Sunday, November 29, 2009

And Now for Something Completely Different

I've been watching a six part documentary on the British comedy team Monty Python's Flying Circus on IFC. I became hooked on these guys as a teenager when Public Broadcasting replayed their BBC television show back in the 70s. The first week of our marriage I took my wife to see Monty Python and the Holy Grail and laughed myself breathless at the black knight scene as my new bride sat in silent horror. In time she grew to appreciate them, but while for her it was an acquired taste, for me the appreciation was immediate.

Perhaps some description of me at that time will help explain why. Being home-schooled and constantly in the company of adults rather than my own peer group fed my natural smugness and my disdain for the conventional; I was drawn to anything that lampooned the status quo, that ridiculed the bourgeois--and Monty Python did that to lavish excess.

Ridiculing conventional society was their raison d'etre as episode 1 chronicles. They all started performing in college and as they became professional entertainers after their graduation, admitted that a common drive among them was, through mockery, to dismantle the social order under which they grew up. This applied as well to the one American of the bunch, Terry Gilliam, who first attended college with the intention of being a Presbyterian minister but quickly abandoned that goal when he "got smart," as he put it, and after his graduation, edited the adult (and short-lived), sister publication to Mad Magazine called Help! before moving to England and joining up with Monty Python.

As a teen and a young adult this resonated with me, in part due to my inflated sense of sophistication, and otherwise to the natural rebellion of youth necessary to establish one's independence and personality.

Satire has a long tradition in literature from its pure form, such as Swift's Gulliver's Travels to the more subtle forms by Dickens and Twain. But where those examples seemed to aim their ridicule at the hypocrisy and cruelty of their time, Python's humor, as its members seem to admit, were bent on tearing the whole thing down, a sort of protoanarchism shared by many different forms of leftist activism. The most shocking realization for me as I watched and listened to their accounts of the contempt in which they held their own society and culture and their desire to demolish it, was their apparent success in doing so. Of course they weren't alone in this. In a series of video interviews on Uncommon Knowledge, Professor Harry Jaffa made the following stunning statement: "There's no question that the institutional root of all of the evil we now contend with in our society is the universities...they teach moral relativism, which is really nothing more than nihilism." I agree with him that academia was the progenitor of the ideas that wrecked Western culture, but popular media, I think had a crucial, even indispensable role in disseminating and then normalizing the abandonment of traditional values and mores.

There have always been the avant-garde and the outlandish in the arts, but the greater part--especially the popular arts--would be solidly grounded in the conventions of the age. Film makers like John Ford and Frank Capra celebrated Western culture and the Judeo/Christian morality that underpinned it and enjoyed the greatest of popular success of their day. Even in the 90's a film maker like John Hughes still enjoyed great success in honoring traditional Western values, but the tide had turned. Today one is hard-pressed to find any popular media in which those values are affirmed. The market for them still exists, as the success of the rare film like The Blind Side attests. But examples like this are increasingly rare, due, I think, not to the whole-sale movement of society, but rather to the homogeneous leftism of the Western artistic class. Except for the handful of very powerful Hollywood conservatives--Clint Eastwood, Bruce Willis, etc.--the ranks of actors who are conservative, in both film and television, tend to go to great lengths to preserve the secrecy of their beliefs for fear of damaging their careers. Conservative musicians tend to be ghettoized in the country and western genre, conservative fiction writers in paperback genres. Any painter who celebrates beauty and traditional values is ridiculed as a commercial hack in the fine arts community.

This is why I'm so encouraged by the work of Andrew Breitbart and his family of blogs, but especially his website, Big Hollywood. Breitbart has garnered a growing cadre of conservative voices from the arts, some who remain anonymous, but a growing number of whom have been brave enough to "out" themselves and speak up in defense of traditional values and ridicule the absurdities of the multiculti, "green", politically correct leftism that strangle-holds Western arts, and continues to debase the popular culture.

If you know any young conservative interested in acting, writing, music or painting, encourage him or her. We need conservative artists to help bring balance to the status quo. The arts and popular media have tremendous power in shaping our culture, attitude, and mores. The left has understood this from the beginning. It's long past time for the right to learn this lesson.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Jokers Wild

The origins of the term straw man are unclear according to the Wikipedia article about it.
One common (folk) etymology given is that it originated with men who stood outside of courthouses with a straw in their shoe in order to indicate their willingness to be a false witness. Another is that a man made of straw, such as those used in military training, is easy to attack. Attacking a straw man can give the illusion of a strong attack or good argument.
For my money, the second account makes more sense, and certainly matches the metaphor.

