Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Saletan's Symmetries

Slate magazine's William Saletan has an uncanny talent for symmetrical denunciation. He specializes, more specifically, in siezing upon a statement, event or trend on the left and redescribing it in such a way as to make it seem the perfect twin of some past bit of right wing shamelessness. Last month, in Pious Bias Revisited, he showed us how Bob Somerby is the moral equivalent of Rush Limbaugh.

His rationale for this particular symmetry was that Mr. Somerby had failed to note, in his defense of Bill Clinton's conduct in the Medicare debate of the mid-nineties, that Clinton's reelection ads did not stipulate, the way his and his advisors' public statements often did, that he was only proposing more modest Medicare cuts than the Gingrich Congress had proposed, but not no cuts at all. Mr. Saletan's art is to make such a lapse in scrupulousness on the normally hyper-scrupulous Mr. Somerby's part seem just about evenly to counter-balance Mr. Limbaugh's rather more extensive experiments with the malleability of truth.

And now we have yet another minor masterpiece of symmetrical denunciation from Mr. Saletan, in which Gen. Clark is made to scold himself from the pages of the history of the Kosovo war. Gen. Clark, Mr. Saletan maintains, is a hypocritical obstructionist for opposing President Bush's $87 billion requeset for Iraq occupation and reconstruction funding. After all, when Gen. Clark was facing down Milosevic, and trying to stiffen a wobbly base of support here at home, he argued that firmness of will on the part of the NATO allies would break the dictator's will, while weakenss of resolve would play into his hands. And are not the criticisms Gen. Clark was battling then the very same criticisms Candidate Clark is making of the Bush Administration now? Is he not weakening the very resolve that, as a general, he (rightly) argued that we needed to maintain in order to prevail?

Well, he would be doing that, to be sure, if the symmetry Mr. Saletan identifies were genuine, rather than spurious--just as Mr. Sombery would be no better than Mr. Limbaugh, if his occasional lapse in judgment were the moral equivalent of Mr. Limbaugh's astonishingly elastic conception of political reality. But the historical symmetry of the Iraq and Kosovo wars is no more convincing than the journalistic symmetry of Somerby and Limbaugh. As is ususal with Mr. Saletan's symmetrical denunciations, the profound moral impartiality is about an inch deep, beneath which lies a plain refusal to make kind of distinctions that consitute the meat and potatoes of political judgement.

In this case, the argument hangs by the claim, shared with the White House, that the Iraq war is a front in the larger "war" on terror. To be sure, Mr. Saletan pronounces himself "angry" with President Bush for linking the rationale for the Iraq invasion to the war on terror (though evidently not angry enough to call the President anything quite so harsh as an obstructionist hypocrite). But then he tells us that the present wave of assassinations and bombings in Iraq is part of that wider war on terror, and hence that to oppose Mr. Bush's request for funds is to undermine the resolve needed to win that war--exactly as the opponents of the Kosovo war were foolishly improving Milosevic's chances of victory by undermining the resolve required for Clark's NATO campaign to prevail.

The trouble with this claim is that it is no more reasonable coming from Mr. Saletan than it was coming from the White House political operation. True, a bad outcome in Iraq would be a bad outcome in the world-wide effort to contain and diffuse that "terrorism of global reach" that President Bush said we would be dedicating all our energies to combat. But this is not so much because terrorism is being used, along with other classic guerrilla tactics, by the (so far) disjointed Iraqi insurgency. Terrorism as a means of asymmetrical warfare has been around for a long time, especially in the tactics of groups opposing occupation, and it is unlikely to be swept into history's dustbin anytime soon. Rather, a bad end to the Iraq occupation would be a blow to the war on terror first and foremost because it would risk producing another failed or pariah state in which trans-national terrorists could find welcome. Secondly, a defeat in Iraq might, like the anti-Soviet insurgency in Afganistan, encourage fantasies of successful holy war for the "liberation" of the entire Islamic world from Crusaders, Jews and apostate Muslims.

These are real dangers of a defeat in Iraq--potential outcomes we need to take into account in shaping our policy there. But the point about these dangers that Gen. Clark, and most of the other Democratic candidates are making is that they did not exist until we precipitately invaded the country, under the utterly false pretense of an imminent threat to our national security. In Kosovo, NATO went to war to prevent a human rights disaster in the making. In Iraq, human rights disasters never moved us to action, while they were actually taking place. Instead, we went to war (apparently) to realize an imperial dream of remaking the entire region in our own image--although no one really knows what it is we are supposed to be accomplishing there now. To oppose the unhindered continuation of that policy (or what is left of it) is neither the moral nor strategic equivalent of failing a test of wills with Slobodan Milosevic. It is, instead, a way of saying, "Time to change the damn policy!"

And that is exactly what Gen. Clark has called for. He has not said he would pull our forces out of Iraq. He has not said he would abandon the country to be carved up by Shiite fanatics, Baathist revanchists, and proxy militias from the surrounding states. On the contrary, he has said he would work hard to give our allies the kind of stake in the outcome that can generate genuine shared sacrifice, to legitimize the occupation by internationalizing it, and above all to articulate a clear strategy with achievable, publicly-defensible goals. These views are not dissimilar to those of other candidates such as Sen. Kerry.

Gen. Clark and the others are not running for Congress. It is not at all illegitimate for them to reject the way President Bush has sought to frame the issue and the choice. The candidates are running for Presidency of the United States--that is, for the privilege and responsibility of setting forth a new agenda, framing a new choice. One may cetainly judge them on how well or poorly they articulate their preferred alternatives. But it is utterly fatuous to judge them harshly for seeking to break the present Administration's hold on the permissable parameters of debate, even if that means sternly opposing any measure that would let that Administration continue, without revision, its muddled mess of a policy. Opposing the $87 billion dollars is not about blinking in the face of a terrorist threat; it is about trying not to blink in the face of a White House political operation determined to cling to an ill-conceived, failing policy. You might call it a test of wills.

As for Iraq itself, we are not sitting across the strategic chessboard from a belligerent dictator. There is no dictator, the pieces are scattered every which way, and the chessboard was looted long ago. We shall need, to be sure, quantities of will--more, probably, than we have in reserve, if confined only to our own supply. But it is not the will to stare down the bad guys that we will need in such abundance. It is rather the will to clean up the mess--a mess at least partly of our own making. We must clean up the mess of our alliances and our international standing; the mess of our all-but-illegitimate status as an occupying power; and above all the mess of our fragmented, stateless and devastated charge of an occupied land.

