Missing from most of the commentary on the brief war in Georgia was any mention of the contorted use of language in Western news coverage and opinion writing. While there have been some reasonable observers discussing the conflict in Georgia, most mainstream reporting and commentary have persistently described the conflict as the “rape” of Georgia in which its capital has been put under “siege” as part of a Russian expansionist effort (which is just part of a supposed pattern of Russian “expansionism”). As it happened, even though Georgian infrastructure was unfortunately targeted during the week-long war, Georgia did not suffer much in the way of rapine and pillage when compared to other major campaigns in the last decade. It is instructive to compare the damage wrought by the brief Russian incursion with the three-week bombing of Lebanon or the 78-day war against Serbia, since the extensive targeting of civilian infrastructure in the latter two conflicts began almost immediately and continued throughout. Remarkably, the same military force that did lay waste to Chechnya acted with considerably greater restraint than either the IAF or NATO in their respective campaigns in recent years, but after a few days of fighting in Georgia Washington deemed the Russian response “disproportionate” when it had earlier memorably described the ruin of Lebanon as birth pangs of a new Middle East.
Obviously, Tbilisi was never under siege in any but the most figurative of meanings, nor was there any Russian conquest of lands they did not already control earlier this month, which did not stop George Will from declaring the conflict to be Russia’s “war of European conquest.” Most common, of course, was the phrase “Russian aggression,” which was both imprecise in describing the escalation of hostilities and laughable when it came from the mouths of the most ardent defenders of multiple unprovoked invasions and bombing campaigns. Most extraordinary was the deployment of the term expansionist, which reporters and pundits did not use to describe Georgian irredentism and Saakashvili’s efforts to retake territories lost to Tbilisi for over 15 years, but instead they used it to describe Russian military efforts to shore up the separatist regions that Moscow had been using as proxies in the region during the same period. It seems quite common now to throw the labels revanchist and revisionist at Russia, when once again it was the Georgian government that was attempting to revise the status quo and engage in the very definition of revanchism, which is to take revenge for past humiliation and defeat. The absurdity of applying the label expansionist to Russia was all the more clear when one considered that one of the most important proximate causes of the latest round of tensions in the Caucasus was the offer to expand NATO to include Georgia. Naturally, Mr. Bush was on hand soon to declare that the “days of satellite states and spheres of influence are behind us,” by which he meant, of couse, that the days of other powers trying to undermine our satellite states and interfere in our sphere of influence were supposed to be at an end.
The issue here is not simply the use of double standards that change depending on the government waging the war, important as that may be, but the appalling abuse of language that takes place in the service of a party line. The problem is familiar enough to critics of the distorting effects of ideology and propaganda, but it seems telling that very few Western observers even seem to be aware that most people in the West are participating in such distortions with abandon when it comes to Russia. It is little wonder that Russia policy has been confused and dangerous for many years when most in the West cannot even call things by their proper names.
It is really a shame that Sarah Palin, who reminds me of Donna Reed in “It’s a Wonderful Life”, has already flubbed her first test in standing up to the left. When a walking human embodiment of sheer vileness Representative Robert Wexler (of Florida or Potomac, Maryland, depending on whom Wexler is speaking to) identified Sarah with the “Nazi sympathizer” Pat Buchanan, “someone with a “uniquely atrocious record on Israel,” Sarah denied the obvious, that she had been more than “someone welcoming all candidates to Wasilla [Alaska]” when she had received Pat while mayor of that Anchorage suburb in 2000.ben smith .
From other reports, including those of neoconservative supporters of the GOP ticket, Sarah had been a fan of Buchanan’s and may have once sported a Buchanan button. Her attempt to deny that she had ever expressed sympathy for Pat and her desire to identify herself with the campaign of (WSJ favorite) Steve Forbes in “that cycle” sends exceedingly bad vibes to our side. The GOP vice-presidential candidate should have pointed out that there is not a shred of evidence that Pat is any kind of Nazi sympathizer. Moreover, his reference to Hitler as someone “with great courage” came in the context of an attack on both Hitler and Mao as two of the worst tyrants in human history.
Equally relevant, the source from which these attacks issued is so flawed and hypocritical that Wexler deserves no answer at all. An inveterate AIPAC toady when he is not toadying to the most famous parishioner of black racist Jeremiah Wright, Wexler alternates between being somewhere to the left of Obama and Biden on American issues and well to the right of the Likud coalition in Israeli politics. In recent weeks he has been at the center of a heated controversy because he represents Palm Beach, Florida in the Congress but only has a residence in Montgomery County, Maryland, where he prefers living “because I can send my three children to a Jewish school there.” There are of course multiple Jewish schools in Southern Florida, and if the Congressperson felt so inclined, he could move into his congressional district and find suitable educational institutions there for his offspring.
On the other hand, Wexler and his geriatric, selectively leftist constituents are probably perfectly suited to each other. And they”re not likely to vote for anyone as traditionally Middle American in her appearance, behavior and values as Governor Palin. In all probability the ideal candidate in Wexler’s district would be a an advocate of interspecies unions and hate-speech laws directed against anyone to the right of the Democratic Party, but also someone who would favor spending American taxes to create more West Bank settlements for the Israelis. To this would have to be added advocacy of large-scale income redistribution from young working families to aged fat cats, living off the state.
But pols like Wexler are not likely to determine Sarah Palin’s future (unless she continues to panic), any more than black nationalists or Latino irredentists. When Wexler starts screaming that John McCain’s decision to select Sarah Palin as a running mate is “an affront to all Jewish Americans,” the Alaskan governor should reach for her barf bag but pretend not to notice the noise. She would do well to ignore mouthy leftwing bigots—and to do without retreating—or hiding her Old Right sympathies.free republic After all, this lady has been brought forth as a candidate of the Right, and not as a second representative for Wexler’s screwball, home-away-from-home district. The Potomac, Maryland resident and representative of the Israeli far right and the American far left is already performing that function much better than Sarah Palin (or I) could ever dream of doing.
