Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Beware of Governments Handing Out Security Blankets

We are wearied already with comparisons of the One with FDR, with our New New Deal, and this being the worst emergency since the Great Depression, which FDR presided over and rode for a decade, yet again the parallel thrusts itself before us. FDR introduced us to his "Four Freedoms", which he put forward as government's obligation to provide. (Freedom of speech and religion, and freedom from want and fear.) It seems Obama wants to revise and extend the list. Matt Drudge has this banner headline up:


It appears that now the government is in the business of providing freedom from sadness and crying as well..

"The feds will warn of depression, suicidal thinking and other serious mental illnesses. It will raise warning flags for: Persistent sadness/crying; Excessive anxiety; Lack of sleep/constant fatigue; Excessive irritability/anger."

Or, perhaps as we navigate our way through the Orwellian ObamaSpeak we are forced to decode each day, this might be a warning along the lines of the Tom Hanks character in the movie "A League of Their Own": There's no crying in socialism!

Perhaps it's a psychological ploy to create even more desperation through the power of suggestion: "you're looking awfully worried today--is everything alright?"

Either way, Americans are being fitted out with training wheels, rubber bumpers on all sharp corners, life lessons, bedtime stories, and soothing comfort for all their boo-boos by their warm and always hovering nanny government. Wouldn't it be nice to just settle back and let the government take the weight of the world off your shoulders? How about a nice peanut butter sandwich and a glass of juice, while we take over your pension plan, your medical care, your education, your energy use, your workplace, your mortgage, your standard of living, the products you buy,...

Monday, March 30, 2009

Grappling With Equality

This is another step in the domestication of the American man, and the de-naturing of us all. Sadly, girls' wrestling is nothing new, and neither is the participation of girls on boys' wrestling teams. But in Minnesota, people are cheering what they call a history making moment because someone has become "the first female to compete at the state high school wrestling tournament" ("Girl Wrestler is Winning Points, Making History," Star Tribune, March 5, 2009).

This caught the attention of Minneapolis pastor, John Piper, at Bethlehem Baptist Church and Desiring God Ministries ("Over My Dead Body, Son"). One of his concerns is broadly cultural, and the other is more narrowly moral, though they are both concerns for men's moral character.

For all those who are concerned about the way men in general treat women in general in our society, he says, "Manly gentleness is not an epidemic in our culture. Rap videos, brutal movies, fatherless homes, and military madness have already made thousands of women the victim of man’s abuse. Now we would make the high school version of feministic nature-denial a partner in this undermining of masculine gentleness."

To fathers who are concerned to raise their sons into masculine maturity, he says, "Give your sons a bigger nobler vision of what it is to be a man. Men don’t fight against women. They fight for women."

Someone offered this comment following the Twin Cities Star Tribune article:

First double standard, where boys are strong than girls post-puberty, the girls are allowed to play on boys' teams in middle school when the girls are bigger. If they get to beat up on the boys in middle school, you can't whine when boys return the favor in high school. Second, in wrestling, this girl has an unfair advantage because she can maintain lower weight classes later in life, thus giving her more experience. Any wrestler worth his or her salt will tell you experience will trump gender anytime. She often ends up wrestling freshman. Not only that, since girls have a lower center of gravity, it's harder to throw her. Third, what about the sexual harassment? Boys are uncomfortable wrestling her and she doesn't care. I wonder how she would feel if a bunch of boys decided to come shower with her. You know, nothing sexual - just a shower. If the coach explains it's just a shower I'm sure she'll be ok with it. God knows the boys can't complain because her right to participate overrides their right not to be harassed.
A Minnesota state senator has introduced a bill to ban girls from boys' wrestling ("Will Wrestling Bill Pin Local Girl?"). Law not only restrains. It also instructs. One way or another, it teaches moral lessons.

As a wrestler myself (you never lose it), I can tell you that I would have to cede any bout in which I was matched against a woman. In general, it is wrong for men to handle women in that way unless the men are wearing badges and the women are resisting arrest. The blindly ideological insistence that boys and girls, men and women wrestle each other in athletic competition abstracts from human sexuality and its significance. This is true in all that a grappler does with his opponant, but it becomes especially clear in a particular pinning maneuver called the "Saturday Night" in which, face to face and chest to chest with your opponent, you hook his arms with your arms and his legs with your legs, and then arch your back, pinning his shoulders to the mat. You get the point.

In Plato's Republic, in the "city in speech" that he constructs to illustrate the requirements of justice in a political community, he has men and women wrestling naked together for the sake of the radical egalitarianism necessary for political unity in the just city (455d-458d). Of course, he understood that this is absurd. His point is that if you press the political relationship to point of trying to perfect it, including the unity and selfless devotion from the citizens that it requires, you end up with absurdity and monstrosity.

In Allan Bloom's interpretive essay that he published with his translation of the dialogue, he says that Book V, with its radical egalitarianism and its communism of women and children, is a comedy. If that is so, our ideologically blinded, egalitarian feminists are pushing our society ever further in this tragically comic direction.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Capitalism and Its Fruits, Part II

Katherine Gammon over at Wired magazine has a short piece up titled "Stock-Boy Bots are Stealing American Jobs".

Robots are stealing American jobs. In a 76,000-square-foot zone of the 832,000-square-foot Zappos warehouse in Shepherdsville, Kentucky, 72 robotic "drive units" organize and deliver shelves of goods—from argyle socks to handbags. People remain in charge (for now), because it takes human dexterity to pack items into a box for shipping. But the bots still have plenty to do, picking up the slack on boring tasks like shifting inventory.
The droids roll at 3 miles an hour, navigating via barcodes stuck to the floor and commands from a central server. And they're buff, able to lift half a ton.

Adding a dark-future, sci-fi dimension ("Skynet" and "The Rise of the Machines!") , an Artificial Intelligence dimension that is worrisome but which I leave for another day, the concern is an old one, one which the Luddites have given their name to. The original concern, ie., what is to become of skilled, artisanal labor when machinery allows unskilled workers to produce large volumes of cheap goods in place of quality craftsmanship? has been resoundingly set aside as a concern by the enormous productivity, and thus wealth, that industrialization has made possible. By creating such widespread wealth, craftsmen and artists of every possible description have a larger upscale market for their wares than any previous generation, and the lower and middles classes share in a bounty undreamed of by prior centuries. Obviously, the market for an exquisitely made anything is limited, even in the best of times; but the cost-lowering dynamic of mass production is what has made the modern Western world, for better and worse, what it is. The line marking the difference between a luxury and a necessity has been drastically shifted downward. Imagine if you will, if the only method available for making a cell phone, a laptop computer, a GPS navigation device, or an Ipod, were the cottage manufacturing model of the Luddite era. ("Manufacture", from the Latin, is literally "hand made"). Who would have these devices? Any possibility of standardization? And what would they cost?

Yet, a question remains. Industrial robots are here to stay, spreading even into areas, like agriculture, not previously thought possible. Repetitive, dangerous, and menial tasks are being systematically taken over by ever more cleverly designed machines. How important is it to preserve entry level and unskilled manual labor jobs in our increasingly complex, automated, and information-driven economy? No matter how successful our education system could be imagined to become (we have to imagine it because we are very nearly at the point where it could not be worse), there will always be the less intelligent and less able tier of society. What are these people to do if the only jobs that exist are for the skilled or educated?

Here we are met once again with the horns of the dilemma. Progress, innovation, creativity, and efficiency all point to an increasing role for machines, with the cost being borne by the lowest on the totem pole and least capable, who will find fewer and fewer jobs they can do. The socialist answer is to just fund them in their idleness, discard them as productive human beings, and care for them like one might a stray animal.

Are we in a fundamentally different era now? For example, the early industrial era still rested on the same workforce that had been employed on the farms. It was a huge dislocation, but the jobs for the masses were still there, just different ones. But now as auto plants close down, it is ridiculous to think many UAW workers are going to become certified Microsoft technicians. And if even warehouse jobs vanish, where do the young and unskilled go? If the direction is relentlessly toward information and data, creativity and abstraction, are we establishing once again the basis for peasant/nobility dichotomy, with little in between?

