One associates Roger Ebert with film criticism, but it seems that since he lost the use of his voice, he’s been turning out an incredibly insightful blog of political and social commentary. It’s worth your time; his insights are generally common-sense, in the best way possible. Moreover, his writing style, honed as a journalist, is well worth study and replication.
As an aside, I came to Ebert’s journal via this Esquire piece, which is well worth your time as well.
A month ago, David Brooks drew fire for a column about Haiti that many readers found offensive. His broad generalizations about Haiti’s supposedly irresponsible and entitled culture prompted accusations of racism.
Brooks’ most recent column is likely to add charges of “classism” to the list. He suggests an interesting frame from which to view our current crises of trust in our most important political, economic, and cultural institutions – the transition, over the last half-century or so, from aristocracy to meritocracy.
As we’ve made our institutions more meritocratic, their public standing has plummeted. We’ve increased the diversity and talent level of people at the top of society, yet trust in elites has never been lower. It’s not even clear that society is better led.
Hmm… That’s a pretty wide sweep, but interesting. But why would this be? Brooks offers up a few suggestions, which I’ll try to summarize in one sentence: Yesteryear’s elites had broader skill sets, lived locally, got along better, took the long view, and were more private; Today’s elites are too technically specialized, geographically centralized, partisan, short-sighted, and transparent.
There’s a lot that could be said here, since he’s put a lot on the table. But let me offer one thought. If it’s indeed true that things seemed so much simpler back then, it’s probably because things were much simpler back then. The core point here, which Brooks seems to be aware of, is that it’s obviously easier to share power among a homogeneous few than it is to conduct business democratically in a large, racially-, culturally-, and ideologically-diverse populace. If the subtext of Brooks’ Haiti piece was “Why can’t these poor, foreign black people behave like middle class American white people?”, then the subtext here is “Wouldn’t we have a lot less drama if America looked like Leave it to Beaver again?”
There are some points worth seriously considering in his piece-by-piece analysis of where today’s elites go wrong (especially by over-specializing and shooting only for short-term wins / political points), but the general thrust here is no more profound than George W. Bush’s jovial suggestion that “If this were a dictatorship, it would be a heck of a lot easier, just so long as I’m the dictator.”
Simplicity and trust are often inversely proportional to democracy and equality. Freedom ain’t free, right?
A once staunch advocate of putting terror suspects in the courtroom changes his tune:
In the debate over how and where to prosecute Mr. Mohammed and other Sept. 11 cases, few critics of the Obama administration have been more fervent in their opposition than Mr. McCarthy, a 50-year-old lawyer from the Bronx who had built a reputation as one of the country’s formidable terrorism prosecutors.
Now he has a different reputation: harsh critic of the system in which he had his greatest legal triumph.
He has relentlessly attacked the administration for supporting civilian justice for terrorists. He has criticized the military commissions system and called for the creation of a new national security court. After the arrest of the suspect in the Christmas Day bomb plot, he wrote, “Will Americans finally grasp how insane it is to regard counterterrorism as a law-enforcement project rather than a matter of national security?”
If you haven’t seen it yet, check out these videos of the sequence of events in the assassination of Hamas official Mahmoud al-Mabhouh. The Wall Street Journal offers up some of the conspiracy theories surrounding the murder. Whether it was an inside job, the work of hired guns, or a classic case of state-sponsored assassination, the obvious question remains: is assassination moral? Does it depend on who the victim is? Does it depend on who the assassins are? Does it matter if previous attempts have been made to capture the individual? Does it matter if the person was engaged in activity that was a direct threat to the assassination party (in this case, reportedly, buying weapons for Hamas)? Will certainly be worth a longer post later. In the meantime, ponder away.
Richard Posner does an excellent job in this piece tying together a discussion on growing debt and the emerging fiscal crisis with the growing consensus that America is “ungovernable.”
But again, no solutions are offered. It may really be an urgent crisis if not even our public intellectuals have proposals to right the ship.