One of my favorite living essayists (let’s face it, few of them really measure up to the dead) is Thomas Sowell—who once or twice a year lets himself off the hook and instead of composing a column, pens a series of aphorisms designed at once to goad the reader into thinking, and to let the columnist spend a final summer weekend at the beach.
Not that I think of Sowell as really a beach kind of guy. His notion of leisure more likely entails an extra night camped out in the Edmund Burke archives, or a Monday-night Monteverdi sing-in at the local high-Anglican church. But I could be wrong. It’s not like I’m one of his homeboys. In any case, your faithful columnist is himself headed for the beach this last week before Labor Day, after which he will dive face first into a sea of comma splices and logical fallacies. So expect a string of pithy observations, which I’ll get to… eventually.
I’m not exactly a beach bum. In fact, the first thing that comes to my mind when you say the word “beach” is “Dover,” and the second is “Omaha.” And I haven’t ventured down to the sand in oh…some 36 years. This explains my milky pallor, which I like to call “Pre-Raphaelite,” although my girlfriend prefers the term “cancer patient.” Which is just how her dermatologist warned her she would end up if she didn’t stop tanning, so now’s she’s addicted to SPF 70+, Jackie O sunglasses and great big retro hats. Which suits me just fine. If my beloved’s face is the page where I read her soul, I prefer it be the color of Xerox paper. But hey, that’s just me.
The last time I ventured out into the sand, I was seven years old, and my sisters led me by my tiny hand along what seemed a strand of Hell: A beach littered with inert human bodies, baking in the sun—it looked like those photos of Normandy right after the Allied landing, which I’d seen on my favorite TV show at that age, “The World At War.”
Except that these bodies were moving, sort of. Squirting liquid from tubes onto sweaty skin, flipping over on rickety chairs. Pausing occasionally to smack an ill-behaved child across the head. Getting up to turn the baby pig that was roasting over a gasoline flame, or tune the tinny radio blaring salsa tunes. The fallen bodies were spaced no further apart than those in Saving Private Ryan, and to a high-strung, impressionable 7-year-old, this multicultural moment felt like the first 40 minutes of that movie. I threw a tantrum, my long-suffering sisters had to haul me home, and I haven’t been to Jones Beach, or any beach, since.
Of course, I knew about the Hamptons, where the honkies go to frolic—if you can call it frolicking. More like networking, semi-naked. If there’s one thing worse than stripping down to your skivvies with the contents of Spanish Harlem, I imagine that it’s doing it with the spilled out attorneys, wrinkling “pro-choice” mavens and trophy brides of the Upper East Side. Their radios aren’t as tinny, and they’re all playing NPR—so your day at the beach is spoiled not by San Juan’s Greatest Hits, but by the natterings of Nina Totenberg. If forced at gunpoint to choose between these pre-tanned prosecco sippers and the folks cooking cochinillo, I guess I’d have to say, “Shoot.”
My friends assure me that beaches in New Hampshire are not nearly so huddled with masses, while neither Abercrombie nor Fitch has been spotted there in years, so I’m game to give it a try—lured on by the promise of low-cost, fresh-caught lobsters washed down with bottles of Smuttynose at a nearby seafood shack. So I’m off to buy the kind of sunblock that could well stop global warming, and read Ratzinger in the sun. My companion’s a brilliant Columbia physics grad, half-Chinese and half-Volksdeutsch, and his driving is kind of… tentative. Sometimes I’ve had to ask him, after a close call on the Interstate, “Could you please tap into your German side while you’re driving? Or do you save it for when you’re doing math?”
He’ll be pulling up here any minute (Don’t tell him about this column, okay?), so I’ll close with my Sowell-man series of passing observations. Of course, I haven’t half the learning or the brains I’d need to compete with the master—so instead of high-minded aphorisms, here’s my list of Bumper Stickers You Won’t Put on Your Car™: (Really. Go ahead, print them up. I dare you.)
For nostalgic readers of Russell Kirk, who keep their bound volumes of the old NR like a framed photo of Kaiser Franz Josef on the wall of a Holocaust survivor who fled Vienna:
“Burkeans ‘Do It’ Reluctantly and Incrementally.”
For tenured Straussians teaching at Christian colleges:
“God Bless America.” (then, in Attic Greek:) “Except that He Doesn’t Exist.”)
For Brilliant, Unemployable Catholic Losers: “Don’t Blame Me… I Voted for Philip II.” (with a Spanish galleon).
For pessimistic Protestants: “In Case of Rapture This Vehicle will Be… Just Fine.”
For home-schooling families of 15: “This Minivan Brakes for Apparitions of Mary.”
For paleocons who secretly wish that Putin were ruling America: “Have You Hugged Your Russian Oligarch Today?”
For neocons: “America First.” (written in Hebrew.)
For single guys: “Porn is for Wankers.”
For Crunchy-Cons who live in the suburbs and subscribe to the Farmer’s Almanac: “Think Parochially, Act Globally.”
For really disillusioned conservatives: “George III was Right.”
For blue collar Americans: “My Army Son Shoots Foreigners So Your Honor Student Can Have a Same-Sex Marriage.”
For me (and I really am printing this up, and you can buy one from me if you want): “Arm the Unborn to Guard the Border.”
Which pretty much sums things up. Now I’m off to eat a lobster, I hope without first turning the very same color. We Irish Slavs don’t tan so much as blister.
Before 85,00 adoring fans, the man of “Hope” and “Change” finally got down to specifics and told us who he really is and what he really plans to do as president.
