The Nation, 25 November 2013

Three items of note:

Michelle Goldberg’s piece on “The GOP’s Poverty Denialism” includes a paragraph that very clearly expresses a phenomenon that I’ve often noticed on the political right, but that I’ve never been able to put into words:

It seems that to be a contemporary Republican, one must simultaneously believe two things: that Obama has immiserated the country and driven unemployment to intolerable levels, and that the poor have it easy and there are plenty of jobs out there for the taking. When the tension between these two beliefs gets to be too great, Republicans will usually tilt toward the latter.

I’ve spent a great deal of time around Republicans and other American right-wingers in my life, and that pair of beliefs is the single most annoying thing about them.  Whenever a Democratic president is in office, or the Democrats seem to be controlling the state or local government, they’ll bang on about the harm those Democrats are doing to the economy, then in the same breath declare that there has never been more opportunity for those who are willing to work.

I think there is another pair of contradictory beliefs underlying the right-wing addiction to this contradiction.  Most of the libertarians and virtually all of the Republicans I know tend to interpret any case of prosperity in the USA as proof of the virtue of an unfettered free market.  That applies not only to periods of economic expansion, but to any amenity, even roads and and other public works built by tax dollars.   Indeed, the wealth of rich individuals is often cited as a sign of the goodness of a free market, even when those individuals have been enriched entirely by tax schemes or government contracts.  On the other hand, the same people, faced with recessions, poverty, etc, reflexively attribute those conditions to the fact that the USA does not have and never has had an unfettered free market.

Far better to be a radical libertarian like the late Murray Rothbard or Sheldon Richman, who denounce our regulated, subsidized economic system and call it by the name “capitalism.”  Rothbard and Richman are frankly utopian in their call for a freed market, and so are able to be logically consistent in their appraisal of present conditions.  Better still to be a real conservative like Henry Adams, who in his History of the United States Under the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison showed how even 16 unbroken years of bad government could not stop a basically healthy society from prospering, as in other works he showed that good government could not stop a deeply corrupt society from decaying.

Also in this issue of The Nation, Rick Perlstein argues that the people now leading the Republican Party are very much the same as were the right-wingers in that party decades ago.  In some ways I think Perlstein is right.  It never ceases to amaze me when Democrats are hurt and surprised to find that Republicans don’t like Democratic presidents, a phenomenon on which Perlstein comments thus:

This time, liberals are also making a new mistake. Call it “racial defeatism.” Folks throw their hands up and say, “Of course reactionary rage is going to flow like mighty waters against an African-American president! What can we possibly do about that?” But it’s crucial to realize that the vituperation directed at Obama is little different from that aimed at John F. Kennedy, who was so hated by the right that his assassination was initially assumed by most observers to have been done by a conservative; or Bill Clinton, who was warned by Helms in 1994 that if he visited a military base in North Carolina, he’d “better have a bodyguard.”

All right-wing antigovernment rage in America bears a racial component, because liberalism is understood, consciously or unconsciously, as the ideology that steals from hard-working, taxpaying whites and gives the spoils to indolent, grasping blacks.

When Senator Helms made that remark, Democratic friends of mine earnestly explained to me that the reason Republicans hated Bill Clinton so much was because of his activities during the Vietnam War.  Now the same Republicans had been every bit as hostile to Presidents Carter, Johnson, and Kennedy as they were to President Clinton, and the very people who were so concerned for the mental health of the Clinton-haters would themselves soon be making dark comments about what justice would mean in the cases of George W. Bush and Richard B. Cheney.  The particular stories and images that people nurse in their hatred of Mr O are of course different than the stories and images that would feed their hatred of a white president, but I cannot see how anyone could honestly say that the degree of the hatred directed at President Obama is or could be any greater than the hatred all of his predecessors have received from their opponents.