Tuesday, October 28, 2003

Good Night, Thank You, And May Your God Go With You

This excellent and quite terrifying essay by Joan Didion in the 40th anniversary issue of the New York Review, exploring current trends in Christian Right apocalypticism, and the traces of such in the politics and policies of the Bush White House, leaves me with two regrets: first, that Ms. Didion's recent scheduled appearance at our downtown Borders was cancelled at the last minute (I have admired her work since being introduced as an undergraduate to the extraordinary White Album); and second, that the quality of our prevalent imaginings of divinity has fallen so low as to accomodate this ridiculous notion of a twleve-step-friendly, "personal" savior cum rapturizer -- as if any God worthy of the name would have nothing better to do with eternity than reform the odd middle-aged drunk whilst waiting around, like some cosmic Chief Engineer Scot, for the numerologically-correct moment in which to whisk the chosen away to paradise via mass transporter beam. Could theology--if that is what this still is--possibly get any sillier than this?

No, it will not do. God, as James Baldwin once said, is not anybody's plaything. If you must have an image of a singular, personalistic deity, then picture the One who spoke to Job out of the whirlwind, all overwhelming power and inscrutable purpose, defending His absolute right to run the world and its moral order (if indeed there is one) as He sees fit--that is, in a manner completely irreducible to the constrained dimensions of our all-too-human moral compass. True, this amounts to imagining God as a permanently paternalistic despot, but at least there is this important benefit: Since we are never in a position to call such a deity before any bar of judgment we could possibly construct or comprehend ourselves, He is safe from being used by us to justify our crimes, or to reconcile ourselves to the crimes of others. The Almighty, as Lincoln once put it (thinking, I am sure, of just such an image of the divine) has His own purposes.

Or, if you must have a meaker, milder image of divinity, then by all means take the Redeemer as He is found in the Gospels. But not as the mouthpiece for that odd amalgam of Platonism and Mithraism that merged so flawlessly with the Roman institutional genius after Constantine put swordpoints behind the Word. No, take Him raw, as the "disreputable Hebrew" that He was: exhorting His followers to turn the other cheek when struck by the hand of evil, to take no thought for the morrow, to sell all they have and give to poor, not to do their prayers and penance in the marketplace before men, to harken to the glad tidings that sins are forgiven and the law fulfilled, that the kingdom of heaven is at hand, and within; speaking in incessant parables that those with eyes may see and those with ears may hear; accepting and even seeking out the company of sinners and publicans and whores; and in general exemplifying a mode of life utterly incompatible, in its sheer radicalness, with everything that "normal" people are said to accept as common sense.

Monday, October 27, 2003

But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao...

A solid piece by Michelle Goldberg in Salon on the present incoherence of the anti-occupation forces on the Left prompts the question of what a coherent opposition to Bush's Iraq policy would look like. The Democratic candidates have been famously divided both among and within themselves on whether and how to articulate such an opposition--showing that, on one front at least (the domestic, political front) the Bush policy really is succeeding as planned. Goldberg meanwhile shows that guidance is unlikely to come from "the street"--not, at least, from its present welter of Stalinist anti-Americanism, crackpot Anti-Semitism, wash-our-hands isolationism and the like.

And yet the policy cries out for opposition. We must, without delay, do whatever is necessary to turn an imperial adventure gone awry into a truly international peace-making and state-building effort. To be sure, it would be a huge challenge to put together such an effort at this stage, but not nearly so insurmountable a one as trying to do this all-but-alone. The present policy not only puts the U.S. in the position of bearing the lion's share of the costs and (second of course to the Iraqis themselves) the risks; it is also far less likely to succeed than it would be if governments in capitals besides Washington and London had a stake in the outcome, and if the legitimacy of the whole effort did not hang by the unraveling thread of American promises for the rapid creation of peace, prosperity and democracy.

Whatever it was before the invasion, Iraq is now an international problem of the first magnitude. If it helps, we can think of it this way: Suppose there had not been an invasion, but rather that the Iraqi regime had collapsed of its own accord, leaving the country in utter chaos, with civil war and humanitarian disaster looming as the most likely outcomes. Suppose further that the U.S. and Britain had rushed in to stabilize the situation, and found themselves in roughly the current predicament. Whatever the policy should have been in such a situation is probably a pretty good guide to what it should be now.

All this speaks to what the substantive policy response should be. But that leaves the question of how to argue for such a policy here at home, in the present environment. This is where those in opposition need to be especially careful not to repeat mistakes of the Left that go back to Vietnam: don't lose sympathy for (or, worse, start vilifying) your own troops; don't support those who are trying to kill them; don't accept the Administration's contention that patriotism and dissent are opposites; don't seek support in exotic ideologies when plain political common sense will do; don't forget that you share a country with those whose policies and views you are opposing.

Sunday, October 26, 2003

The Time is Out of Joint

We awoke this morning to a time change, a classic SoCal apocalyptic sky (complete with grey pall, bloody sun and falling ash, courtesy of the wildfires raging all over the region) and a brace of grim articles from the Washington Post on the rapidly-worsening situation in Iraq:

1. The insurgents may not have been gunning for Wolfowitz in today's rocket attack on the al-Rashid hotel, but the complex and daring nature of this strike at the heart of the occupation authority's Baghdad presence clearly demonstrates what the field commanders have been telling us for some time--that the insurgency is growing more sophisticated and effective with each passing week. The fact that the hotel attack was preceeded yesterday by the downing of a Blackhawk helicopter just outside a U.S. base near Tikrit (in which there were thankfully, and somewhat miraculously, no deaths), a fatal attack on a convey of civilian contrators near Habbaniya (the circumstances of which remain somewhat murky), the assassination of the coalition-backed police chief in the southern city of Amarah, and, just a day earlier, three more U.S. combat deaths in two separate attacks in Samarra and Mosul, suggests that the operational tempo of the insurgency has also picked up considerably.

2. All of this, meanwhile, lends great credence to this analysis by Tom Donnelly and Gary Schmitt arguing that the only way to win (that is, not to lose) the war is to mount a classic counter-insurgency, of the kind that Marine Gen. Victor Krulak (unsuccessfully) argued for in Vietnam, as an alternative to Gen. Westmoreland's big-unit attrition strategy. From what I know of the history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, this recommendation strikes me as almost certainly correct--only the classic "small war" or "ink blot" strategy, derived from Britain's long experience with counter-insurgencies and adopted as official doctrine in the U.S. only by the Marines, has a chance of success against the kind of enemy we are now faced with in Iraq. The trouble, as Donnelly and Schmitt make clear, is that such a strategy--with it's emphasis on very intensive light-unit patrolling, tight integration with local forces, and a high degree of coordination of civilian and military efforts--is exactly the kind of task for which our forces currently in country are least well trained and organized, for which the civilian bosses at the Pentagon have the least patience, and which, worst of all, is least in accord with the rosy ("nation building on the cheap") scenario under which this occupation was sold to the American people by the present Administration.

