The latest issue of The American Conservative (July 14) includes a provocative symposium on whether World War II should be considered “the good war” and, no less significant, whether Winston Churchill deserves the adulation that the media have accorded him as “man of the century.” The contributions are all well documented and boldly framed, and it would be hard to find a passage in any of them that seems stereotypical or not worth stating. Of the published commentators I personally learned the most from Christopher Layne and Michael Vlahos. Both make useful observations that Churchill’s most lasting achievements have yielded dubious benefits. These results include by now outmoded rules of statecraft that have sometimes been applied indiscriminately, and what became the authorized narrative for The Second World War, Churchill’s multi-volume text which continues to shape the popular perception of the last European war. The conclusion that Layne, Vlahos, and several of the other contributors suggest, is that for all his talents and his willingness to stand up to Hitler, Churchill might have left behind a troubling legacy, and particularly for those who are unwilling to assess his catastrophic mistakes and self-interested historiography.
More troubling for me than these commentaries are Scott McConnell’s introduction, or, to be more accurate, his concluding remarks. There Scott expresses the probable views of his esteemed former professor Fritz Stern. For those who don”t know, Stern is the New York Times‘s favorite German historian and his intellectual historical study The Politics of Cultural Despair remains a classic for politically correct, antinational Germans. In line with his mentor’s spirit, Scott offers this portentous lesson from the German imperial past:
Look instead [of to the Munich meeting in 1938] to German conduct in the prelude to the First World War, when the Reich, the most powerful state in the world, felt itself encircled, while its military and diplomatic leaders grotesquely exaggerated the threats they faced. If Germany didn”t confront tsarist Russia then, the opportunity would be lost: preventive war was the much-discussed option. Learned men in the thrall of worst case thinking were blind to the ways Germany’s outward thrusts of power were perceived by others.
Scott ends his somber reflection by expressing this pious wish: “We might pray that analogies to Wilhelmine Germany never fit too well.”
The problem with these warnings is they have no real connection to the present American situation. Moreover, they don”t even offer an accurate picture of Germany’s political and military history a hundred years ago. The U.S. is far more powerful economically and militarily than any other world power, and it was on the verge of becoming this by 1914, as British historian Niall Ferguson reminds us in several of his books. Incidentally, in 1914 Germany was not the “most powerful state in the world.” The U.S. was already overtaking it industrially and had a far greater military potential, and because of its navy and overseas empire, England enjoyed a power comparable to that of Wilhelmine Germany, which had only recently forged ahead of England industrially. Until the eve of the Great War, when the Germans worked to increase the size of their army, France had a land force that was numerically comparable to Germany’s. Because of the foolish distraction of its naval buildup, which intensified the anti-German animosity of Churchill without allowing the German Empire to get ahead of England as a naval leader, imperial Germany thrust itself into harm’s way.
The German government’s fear of being encircled was anything but “grotesquely exaggerated.” Since the 1890s France and Russia had built an alliance that was aimed at the Germans and Austrians; and as late as the summer of 1914, the Russians and English, as German historian Egmont Zechlin has documented in detail, were negotiating a naval alliance that was emphatically directed at the Germans.
No one is claiming that the last German emperor was a skilled or prudent diplomat. His intermittent bluster, maladroit attempts at playing off the British against continental powers, and his naval build-up, which Wilhelm presented as a defensive measure but one which understandably unsettled the English, all serve to underscore his lack of diplomatic finesse. But the Germans were not alone in that department. Most of Europe’s prominent statesmen in the years preceding World War One seem to have been almost equally tactless. Wilhelm exemplified the political style of Europe’s major powers in his age, a widespread flaw that contributed to the Old World’s undoing. While the German emperor did his share of mischief, given the location of his country and the recentness of Germany’s rise to world power, there is abundant evidence of hasty, bombastic speech among his opposite numbers elsewhere in Europe.
Anti-German German historians Fritz Fischer, Immanuel Geiss, Hans-Ulrich Wehler, Wolfgang Mommsen, and Fritz Stern have all focused specifically on German diplomatic faux pas in the early twentieth century. These critics then undertake to link these real but exaggerated blunders to some peculiarly Teutonic “culture of illiberalism.” Because of its undemocratic, sexist, patriarchal and nationalist culture, we are told, Germany’s bid for power in the twentieth century became an inevitable development. This perspective assumes a causal link between an ominously depicted social culture and exclusive responsibility for the disastrous conflict in 1914. But it is not clear why the Germans” failure to move toward a currently enshrined liberal model would create the necessary conditions for a German bid for world conquest in 1914 or the atrocities of the Third Reich. It is even hard to show that the Germans in 1914 were more anti-Jewish than most of their European neighbors, a contention that most German Jews of the time would have vigorously disputed.
Indeed this view of a German “special path” into modernity is based on a special German provincialism, one that has caused anti-German historians to treat as peculiarly and dangerously Teutonic what were European-wide values a hundred years ago. German society in 1900 looked much more like French or English society than like our own late modern one. Moreover, there was nothing peculiarly German about the lack of measure shown by the Germans in dealing with other European powers. Churchill was at least as truculent in his statecraft as the German executive before the First World War, and he represented a country that has been generally spared the critical responsibility its leaders had for the magnitude of the war that broke out in 1914.
Of course we are talking here about the war that no one wanted, that is to say, not in the destructive form in which it came. Most European statesmen of the time had nothing against some limited hostilities to achieve their geopolitical ends, and since they could not imagine the possibility of the bloodbath unleashed, they were willing to pursue their parochial advantage through military means. The French were more than open to a struggle against Germany during the two Balkan Wars, but they expected the Russians to do the fighting for them. Once the Germans and Russians had proceeded to take up arms against each other in the east, or so went the desired scenario of French ambassador to Russia, Maurice PalÃ©ologue, French troops could then enter the struggle from the west, by occupying Alsace and Lorraine, the two provinces that France had lost to Germany after the Franco-Prussian War in 1871.
Despite their impetuousness, however, early twentieth-century European leaders might have been less, not more, prone to rhetorical excess than the present US leadership. With due respect to Scott, it does not seem that U.S. is now inching slowly toward the noisy boastful example of imperial Germany. The Kaiser’s speeches about Germany’s right to “a place in the sun,” meaning a few colonies in Africa, sound almost schoolmarmish, when compared to W’s sweeping references to an American imperial mission, as set forth in his Second Inaugural and fifth State of the Union addresses. In these elocution exercises, our president explained that we could only be a moral nation, by bestowing our form of government on the rest of the world. W’s would-be successors Senators McCain and Obama are planning to bestow on the world more of the same, McCain by creating a Union of Democracies, which, for all we know, may be the neocon equivalent of the Warsaw Pact, and Obama by sending our inspectors across the globe to make sure that elections in foreign countries occur “democratically.”