Democrat apparatchiks, Obama sycophants, and leftists of various stripes are using the straw man argument of "racist intent" against an astonishing number of those who dissent with any of our president's policies. They are, to mix metaphors, playing the race card with abandon. The range of people engaging in the practice is staggering: from New York Times columnists (Maureen Dowd), to rock music stars (Dave Matthews), to tattooed comedian/actors (Janeane Garofalo) to an ex-president of the United States (Jimmy Carter).

The beauty of this tactic is, a) like a joker, it's a wild card that can work for all occasions, and, b) it leaves your opponent stupefied. Let me take these points one at a time.

a) The race card works for all occasions.
The race card has been used against large groups (the "tea parties," the vast numbers of seniors who have protested against Obamacare, the Republican party as a whole) and individuals (Joe Wilson). It works regardless of what your opponent says because a "secret" or "hidden" or "unspoken" intent is attributed.

b) It leaves your opponent stupefied.
The use of the race card is like the old vaudevillian question, "when did you stop beating your wife?" Any reply seems self-incriminating. If one gets angry at the accusation, one's very anger will be used as an indication of his guilt. The "some of my best friends are..." response will solicit rolling eyes or derisive laughter. And silence will be seen as consent.

An additional benefit to the user of the race card is the feeling of nobility it can engender. While his opponent is condemned as racist--whether of the vicious intentional type, or the late middle-aged white buffoon to be pitied for his parochial attitudes--the user of the race card can congratulate himself on his superior enlightened outlook on the subject of race. The fact that accusations of racism without clear and unequivocal proof is a cowardly and despicable libel (in our present social milieu akin to a false accusation of rape) is irrelevant to its purveyors. It works. And considering all the benefits and advantages to be garnered--political, social, and psychological--it's perhaps easy enough to convince one's self that it's true absent any concrete evidence. The most tenuous of internal constructs upon which to build the case will do, such that Maureen Dowd can write an entire column of moral outrage based on a word she imagined Joe Wilson to have added (in his mind) after his "you lie!" outburst directed at president Obama in his speech to the joint session of Congress: "boy!"

Which brings me back to my original metaphor: the straw man. Hacking away at a straw man can infuse one with a sense of great skill and accomplishment--if one forgets that the straw man is not striking back. Point b of my earlier argument--the that the use of the race card leaves your opponent stupefied--creates this very condition. It's vital that conservatives, against whom the race card is so often played, craft an effective response and counter-attack to the spurious straw man accusation of racism. For every time it is used without answer it not only reinforces the user's self-image as morally superior, but also lends support to the picture of conservatives that leftists have carefully nurtured over the decades as a cohort of greedy, callous, angry white men, and prudish, punctilious, snobbish white women. It's time to pull the straw man down and replace him with a real, flesh and blood man who will fight back.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Wish Fulfillment

No one should ever die for lack of health care. No one should ever go broke just because he got sick.

The two sentences above were posted recently on the Facebook page of someone I know (who shall remain nameless.) I had my ideas about them at the time, but what really brought it to a head in my mind was when president Obama made similar sentiments in his speech on health care to the joint houses of Congress on the 11th of this month.

These sorts of statements have become common these days, ostensibly a testament to the evolved sensibilities of our time, we being so much more complex, nuanced, and perceptive than those who came before us. But to my mind it's just an example of mushy, half-baked thinking; the kind of thing that at first sounds caring and profound, but at the slightest application of analysis and inquiry, falls apart like damp tissue.

Let's take the second sentence first: No one should ever go broke just because he got sick. My first response is, "why not?" People go broke for lots of reasons that all share the same characteristic: their bills exceed their income. When it's due to poor decisions--profligate spending--we tend to think the fellow got what he deserved. But what about the poor sap (let's call him Dave) who looses his job because the owner of the company he worked for was a boob, mismanaged the company, and it went under? Or, better yet, the company fails, not due to mismanagement, but obsolescence: nobody wants buggy whips anymore? Did Dave get what he deserved? And if he didn't deserve it, does that mean that he "shouldn't" go broke? So if he went broke undeservedly, through no fault of his own, what is the government's responsibility to him? If we apply the same set of reasoning as many are to the question of health care, the answer would be the government should pay Dave's bills and keep him from going broke to be fair (or, in the progressive vernacular, in the interest of "social justice.")