Consider the nightmarish vision of Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, realized on celluloid in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, with the off-planet upper world of the glitterati and decadent rich occasionally larking down in the squalor of the degenerate world they have escaped. Untold luxury for the educated, misery and hopelessness for everyone else. Is this what unbridled science and markets portend?

Friday, March 27, 2009

Help Them Somebody!

David Byrne and Brian Eno in 1977

I just heard the recent David Byrne and Brian Eno album, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, on their website, everythingthathappens.com. With My Life in the Bush of Ghosts in mind, I hoped for something rhythmic and tastefully odd. It's not there.

I'm amazed that these guys make enough to cover their food and rent. There is nothing here that compares in any way to "Born Under Punches," "Somber Reptiles," or "Maria Lando," or from Eno alone, "I'll Come Running To Tie Your Shoe." "Strange Overtones" is the closest they come.

I hope that the new U2 album is better. I expect it will be.

But I don't pretend to be a music critic. If you have any fondness for these guys, you can listen to the entire album by using that embedded thing above. Click playlist.

To read about the album and how they collaborated to make it, read "Together Again in Different Time Zones" (New York Times, August 15, 2008).

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Hear, Hear!

Daniel Hannan is a Conservative Member of Parliament, representing the South East of Britain. I don't know where this man has been hiding, but his articulation of what is wanting in the leftist mode of being in the world is devastating, and will surely catapult him into the Prime Minister's chair before is career is over. Would that we had such a conservative spokesman somewhere in what is left of our Republic! In the course of a speech to the European Parliament, Hannan goes after the idiotic policies of the Gordon Brown government--exactly the ones Omama and his minions are seeking to jam down the throats of Americans. On the off chance that you have not heard this riff, I have copied the YouTube video of his takedown of the hapless Gordon Brown. Be inspired, and note the many memorable lines in this passionate example of English rhetoric at its finest.

Somewhere Winston Churchill is smiling.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Capitalism and Its Fruits

There are times when I am at home when I am too tired to do all the stuff I should be doing, and so like many another American, I repair to the cheap passivity of slouching in the leather chair in front of the flat screen TV that lurks like some kind of pagan altar in my home. But even at my most mind-numbed, the tube still resembles the business end of a 103 channel sewer pipe, pumping cultural detritus into living rooms across the land. Yet one program that I came across while flipping through the channels is a program called "How It's Made" on the Science Channel, a part of the Discover Network, and it allows me to loaf without self-inflicting too much psychic damage. Short segments show the basic processes involved in thousands of the products and devices that our huge, flourishing, modern economy has, Adam Smith-like, made available to households and businesses all over the world.

I have always been fascinated and impressed by the genius and creativity of manufacturing engineers, and the coordination of inputs and outputs by the free market that make possible the cornflakes and tennis shoes of life. Adam Smith's paean to the lead pencil comes to mind, following Locke's similar analysis in chapter Five of his Second Treatise of Government. Which government commissar, looking down from the commanding heights, could coordinate the millions of decisions made every day by free entrepreneurs and managers across this economy?

Among the many items showcased by the program are Binoculars, Sparklers, Rubber Boots, Circular Saw Blades, Anatomical Models, Jukeboxes, Tortilla Chips, Spark Plugs, Pencils, Coffee, Javelins, Cuckoo Clocks, Hearts of Palm, Windshield Wipers, Technical Glass, Washing Machines, Playing Cards, Crossbows, Cine Cameras, Glass Christmas Ornaments, Giant Tires, Microphones, Hot Tubs, Artificial Turf, and Beer Steins.

What do all these products and the industrial processes that make them possible have in common? CAPITAL. When you watch this program you are struck with the scale of the undertaking, and the discrepancy between the size of the production machinery compared to the product being manufactured. Even the least consequential product--the pencil, say--requires a huge industrial array of production facilities and processes to deliver that product into your hands as a consumer. It is the freedom we enjoy under the rule of law, and a constitution that specifically favors commercial activity, that allows the capital formation that makes possible even the simplest items we depend on and take for granted. How much would a handmade pencil cost? $5? $10? Instead, pencils are so cheap you hardly bend over to pick one up that has fallen. The vast array of manufactured items that make your life possible at a price that you hardly even notice is brought to you by CAPITALISM. The private interest of free men, free to make a profit, brings to your door every item in your house, including your house, at a price point that you can afford. Can't afford a $120 trash can for the kitchen? You can buy one for $10.

Take a look at this program sometime, and consider how much of our industrial manufacturing would have been possible under a less free political economy--say, like the one we are steering into now, where grandstanding Congressmen compete with faceless bureaucrats to antagonize with regulation as many aspects of the economy as they can get to.

I grew up hearing about "American ingenuity", about the can-do spirit that made America not only the envy of the world, but its economic engine. We are witnessing the systematic destruction, by way of the tax code, of the system of capital formation that makes it a rational economic decision to build a huge factory full of machine tools and production lines for the manufacture of even the humblest of products that we rely on every day. Without the growth that freedom allows, we will from this day forward begin to live off the capital already in place in the form of plant and equipment, and whatever new enterprises that might seem possible under this new regime will groan under a much heavier burden of taxation and regulation, and now it seems, even open intervention by the Congress in things like executive pay and union affiliation. Obama keeps saying he is laying the groundwork for future economic growth by loading us up with the gargantuan spending he and Pelosi are planning, but they are making the mistake all collectivists make concerning the producers. They assume that regulation and taxation have no essential effect on the level of production. But the increased rate of taxation being contemplated will remove the economic rationale for a huge number of projects on the books right now. There are untold thousands of projects, plans, and dreams that are back on the shelf now under the aspect of the mere threat of increased taxation.

If the Democrats have their way--and it looks like they will--our flourishing economy will begin to decay into the sort of rusting hulks seen all over the collectivist world. It needn't be.


After reflecting on the blessings conferred by free markets and free minds, consider the "Anti Industrial Coup" being pulled off under our noses by faceless and remorseless bureaucratic fanatics across the spectrum of executive branch agencies. Today, (Mar 26) Robert Tracinski warns that it may already be too late to save our industrial civilization from these radicals.

New York - City of Marvels and Manners

If you want small town courtesy, come to New York City.

Several weeks ago, as I was walking along 34th Street near the Empire State Building, I saw a sweet young lady in the middle of the road attempting (foolishly) to cross where she should not be and waiting to proceed into the other side of the street. Then it happened. A taxicab--a New York City taxicab!-- came to a stop in the road..between intersections...when he didn't have to...and waved her across, making sure that she got to the other side safely. This is a great city.

I have not always seen things end that way. At the same point in the road a while ago I saw a black sports car going way too fast between lights hit a man J-walking and send him 10 feet into the air. It was very unsettling to see. But for all the traffic and the hurry, midtown accidents have been rare in my experience.

Though I do see rudeness from time to time, what has struck me about this city is the remarkable civility and even kindness. A woman at 34th and 6th, near Macy's, dropped her cell phone and kept walking. A few steps behind her a gangster-looking fellow said, respectfully, "Excuse me, Ma'am! You dropped your cell phone." He picked it up and handed it to her, and she thanked him.

Here is an example of thoughtfulness on a larger scale. The escalator taking people from the Penn Station concourse (subway and Long Island Rail Road) up to the surface at 34th St and 7th Ave is a long one. There are two of them separated by a stairway in the middle. The convention is that you stand to the right on the escalator so that people who want to climb it can pass by on the left. There are times when I see it full of people standing in a long line on the right hand side. When you're climbing the escalator and someone does happen to be blocking your way, you can gently say "excuse me," and the person will shift aside. You say "thank you," and the city works well.

