Tag: conservatism

Agree with Heinlein’s ‘Citizens vs. Civilians’? then this US Military History is for you


I was asked by a participating member of the H-Diplo/ISSF network to review The American Culture of War. Here is the original link to my review, but it’s off in some far corner of the internet, so I thought I’d repost it here. In brief, I found the book a pretty disturbing rehearsal of right-wing tropes about the military in a democracy, especially from an academic, and there’s no way I’d ever use it with undergrads as Routledge suggests. The underlying moral driver is the ‘chicken hawk’ principle – that those without military experience are not morally qualified to lead DoD and should otherwise defer to uniformed military. At one point the author actually says that, because the US Army ‘distrusts’ Congress, the Army should ‘guide’ Congress. Yikes. Do Americans (and the author) really need to be told civilian authority runs the other way, and that that’s in the Constitution? I find that sort of military elitism democratically terrifying and reflective of the post-9/11 militarization of America that is now the single most important reason, IMO, to end the war on terror.

I would just add the following update to the review: Both the book and review were written before Petraeus’ resignation, but it should come as no surprise that the text lionizes Petraeus. His resignation is therefore a pleasing schadenfreude for the frightening post-9/11 military hero-worship of the US right. Here we go:

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Abenomics is a Not an Excuse for Comfort-Women Denialism

protesting-comfort-women-by-bloggerswithoutbordersOne of the traditional responsibilities of sane conservative parties is to write-out of respectability and legitimacy the scary, nut-job right-wing fringe. There can’t be a ‘no-enemies-on-the-right’ strategy, or you wind up with anti-Semites, racists, and black-helicopter guys grabbing all the media attention and delegitimizing wider conservative goals. In the US, Bill Buckley explicitly intended the National Review to screen out the John Birch Society and the American Mercury. In Germany, the CDU/CSU keeps the nationalist/neo-Nazi fringe at bay. (I worked for both GOP and CSU legislators in the past, so I’ve actually seen this in action. The late-night/AM newsradio listeners come out of the woodwork to tell you all about Jewish banker conspiracies and stuff like that.) In Japan, that means the LDP has to tamp down the endless Pacific War revisionism that keeps popping up. And for as much as I think Abenomics is an important Keynesian antidote to the right-wing monetarist-austerity hysteria of the last five years, it’s also increasingly clear that Abe’s victory allowed the Japanese version of the Birchers to get all sorts of air time they shouldn’t.

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3rd Presidential Debate, Foreigner Version: If you’re not an American, you’re Mentally Ill or something

Did anyone else find the third presidential debate just appallingly narcissistic and self-congratulatory? Good lord. Good thing America is around to show you bubble-headed foreigners the way to freedom. I could run through all the offensive, ‘America-is-tasked-with-upholding-the-mantle-of-liberty’ patronizing condescension, but why bother? (Nexon does a nice job here.) I told my students to watch it, and in retrospect, maybe I shouldn’t have. It was so embarrassing, and in class this week I kept trying to explain why we talk down to the rest of the world like this while my students rolled their eyes in disgust.

I keep saying this – running around the world telling people how exceptional and bound-to-lead we are is a great way to alienate the planet and convince them of exactly the opposite – to not to follow us. We’d have a much easier time with the world if we could back off the blustery, Fox News nationalism and actually speak maturely. But Americans couldn’t give a damn about the rest of the world, no matter how much we posture about our world historic role to lead it.  Our ODA totals are disgrace for a coutnry as wealthy as we are. We don’t learn languages much. The only time we worry about casualties in the war on terror is when they are own; our clear disinterest for all the collateral damage we have done since 9/11 speak volumes to the rest of the planet.

So instead, here is the debate foreigners heard:

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God and Man at Kale

Governor Romney’s Nutrition Czar-Designate

A small part of my portfolio at the Duck is wading into the shallow end of the conservative pool of ideas, and in that spirit I bring to you the latest contretemps over Imam Obama and his jihad against loyal, God- and YHWH-fearing Americans.

If I were to walk up to you and say that control of our nation’s school lunches is a key part of the Communist plot to control our precious bodily fluids, you would probably leave, or at least think about calling the police. And if I were to tell you that our nation’s First Lady–the only one of Barack Hussein’s wives that we know about–is heading up a nefarious plot to corrupt our youth by forcing them to forego calories and eat carrots, presumably you would ask Siri about involuntary institutionalization laws in your state.

But for CNS News such allegations are a news hook:

Last night, radio host Mark Levin described the Department of Agriculture and Michelle Obama’s new school lunch regulations as “tyranny.” Levin was discussing an article that stated many high school athletes and students are not getting enough food each day and are throwing away food because of the mandates instituted this year by the Department of Agriculture. “But I think Michelle Obama is the new Eva Peron with her lunch standards,” Levin said. “Like she knows something about this. She knows as much as I do. Eat carrots and celery. Yum, yum.”

Among the sort of people who think that including footnotes in a tract elevates it to scholarship, Mark Levin is taken semi-seriously–which is to say that many, many more people take Mark Levin seriously than, say, Suzanne Mettler, which is probably why so many political scientists keep threatening to move to Canada.

