Lott's Revival of Anti-Republican Hysteria — My mostly a priori analysis of the midterm elections is that the Democrats had a hard time mobilizing their minority base, and the reason why is that Bush has made inflammatory scare-the-shit-and-thus-votes-out-of-black-people tactics less effective. How? Colin Powell and Condi Rice. That's how. When blacks see that Bush has put Colin and Condi in charge of more or less defending the free world, and is happy to defer to their judgment, it's hard to sell the argument that a vote for Republicans is a vote for throwing black children to wild dogs. Preferring one major party to the other is hardly sufficient to motivate most people to vote. They need to believe that if the other guys win, it will be a DISASTER. Enter Trent Lott waxing nostalgic about systematic racial oppression. Well, that's all it takes. That's more than it takes. “The Republican Senate Majority Leader wants you to sit in the back of the bus, drink from different fountains, go to different schools. Do you want to be a second class citizen? Vote Democrat.” Lott and his moral retardation is manna from heaven for the Democrats. If the Republicans don't can him and his ridiculous coiffure, I hope the Democrats make the most of it.
Marketplace of Ideas? — Oh, and does an imbalance in the marketplace of ideas even make sense? At the commencement of their theory of conservative hegemony, the Commonwealers cite the following, under the heading “There is an imbalance in the marketplace of ideas“:
It is the purpose of the First Amendment to preserve an uninhibited marketplace of ideas in which truth will ultimately prevail, rather than to countenance monopolization of that market – US Supreme Court, 1969, Red Lion Broadcasting vs FCC (Upholding the Fairness Doctrine)
Why is this there?
The implication seems to be that inspired right-wing strategy has lead, or is leading, to the monopolization of the marketplace. However, since the First Amendment is as robust as ever (that is, the market is operating under conditions of fair competition), thanks in part to libertarians and classical liberal Republicans, the obvious implication of the quote is that the truth is coming to the fore, and that's why the left is doing so poorly. Of course, you can't be of the left and believe that your principles have been found wanting in the process of free deliberative discourse. So you have to devise an alternative explanation. Hence the conspiracy theory. And hence the conviction that there is an imbalance. If the equilibrium state of the market tracks truth, and you know your ideas are true, but the market isn't tracking your ideas, then there must be some factor distorting the market.
It seems a rather desperate set of ideas to be founding a think tank upon.
The Heritage Foundation of the Left? — That's the self-description of the leftist Commonweal Institute (via Instapundit). And, hey, it makes sense. Paleo-liberals are the new conservatives. They've got Ed Begley Jr. on their advisory board! Look out right-wing conspiracy!
I'm amused by the overwhelmingly reactionary and oppositional tone of the website. It's all about countering the alleged malign influence of the powerful right-wing public relations machine. The problem that Commonweal seeks to solve is “an imbalance in the marketplace of ideas.” This is funny, and it shows why Commonweal is coming out of the gate blundering. The theory they're working from here is that there is, in fact, an honest-to-goodness right-wing conspiracy. (Grover Norquist has meetings every Wednesday, you know!) And the way to stop the juggernaut is… to mimic it! (Quoting: ” The best response to the pervasiveness of right-wing messaging is to use similar techniques.”) That's the implicit slogan: “Commonweal: Building the Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy”.
There is an obsession with communications strategy. If you click to learn more about Commonweal's raison d'etre you get an amusingly paranoid account of the success of the conservative and libertarian tanks. This is it, in a nutshell, with some minor embellishments:
The Kochs, Coors', Scaifes, and a few other plutocrats gather secretly in the immense inner sanctum (mounted heads of endangered species dot the redwood paneled walls) of their undetectable mountain escape (each attended, naturally, by his own eight year old, third world, hunchbacked, spiritually broken, manservant) and outline a unified strategy for political domination. They put the word out (through special encrypted satellite telephones) to their Machiavellian savant operatives, who forthwith erect institutions in Washington. These institutions hire raving ideologues whose task it is to create carefully crafted propaganda cleverly disguised as “research,” which they then feed to their allies in the media (who slyly camouflage themselves by propagating a myth–through the devious use of “studies” and “polls”–that the media is overwhelmingly Democrat), who then disseminate this misinformation to the minds of Americans everywhere, thereby creating “conventional wisdom”, false consciousness, and Republican majorities.
Those ingenious bastards! But really, it's comical. The error they're making is in thinking that conservatives and libertarians are simultaneously smarter and dumber than they really are. I know plenty of folks at Cato, Heritage, AEI, CEI, and some of the foundations. And… these folks are not strategic geniuses united in vision and purpose. However, lots of libertarians and conservatives are very smart in the sense that they produce sophisticated, original, and sound arguments. And thus, when they are able to communicate these arguments, they sometimes convince people. How about that! But this isn't considered. The Commonweal site reveals why the left has been losing: they have no strong arguments, but they don't know it! They've been so victimized by confirmation bias that the only conceivable explanation of the success of the rightish tanks is heaping helpings of dough, breathtakingly effective strategy, and sophistical rhetoric of the first order… anything but the content and appeal of the ideas themselves.
