The National Review asks: Can a true American be liberal?
At The National Review, editors Richard Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru argue, in 5,000 words, that Pres. Obama assaults “American identity” and the concept of “American exceptionalism.” Damon Linker rebukes the piece at The New Republic. Here’s the outline of their argument:
What do we, as American conservatives, want to conserve? The answer is simple: the pillars of American exceptionalism. Our country has always been exceptional. It is freer, more individualistic, more democratic, and more open and dynamic than any other nation on earth. These qualities are the bequest of our Founding and of our cultural heritage. They have always marked America as special, with a unique role and mission in the world: as a model of ordered liberty and self-government and as an exemplar of freedom and a vindicator of it, through persuasion when possible and force of arms when absolutely necessary.
These unique American qualities began with the colonies:
America was blessedly unencumbered by an ancien régime. Compared with Europe, it had no church hierarchy, no aristocracy, no entrenched economic interests, no ingrained distaste for commercial activity. It almost entirely lacked the hallmarks of a traditional post-feudal agrarian society. It was as close as you could get to John Locke’s state of nature. It was ruled from England, but lightly; Edmund Burke famously described English rule here as “salutary neglect.” Even before the Revolution, America was the freest country on earth.
Rumors are beginning to spread the New York State Goveror David Paterson will likely not seek a second term after it emerged that state troopers may have directly intervened in a case of alleged domestic violence perpetrated by one of his top aides:
The resignation yesterday of Denise E. O’Donnell, Paterson’s deputy secretary for public safety, was the biggest jolt to the governor’s campaign.
“The fact that the governor and members of the State Police have acknowledged direct contact with a woman who had filed for an order of protection against a senior member of the Governor’s staff is a very serious matter,” she wrote in a statement. “These actions are unacceptable regardless of their intent.”
For those who wonder what abuse of state power really means, this is it. Using the point of the spear to interfere with the legal process, especially to protect a personal associate, is the definition of illegitimately wielding political power that derives from the people. If these allegations are true, Paterson should rightfully be in a heap of trouble.
Robert Wright, blogging for the New York Times, argues that the Texas IRS plane crasher is “the first tea-party terrorist.” For the record, I’m inclined to agree that whether we call someone a terrorist or not isn’t particularly important. It has little moral resonance, since flying a plane into a building is clearly wrong independent of it being terrorism. I don’t see how the designation really has any policy relevance, either. Wright’s argument concludes by noting that if we do not overreact by labeling the attack “terrorism,” we’ll have short-circuited the purpose of the attack, which was to spur an overreaction. Plausible enough, but I still think that nutjobs will be nutjobs regardless of how the last one was labeled.
Wright outlines some reason that Stack did and did not hold core Tea Party themes, then concludes:
In the end, the core unifying theme of the Tea Partiers is populist rage, and this is the core theme in Stack’s ramblings, whether the rage is directed at corporate titans (“plunderers”), the government (“totalitarian”) or individual politicians (“liars”).
I think this is getting at the core moral issue. It seems uncontroversial to me that threats, veiled or not, against the physical well-being of a sitting president are sedition, and promises to commit acts of violence in the service of toppling the state are treason (terrorism or not). These threats are present in spades in the TP movement. In fact, I can’t really identify what separates TPers from mainstream Republicans except this tenancy towards revolutionary delusion.
Stanley Fish (whose articles consistently elicit a response from me) has an interesting piece up on two troublesome distinctions in liberal thought: the distinction between religious and secular reasons and the distinction between public and private reasons. As is often the case, the article is really a supportive book review in disguise – this time of law professor Steven Smith’s “The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse.”
“Classical Liberals,” according to Fish, have long argued that when it comes to political debate, religious or value-laden arguments are inadmissible, since they operate on assumptions that are not universally shared or provable. Instead, they argue, we should rely squarely on “secular reason” to do the job of here-and-now policy-making.
But according to Smith / Fish, “secular reason” can’t actually solve ANY of our political problems. At least not without “smuggling in” some of that which it despises – metaphysical assumptions, values, and comprehensive doctrines. Science and reason can’t tell us what to do with data; we must choose how to use the tools of reason, what to aim them at, how to interpret information, and which facts really matter. Reason alone can’t do all of that picking, choosing, and ranking – we need some kind of substantive value system to do that.
The New Yorker has a worthwhile profile of Paul Krugman. It traces his transformation from a dedicated and accomplished academic who scorned politics to the NYT firebrand we know today. When thinking about Krugman’s appeal, part of it might well be that he doesn’t seem to want to confront the right on a weekly basis. He’d rather be writing academic papers or relaxing in the Caribbean. At a time when it seems that everyone wants their 20 minutes as a “Democratic/Republican Strategist” on the news networks, Krugman stands out as a figure who doesn’t seem to crave more publicity. (Behind his content demeanor, of course, lies the fact that he’s ascended to the pinnacle of both academic economics and political commentary, leaving him really nothing else to aspire to.)