Consider the significance of what's happening on that escalator. Twenty or thirty New Yorkers standing in a line thinking of other people's convenience. And that simple practice is in turn reinforcing the habit in them of thinking of others generally. I see this all the time, and it is how communities flourish. Twenty-five years ago, James Q. Wilson wrote about broadly improving civility through what one might call the trickle up effect of enforcing small improvements in self-restraint and mutual respect (James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, "Broken Windows," The Atlantic, March 1982).

It is no wonder to me that Reader's Digest ("How Polite Are We?") found New York City to be the most polite major city in the world, exceeding even Toronto in human decency. Ed Koch speculates that it might be the 9/11 effect. Personally, I suspect a combination of Christian influence (there are more of them in New York that you'd think), the residue of Christian culture, and the uniquely American egalitarianism that engenders a fellow feeling that makes this sort of mutual help second nature to those who live under its influence.

See "New York (!) named politest city in world"

Someone writing in the New York Times in 1910 found the same thing: "New York is the Politest City in the World."

Readers Digest explains the politeness test.

We sent undercover reporters -- half of them men, half women -- from Reader's Digest editions in 35 countries to assess the citizens of their most populous city. In each location we conducted three tests:

  • We walked into public buildings 20 times behind people to see if they would hold the door open for us.
  • We bought small items from 20 shops and recorded whether the sales assistants said "Thank you".
  • We dropped a folder full of papers in 20 busy locations to see if anyone would help pick them up.
It is interesting that Asia scores low for politeness, though the story led off with a flattering anecdote about a Korean store clerk. "Asia. Eight out of nine cities there finished in the bottom 11."

In last place was Mumbai, India, where courtesy in shops was particularly lacking. When our female reporter bought a pair of plastic hair clips at a convenience store, sales assistant Shivlal Kumavat turned his back on her as soon as she paid. Asked why, the 31-year-old was unapologetic: "Madam, I am not an educated guy. I hand goods over to the customers and that's it."

In a government-run supermarket a young female employee lied that she hadn't seen what had happened when asked why she didn't help our reporter pick up his papers. Another worker stepped on them. "That's nothing," said the store's security guard. "In Mumbai, they'll step over a person who has fallen in the street."
Good manners are a way of loving your neighbor, and when widely observed they make for a happier life. What contributes to this sort of citizen character is a matter of serious study. It is also a serious question as to whether our civic leaders should be paying any attention at all to the what cultivates this or that character in the citizens. A libertarian would say that people should be "free to choose" whether to be polite or not. (Isn't it amazing how some people can boil the vast complexity of life down to three words?) Serious statesmen, on the other hand, who feel the weight of their unique civic responsibility more heavily, know that it is not only bad company but also bad public policy that corrupts good manners.

Monday, March 23, 2009

AIG and The People's Republic of America

Let's not be fooled. A politician's outrage is generally a trick skillfully employed either to profit politically from someone else's wrongdoing or to cover up his or her own malfeasance.

The Democrats now running--and at the same time ruining--the country have opened wide all the valves of their outrage now that the A.I.G. bonus payments they approved have become public.

In this clip, Shepard Smith of Fox News lays out the facts exposing the present government's indignation as a contrivance to distract attention from their complicity in the scandal itself. "They could have stopped this. They made it happen." This is an impressive and passionately delivered step by step account of Congressional incompetence and cover-up. Barney Frank, Chris Dodd, and their pals have been like 10-year-olds driving an 18-wheel rig.

With the proposed 90% tax on executive bonuses in select companies, Congress is abusing their power to grab particular people's money in righteous indignation, either feigned or real, or a bit of both. This tax system is for funding legitimate government activity. Often it is also used for social engineering. This is neither. It is just grabbing the money of people you don't like. Government orchestrated lawlessness of this sort makes places like Russia and Africa regions that scare off investment, and thus become places of poverty that should be prosperous. Mark Steyn ("The Outrage Kabuki," National Review Online, Mar. 21, 2009) makes this point.

The massive expansion of government the president is planning is forever, and will ensure you that end your days in what Peggy Noonan calls “post-prosperity America.” More immediately, what message do you send to the world when legal contracts can be abrogated by retrospective confiscatory bills of attainder? You think that’s going to get anyone investing in America again?

The investor class invests in jurisdictions where the rules are clear and stable. Right now, Washington is telling the planet: In our America, there are no rules. Got a legally binding contract? We’ll tear it up. Refuse to surrender the dough? We’ll pass a law targeted at you, yes, you, Mr. Beau Nuss of 27 Plutocrat Gardens, Fatcatville. If you want a banana republic on steroids, this is great news.

The danger in all of this concerns not only economic liberty, but also political liberty. Here is Congressman Barney Frank (D-MA) demanding the names of people at A.I.G. who received the bonuses. CEO Liddy is concerned not only for the privacy but also the safety of these people. Frank doesn't care. He needs to put faces on the public enemies and give them names for fear that the face might become his. These people have broken no law. They are entitled to the protection of the law, and to the service of their government in enforcing contracts, not abrogating them.

John Hinderaker at Power Line asks, "Are We a Banana Republic?" (It's short, forceful, and right. Read the whole thing.)
If the Pelosi bill is actually enacted into law (which I still think is doubtful) and upheld by the courts, there is no limit to the arbitrary power of Congress. In that event, we have no property rights and there is no Constitution--no equal protection clause, no due process clause, no impairment of contracts clause, no bill of attainder/ex post facto law clause. Instead, we are living in a majoritarian tyranny.

Harold and I have written in this blog about the fascist or tyrannical tendencies of the Obama people in particular and the Democrats in general when they are fully empowered, as they are now. Once they identify you as an enemy or as an impediment to what they want to accomplish, they target you for destruction with every instrument of the public trust at their disposal, whether it is to silence you (conservative talk radio) or plunder you (the top 1% of income earners).

Our founding generation was certain of at least two things: the value of liberty because of human nobility, and the value of limited government because of human depravity. By contrast, radicals like V.I. Lenin and his Bolshevik cadres were entirely certain not only of the perfectibility of man through politics according to Marxist theory, but also of their own righteous incorruptibility on account of their ideological commitment. For this reason, they concentrated power in the state without restraint or scruple.

The Democrats who control Congress and the White House today are convinced that human vulnerability in a system of liberty is morally unacceptable, and thus that concentrating power in hands of the federal government is politically unquestionable. But in these certainties, they are closer to Lenin than Madison philosophically. The eager abandon with which they are concentrating and wielding power in Washington betrays an unblinking confidence in the implicit and unwavering public spiritedness of politically empowered Democrats--but only Democrats because the Democratic party is the People's Party.

That is not the political theory that has preserved liberty and generated prosperity for the last 220 years.

Friday, March 20, 2009

The Daring Life of a Coffee Drinker

G. Harvey, "Cowboy Coffee" (1999)

As I said in an earlier post, "Noble Tea," one of my students, Elizabeth Brown, a freshman at The King's College here in New York City, prompted me for my thoughts on coffee and tea and their relationship to the noblest human endeavors.

Among other things, I responded with this claim for the superiority of tea.

Tea is a nobler drink. It is more delicate than coffee. The folks at Upton Tea Imports tell us, "Like fine wine, tea is debated, savored, and treasured for its almost endless variety of subtle flavors. Indeed, in terms of its complexity, variety, and worldwide appeal, tea could be called the 'non-alcoholic wine.'"

It seems to me that the vessel from which a drink is properly consumed is an indication of its recognized nobility. For example, properly speaking, wine ought to be served in an elegant crystal glass. Tea is served in small china cups. Anything else does it horrible violence. By contrast, it is perfectly respectable to drink coffee from a cardboard or Styrofoam cup. Stoneware at a diner is equally suitable. Joe don't care.
In turn, Elizabeth offered this sympathetic agreement coupled with an informative early history of coffee drinking among the Arabs and Turks, together with an appreciation of coffee's historic alliance with spirited doers of deeds.

I agree that tea is the nobler drink. The very founding of this great country is awash with tea. Tea is healthy for the heart and body, to say nothing of inspiring mind and soul. It is delicate, refined, and diverse. The rightful place of tea is in fine china, in one’s stomach, or somewhere in between. On this, we are agreed. Did I have to choose one drink (aside from water) to partake of for the rest of my life, I would choose tea. Nonetheless, I do feel compelled to defend that thicker, stronger drink toward which you seem so ill-disposed.