3. Finally, just to remind us that this mess is something we chose to get ourselves into, rather than something we were forced to deal with because of a clear and present danger, we have this fine report from Barton Gellman detailing how the actual findings of the Iraq Survey Group led by David Kay (as opposed to the smoke screen of bogus uncertainty put out by Kay himself and his masters in the Administration) prove beyond all doubt that the principle rationale for the war--the spectre of Saddam Hussein brandishing nukes--was utterly false. Among the many passages that directly undermine the Adminstration's already-feeble credibility on these matters, the following are probably the most devastating:
According to records made available to The Washington Post and interviews with arms investigators from the United States, Britain and Australia, it did not require a comprehensive survey to find the central assertions of the Bush administration's prewar nuclear case to be insubstantial or untrue. Although Hussein did not relinquish his nuclear ambitions or technical records, investigators said, it is now clear he had no active program to build a weapon, produce its key materials or obtain the technology he needed for either.

Among the closely held internal judgments of the Iraq Survey Group, overseen by David Kay as special representative of CIA Director George J. Tenet, are that Iraq's nuclear weapons scientists did no significant arms-related work after 1991, that facilities with suspicious new construction proved benign, and that equipment of potential use to a nuclear program remained under seal or in civilian industrial use.

In other words, Colin Powell was entirely right when, in February of 2001, he concluded that Saddam Hussein was no longer a threat, because the containment policy inherited from the Clinton Administration was working as expected. Sober critics of the war always maintained that, while constant vigilance was required to keep Hussein from committing new atrocities inside Iraq, or rebuilding his capacity to threaten his neighbors, the idea of attacking him now was essentially imperial rather than defensive in its aims. It was, in effect, a huge gamble that forcing "regime change" would lead to something like a coup d'etat that could quickly, and relatively cheaply, be turned to our advantage.

What we got instead, of course, is total regime collapse and a revolutionary situation--a hyper-fluid political environment in which virtually anything can happen, including the worst. We tried to run the table by playing the Mother of all Bankshots. Unsurprisingly, we failed to beat those ridiculously long odds. Now we are facing the toughest, longest, costliest job of nation building cum counter-insurgency since Vietnam. And by far the worst of it is that this Adminstration (not unlike Johnson's circa 1968) is still committed to pretending publicly--and, one suspects, privately too, which is even more worrisome--that none of this has happened.

Saturday, October 25, 2003

More on Moderation, Extremism and Impartiality

The following is the gist of a post I made to the Slate Fray about a month ago--that is, before it occured to me that a blog would be a much more reliable way to get one's rantings and ravings on the Web than trusting to the fickle tastes of the Fraymaster to pick said rantings and ravings out of a crowded field. Since the general point therein made proved to be one to which I have found myself returning again and again over the last month, I post the slightly revised version below in the interests of argumentative continuity:


Machiavelli says somewhere that politics is the art of fighting with laws. Those who profess shock when a high-stakes political contest takes on the aspect of a street brawl are either political virgins or seasoned battlers engaged in an elaborate feint.

In normal times, it is probably best for the health both of one's city and of one's soul to maintain an even-handed equanimity about such matters: Let all sides break their share of cheap furniture, provided the melee stays within broad "civil limits" (the phrase is again Machiavelli's, who knew in his flesh what can happen when those limits are transgressed). For the political actor the general goal should be to stay in the fight, and to get in one's licks, without having either one's moral compass or one's eyeglasses too badly smashed in the process.

But there are times, alas, when evenhandedness can be its own kind of naiveté (or its own kind of feint). After all, no immutable law ensures that when the civil limits do start getting crossed, all parties will be found heading over the cliff in lockstep. It is quite possible--perhaps it is even likely--that one of them leads the way. (Such was the heart, for example, of Lincoln's case against the Kansas-Nebraska bill, and of his disagreement with Judge Douglas about the South's intentions in pressing for it.) To remain, in such times as those, uninterested in "which wing lies more" is to hasten, rather than hold off the day when all shall have taken the plunge together.

Of course, anyone who holds that the present is one of those times, and speaks and acts accordingly, had damn well better be right. But then the same is true of anyone who suspects otherwise. There is no certain harbor from the always-equivocal consequences of our political choices, or non-choices. (The Almighty has His own purposes.) This is one reason why politics is such a bad place for moralism--whether it wears partisan or nonpartisan attire. We are not, in fact, "all guilty" (for where all are guilty, none are); but neither is any of us immune from the temptation to imagine ourselves above the fray, in singular possession of political truth. The illusion of categorical righteousness is the temptation of the moderate, no less than of the partisan.

So who is right about the tenor of our political times? Those who think that both parties are more-or-less equally off the reservation? Or those who insist that the Conservative Movement has finally, after over a third of a century of sustained effort, succeeded in carrying the Republican party uniquely far into outer political space? Well, if my goal were to make the case that the party in power has an unusually well developed capacity for adding two and two and arriving at three (or five, as the occasion may require), I would anchor my brief in such bedrock as this:

Exhibit A: The advertised size, scope and purpose of the Bush tax cuts.

Exhibit B: The urgency of the WMD threat in Iraq.

Exhibit C: The link between Saddam and Al Quaeda.

And Now For Something Completely Hortatory

The time is long since passed when any sound lover of this country could excuse the present Administration's campaign of systematic mendacity about the gravest matters of public welfare and national interest as a series of mere mundane political exaggerations. They are nothing of the kind, but rather signal events in a precipitate erosion of the necessary political bedrock of factual truth by an unholy alliance of imperial ideology, sectarian fanaticism and a cynical aggregation of distinctly unenlightened private interests. Stand up therefore and be counted in the cause of truth, and of that political freedom that faithfulness to the truth alone now sustains. As history shows, and as we know in our hearts, the truth will out -- no matter how diligently, how fiercely power may strive to contain it. Let us see to it that the price of that eventual revelation is not the entire remaining honor of our besmirched Republic.

I know, it's fuddy-duddy in the extreme. But something about these jokers just really makes me want to reach for the 19th century Whupass.

-- Amil

The Coen Brothers' "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?": An Unfinished Non-Review

American Odyssey

The mere fact that this movie bears the title of a would-be epic of destitution, the making of which is the artistic and existential ambition of the protagonist in Preston Sturges’ similarly-constructed Depression comedy Sullivan’s Travels (1941), raises more questions than it answers. For starters: Are we meant to take the newer work as an updated parody of the same serious aesthetic-moral intentions that are the object of fun in the older work--or on the contrary as an attempt to see those intentions through?