However, I do think that Mr Perlstein exaggerates both the continuity between the irresponsible Republican fringe of yesterday and the irresponsible Republican mainstream of today and the difference between the Republicans and the Democrats.  His first paragraph describes Senator Joseph McCarthy’s campaign against the Truman administration in terms reminiscent of Senator Ted Cruz’ campaign against the Obama administration.  Mr Perlstein sums up that and several other analogies with the line: “Presto: after decades of trying, the reactionary tail finally wags the establishment dog. The recklessness of the goals, however, [has] always been the same.”

As regards Senator McCarthy, that strikes me as patently false.  Senator McCarthy’s original pet cause on Congress, before he devoted himself to an effort to create the impression that the US government was infested with vast numbers of Soviet agents, was support for public housing.  By today’s standards, McCarthy’s economic views would put him on the left wing of the Democratic Party.  Even the hallucinatory drama of a crusade against subversive influence in Washington, with the names of the players updated as the times require, is endlessly replayed by Democrats and Republicans alike in this age of security clearances, free speech zones, and universal surveillance.   World Communism may not be too frightening these days, but Republican administrations can always find sinister foreigners with whom they can accuse their opponents of sympathizing, and Democratic administrations can always find dangerous misfits in the interior of the country whom they can caricature as mortal threats to an open society.  So the cycle of Red Scare and Brown Scare continues, so the federal police powers grow steadily, so Guantanamo Bay and the National Security Administration maintain a smooth flow of operations.

As for the difference between the Democrats and republicans, consider this paragraph from Mr Perlstein’s piece:

The reactionary percentage of the electorate in these United States has been relatively constant since McCarthy’s day; I’d estimate it as hovering around 30 percent. A minority, but one never all that enamored of the niceties of democracy—they see themselves as fighting for the survival of civilization, after all. So, generation after generation, they’ve ruthlessly exploited the many points of structural vulnerability in the not-very-democratic American political system to get their way. For McCarthy, that meant using the rules of Senate investigations—in which the accused enjoy few of the procedural protections of the courtroom—to shape the direction of the government through the sheer power of intimidation. For the Goldwaterites, that meant flooding low-turnout party caucuses at the precinct and county level to win control of the Republican nomination process. In the past, such minoritarian ploys were stymied in the end by bottlenecks. For McCarthy, it was the canons of senatorial courtesy. For the Goldwaterites, it was the necessity of actually winning general elections. Now, however, the bottlenecks against right-wing minoritarian power are weaker than ever; America’s structural democracy deficit has never been greater. And that’s the biggest difference of all.

I place great importance on the integrity of the political process.  I would rather my favored side lose a fair election than win an unfair one.  People who are like me in that way have at several points formed voting blocs that held the balance of power in the USA.  The 1970s were such a time.  That was why the release of the Pentagon Papers did so much to turn public opinion against the Vietnam War early in the decade, why the Watergate scandal and the subsequent pardon of Richard Nixon so damaged the Republican Party in the middle of that decade, why the Church Committee investigations into abuses of power by the CIA raised the prospect of real reforms, and why laws were enacted to move toward public financing of political campaigns.  The public had seen that the political elite was not living up to a code of fair play, and voters who were indignant about that were able to swing elections against politicians whom they blamed for the misdeeds.

Where I disagree with Mr Perlstein is in the question of who it is who must believe in this code of fair play.  It is not the politicians, and not their most committed partisans.  I say that I would rather lose an election fairly than win one unfairly.  That is why I would not be a successful politician.  In the heat of the contest, of course candidates and their supporters will do whatever they can to win.  If they aren’t so absorbed in the contest that they will resort to any dirty trick that is likely to gain the victory, they probably won’t be able to conduct themselves effectively if by some chance they do win.  That holds regardAless of party or period.  It is for voters to hold them to a code of fair play.  The better job voters do, the less politicians will have to gain and the more they will have to lose by resorting to wickedness.  Of course, as Mr Perlstein points out, the US political system is structured to limit voters’ ability to do their job.  That makes it all the more important that we do work at it.