In Germany the Kaiser received from the Reichstag sharp reprimands in 1908 for saying stupid things about the German navy to the British Daily Telegraph, in an interview in which the German ruler asserted that his navy was being expanded to counter Japanese expansion in the Far East. German elected officials thought that Wilhelm, who was then ineptly trying to appease British public opinion, had spoken indiscreetly, and his subjects didn”t hesitate to let him know. In our country, by contrast, the president receives congressional applause when he rhapsodizes about universal crusades for democracy.
I wish that someone could explain to me why our leaders are thought to sound more prudent when they talk about Weltpolitik than did the architects of imperial German foreign policy. Moreover, if one reads the collected speeches of American religious leaders about our providential role on the eve of America’s entry into World War One, speeches that are cited at length in Richard Gamble’s The War for Righteousness, European jingoist rhetoric produced by Wilhelm or Churchill pales by comparison. None of this Old World bluster even approximates the millenarian lunacies exhibited by Wilson’s clerical cheering gallery.
But the difference is the U.S. can afford to be righteous and arrogant without having to pay the price that Europeans did in 1914. Our economic and military strength, our isolation from other lesser powers, and by now the clear disparity between our menacing moralizing and the limits of what we can actually accomplish by force all protect us against our folly. We are fortunate not to have to operate in the narrow spaces and almost claustrophobic diplomatic circles in which European tensions festered at the beginning of the last century. Our present leaders can afford to sound obnoxious in a way that Europe’s political actors in 1914 could not. That having been said, it does seem a bit much to dwell on the verbal intemperateness of a particular German ruler a hundred years ago. What does the New Testament say about the beam in one’s own eye as compared to the mote in someone else’s?
If “Gimme That Old Time Religion” isn”t Barack Obama’s campaign song yet, it should be. After starting July by endorsing an Obamized version of George W. Bush’s faith-based initiative, St. Barack then appeared praying atop Newsweek in a cover story entitled “What He Believes” and announced a pending joint appearance with John McCain at the megachurch of Purpose Driven Life-author Rick Warren.
Who could have guessed that once a black man secured the nomination of a major party, religion rather than race would dominate the national conversation?
Is Obama a closet Muslim or an apostle of Reverend Wrong, Jeremiah Wright? For James Dobson, Obama’s a nothingarian; for the Huffington Post, he’s a panderer to born-again Christians “blurring…the line between Church and State.” Even theologically speaking, Obama’s the Rorschach-test candidate. Newsweek, a booster paper for the candidate, portrayed him as “a seeker” on a “spiritual quest.” “He sometimes reads the Bible in the evenings,” the weekly’s readers learn, and his family says grace at the dinner table. Rather than “What He Believes,” the inane piece emphasizes only that he has faith”in something. Obama’s posture as a believer is part effective damage control of the crude Internet rumor claiming Obama’s allegiance to Islam, and part shrewd campaign tactic of making a play for once stalwart-Republican evangelicals. Obama walks a religious balancing act of identifying with the electorate’s vast majority of believers without alienating them by stating what it is that he believes. Like Micky Dolenz, Barack’s a believer.
So what, precisely, are Senator Barack Obama’s religious beliefs? Like most people, he is not exactly sure. Deciphering the maze of at times vague, at times contradictory, professions to discover what Barack Obama believes is as difficult a task as interpreting his opponent’s relative silence on religious questions. The faith that ultimately emerges is as much a political as a religious creed: adherence to a social gospel that focuses upon man and not God, a flirtation with the millenialist delusion that the earth can be made a heaven through human agency, and a devotion to state intrusion into the operation of successful religiously-based social services.
Senator Obama is not your father’s liberal. He is your great-grandfather’s liberal. In fact, rather than Bible-Belt pandering, Obama’s endorsement of national funding for local faith-based initiatives, for instance, meshes well with his past campaign-trail pronouncements. He has separated himself from the Left’s recent hostility to religion and connected himself to a deeper, though more distant, tradition on the Left that tethered politics to religion. Obama’s rhetoric suggests a familiarity with that tradition.
“[S]ecularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square,” Obama boldly announced in a soaring and conciliatory 2006 address. “Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, William Jennings Bryan, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King”indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history”were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their “personal morality” into public policy debates is a practical absurdity. Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.”
The remark astounds not only in its departure from liberal orthodoxy, but in its use of boilerplate”conservative boilerplate”in making the case that our laws stem from our ethics and morality, which often stem from the great religions of Western Civilization. It’s not just that Obama blazes a trail distinct from the current Left’s; it’s that he returns to the long-established path of the American Left”from Bible Communists to social gospel preachers to civil rights activists”that holds the Bible as an aid and not an obstacle to liberal progress.
This mixture of religion with politics is no feigned election year conversion. “We”re going to keep on praising together,” Barack Obama told a megachurch congregation in Greenville, South Carolina last fall. “I am confident that we can create a Kingdom right here on earth.”
During the primary fight with Hillary Clinton, the Illinois senator extended religious voters an open hand rather than a clenched fist. “My faith teaches me that I can sit in church and pray all I want,” the candidate was block-quoted in campaign literature targeting Kentucky primary voters. “But I won”t be fulfilling God’s will unless I go out and do the Lord’s work.” Atop the brochure, “Faith” prefixes the more familiar campaign catchwords of “Hope” and “Change.” The flier pronounces Obama a “Committed Christian.”
But Obama’s landmark July 1 speech in Zanesville, Ohio, endorsing church-state partnerships may signal to Frankenstein that his monster has begun to turn on him. “I believe that change comes not from the top-down, but from the bottom-up, and few are closer to the people than our churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques,” Obama held in announcing support for an expansion of President Bush’s multibillion dollar Faith-Based and Community Initiative. “That’s why Washington needs to draw on them. The fact is, the challenges we face today”from saving our planet to ending poverty”are simply too big for government to solve alone. We need all hands on deck.”
“Abandon ship!,” principled evangelicals must be thinking. The religious restoration Obama speaks of does nothing to curb abortion, protect traditional marriage, or allow religious expression in public places. Instead, it seeks to integrate religious voters into traditional Democratic Party interest-group politics. This would reduce evangelical Christians to the level of the party’s ethnic- and gender-based factions that seek their pound of the taxpayer’s flesh and are temporarily satiated with token appointments for their members. What does it profit a man to retaineth his principles but loseth a federal grant?
Though the presumptive Democratic nominee complains that the Bush administration politicized its Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, Obama’s Zanesville, Ohio speech”peppered with references to such hard-Left ideological groups as Children’s Defense Fund and Let Justice Roll“reveals this accusation against Bush to be a projection of his own plans.