The origins of coffee are more wild, exotic, and blood-stained than that of its leafy cousin twice removed. Coffee’s origins are in Ethiopia, but the beans were quickly discovered and dominated by the Arabs. Since alcohol is taboo for Muslims, coffee was used as a substitute for drinking wine. The Arabic word for coffee (which I sadly cannot remember at the moment) can literally be translated wine of the bean. Originally thought of as a Muslim drink, the Muslims themselves banned coffee due to its stimulating effects, until the Turks made it legal. For the Turkish, coffee was not merely a stimulant, it was a passion. The presentation and sharing of coffee became a major part of the Turkish culture, marking the beginning of coffeehouses as we know them to be. In such a culture, coffee is served in china or the finest cups available to the host. It is specially prepared with fine grounds and sugar boiled with water in a pot. The dregs settle in the bottom of the cup presented to the guest. This style of Turkish coffee is now common throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and the Balkan nations, where I have had occasion to be served such a brew, myself.

Matisse, "Arab Coffee-House (1913)

While relaxed, coffee also bears in its very pungency a sense of adventure. Cowboys on the cattle trail, soldiers in a war zone, sheikhs in the dessert; coffee is their drink, and true enough, it is not always served in fine china. Sipped from tin, Styrofoam, or paper, the vessel is merely a means to the brew, for the adventurer. Of course, now we often associate coffee with gas stations, paperwork, and beat poets, but I wonder if the sense of comfort in adventure is not still there. When the scholar copiously records his research, when the poet spouts forth heady and often incoherent words, when the driver returns to his truck with steaming cup in hand, are they not seeking new frontiers, in some form or fashion? Discovery, inspiration, leaving a mark upon the world—is this not the work beneath the toil? I can taste it. Even if it is bitter, I like it.

Here's to reckless adventure! Here's to the spirit of conquest and greatness! And here's to coffee, come what may!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

America Is Mutable and Mortal

Contrary to Harold Kildow's concerns in the previous post (citing Charles Murray), David Brooks argues that "the United States will never be Europe. It was born as a commercial republic. It’s addicted to the pace of commercial enterprise. After periodic pauses, the country inevitably returns to its elemental nature" ("The Commercial Republic," New York Times, March 16, 2009).

There is a sense in which this is true. But there is a more alarming sense in which that commercial spirit is being ever more heavily burdened by government hyperactivity and that the manly spirit of American self-reliance is being ever more seduced into infantile dependence on the state. We have never recovered from Roosevelt's power grab in response to the Great Depression of the 1930s. Brooks passes over this fact.

"We are now in an astonishingly noncommercial moment. Risk is out of favor. The financial world is abashed. Enterprise is suspended....Washington is temporarily at the center of the nation’s economic gravity and a noncommercial administration holds sway...But if there is one thing we can be sure of, this pause will not last. The cultural DNA of the past 400 years will not be erased. The pendulum will swing hard. The gospel of success will recapture the imagination."

But Brooks underestimates the profundity of this President's radical antipathy to the American political culture that sustains that commercial spirit. Furthermore, in referring to our "cultural DNA" and "elemental nature," he underestimates the conventionality and thus fragility of our commercial and entrepreneurial spirit. It's an expression of character, not nature. Whereas nature is immutable, character is corruptible. For that reason, civilizations are mortal, and every regime must give thoughtful attention to the principles of decay inherent in it, and thus what is necessary for its perpetuation. (On the rise and fall of different regimes, or forms of government and their political cultures, read Book VIII of Plato's Republic.) This is the problem to which Alexis de Tocqueville and Abraham Lincoln turned their profoundly insightful attention.

Quin Hillyer at The American Spectator is not as sanguine. Read "Destroying the Country To Save It" below.

In Harold's post, "We're All Europeans Now," he quotes Dick Morris as foreseeing Obama's New America being "a socialist democracy in which the government dominates the economy, determines private-sector priorities and offers a vastly expanded range of services to many more people at much higher taxes. Obama will accomplish his agenda of 'reform' under the rubric of 'recovery.'"

George Newman in the Wall Street Journal shows us where we are heading as Obama shifts the country's organizing principle more squarely on what he calls "fairness," "economic justice," "redistribution of wealth," and "empathy." I lay it out in "Obama's Coming Economic Justice." It is pillage as public policy, and it leads beyond Europe to the kleptocracy that is Africa, but democratized. Now there's a model!

Consider how entrenched all these changes will become once Obama shifts the entire tax burden to a minority of the voting population, brings millions of illegal immigrants onto the voter rolls, empowers ACORN to universalize voter fraud, and fiddles the census so that left wing majorities become mathematically inevitable for generations to come. Think of the Massachusetts Congressional delegation writ large. Under such circumstances (watch them unfold), removing these overlords from power would take a critical mass of economic, political, and social crises so severe that it is horrifying to contemplate it.

Let me echo Quin Hillyer: "Rhetorically, organizationally, financially, and politically, [Barack Obama] must be stopped. Must."

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Why We Must Not Let America Become France

In a piece titled "The Europe Syndrome and the Challenge to American Exceptionalism" (The American, March 16, 2009), Charles Murray gives chapter and verse supporting the "socialism is a soul killing threat to humanity" meme that David and I have been promoting here every chance we get. (See below). Of course, being Charles Murray the eminent social scientist, he goes much further than that commonplace observation and extrapolates it into the call for a new Great Awakening; not a spiritual awakening (though he would not be against such a thing), so much as a cultural and political awakening. It is a call for Americans to realize what we have, and why we have it.

The advent of the Obama administration brings this question before the nation: Do we want the United States to be like Europe? President Obama and his leading intellectual heroes are the American equivalent of Europe’s social democrats. There’s nothing sinister about that. They share an intellectually respectable view that Europe’s regulatory and social welfare systems are more progressive than America’s and advocate reforms that would make the American system more like the European system.

Not only are social democrats intellectually respectable, the European model has worked in many ways. I am delighted when I get a chance to go to Stockholm or Amsterdam, not to mention Rome or Paris. When I get there, the people don’t seem to be groaning under the yoke of an evil system. Quite the contrary. There’s a lot to like—a lot to love—about day-to-day life in Europe.

But the European model can’t continue to work much longer. Europe’s catastrophically low birth rates and soaring immigration from cultures with alien values will see to that.

So let me rephrase the question. If we could avoid Europe’s demographic problems, do we want the United States to be like Europe?

I argue for the answer “no,” but not for economic reasons. The European model has indeed created sclerotic economies and it would be a bad idea to imitate them. But I want to focus on another problem.

My argument is drawn from Federalist Paper No. 62, probably written by James Madison: “A good government implies two things: first, fidelity to the object of government, which is the happiness of the people; secondly, a knowledge of the means by which that object can be best attained.” Note the word: happiness. Not prosperity. Not security. Not equality. Happiness, which the Founders used in its Aristotelian sense of lasting and justified satisfaction with life as a whole.

I have two points to make. First, I will argue that the European model is fundamentally flawed because, despite its material successes, it is not suited to the way that human beings flourish—it does not conduce to Aristotelian happiness. Second, I will argue that 21st-century science will prove me right.

The rest is must reading for all of you here at this blog. You can finish it here.

Charles Murray is the W. H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. This essay is adapted from The 2009 Irving Kristol Lecture delivered in Washington, D.C. on March 11, 2009. The American is a magazine of ideas published by the American Enterprise Institute.

Destroying the Country To Save It

Quin Hillyer at The American Spectator sounds a call to all patriots, to every friend of liberty, and to the political Minutemen among us to stop the devastation of our country that our current President is engineering ("Channeling the Young Patrick Henry").