Well, sort of…
Energy Independence in 10 years (a timeline politicians typically reserve for impossible tasks) was joined by a pretty conventional grab bag of federal goodies: public school teachers shall get higher salaries (of course), we shall all have “affordable, accessible health care” (which doesn”t exactly sound like “universal healthcare”), and government shall, somehow, close the mythic “gender gap“ in income by, I guess, mandating that women get paid more. That Obama promises to do it all while lowering taxes for 95% of American sounds like he”ll be continuing with the “deficits don”t matter” tradition of the past eight years.
Beyond Obama’s “new” politics, another major revelation took place at the National Convention, but one that will be discussed sub rosa in the blogosphere”Obama was transformed from Antiwar Leftist to Liberal Hawk.
In many ways, this began with Joe Biden’s workmanlike speech on Wednesday evening. Yes, on one level, Biden was brought on as a kind of northeast Catholic “regular guy” who will supposedly attract all those “hardworking Americans” who voted for Hillary. But the Delaware senator was also selected for his “foreign-policy expertise” that he supposedly accrued while sitting on appropriations committees, being helicoptered around the world to oversee foreign elections, and voting for a lot military action. Biden, interestingly, opposed the first Gulf War, but there’s little doubt that what he brings to the ticket is a foreign-policy philosophy of the Brookings Institute, Democratic Leadership Counsel, New Republic bent.
Biden says we don”t need a “good soldier” (McCain) but a “wise leader” in the White House. But when he expounded upon the many examples of Obama’s good judgment, he didn”t mention that Obama opposed the authorization of use of force in Iraq (which, of course Biden supported.)
Instead, Biden talked about the conflagration in the Caucuses, and scolded Bush and McCain for not doing enough:
“In recent days, we’ve once again seen the consequences of the neglect with Russia’s challenge to the free and democratic country of Georgia. Barack Obama and I will end this neglect. We will hold Russia accountable for its actions, and we’ll help the people of Georgia rebuild.”
Being that McCain’s top people are still advocating for Georgia’s entrance into NATO and promising that they”ll get the IMF and other “international authorities” involved with rebuilding Georgia”and the senator himself bizarrely claimed “We”re all Georgians!””I can’t imagine what more Biden could want McCain to do on this matter.
Echoing his Veep, Obama promised that’s he’s the best prepared to “curb Russian aggression.”
When speaking of Afghanistan, Biden calls Obama “wise” in the sense that he”ll increase troop levels:
Now, let me ask you: whose judgment should we trust? Should we trust John McCain’s judgment when he said only three years ago, “Afghanistan”we don’t read about it anymore because it’s succeeded”? Or should we trust Barack Obama, who more than a year ago called for sending two additional combat brigades to Afghanistan?
The fact is, al-Qaida and the Taliban”the people who actually attacked us on 9/11″have regrouped in those mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan and are plotting new attacks. And the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff echoed Barack’s call for more troops.
It’s a “surge strategy” in Afghanistan. As I”ve discussed before, both parties have benefited from, and sought to perpetuate, a series of bumper-sticker antitheses””pro-war vs. antiwar,” “confront evil” vs. “tough diplomacy,” “unilateralism vs. multilateralism” etc. But this rhetoric masks the fact that since Obama and McCain have won their parties” nominations, they been moving ever closer together in terms of their actual foreign-policy programs.
If Obama’s elected, it will probably take years for his most ardent admirers, those who wept at Mile-High or rooted him on from home, to realize that the Man of Change will offer much more continuity in foreign affairs than his “new politics for a new time” promises. In turn, the realist/conservative justification for supporting Obama is swiftly vanishing…
DENVER—After the phony roll call vote was taken here to formally nominate Barack Obama—a roll call that did not remotely reflect the true delegate strength of Hillary—the media exploded in an orgy of celebration about the historic character of the moment to which they had just been privileged to be witness.
“The first black presidential nominee ever of a major party in history!” was proclaimed. Coming on the 45th anniversary of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Barack’s nomination is being hailed as the last great step forward in the long march to equality and justice in America.
The moral pressure to join the march of history is enormous.
Nor is it unfair to say that some journalists here are obsessed with the issue of race in this campaign. There may be wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, rising tensions with Russia, a falling regime in Pakistan, and reports of U.S. and NATO warships headed for the Persian Gulf, but here it is all about the first black ever nominated for president.
During the primaries, Bill Clinton was charged with racism by liberal Democrats for saying that Barack’s claim to being consistent on Iraq was a “fairy tale” and for implying that Barack’s victory in South Carolina was no big deal because Jesse Jackson had carried the state twice.
Here at the convention, the media watched Hillary and Bill’s speeches with a commissar’s care—to ensure they not only embraced Barack but “validated” his credentials to be president. Should they not go all out for Obama, we are told, the Clintons are dead in the party.
The psychic investment in Barack’s candidacy is immense.
So great is the moral pressure to conform that John Lewis, the young hero of Selma Bridge, buckled and recanted his endorsement of Hillary. And that act of disloyalty and betrayal, a capitulation to race solidarity, is regarded as praiseworthy.
Black radio has become a cheering section for Obama. Every GOP ad mocking Obama is inspected for racial motives. Campaign books that portray Obama as a radical or phony are denounced by people who have not even seen them. The thought police are out in force.
Michelle Obama’s speech about her upbringing and beliefs—crafted by Barack’s hires—is said to be the last word on what a mainstream patriotic woman she is. But why, then, would she have taken her two lovely daughters to be baptized by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and to listen on Sundays to his racist rants against America?
Abroad, we are told, Europe and the Third World are awaiting the moment when America turns her back on her racist past and elevates this black man to the presidency. The subtext is that this is not just a political contest, but a moral test for America.
Indeed, many have begun to see this election in solely racial terms, an issue of whether racism once again triumphs in America, or racism is buried one and for all.