Indeed, the Illinois senator knows of what he speaks. Obama cut his teeth in politics by steering government funds to “community organizers””a euphemism for professional leftists”who use that money to badger the government for more funds. After graduating from Columbia, where he spent three months working for the Naderite NYPIRG that specializes in siphoning money from college student fees, Obama journeyed to Chicago, where, in the tradition of Jane Addams, Saul Alinsky, and Jesse Jackson, he excelled at shaking down the government for the benefit of charities whose main donor was the Illinois taxpayer. Indeed, in the Southside of Chicago Obama led the Calumet Community Religious Conference, a taxpayer shakedown organization affiliated with local Catholic churches, precisely the kind of outfit likely to see a windfall from Obama’s new-and-allegedly-improved faith-based initiative”creating one, two, many Obamas.
When America’s leading liberal remonstrates his flock “to understand that Americans are a religious people,” religious people naturally find the words refreshing. But religious conservatives should be careful of what they wish for. A “religious Left,” as the Reverend Jeremiah Wright has demonstrated, can be as problematic for conservatives as a “religious Right” has been for liberals.
Dangers involve falling for what Eric Voeglin called “immanentizing the eschaton,” but the anti-sesquipedalian understands as the delusion that man can make it “on earth as it is in heaven.” From Robert Owen prophesying a “New Jerusalem,” a “millennium state of existence,” and “the second creation of humanity” at the New Harmony commune, to John Reed seeing in Soviet Russia “a kingdom more bright than any heaven had to offer,” to Jim Jones ominously preaching to the people of the People’s Temple, “There’s no heaven up there! We”ll have to have heaven down here!,” attempts at ushering in heaven on earth have generally ended with earth resembling a more fiery afterlife destination. Ends so glorious can”t help but rationalize means so horrific.
Of course, Obama’s pulpit gaffe hoping to “create a Kingdom here on earth” does not mean we are headed for a fate similar to that of the underlings of the aforementioned secular millennialists. It is just that leftists present who haven”t learned from the worst mistakes of leftists past call their own judgment into question. In an environment less frenzied than the South Carolina Sunday service where he uttered his unfortunate words regarding building an earthly “Kingdom,” Obama relayed to Newsweek, “I don”t believe that the Kingdom of God is attainable on earth without God’s intervention, and without God’s return through Jesus Christ, but I do believe in improvement.” That’s certainly an improvement on his earlier thoughts.
As Obama’s stump speeches and community activism demonstrate, the presumptive Democrat nominee is a latter-day adherent of the social gospel, that turn-of-the-last-century phenomenon that attempted to save people through do-gooder projects but neglected to save souls through ministration. Any variant of the social gospel inevitably results in more social, less gospel. Though it’s easy for a person to call for external reform through, say, an equitable redivision of wealth, it’s more difficult for a person to spiritually reform himself. A religious movement fixated on the temporal and what others should do quickly loses sight of the spiritual and the heavy lifting one must do oneself. This is how religion becomes ideology. It secularizes Christianity as it retains the fanaticism, self-righteousness, and dogmatism of the true believer. Who then, but the same modern-day heathens who doubt global warming or stand athwart gay marriage, could oppose federal funding of charitable good deeds in the form of Obama’s Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships? An obsession with the material necessarily neglects the spiritual. As the Apostles defensively put it in Acts, “It is not reason that we should leave the word of God and serve tables.”
The violation of the principle of church-state separation generally advocated by religious liberals such as Illinois’s junior senator involves not the church intruding into the government’s sphere, but the government intruding into the church’s sphere. Purse-strings make independent institutions dependent. By rewarding the success of private endeavors with public money, Obama, like the man he wishes to replace, displays his ignorance of what made such groups successful in the first place. The statist’s impulse to socialize whatever works is a way for the state to kill the competition. Indeed, the success of private entities, such as church schools, hospitals, and charities, is a threat to the state. As religiously-oriented charities work worse and worse under government control, the rationalization for greater government control intensifies. Anyone paying attention can certainly envision the slightest of federal funds rationalizing court orders for abortion from religiously-affiliated hospitals, the ordination of women within orthodox sects, and gay marriages in churches that frown upon homosexual acts. Leave to Caesar what it is Caesar’s.
In the wake of Madalyn Murray O”Hare, Michael Newdow, and Michael Moore, it would be understandable for observers to confuse atheism for a component of modern liberalism. But from free love to communes to pacific resistance to the civil rights movement, the Bible has inspired a multitude of ventures in the history of the American Left. A Left with God on its side is no less a Left than the Left with Michael Moore, Madeline Murray O”Hare, and Michael Newdow on its side.
Barack Obama boasts that he will “transform” America through his presidency. Rather than win America over to the radicalism he imbibed from working for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), hanging out with former Weathermen, or listening to eighteen years of Reverend Wright’s sermons, Obama is far more likely to return segments of the Left to its religious roots, or at least make it more tolerable for a Christian Left to operate within the Left.
Perhaps in doing so he will transform the Right as well. That would be a welcome development given what has transpired over the last eight years. A Christian Right that applauds the federal government for providing marriage training, urges Washington to fund local abstinence-education programs, scrambles for faith-based initiative manna, and embraces identity politics (think Harriet Miers) hurts Christianity and conservatism. When it is a liberal Democrat doling out the welfare funds to selected churches and playing identity politics with evangelicals, the harm will be much easier to see. Perhaps Obama will help the Right to get religion, too.
Daniel J. Flynn is the author of A Conservative History of the American Left and blogs at www.flynnfiles.com.
In my recent piece on the return of the conservative Democrat, I observed, “It remains to be seen whether the Dixiecrat revival will last.” If Glenn Greenwald has his way, the answer will be no:
If simply voting for more Democrats will achieve nothing in the way of meaningful change, what, if anything, will? At minimum, two steps are required to begin to influence Democratic leaders to change course: 1) Impose a real political price that they must pay when they capitulate to—or actively embrace—the right’s agenda and ignore the political values of their base, and 2) decrease the power and influence of the conservative “Blue Dog” contingent within the Democratic caucus, who have proved excessively willing to accommodate the excesses of the Bush administration, by selecting their members for defeat and removing them from office. And that means running progressive challengers against them in primaries, or targeting them with critical ads, even if doing so, in isolated cases, risks the loss of a Democratic seat in Congress.
Salon‘s subhead for Greenwald’s piece says it all: “Pushing conservative Democrats out of Congress could help the party stand up to the GOP.” When liberals no longer need conservative Democrats to pad their majorities, the new Dixiecrats will wear out their welcome fast.
Greenwald’s piece is also a useful reminder that some of these conservative Democrats are of limited use to the independent right as well. Many of them, like their Republican counterparts, define “conservative” as pro-Bush and pro-war. They are worse on foreign policy and civil liberties than the better liberal Democrats and worse on limited government and economics than the better conservative Republicans. Then again, most Southern conservative Democrats are sound on immigration and anything that moves conservatives beyond blind loyalty to the GOP—or at least forces Republicans to actually fight for conservative votes—is of some value.