Also in this issue, Jackson Lears reviews several books about happiness.  In addition to the authors of the books reviewed, Mr Lears mentions the following eminences: Ernest van den Haag, Samuel Beckett, Steven Pinker, Philip Rieff, Margaret Thatcher, Jeremy Bentham, Thomas Carlyle, Alexander Pope, Thomas Jefferson, Alexis de Tocqueville, Milton Bradley, William James, Theodore Dreiser, Ray Stannard Baker, G. Stanley Hall, Alfred Tennyson, Theodore Roosevelt, J. W. Goethe, Dale Carnegie, Studs Terkel, William Whyte, Dwight Eisenhower, Joseph McCarthy, James Dean, Jack Kerouac, Steve McQueen, Betty Friedan, Michel Foucault, Benjamin Franklin, D. H. Lawrence, Abraham Maslow, Clifford Geertz, William Faulkner, William Shakespeare, John Brown, Barack Obama, John Muir, C. S. Lewis, John Keats, John Maynard Keynes, Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz, Karl Marx, Adam Smith, Niccolo Machiavelli, Bernard Mandeville, G. K. Chesterton, Dorothy Day, William Morris, Edmund Burke, and Robert Frank.  Quite an impressive roll call, though a bit imbalanced in regard to gender and race.  The gender imbalance might not be quite so irritating if Mr Lears had not mentioned Frankenstein, but not Mary Shelley.  As for the racial imbalance, you can at least give Mr Lears credit for being clear as to what a brother has to do to gain his attention, since the only non-white person mentioned is currently serving as president of the United States.

Anyway, of the six books actually under review, five strike Mr Lears as silly and pernicious.  Some are pseudo-science, some are collections of platitudes, all are designed to forestall any criticism of the way American capitalism operates today.  The exception is How Much Is Enough?: Money and the Good Life, by Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky.  Of the Skidelskys, Mr Lears writes:

[T]he authors reveal an uncommon sensitivity to the abrasive impact of capitalist culture on human relationships. They prefer to focus on friendship rather than community as a nodule of the good life (claiming persuasively that “community” is too easily reified into a collective ideal that somehow transcends the welfare of its individual members). And they note the difficulties of sustaining friendship in a culture obsessed with mobility, autonomy and utility, where the speed-up is a way of life. “You need to rid your life of Leeches and replace them with Energizers,” says American lifestyle coach Robert Pagliarini. It is one of those quotations that, in its very banality and predictability, encapsulates the depth of our moral predicament. Free-market fundamentalists, the Skidelskys argue, “get things precisely backwards. It is not human beings who need adapting to the market; it is the market that needs adapting to human beings.” You cannot find a more succinct and compelling indictment of neoliberalism than that.

The Skidelskys’ alternative is modest and deeply humane, and involves no posturing or jargon. They are social democrats, not socialists, and they want to retrieve the ethical language of social democracy—on the assumption that if we start talking seriously about the good life again, we can begin re-creating the institutions to sustain it. They believe personal autonomy is one good among others, without giving it special preference. They believe that the cultivation of personality is a good as well, and that people need “a room behind the shop,” a protected place apart from commercial transactions to pursue that cultivation. They believe in the importance of property as a base for cultivating one’s tastes and ideals—one’s personality. But they like their property small; they are drawn to the traditions of Catholic personalism and distributionism—the localist communitarianism embraced by figures as diverse as G.K. Chesterton and Dorothy Day. They know, with William Morris, that the precondition for leisure is the reduction of toil. (That would include, for starters, the relaxing of demands for increased productivity, the slowing down of the speeding up.) They also know there are links between social Catholicism, the sociological liberalism of Tocqueville, and Burkean conservatism; with the thinkers in these traditions, they share an enthusiasm for mutual-aid societies and employee cooperatives—for voluntary associations that provide a meeting ground between the remote organization and the isolated individual. They might have mentioned the Protestant Social Gospel, and the need to recover and reassert it against the cult of prosperity that for several decades has commanded center stage in contemporary evangelicalism. An enlarged Protestant ethic—one that prizes commonwealth over wealth—could enrich their vision of the good life as well.