Questions arise. With this immense moral and emotional investment in a Barack victory—by 94 to 1 in one poll black America is behind him—what happens if the nation decides he is too radical, too inexperienced, too callow, too risky to be president?
What happens if the American people reject their marching orders and say no to Barack and black America? What happens if all the hopes and dreams, hype and hoopla, end in disillusionment?
Would the defeat of Barack Obama be taken as an affront to black America? Could we be in for a time of deepening racial division rather than healing? Could we be in for a long, hot autumn like the long, hot summers some of us recall from 40 years ago?
One black preacher here suggested as much to me.
Should that happen, the people who have framed this election as a contest between morality and racial justice on one side, and the clammy hand of America’s racist past on the other, will bear the same moral responsibility as did the advocates of mass civil obedience for the racial riots of the 1960s that followed.
Barack has just shot 6 points ahead of McCain. But he has not yet closed the sale. And to prevent his closing of the sale, the GOP must raise doubts in the public mind as to whether he is really a man of Middle America or the closet radical of the Rev. Wright’s congregation who said of Pennsylvanians that they are bitter folks, who cling to their Bibles, bigotries and guns because the world has left them behind.
No candidate has ever been nominated by a major party with fewer credentials or a weaker claim to the presidency, or more doubts as to his core beliefs. If Obama wins, the country could be in real trouble. And if he loses, the country could be in real trouble.
What the media celebrate today, they may rue tomorrow.
Not that I need one, but the release of Diane English’s remake of The Women is a good excuse to revisit the George Cukor original. It dates from 1939, that year when someone”maybe the Communists, although it doesn’t really sound like them”put soluble genius in Southern California’s drinking water and ended up giving us Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Ninotchka, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Dark Victory. It was a tough year to be an Oscar judge.
I haven’t seen the new remake, but I’m happy to read that English has kept the conceit of never showing a man onscreen and sticking instead to the ladies’ vivid descriptions. (Of a cowboy ranch-hand: “He could crack a coconut with those knees, if he could get them together.”) I’m even more pleased to hear that the remake preserves the original’s best scene: homewrecker Crystal Allen pays another girl three dollars to go to her apartment and cook dinner so that Crystal’s married date, Stephen Haines, will think she has domestic skills. (She doesn’t.) The girl asks, “Will I find anything in that icebox of yours?” “Yeah,” says a coworker. “Cobwebs and a bottle of gin.” In the new version, the line is “The big white square thing with the fire coming out of it? That’s the stove.” I thought it had gone out of fashion to expect the definition of “marriageable” to include “handy in the kitchen” as much as “female,” “single,” and “not going to frighten the horses.” I’m happy to be mistaken.
I suspect that The Women: 2008 got a studio greenlight because someone pitched it as another Sex and the City, but The Women has always been a movie that cried out for an update, because it’s about the way that women change from generation to generation: twenty-somethings who don’t blink at breaking up a home, the middle generation that suffers at their hands, and the middle generation’s mothers who counsel their daughters that it’s better to put up with an occasional dalliance than to destroy a stable home. The definitive quotes from each are, in order: “Thanks for the fashion tip, Mrs. Haines, but when something I wear doesn’t please Stephen, I take it off”; “Mother, it’s alright for you to talk of another generation when women were chattel and did as men told them to, but this is today!”; and “It’s about the only sacrifice spoiled women like us ever have to make to keep our men.”
The movie throws its barbs in just about every direction, taking socialites, shopgirls, and sob sisters all out for a ride. (“Don’t start calling me names, you Park Avenue playgirl. I know a lot more words than you do.”) But nobody takes it worse than the feminists. Power, like money, is only an instrumental good, the film argues; if all empowerment does is put you on the train to Reno, what’s the use? This isn’t to say that the film is an unequivocal endorsement of the barefoot-in-the-kitchen brand of femininity. After all, I read somewhere that Clare Boothe Luce, who wrote the original play, absolutely loved a all-male production that the Army did in the 1940’s; we’re obviously dealing with a woman who could handle a little camp. Still, for those seeking a middle ground between feminism on the one hand and the straw-man of traditionalism that feminism has so successfully propagated on the other, The Women is a helpful touchstone.
When it comes to man’s inhumanity to man, gossipy women have been first across the tape since time began. It’s hell, but a hell of a good time, and The Women shows us both. One can only hope the remake doesn’t stray too far from it.
Austin Bramwell and Gerald Russello have taken different sides on whether American conservatives need a “canon of great books” to guide them. While Bramwell has disputed the value of this project, Russello aided by Dan McCarthy has argued on its behalf. Despite my forty-year involvement as a scholar dealing with the American Right and, more recently, the faux Right, I find myself unable to come down fully on either side. There are two reasons for my indecisiveness. Although Russell Kirk, the early Buckley, Frank Meyers, James Burnham and other exponents of what was called “American conservatism” in the 1950s are well worth reading, Bramwell is correct that they are not particularly useful for understanding today’s “conservatism.” In fact there is less continuity between these conservative founding fathers, whatever their own differences might have been, and the current “movement” than there is between the Weekly Standard and Humphrey Democrats of the 1960s. Reading the proposed canon yields about as much insight into the current “conservatism” or yields about as much instruction concerning how to take the conservative movement back as do the sermons of a seventeenth-century Anglican divine for those trying to reorganize the British Tory party. Bramwell exaggerates their stale, off-putting qualities, but he is on target when he remarks that the old founding fathers are no longer effective in drawing people to the right.