Anyway, the only sane reaction to someone who says that school lunch = teh jackbootz is “You’re a lunatic.” But in a world where we can no longer control the flow of information, we have to live up to the classical liberal principle that the only response to stupid speech is severe mockery. So, here’s Levin again:

First of all, where does the Constitution empower her or that department to reach all the way down to every school- public school – in this country and set the menu? Are people in the local communities – are you incapable of overseeing this yourself? Is your school board incapable of doing this? Are your local administrators and principals – are they incapable of doing this? We need the Department of Agriculture and Michelle Obama to mandate who eats what, where, how, and when in our public school systems? That’s tyranny right there – it’s absurd.

I guess that Levin missed the memo where public schools themselves are tyranny. Haven’t you heard that government schools themselves are part of the Islamo-leftist conspiracy?

Later in the article, Levin accuses Michelle Obama of trying to starve students. Which, you know, maybe, but, hey, Americans, our children aren’t even close to starving, unless they’re poor, in which case conservatives like Mark Levin refuse to fund government programs to feed them.

The saddest part about all of this is that there is a good critique of the politics of school lunches, one advanced in my favorite scholarly book about school lunches ever: Susan Levine’s School Lunch Politics (Princeton UP, 2010). School lunch programs have largely been driven by Progressive reformers and agricultural interests, the latter who want a government-subsidized market and the former who want to wean new immigrants and the lower-class from their culinary habits.

The roots of Michelle Obama’s nutrition activism have a long history, and the saga of upper-middle-class women’s attempts to get “better” food into schools is not an altogether positive one, as Levine demonstrates. If eating is, with sex and excretion, one of the most intimate of our bodily functions, then it’s no surprise that we tend to both naturalize our policy preferences (“of course all children should have milk, Mrs. Thatcher!”) and also strongly resist “reforms” we find, well, unpalatable. Obesity is a public health problem, and therefore a public policy problem; but the idea that the remedy is to teach kids to eat “better,” where “better” often sounds a lot like the tastes of folks who can afford to eat at Per Se, is itself problematic. (This is before we consider that changing the menu is not the same as training kids to make better choices.)

Is there a solid conservative–or, for that matter, radical–critique to be made here? Yes. Are today’s conservatives intellectually capable of adducing such a critique? Not even by a long shot.


The dull, adventureless journey of post-college life

Dear Leader Kim Jong Un addresses the ruling party

I didn’t watch the Republican Convention last night, because I’m not getting paid to do so. I understand that conservatives think it was a hit and liberals a travesty, although the Romney-Ryan campaign’s invocation of AC/DC to prove their cool guy credentials strongly suggests the latter.

So it wasn’t until I read Kevin Drum’s blog post this morning that I saw this section of Congressman Ryan’s speech:

College graduates should not have to live out their 20s in their childhood bedrooms, staring up at fading Obama posters and wondering when they can move out and get going with life. Everyone who feels stuck in the Obama economy is right to focus on the here and now….None of us have to settle for the best this administration offers — a dull, adventureless journey from one entitlement to the next, a government-planned life, a country where everything is free but us.

To this, I have an emotional and an intellectual reaction. The emotional reaction goes like this:

To be fair to Ryan, losing his father early did seem to make him a more disciplined  young scion; to be perfectly unfair to Ryan, losing his father does not seem to have made him more empathetic or understanding of how such an event would have affected a poor family at all.

My intellectual reaction is more subtle. House Republicans have done everything they can to make my generation jobless and hopeless by cutting support for student loans, slashing funding for higher education, and refusing to raise taxes, so how dare the global-warming-denying, deficit-spending-for-the-old-and-sick but not the young-and-promising, job-killing, rape-denying legislative wing of the Wisconsin Taliban tell me that it’s Obama’s fault?

I sometimes imagine the House GOP getting together and singing their version of the Stonecutters’ Song:

Who sends you to combat zones?
Who cuts all your student loans?
We do, we do.

Who wants to turn Earth to Mars?
Who hates all electric cars?
We do, we do.

Who hates taxes for the rich?
Who tells the poor life’s a bitch?
We do, we do.

And so on.

It’s so telling that Paul Ryan’s version of a boot trampling a human face, forever, is an unemployed college graduate. Not a single mother who could never finish college. Not an army veteran who was left hobbled by injury. Not even a fifty-something dad trapped between supporting his parents and his children. No, the worst that Paul Ryan can conjure up is a rhetorical version of Failure To Launch.

And what does Ryan propose? The usual. Maybe we’ll voucherize this or privatize that. But for an allegedly sophisticated policy-maven ideas’ man, Ryan is so intellectually thin that he’s the Kate Moss of innovation: pretty from one angle, insubstantial from any other. How would a Romney-Ryan administration address joblessness among twenty-somethings? Presumably they’ll wave their tax stick at the economy and ignite a fire of innovation that will create a tide that lifts all boats; more likely, their administration would play out like a slightly more cheerful version of the W. Bush years, in which employment and wages stagnate for everyone whose parents didn’t own large corporations.

The future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades.


That Exceptional Feeling

A crass, gaudy, all-American display.

Someone named Steven Walt has published an article, wildly posted on the Internet, entitled “The Myth of American Exceptionalism”. I don’t know who Mr. Walt is, but the bio says he is a professor at Harvard University.  Unfortunately we are seeing too much of this type of thinking coming out of America’s college professors. I should take the time to offer a point by point rebuttal to Mr. Walt’s article. …But I have found that people like Mr. Walt don’t really listen to facts or care too much about history. —  D. Hancock, RedState.com

Academics often use words differently than their less-credentialed counterparts in the general public. The divergence usually doesn’t matter; who cares if most people misuse the phrase “quantum leap“? Yet the consequences can still be disconcerting, as with the ways scholars and the right-wing appreciate the term “American exceptionalism.”