But wait a minute: the money the government would use to pay Dave's bills has to come from somewhere. And government--any government--only has two ways to get money: it confiscates it from its citizens, or prints it (which just deflates the value of all money.) Borrowing doesn't count; that's just another, more pernicious form of confiscating wealth since it eventually has to be paid back, with interest. So how is it fair that the government takes money from you and gives it to Dave?

The first sentence--No one should ever die for lack of health care,-- is even more problematic. If by this one is implying, (as many advocates of government-run health care do,) that people in the United States are dying because they don't have access to health care...well, this simply isn't true. By American law no hospital, public or private, can turn anyone away or refuse treatment due to lack of insurance or inability to pay. As far as the present debate is concerned this sentence is a pure red herring. What's in question is health insurance, not health care. If, however, we take the sentence at face value, it's not difficult to dream up a set of circumstances that render it fantasy. Think of the following scenarios: hunting, logging, or doing geological survey in the deep wilderness, commercial fishing days out to sea, mountain climbing, archeological digging in remote areas. That was just off the top of my head, but with a little thought one could come up with many other activities in which the only way to ensure that "no one should ever die from lack of health care," would be to ban completely those activities simply because their nature removes the person from the proximity to the access of health care.

At the crux of this whole matter is the word used in both statements: the word "should." Because behind that usage of the word is the implication that this is a "right." This is even being stated explicitly by "progressive" voices in this debate. But from the beginning of this country to this present day, rights, as expressed in our founding documents are all "negative" rights, that is they are proscriptive of what the government is allowed to do. "Congress shall make no law..., the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed...nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law..."

But a move is being made in the debate over government-run health care to open the door to a completely different concept of "positive" rights, an idea espoused by the left for some time. So there is talk of food being a right, water being a right, a job being a right--and of course, health care being a right. President Obama, for instance, back in 2001 when he was still an Illinois state senator, said in a Chicago public radio interview that the civil rights movement was victorious in some regards, but failed to create a "redistributive change" in its appeals to the Supreme Court led by Chief Justice Earl Warren, and went on to suggest that the Legislature is the place for such change to occur. (You can hear the audio of the interview here.) One of my favorite writers, Theodore Dalrymple, has made the argument against this lunacy in an article which you can read in its entirety here, but the essentials of the argument are this: "If there is a right to health care, someone has the duty to provide it. Inevitably, that “someone” is the government. Concrete benefits in pursuance of abstract rights, however, can be provided by the government only by constant coercion."

We already have many government-supplied safety nets and assistance programs, but let's be clear: we have always done these things--for better or worse, (and I would argue that many are for the worse)--because our legislators were persuaded that they were "good" things to do, never because it was a "right" of the citizen that government was obligated to provide. The founders of our country were wise to codify our rights as limitations on government's power to infringe the liberty of the citizen. If we ever do open this Pandora's box of "positive" rights, which then become perpetual governmental obligations to provide, we will find that these new "positive" rights will be at war with our traditional "negative" rights.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

The Villainous Businessman

I just finished watching Sweet Land, a beautiful film about a German mail-order bride named Inge , who comes to America soon after World War I to marry a Norwegian farmer, named Olaf Torvik, in Minnesota. Most of the film I found moving, beautiful and authentic, but one aspect I found jarring: the portrayal of the local banker as a vile and evil usurer, a thoroughly corrupt unprincipled exploiter of every one and everything he touches--a Simon Legree. This sort of thing is so common in film and TV that it seems to obey some rule of script writing: you must include either a. the evil businessman, b. the evil government official, or c. the evil/lunatic/tragic victim American soldier. I've almost learned to completely tune this stuff out or else I wouldn't be able to enjoy any film or TV show.

But of course the greater message here is not just to vilify businessmen, but to discredit Capitalism itself. Early in the film Inge, while waiting for Olaf to pick her up at the train station, meets a man collecting signatures for Woman's Suffrage, who confides in her that he is also aligned with the Socialist Party in America. He shows up later in the film when the farm of Olaf's best friend, Frandsen, is being auctioned off for failure to pay his mortgage. The Socialist is seen trying to rally the neighbors of the farmer to somehow intervene by pointing out what a nice suit the banker is wearing and asking them if any of them own a suit like that. The banker alerts the local sheriff of the "trouble-making Socialist," whose deputies then forcibly remove him, while he shouts, "you see? This is how it starts: business and the law working together!"