The key is to be specific about which conservative Democrats we are talking about. For every pro-war John Barrow, there is a Bob Conley who is antiwar without the leftism. Travis Childers ran and won in a Mississippi conservative district while favoring withdrawal from Iraq. “We’re spending our money, folks, in Iraq,” a local newspaper quoted him as saying. “We need to be spending our money in America.” Don Cazayoux’s platform wasn’t all surge ‘n’ stay the course either: “I believe we need to change directions in Iraq and bring our troops home responsibly and with honor while continuing to focus on national security and winning the war on terror.”
Whether Democrats like Childers and Cazayoux get purged with the Liebermans will say much about liberal priorities too. Do Roe and gay marriage trump peace?
There’s nothing to shake your residual faith in journalists than to see a news report of an event in which you took part, or read a media account of yourself (especially a friendly one that unwittingly links you to the sort of person you’ve spent your life opposing). But a column by Andrew Kohut in Tuesday’s New York Times in praise of protest votes reported a statistic which rings true to me. Citing a Pew poll, Kohut says “fewer Republicans than Democrats say it really matters who wins the presidential election (62 percent vs. 70 percent). And while 74 percent of Democrats say they are satisfied with the candidates, only 49 percent of Republicans feel this way.”
Yep. The Pew study nails it. Now, a small percentage of those Republicans may well be neocons who know that the fix is in, who’ve watched Obama crawl on his hands and knees over broken glass before the peacemongers of AIPAC, and are confident that he’s just as likely to “bomb-bomb Iran” as Mad Jack McCain. But they can’t amount to more than a few percentage points. Your average Fox News jingoist doesn’t think that many chess moves ahead. That’s why he’d rather play Risk”where the critical territory to control is”you guessed it”the Middle East.
No, I’m sure that most of that 38 percent of Republican voters remembers things like McCain’s support for amnesty, his 2006 vote (joining both Clinton and Obama) to grant illegal aliens retroactive Social Security benefits, and his squeamishness about attacking Sen. Obama on any subject at all”except the most losing issue in G.O.P. history since Prohibition, the Iraq War. They recall the years he spent getting “happy-endings” from starstruck leftist reporters who loved a “maverick,” and the back-stabbing he regularly performed on social conservatives. With me they wonder whether the outcome of this presidential election is much more important than the question of who won the Westminster Dog Show. (A beagle, I’d like to remind you.)
Reading this report coincides with some research I was doing recently about the history of the conservative movement in America, and the importance of Friedrich Hayek’s 1944 book The Road to Serfdom. (Find a nice illustrated version of the book’s argument here.) The critical significance of that book was in part its timing; when Hayek wrote, there were very few prominent thinkers who flouted the liberal and socialist consensus that a centrally planned economy was the obvious answer to the “contradictions” within capitalism, which they blamed in vulgar Marxist style for the rise of fascism. The Darwinian nature of competition they linked in some vague way with the pseudo-scientific eugenics of the Nazis, and prescribed as a cure for the persistent “inefficiency” of the market economy a massive dose of “rational” planning by government experts. Indeed, the market economy”like other “backward” institutions such as the patriarchal family and the Christian church”was one of the final frontiers that Enlightened reason must conquer, on the road to creating a worldly paradise. I know, it’s hard to believe today that nearly the entire intellectual establishment of the West could think that bureaucrats embodied efficiency and reason. It’s as plausible to us today as the theory that sweaty underwear, left in darkness, spontaneously generates baby mice. (I think all us bachelors can reassure the ladies on this one.) But in time of war, when you’re watching your government accomplish something like rearming a nation almost overnight, and storm across two oceans to crush its enemies, it might be easier to think that militaristic planning could solve problems like urban squalor and infant nutrition.
Hayek knew better. He was well-acquainted with Mises’ devastating analysis of socialism, which proved that in principle it could never meet human needs. Moving beyond the merely practical goal of avoiding poverty and misery, he argued”as did his philosophically more profound associate, Wilhelm RÃ¶pke“that socialism was a system unworthy of man, since it treated him as forever infantile. Indeed, Hayek’s analysis forced the men of his generation to face the fact that when fascism and National Socialism set themselves up as radical alternatives to a free society and market, they weren’t kidding. Hayek showed that their credentials as “rational” planners of economic life were at least as good as Stalin’s. Indeed, it was as much their accumulation of economic power as their political police that guaranteed their domination of everyday life. Every step taken by a state to “socialize” or nationalize property, he argued, should be seen as what it is: A power-grab by the government that diminishes the sphere of free private decision.
So far so good. I have just a single quibble with Hayek: His choice of a title. Perhaps his modernist bias made him imagine the Middle Ages as one of the worst imaginable eras in human history. (Fans like me of Monty Python’s Holy Grail call this the “Bring Out Your Dead!“ school of historiography.) That was how the history of Europe had been taught in his day. But Hayek really ought to have known enough about historic serfdom to rethink his title selection. While a serf’s freedom of movement was restricted (and who traveled much in those days, unless you were on a pilgrimage or a Crusade?), he was guaranteed the use of his land, which custom and law protected from confiscation. He paid a mere 10 percent of his produce to the landlord (Where do I sign up?), and was completely exempt from military service. Indeed, it wouldn’t be until the murderous Revolutionaries in France declared war on all of Europe, that politicians would get the idea that they could force an entire country’s male population into uniform. A serf confronted with a draft notice would have wiped his behind with it, and handed it back. As we all should do.
I think if Hayek were alive today, and looking at the tax rates, regulations, national debt and increasing restrictions on free expression we face, he wouldn’t be warning about the road to serfdom. He’d be using Mapquest to try to find the on-ramp.
Heather Mac Donald has a nice piece on gender inequality in math and science and the New York Times‘s efforts to wish it all away:
The New York Times is determined to show that women are discriminated against in the sciences; too bad the facts say otherwise. A new study has “found that girls perform as well as boys on standardized math tests,” claims a July 25 article by Tamar Lewin”thus, the underrepresentation of women on science faculties must result from bias. Actually, the study, summarized in the July 25 issue of Science, shows something quite different: while boys” and girls” average scores are similar, boys outnumber girls among students in both the highest and the lowest score ranges. Either the Times is deliberately concealing the results of the study or its reporter cannot understand the most basic science reporting. […]
Science‘s analysis of math test scores only confirms the hypothesis that cost [Larry] Summers his Harvard post: that boys are found more often than girls at the outer reaches of the bell curve of abstract reasoning ability. If you”re hoping to land a job in Harvard’s math department, you”d better not show up with average math scores; in fact, you”d better present scores at the absolute top of the range. And as studies have shown for decades, there are many more boys than girls in that empyrean realm. Unless science and math faculties start practicing the most grotesque and counterproductive gender discrimination, a skew in the sex of their professors will be inevitable, given the distribution of top-level cognitive skills. Likewise, boys will be and are overrepresented among math dunces”though the feminists never complain about the male math failure rate.