As a long-time Toyota owner myself, it’s been difficult to see the rash of recalls facing the Japanese automaker. But it’s raised an interesting question about the role of the government in a free market. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, for example, has received a good deal of criticism for not following up on evidence of braking problems in Toyota cars as early as 2007. But the question remains: should government intervene in the free market to protect consumer safety? And if so, to what degree? Must government test everything that comes to market? Every product line? Or every single product? Or should government not intervene at all? Is the free flow of information (especially in the internet age) enough to get companies themselves to ensure the safety of their own products?
The confusion of conservative fusionism
Here’s my oped on the Mount Vernon Statement in the Christian Science Monitor:
Have you heard the one where Ron Paul, Pat Robertson, and John Bolton walk into a bar? According to the “Mount Vernon Statement,” the declaration of first principles signed yesterday at part of George Washington’s estate by conservatives of varied persuasions, the punch line would be “Constitutional conservativism.” Led by Edwin Meese, President Reagan’s attorney general, the collection of prominent economic, social, and “national security” conservatives aimed to clarify and recommit themselves to conservativism’s bedrock political philosophy.
They modeled the project self-consciously on the 1960 Sharon Statement that ushered in “new conservativism” when the Young Americans for Freedom signed it at William F. Buckley Jr.’s estate in Sharon, Conn. Like those young activists, Frank Meyer’s and Mr. Buckley’s vision of a theory able to “fuse” disparate American conservative ideologies inspired Meese and Co. The resulting mix of pabulum, historical revisionism, and internal inconsistency sheds light on enduring and contemporary tensions within American conservativism.
First, their argument. The main nugget of “Constitutional conservatism” is that America needs to return to the “limited government based on the rule of law” ideals of the Founders, who “sought to secure national independence, provide for economic opportunity, establish true religious liberty and maintain a flourishing society of republican self-government.”
How should universities teach religion, if at all? It’s a touchy subject – one that even the mighty Harvard has struggled to wrap its collective head around. That’s the subject of an interesting recent Newsweek piece by Lisa Miller.
Miller tells the story of a general curriculum conflict at Harvard between those who want to integrate faith and spirituality into course requirements (via a mandatory module called “Reason and Faith”) and those who would rather keep religion out of the classroom. The author sides with the former group, suggesting that “[t]o dismiss the importance of the study of faith—especially now—out of academic narrow-mindedness is less than unhelpful. It’s unreasonable.”
Steven Pinker, the well-known evolutionary psychologist, led the charge against the “Reason and Faith” module, arguing that the university’s mission is not to give a platform to all popular claims, but to pursue knowledge through rational inquiry. Teaching the importance of faith – at least as part of a mandatory curriculum requirement – would be anathema to that mission. Read more
A central concern I think many political experts have is communicating messages in a way that resonates publically. Basic, quantitative truths are so easily sidetracked in the modern political landscape. Heal care reform :: Death panels! Torture :: Enhanced interrogation! The examples are endless. It’s maddening, to me at least, to read poll after poll in which the public at large has little knowledge of public affairs; worse, public opinion often seems to make little coherent sense. The ease at which vast swaths of the population were convinced that the health care reform bill was designed to murder senior citizens seems to be proof enough.
That’s old news. Lewis’s work struck home to me the possibilities of using design to drive home political points in a way that can’t so easily be subverted or distracted in the next news cycle. Lewis demonstrates that it’s possible to present facts in a way that appeals emotionally, since facts that appeal only intellectually are unlikely to resonate.
Certainly, this style can be used by either end of the political spectrum. But liberals, in particular, seem to be adrift when trying to combat the more emotionally charged appeals of their opponents. (This is the old Bush vs. Gore debate dynamic: “He’s just citing statistics!”) To make an impact politically, it’s not enough for a certain fact to be true. It also has to be communicated effectively.
Recent poll shows 65 percent “strongly” opposed to Supreme Court ruling.