My second reason for indecisiveness is that the thinkers in question are worth studying, but not for the reasons suggested. One should study them for what they have become, namely, erudite theorists, piquant stylists, and/or interesting writers about a period of time that now belongs to history. Ascribing these characteristics to those whom Russello and McCarthy seek to praise is by no means a putdown. I would consider my life well spent if I too landed up in the same category. But such an honor has nothing to do with the present “conservative movement,” or with leading that movement back to a largely mythic past. In fact being a progenitor of the present movement may not be an honor at all, considering where its talking heads have taken the US”and considering where they might drag us during a McCain (and Lieberman?) presidency.
There were continuing references to conservative founding fathers in the 1980s, while the neoconservatives were taking over the Right. While this ritualistic practice (or the fact that Heritage showers praise on Kirk) does not discredit those being quoted, it does suggest that paying homage to past conservative writers has not saved the Right from alien appropriation. Having our canon will not change the direction in which the American Right has gone and will likely continue to move. Moreover, the present power elite have been issuing their own, well-publicized hagiography. Last year NR printed their list of the ten greatest conservative works, and Kirk and his Conservative Mind were not even on it. At the top of this list were the neocon darlings Allan Bloom and Harry Jaffa. The current movement has its own inspirational reading, which may or may not overlap ours, but what it recommends receives far more attention than any canon that our side might call to public attention.
That said, there are scholarly reasons for studying Kirk, Rothbard, Weaver, Burnham and other figures associated with postwar conservatism or libertarianism. Their works are still worth pondering although not necessarily for political direction. But perhaps that shouldn”t matter. The movement that some of our readers would like to revive is now on a life-support system. And those who may eventually succeed in redirecting the conservative movement would not likely be students of a “canon.” They would be people of action often driven by outrage, but in all likelihood not those devoted to the aesthetics of Russell Kirk. It is also an unfortunate fact that most of our canon writers who were then around did little or nothing to prevent the straying of their movement. And most of those who in the 1980s ran to collaborate with the neoconservatives claimed to be loyal disciples of the “great thinkers” of postwar conservatism. This is not so much a criticism of those who would figure in our canon as it is recognition of the results of the unequal distribution of power. Having our own canon or referring back to older ones would not affect this reality.
Like Russello, but unlike Bramwell, I wish to praise those conservative greats, whether or not they drive young people away from what is already an illusory “conservative movement.” James Burnham, Robert Nisbet, and Murray Rothbard, among many others, shaped my view of the democratic managerial state, and I consider these figures to have been brilliant analysts of their age. All of them are important for me in the same way as Pareto and Weber, namely, as relevant social thinkers who helped explain our historical direction. I was also newly impressed by Kirk, when I encountered Russello’s interpretation of his aesthetic dimension. The presentation of Kirk as an anti-modernist, with one foot in classical European conservatism and the other in postmodernist theory, made me appreciate the subject of Russello’s monograph—no less than the author. In any case all such thinkers have much to teach, even if their value is no longer related to a now misrepresented “American conservatism.” Their best writings recall Thucydides” description of the study of great events, by helping to “make us wise for all time.”
Editor’s note: This is the first installment in a new section at Takimag, Taki TV. Here we’ll feature original videos, by the Southern Avenger and others, as well as interviews and coverage of some the events Taki’s Magazine will be hosting around town in the near future. And, yes, our publisher will make an appearance or two.
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As Tom Woods and I demonstrate in our new book, Who Killed the Constitution? The Fate of American Liberty from World War I to George W. Bush, there is a bipartisan consensus in all three branches of the federal government that the U.S. Government can do whatever it wants.
Joe Biden is one of the chief proponents of this view.
It was Biden, remember, who gave us the Violence Against Women Act of 1994. Among other things, that law created a federal civil claim for rape. The Supreme Court struck that provision down in the 2000 case of United States v. Morrison. There, then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist noted that the Commerce Clause did not give Congress power to penalize rape.
Note what Biden had done in the Violence Against Women Act: he had followed the decades-old tendency of federal officials to grab more power. While the Constitution reserved most power to the states, Congress has found a ready mechanism for getting around that in the Commerce Clause.
The Commerce Clause says, “The Congress shall have Power … to regulate Commerce … among the several States.” The Supreme Court over the last 70 years has let Congress have very wide discretion (too much discretion) in deciding what “Commerce … among the several States” is. Finally, in United States v. Morrison, the Court decided what was not interstate commerce: rape wasn”t.
Joe Biden cannot actually have believed that rape was commerce, let alone interstate commerce. What was really going on in the adoption of the Violence Against Women Act was that Sen. Biden was demonstrating his contempt for the Constitution’s limitations on the powers of Congress. The Tenth Amendment, which reserves to the states the powers not granted to Congress by the Constitution, is a dead letter to Biden.
Biden also has a very peculiar understanding of the Ninth Amendment. In the 1987 hearings on the confirmation of Judge Robert Bork to the Supreme Court, Biden got into a dispute with the nominee about that amendment. Famously, Bork said that he could not give it any content. It was, said Bork, an “inkblot” and should be treated as if it did not exist.
Biden had fun with Bork over this. How could the ballyhooed advocate of originalism say that one of James Madison’s amendments had no meaning”especially when the record of the ratification debates made clear that the point of the Ninth Amendment was to ensure that the federal government would not be free to trample on unenumerated rights?
Bork was wrong. But so was Biden.
How? While Bork would have ignored the Ninth Amendment completely, Biden would have done something even worse.
Since the early 1960s, some anti-constitutionalists on the Supreme Court have pointed to the Ninth Amendment in justification of their judicial legislation. While the Ninth Amendment, like the rest of the Bill of Rights, was intended to limit federal power, these judges have used that amendment to justify their increasingly innovative vetoes of state policies”including policies related to sex”that they disliked.
In other words, certain justices over the past half-century have converted an amendment that was intended to limit federal power into a source of federal power. They have pointed to it in justification of their decisions invalidating myriad state laws.
