellows and the world, one made it thereby impossible to be astonished by it.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Deepak to Kansas: Drop Dead

Michael Kinsley challenges Sarah's defenders to "show me the snobs."

How much time does he have, I wonder?

There are a few good examples posted over at "No Left Turns." But the one piece of evidence I'd like to offer has to take the cake: a posting by Deepak Chopra on HuffPost. It's a prime piece of evidence of exactly the disdain that the "enlightened" have toward the very people from whom they are seeking votes. Can the Democrats really be so obtuse to wonder why they keep losing elections during the course of which they insult the segment of electorate they are seeking to attract?

To wit, here's Deepak. Or maybe it's Rush Limbaugh pretending to be Deepak. No, he doesn't need to take time out of the day for that kind of imposture. Deepak does it all on his own.


Obama and The Palin Effect
From: Deepak Chopra
Posted: Friday, September 5th, 2008

Sometimes politics has the uncanny effect of mirroring the national psyche even when nobody intended to do that. This is perfectly illustrated by the rousing effect that Gov. Sarah Palin had on the Republican convention in Minneapolis this week. On the surface, she outdoes former Vice President Dan Quayle as an unlikely choice, given her negligent parochial expertise in the complex affairs of governing. Her state of Alaska has less than 700,000 residents, which reduces the job of governor to the scale of running one-tenth of New York City. By comparison, Rudy Giuliani is a towering international figure. Palin's pluck has been admired, and her forthrightness, but her real appeal goes deeper.

She is the reverse of Barack Obama, in essence his shadow, deriding his idealism and exhorting people to obey their worst impulses. In psychological terms the shadow is that part of the psyche that hides out of sight, countering our aspirations, virtue, and vision with qualities we are ashamed to face: anger, fear, revenge, violence, selfishness, and suspicion of 'the other.' For millions of Americans, Obama triggers those feelings, but they don't want to express them. He is calling for us to reach for our higher selves, and frankly, that stirs up hidden reactions of an unsavory kind. (Just to be perfectly clear, I am not making a verbal play out of the fact that Sen. Obama is black. The shadow is a metaphor widely in use before his arrival on the scene.)

I recognize that psychological analysis of politics is usually not welcome by the public, but I believe such a perspective can be helpful here to understand Palin’s message. In her acceptance speech Gov. Palin sent a rousing call to those who want to celebrate their resistance to change and a higher vision.

Look at what she stands for:
--Small town values
-- a denial of America's global role, a return to petty, small-minded parochialism.
--Ignorance of world affairs
-- a repudiation of the need to repair America's image abroad.
--Family values
-- a code for walling out anybody who makes a claim for social justice. Such strangers, being outside the family, don't need to be heeded.
--Rigid stands on guns and abortion
-- a scornful repudiation that these issues can be negotiated with those who disagree.
--Patriotism
-- the usual fallback in a failed war.
--'Reform' -- an italicized term, since in addition to cleaning out corruption and excessive spending, one also throws out anyone who doesn't fit your ideology.

Palin reinforces the overall message of the reactionary right, which has been in play since 1980, that social justice is liberal-radical, that minorities and immigrants, being different from 'us' pure American types, can be ignored, that progressivism takes too much effort and globalism is a foreign threat. The radical right marches under the banners of 'I'm all right, Jack,' and 'Why change? Everything's OK as it is.' The irony, of course, is that Gov. Palin is a woman and a reactionary at the same time. She can add mom to apple pie on her resume, while blithely reversing forty years of feminist progress. The irony is superficial; there are millions of women who stand on the side of conservatism, however obviously they are voting against their own good. The Republicans have won multiple national elections by raising shadow issues based on fear, rejection, hostility to change, and narrow-mindedness.

Obama's call for higher ideals in politics can't be seen in a vacuum. The shadow is real; it was bound to respond. Not just conservatives possess a shadow -- we all do. So what comes next is a contest between the two forces of progress and inertia. Will the shadow win again, or has its furtive appeal become exhausted? No one can predict. The best thing about Gov. Palin is that she brought this conflict to light, which makes the upcoming debate honest. It would be a shame to elect another Reagan, whose smiling persona was a stalking horse for the reactionary forces that have brought us to the demoralized state we are in. We deserve to see what we are getting, without disguise.


What's the matter with Kansas? They don't like the so-called enlightened classes looking down on them. And I don't blame them.

From a Gentle Reader

A friend, and serious Catholic writes to me thusly:

I just skimmed Dreher and a post or two of yours and get the sense that you like Palin but are concerned about her predictable Republican rhetoric, presumably indicative of a "same-old, same-old" approach to the issues of concern to traditional/crunchy/Kirkian conservatives.

My 2 cents: you should be shouting to the rooftops about this woman. She is the real deal: a person for whom the local has always been paramount; who comes from a large, tight-knit family; who has not risen through and is not beholden to the East coast policy establishment. Watch her debates from past elections -- she's smart and articulate. She cares about environmental issues not because of abstract scientific evidence but because she's someone who hunts and fishes and lives within and is responsible for some of the most beautiful wilderness area in the country. She'll be receptive to arguments that economic policies should put families and localities first because of her lived experience (not just her professional experience, although that will contribute too). Maybe she's wrong in supporting McCain on Iraq -- but isn't it something that one voice at the table will be the mother of a deployed soldier? And, most importantly, she's pro-life -- and not, mind you, in an ideological way, but again because of her lived experience, because of how she was raised, because of her faith.