Well, maybe the ideas come later. For now, it seems the Commonweal website is just a piece of development strategy. The message at this point seems to be:
Don't those freakishly brilliant troglodytes of the right scare the living shit out of you? I bet they do! And you should be scared, because they're winning! And they're winning because they're a hell of a lot smarter than we are. But don't worry! We've captured enemy technology, reverse engineered it, and now we can use it and win too! So give us money, before it's too late!
And I'm sure they'll manage to drum up plenty of cash. Who can say “no” to Ed Begley Jr.?
[Update: I don't really buy into the left/right uni-dimensional thing; and I don't much identify with conservatives. I'm probably to “the left” of folks at Commonweal on civil liberties and consensual crime. But when people with bad categories lump you with people you don't necessarily belong with, and then piss on all of you, it's hard not to see fellow pissees as confreres.]
Young Americans — Every month or so, I guess, the government swears in new citizens at the GMU building next door to the law school in Arlington, and I tend to pass bunches of these newly inducted Americans on my walk to work. It brightens my morning. Here we have Indians, and various sorts of Africans, and Malaysians, and Koreans, very young and very old, standing on the sidewalks waiting for their rides, holding little American flags, wearing little buttons that announce that they too are now Americans, all beaming in the same human way. Their excitement and relief is transparent and palpable. These people, from every corner of the globe, are thrilled to now be Americans. And that makes me thrilled to be American, to be a member of a political community that doesn't much care where you came from, or what language you speak, or what God you do or don't worship.
In light of the diverse menagerie of flag-wielding humanity on the sidewalks of Clarendon, the criticism that the U.S. is insular, racist, or intolerant seems, well, just bizarre. Try to become a citizen of Germany, or Japan. This here is a place that cares nothing of “blood,” or of what patch of land from which your ancestors hailed, but only of willing allegience to a set of principles. I wish it was even easier to become a citizen, that there were even fewer hurdles to membership. But even so, there is something very fundamentally right about our official lack of xenophobia, and something pretty incredible about the willingness of people from thoroughly different cultures, with thoroughly different habits of thought and living, to assent to our principles, and to actually live together peacefully and advantageously on their basis. That's an incredible achievement of civilization.
To all the folks who just joined the American club: Very glad to have ya, and good luck! I'll see ya around.
Happy Blogiversary to Me!— It doesn't seem that long ago, but The Fly Bottle is now over a year old. (It was November 23, to be exact). This is a pretty low-volume, low-traffic site, and Instapundit and others get more hits in a day or so than I've seen in a year…. nonetheless, I think it's nice that I've had 40,000 hits since I've started.
Language Mavens Blow — Linda Hall, in this Hudson Review essay, laments the degradation and trivialization of English. This sort of thing is boring. One gathers mostly that the author is pleased with herself for the excellence of her diction, the range and precision of her vocabulary, and her intimacy with literary greatness. It's also easy to suspect the academic humanist's universal need to generalize to a trend from a small fund of anecdote. Yes, even the smart kids say “hooked up”, “you rock!”, “that sucks”, and so forth. This does not mark a general decline in “our” sensitivity to fine language. If there was some way to measure it, I'd suspect that there are rather more, not fewer, youngish people well in touch with our English High-Art Literary Heritage. Check the sales trends of the “classics.” I bet there are more who can speak and write with admirable fluency than a generation ago. Ms. Hall may be distracted by some social trends. Many more people complete college educations, and so college educations don't distinguish as they once did. Also, popular culture is increasingly a lingua franca among an increasingly diverse population. And our work culture is rather egalitarian, rewarding general competence rather than effete fixation on “correct” English (otherwise, I'd be paid a lot more!) And so it pays to speak the common tongue. But we can switch easily between dialects, while our abilities to frame thoughts vividly, and to express subtle distinctions, remain intact.
Buying Hegemony — This Franklin Foer article in the New Republic, about a liberal scholar of Islam, Khaled Abou El Fadl, caused me to experience immense gratitude for the ability to dissent freely and without fear. Those of us who participate in forums like this one should read it, and reflect on the immense importance of our intellectual and expressive freedom and the need to fiercely preserve it. The war against terrorism, I believe, is fundamentally a war of ideas, which, as this article shows, the Saudi Wahhabists are winning, and which, I fear, a war against Iraq will obscure.
Khaled Abou El Fadl, a professor of Islamic law at UCLA, has been harassed, threatened, and tortured for his fairly conservative, but relatively liberal, views on Islamic theology. The real story is that the totalitarian plutocratic Saudi powers-that-be have created an “offer you can't refuse” incentive structure for scholars of Islam. Your choices: hundreds of thousands of dollars, and endowed chairs, for supporting the party line OR harassment, torture, and death for dissent. The Saudi tactic has effectively created a monolithic edifice of extreme fundamentalist dogma that the average Muslim cannot help but perceive as authoritative, and silenced any Islamic scholar of any credibility who might contribute to an intellectual resistance.