It became obvious to me at this point that we are meant not just to loath the swine of a businessman, but the very system which brought about this tragedy: Capitalism. Business and law working together.

From the Socialist outlook, law should not work with business, but rather over business, its lord and ruler. Or perhaps a better word would be its tamer since its view seems to be that business is a ravenous beast that would devour all but the cleaver few who ride its back.

Perhaps no film exemplifies this more than There Will Be Blood, starring Daniel Day Lewis. The movie was taken from Upton Sinclair's novel, Oil. Sinclair was a committed Communist and devoted both his jounalistic and novelist careers to propagandizing against Capitalism and for Communism, or at the very least, Socialism. Daniel Plainview, the principal character of the movie, but a supporting character of the book, is nothing more than a symbol, an anthropomorphic stand-in for Capitalism itself. He is drawn as someone completely amoral: rapacious, avaricious, misanthropic, thoroughly detestable in every way. In Sinclair's book we are given a hero, the son of Plainview who repudiates his father and becomes a Socialist champion, but in the film the focus remains on Sinclair's two great hatreds: Capitalism (in the person of Plainview) and Christianity (in the person of Paul Sunday, a phony Pentecostal preacher and faith healer who is the nemesis of Plainview). The film ends with both being destroyed.

My first reaction to these anti-Capitalist messages in film and TV is disgust at what blatant hypocrites these filmmakers are, for while they apparently condemn the profit motive in others, they luxuriate in their own Capitalist bona fides. But my second thought is what utter economic and historical stupidity it betrays on their part (and I use the word stupidity rather than ignorance advisedly since being businessmen themselves they have no excuse). Take, as example, the very scenario portrayed by Sweet Land: the business and law working together that results in the repossession of a family farm. It was this "business and law working together" in the American Capitalist system which drove the unprecedented growth and prosperity of American agriculture. American laws affirming and protecting private property and the common way of thinking about private property that is the Capitalist system allowed value to be imputed to that property such that banks would account it useful for collateral and lend money based on that value. That money could then be used to improve the property, or fund innovation (such as the shining new motorized tractor Frandsen is so proud of, yet the movie only shows him using to give rides to his children). The fact that vast amounts of land in Latin America is held and farmed by people who have no clear title to that land and therefore can never use it as collateral for improvement is probably the single most significant factor in keeping these farmers in poverty, eking out a mere subsistence living--and consequently keeping their countries poor.

Consider another Capitalist market-driven innovation that greatly ameliorated the predicament of Frandsen so common to farmers of that time: the Commodities Market. At the time depicted in Sweet Land, and for untold centuries prior, one bad crop could ruin a farm and bankrupt the owner. My father-in-law tells me stories of how tortured his father was, a small farm owner during the Great Depression who had saved money for years working as a welder to buy his farm, constantly worrying about the weather, the fluctuating prices for his crops, insects, and a plethora of other variables that determined success or ruin for his farm. That was the life of a farmer. But speculators in commodities --universally reviled and reserved for special reprehension in film, by the way--came to the rescue of nerve-wracked farmers by taking upon themselves much of the risk and buying "futures", paying farmers a guaranteed price for their crops, on the chance that they will be able to turn around and sell that crop at a profit. It is not uncommon for commodities speculators to spend 5 or 6 years in a row in the red. Then along comes that one time when all the stars are in line and he cleans up, making the ubiquitously disparaged "windfall profit" that compensates for the losing years, and carries him over for the next round. And excellent explanation of this (much better than I'm capable of) can be found in chapter 12 of Thomas Sowell's indispensable book, Basic Economics.