Less than 2 weeks ago she was vaulted unexpectedly onto the national stage; it's unsurprising that she'd take direction from the campaign on what to say and how best to get the McCain-Palin ticket elected. But think what happens if she gets good people around her; if Matt Scully (who wrote her acceptance speech, and also wrote Dominion, which you should read if you haven't) writes her speeches. Think about 2012. Did it ever seem likely that someone with her lived experience -- someone even slightly inclined to a traditional small-government conservatism -- would be that close to the Presidency? Unless the sky really is falling tomorrow and we'll all be decamping to our monastic hold-outs anyway, that will count for something. While she'll never be a Front Porch Anarchist, she could be a Front Porch Republican.


Many good points here. Awaiting further word from Sarah, like everyone in America...

The Future of Conservatism?

My web presence expands: my review of Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam's Grand New Party, in the latest issue of Intercollegiate Review, also appears today on I.S.I.'s website First Principles.

My conclusion:

Douthat and Salam’s legitimate concern—how to preserve the shaky institutions of family and community—will need to be further considered in light of unprecedented pressures on the suburban and mobile way of life that arose in the mid-twentieth century and may be passing away a mere half-century later. A return to more local economies and communities will happily mean less government intrusion in the daily affairs of the citizenry; however, the transition from our energy-intensive and wasteful society of sprawl and exurbia will also certainly require ingenuity and responsiveness on the part of government—just not in the form of continued investment in a way of life that has no future. The sooner that Douthat and Salam themselves come to this realization, the sooner they may be able to offer creative new solutions based not on a misplaced sense of optimism, but on a real sense of hope for the health of local communities, vibrant and living traditions, and networks of families.

Perfectibility

Michael Gerson has written a masterful short essay on the contradiction at the heart of the Left, namely, a stated compassion for the weak combined with a ardent support of a progressive ideology that has resulted in practical eugenics. While it is not apparent to many, this contradiction lies at the heart of responses to the nomination of Sarah Palin for the Vice Presidency: the condescending dismissal of her backwardness thinly veils the Progressive assumptions about what constitutes a properly enlightened person. While seeking to woo the "middle class" voters of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and other blue-collar states, leading voices of the Party attack Palin for holding values identical with many of those very voters they seek to attract. In dismissing the provincialism of Palin, they reveal their true views about the ordinary people for whom they claim to speak on behalf of.

The deeper contradiction at hand - solicitous disdain, the lifeblood of a therapeutic mindset - is made most manifest in one paragraph of Gerson's piece in which he writes about the concerted effort to test, and abort in utero, children diagnosed with Down's Syndrome:

This is properly called eugenic abortion -- the ending of "imperfect" lives to remove the social, economic and emotional costs of their existence. And this practice cannot be separated from the broader social treatment of people who have disabilities. By eliminating less perfect humans, deformity and disability become more pronounced and less acceptable. Those who escape the net of screening are often viewed as mistakes or burdens. A tragic choice becomes a presumption -- "Didn't you get an amnio?" -- and then a prejudice. And this feeds a social Darwinism in which the stronger are regarded as better, the dependent are viewed as less valuable, and the weak must occasionally be culled.


Gerson notes the contradiction that results from this form of almost obligatory eugenics:

Yet the pro-choice radicalism held by [most Democrats] -- the absolute elevation of individual autonomy over the rights of the weak -- has enabled the new eugenics. It has also created a moral conflict at the heart of the Democratic Party. If traditional Democratic ideology means anything, it is the assertion that America is a single moral community that includes everyone. How can this vision possibly be reconciled with the elimination of children with Down syndrome from American society? Are pro-choice Democrats really comfortable with this choice?


One must spend some time studying the great progressive philosophers of the 19th-century especially to discern the deepest assumptions of the current leadership of the Democratic party. The aspirations for achievement of a "single moral community" was deeply premised on the elimination of all particular communities. John Stuart Mill, for instance, constantly attacked "custom" and "tradition" in an effort to liberate individuals and their capacities as "progressive beings"; similarly, while he praised a diversity of "experiments in living," he had no tolerance for the particular experiment called "Calvinism" (or, more broadly, Augustinianism), which, by definition, asserted that humans were fallen, imperfect, and imperfectible by their own devices. Traditional societies and religions needed elimination (thus, Mill justified multiple votes for educated individuals and enslavement of "backward" populations until they could be brought up to speed). At the same time, he promised that the elimination of various forms of particularism, as well as religions that called to mind human imperfection, would set humanity on a progressive path to a worldwide human community. The elimination of particular religions would usher in "the religion of humanity" - that "single moral community" of which Gerson speaks. In the name of the progressive apotheosis of humankind, the aggressive elimination of "backwardness" was to be justified. In its name the eugenics policies of the 19th-century were inaugurated - policies now associated in the popular imagination with Adolph Hitler, but in their time propounded universally by the most advanced and "progressive" thinkers, such as H. G. Wells and G. B. Shaw. Credit should go to such traditionalist thinkers such as G.K. Chesterton - in whose honor this "blawg" is named - who in the 19th-century stood against the progressive program of enforced eugenics, as his intellectual heirs stand against it now.

We tend to associate the name Machiavelli with the philosophy of "realpolitik" - those leaders for whom the end justifies all means. We should realize, however, that the most ardent Machiavellians of our age are our Progressives, whose philosophy of an improved humanity is the backdrop in which we now have a 90% death rate for imperfect humans like Trig Palin, and less obviously but no less connected, underlies the deep hostility to "traditionalists" who stand in the way of progress toward the universal and homogeneous State.