The Coens don’t exactly shy away from getting mixed up in such questions. In the Sturges film, a successful but disaffected Hollywood director (Joel McCrea), undertakes a journey among the common people with the hope of experiencing their suffering first hand, and thereby gaining inspiration for his social-realist film project. Having gotten considerably more social reality than he bargained for, he is rolled by a hobo and winds up on a chain gang. The Coens open Oh Brother with a gorgeously-filmed, utterly deadpan black-and-white sequence of a chain gang breaking rocks on a lonely railroad bed under a blazing sun. The scene manages to combine lyricism, deep-seated despair and hovering terror: the gang seems to be all-black, and they are guarded with lazy menace by armed and mounted whites; the flat landscape is at once arrestingly fertile and pitilessly barren of human settlement; and the gang’s song is Po’ Lazarus. As recorded by Alan Lomax at a Mississippi prison camp in 1959, it is a half-disguised ode to defiant fatalism before an implacable violence that calls itself Law. The scene is unhurried--the gang’s song sets its pace--and it is allowed to fade slowly out.

On the quick fade-in, we are some distance away from the line, watching, in color, as a trio of manacled white men scamper clumsily through tall grass, hustling out of site of the oblivious guards, to the accompaniment of upbeat guitar picking. The three are starting out on their road to freedom at exactly the point where Sturges has Sullivan heading for home. (Sullivan soon calls upon his real-world fame to escape his predicament and, returning to Hollywood with a renewed appreciation for the value of film comedy--an appreciation gained in the company of blacks and prisoners--dumps his serious project.) The Coens’ point, made with great economy, is inescapable--here is where the sheer reality of physical suffering and blunt injustice, along with the fortitude required to bear them, so far as these things can be represented by actors on film, leaves off; and here, too, is where our story, and whatever good its laughs can do, begins. It will not free the men of that chain gang, any more than Sullivan’s Oh Brother would have--they remain forever imprisoned, locked up in history, like the singing prisoners on Lomax's tape--though it may yet show that Sullivan could have made something like the movie he set out to make, without betraying them, or what he had learned from them (something about the redemptive power of low comedy), and even that he could have done something for his countrymen’s freedom in the process.

Thinking About Democratic Authority

Criticism and propaganda expose the arcana imperii to the light of common day. Subjects ask if they should obey, and whom, and why. Authority is constrained to plead its case with reasons and impose itself by violence. In either instance, it has lost its virtue: for while authority remains itself, it neither argues nor coerces, but merely speaks and is accepted. Upon the complex scene already charged with tense uncertainties, unexpected fresh initiatives supervene.

-- Perez Zagorin, The Court and the Country

But is it an adequate answer to the scepticism of the idealist, or the assurances of the realist, to say that "There are physical objects" is nonsense? For them after all it is not nonsense. It would, however, be an answer to say: this assertion, or its opposite is a misfiring attempt to express what can't be expressed like that. And that it does misfire can be shewn; but that isn't the end of the matter. We need to realize that what presents itself to us as the first expression of a difficulty, or of its solution, may as yet not be correctly expressed at all. Just as one who has a just censure of a picture to make will often at first offer the censure where it does not belong, and an investigation is needed in order to find the right point of attack for the critic.

-- Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty, § 37

So, of all countries in the world, America is the one in which the precepts of Descartes are least studied and best followed.

-- Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, II, i, 1

He understood what this debate was all about ...relativism versus absolute truth.

-- Rep. Tom DeLay, commenting on the resignation of Rep. Bob Livingston from his candidacy for Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Dec. 19, 1998, the day of the House impeachment vote against President Bill Clinton, and the day after public revelations regarding Livingston's own marital infidelities.

There are good grounds for believing "democratic authority" to be a contradiction in terms. What if that were so? If we accept that democracy is (whatever else) both the child of, and a constant spur to a skeptical probing of (traditional pictures of) authority; and that such authority, being bound to a hierarchical principle against which democracy (with its constituitive commitment to equality) necessarily sets itself, had (or has) in some sense to give way for democracy to emerge; but that there remains something about the concept of authority (as something less than coercion but more than persuasion) that makes it seem indispensible for a democratic, no less than for any other politics--if only (or if particularly) to allow for the preservation, or make possible the revival, of what is truly democratic in that politics; then we have all the makings of a problem (an aporia as it were) of democratic authority, according to which we are tempted to conclude that democracy is a performative self-contradiction.

But what kind of problem would this then be? For, if it is a real problem, it must not be an epistemological problem (or at any rate not only that), but a political one. Yet it presents itself, as it were, in epistemological garb. Why is this?

One could say: There just is no problem here, in the way you are thinking of it; democracy is congenitally skeptical of authority and that's that; the sense of a problem arising from this is false, a projection (and probably politically pernicious besides).

It is interesting that one can say both that democracy is inherently skeptical with respect to authorty and also that skepticism of democracy expresses itself, typically, or anyway classically, as skepticism regarding its ability to sustain, or accomodate, or do without authority.

Suppose we take the question of skepticism and democratic authority from the passive side--as whether there is anything in or about democracy that can sustain authority, or stand as authoritative. Now we see where the reponse given above has its natural home. It is the standard liberal defense of the standard conservative criticism of democratic political institutions and mores: If the charge is that democracy lacks something called authority, that answer is that this is no lack, but a defining characteristic of democracy. And here something like reason and (rational) persuasion are probably being implicitly evoked as substitutes of some sort for what authority supposedly provides in un-democratic contexts. (It is natural for the liberal to think here in terms of a contrast sometimes to "traditional" societies, sometimes to more-or-less dictatorial ones in the present.)

So now liberals are the antiskeptics in this debate. It is they who are fending off the skeptical assualt of the conservative opponents of democratic "values"--opponents who systematically doubt democracy's ability to survive on its own authority-doubting terms. And liberal anti-skeptics would mount this defense by challenging the terms of criticism favored by conservative skeptics, charging that the supposed shortcomings harped on by the latter are a projection of conservative fears of democratic success, rather than a suspicion of democratic failure. And there is something really right about this defense--and something deeply unsatisfying about it at the same time.

Part of it is that the democrat (if s/he is a good democrat) is aware that much of what holds actually-existing democratic societies together--what prevents the centrifugal forces they generate from prevailing more than they do--is hardly itself democratic in nature, and is sometimes the very opposite. Here we find that long litany of hidden, subtle and devious forms of unfreedom to which democracy is subject, according even to its friends and (usually qualified) admirers: tyrannies of the majority, tribal nationalisms, iron laws of oligarchy, public opinion, other-directedness, conventional wisdom, manufactured consensus, and the like.

Even a relatively benign view of such mechanisms as constitutionalism or the internalization of informal norms hardly escapes the suspicion that whatever holds democracy together does so, in effect, by putting limits on democracy's reach. There have been a few attempts to say otherwise (Dewey's "participatory democracy") but they have, on the whole, been far less compelling--perhaps because they seem so little reflective of ordinary experience of life in putatively democratic societies--than the democracy stories that continue to follow the narrative logic layed out by Tocqueville, who claimed to have found the hidden cement that bound together an overtly anti-authoritarian society in the tyranny of majority opinion.