For academics, “American exceptionalism” is a phrase that either has a specific historical meanings (for instance) or that broadly connotes a flawed and ad-hoc theory based on unfalsifiable beliefs. For conservatives, such as D. Hancock, “American exceptionalism” is an unreservedly good thing:

Mr. Walt has the right to speak his mind – this is part of what makes us exceptional.  But I and most Americans have the right to disagree with him, and in this point disagree quite strongly.  Because a large part of what makes us exceptional is the knowledge that we are, and can continue to be, exceptional.  Ideas like those from Mr. Walt and the few who consider themselves part of some sort of world society concern those of us who understand not just the privilege but also the responsibility of being an American.

Steve Walt, cosseted cosmopolitan world-government-loving Harvard egghead.

RedState, something of a Republican answer to DailyKos, has thousands of posts with messages like D. Hancock’s. Last week, a conservative talk radio host criticized the U.S. women’s gymnastic team for a “soft anti-American feeling” for not exercising in red, white, and blue outfits, speculating that the team didn’t want to offend foreigners by “showing our exceptionalism” and lamenting the fact that Americans have “lost, over time, that jingoistic feeling.” (See also.)

Of course, he’s insane. Americans are plenty patriotic, and it’s hardly the case that the NBC coverage of the Olympics has failed to sate ordinary levels of nationalist exuberance. After all, American conservatives and Chinese Communists alike agree that the country that wins the most gold becomes the next hegemon. (I’ve been reloading the medal count table several times a day, too.)

A lot of people using the term think it’s synonymous with “good.”
Google N-gram of “American exceptionalism” and “American
Exceptionalism,” 1920-2008.

But whether conservatives are objectively correct (they’re not) about levels of patriotism in the United States is not the issue. It’s the fact that the term “American exceptionalism” to them is an affirmation of everything good about the United States.

Unsurprisingly, then, a draft history curriculum in Nebraska is attacked because it fails “to promote American exceptionalism“:

“We need to specifically reject this concept that all ideas are equal or all cultures are equal,” [Nebraska Board of Education member John] Sieler told Fox News Radio. “All cultures are not equal. All ideas are not equal and we need to state that in a positive manner instead of glossing over this and having some ‘Kumbaya let’s all get along, everybody’s wonderful’ feeling.”

Sieler said he’s received at least 30 emails from constituents who are upset that the draft process was not open to the public. Among the chiefs concerns — no mention of American exceptionalism.

“I strongly believe in American exceptionalism,” he said. …

Sieler said the state needs to adopt a specific statement recognizing American exceptionalism.

I mention this in part because you may have encountered pushback on this in your classroom (as I have) and in part because you may not realize that you and your students are speaking what amounts to a different language. Assigning Walt’s Foreign Policy article might be useful precisely because Walt (despite D.  Hancock) is no squishy librul. Doing so could lead to a useful discussion of a theme latent in Morgenthau and complementary to contemporary discussions of constructivism: how does power and status generate identity?

For IR scholars more generally, the question is whether such beliefs have independent causal effects. Does it matter if the citizens and a good chunk of the ruling class of the unipole believe that their state is so constituted that it should not be responsible to international institutions?

[Ed. Note: Readers interested in Duck discussions of the nature of American Exceptionalism, particularly in the context of foreign policy and of conservatism, might check out this, that, and also this, and especially this. More good stuff in the labels.]


Reflections on the Ryan Pick

Another victory for Team Wonderbread.

 Mitt Romney’s selection of Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wisc.) means that he has scored a PR coup and won the all-important mid-August weekend news cycle. What can you say about the pick but the obvious? Ryan is the most inspiring vice-presidential candidate since Jack Kemp helped Bob Dole win in 1996, the most ideologically pure candidate since George Wallace chose Curtis LeMay in 1968, and the most boyish sidekick since Batman adopted Robin.

Republicans are strangely jubilant today, as are Democrats; we should remember that vice-presidential picks almost uniformly do not matter, unless they are disastrous (Eagleton, Palin) or give us catchy slogans (“Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too!”). But the current flood of punditry suggesting VPs don’t matter is badly wrong. True, vice presidents don’t matter in the election. But Robert Caro’s new LBJ biography offers a powerful and sober reminder that America’s vices often become their chiefs, as happened in 1974, 1963, 1945, and 1923, and as should have happened in 1919 and nearly happened during Eisenhower’s heart attacks in the 1950s (imagine Richard Nixon as president in the 1950s!) and Reagan’s near-death in 1981. From time to time, presidential incapacitation as defined by the 25th Amendment means that contemporary vice presidents serve as Acting President, with all the awesome powers of the actual chief magistrate. Indeed, Dick Cheney twice served as commander-in-chief during the Bush years under this little-used constitutional provision (which just seems ripe for a Seven Days in May-style abuse). In all, fourteen vice presidents have served as president out of a total of 47 (there are 44 presidents but 47 vices since some VPs, like Hannibal Hamlin or John Nance Garner, have been fired).

There are other reasons why Ryan matters besides the fact that Mitt Romney may still be elected president, and Paul Ryan thus has a shot at being president. (If we put p(Romney elected) = .3, then Paul Ryan has approximately a 9% chance of being president sometime in the next four years (.3 * p(presidential succession = 14/47 = .3); remember this means that Joe Biden has about a 21% chance (.3 * .7).)