One could take all of this further, noting that men not only fill the ranks of the Harvard mathematics faculty but are also pretty much responsible for all violent crime, perversion, mass murder, and suicide. The “gender gap” in incarceration (93.2% of inmates in the U.S. are male) is vastly larger than any difference between races. Along with the prevalence of male dunces, I think this “historical inequalities” might be one no advocacy groups is going to seek to redress any time soon.
It’s worth asking whether the moron and the math wiz aren”t connected in some cosmic statistical sense”put another way, can one have the intelligent, creative right tail of the Normal Curve without the depravity and criminality of the left? I”m pretty sure the answer is NO.
Indeed, it often seems that both the good and bad tail are contained in the same person. It’s no Romantic myth that many a great genius has been a bit unhinged to say the least. And one simply can”t separate Wagner’s composition of Tristan from his profligate wanderings across the continent, nor Hemingway’s masculine prose from his desire for the stark reality of combat in Spain, nor Baudelaire’s Flower’s of Evil from the debauch of fin de siecle Paris, nor Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil from that fact that it was written in a shabby Swiss boarding houses, nor Mencken’s caustic wit from the fact that he spend most of his adult life living with mom. The Dead White Male Bell Curve contains multitudes.
Cultural flourishing might demand that, for better and for worse, every Beethoven necessitates a mass of Billy Ray Cyruses”and that our Beethovens probably won”t be too well socially adjusted either. Any civilization that lacks both extremes tails of the normal curve is, well, just average.
“We have to be as careful getting out as we were careless getting in,” says Barack Obama of the U.S. war in Iraq. Wise counsel.
But is Barack taking his own advice? For he pledges to shift two U.S. combat brigades, 10,000 troops, out of Iraq and into Afghanistan, raising American forces in that country from 33,000 to 43,000.
Why does Barack think a surge of 10,000 troops will succeed in winning a war in which we have failed to prevail after seven years of fighting? How many more troops is he prepared to commit? Is the Obama commitment open-ended?
For, without any visible strategy for victory, Barack is recommending the same course LBJ took after the death of JFK. Johnson bombed North Vietnam in 1964, landed Marines in 1965 and built U.S. forces from 16,000 advisers on Nov. 22, 1963, to 525,000 troops in January of 1969.
Gradual escalation, which is exactly what Barack is recommending.
LBJ never thought through to the end game: how to break Hanoi, withdraw and leave a South peaceful, prosperous and pro-American.
Has Barack thought his way through to how this war ends in victory and we withdraw all U.S. ground troops from Afghanistan? For this writer cannot see anywhere on the horizon any such ending.
If the old rule applies—the guerrilla wins if he does not lose—the United States, about to enter its eighth year of combat, is losing. And, using the old 10-to-one ratio of regular troops needed to defeat guerrillas, if the Taliban can recruit 1,000 new fighters, they can see Obama’s two-brigade bet, and raise him. Just as Uncle
Ho raised LBJ again and again.
What does President Obama do then? Send in 10,000 more?
The Soviet Union, whose 115,000-man army in Afghanistan reached more than twice the size of U.S.-NATO forces, even with the Obama surge, went home defeated in 1988. The Soviet Empire did not survive that humiliation.
Obama—and John McCain, who has endorsed the build-up—should, before committing any more combat brigades, explain how and when this war ends in an American victory. For as of today, the Afghan war resembles Vietnam far more than Iraq ever did.
Consider. Taliban attacks are up 40 percent this year. U.S. casualties in May and June exceeded those in Iraq. Gen. Petraeus says al-Qaida is moving assets from Iraq to Afghanistan and Pakistan. President Karzai’s writ still does not extend beyond the capital. He is mocked as the “Mayor of Kabul.” Security in the capital is deteriorating.
For the sixth straight year, the poppy crop, primary source of the world’s heroin, has set a new record. The Taliban eradicated the crop when in power, but are now collaborating with farmers to extort cash to keep fighting.
Most critically, Pakistan has become for the Taliban, Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida the same sanctuary that North Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia provided for the Viet Cong and NVA, with this critical difference: We cannot bomb or invade Pakistan.
The new Islamabad regime is exhibiting no enthusiasm for fighting the Taliban who dominate the border regions and North-West Frontier province and have sympathizers in Pakistan’s military and intelligences agencies.
Air strikes, to which we have begun to resort, have resulted in wedding parties and families wiped out in their homes on both sides of the border. President Musharraf has even threatened to retaliate against U.S. forces if more of his people become victims.
Anti-Americanism, pandemic in Pakistan, is rising.
As for Afghanistan, how do we win a war in a nation of 27 million, the size of Texas, with only 50,000 U.S.-NATO troops? How long will it take us to train, equip and arm an Afghan army that is both loyal to the regime and an effective fighting force against its Pashtun brothers?
How, ever, can victory be achieved, if the enemy can retire every winter to Pakistan to rest, rearm and prepare new attacks?
If the Pakistani army will not clean out the border regions, how can we accomplish it with pinprick strikes by Special Forces, or Predators and F-16s, which invariably cause civilian casualties?
Afghanistan, in and of itself, is of no strategic importance, if it is not a base camp for al-Qaida. Loss of Pakistan to Islamism, however, a nation of 170 million Muslims with atomic bombs, would be a calamity for the Near East and United States.
Under the (Colin) Powell Doctrine for fighting wars, questions must be asked and answered affirmatively before committing U.S. troops:
Is a vital U.S. interest imperiled here? Do we have a defined and attainable objective? Have the risks and costs been fully weighed? Is there an exit strategy? Is the war supported by a united nation?
How many of these questions did Obama ask himself before pledging 10,000 more U.S combat troops to what will surely become, should he win, “Obama’s war” even as Iraq has become “Bush’s war”?
If you believe The Truth is Out There, then I highly recommend that you avoid the latest “X-Files” movie , stay in, and read Tom Piatak’s fantastic article on the conservative impulses in the original series. Even a perusal through “The X-Files”’s rather fascinating and discursive Wikipedia entry would be more rewarding than a viewing of I Want to Believe.
In the new film, “paranormal activity” is nowhere to be found. The only gesture towards The Unknown is a boy-buggering priest who may or may not be receiving a psychic messages”less spooky than creepy and silly, if you ask me. All anti-government angst and suspicions have been banned. There’s no sinister figure in the corner of the room wearing a dark suite and ominously smoking cigarettes, who might just be in league with some nefarious aliens bent on colonizing the planet, for instance. In his stead are the kinds of smarty-pants, tech-savvy crime solvers you”d expect to meet in an episode of CSI. The topic of religion is broached in a subplot regarding stem-cell therapy, but again, it’s all more “hot-button” than theological.
In the original series, Chris Carter & Co. were far more willing to take chances.
I actually wasn”t into “The X-Files” during its heyday, and, in fact, it was only a few months ago that Tom Piatak told me how much I’d been missing, and how much Sam Francis loved the series. Since then, I’ve been on a “X-Files” Netflix binge.