Another source of dissatisfaction with the stock liberal answer to the conservative skeptic is that the genuine skeptic of democracy remains utterly unconvinced by this argument. You can tell the skeptic that asking for authority from democracy is asking the wrong thing of it, but that will not prevent such a one from asking for such a thing. To him, democracy seems bereft without it, and the liberal--to the extent she remains a good liberal--is likely to concede the validity of that point of view, if not of the point itself. But then why not this latter? Where exactly does the conservative skeptic of demoracy go wrong, and how?

Yet another source of dissatisfaction is that, even if one sticks to rational persuasion as that which democracy holds out in preference to authority, there is still the strange sense that something is being offered as a substitute for something. And where there is substitution, there is the suspicion that, without it, there would in fact be a lack--the very thing the conservative skeptic has it at heart to say about democracy. So now the defender of democracy is in the position of saying something like, "Well, yes, democracy would lack something it needs, except that persuasion is there to fill the gap." But this does violence to one's sense of what persuasion is for in a democracy. For if it is but a substitute for authority, then it must be admitted that it is a very inefficient and fragile substitute.

But that is not how things stand with persuasion in democracy--it is not there to make up for a lack of authoritative decision making in the settling of certain questions. On the contrary, it is there to turn certain more-or-less settled matters into questions, to make them questionable. The requirement of persuasion (say an election, or a legislative vote) is to make certain that debate will happen, if the community is divided enough to warrant it, rather than be suppressed.

The consequence of this is that it feels false to claim that persuasion plays the role in democracy that authority plays in authoritarian governments. One wants to say: the role played by persuasion is just not present in authoritarian governments. There is no public life in the relevant sense. There would be nothing for an institution of public persuasion, on a large scale, to do.

So is it similar with authority? Is there nothing for it to do under democratic conditions? We are back to the liberal apologetics for democracy, perhaps in their strongest, or anyway purest form. It is the "participatory" argument. At the same time, we are at the most intense point of doubt about democracy. We can say, from within the participatory argument, that this is false doubt, premised on a false absence, but that will hardly shake the realization that democracy never seems more vulnerable to such doubt as when in stands so to speak alone--unadorned with the trappings borrowed from the traditional picture of authority.

One way to get sidetracked here very quickly is to say--the problem then is one of justification of claims, and persuasion lacks and needs a system of justification suitable for democratic discourse. This is presumably the kind of thing one is getting at in always thinking to prepend the adjective "rational" to the noun persuasion in such discussions.

But what the skeptic makes one interested in is not the justifiability of claims in a democratic debate, but rather, so to speak, the destination of that debate. Does it, how can it, ever achieve something like the conviction beyond argument (the compulsion without violence) said to characterize the work of authority? And if it can not--if such is not even to be expected of it--then what in consequence of that can be hoped for from democracy in the way of conviction in its own fundamental commitments?

And here one feels like saying--in (partial) sympathy with the skeptic--that persuasion is something democrats do (a way they have of making decisions by making things questionable) but it is not something that can make democrats, or keep a politics democratic--especially when it counts, that is, when the reproduction of (sufficient numbers of) democrats, and the continuation of their kind of politics, is in actual, existential doubt. For that, there must be a willingness to persuade and be persuaded, and this would seem to be somehow prior to the work of persuasion itself. And here of course it is almost impossible to make a move without repeating something Rousseau has already said much better....

A Thought Experiment

Suppose that an extreme political movement had managed, against the odds, to gain control of one of the two major parties. What changes might such an event be expected to work on the familiar landscape of American politics?


The Double Movement and the Party

Getting into the spirit of this particular thought experiment takes some effort. After all, American politics are classically described in terms of large, catchall parties vying for the political center, in explicit contrast to the ideologically compact, class-based parties of Europe. Effectively bared by our institutions from sharing in power without controlling a majority of their own, American parties must build their coaltions internally, compromising ideological purity, and taking in a wide range of potentially-conflicting interests, in an effort to capture the swing voters who decide elections.

So it won't do to imagine that one of these big parties has been captured by a narrow ideological clique or a single interest group. To get the thought experiment off the ground, the picture will have to be a bit more complex than that. To be sure, there will have to be a hard core of ideological supporters, and a relatively narrow interest base too—this is supposed to be an extreme political movement after all. But we don't need to suppose that the interest base and the ideological base entirely overlap. Instead, we can imagine a kind of alliance of extremisms—ideological on the one hand, and socio-economic on the other.

Provided the groups most inclined toward these respective extremisms did not entirely overlap, we have at least the beginnings of a winning coalition. Individually, the two extremisms would be too small to carry the day electorally. In tandem, however, they would have a shot. To win, of course, the double movement would still need to attract its share of fellow travelers—sympathetic but less mobilized members of society, who could be relied upon to give the party a relatively moderate face, thereby bolstering its numbers on election day, without seriously diluting the movement's purity. Even in this work however, the double movement has an advantage, for it could draw from two pools of potential supporters, not just one, allowing it to reproduce the vote-getting appeal of a truly catchall, centrist party.

Now let's suppose that this alliance of extremisms has come to pass. This means that the party would be making two kinds of extreme appeals, each designed by and for one wing of the double alliance. In this scenario, for example, we might expect to see a cultural extremism oddly married to a socio-economic extremism, with each movement focused on maintaining the purity of its own agenda, trying to attract its share of fellow travelers from among its own target population, and more-or-less staying out of the allied movement's way. The result would be an extraordinary combination of party discipline with broad popular appeal. It would still look like a big, centrist party on election day, but it could fight and, once in power, govern with the focused intensity of a compact political movement with a unified agenda.

How might the other institutions of American political life react in the face of a seizure of one of the major parties by an extremist double movement of this kind? Presumably, these institutions might be tempted by the new movement/party's apparent similarity to its past incarnation—as a normal, catchall party—into continuing to treat it as one. This tempation to see the new in the image of the familiar would probably affect every political institution to one degree or another, but there are two in particular upon which it could be expected to have an especially strong effect: the political press corps, and the second major party.


The Movement/Party and the Press

It is a characteristic of the political press in a system whose poles are defined by two broad, catchall parties that it endeavors to strike an image of moderation with readers. The mainstream press tries to be seen both as standing "between" the two partisan alternatives, like a neutral referee, and also (more subtly) as adhering to the centrist assumptions and preferences to which the two parties are presumably trying to appeal—and to which they must, presumptively, draw their more hard core supporters if they are to succeed electorally.

Thus, the press normally presents itself as refereeing the electoral contest on behalf of the voters, and also as their proxy during the policy battles that go on between elections. From its medial position, the establishment press makes sure that the parties compete fairly at election time and, afterward, when they are debating and fashioning policy, that they are reminded of the need to appeal to the center. All this is understandable given the desire of the press to maintain maximum professional legitimacy in a system characterized by two centrist parties.