The first is that Romney will now have to define himself on policy. Some are suggesting that Ryan will fall in line behind Romney, but this assumes a standard campaign in which the chief has well-defined views and the second banana is malleable (think Reagan-Bush ’80). That is not the case here. Moreover, by choosing a siting congressman–the first on any ticket since Geraldine Ferraro ’84 and on a GOP ticket since William Miller ’64–Romney loses some ability to distance himself from the House Republican majority and the, um, Ryan budget. Is Romney, the flip-flopper nonpareil, going to ask Ryan to disavow those policies? It beggars belief.

Second, Ryan is now the frontrunner for the 2016 nomination. Republicans are allegedly more hierarchical than Democrats in choosing their frontrunners, and although the track record of losing VP candidates in subsequent presidential nominations is somewhat mixed (Dole, ’76 nominee, failed in ’88; Palin, ’08, failed in ’12; Kemp, ’96, didn’t try) in the absence of any other strong national figure Ryan will benefit immensely from the exposure he’s about to get. He’ll benefit all the more so because his pick was clearly a sop to the party’s ideological and pundit base, and those are the precise power-brokers and activists who play a disproportionate role in anointing presidential candidates (e.g.).

Other reactions:

Finally, a hobbyhorse: Nobody cares about foreign relations in this election. Ryan is a domestic politics guy; Romney clearly doesn’t know anything beyond talking points on the subject; and neither the president nor vice president are investing much effort in the matter. And so, for those few people who think that the chief executive of the unipole affects global governance, the content of Web pages such as this is extremely dispiriting (what, exactly, does Abraham Lincoln have to do with foreign policy? Is Romney pledging to keep the British out of Richmond and the French out of Mexico?) but actually much less depressing than the fact that the Obama campaign’s “foreign policy” section is labeled “National Security“, as if the two were synonymous.


Transnational Battle over Gay Rights

The transnational battle over gay rights took an interesting turn last week when the Obama administration announced that it would work hard to promote gay rights worldwide. The gay community welcomed the news. But more strategic thinkers also raised questions. As Neil Grungras of San Francisco’s Organization for Refugee, Asylum and Migration cautioned:

“In countries where U.S. moral leadership is not high and where increasingly Western values are [seen as] negative . . . there is a real danger people can use this issue and say, ‘No, we are cleaning up here, we are going to reject this American imposition of decay.’” As an example, Grungras pointed to last year’s gay pride event at the U.S. embassy in Pakistan. This sparked large demonstrations against the U.S., gay rights, and homosexuals.

Also of interest is the reaction from American religious conservatives active in the fight against gay rights. They decried the Obama initiative, and vowed to oppose it. In the past, they have scored successes. They have formed a “Baptist-burqa” network of religious conservatives, both state and nonstate, including Mormons, Catholics, Muslims, and more, spanning the world, just like the gay rights network. They have successfully blocked major new UN initiatives on gay rights and excluded gay activists from participation in international institutions. They raise rival norms, primarily to religious freedom and cultural autonomy, as a means of attacking gay rights. And they are supporting the backlash against gay rights in many countries, especially in Africa.

This may be a rearguard action, but there is little doubt that it has and will slow the progress of gay rights around the world. True, there have been major, hard-fought advances for gay rights in some countries in recent years. But many countries remain indifferent or, if anything, have become more overtly hostile as gay rights advance. Uganda’s horrific Anti-Homosexuality Law, complete with death penalty provision for “aggravated homosexuality,” is an example.

Scholars who study such issues sometimes ignore “retrograde” networks, in favor of studying progressive new norms and their moral entrepreneurs. Yet in the transnational battle over gay rights at the UN and in many countries, opponents are powerful and important. One can’t understand the politics of gay rights without examining their sworn enemies. One can’t appreciate the framing of a “new” norm without noting its rivals’ frmaing. One can’t explain the shifting policy outcomes without analyzing the bitter conflict among hostile sides.

Beyond gay rights, this is true of countless other policy issues, from global warming to global health. One side’s solution to what it portrays as a pressing crisis will itself be a problem for another group, generating fervent opposition activism. One side’s initiatives are invariably matched by a rival’s counterpunch.

[SELF-PROMOTION WARNING!] For those interested in transnational battles over gay rights and other issues – as well as the implications for understanding global public policy more broadly – my book, The Global Right Wing and the Clash of World Politics – is due out next month from Cambridge UP. [STORY IDEA for Brian Rathbun: Things PSers Like: Ironic attitude toward shameless self-promotion.]


And the winner of Televangelist or Presidential Candidate Is….

Babbler! Who guessed C.

A is Joel Osteen, purveyor of the prosperity gospel — God wants you to make money. He seems like a nice enough chap, not mean-spirited, but as a former Catholic, I still have a good deal of alms for the poor in me. I don’t like conspicuous consumption; it seems sinful. But it is a perfect mix for social conservatives who don’t want to be taxed!

B is Billy Graham from the 1970s. Everyone knows Billy Graham.

C is Rick Perry. He said all faiths were welcome, then starts in on the “living Christ” with references to the crucifixion. Seems likely to be a deal-breaker for a lot of folks. But it looks like he is running for President. A Texan with cowboy boots who prays for guidance on major public policy issues and does not speak well in public (watch the rally). Haven’t we already done that? Jesus, again?! What’s next? Tammie Fae replaces Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State?

(By the way, since when do evangelicals fast? I thought that was a thing for us Catholics, or at least the non-lapsed ones. Don’t they hate us Catholics? I mean, the Pope has been trying to get a Catholic elected President for years so he can control the US from the Vatican.)