The one exception to this opprobrium of the businessman was 1991's Other People's Money. Danny DeVito plays a corporate raider named Lawrence Garfield, a.k.a. "Larry the Liquidator." Now, don't get me wrong, "Larry the Liquidator" is portrayed as being every bit the unprincipled scoundrel as usual for a Hollywood film, but at the end of the movie he gives a speech that gives a fair--and impeccably logical--argument for the Capitalist concept of "creative destruction" coined by Joseph Schumpeter. When I first watched this movie almost 2 decades ago I had no interest in economics, had not yet read the books that transformed my thinking (Basic Economics, Applied Economics by Thomas Sowell, Free to Choose by Milton Friedman, and Money, Greed, and God by Jay W. Richards to name four). My thinking on economics at that time had been shaped by popular culture, so my head was filled with the slogans which they endlessly repeated such as "obscene profits", "unfair competition", and "corporate greed." Oliver Stone's 1987 movie Wall Street and its villain, Gordon Gekko, was the premier archetype of these bromides. So right up to the point of "Larry the Liquidator's" speech my emotions fell right in line with what I had been taught to think about such people: I detested him and everything for which he stood. But logic and reason are strange things. It's amazing how one rational and cogent argument can instantly shatter years of feeble emotional thinking.

Friday, July 03, 2009

The Next 100 Years

I recently finished reading George Friedman's book, The Next 100 Years. Friedman is the founder and CEO of STRATFOR, the world's leading private intelligence and forecasting company, and an occassional guest on Dennis Prager's radio program.

The book is an intriguing look at geopolitics as Friedman, with his extensive knowledge of both history and current world economics, politics, and military strategy, envisions it might unfold over the next century. The first 4 chapters are a look at the historical events and conditions that set the stage for his forecasts that make up the rest of the book, and I must confess I found these even more interesting and compelling than his predictions. Here are a few short excerpts to give you a flavor:
Americans constitute 4% of the world's population but produce about 26% of all goods and services.

The US's industrial production is $2.8 trillion (in 2006), the largest in the world, larger than Japan's and China's combined.

Although there's great concern that the US is wholly dependent on foreign energy, it's actually one of the world's largest energy producers.

US oil production is 85% that of Saudi Arabia. The US produces more oil than Iran, Kuwait, or the United Arab Emirates.

Consider this simple fact: the US controls all of the oceans of the world. Every ship in the world moves under the eyes of US satellites.

A Chinese junk, African dhow, Persian Gulf tanker, or luxury cabin cruiser all move guaranteed--or denied--at will by the US navy.

The combined naval force of the rest of the world doesn't come close to equalling that of the US navy.

A selection I found particularly interesting (and poignant in our present economic circumstances) was his account of the fall of the Japanese economy in the 90s. It's a story I had never really heard in its entirety, and after reading his telling of it I realized that the few details I had heard from the press were, as usual, distorted or just plain wrong. Here's a bit of the story:
Japanese banks, under government regulation, paid extremely low interest rates on money deposited by ordinary Japanese. The only option was to put money into Japan's post office, which doubled as a bank. The government turned around and lent this money to Japan's largest banks, again at interest rates well below international levels...
It was no surprise that Japanese businesses did better than American ones. The cost of money was much lower. While high interest rates imposed discipline on Western economies, culling out the weaker companies, Japanese banks were lending money at artificially low rates to friendly corporations. No real market existed. Money was flowing and relationships were the key. Boards of directors consisted of company employees and bankers who were not interested in profits nearly as much as they were in cash flow that would keep their companies afloat and pay off their debts. So Japan had one of the lowest rates of return on capital in the industrialized world...
From the outside, Japan was surging, taking over markets with incredible products at cheap prices. It was not obsessed with profits like American firms were... In fact...Japan was living off the legacy of cheap, government-controlled money, and low prices were a desperate attempt to keep cash coming in so the banking system would hold together.
In the end Japanese banks began to collapse and were bailed out by the government. Instead of permitting a massive recession to impose discipline, Japan used various salvaging means to put off extreme pain in return for a long-term malaise that is still lingering.

While interesting, it was frightening to read this because the United States seems to be following so many of the same policies.

Friedman also addresses many of the same demographic changes in the world that Mark Steyn dealt with in his fabulous book, America Alone, especially since these changes will feature so dramatically in the geopolitical events of the coming century. One of the truly startling results he forecasts will be the ascendancy of Mexico as a contentious near-peer of the United States.

A few other startling high points:

Russia will try to regain its superpower status in the world but will ultimately once again collapse.
China will suffer a terrible economic collapse that may fragment the country.
Japan and Turkey will rise as an economic and military coalition that will, in mid-century, attack the United States and challenge our control of the world's oceans and Earth-orbital space.