Krugman seems to still see himself as a kind of guard against poverty in the public discourse on economics. He seems just as able to criticize the left as the right, when he sees need; the bio reminds us that Krugman was a vocal opponent of Obama in the democratic primaries. But of course, Krugman is and will always be identified strongly with the left. As his tone has become more partisan, it’s clear that his role is not simply to correct economic misinformation, but to play his own part in moving the discourse.
What has made Krugman a successful public intellectual? Certainly his engaging writing style plays a part, but there are certainly other economists who could manage the same skill. And it’s not simply his vigor in defending his position; those “____ Strategists” can muster more of that. Krugman has been able to meld wonkery with partisan advocacy in a way that makes him one of the few commentators that feels in any way authentic without grandstanding for a cause. It may be impossible to replicate this authenticity without having first accomplished what Krugman has in his field, but commentators looking to survive more than a few news cycles should take note.
Here’s a passionate and thought-provoking presentation by lawyer / activist Philip K. Howard at this year’s TED meeting:
I think Howard is right in his basic observation – we live in a culture permeated by preventative, and often combative, defensiveness. And that makes it tough to get anywhere. He squeezes his most important prescription into the very end – probably by design: greater leeway for authorities to “make the law as they go along.” That would certainly help to thwart overly intrusive, broad regulation, but is the American public prepared to surrender their (ever more convoluted) rights to judges and government bureaucrats?
American politicians and their love-hate relationship with democracy
Americans love democracy, right? In many ways it is our democracy that defines us as a nation, born as we were out of a revolution over “taxation without representation”. I mean, we export this stuff to other countries for heaven’s sake.
And yet with his domestic agenda stalled and his super-majority in the Senate eliminated by the voters of Massachusetts, President Obama has turned to arguably less democratic tools to push his policy proposals. And liberals as a whole, The Weekly Standard claims, “have assigned responsibility for the mess they’re in…to larger, structural faults in American politics and society. Beginning with you.”
The turn against democracy should come as no surprise. Every President faces falling approval ratings. Every Congress sees its electoral stars fading. And almost every time, the instinctive response is to scorn public opinion and “stand on principle.” In some peculiar way, we even encourage our politicians to ignore us. A January Allstate/National Journal poll found that 83% of Americans would trust politicians more if they made a “stronger effort to stand up for principle.”
If you lose, your nation crumbles
Tonight, the hopes of a nation rest on the shoulders of Yu-na Kim, South Korean figure skating prodigy:
Figure skating is as much art as sport. Kim is a cultural icon as well as an athlete. Thus, Song said, the competition between Kim and her Japanese rivals will also be viewed as a referendum “on which country’s culture is better regarded by the rest of the world.”
Given that Kim is a national hero in South Korea, “her loss or her winning will be perceived as a national loss or a national winning,” said Kyung-ae Park, a political scientist who holds the Korea Foundation Chair at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
“If she wins the gold medal,” Park said, “I think it will be a great boost for national pride for Koreans. In a way, it will work as compensation for past humiliations.”
The bad blood between South Korea and Japan runs old an deep. But this is a lot of pressure to put on a single athlete. Part of the glory of the Olympics, World Cup and other international sporting events is that they capture a nationalist energy that can be exhilarating. The downside comes when those hopes fall on one teenager (or in the case of Egypt, place a nation into collective depression).
The costs seem too immense–for the athletes who compete and for the millions around the world who invest their passions. Is it time to reign in the stakes?
Several months ago I posted on how willing reporters should be to dig into the private lives of politicians. In yesterday’s NY Times Ross Douthat argues that the increased focus on the private indiscretions of politicians is by and large a positive:
Anyone who waxes nostalgic for the days when the press corps winked and nodded at John F. Kennedy’s adulteries, for instance, should acknowledge that they’re pining for a time when the president of the United States probably shared a mistress with a mobster without the public knowing anything about it.
At TNR.com Leon Wieseltier has an interesting piece on the meaning of elitism and populism. He writes:
The wisdom of a policy is not determined by its social origins. There is a distinction between populism and “the people,” though most populists do not want you to know it. The populism that bases its criticisms on a preference for one segment of the populace is merely another special interest, its denunciations of special interests notwithstanding. This does not mean that its criticisms are wrong; but when they are right, it is because their reasons are moral, not sociological.