D is, as Patrick T. Jackson (I know he likes to use his middle name, but this makes him sound like Samuel L. Jackson, which makes me happy) notes, Robert Schuller, creator of the first real mega-church. It is in Orange County, has gone bankrupt, and is locked in a brutal fight between members of the family and board members who tried to oust Schuller. My mom used to listen to him before going to mass because Catholicism is so uninspiring. Apparently his closing prayer, offered after every sermon, was optioned by Civilization IV. I really have no idea what that is, but I will trust my nerd readers. NEEEERRRRRDS!


The Opposition to New START and the Short-Term Future of Arms Control

Rob Farley notes the existence of long-standing conservative opposition to arms control. While the hacks at the Heritage Foundation lost this battle, Rob argues, their influence on Republican international thought is waxing rather than waning. Thus, more of opposition to New START was principled than many observers recognize, and this bodes ill for future arms control.

The New START debate over the last month has been held largely under the assumption that the treaty would die if it wasn’t ratified during the lame duck session. I suspect that this assumption is accurate. Moreover, the two most important potential GOP presidential candidates have “authored” op-eds that are essentially collections of Heritage Foundation talking points. Finally, the GOPsters who supported the treaty are mostly (although not all) old and outside of the GOP mainstream.

I’m afraid that I have to concur with Mary Beth Sheridan’s account; Heritage failed, but demonstrated its strength within the GOP caucus. The anti-arms control faction of the GOP was much more careful and serious about developing a network of institutional support than the pro-arms control faction, and at this point the latter is on life support.

Is Rob right? I’m not entirely convinced.

This much is certainly true:

  • Some GOP Presidential hopefuls declared themselves against New START;
  • A significant number of incoming GOP representatives and senators came out against New START, or at least against ratifying it during the lame-duck session; and
  • In doing so, they, like Romney’s staff writers, cribbed from whatever “substantive” anti-New START talking points they received from conservative think tanks.

But that does not imply much about the long-term influence of anti-arms control elements in the GOP because, at heart, much of the opposition to New START was driven by both a desire to deny Obama “victories” and by GOP partisan cueing. New START would have been relatively uncontroversial if it had been negotiated by a Republican president. Some hard-core anti-arms control conservatives would have pumped out the same dire warnings, but with far less traction among Republican politicians and voters.

I can’t prove any of this, of course. By the same token, however, we don’t (yet) have strong evidence of an upsurge in the influence of foreign-policy hardliners among the GOP.  We’ve certainly seen a resurgence of fringe right-wing beliefs among some GOP activists, but it remains a long road from that observation to declaring victory for anti-arms control conservativism.

On the other hand, a variety of other factors will likely to preclude significant progress on arms control. For example, there’s no evidence of an improved climate for CTBT from that of the 1990s–irrespective of partisan cueing or changes within the GOP. The Russians, for their part, have little incentive to negotiate further reductions in nuclear arsenals–they depend too heavily on nuclear weapons to compensate for their conventional weaknesses and reductions below 1500 warheads start implicating their deterrence posture with respect to China. And Beijing has displayed no interest in limitations on its own capabilities, which, in the nuclear arena, are still relatively modest.

In short, it simply won’t matter very much whether the GOP is a bit more or less favorably disposed to major arms-control initiatives.

[Image: a test-firing of a Bulava SLBM. Source.]


My Summer with Religious Rights

I’ve been on the road most of the summer (8 of the past 10 weeks) so the blogging has been quite light. I spent twelve days in Israel and then a bit more than three weeks doing research in Europe followed by my first real vacation in more than a decade — a three week car trip with my kids out to visit family and friends in the upper Midwest.

One of the more intriguing elements that linked all three trips was the presence of conservative, religious politics everywhere I went. I talked to Jewish settlers on the West Bank, I spent time with several young (and newly self-identified) conservative Muslims from Sarajevo and Paris, and I spent three weeks with conservative, Christian evangelicals in North Dakota, central Minnesota, and western Michigan.

Despite the differences in religion and world experiences, I am struck by the similarity of these groups to each other. Here are a few observations:

1. Perhaps the most obvious observation is that religious identity is the most salient identity held by individuals in each of these communities and, while I’ve interacted with each of these communities for years, the beliefs are more highly political and exclusivist than I’ve experienced in the past. Each community feels besieged and perceives there are coordinated attacks by “others” to de-legitimize their beliefs and their culture.

They each see existential threats everywhere they look, but the central threat is really coming from liberalism. Secularlism, human rights, globalization and open markets, free trade, labor and capital mobility, migration (legal or not), etc… are all seen as posing fundamental threats to their (perceived) way of life.

2. It is not the zeal or energy that is striking or new, rather it is the casualness and ease with which so many members of these communities express their intolerance, xenophobia, and even outright racism. There isn’t even a pretense of politeness or basic civility, let alone any curiosity of the other. I had a lengthy conversation with several young Bosnian Muslims who repeatedly invoked Allah to convey collective guilt not just on the Serbs but on all the “filthy” and “genocidal” Serbs, Christians, and Jews. I heard references to Palestinians as collectively “lazy” and “bred to be terrorists.” In North Dakota, I heard repeated racial epithets (the n-word) directed at President Obama and several references to his “godless Islamic cult.” In some instances, complete strangers approached my conversations with various groups to add additional diatribes against the “other.” I was really astounded by the ease with which such raw, emotional, and racist language was expressed.