This is the ideology of bin Laden and his henchmen, and it is the root of the terrorist threat. And this is where the attention of intellectuals concerned with the preservation and spread of liberal ideals should be directed. We don't even have to look far from home to see its influence. Such bastions of intellectual freedom as Harvard, Berkeley, and Oxford, having accepted generous infusions of Saudi money, threaten to serve as unwitting tools of Saudi theocrats bent on expanding an ideology tailor-made for creating subjects both compliant and fanatically opposed to basic human liberties.
So what does this have to do with the war on Iraq? Well, the administration's rather incredible line is that Iraq is in cahoots with al Qaeda, and that ousting Sadaam is part and parcel of ridding the world of terror. But by all accounts, Sadaam is at best orthogonal to the most pressing threats to our security. The argument over the war on Iraq, though unfortunately necessary, is a distraction from the deeper causes of terrorism, and leaves the fundamental and seemingly inevitable battle of ideas and cultures unjoined.
In any case, check out the TNR piece. It's disturbing.
I'm Not Dead — I haven't been entirely unproductive for over a month. I posted a couple items, reproduced below, on Stand Down. However, I forgot to mirror them here. Full-time job + grad school do cut into one's blogging time.
Jonah Goldberg: Egalitarian — Jonah Goldberg sounds a dissonant egalitarian note in his reply to Nick Gillespie in the Tech Central Station debate. Now, we can expect Jonah to be vehemently opposed to the redistribution of wealth in domestic policy, or for the purposes of foreign aid. Yet he appears to find it plain commonsense that we should sacrifice both wealth and liberty so that others may be more free. He writes:
So in a very serious sense, I think the anti-war folks who claim that war is the enemy of freedom are often deeply selfish and myopic. Too often they look at captive nations and threatened populations abroad and say “you're on your own” if it means higher taxes for a few – and most likely temporary – losses of convenience at home. In the truly grand scheme of things this position makes peace-at-all-costs the true enemy of liberty because its adherents hold that the basic rights of millions or even billions are not worth any sacrifice at home.
Jonah's reasoning here is stunningly similar to the reasoning of leftist egalitarians who find that it is “selfish and myopic” for conservatives and libertarians to oppose “higher taxes or a few . . . losses of convenience at home,” on the grounds that liberty will suffer. If Jonah is willing to admit the general principle that the state may legitmately coerce sacrifice for the sake of improving the prospects of others, then it seems that what divides him from his leftist brethren is merely a question of the best goods to be redistributed, and the means for doing the distribution.
Jonah might reply that economic redistribution does not in general actually make people better off economically. And that would be a good reply. But it applies equally well to the use of war to make people better off in terms of liberty.
The ongoing prospects for liberated peoples depend on much more than throwing out the despots. Freedom, in the long run, is a matter of stable institutions. And instititutions aren't pieces of paper, they're patterns of behavior that depend fundamentally on the shared beliefs and aspirations of a people. Freedom won't blossom because we've rained fire on the tyrants. Freedom has to percolate from below, as a conservative should know.
Ending one regime simply makes room for another. And the character of the new one will depend largely on what the people there are like, what they believe in, and what they want for themselves. If liberated people eventually choose against liberty, are we obliged to stop them? Are we obliged to serve as colonial governors, and give people no choice but to accept the institutions of liberty — force them to be free? Are we selfish and myopic if we refuse to do so?
Jonah's examples of good wars of liberation in his reply to Nick all involve liberating places with a deep-seated tradition of liberty. But Iraq set free from Hussein seems more likely to resemble Belarus set free from the Soviets than France set free from the Nazis.
In the end, Jonah's appeal against our selfishness and myopia are no more persausive than the left-egalitarians' appeals. Even if we set aside the questionable moral legitimacy of redistributive coercion in any case, we would need to believe that the point of the coercion would be fulfilled; that people will in fact be made in the long run richer, or more free. Jonah has not begun to show this to be true.
The left-right debates or class divides of Trotsky's time mean little in politics now. New divisions are taking shape, perhaps most importantly between those who champion progress and change and those who resist it. Every argument against change is posed in moral terms, whether it be about our duty to conserve the environment or the alleged dangers of embryo research. The supposedly ethical argument seems always to be the conservative one for restraint, aiming to put a brake on scientific or social advance.
Yet by the standards that Trotsky acknowledged in very different circumstances, the progressive view remains the moral one, especially if it “leads to increasing the power of humanity over nature and the abolition of the power of one person over another”.
It seems Virginia's ideas are getting through to the not-quite-but-close Trotskyites at the New Statesman. Anyway, he's right about the new alignments. In the face of the evidence, Marxists can give up their progressive humanism, give up on evidence, or both (which is dispiritingly popular). Congratulations to Hume for sticking with progress and people, at least.