In the Skidelskys’ vision of the good society, noncoercive paternalism would be balanced by localism. The state would bear responsibility for promoting basic goods, would ensure that the fruits of productivity are shared more evenly, and would reduce the pressure to consume—perhaps through a progressive expenditure tax like the one proposed by the economist Robert Frank. This would restrain what he calls the “runaway spending at the top,” which belies the myth that the 1 percent is the “investing class” and has “spawned a luxury fever,” Frank writes, that “has us all in its grip.” To that same end—the dampening of consumption—the Skidelskys propose eliminating advertising as a deductible business expense. They are also refreshingly resistant to free-market globaloney. The good life, they make clear, is not (and cannot be) dependent on globalization: “Developed countries will have to rely more on domestic sources of production to satisfy their needs; developing market economies will need to abandon export-growth models that rely on ever-increasing consumption demand in developed countries.” Scaling back consumption means scaling down international trade. This is not an ascetic agenda—the charge so often leveled against critics of consumer culture, as if consumption is the only imaginable form of leisure. On the contrary: How Much Is Enough? is an effort to imagine possibilities for a satisfying life beyond market discipline.

In his habit of promiscuous quotation, in the deeply ingrained conservatism revealed by the sources he favors for his quotes, in his constant suspicion of and frequent dismissiveness towards fashionable opinion, and in his high esteem for leisure as a goal of civilized life, Mr Lears reminds me of the writer who has influenced me more than any other, Irving Babbitt.  Because of that resemblance, as much as the content of his argument, I am inclined to read the Skidelskys’ book.

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Games people and avocados play

Hmm, it seems to have been several months since anything has been posted here.  We haven’t disappeared from the internet completely in that time.  One thing we’ve been doing is tweeting links.  Such as:

1. A couple of years ago, there was a thing on Cracked by John Cheese about bad ways to respond to bullies.  It is very hard to read, for three reasons.  First, John Cheese tells stories about how several of these bad ways cost him and his family dearly when he was a boy beset by bullies.  Second, he doesn’t suggest any ways of responding to bullies that would be  more successful.  Third, he raises the terrible thought that “bullying” and “politics” are two names for the same thing.

John Cheese’s “5 Bad Ideas for Dealing With Bullies You Learned in Movies” are: “Tell An Adult- They’ll Teach You to Fight”; “Just Ignore Them- Unless You Can Verbally Slay Them”; “Run!  You’ll Have Your Victory Soon Enough”; “Fight Back- You’ll Always Win!”; “Fight Back- There Are No Consequences.”  A political scientist of my acquaintance is fond of the axiom “No unmixed strategies are valid.”  An opponent who can predict your reactions with a high degree of accuracy is one against whom you have little chance of winning in any sort of contest.  That applies at every level.  So the bullied child, or adult, or nation-state can achieve little by choosing the same response consistently when provoked.  The only hope is in regarding each response as a tactic, a tool to be used in conjunction with other tools, chosen and applied based on a cold-eyed assessment of the situation at the moment.   Sometimes you fight, sometimes you ignore, sometimes you run away, sometimes you report the situation to the authorities, sometimes you organize fellow targets in a coordinated resistance, sometimes you combine these responses with each other or with other techniques.  Whatever you do, make sure you surprise your opponent.

When I had to cope with bullies as a child, I was acutely aware of how little tactical sense I had.  I tried several methods, never in quick succession, never with much success.  If I had been shrewd enough to contain our neighborhood bullies then, maybe I would be rich and powerful now.  In which case you would not be reading this, as rich and powerful people do not maintain WordPress blogs.