3. Each community is adamantly anti-authority and says it “just wants to be left alone” from the influence of the state. Settlers in the West Bank settlement of Offra showed us settlement homes that were demolished by the Israeli government as part of the peace process several years back. The settlers have left the ruins untouched as a monument of their struggle against the Israeli government and the peace process. The Sarajevo Muslims railed against the the Bosnian central government for its efforts to integrate communities, to develop tax codes and regulatory infrastructures in Bosnia. And, the evangelical Tea Partiers in the upper Midwest blasted America’s “socialist” federal government.

And yet, despite all of their protests, all three groups are wholly dependent on the state for their basic existence — the settlers could not live in the West Bank without the Israeli government providing electricity, water, transportation and communication infrastrasture — let alone security. The Bosnian Muslims would not have a unified community or protection without a viable central government. And, the rural tea partiers — the farmers and ranchers — could not exist without a federal government that keeps them afloat with extensive agricultural subsidies and direct assistance to maintain rural electricity, communication, and transportation — the Dakotas rank in the top five of per capita federal dollars to states. The cognitive dissonance is palpable….

4. Many hold militant and apocalyptic views. Many of the folks I talked to believe the world is in serious trouble — politically and economically. The settlers in Offra told my group that there will be civil war if the Israeli government tries to demolish more houses or dismantle settlements. The Bosnian Muslims — most who were too young to fight in the Bosnian War in the 1990s — warned that they were ready to finish the job that their fathers and brothers were unable to finish against the infidels. And, in the upper Midwest, the gun culture includes far more emphasis on automatic and semi-automatic weapons designed to protect “God and Country” from “Obama’s socialism” than the emphasis on hunting with shotguns and hunting rifles I grew up with.

It is not surprising that such views seem to be rising — especially in a time of global recession. But, it would be a mistake to conclude that these views are simply a function of economics. We’ve seen fairly consistent trends in the rise of religious fundamentalism across the globe for the better part of the past twenty years. Liberalism has become more deeply embedded in global institutions and practices in the past several decades, but it also has triggered widespread reactions. Still, with global liberal economic models performing poorly, we’re likely to see more anxiety and the rise of more populist demagogues seeking to exploit that anxiety.


Sam Eagle: The Original Neo-Con

If you’re asking me if I’m a little upset right now, you’d be right. The Economist has just reported what I’ve been saying for years. The Muppets have a secret conservative agenda.

“What?!” You must be exclaiming. “Miss Piggy is a Palin Predecessor?”

No. It’s not so simple. Jim Henson was no fool and I’m sure Kermit does not believe that Obama is a secret communist socialist muslim agent. Or at least I really hope so.

According to the article (which is chronicling a debate on the issue as a break from the never-ending nightmare of the healthcare “debate”):

… the Muppets are temperamentally conservative. While they value education, for example, their interest in the subject is implicitly linked to their desire for children to adopt the norms of bourgeois society, and thereby to take their place as productive citizens. Mr Henson wanted everyone to count by numbers, in the order in which those numbers traditionally appear. Although Muppets occasionally dabble in the arts, notably Rowlf at his piano, Mr Henson had little appreciation for free-form intellectual endeavour. Among his earliest Muppet sketches two curious characters appear. One, “the philosopher”, is described as scatter-brained and often quoting things inappropriately or inaccurately. Another, depicted variously as an octopus and a sea-monster, is described as big, happy, and “normal-thinking”.

But I think it goes far beyond this. Exhibit A: Sam Eagle.

Sam Eagle, the protector of “American” values, who hammers on and on and on about culture. Who uses the show to deliver address against “namby-pamby” liberals who want to put a halt to industry to protect endangered species… like American bald eagles.

Sure, Jim Henson may have supported liberally-oriented civil rights in public(remember Roosevelt Franklin?) He arguably introduced tv’s first gay (albeit closeted) couple. But let’s face it – Sam was the dark heart of the Muppet Show. The Col. Nathan R. Jessep (“protecting these walls”) so that the show may go on. The true side of felt-based American television entertainment.

And who else could we add to this list?

  • The Count – Clearly the man loved to count. I’m thinking capitalist.
  • Wayne and Wanda – Possibly secret Canadians, but were clearly in on Sam’s agenda.
  • Miss Piggy – I have always seen Miss Piggy as someone who would (hi-ya! *chop*) fight for women’s lib. But with her lust for the lime-light, willingness to trample over others for it and love of clothing and shoes, could we indeed have another Palin on our hands?

I leave it for blog readers to suggest their own candidates for a “vast rightwing sing-along variety hour conspiracy”.


Modern conservativism and all that…

Andrew Sullivan Conor Friedersdorf thinks that Mark Levin “offers a serious response” to Peter Berkowitz’s criticisms of his recent book. I disagree.
Here’s Berkowitz:

Indeed, one could scarcely devise a better example of the imprudence that Burke dedicated his Reflections on the Revolution in France to exposing and combating than Levin’s direct appeal to abstract notions of natural right to justify a radical reversal of today’s commonly held convictions about the federal government’s basic responsibilities.

Levin’s response?

Edmund Burke, who Berkowitz misunderstands and, therefore, wrongly cites for his proposition, supported the American Revolution (while rejecting the French Revolution). The American Revolution can hardly be described as a moderate reaction to England’s usurpations.

I should hardly need to elaborate the problem here. But I’m taking a break from academic writing, so I will.