In the original pilot, while Scully and Mulder are ivestigating a series of mysterious disappearances, Mulder reveals to his new partner that he believes his sister was abducted by aliens and that he’s forever searching for her. “The X-Files” is, of course, famous for its big “mythology“ running through the whole series, and immediately after watching episode #1, I came up with the ultimate transcendent, shock ending: Mulder would discover that his long-lost sister is in fact”Scully! (Perhaps a bit Wagnerian, but it would have been cool.)
Sadly, no such rapturous, bring-everything-together climax of this sort was even attempted. But then perhaps the “mythology” was always a bit of a myth. Along with “tune in next week” cliff-hangers, “The X-Files” always included periodic entrances of unknown strangers giving dire but exceedingly vague warnings of … well.. something. As this kept up, I’m sure a number of fans began to have a sneaking suspicion that it all wasn’t actually leading anywhere and that Chris Carter might just be making it up as he went along. I Want to Believe only adds to one’s worry that, in truth, perhaps there wasn”t a lot of there out there.
This essay is the second installment in a three-part symposium on sovereignty. The first contribution was made by Thomas E. Woods Jr..
Every time I read an anarchist essay like Tom Woods’s piece on sovereignty, in which he implicitly calls for the abolition of the State, it fills me with a warm, nostalgic glow. Some 25 years ago, I was active in a group called the Party of the Right. To this day, that student-led organization of conservative inactivists still fights the Left at Yale”through bow-tied Oxford-style debates held over port and sherry on topics like “Resolved: That the Beautiful is Closer to the Good than to the True.” When last I visited, not much had changed, except that you can no longer smoke cigars, and now the group attracts a fair share of date-able women. Something to do with 9/11, I’m told. (“If you don’t kiss a conservative, then the terrorists will have won.”)
It used to be that the sharpest divide in the group was between fish-eating, guilt-haunted Catholic traditionalists like me, and the Loompanics-reading, coke-snorting libertarians like… well, most of my closest friends. (Face facts: They were a lot more fun than the Opus Darien stiffs I’d met through Students for Life.)
The lines were clearly drawn between the Libertarians and the Trads, and debates centered on how large a part (if any) the State had to play in promoting the Good. The worst fate folks on our side could imagine was that the conservative movement might be taken over by those Ayn Ranters, and turned into a movement concerned merely with small government, low taxes, and non-intervention.
For their part, the Libertarians feared that we Moral Majority types would outlaw abortion, relegate porn mags to special stores on back roads in bad neighborhoods, impose draconian laws on divorce, and restore Bible-reading at public schools.
None of us, in our worst panic attacks, ever dreamed how much worse things would actually turn out. That both our factions would soon be shoved aside or bought. That within a decade the conservative movement would be captured, controlled, and re-educated by a third force altogether: A movement that promoted irreligious moralism, a Cold War stubbornly waged despite the absence of Communism, and big government for the sake of “National Greatness.” Had you laid out John McCain’s platform for me in 1984, I probably would have said, loudly, in the dining hall: “That sounds… fascist. In the negative sense.”
So Woods’s learned piece brings me back to the old days. And in arguing for the anarchist position, he looks for evidence that the State is inherently abusive, finding in the trash bin of the 20th century (and then of the Bush years) an embarrassment of riches. Of course, that’s a little like using footage from a San Francisco bathhouse to argue for universal celibacy…. As we pro-lifers learned long ago, the sight of something can turn your stomach, but it might not change your mind”especially if you know you’re only getting part of the picture.
And part of the picture is all you really see in Woods’ analysis. He attributes the notion of sovereignty to an early modern advocate of royal absolutism. And perhaps he’s right about the term. But I doubt that a Roman emperor would have had much trouble articulating his claim to arbitrary power without Jean Bodin’s neologism. (Indeed, the thinkers who advocated quasi-divine powers for kings looked to Roman law, which they wielded to liquidate feudal customs and Common Law”Teutonic holdovers which are the origin of our liberties.) The reality that rulers will seek to liquidate every obstacle to their “liberty” of action is a perennial observation. You can find it in the Old Testament and in the writings of Roman republicans. That’s where our Founding Fathers found it.
To note this fact, and deplore it, and favor institutions that would counteract it by establishing rival centers of power within the state, and thriving institutions of civil society and Church that serve as the main guarantors of order”all this is the heritage of Anglo-American conservatism. And Ron Paul, in everything he said out loud in his presidential run, stands firmly in this tradition. I’ve written here before on how I believe this position is today, here and now in our political context, the only option for Christians.
The public sector in America is so deeply infused with liberal secularism that it cannot be used to further Christian (or even conservative) ends”apart from defending basic rights and keeping order. Beyond that, whatever short-term success you achieve, the deep structure of our institutions and the legal ideology that governs the courts will turn the knife against you. Gain public funding for your parochial schools”and you’ll end up having to follow state directives about whom to hire and fire. Partner with the government in running an adoption agency… and wait to see the kind of “families” where the courts make you place those innocent children. And so on.
Whatever a fruitful cooperation of Church and state might have accomplished in 19th century Bavaria, or 1940s Portugal, it can’t happen here. It’s time to scrape the needle on the Trad’s favorite LP, “Don’t… Stop… Thinking About the Carlists…” and get with the program: Rendering a whole lot less unto Caesar, so we can save up something for God. We’ve tried for some 25 years (Jerry Falwell’s debut makes a handy starting point) to make God into our Caesar. By the time John Hagee declared the First Protestant Crusade on behalf of restoring Solomon’s kingdom, the truth became apparent: We’ve taken Caesar for our God.
Admitting all this should make anyone sympathetic to Lord Acton‘s classical liberalism, and the decentralist aspirations of Chesterton“embodied so well in the localist institutions that still keep Switzerland free. It should move us to root for regionalists in Flanders, and support a state’s rights approach to changing abortion laws. We ought to take with great seriousness the doctrine at the heart of Catholic social teaching called subsidiarity, which asserts that it is a sin to centralize power unless it is absolutely necessary. While I wouldn’t try telling this to the mitred Democratic party hacks who issue bishops’ pastorals, this is the real political tradition of the Church, with its roots in the decentralized order of the Middle Ages, where kings’ aspirations were checked by the rights of free cities and regions, and the moral force of the Church.
We can follow Tom Woods thus far”but not much further. We can reject the “monism” of early modern absolutists, and insist on viewing with great suspicion every attempt to centralize power in the hands of technocrats. But that doesn’t bring us anywhere near his comprehensive rejection of the State, which is not libertarian but simply anarchist. And it’s deeply misleading for him to suggest that the Medieval order provides a precedent proving that his anarchist project is workable. In Medieval France, there certainly was overlapping sovereignty, a happy confusion of powers between local lords and a distant king, the rights of guilds and the dictates of bishop and pope. And this tension left a great deal of space for civic liberty.