He begins with this:

If this be treason, make the most of it. No, not treason against this wonderful nation. But this column may sound suspiciously like treason against the cult of Obama, and against his hagiographers in the establishment media, and against the very idea that this president actually loves this nation's liberal, republican, constitutional order. Consider this also to be treason against the myth that our president is a man of deep, or even average, integrity. Barack Obama is a radical's radical and a man whose ego vastly outstrips his prior accomplishments. He is dangerous, and after just seven weeks he already is leading this country into disaster.
He then discusses the President's long list lies and broken promises, followed by his radicalism, leftism, and just plain recklessness in foreign policy, the justice department, economic policy, defense policy and just about everything else. It is an amazingly thorough record of destruction for just two months of office. You have to read it for the full impact.

Hillyer ends this way: "Rhetorically, organizationally, financially, and politically, he must be stopped. Must. And if this be treason, make the most of it."

As far as the economy is concerned, if Obama had done the right things such as cut the capital gains taxes and sharply reduce corporate taxes, the recession might have lasted a year. But that would have given him two or three years to suffer the cruel winds of fortune and perhaps find himself back in Illinois after just one term. George Bush fought a successful Gulf War early in his term, but found himself subsequently buffeted by events and out of the White House in '93. But if Obama by his policies can actually extend the recession by two years, he can enjoy the benefits of a longer record of fighting it along with the local benefits that come from his recession lengthening spending measures, and then better ensure his re-election in 2012. This is what Franklin Delano Roosevelt did in the 1930s.

Marvin Olasky ("The Obama Depression") gives this argument, quoting Newsweek's Jonathan Alter:
Look at Newsweek's March 2 cover story. Jonathan Alter wrote that Obama "can look successful even as hard times continue. . . . The package is so big, and stretches across so many states, that it provides him at least four years of photo ops. . . . Once these mental pieces are fastened in place and we're fully 'in recovery,' to use therapy lingo, the enduring problems won't seem so terrifying anymore. . . . The longer the recession lasts, the more points Obama will put on the board. . . . Obama will likely package and sell health-care reform, a new energy policy and even national service as 'recovery and reinvestment.'"

I don't think Obama has the strategy of lengthening the recession for political purposes. That would assume that he understands the economic stupidity of massive government spending to stimulate the economy. On the other hand, he does understand the distinction between wealth generation and what he calls "fairness." I don't believe that he is thinking in primarily economic terms, but instead passionately moral ones. Barack Obama would rather have a longer recession, or even a depression, with all the wealth destruction and lost opportunities that would entail, if that is what it takes to redistribute wealth downwards. In other words, a poorer, more egalitarian society is morally superior and thus more desirable than a society in which everyone is wealthier but in which greater disparity of wealth and power exists.

Remember during a Democratic candidates debate when Charles Gibson confronted candidate Obama with the revenue generating power of lowering capital gains taxes?

Obama's view of tax policy was also on naked display that evening. The Wall Street Journal editorial today, "Obama's Tax Evasion," draws attention to Obama's exchange with Charlie Gibson over capital gains tax and government revenue. Obama said he would raise the rate to 28%, it's highest point during the Clinton administration. Gibson pointed out that Clinton lowered it in 1997 to 20% then Bush lowered it to 15%, and in each case revenues went up as a result.

Obama did not to dispute this, but instead pointed out that the goal is "to make sure that our tax system is fair." In other words, taxation is not about raising revenue to pay for government services in an equitable manner. It is first first and foremost about equity. Revenue is secondary. Obama tipped his hand as "a true income redistributionist who prefers high taxes as a matter of ideological dogma regardless of the revenue consequences." ("Obama, All Too Human")

I remember Dan Rather saying something similar in the 1980s. He was asked whether he would agree to cut taxes on the wealthy if it could be proven that it increased government revenue and expanded the economy for everyone. No, he said, because it would be unfair.

That is the spirit or socialism. It is better that everyone be poor and equal, than widely separated on the ladder of life and free.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Great Lectures on Great Ideas and Great Deeds

Harvey C. Mansfield lecturing

One of the rich benefits of my graduate education at Boston College twenty years ago was the monthly lecture series organized by Ernest Fortin and sponsored by the Bradley Foundation. So in addition to the outstanding faculty at the college itself, I was able to sit under the teaching of Allan Bloom, Werner Dannhauser, Nathan Tarcov, Ralph Lerner, and Walter Berns.

But now the internet allows access to similar privileges no matter where you are and whatever your circumstances (but without the dinner and discussion following).

A treasure trove of such fine lectures may be found through iTunes.

The best of these comes from the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, a lecture series organized by Princeton's Robert George. (From the iTunes program, go to iTunes Store >podcasts > education > higher education > the Princeton University podcasts icon.)

You should also set some time aside for these lectures in video format.

Clifford Orwin (Univ. of Toronto), "The First Democracy at War: Athens in the Pages of Herodotus." Professor Orwin is distinguished by his work on Rousseau and Thucydides. He is introduced by Prof. Susan Shell for this lecture at Boston College.

Robert Bartlett (Emory Univ.), "Aristotle's Inquiry Into Happiness in the Nicomachean Ethics." Prof. Bartlett is the Arthur Blank/National Endowment for the Humanities Distinguished Teaching Professor at Emory University.

Harry Jaffa (Claremont McKenna College), "Natural Law and the American Founding." Professor Jaffa, like professor Mansfield, has been the teacher of great teachers, and most distinguished by his work on Lincoln's political thought.

Charles R. Kesler (Claremont McKenna College), "The Declaration of Independence and American Democracy." Professor Kesler edited the Federalist Papers for Signet Classics, and contributes regularly to the Claremont Review of Books.

Thomas L. Pangle (Univ. of Texas, Austin), "The Great Debate: the Federalist Response to the Anti-Federalist Challenge." Professor Pangle, formerly at University of Toronto, has translated Plato's Laws and written extensively in political philosophy and on the American Founding.

Harvey C. Mansfield (Harvard), three lectures on "Tocqueville's New Liberalism." Professor Mansfield is the translator of Machiavelli and Alexis de Tocqueville, and most recently the author of Manliness.

After all of this, you should end with Harvey Mansfield's 2007 Jefferson Lecture, "How To Understand Politics: What the Humanities Can Say to Science." The print version appeared in First Things. You may select and view the lecture on the Lehrman American Studies Center website as Mansfield delivered it at the Lehrman Summer Institute.

As a "chaser," and a suitable one to follow Mansfield's lecture on thumos, here is the always judicious Robert Faulkner (Boston College), reading from his book, "The Case for Greatness: Honorable Ambition and Its Critics." His other outstanding works cover John Marshall, Richard Hooker, and Francis Bacon.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Noble Tea

One of my students recently asked me whether I prefer coffee or tea and why. She was doing a survey to see if her hunch is right "that coffee or tea is found in the hands and on the lips of all great scholars." Bless her heart, she turned to me.

I have told you elsewhere that I began drinking coffee for strictly social reasons.

But since an early age I have viewed tea as a communion with my ancestors and a toast to the British Empire. By "tea," I mean real tea. Not the fruity, herbal stuff, but Camellia Sinensis that is processed then infused in boiling water.

Tea is a nobler drink. It is more delicate than coffee. The folks at Upton Tea Imports tell us, "Like fine wine, tea is debated, savored, and treasured for its almost endless variety of subtle flavors. Indeed, in terms of its complexity, variety, and worldwide appeal, tea could be called the 'non-alcoholic wine.'"

It seems to me that the vessel from which a drink is properly consumed is an indication of its recognized nobility. For example, properly speaking, wine ought to be served in an elegant crystal glass. Tea is served in small china cups. Anything else does it horrible violence. By contrast, it is perfectly respectable to drink coffee from a cardboard or Styrofoam cup. Stoneware at a diner is equally suitable. Joe don't care.

I admit that I am not a tea connoisseur, so I happily use tea bags, though I would prefer loose tea on principle, if for no other reason. (My Scottish grandfather called what they put in teabags "the sweepins off the floor," though he used it all the same.) But if fine loose tea is what you want, go to http://www.blogger.com/www.uptontea.com. Upton Tea Imports is a thriving loose leaf tea business that began in Upton MA where I was living in the early 1990s.