2. John Wilkins is trying to figure out “why otherwise sensible men might harass a woman.”  His theory is that we might be able to answer this question if we frame it as a failure to operate in a rule-governed manner, so he calls the post “On knowing the rules.”   I’m skeptical of that approach.  I suspect that the men we see as sensible are those who have persuaded us to see them as sensible, and that to persuade anyone of anything is the result of a successful application of strategy.  Moreover, sexual harassment, like other forms of bullying, is targeted precisely at a person’s ability to seem sensible.  Tell a story about a federal judge interrupting you at lunch to quote movie lines about pubic hair, and people will probably wonder if you’re “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty.”  Some strategies for establishing oneself as a sensible person hinge on making other people seem not-so-sensible.  So my suspicion is that the question should be, not “why otherwise sensible men might harass a woman,” but how some men secure their reputations for sensible-ness by harassing women.

3. Speaking of tactics and strategy, the avocado has a reproductive strategy developed in response to a situation that ceased to exist 13,000 years ago.  This turns out not to matter, as the avocado has been flourishing all this time.  So maybe there’s hope for those of us who are not dynamic gamesmen.

4. Let’s assume you don’t want to be a bully, and you are having a debate.  You notice that the person you are debating is getting upset.  Leah Libresco suggests you ask what your opponent thinks is at stake in the debate.  She puts it memorably:

I’ve tried using this kind of approach in non-philosophical fights (with varying success) to keep forcing myself to ask “What is this person protecting?” I’ve tried explicitly reframing whatever the other person is saying to me as “Watch out! You’re about to step on a kitten!!” and then working out what the kitten is. This way, intensity in argument isn’t necessarily aggressive or insulting, and it’s not something I need to take personally. It’s just a signal of how passionately my interlocutor loves the thing they think I’m about to blindly trample on, and I’d best figure out what it is sharpish.

5. If the US government sends you a subsidy in the form of a check, you are very likely to think of yourself as a tax recipient and to find yourself on the defensive in political discussion and appropriations battles.  If the US government subsidizes you by means of other instruments, such as tax credits, you are very likely to see yourself as a taxpayer and to take the offensive.  As they say in xkcd, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can make me think I deserved it.”  The difference between a benefit administered through the congressional appropriations process and a benefit administered through the tax code may be purely verbal as far as economists are concerned, but it has tremendous consequences for public policy and the long-term future of the USA.

6. While we’re talking about xkcd, it dealt the other day with one of the big differences between the artificial games we design to play for fun and the games we play to establish our relationships with each other in real life is that the artificial games allow only moves drawn from a single restricted set.  So if you are boxing and you throw a right cross, your opponent is allowed to respond only by guarding against the blow, dodging it, or anticipating it with another punch.  In real life conflicts, however, there is little or no restriction on the sets of possible moves from which a competitor can draw.  So when a legislator defeats a policy initiative with a parliamentary procedure, or an appropriations cut, or a personal attack, it’s as if the winning response to a right cross was a bishop’s gambit.

7. Zach Weinersmith of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal has been on a roll lately.  The other day, he posted this epitome of misleading infographics.  He also wondered what it would be like “If Arithmetic Were Debated Like Religion” (or anything else people are passionate about); pointed out that even people who are most cautious about trying to be reasonable “have a huge collection of specific views, the arrangement of which would not be held by anyone who died more than 50 years ago”; and revealed that the Sphinx of Thebes took some time to develop her riddling ability.

8. One of our favorite publications is The American Conservative; one of our favorite Americans is the thoroughly unconservative Alison Bechdel.  If this sounds like a paradox, think again- The American Conservative raves over the musical Fun Home, based on AB’s memoir of the same title.

9. Speaking of The American Conservative, I’ve been reading Rod Dreher’s blog there.  Here’s a post of his, drawing on his book about his sister, in which he talks about the pros and cons of small-town life.  A quote:

The epiphany I had, the thing that made it possible for me to move back, is realizing that the bullying and the rejection that helped drive me away came from the same place as did the gorgeous compassion and solidarity with my sister Ruthie as she fought cancer. You can’t have one without the other.