Biden approves of this behavior from federal judges. In fact, he has been quite proud of his role in defeating Bork’s nomination, and his boasts in this regard often center on Bork’s attitude toward the Court’s historically unjustified sex-related rulings.
Had Bork been on the Court, Biden says, the Court’s rulings in that general area”the area of contraception, sodomy, and abortion”might not have come out as they did.
In other words, Biden claims that had Bork been confirmed, control over those subjects would have remained in state legislatures, where the Fournding Fathers left it. Let us accept Biden’s analysis.
While Barack Obama is a newcomer to federal politics, Joe Biden has been a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee for a long time. He has a record. Because of that record, people interested in the fate of constitutional government in America should not be pleased with the prospect of a Biden vice presidency.
We do not live in Lake Wobegon. In all areas of academic ability, half of the children are below average. This fact has implications for education and public policy, and yet it’s something most politicians and public intellectuals would rather not talk about. It amounts to educational romanticism. At its heart is a glib presumption that every child can be anything he or she wants to be if only the schools do their job properly. No one really believes it, but we approach education’s problems as if we did. We are phobic about saying out loud that children differ in their ability to learn the things schools teach. Not only do we hate to say it, we get angry with people who do. We insist that the emperor is wearing clothes, beautiful clothes, and that those who say otherwise are bad people.
Just about every reader understands what below average means for some abilities. Either you know people who fit the bill or you fit it yourself. For example, about half of you are below average in bodily-kinesthetic ability. You were picked late when choosing teams for playground games. You were not good enough even to try out for the varsity.
You may think you also know what below average means for academic ability because you know you are better at some intellectual tasks than at others. But here you are probably mistaken. The fact that you are taking the time to read an essay on public policy means that you are probably well above average in academic ability and likely never had a close, long-term relationship with someone who was below average. Asked to describe the things that a person with average academic ability can do, you will probably describe a person who is actually above average.
Therefore the first task is to understand what below average means when it comes to academic ability. The best way is to show an example of the kind test questions that people with below-average academic ability have trouble answering. Take the following one, for instance, from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP, pronounced “nape”), the program used by the federal Department of Education since 1971 to track student accomplishment.
Example 1. There were 90 employees in a company last year. This year the number of employees increased by 10 percent. How many employees are in the company this year?
(A) 9 (B) 81 (C) 91 (D) 99 (E) 100
By eighth grade, it would seem that almost everyone should be able to handle a question like this. Children are taught to divide and to calculate percentages in elementary school. It is a problem based on a simple mathematical concept, using simple arithmetic, requiring a simple logical interpolation to get the right answer. It is an excellent example for starting to think about what below average means in mathematics”because 62 percent of eighth-graders got this item wrong. It does not represent an item that below-average students could not do, but one that many above-average students could not do. Actually, more than 62 percent did not know the answer, because some of them got the right answer by guessing”indeed, a better estimation of the proportion of students who did not know the answer is 77.5 percent.
The schools are the usual scapegoats for results like these. But how much can they be blamed that three-quarters of eighth-graders did not know the answer to that question? Ask those same children what 10 percent of 90 is, and you will find that many if not most of them learned enough multiplication and percentages to give you the answer. Ask them what 90 plus 9 is, and you will find that almost all of them can add those numbers. What they failed to do was put everything together”to realize that first they had to take 10 percent of 90, and then add the result to 90. This logical step does not lend itself to being taught in the same way that the rules for addition and multiplication can be taught.
Put yourself once again in the position of the teacher. How does one teach a child to make inferential leaps?
It is appropriate to blame the schools when it is reported that, for example, more than half of eighth-graders do not know who was president during World War II or that about two-thirds do not know why the Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution (real examples from NAEP). Lack of academic ability does not account for those astonishing percentages. Students with a wide range of academic ability can remember unadorned facts. But the example above is different. Part of the blame for the high percentages of wrong answers may be assigned to schools, but not nearly all of it. Many of the wrong answers reflect nothing more complicated than low academic ability.
Schools Have No Choice But to Leave Many Children Behind
In many areas, the educational system has realistic expectations and behaves sensibly. Children with below-average bodily-kinesthetic ability have to take PE with everybody else, but no one tries to make them into good athletes. Children with below average musical ability are usually exposed to music classes in elementary school, but they are allowed to drop out thereafter.
Only for linguistic and logical-mathematical ability are we told that we can expect everyone to do well. Neither politicians nor school boards will publicly accept the reality that I tried to illustrate with the questions from NAEP. Children in the lower half of the distribution are just not smart enough to read or calculate at a level of fluency that most of the rest of us take for granted.
Just not smart enough: It is a phrase that we all use in conversation, we all know what it means, and it has to be made available once again to discussions about educational policy. Some children are just not smart enough to succeed on a conventional academic track. Recognition of this truth does not mean callousness or indifference. It does not mean spending less effort on the education of some children than of others. But it does mean that we must jettison glib rhetoric that makes us feel good.
No more talk about leaving no child behind. No more accusations that to be realistic is “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” No more celebrations of attempts to “challenge” students without regard to their ability.
To get to that point”to accept that it is okay to think in terms of what a child may reasonably be expected to accomplish”I think it is appropriate to personalize the issue. Let us think about ourselves and what it is reasonable to expect of us. The proposition on the table is that our best educational experiences were ones in which adults insisted we could do better when in fact we could do better; our worst educational experiences were ones in which adults insisted we could do better when in fact we could not do better.
Take up the negative side of my proposition. Think of a time when you were a child and some smiling, well-meaning person in authority said “You can do it if you try,” and you knew you couldn”t. I will go first. I was eight or nine years old, it was Little League, it was the last inning, the Bruins were behind, and I (usually a benchwarmer) was coming to bat. Inexplicably, the coach chose this moment to go up and down the bench assuring everyone that I, statistically the worst hitter not just on the Bruins but in my town’s entire Little League, would get a hit and win the game. More than half a century later, the memory of going up to the plate after that pep talk and (of course) striking out is seared into my psyche.