I am the customer whom the owner describes in the article, "Tea Revives the World." I purchased the yellowed and crumbling poster pictured above, glued thoughtlessly to particleboard, at a yard sale in Hopedale, Massachusetts. To preserve this rare tribute to one of God's most universally enjoyed blessings, I had it properly framed. Alas, a year later, I needed money for seminary and hadn't the space for it in what would be my small dorm room. So I sold it to the man at Upton Tea Imports who kindly insisted on giving me whatever it had cost me. The article tells you all about the 1940 poster, and I am glad it is properly housed in a suitable setting.

June 6, 2010 -- a reader in a comment below notifies us that a fine copy of this map is preserved in the Tea Museum at Mariage Freres in Paris.

These pictures come from someone's posting on Flickr.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Third Book of Obama

Turn with me now sisters and brothers to the Third Book of the Prophet Obama, where we find the text of today's message. Our savior's other two books have given hope to millions, hope indeed for the overturning of the impious and cruel economic regime of those rascally republicans, the world of white hegemony where the "white man's greed rules a world in need" according to the forerunner Jeremiah, who as we have seen, was not worthy to untie the shoes of the One who came after.

Now in the latest revelation, Obama--may he always be praised--spells out explicitly what his tormentor, Joe the Plumber, tried to drag out of him prematurely with that disrespectful interjection about socialism--may he languish eternally over at Pajamas TV! His kingdom was not yet come, so premature speech about what the One would reveal, in the fullness of time, shows even the demonic republican plumbers know him, and are afraid!

From "A New Era of Responsibility: Renewing America's Promise. The President's Budget and Fiscal Preview", or the Third Book Of Obama, we see that not economic growth and vitality, but fairness, is what America needs most. And it is not fair that some should have more than others, in particular, the top 1 per cent. Though these one percenters create most of the wealth, they are keeping too much of it for themselves. This too shall cease, sayeth the Lord Obama:

While middle-class families have been playing by the rules, living up to their responsibilities as neighbors and citizens, those at the commanding heights of our economy have not."
"Prudent investments in education, clean energy, health care and infrastructure were sacrificed for huge tax cuts for the wealthy and well-connected."
"There's nothing wrong with making money, but there is something wrong when we allow the playing field to be tilted so far in the favor of so few. . . . It's a legacy of irresponsibility, and it is our duty to change it."

As some other prophet or other once said, first shall be last and last shall be first. The Lord Obama means to bring heaven to earth by overturning the rule of the rich, taking from the lions and giving to the lambs. Already the undeserving rich around the world have given up 22 trillion in wealth, according to the plan for fairness now underway. And it's only beginning dear ones--TARP II and Son of Stimulus are coming soon. The dawn of fairness and equality is breaking, and soon we shall all be living in the light of the Lightworker!

Let us give thanks dear children, while we await our cut of the spoils. That 13 dollars a week will sure feel good--that, and seeing how the mighty 1 percent are fallen!

(H/T to Dan Henninger at the WSJ)

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Information Sabbath

This comes from Prison Fellowship President, Mark Early.

Taking a Sabbath from Technology

Try this experiment: Shut down your computer, turn off your cell phone, unplug your iPod, hide your Blackberry, and click off the television. Then, pick up a book. Read for an hour. When you’re done, pull out a sheet of paper and write a letter. And then, go for a walk outside.

If you find this scenario difficult, you’re not alone. Mark Bittman, writing in the New York Times, describes taking a break from technology for an entire day: “I woke up nervous, eager for my laptop . . . I was jumpy, twitchy, uneven.”

According to a 2005 survey, most Americans—including children—spend at least nine hours a day watching TV, surfing the web, or talking on their cell phones. Of those hours, one-third of the time is spent using two or more of those media at once.

While technology has many worthwhile purposes, it demands a high price from us. Studies have shown that our increasing media dependency is crippling our attention spans, wounding our ability to create meaningful relationships, and generating a false expectation that we should be able to be contacted at every hour of the day.

Katie Dunne, a recent graduate of the University of Illinois, observed that while the Internet has made it easier for her to find information for class, it also made it easier for her fellow students to avoid face-to-face interactions with their professors—and with each other.

She wrote in her school newspaper: “It seems like the more advanced our technology becomes, the more likely we are to withdraw from the real world. The intimacy of conversation and the integrity of relationships are compromised by quick and cold forms of communication.”

But getting away from technology is easier said than done. Many of us couldn’t do our jobs if it weren’t for computers, cell phones, and PDAs. But here’s the problem—when we leave work, technology is following close behind us in a constant stream of text messages, Facebook posts, and emails. We’ve become addicts to the god of information.

So, here’s a challenge—take a technology sabbath.

Joe Carter—editor of the Evangelical Outpost blog—recently began making one day of his week completely technology free. He writes on Boundless.org:
“After drinking from the fire hose of information a day without info tech will seem like a year long drought. But by unplugging the god of Technology you might just find something new in the pause—a still small voice sharing the information that truly matters.”

But like anything worthwhile, taking a break from technology takes practice and patience. Here are some of Carter’s tips on making a technology sabbath worthwhile.

First, make sure to give yourself a full 24 hours, preferably from sundown to sundown. Let people know that you are unplugging, so they understand why you are not responding to them right away. Lastly, dedicate some of the time to practicing spiritual disciplines like prayer, Bible study, and attending a worship service.

In the meantime, meet a friend for coffee. And leave your Blackberry at home.


Also, Lev Grossman at Time magazine warns us against Twittering our lives away in "Desperately Trying to Quit Twitter."

Innes adds:

Personally, I'm overwhelmed by emails, and I don't know what to do. But there is clearly much to be said for self-imposed email silence and voluntary internet alienation.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Mass Movement

Under the headline "Obama musters campaign army for economic fight" comes this little gem:

US President Barack Obama mustered his powerful campaign army on Monday, calling on his millions of supporters to lobby on behalf of his budget and economic plan.

The appeal to back the president was made in an email and video sent out by "Organizing for
America," the organization which morphed out of Obama's campaign machinery to push his agenda when he entered the White House.

In the video, Mitch Stewart, the director of Organizing for America, urged the president's supporters to take part in the "Organizing for America Pledge Project."

This is breaking new ground in the realm of demagoguery. How naive I was back in the nineties in thinking that Bill Clinton would mark the low point for the political culture--that the only direction possible was up. Now we see that Bill and Hillary, with their non-stop scandal, and lowering of every dimension of the presidency and electoral politics were like cut-ups in grade school, passing notes and chewing gum in class, compared to this new hard left radical taking over the administration building and planting bombs under Che Guevara flags.

Actually, this is maybe less demagoguery than taking a page from the Caesars who presided over the death of the Roman Republic. First offer the rabble bread and circuses, then mobilize them against the state enemies opposed to giving it up for their protectors. This is bringing forward the worst aspect of the ancient popular governments--lessons learned long ago, and emphatically warned against by Madison across the Federalist Papers and many of his other writings. But the New New Left has nothing to learn from antiquity, the Founders, or even the 1930's. Their historical and philosophical ignorance is dooming the nation to the sentence of George Santayana--repeating history by being ignorant of it.

Aristotle taught that democracies will survive only as long as the "worthy multitude" exceeds in number and influence the "rabble". We're going to see what we're made of in this era of Obama.

Buckley's Descendants and the Task Ahead

Someone recently asked me, "In light of the many tributes offered at the first anniversary of William F. Buckley's passing, it seems to be a commonly held view that the conservative voice died with him. As the GOP is always searching for the 'next Reagan,' should conservatives be searching for the next Buckley?"

I responded:

William Buckley was a seminal figure in the conservative movement with a fruitful life of service. After just two generations, his philosophical descendants are legion. And if their voices are not heard as widely as they need to be, at least their presence is felt on every hill and in every valley of the cultural landscape, whether directly or indirectly.