You know what didn’t exist? A Rothbardian anarchist collective where no one institution claimed a monopoly of force, where contracts were only enforced by voluntary arbitration, and rights were protected by private enforcement agencies. When a village enforced its laws using the powers of police, it was seen as representing the face of public order”wielding the “temporal sword” of the State, acting as Caesar, whom Christians must obey except when he commanded them to sin. A medieval townsman who violated the draconian laws of the local guild would find himself under arrest. When the Church declared someone a heretic, it turned him over “to the temporal arm” for punishment. (Thankfully, the Church renounced this use of State power to prosecute religious dissidents at Vatican II. Better late than never.)
In fact, it is impossible to imagine a successful society that would not insist on a public monopoly of deadly force”however wisely decentralized, and kept in check by an armed citizenry keenly aware of its right to revolt against a tyrant.
Let’s jump forward a few centuries, and imagine that the citizens of a “Paulville,” populated by lovers of liberty, somehow convinced the U.S. government to let their city secede. And within this free community, the most consistent anarchists have prevailed, and the local government has dissolved itself. Instead of paying modest taxes for the enforcement of minimal laws that protected the maximum individual liberty consistent with public order, the residents subscribed to one of a competing group of private enforcement agencies. (Perhaps I’m a cynic, but I imagine these “protection” companies bearing names like “Bonanno” “Lucchese” and “Gambino.”) So far so good.
What happens, I wonder, when Bubba Rodriguez complains that Fallopia O’Reilly, who lives down the road, is dumping the waste from her pig farm in the stream where he likes to fish? He calls his protection agency, the Bonannos”who contact Fallopia’s agency, the Gambinos. They try to work things out. What happens if they can’t? If there’s a great deal of money involved, or if passions become inflamed…. Is there some third party that can enforce on them an agreement? If so, what power does it use to make them settle? If the argument descends into a feud, does someone step in and use force to stop the fighting and impose on the parties a compromise? If that happens, the third force which has stopped the fighting has acted as a STATE, and the state it has imposed is what we call ORDER, according (we hope) to principles known as LAW. In subjecting the Bonnanos and Gambinos to its superior force, it is exercising SOVEREIGNTY.
Of course this need not happen. For several hundred years, in large swathes of Europe, there was no center of power sufficient to impose law and order on the private feudal enforcement agencies based on hilltops in crenellated castles. Outside of a few small cities, the writ of baron and duke ran without limit”except when a neighboring militia managed to muster more swords and shields. There was, we can say with certainty, no State. There was also, outside of the castle, no guarantee for individual rights. Nor freedom of trade, freedom of movement, or prospect of lasting peace. That may be why the period got the pesky nickname, the Dark Ages.
The High Middle Ages”which saw the explosion of prosperity, the building of the great cathedrals, the founding by the Church of Europe’s universities from Salamanca to the Sorbonne”also saw the rise of kings, and the growth of some central authority that could restrain the excessive powers of local tyrants. Indeed, the common people commonly looked to the king for protection against feudal lords who flouted their rights. At some point, in various places, a healthy balance was achieved between the centralizers and the regionalists. We look to such golden moments when we invoke the Magna Carta, the establishment of fueros in Spain, the chartering of free Imperial Cities throughout Germany and Italy. When the tension collapsed, and moved too far in one direction or other, we see periods of chaos or tyranny. The Polish kingdom, too crippled by the veto which a single noble could impose on any law, was gradually gobbled up by its neighbors”while the French kingdom after Louis XIII was turned into a tyranny. As conservatives, who know that Original Sin afflicts both citizen and sovereign, we warn against either extreme.
Put in more concrete, domestic terms: We know how dangerous it is to have social service agencies that interfere in the legitimate exercise of parental rights, that try to ban homeschooling and impose sex education on near-toddlers. But when we have proof that a neighbor is beating or molesting one of his kids, we want there to be someone we can call, someone in a uniform who will bring a gun and take that guy away in shackles. Someone whose use of violence is limited by a very specific code, who will convey that abusive parent to a fair trial based on evidence, and that child to a safe haven. That guy in the uniform is the representative of the State. The power he wields was delegated by the citizens”but it flows from the justice of God. I don’t think we can do without him. Those of you who think we can should find some depopulated region of Africa or Ukraine and give it a try. Report back to me once you’re done with your seventh civil war”and you’ve installed some Grand Panjandrum to please (please, please!) impose a monopoly of force. You’ll have learned that old, sad lesson: Even tyranny is better than chaos.
Dr. John Zmirak is Writer-in-Residence at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts in New Hampshire, and author of several books, including Wilhelm RÃ¶pke: Swiss Localist, Global Economist, and most recently The Grand Inquisitor.
It is an age-old question: what happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object? The force in question is the farming community of Argentina, once among the agricultural powerhouses of the world, and the object is the country’s slippery presidential couple, President Cristina FernÃ¡ndez de Kirchner and her husband (and predecessor in the top job) NÃ©stor Kirchner. From all the way back in March, the Kirchners have been locked in a bitter dispute with the farming sector of the country since the presidential couple unilaterally imposed a massive tax on soy exports.
The Kirchners deride the farmers as “oligarchs” and claim that the exorbitant tax on one of Argentina’s most successful commercial sectors will be redistributed to the poor. Of course, it would be irresponsible to simply take from the haves and give to the have-nots; the money raised would only go to the deserving poor, namely those who happen to support the Kirchner regime. Along the way, every cog in the machine will take his fair share, with a respectable amount left over to fatten the calves (metaphorically speaking) of the Kirchnerite street operators who quite openly buy votes during election time and pay union members to show up at pro-government rallies in between.
“Thanks to the high prices of agricultural exports,” the New York Times reported in 2006, “estancieros are leading the country out of the worst economic crisis in its history.” Well, thanks to a global food shortage, those prices have only increased since 2006, and the Kirchners smelled a buck to be had. Why, the couple reckoned, should the farmers lead the entire country out of poverty when only part of the country bothered to vote for Mrs. K in the presidential election? The farmers, on the other hand, failed to see any reason why they should foot the bill for K & Mrs. K, so they took to the streets and highways protesting the unfair levy. Country went to town, told it a thing or two, and indeed much of town agreed.
This worried the Kirchners, who began to see the possibility of things going pear-shaped. “Maybe we should talk,” said Madam President, “Take no prisoners!” said the First Gentleman, the good-cop/bad-cop redolent of a second-rate TV drama. Finally, a course of action was decided: pass the buck “ refer the tax to Congress, where the Kirchners have a comfortable majority in each chamber, and let them take the blame.
On July 5th, the Chamber of Deputies put its stamp of approval on the export tax “ albeit with a majority smaller than expected “ and the matter passed to the Honorable Senate of the Argentine Nation (to give its official title). Composed of 72 senators, a bloc of 37 members is needed to form a majority and the Kirchner-led Front for Victory has 42 senators of its own, not including a few more senators from provincial electoral alliances that, for local reasons, back the Ks but are not formal members of the Front.