Now it’s your turn. Whatever painful experience comes to mind, it surely has something in common with mine. When your smiling, well-meaning person in authority said, “You can do it if you try,” and you knew it was not true, the well-meaning person was not raising your self-esteem. Not getting you to find untapped resources within you.
He was humiliating you. Now imagine having substantial intellectual shortcomings.
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There are three plausible ways to argue that I am wrong: The measure of academic ability is invalid. We can raise academic ability. The schools are so bad that low-ability students can learn a lot more even if their ability is unchanged. Let us take each of these in turn.
“The measure of academic ability is invalid”
The standard measure of academic ability is an IQ score. There are lots of things to argue about when the topic is IQ as a measure of intelligence, but that IQ scores are related to educational achievement is not one of them. The question here is not whether the thing-that-IQ-tests-measure is intelligence, but whether it is predictive of academic achievement. In practical terms, does knowing the IQ score of a first-grader tell you much about how well that child will do in school? That question is probably the most thoroughly explored topic in psychometrics (Psychological Abstracts already listed more than 11,000 citations of studies on the relationship of IQ scores to educational achievement as of a decade ago).
Briefly, the correlation coefficient of IQ test scores with achievement test scores is usually about +.5 to +.7 on its scale of _1 (a perfect inverse relationship) to +1 (a perfect positive relationship). That relationship is driven by the general mental factor g, which usually accounts for 80 to 90 percent of the predictable variance in scholastic performance. Furthermore, there is no known way to measure learning ability that captures qualities IQ scores do not. Psychometricians have attempted to measure learning ability independently of IQ, but when the data are analyzed it turns out that the measures of learning ability are so intertwined with the abilities measured by IQ tests that they serve no independent purpose.
IQ scores are not infallible. If an individual child has a low IQ score, it is appropriate to consider the possibility that the score is misleading. But continuing to insist that the child can do better if child and teachers try harder requires some sort of objective basis, not blind faith.
“We Can Raise Academic Ability”
Now we come to a sensitive topic, our capacity to change underlying academic ability”in terms of tests, our capacity to raise IQ scores. But sensitive as it is, I propose that the following sentence is as uncontroversially true, scientifically, as the truth that half of the children are below average:
The most we know how to do with outside interventions is to make children who are well below average a little less below average.
First, a few things that are not part of that truth. Environment plays a major role in the way that all of the abilities develop. Genes are not even close to being everything. Regarding IQ specifically, a total change in environment”adoption at birth provides the best evidence”can produce demonstrable increases in IQ scores. Living in persistent poverty and other kinds of severe socioeconomic disadvantage can depress scores.
This being said, we have no evidence at all that we know how to produce lasting increases in IQ scores after children reach school. All the data about the trajectory of IQ scores over the life span indicate that they stabilize around ages six to ten and typically remain unchanged until old age.
Most people who have tried to raise IQ have reasonably assumed that the best time to do it is in the preschool years. During the height of the optimism about the potential effects of social programs during the last half of the 1960s and throughout the 1970s, many aggressive attempts were made to raise IQ using intensive preschool interventions, not to mention the nationwide, federally funded Head Start.
Many of the programs were haphazardly or tendentiously evaluated, but enough good studies came out of this period to enable an academic group called the Consortium of Longitudinal Studies to conduct a comparative analysis of eleven of the best preschool interventions. The Consortium found that they produced an average short-term gain of about 17 percentile points relative to a control group. This gain fell off to about 7 percentile points after three years, a trivial change in any substantive sense. The Consortium’s bottom line was that “the effect of early education on intelligence test scores was not permanent.” The relevant point of this study, and of those that have been conducted subsequently with similar results, is that everyone remained so far below average. Being at the 25th percentile is better than being at the 16th percentile, but it is a distinction without a difference for the life prospects of an individual.
“The Schools Are So Bad That Even Low-Ability Students Can Learn a Lot
More Than They Learn Now”
We arrive now at the heart of the educational romanticism that pervades American education. As I write, the nation is entering the seventh year of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), predicated on the belief that all children can perform at grade level, and is in the fifth decade of massive federal programs in education predicated on the broader belief that the academic achievement of American students from disadvantaged families can be raised substantially.
One source of the romanticism is the belief that American schools are so bad that there’s lots of room for improvement for all students, including those in the lower half of the distribution. The brunt of the evidence from more than forty years of research says that belief is incorrect. The changes we can expect in academic achievement in the lower half of the ability distribution are marginal, no matter what educational reforms are introduced.
The Coleman Report
The Coleman Report, named after sociologist James Coleman who led the study, responded to a mandate in the 1964 Civil Rights Act to assess the effects of inequality of educational opportunity on student achievement. The magnitude of the effort remains unmatched by anything done since. The sample for the study included 645,000 students nationwide. Data were collected not only about the students” personal school histories, but also about their parents” socioeconomic backgrounds, their neighborhoods, the curricula and facilities of their schools, and the qualifications of the teachers within those schools.
Before Coleman began his work, everybody (including Coleman) thought that the study would document a relationship between the quality of schools and the academic achievement of the students in those schools. Any other result seemed impossible.
To everyone’s shock, the Coleman Report instead found that the quality of schools explains almost nothing about differences in academic achievement. Measures such as the credentials of the teachers, the curriculum, the extensiveness and newness of physical facilities, money spent per student”none of the things that people assumed were important in explaining educational achievement were important in fact. Family background was far and away the most important factor in determining student achievement.
The Coleman Report came under intense fire, but reanalyses of the Coleman data and the collection of new data over many years supported the core finding: The quality of public schools just doesn”t make much difference in student achievement.