I don’t think that we need another Buckley any more than we need another Madison. Our great need is for those who consider themselves his philosophical namesakes to appreciate the battles he fought and won on their behalf and the intellectual inheritance he has bequeathed to them, and then to take up the task he necessarily left unfinished, and make full and faithful use the opportunities his great accomplishments provided for them.

Buckley set out in the 1950s to change the political and intellectual battlefield conditions so fundamentally that we would not need another Buckley. He has done that, perhaps more successfully than he initially imagined he could. The point now is not to re-lay the foundations, but to employ our intellectual capital and cultural opportunity to understand, teach, and defend the principles of liberty that are rightfully ours as God’s human creatures, and also, with that liberty, to cultivate the fullness of human life to which God has called us.

Conservatives often forget that final concern regarding what to do with liberty, but we need to give it a much greater emphasis. Otherwise, you're just a libertarian at best, and perhaps even a nihilist.

For Harvey Mansfield's take on the philosophy of conservatism and the movement’s future, watch his lecture on this subject, "What's Your Political Ideology?"

Friday, March 6, 2009

The Graying and Balding of Facebook

I was recently "friended" by two professors at other universities whose names I recognized, but whom I did not know personally. This puzzled me. Without "confirming" them, I wrote to each one saying, "Hi stranger! What explains this sudden overture of friendship?" I suppose it was like, someone knocks at your door, and you hold the chained door open just an eye's width, and you say, "Yeah, who are you, and what do ya want?" Who "friends" people they don't even know?

Well, according to Lev Grossman at Time magazine, lots of people. At least it is true of people my age. It's called "networking." Boy, do I feel stupid now.

In "Why Facebook is for Old Fogies," he gives 10 reasons why the social networking site originally developed for high school students is becoming the haunt of the middle aged. I'll just give the headings. You can follow the link to the article for your own moment of illumination. Grossman writes:

1. Facebook is about finding people you've lost track of. And, son, we've lost track of more people than you've ever met. ...
2. We're no longer bitter about high school. ...

3. We never get drunk at parties and get photographed holding beer bottles in suggestive positions. We wish we still did that. But we don't.
4. Facebook isn't just a social network; it's a business network. ... [This is where I found my moment of illumination.]

5. We're lazy. ...

6. We're old enough that pictures from grade school or summer camp look nothing like us. ...
7. We have children. There is very little that old people enjoy more than forcing others to pay attention to pictures of their children. Facebook is the most efficient engine ever devised for this.
8. We're too old to remember e-mail addresses. You have to understand: we have spent decades drinking diet soda out of aluminum cans. That stuff catches up with you. ...

9. We don't understand Twitter. Literally. It makes no sense to us.
10. We're not cool, and we don't care. ...

So what happened to those two professors? One got back to me, saying something about a mutual friend, so I cheerfully confirmed him, fearing that otherwise I would deeply offend him at that point. The other one I seem to have scared off completely. I feel bad about that.

Nonetheless--call me old-fashioned--I have no interest in my "friends" list resembling the Nassau County telephone book (if you remember what a telephone book is).

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

A Teachable Moment

One of our readers has brought forward a question that some of the rest of you may have been wondering about. And so in the spirit of transparency that Obama has promised but has studiously avoided delivering on, I wanted to respond out here on the page instead of in the comments section where "Dan" responded. I suspect that David will want to fill in the inevitable gaps I will leave in my open letter to you Dan, so we'll have his wisdom to draw on also.

Dan's response to the Mark Steyn "Quote of the Week", which appears immediately below, about socialism being much worse for America, is as follows:

"much worse"...?

"Geez, you guys are fairly fatalistic about the trajectory and/or overzealously fond of the past results here in the States. I'm not just responding to this post... it seems to be a theme. "Oh, no, Obama was elected, we're going to be a socialist state." First off... that's unlikely. And secondly, would it be so bad? What's wrong with the "European way" of things?~Dan

OK Dan, first, thanks for paying attention. Socialism has been a major theme on this page since the Obama candidacy hove into view 18 months ago. It took Joe the Plumber to make overt what had until then been covert in the national mediasphere, but David and I and many other bloggers were onto the implications of Obama's indirect speech and euphemisms from the beginning. I believe if you continue to pay attention, you will find that what Obama was hiding under the rubric of "change we can believe in", and "we are going to change America" is in fact an attempt to shift the American political and economic regime into as pure a strain of socialism as it is possible to accomplish.

I will take your points in order. “[Y]ou guys are fairly fatalistic about the trajectory [of the country]”.

I will speak for myself here, and let David qualify his own position as he sees fit; but for myself, you are correct. The left has never cared a whit for the constitution, except as a device to empower themselves while at the same time restricting their reactionary enemies—that would be all who like the constitution as it is, and don’t want wholesale changes made to what the Founders designed.

The Obama administration, in league with the Congressional despots Reid and Pelosi and all their henchmen, will see to it that most of their gains will be locked in, impossible to undo. They have a huge advantage in that the ever-expanding portion of federal and even state governments that are beyond public control are on their side—the Dems are the party of big government. For example, executive branch agencies—the Environmental Protection Agency will do as typical—are only loosely controlled by the political appointee (the Secretary in charge of the agency) and the president, or even the Congress. Career bureaucrats consider presidential administrations the “Christmas help”—i.e., the bureaucrats will be in place long after the politicians are gone. They have their own agenda—witness the way the CIA and State Departments beleaguered the Bush administration with those continuous and damaging leaks. How many leaks do you expect from those agencies under Obama? The federal bureaucracy is aligned with socializing the nation because that puts them in control of it. They are unionized, and they can never be fired.

Next, the federal courts are presided over by judges totally in sync with rewriting the constitution in the manner of common law—i.e., the law is whatever the courts say it is. So, through administrative fiat and judicial activism almost all the unconstitutional changes about to be wrought in the next four years will be difficult to undo—with four votes on the Supreme Court the only governmental backstop. Don’t forget the ominous move to take the census into the White House. Do you think all those hugely funded ACORN types are going to be unemployed the next two years? According to that Ur-socialist Joseph Stalin, “the people who vote are not important; it is the people who count the votes that are important”. This, along with huge changes in immigration policy, will lock down their political gains for generations if they get a way with it. Thus, the electoral remedy is being put even further out of reach.

And yes Dan, I am zealously, though not overzealously, fond of the “past results of this country.” Political, economic, and religious liberty is rare and precious. Despots don’t like freedom and they are in the business of increasing their power, under the guise of “helping”, at the expense of the people’s liberty. Liberty necessarily produces some messy processes and less than optimal outcomes. But breathing free air is something few human beings on this planet have experienced, and the American experience of freedom will mark the high point in political history, as Francis Fukuyama pointed out in The End of History and the Last Man. It doesn’t have to end, but I fear it will. The “Last Man” in Fukuyama’s title is Nietzsche’s prophesy: the last man is socialist man, enervated, emptied of virtue, and barely human.

That is the main reason socialism is inferior. It is antithetical to liberty and all that liberty produces, most especially human excellence. Look at what has happened to us already. The nanny state directs our lives in ways the Founders never dreamed any rational person would accept. Ronald Reagan said the scariest sentence you can hear is “We’re from the government and we’re here to help.” But the help governments bring only deadens initiative, removes personal responsibility, and actively competes with God and all religions for the spiritual allegiance of the people. Can you name a socialist country that has an active and engaged citizenry, a vibrant economy, or encourages religious faith? And because of its intrusiveness, it necessarily politicizes all of life. Suddenly, it is my business if you smoke or are too fat—it makes my health care costs more expensive, since we are all paying for each other’s health care. And instead of rationing resources and services by price, we will ration with waiting lines and coupon books. But there is always a way for some people to get to the front of the line or get more coupons, or avoid the whole regime, right? Orwell taught us that some are always more equal than others in socialism.