To maintain this image of moderation—of balanced, fair reporting—in the new political environment in which one of the two major parties has become a movement/party, the press would need to continue to insist on nonpartisanship at all costs. This would require it to treat the words and deeds of the catchall party, and those of the movement/party as equally reasonable in themselves, and as equally sensible expressions of (potential) majority opinion.

To accomodate the increasing strain put upon the (centrist) limits that formerly defined both political discourse and the range of legitimate policy options, the press would necessarily have to take up an increasingly suspicious, even cyncial stance with respect to the claims and programs of both parties. This would be necessary because the press would, over time, be forced to report the increasingly duplicitous pronouncements and extremist policies of the movement/party. While these would no doubt be softened as much as possible in the press's presentation of them, it would become increasingly implausible to try to sustain the illusion that the words and deeds of the movement/party had not "pushed the envelope" of what was once considered permissible in political life.

The obvious solution is to attribute similarly transgressive motives to the words and deeds of the remaining catchall party. If one party is manifestly trying to get away with a larger and larger gap between what they say and what they do, and yet if the press is under obligation to remain neutral as between the two parties, then the other party must be supposed to be no better.

To the degree that the press can portray the violations of the civil limits as symmetrical, it can retain its apparent neutrality, while denouncing the increasing "abandonment" of the center (its own symbolic home) by both parties. The press retains its identification with the centrist voter, but now as a proxy for the joint conspiracy against that voter by both parties. Its nonpartisan cynicism allows it to square its political neutrality with an acknowlegment of the increasingly ugly political realities.

Thus, equal responsibility for political polarization would have to be attributed to the remaining catchall party. It would have to be portrayed as increasingly extreme in its rhetoric and demands. A one-sided polarization would have to be portrayed as mutual. The press would have to diagnose a "disappearing center" when in reality the catchall party would still largely occupy the old center, while the movement/party was headed increasingly away from it. Only by doing so could the press "rationalize" the very real and growing extremism of the movement/party, while seeming to remain equally aloof from both parties.

Since the remaining catchall party would not be as productive of extreme political tactics as the new movement/party, the press would have to find ways to "even the score" here as well. It would have to look for opportunities to portray the catchall party—its officeholders, leadership and so on—as the moral equivalents of the increasingly-brazen tacticians of the movement/party. However, since the catchall party would in fact still lack either the compact coalition or the focused program needed to support and profit from such tactical ruthlessness, various simulacra for the latter would have to be found, or invented.

One obvious simulacrum for tactical ruthlessness might be personally scandalous behavior. Another might be the discernment of deep "character flaws" in relatively innocuous minor vices. A still more desperate search for simulacra of tactical ruthless might have to settle for ordinary personality traits or aspects of personal "style" that can be interpreted as signals of broader defects of character. At the limit of desperation it might become necessary to invent the personality traits in question through the reporting of gossip, rumor and innuendo as fact.


The Movement/Party and the Opposition Party

The effects of the metamorphosis of one of two major centrist parties into a movement/party would be even more debilitating for the remaining centrist party. To use a military metaphor, the effect would be that of a unilateral disarmament under the threat of total annihilation....

-- Amil

Thursday, October 23, 2003

Moderates and Conservatives

Various recent events -- Schwarzenegger's election victory here in California, a WaPo story claiming (falsely, I suspect) that Gephardt is the candidate the GOP fears most, Josh Marshall calling attention to a couple of good political books by conservatives -- have me thinking about electoral politics and ideology in the U.S.

There is a very rough but still useful model of U.S. politics (I think I first encountered it in a piece by William Schneider), that provides a handy alternative to viewing the political world in simple left-right terms. In contrast to the linear ideological space we still mostly use in casual political talk -- where all that voters can be is more or less liberal or conservative -- this model divides the electorate up into four quadrants, based on a two-dimensional matrix that separates out ideological divisions rooted in economic issues from those based on socio-cultural matters, like so:





 Economically LiberalEconomically Conservative
Socially LiberalCore Liberals"Moderates"
Socially Conservative"Moderates"Core Conservatives


As crude as this is, it serves to focus attention on a couple of interesting phenomena. For one thing, it helps to show why pursuit of the "moderate" voter is such a tricky business. There is not a single type of moderate (i.e., swing) voter. So-called moderation, when looked at closely, turns out to be a more complex phenomenon. There may in fact be very little harmony of views between moderates of different stripes. There may even be rival moderates who disagree about virtually every issue -- and still the nature of our system will make them all count as "less extreme" than the ideological purists of the Left and the Right.

If moderation is relative, then to what is it relative? Two obvious candidates are geography and class. There is no way to do this kind of thing without engaging in broad generalizations that are effectively stereotypes but, very roughly, in the Coastal and Upper Midwestern (i.e., "blue") states, moderation generally means social liberalism plus economic (often described as "fiscal") conservatism. Meanwhile, in the Lower Midwest and the Plains, the Inner-mountain West, and of course across the Southeast (home of the "red states"), moderation generally equates to something more like a degree of economic liberalism mixed with pretty staunch social conservatism. In California, Arnold is a moderate. In Iowa, it's Gephardt.

The same rough mapping would work for class as well (subject to the same caveat about generalization and stereotyping). The hallmark of the moderate in the middle to upper middle class is social tolerance, which can and often does coexist quite happily with an affinity for free trade and balanced budgets -- or even substantial tax cuts on non-wage income. Meanwhile, political moderation among the "working middle class" (to borrow Bill Clinton's wonderful phrase) more often means fairly conservative social views (e.g., the orthodox Catholic positions on sexuality) blended with a high tolerance (or even positive demand) for such measures as social insurance, corporate regulation and protectionism.

Another interesting thing about this model is that it prompts one to think about how strange our notions of "liberal" and "conservative" have become. To take the case that interests me the most, so-called "conservatism" -- the movement ideology that has dominated American politics since the late sixties -- somehow manages to weld together a most unconservative insistence on the rationality and guaranteed progressivism of unfettered markets, with more traditional conservative concerns about maintaining social order by restraining individual desire.

I've often wondered how it is that contemporary American conservatives square this particular circle. It seems so counter-intuitive that anyone truly interested in stabilizing the social order would uncritically adopt the economic ideology of what is arguably the single most successful revolutionary force in history (as Marx admiringly called the bourgeoisie). What was I missing here?

The answer, I now think, has to do with the reasons why the various kinds of conservatives want the government "off their backs". The motivation of the social conservative who professes this standard libertarian canard can not be as unmixed as that of the economic conservative who happens also to be a social libertarian. The latter probably wants the government off his back because he thinks of taxes as a species of theft -- one that also serves to corrupt an ideal of efficiency. Social provision, in other words, has no legitimacy for him. Every tax dollar is both a violation of the core civil right of private property and also a distressing source of "noise" in what should be the harmony of the economic spheres.