No Child Left Behind
Once an educational romantic has explained away the Coleman Report and a library of evaluations that document the failure of educational innovations tried since then, he is faced with a final reality test, the results of No Child Left Behind. If ever an intervention were guaranteed to produce increases in test scores, it is NCLB. It raised the stakes for educating students in the lower half of the academic ability distribution to unprecedented levels, imposing severe penalties on schools that failed to meet progress goals that were set according to test scores. At the very least, the effects of teaching to the test, which is occurring nationwide, should produce increases in test scores even if the students are not learning more.
With regard to the math test, if we use the 2003 test as the baseline, just one year after NCLB began, the increases for students at the 25th percentile were a modest six points and four points for fourth-graders and eighth-graders respectively. There is no way to tell what happened to twelfth-graders in math”the 2005 test was too different from previous NAEP math tests to permit comparisons.
With reading scores, fourth-graders at the 25th percentile increased their mean score by three points between 2002 and 2007. The scores for eighth graders fell by two points. Twelfth-graders were last tested in 2005. Their scores had also fallen since 2002, by one point. Such small changes up or down are meaningless. The effective change for students at the 25th percentile was zero, as were the changes among students at the 10th, 50th, 75th, and 90th percentiles. Judging from NAEP, NCLB has done nothing to raise reading skills despite the enormous effort that has been expended.
There are many reasons to accept the reality of limits of educational reform and no empirical basis for thinking that great leaps forward are just around the corner. To continue to assert that major improvements are possible in the academic test performance of the lower half of the distribution through reform of the public schools is more than a triumph of hope over experience. It ignores experience altogether. It is educational romanticism.
Illusory Reasons for the Romanticism
Why then do so many people still believe the contrary? Why was NCLB passed with a large bipartisan majority in Congress and with broad public support? Why will this essay be greeted by all sorts of stories about teachers who took classes of failing students and had them reading Shakespeare in six months? There are many reasons for this, all of which look good at first glance but cannot withstand scrutiny.
The first illusory reason is that some inner-city schools in some of the nation’s largest cities are every bit as dreadful as people think. Accounts written by journalists, scholars, and teachers describe chaotic and sometimes violent classrooms, nonexistent standards, incompetent teachers, competent teachers who have given up, and lack of the most basic resources for teaching effectively, including textbooks. Rescuing children from such schools should be one of the top priorities of any educational reform, and doing so will produce improvements in their academic achievement.
But only a fraction of children attend such schools. Sixteen percent of all K”12 students go to schools located downtown in cities of 250,000 or larger.. Most of those schools are normal ones. What proportion of the 16 percent are going to the horrific schools? A quarter? A fifth? A tenth? There is no precise answer, but any plausible estimate leaves us with much less than 10 percent of all K”12 students going to the worst schools, and the right proportion could easily be around 2 or 3 percent. Rescuing all of those children is something we must try to do, but even complete success would only tweak the national numbers.
Another illusory reason for romanticism about what schools can do is the nostalgic view that many people hold of American public schools in the good old days, when teachers brooked no nonsense and everyone learned their three R’s. After all, just look at the McGuffey Readers that were standard textbooks in the nineteenth century, filled with difficult words and long literary selections. That’s what we expected everyone to be able to read then, right?
Wrong. American schools have never been able to teach everyone how to read, write, and do arithmetic. The myth that they could has arisen because schools a hundred years ago did not have to educate many of the least able. About half of all adults in 1900 had not reached the eighth grade. To put it another way, only a small portion of those toward the bottom of academic ability would have been around to take a NAEP examination if it had been administered to eighth-graders in 1900. Let today’s schools skim off the same part of the distribution, and they would show nearly 100 percent success in attaining NAEP’s standards of basic achievement in reading and math.
The final illusory reason for hope in the face of experience is the belief that private schools or variants such as charter schools can come to the rescue. I have long been an advocate of the privatization of American elementary and secondary education, but not because this would improve math and reading scores. Modest improvements in such scores, sometimes statistically significant, have been observed among students who get vouchers or go to charter schools and who would otherwise be consigned to the worst-of-the-worst schools in the inner city. But when the comparison is between a run-of-the-mill public school and a private school, math and reading test score differences have generally been minor or nonexistent. The real advantages of private or charter schools lie elsewhere”in the safe and orderly learning environments they offer their students (no “nerd harassment”), and in curricula that typically provide more substance in subjects like history, geography, literature, and civics than the curriculum offered by the typical public school. But there is no reason to expect that private or charter schools produce substantially higher test scores in math and reading among low-ability students who would otherwise go to normal public schools.
* * *
No one wants to be education’s Grinch, especially when we are talking about children who have gotten the short end of the stick through no fault of their own. The impulse to romanticism is overwhelming. But it has led us to do things to children who are below average in academic ability that are not in their best interests. In assessing the state of American education, and what can be accomplished for the lower half of the distribution by any of the reforms proposed by either Left or Right, it is time to recognize that even the best schools under the best conditions cannot overcome the limits on achievement set by limits on academic ability.
This is not a counsel of despair. The implication is not to stop trying to help, but to stop doing harm. Educational romanticism has imposed immeasurable costs on children and their futures. It pursues unattainable egalitarian ideals of educational achievement (e.g., all children should perform at grade level) at the expense of attainable egalitarian ideals of personal dignity. We can do much better for children who are below average in academic ability, but only after we get a grip on reality.
Charles Murray is the author of two of the most widely debated and influential social policy books of the last three decades, Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950″1980 and, with the late Richard J. Herrnstein, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. He is the W. H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.
This is an excerpt from Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality by Charles Murray. Excerpted by permission of Crown Forum, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
A virtual copy of Real Education can be browsed here.