My one annoyance with the book is what seems to me Friedman's highly cynical view of America's culture and geopolitical motivations. For instance he categorizes nations in three ways, barbaric, civilized, and decadent. The United States is, he believes, still in the barbaric stage, being he says, "a bizarre mixture of overconfidence and insecurity," which he feels makes us often over-react to world situations. I also get the impression that, while he does not specifically say so, he believes we will inevitably completely abandon the Judeo-Christian underpinnings of our culture and embrace a completely materialistic and humanistic ethic such as now dominates Europe.

Aside from these misgivings and disagreements I still highly recommend this book as a bracing and thought-provoking look at where our present predicament might lead us over the next 100 years.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Those Were The Days

On the venerable TV program Sunday Morning last Sunday they ran a profile of Norman Lear, the creator of a host of shows popular in my adolescence such as Maud, Good Times, Sanford and Son, The Jeffersons, One Day At A Time and the biggest hit of the bunch, All In The Family. After cataloguing his list of 70's hit shows they described how in the 80's--
...he grew alarmed as evangelical Christian preachers grew more visibly and vocally involved in politics, with views and tactics he found divisive.

In response he ran a TV ad with an ersatz construction worker who looks into the camera and says,
There's gotta be something wrong when ministers try to tell you you're good Christians or bad Christians depending on your political point of view.

That ad was the seed of what would become Lear's activist group, People for the American Way.

In the recap that I have linked CBS abridged most of the discourse that followed. In the broadcast he went on to explain that a person's "compact" with God was purely personal and should remain completely separate from politics.

I was fully aware of Lear's leftist activism, but watching this several things occurred to me. First was the irony of his professed moral outrage at political organization of groups of Christian believers. His response was to create his own political organization based on his like-minded cohort of ideological believers; the apparent message being, "it's bad for people I don't agree with to organize politically, but okay for me." This, of course, is the purest definition of hypocrisy: condemning someone else for behavior for which you fully justify yourself in engaging.

Second was how absolutely his attitude embodied Francis Schaefer's explanation of post-Christian Western society's push to compartmentalize faith in complete isolation from secular life into a sort of purely private "upper story" of our lives.

And finally I thought of his old sit-coms and how one can look back a see the degree of influence they had exerted on our culture. I had already been thinking along these lines after watching a series of interviews with Andrew Breitbart on National Review TV in which he talked about the staggering power of film and television. Lear's roster of sit-coms are the perfect example of this concept. In the guise of merely commenting on society, he instead cleverly shaped it by taking conventional middle-class values and opinions, creating fictional situations that would stress them to their extremes, and making their spokesman a hateful buffoon like Archie Bunker. While millions of men across the country tuned in because they identified with Archie, their children watched and learned the lesson Lear was teaching: men like Archie, whether they are your father or the next door neighbor, are stupid, ugly, and loathsome--hate them and their values. In coupling Archie's repugnant character traits--hypocrisy, misogyny, bigotry, selfishness, pettiness, conceit, and general ignorance--with conventional middle-class American values--patriotism, strong national defense,property rights, gun rights, small government, religious faith, premarital chastity--young men and women of my generation were subtly and gradually persuaded to despise those values, to culturally throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Thirty years later the state of our culture is something of a mixed bag. In some ways, such as pregnancy outside of marriage, we are far worse, but in others we have reclaimed some of our former values. Crime rates, for instance, have greatly improved from the dark days of the 70's when liberal social theories had suffused through our criminal justice system, drastically reducing jail time, and crime of all kinds hit its peak in the country's history. And while children out of wedlock have become almost normative, teen pregnancy has markedly regressed. Universities and colleges across the country ban military recruiters from their campuses and cancel ROTC programs, but few people if any would dare show our service men and women the contempt that our returning vets from Vietnam commonly endured. Still, nostalgia for a time of national confidence and cultural norms exerts its pull:
Boy, the way Glenn Miller played. Songs that made the Hit Parade.

Guys like us, we had it made. Those were the days.

Didn't need no welfare state. Everybody pulled his weight.

Gee, our old LaSalle ran great. Those were the days.

And you know who you were then. Girls were girls and men were men.

Mister, we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again.

People seemed to be content. Fifty dollars paid the rent.

Freaks were in a circus tent. Those were the days.

Take a little Sunday spin, go to watch the Dodgers win.

Have yourself a dandy day that cost you under a fin.

Hair was short and skirts were long. Kate Smith really sold a song.

I don't know just what went wrong. Those Were The Days.