Burke supported the aspirations of colonial Americans because he understood them to be claiming the rights they were owed as English subjects. The question of moderation concerns not whether the colonists resorted to arms, but their aims. The French Revolution, on the other hand, comprised a “whole cloth” revolution that sought radical changes in the character of government and society. The result, he predicted, would be quite bloody.

I understand that the struggle over how to understand Burke matters to conservatives. Burke is a crucial thinker for modern American conservativism, a “conservativism” quite different from its common European variants, insofar as it seeks to conserve a particular historical moment in the evolution of liberal thought and liberal order.

Thus, Berkowtiz and Levin–whether for genuine or rhetorical reasons–accept Burke’s rectitude ad arguendo. In matter of fact, I think Burke greatly underestimated the radical character of the American Revolution, and I am not convinced that, absent the French Revolution, the ideals of the American Revolution would have achieved their current global success.

Regardless, Berkowtiz clearly gets the better of Levin. Indeed, I don’t see Levin’s response as a serious rebuttal to Berkowitz’s concern: that the political program embraced by Levin-style conservatives is antithetical to Burkean conservative principles. That program calls for a massive transformation in the character of contemporary American political and economic life. This is precisely the kind of transformation that would raise the alarm for a contemporary Burkean conservative.

I emphasize the word “contemporary” for a reason. One can, of course, go back and read Burke’s description of all that is grand about contemporary English values (yes, I’m aware that Burke was Irish), measure the twenty-first century United States against it, and, as a result of the rather glaring differences, call for a return to “Burkean principles.” Perhaps Burke might do the same if transported to the year 2009 and set down in Washington, DC.

But in doing so, he would abandon a Burkean political philosophy. The ‘timeless’ and ‘universal’ principles advocated by Burke include a respect for the wisdom sedimented in existing traditions, a skepticism of the capacity of human reason to design superior alternatives, a fear of the consequences for civil and moral life of radical political programs, and a resulting embrace of reformist measures that often amount to slow, deliberate, and gradual tinkering with existing institutions.

Levin also completely drops the ball with respect to Berkowitz’s warnings about the tensions between the self-regulating market and civil society, let alone conservative social order. Levin simply natters on about what conservatives believe:

But the Conservative believes that the individual is more than a producer and consumer of material goods. He exists within the larger context of the civil society — which provides for an ordered liberty….

The Conservative believes that while the symmetry between the free market and the civil society is imperfect — that is, not all developments resulting from individual interactions contribute to the overall well-being of the civil society — one simply cannot exist without the other

Yet no amount of nattering can disguise the overwhelming empirical evidence of the last 150 years: that unbridled capitalism profoundly corrodes conservative social mores, and that the “creative destruction of the market” often devastates civil society.

The problem isn’t so much that conservatives need to figure out what their principles mean in a “postmodern” order, but that the present-day conservative movements lacks a viable program for applying their principles to the post-1945 order.

We had the Reagan Revolution, which, as Sullivan Friedersdorf points out, left the welfare state intact and fiscal conservatism on life support.

We had the 1994-2006 period, which ultimately amounted to a giant exercise in crony capitalism, gave us the single largest expansion to date of the welfare state since Johnson’s Great Society, and enacted a decidedly anti-Burkean foreign policy.

Now we have the alternative embraced by Levin and his ilk, which offers a picture of the world as a struggle between two great abstract principles and advocates, in consequence of this Manichean vision, a revolutionary program guided by, as far as I can tell, a utopian vision of life in the early Nineteenth Century.

With the Democratic tide at its likely high-water mark, I think all of us–liberals, conservatives, progressives, moderates–have an enormous stake in the emergence of a conservatism worthy of the adjective “contemporary.” Let’s hope that behind the noise of conservative radio, the intellectual unseriousness of The Corner, and the neo-conservativism[*] of the Weekly Standard, such a program incubates in the fertile minds of thoughtful conservatives.

*Neo-conservatism once held the promise of being such a movement, but it traded in Theodore Roosevelt for George W. Bush and Richard Cheney.


Tha’ts not a window on the world, that’s a bloody mirror you’re staring into!

I apparently missed the memo, because I only just discovered that the right-wing chattering class is accusing the Obama Administration of “moral cowardice” because it won’t hand Ahmadinejad and his associates a rhetorical loaded gun to use against the opposition.

I don’t know what’s most annoying about this kind of accusation.

1. Is it the narrow parochialism of people who just don’t understand that some foreign populations react poorly to the United States–or, more generally, “the West”–picking sides in their domestic political disputes? I mean, this is Iran we’re talking about: a country with not insignificant (and, from their perspective, largely unpleasant) experience of British and American meddling in their country.

Indeed, much of the repertoire of the current movement invokes events, places, and slogans of the 1979 revolution that overthrew Mohammad Rezā Shāh and ended Iran’s place as a US client state.

I have to admit I’m not being completely fair. It isn’t as if the “blame Obama first crowd” haven’t thought about these arguments. It’s more a matter of how silly their responses are. Take “Allahpundit” of Hot Air:

Lefties keep assuring me on Twitter that western meddling will only make it easier for the regime to demonize the protesters, but (a) the demonization’s going to happen anyway, (b) no one’s asking Obama to send in the Marines, just to speak up, and (c) Angela Merkel managed to issue a statement earlier today calling the Basij thuggery “completely unacceptable” without killing the uprising in its crib.