By contrast, the social conservative who also defends conservative economic positions is probably less inclined to reject taxation out of hand, or to defend private property as an (or at least the) ultimate good. (For Christians occupying such ideological ground, their religion's copious strictures against putting wealth before God and neighbor must somewhere have an outlet, if only to preserve a modicum of self-respect.) The problem with taxation, as this kind of conservative sees it, has I suspect much less to do with the sheer fact that the money is being spent by the government, and much more to do with what the money is being spent for -- namely, the subsidization of all those attitudes, behaviors and social formations that (in this view) undermine traditional social morality and order.

Roughly speaking, it must look to such a conservative as if the modern state -- with its relentlessly secular schools and universities, its ruthless self-emancipation from the need for religious sanction, its indiscriminate defense of free expression and equal protection (regardless of the behavior of their beneficiaries), its emasculating social safety net for the unwed and the fatherless, its endless talk of rights, coupled with its deafening silence on obligations -- is but one large conspiracy to wreck traditional society. This it does by making it possible, and even attractive for sons and (much, much worse) daughters to live their lives in open defiance of divine, paternal, fraternal and husbandly authority.

In other words, social conservatives who are also economic conservatives are likely to have found their way to the latter as a means of struggle for the former. As they see it, they can no longer render unto Caesar without complaint, since every penny goes to purchase the further destruction of all that remains of patriarchal authority in their world. In this sense, taxes are, quite literally, of Satan -- and the IRS is the paymaster for his works.

-- Amil

Saturday, October 11, 2003

Food for Thought

The latest issue of The New York Review of Books arrived and, with it, a few choice quotations that I feel driven to post here. The first two chestnuts are both cited in a review piece by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (himself a wonderful old chestnut) detailing Bush's radical departure from post-WWII foreign policy traditions. Both are old favorites of mine. The third, which was unknown to me, but which is exactly the sort of sober and humane wisdom I would have expected from its source, is here summoned by Orlando Figes to wrap up his review of recent monographs on Russia's halting path toward freedom and prosperity (sorry, I can't link to this article, as it's not online). Enjoy all three quotations for their abundance clear reasoning, common sense and plain political sanity -- qualities always in too short supply in our public discourse, and rarely more so than now.

Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will commend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example. She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force. She might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit

-- John Quincy Adams, Speech to the House of Representatives, July 4, 1821


Allow the President to invade a neighboring nation, whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion, and you allow him to do so, whenever he may choose to say he deems it necessary for such purpose -- and you allow him to make war at pleasure. Study to see if you can fix any limit to his power in this respect, after you have given him so much as you propose. If, to-day, he should choose to say he thinks it necessary to invade Canada, to prevent the British from invading us, how could you stop him? You may say to him, "I see no probability of the British invading us" but he will say to you "be silent; I see it, if you dont."

-- Abraham Lincoln, Letter to William H. Herndon, February 15, 1848


When Soviet power has run its course...let us not hover nervously over the people who come after, applying litmus papers daily to their political complexions to find out whether they answer to our concept of "democratic." ...Give them time, let them be Russians; let them work out their internal problems in their own manner. The ways by which peoples advance toward dignity and enlightenment in government are things that constitute the deepest and most intimate processes of national life. There is nothing less understandable to foreigners, nothing in which foreign interference can do less good.

-- George F. Kennan, "America and the Russian Future," Foreign Affairs, April, 1951

So is the import of all that to remove our ability to deal with foreign tyrants who, though not directly menacing our shores, nevertheless threaten the peace, and affront the conscience, of the world? Hardly. But the strand in our foreign policy tradition limned by these three quotations -- a strand at once realistic and principled -- would frame and pursue such goals rather differently than Mr. Bush has done in Iraq. Specifically, it would look to other mechanisms than unilateral, "preventive" war and imperial occupation to do the job. In fact, a fourth quote from the current number of the Review gives us a timely reminder of the sort of policy, and the sort of outcome, we can reasonably hope for from an administration more embracing of this same tradition of principled realism:

Force was used as a last resort, and then only after planning and commitments for the period following combat had been made. The application of force was measured at the outset. And after seventy-eight days of bombing, and the threat of a ground invasion, Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic gave in to all of NATO's conditions. Some 1.5 million of the brutally expelled Kosovar Albanians were allowed to return to their homes. Serb forces withdrew, and a NATO-led force entered (with the United States providing only about one fifth of that force.) Today, Milosevic is standing trial for war crimes at The Hague, and Yugoslavia is an emerging democracy. No American soldiers, airmen, or Marines were killed in action during the campaign.

-- Gen. Wesley K. Clark, "Iraq: What Went Wrong" October 23, 2003

Friday, October 10, 2003

(Not Yet) Getting to Know the General

On the evidence of his most recent piece in Slate, it appears that Michael Kinsley has yet to familiarize himself with the extensive evidence of Wesley Clark's public policy geekitude. Hence, the following corrective post to the Fray, courtesy of Amileoj's ongoing special education program for Slate editors who need a little extra help keeping up.


General Theories of Clark

This is an odd sort of column. Mr. Kinsley clearly set out to knock Wesley Clark (and his supporters) down a peg or two. But when it came to throwing the sort of cheap shots necessary to do the job, he proved to be too smart and too honest to take full swings.

Mr. Kinsley tentatively compares the Clark "swoon" to the (blind) faith that George Bush would prove a competently advised outsider, only to admit that Gen. Clark is neither unable nor unwilling to master policy details first hand. He recycles the standard canard about Clark's presumed lack of concrete policy ideas, only to admit that a laundry list of detailed proposals is a "vapid measure" of a candidate. He shares his mental picture of a Clark candidacy enveloped in a solipsistic "big-shot bubble," but then concedes that Clark has already attracted a genuine popular following second only to Dean's.

Had Mr. Kinsley pushed this self-interrogation any further, he might have found it necessary to start the whole column over.

He might, for example, have come up against the fact that Gen. Clark's announced views on economic policy (roughly, those of a tempered Keynesian and free-trader) compare rather favorably in sophistication to positions taken by the other heavyweights -- and place him, incidentally, to the left of Howard Dean. There are, evidently, some substantive advantages to having seriously studied and taught economics.

Then there is the small matter of Clark's foreign policy strategy -- namely the fact that he has one. (It is a post Cold War liberal internationalism, articulated with tolerable depth and precision in a number of speeches, articles and books.) Can this truly be said of any of the others, save perhaps Kerry? There are, evidently, some substantive advantages to having been paid to think about such things for the Joint Chiefs.

I'd like to think that Mr. Kinsley is simply not quite up to speed yet on Gen. Clark's views and that, if he had been, he would not have formed the erroneous impression that Clark has "nothing interesting to say" about the large topics confronting the country. Indeed, I think it more likely that Clark's real vulnerability will prove to be that what he has to say is too much for the current state of our political discourse to bear -- too auto-critical, too long-view, too nuanced. The Clark "swoon" isn't just for a man of action, a former general; it's also for a theorist in uniform.