Saturday, March 14, 2009


Every Friday morning before work I get together with three friends for coffee, talk (usually about politics), and a short Bible study. Friday before last the subject came up of how polarized the country is in comparison to the period, say, under Eisenhower. I put forth a thesis as to why this is, which I'll now repeat here. Some of these ideas were in response to an earlier discussion I had had with my wife--more about which later.

Our little group of four friends is made up of three Republicans and one Democrat; it was our Democrat friend who had made the point, in a somewhat lamenting tone, about the partisanship and polarization that defines the political character of the nation today. So with some equivocation (namely that I have not extensively researched my claim), my thesis goes something like this:

The popular depiction of the Republican party as comprised of rich white men who belong to country clubs hasn't been true for many decades, but in the Eisenhower period at least bore some resemblance to reality. At that point in American history the Democrat and Republican parties were ordered around class, Republican representing the investment class, Democrat representing the working class. But class has always been a fluid thing in America, defined more by income than lineage: one need not be born to higher class in America, but can transition to it through the acquisition of wealth, something most of us aspire to do. It's called the American dream. So Eisenhower's rise from the humble Quaker farm boy to Republican president through the vehicle of a brilliant military career wasn't held against him.

But something happened in the 1964 presidential campaign between Barry Goldwater and Lyndon Johnson. Goldwater became the focus around which a new American conservative movement would coalesce that would eventually lead to the transformation of the Republican party. William F. Buckley Jr. wrote brilliantly about this in a fictionalized account (which nevertheless featured all the real people involved) called Getting It Right.

Here's where my prior discussion with my wife comes in. Some months ago I began to attend a once-a-month gathering of listeners of Dennis Prager. After the latest of these gatherings my wife seemed to express some exasperation, after asking me what we had talked about, at my recount of our mourning over the nascent presidency of Barak Obama.

"Well, the majority voted for him, and that's just the way it is," she said.

"You've said the same sort of thing about other issues I'm upset about," I said. "Are you advocating that we just acquiesce--just shut up and take it?"

"No, but I'd like to know what you think you can do about it." she said.

So I told her this story of the origins of the American conservative movement as we know it today. Even though Goldwater failed miserably in his bid for the presidency, he did succeed in gathering together many disparate, and sometime mutually hostile, groups who had loosely fallen under the banner of "conservative." Among these were intellectuals and writers, some of whom wrote for Buckley's newly started magazine, National Review. These men and women, whether at cocktail parties held regularly in Buckley's New York apartment, or political meetings, began to talk to one another, to debate their ideas. They read each other's writing. And in that reading and writing and arguing they managed to redefine American conservatism as a centrist movement based on ideals of first principles, Judeo-Christian ethics, and the founding documents of the country. They managed to purge the movement of its most radical and toxic elements: The John Birchers, the isolationists, the Randian libertarians. By and large locked out of university academia, they started think tanks in which they could nurture a new generation of conservative intellectuals. Other conservative magazines were started, such as American Spectator, and the business of disseminating the ideas of conservatism in popular forms began.

An aside: there is nothing new about this pattern. The Protestant Reformation started the same way. Martin Luther's ideas were first confined to his students and other theologians. His 95 theses that he tacked to the door of the Wittenberg church were written in Latin. It was his students who became so exited by his ideas that they, without his permission, translated the theses into German, printed them by the thousands, and spread them all over the country.

This new American conservatism engendered tectonic changes in the two parties, the first, and the real focus of my premise, being that they became ordered around ideology rather than class. Ideology, being more rigid than class, I propose this lead to the more stringent and adversarial partisanship we now see.

But oddly enough, the ideology itself that had defined the parties began to change. Norman Podhoretz and Irving Kristol, both long time notorious liberal thinkers and writers, when they gradually became disillusioned with the failures of liberal foreign policy, emerged as two of the fathers of the neoconservative contingent and began to write for conservative publications. They and their cohorts had an important influence in moving the Republican party away from the isolationist foreign policy stance that had characterized it for so long. The Democrat party saw its own transformation in ideology perhaps beginning with the party convention in Chicago in 1968 and the nomination of George McGovern as presidential candidate, which from this point on, seemed to lead to a sharp leftward turn.