Well, this isn’t rocket science but: (a1) the concern is how effective that demonization is; (a2) the key audience isn’t the Republican Gaurd or the guys throwing stones at Basiji complexes, but those who remain undecided about what to do; (b) calling attention to how your bleating is really over what, when it comes down to it, amounts to ineffectual posturing doesn’t exactly help your case; and (c) last time I checked, not only are Germany and the United States different countries, but Germany (c1) doesn’t routinely project power into the Middle East, (c2) doesn’t pursue a containment policy against Iran, (c3) didn’t orchestrate a coup d’état against a man who is now revered Iranian hero, and (c4) wasn’t the key backer of a reviled Iranian dictator.

Recall when George Bush tried to send encouraging words to Iranian liberals? That didn’t work out so well.

2. Or is it an outlook on international politics that treats foreign policy as an extension of the O’Reilly Factor? I don’t think one needs to be a hard-core advocate of realpolitik to recognize that consequences matter, that the US will often need to deal with unsavory people, and that the “game” isn’t won by shouting the loudest. In fact, that route has cost us a great deal of influence in the world of late.

I know that neoconservatives and their fellow travelers see moral and military strength as mutual force multipliers; for them, Reagan “won the Cold War” by speaking loudly and carrying a big stick.

But even if that were true, most of those who Reagan provided moral encouragement to when he called out the Soviet Union were themselves victims of Soviet imperial domination. The Eastern Europeans firmly associated communism with control by a foreign power, and liberal democracy with national self-determination.

At the risk of repetition, things in the Middle East just aren’t that simple. The last round of imperialism there was carried out by western democracies, and the taint of imperialism can easily discredit democracy.

So, at the end of the day, we need to remember that sometimes cautious statements don’t signal moral cowardice, but maturity. The US isn’t “losing standing” in the world because Obama fails to follow the example set by George W. Bush. Claiming that it is either amounts to a cynical attempt to score cheap points against the administration, or it reflects a narcissistic projection of what American movement conservatives think onto the rest of the world.

I think it is fair to say that if we’ve learned anything from the last eight years, it’s that views of American movement conservatives hardly represent mainstream global public opinion.



Over at Donald’s place, I predicted that the total turnout for the “tax protests” would be about the size of a single large Obama rally. Based on the numbers we’ve seen, that sounds about right.

Puts things in perspective.

I also noted that the AP story contains the following:

Organizers said the movement developed organically through online social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter and through exposure on Fox News.

All of the main guys handling the organization for this on Facebook were, from what I can tell, employees at conservative anti-tax foundations.

Just saying.


Déjà vu all over again

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issues a report warning that the current economic and political climate bears some resemblance to the early 1990s and, therefore, the government should be concerned about an increasing threat from right-wing extremists, including the possibility of domestic terrorism.

Someone leaks the report.

The right-wing blogsphere collapses in a paroxysm of rage and paranoia. “Look!” various notables shout, “The Obama Administration is LAYING THE GROUNDWORK TO COME AFTER US.” Michelle Malkin, unaware of the obvious irony, writes:

In Obama land, there are no coincidences. It is no coincidence that this report echoes Tea Party-bashing left-wing blogs (check this one out comparing the Tea Party movement to the Weather Underground!) and demonizes the very Americans who will be protesting in the thousands on Wednesday for the nationwide Tax Day Tea Party.

Now, better (and more popular) bloggers than I have said most of what needs to be said about teh stupid involved here.

But it isn’t just teh stupid. In fact, these reactions actually enhance the report’s credibility.

Why? Those of us old enough to remember the Clinton administration have seen this playbook before.

The fringes of the mainstream right-wing movement accuse the President of seeking to destroy America, i.e., to institute a statist and collectivist regime: “The government is coming to take your guns!” “The liberals are out to pervert the rule of law!” “Marxism!” “Socialism!” “Radicalism!” They proffer dark conspiracies about the President’s rise to power and the activities of his close associates. And so on and so forth.

But when someone actually takes their claims seriously and does something like, I dunno, blow up a Federal Building, they play all innocent.

Am I being unfair? Yes. The militia movement had far deeper roots. Their view of the world was more extreme. Bad things would have happened no matter what.

I don’t blame the Limbaughs and American Spectators of the world for Oklahoma City. They were just trying to make money, win some elections, and depose the President–either de facto or de jure–in a constitutional coup.

But they were part of the climate that fed right-wing violent extremism in the 1990s. Much worse, they were mainstream vectors for ideas self-evidently poisonous to the body politic.

The fact that they would swing so quickly back into action, particularly after eight years of excoriating the Left for, well, basically the same behavior, is upsetting. It is not, sadly, surprising.

In sum, if they wanted to condemn the DHS report, it might have been better to do so in a way that wasn’t constitutive of the environment its authors worry about.

UPDATE: Dave Niewert makes the same point, but with far fewer caveats.


James Poulos on the future of conservatism

I would be doing our readers a great disservice if I failed to point them to James’ fascinating discussion of the future of the conservative movements after 4 November 2008. A taste:

Politically, on the right, nobody is dead now. Nobody is discredited. Everyone will decide for themselves. The wagons could be circled even tighter. But the herd is being thinned, and it is hard, for instance, to think of exactly why, say, Elizabeth Dole should still be serving in the U.S. Senate. There is nothing wrong with Liddy Dole, of course; but Republicans are going to have to do better than that. Yet the important thing for Republicans to remember is that this would be true even if McCain won. Not idiocy but irrelevance is the dangerous charge. Misplaced emphasis. Which raises a string of important issues.


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