Frederich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom and The Constitution of Liberty conclusively showed that, merely from the stand point of information science, central planners—and planning and control is what socialism is all about—cannot have access to enough information to make the economic decisions that routinely occur each day across the millions of actors in an open and free market. The “commanding heights” conceit that Marx was so fond of—from analogy with 18th century warfare—is false, and is an excellent example of how metaphors and analogies can mislead us in our thinking. Yet it is a flattering idea to men like Barack Obama—that he, along with a cadre of wizards, can command the economy to rise and the oceans to recede like some grand field marshal. It has evolved into the notion that reality can be legislated.

What’s so bad about Euro socialism? Holy mackerel, where to begin. Aside from the truncated freedom, the social pathologies it breeds, and the economic stagnation and unemployment, what’s not to like? Economically, socialism is willing to accept a high number of permanently unemployed people who are placed in hammocks and provided for, in order to lock down a minuscule number of permanent jobs for people who can never be fired from jobs in moribund industries, and are taxed at confiscatory rates. I suppose it’s a good deal for those with jobs; but take John Rawls’ “initial position” idea, and suppose yourself to be one of those European sad-sacks locked out of a job because the State determined as a child you were not going to university. You want to live in government housing, cashing minimal government checks for doing nothing, with no prospect of useful employment? Swedes, Danes, and Swiss all kill themselves in disproportionate numbers directly related to this sort of ennui. Epidemic numbers of Brits are falling down drunks; Belgium and Holland are full of heroine addicts who smoke pot in bars between fixes—all of them on the dole.

There are some socialist arrangements that maybe don’t seem that bad—Sweden, Denmark, Finland, if you don’t care about individual freedom. But these countries and all of Europe have been riding behind the huge economic locomotive of the United States economy since WWII. We have provided for the defense of Europe, and they all spent the money that would have gone to defense budgets on welfare programs. They all depend on selling into our huge open and free market. What happens when we are taxed and regulated into mediocrity? Who’s going to buy all those BMW’s and Volvo’s? When the entire Western world is socialist, that will mark the beginnings of the real sorrows. America is still the last best hope of mankind, because of LIBERTY.

Besides, socialism is not American. It is an alien plant, as welcome and as useful as kudzu. It cuts against every line in our constitution. And that is the main reason I detest socialism and will continue to warn and rail against it—it is unconstitutional and un-American.

David Innes adds:

Harold, I echo your "Where do I begin?"

First it is interesting that Barack Obama wants to reduce the tax advantages for charitable giving quite significantly. Even Democrats are surprised (a) that he would do this, and (b) that he would do it at a time when charities are suffering huge declines in contributions. But this behavior is characteristic of socialists and of statists of all sorts. They want all relief in the hands of the government where it can be properly directed and where it can further establish the necessity and ubiquity of the state. For this reason also, people on the poltiical left are notoriously stingy givers. They give almost nothing to charity compared to conservatives, especially religious conservatives, as Arthur C. Brookes has documented.

The best refutation of socialism I have read came from Alexis de Tocqueville in his "Memoir on Pauperism." (That link takes you to a pdf download.) It's a short but life transforming read. His chief concern is for what it does to the citizen character and the human spirit. It ennervates, infantilizes, and enslaves.

Tocqueville's chapters on soft despotism in Democracy In America (Part II, part 4) are also essential reading. We're vigilant against the tyranny of the majority, but we get blindsided by what he calls democratic despotism. "The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd."

He adds, "They devise a sole, tutelary, and all-powerful form of government, but elected by the people. They combine the principle of centralization and that of popular sovereignty; this gives them a respite: they console themselves for being in tutelage by the reflection that they have chosen their own guardians. Every man allows himself to be put in leading-strings, because he sees that it is not a person or a class of persons, but the people at large who hold the end of his chain."

Another short but great work advocating individual liberty and thus refuting state socialism is Milton Friedman's classic, Capitalism and Freedom. Here's chapter one.

Note this also. If Barack Obama succeeds with his changes to the tax system, there will be a majority of Americans who pay no federal tax at all. Thus, the voting majority will be able to benefit themselves with one spending program after another while charging it to the minority. We need to remember Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's counsel: "The trouble with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people's money." It's a strategy for national disaster.

If our public schools would provide an education that actually fit our young people for life in our particular regime, this good regime--industrious and civic spirited life--then we would not have to make these arguments.

Thanks, Dan. This was a useful exercise.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Quote of the Week

From Mark Steyn, the smartest Canadian I know--aside from David:

"Last week, the president redefined the relationship between the citizen and the state, in ways that make America closer to Europe. If you've still got the Webster's to hand, "closer to Europe" is a sociopolitical colloquialism meaning "much worse." "

The Art of Politics in the Age of Obama

I continue to be amazed by the way artists took up Barack Obama as a theme for their work. Most artists would position themselves on the political left, and thus would be more inclined to the Democratic Party than to the GOP. But we have never seen a political candidate inspire such artistic productivity as Obama has. Even before he was sworn in as President, there was enough material fill a Barack Obama Museum of Art, or rather a Museum of Barack Obama Art.

Here is an interesting recent display, though it may simply be another Abu Graib atrocity.

Magazine covers could be another post entirely.

The most striking adoration of the Bam has been in political posters, however. Consider the effect of these. This one is a more traditional political poster, but very well done.

These posters, by contrast, are not traditional.

These two seem to me to bring out the candidate's African heritage quite strikingly.

This last one suggests that the candidate is a spiritually exceptional person, a prophet, or perhaps even a divine being.

These do not feature Obama's face, but they are beautiful and at the same time troubling in their Utopian promise.

Senator Obama's unwaveringly leftist voting record together with the fainting hysteria surrounding him personally produced a talented response from the more conservative, or at least more politically skeptical, artists. This one places him on the far left.

This one on the far right. (Of course, the left and right converge at some point. The rightist Adolf Hitler was a National Socialist.)

This one, alluding to a recently popular film, mocks Obama's political inexperience.

The best known poster has been Shepard Fairey's "Hope" poster. The same poster also appears with "Progress" as the caption. Fairey's model was this Mannie Garcia AP photo. The Associated Press is suing Fairey over the use of their image.

And here is The Poster.

Fairey appears to have used a Communist genre of political poster art as his inspiration. Here is the Russian Bolshevik, Vladimir Lenin.

Here is Cuba's iconic Che Guevara.

This socialist/communist connection is becoming increasingly relevant as the Obama administration leads the government in nationalizing, taking charge of, and redesigning most of the country's economy.

It is a tribute to the Fairey poster that it has become the model for a growing number of parodies. There are these, for example, that are critical of Obama himself. "Obey" is likely the best-known of the parodies.

There are many other variations. Some are racist, some are just in bad taste, and some just aren't funny, as far as I can tell. These are a few of the wittier ones. They go in various directions, all playing on the word "Hope," but the last two using the "Change" mantra as a take off point.

Finally, as President Obama stumbles and wrecks his way to what he tells us will be a just society and a vibrant economy, the Reagan variation stands as a continuing reminder that there are principles of political and economic liberty that are also principles of political and economic flourishing, and they are...

You can go to Rene Wanner's page to find her collection of 149 Fairey themed posters that she assembled the day after the 2008 election, including the Soup Nazi, Jeremiah Wright, and More Cowbell. Of course, the number has grown since then.

Laying fun aside, this artistic aspect to the 2008 Obama campaign should put every lover of republican liberty on guard. Up to this point, it has only been in totalitarian countries that we have seen a political leader's face celebrated so artistically and plastered so ubiquitously. It is the sort of personality cult that is incompatible with a modern republic structured around a constitutional separation of powers. If he is the One, if he is the Dawn, if he is both the exemplar and the source of moral and political progress, then the separation of powers, which is premised on the recognition of human moral frailty and political epistemological skepticism, becomes inherently unjust. Start researching "the Hugo Chavez political model."

Wendell Phillips said that "eternal vigilance is the price of liberty." This artistic expression of what is arguably the first "personality cult" in American politics does not constitute President Obama as a totalitarian, but it does prompt the wise to view his every attempt at concentrating political and economic power in Washington with a heightened and aggressive scrutiny.