The final countdown
The Senate was packed for the vote on July 16th. This was a make-or-break moment in the Country-versus-Kirchners dispute and while the government have a Senate majority, everyone kept an eye open just in case. The senators wrangled for seventeen hours straight, and the debate dragged on into the early hours of the 17th. This was no worry for Argentines “ the “early to bed, early to rise” proverb is unheard of and unthinkable in Argentina. Finally, it came to a vote. With 37 needed to pass, and 42 senators in the Frente camp, the division on the vote was 36 to 36, dead-even.
Like many other American republics, Argentina’s constitution is modeled on that of the United States and so the Vice President of the country “ Kirchner loyalist and ex-Radical party member Julio Cobos “ is also the President of the Senate, who only votes in the event of a tie. Faced with this massive responsibility of breaking a tie on an issue of great import to the well-being of the nation, Cobos tried to take a note from the Kirchner playbook and pass the buck. He called for a second division, just to make sure. Again, the senators voted, and again, 36 for, 36 against. There was no escaping it: Cobos would have to decide.
Very well, it was down to him. It was four o’clock in the morning, and competing crowds of farm supporters and their pro-government opponents gathered outside to await the decision. Sweating profusely, Cobos spoke with torturous slowness on the gravity of the situation. “I think today is the most difficult day of my life,” he pronounced, as the senators shifted awkwardly in their chairs, waiting for the final word. “They tell me I must go along with the government for institutional reasons, but my heart tells me otherwise,” he said. Nervously holding on to the microphone, the Vice President paused between groups of words and breathed heavily for many seconds as the country hung on each word he pronounced. “May history judge me. … (pause) vote … my vote is not positive, it is against.”
Outside, the farmers and all the supporters of the Country cause burst into joyful elation and enthusiastically broke into the national anthem: “Hear, o mortals, the sacred cry: ¡Libertad, libertad, libertad!” Among the Kirchnerites, meanwhile, there was much renting of garments and gnashing of teeth, compounded by the mental calculations that they might actually have to lower themselves to what the countryside (and most of the town) do: work for a living.
Surveying the damage
The Kirchners have not done well for themselves in this battle. Cristina’s popularity soared at 58% when she succeeded her husband as president. A poll by the Spanish newspaper El PaÃs found that her approval rating is now at an unprecedented 23%. Her first year in office isn’t even finished and she has sunk to Bush-levels in the polls. In a Westminster-style system, the government’s failure to secure a victory in such an important vote would lead to its downfall and a new election, but unless Mrs. K decides to resign, Argentina is stuck with her for three more years before her term expires.
Cristina Kirchner would do well to note that Argentina’s last female president, Isabel Peron, was overthrown in a coup (and is currently under arrest in Spain for collusion in the disappearance of a political activist). Political intervention by the military is unthinkable today, but presidential careers aren’t only finished by military coup or the completion of a term. Between December 2001 and May 2003 “ just a year and a half “ Argentina went through no less than six presidents. Cautious Argentines fear that a resignation on the part of Mrs. Kirchner would only strengthen the country’s reputation for instability, but nor is Argentina’s reputation bolstered by the four-month national crisis the Kirchners provoked.
The opposition “ Socialists, Radicals, anti-K Peronists, Christian-democrats, conservatives, and market liberals “ will only be encouraged by the farm victory, and in the coming months opportunists currently in the Kirchner camp may take advantage of Cristina’s unpopularity to defect. Those who would count on her resignation will likely be disappointed. The histories of both NestÃ³r and Cristina Kirchner show that they will cling to power to the bitter end, no matter what negative impact that has on Argentina. For now, it is enough to do as the farmers have done and celebrate… while preparing for the next battle with Argentina’s Bill & Hillary.
Halfway through my sophomore year of high school I was overwhelmed by an impulse to become more traditionally feminine, which I satisfied by getting a job in the children’s section of the public library. I remember presiding over a storytime circle of elementary schoolers in which I tried to guide them towards an appreciation of modern art—“It’s a kind of picture book” was my logic at the time—and I had finally coaxed them into admitting that Kandinsky’s Woman V was a successful expression of complex emotion when I looked down at the page and realized it was upside down.
The Dark Knight is a successful expression of complex ideas, held upside-down. Without betraying too many plot details (Jeff Michaels of Akron, OH: you are the last person in America not to have seen this movie; please do so at your earliest convenience), the film gets a lot of mileage out of the distinction between Batman, the outcast who fights crime from behind a mask, and DA Harvey Dent, the fight’s public face. Batman is an outcast and a vigilante rather than a hero, which leaves him free to “make the choice that no one else will face—the right choice.”
Americans have regarded printing the legend as a national sport ever since George Washington didn’t chop down a cherry tree. We can be brutal to our celebrities, but public figures who have been dead long enough to lapse into legend get the royal treatment, their shortcomings papered over for the sake of giving us something to believe in.
If it sounds like I object to this kind of dishonesty, I don’t. Batman and Commissioner Gordon lie, Dent comes out looking like a saint, and everyone in Gotham is better off. The perversity of Dark Knight‘s moral is in not in its endorsement of deception but in its insistence that we deceive only in order to sanitize.
To put it in more concrete terms: Gotham needed a face to put on the fight for justice, and Batman and Dent were the city’s only two options. The film seems to take it for granted that Batman’s outlaw tactics and unwillingness to reveal his identity make him ineligible. But why should this be so? There as many outlaws as saints in the American canon of heroes. To pretend that the Gothamite rank-and-file will only accept a whitewashed hero suggests that Christopher Nolan deeply misunderstands how this country goes about its myth-making, or at least that he’s never heard of Pretty Boy Floyd.
The movie begins with two henchmen discussing the Joker’s make-up (“To scare people, you know? War paint”), and the first conversation we see between Bruce Wayne and Alfred begins with Bruce’s scars: “Every time you stitch yourself up you do make a bloody mess.” “It forces me to learn from my mistakes.” This is clearly a film interested in the strange alchemy by which outward signs don’t just symbolize invisible truths but make them real. For Nolan to turn around and suggest that all good masks make heroes look like choir boys is a betrayal of everything about masks and myths that the rest of the movie suggests he should understand better. Why is Abe Lincoln’s honesty de facto more legitimate than Davy Crockett’s bear-killing precocity? (To put it another, less prudent way, do we really like it better when Obama trades on his personal myth than when McCain does?)
About an hour into the film, Alfred says something that the film’s ending ratifies: “They’ll hate you for it, but that’s the point with Batman.” With all due respect to Michael Caine’s confidence-inspiring British accent, that’s the coward’s way out. Far better that the honest outlaws of the world should feel a responsibility to inspire their public’s confidence, and far better that the public should be willing to accept a hero who is something less than harmless.