I like this.  In bits 1 and 2 above, I’ve put a lot of emphasis on bullying as a set of moves in games individuals play.  It is that, I believe, but if course it is also more than that.  Bullying is a symptom of broader social structures, some which would be very hard to do without, and Mr Dreher does a good job of bringing that out in this post.

In another post, Mr Dreher thinks hard about Dante and W. H. Auden, ending with Auden’s line that “the only knowledge which can be true for us is the knowledge that we can live up to.”  I suppose this is what “Virtue Epistemology” is getting at, in part, by its examination of ways in which ethical and intellectual qualities interpenetrate each other.

10. While on the topic of The American Conservative, I’ll mention one of its former writers, a person well and truly loathed by most of the people who have been regular readers of this site.  I refer to Steve Sailer, or as some of my acquaintances know him, the hated SAILER.  Mr Sailer has recently posted a series of pieces about how odd a style of thinking utilitarianism presupposes.  He concentrates on the fetish utilitarians make for decontextualization, which in their case usually means taking scenarios and abstracting out everything but the question of cost and benefit.  There are many other criticisms one might level at utilitarianism, of course.  So Virtue Ethicists focus on the incoherence of utilitarian conceptions of “pleasure” and “pain,” which is a bit of a concern in a school of thought that sets out to reduce all of experience to pleasure and pain.  Other thinkers focus on the fact that the hedonistic calculus utilitarians describe presupposes a level of knowledge that no human being can attain.  Since ethics is supposed to be about the standards by which humans evaluate their behavior, utilitarianism is thereby disqualified from the label “ethical philosophy.”  If you believe in a God to whom all desires are known and from whom no secrets are hid, utilitarianism could be a theodicy, but theodicy is not ethics.

11. I am a fan of Irving Babbitt, and therefore sit up and take notice when Babbitt scholar Claes G. Ryn is mentioned.  A few years ago, Professor Ryn cast Paul Gottfried out of the Academy of Philosophy and Letters, declaring Professor Gottfried to have strayed too far towards opinions that Professor Ryn deemed racist.  Professor Gottfried is still sulking about his banishment, and grouses about it in the course of a column about his and Professor Ryn’s criticism of the followers of Leo Strauss.   The heart of the column is in these three paragraphs:

Also not surprisingly, given their contemporary focus and ambitions, Straussians over the decades have turned increasingly to political journalism. Pure scholarship seems to count less and less significantly in their putative field of study. And the reason is not primarily that they’re battling the “America-hating” Left—it’s that their interpretations are methodologically eccentric and brimful of their own ideological prejudices. They represent neoconservative politics packaged in academic jargon and allied to a peculiar hermeneutic that I earnestly try to make sense of in my work.

Ryn raises the question of why Straussian doctrines have caught on among self-described conservatives. His answers here do not surprise me, since for many years the two of us discussed this puzzling matter and reached similar conclusions.

Conservatism Inc. has been so totally infiltrated from the Left that those ideas that used to define the Left—abstract universalism, the rejection of ethnic differences, the moral imperative to extend equality to all human relations—has spread to the official Right. The political debate in America now centers on Leftist propositions. Accordingly, someone like Bloom, who could barely conceal his animus against what remains of a traditional Western world based on what Ryn rightly calls a “classical and Christian” heritage, could be featured in the late 1980s as an American patriot and cultural traditionalist.

That the “classical and Christian” worldviews could be so utterly submerged by stale leftovers from the anticommunist Left of the mid-twentieth century would rather seem to lead one to doubt that these worldviews had much life left in them at the time this “infiltration” began, but Professors Ryn and Gottfried are among those who would disagree.  I know that the kittens on their floors (to borrow Ms Libresco’s image) include most of the things that a sizable fraction of the people in the world cared most deeply about for a couple of thousand years, so far be it from me to step carelessly in my hobnailed boots of postmodern secularism.