Another factor in the intense partisanship of today lies in the two parties aligning themselves on opposite sides of the most divisive issues in our culture today: abortion, marriage, immigration, and a number of other issues in which compromise is difficult if not impossible without abandoning personal core beliefs. It was not that long ago that pro-life Democratic politicians were common, yet now the pro-choice stance is a virtual litmus test for participation, even at the lowest level, in the Democrat party. I know personally a man who lost his seat as a precinct committee person (the absolute bottom level of elected office), a position he had held for years, simply because he was a pro-life Catholic and would not endorse the party line on abortion.

As for me, I am unapologetically partisan. If I am correct that partisanship is a function of ideology, then I hope that we always remain so divided, for the day we are willing to compromise our convictions for the sake of consensus will be a tragedy for this country, will perhaps spell the beginning of the end of the American enterprise.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Pornography of Shame

Alexandra Pelosi, daughter of Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, has made another documentary for HBO: The Trials of Ted Haggard, which follows the disgraced former head of the National Evangelical Association and founding pastor of Colorado Springs megachurch, New Life Center in his 18 month exile from Colorado (a condition by his church for him to receive one year of severance pay.) Pelosi had filmed Haggard a year prior to his "fall" for a previous HBO film, Friends of God. In that film Haggard had been one of the more reasonable and well-spoken voices in defense of the classical Christian worldview, and especially of the engagement of the church with the political realm.

The same well-spoken, friendly, and perpetually-smiling Haggard--even in heart-breaking circumstances--is still on view in The Trials of Ted Haggard, but to much different effect than in the prior film. While Friends of God often showed American Christians as odd, or even bizarre, The Trials marinates us in Haggard's misery and humiliation in a kind of pornography of shame, and paints a picture of an American Church that is judgemental, heartless, and cruel. Even as Haggard--to his credit--takes full responsibility for his actions and unflinchingly describes his behavior as sinful, inexcusable, and a betrayal of his family and the church that trusted him, we are clearly meant to feel Haggard and his family's pathetic state as a kind of brutality imposed on them by a ruthless and uncompassionate Christian community.

Haggard and his wife have been making the rounds of daytime talk shows promoting the film, presumably for money since, as the film amply catalogues, his financial situation is dire. My wife watched his appearance on Oprah and told me that he maintained that his homosexual behavior was wrong and clearly against Biblical teaching--to Oprah's consternation. My wife said she made several attempts to get Haggard to agree that there was nothing wrong with homosexual "love." And here we get to the heart of why I find it so disturbing that Haggard agreed to participate with Pesosi in making this film.

Regardless of Haggard's motivations--and I don't doubt that he convinced himself that he would be able to convey a positive message, perhaps even a gospel message, with the film--I think he has made himself an accomplice in a subtle piece of anti-Christian propaganda in advocacy of gay identity politics. As I wrote in this same blog a couple of years ago in Wordsmithing, part 5
With the redefinition of tolerance, those who would have been considered tolerant under the former definition--allowing the voice of dissent while sternly disagreeing with it--are now seen, by reason of the very act of disagreement, or statement of moral certainty, to be intolerant and therefore bigoted, hateful, and...evil.

Of all the weapons in the gay identity politics armory, the one most ubiquitously used is the accusation of intolerance. It is certainly the weapon of choice for The Trials of Ted Haggard. But it is not as a bludgeon or broadsword that Pelosi employs it, but rather with a graceful and delicate hand as she gently slips the blade into the kidney of her antagonist--Evangelical Christian orthodoxy--like a stealthy dagger, even as she embraces it with a friendly hug. And it works, of course, because of the success of leftists and advocates of assorted brands of identity politics in persuading the popular culture to accept a redefinition of the word tolerance. To once again quote myself:
Tolerance used to denote sufferance of the improper or eccentric as in a failure to prohibit, (owing to its origin from late Middle English, the action of bearing hardship, or the ability to bear pain); it has now taken on a connotation of acceptance or even agreement. Popular messages instruct us to "celebrate" our differences.

And it's that failure by Evangelical Christians to whole-heartedly accept homosexual behavior as normative and respectable, the refusal to celebrate the homosexual life as a worthy and proper variation of "family" (supplied, of course, with the requisite example of the long-term committed gay couple who are raising adopted children from troubled backgrounds)--it's that failure and refusal that engender such contempt and obloquy from so much of popular culture today.

I don't expect this to change anytime soon; perhaps never in my lifetime; perhaps never again. But I do lament a Christian--even if uwittingly-- participating in the defaming of Christianity.