Tuesday, October 07, 2003

Meanwhile, in the 51st State

Though quickly chased from whatever headline space it might have managed to grab by the blanket coverage of the Groping Grimacer's Big Audition, Tuesday was a hideously, horribly newsworthy day in occupied Iraq. Not a peep from the Times or the Post, but at least the Monitor still has a link from its homepage as of this blogging. For fear of its disappearing I excerpt the story in its entirety here:

3 US soldiers killed in Central Iraq

Posted: Tuesday, October 7, 2:21pm EDT

Insurgents killed three US soldiers with roadside bombs, the military reported Tuesday, and former Iraqi intelligence officers demanding jobs hurled stones and charged American forces guarding occupation headquarters in the capital.
Large sections of Baghdad were in turmoil. There was an explosion inside the Foreign Ministry compound about a half mile from the confrontation outside the US-led occupation headquarters.

Across the city, US solders were met with a demonstration by Shiite Muslims after closing a mosque and allegedly arresting the imam. Late in the afternoon, US troops fired percussion grenades and shots in the air to disperse the crowd, which grew by the hour.

By nightfall, an estimated 200 American troops backed by helicopters and at least six M1A2 tanks had sealed off the area and more Americans were arriving. Large numbers of protesters were heading to the scene.

One soldier attached to the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment was killed and another wounded in a bombing about 9:50 p.m. Monday just west of Baghdad.

About an hour later, another roadside bombing killed two soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division and their Iraqi translator. Two other soldiers were wounded in the bombing in al-Haswah, 25 miles south of the capital.

I realize this can't possibly compete for national significance with the outcome of a singularly atypical election virtually guaranteed not to resolve any of the fundamental issues facing the Golden State (having not been fought over any of those issues), but I wonder if it doesn't perhaps merit at least below-the-fold attention, given how vivid an illustration it provides of our predicament of being caught between an increasingly restive and hostile Shiite majority and an increasingly effective Sunni insurgency.

Then again, with Mr. Bush apparently having hung up his flight suit, at least for the time being, there are no action-hero-politicians to point the cameras at. And there's certainly no borrowed Hollywood glamour or naughty "sex" angle -- in short, not so much as a hint of "reality show" appeal. Granted, there is a certain "survivor" aspect to the proceedings, but it's nothing compared to the drama of an electoral "horserace" -- especially an off-season one. And, really, where is the human interest to keep us watching night after night? Why who even knows the contestants names for heaven's sake -- there are simply too many of them.

So, on second thought, I see how understandable it is that the nation's press would focus exclusively on Arnold's Army to the exclusion of whatever may be going on over in the Big Sandy, at the far, dreary edge of the Empire. And you've got to admit, covering the 3rd Cav and the 82nd Airborne has become such a downer lately. I mean, they're so yesterday, aren't they?

Sunday, October 05, 2003

Anti-Clark Reaction Briefly Revives Ancient Political Science Theory

Early in my study of political science (somewhere back in the Pleistocene) I encountered the theory of the curvature of ideological space. The idea was that one could, by proceeding to the extreme in either direction on the Left-Right ideological spectrum, eventually come to a place indistinguishable from that which one would have reached by heading an equal distance in the opposite direction. Left and Right were not arrayed at opposite ends of a straight line, but rather curved back into each other in a sort of ideological circle. Extremes met.

Now this theory always had an intuitive appeal, but I could never quite bring myself to accept it. For one thing, it looked to my suspicious eyes pretty transparently like one of those devices set up by "silent generation" intellectuals to stifle political experimentation by the younguns. The object was clearly to warn that every departure from conventional political wisdom would lead to a kind of ideological madness in which one became what one most claimed to despise.

The lessons drawn with the Mighty Circle all seemed to be about the dire domestic implications of dissent during the Cold War: the anti-fascists of the 30's were so contemptuous of liberal capitalism that they turned themselves into Stalinist robots; the New Left of the 60's became violent and totalitarian because they went too far with the anti-war movement and the counter-culture; und so weiter. The sane thing to do, politically, was to hold to the center with liberal pluralism.

(This was the early '80's and one could, just barely, delude oneself into thinking that there was still a liberal center to hold on to, that Reagan's election represented an aberration soon to be reversed, rather than what it turned out to be -- the beginning of movement conservatism's mature phase.)

As I got on in the political science game, I began to form more professionally-respectable objections to the circular theory of ideological space. It seemed much too reductive to think of ideological possibilities this way. There were after all multiple and contending valences of "Left" and "Right" (social and economic ones, for example) and sometimes even the labels themselves seemed out of place. New "non-material" issues and cleavages had arisen (environmentalism, identity politics, ethno-nationalism) that seemed to defy easy placement along a single ideological dimension. Reality was increasingly messy, with feminists and social conservatives sometimes allied on one side, say, and civil libertarians and neo-conservatives on the other. And under "post-modern" exegesis it turned out that ideological spectra were as plentiful as paradigms, or language-games, or something.

Then the end of the Cold War seemed to kick the remaining props out from under the whole creaking metaphor. The remaining Dark Star that was supposed to bend ideological space had vanished, and nobody really knew where the lines led off to any more.

But once in a while something comes along to make the old picture of a circle of ideologies convincing again. So it is with the reactions to Wesley Clark's entry into the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. To get the full effect, look both to thy right and also to thy left.

Now I'll admit that the symmetry is not perfect. True, some of the anti-Clark dirt is shared outright by both sides -- notably the claim that the General is somehow responsible for a massacre because, as commander of the 1st Cav division at Fort Hood, he lent some armor to the AFT siege of the Branch Davidian compound outside Waco. But more often there are notable differences in emphasis. For example, while Blackfive seems to base his case against Gen. Clark chiefly on his estimation that the General is a "pussy," the folks over at Dissident Voice are afraid he is -- well, someone a lot like Blackfive.

And just here is the symmetry that gives the old Mighty Circle theory new life. For nothing shows that we've got Left bending into Right quite like their mutual absorption in the notion that someone who is demonstrably somewhere in the center of any reasonable ideological space is, in fact, a demon in disguise, sent from the other camp to trick their unwary comrades into straying from the one true way. Clark isn't a true warrior, but a Clinton-loving, ass-kissing liberal pol who was hated by real soldiers; Clark isn't against the Iraq war and for civil liberties, he's a war criminal who cavorts with fascists for fun and burns with the ambition to run the whole American empire by himself.

Extremism like this meets itself coming from the other side for the simple reason that it invariably, compulsively draws a phantom of its Other towards itself. And it gets that phantom by abstracting the complexity and nuance out of a reality that, if it were allowed to contain anything but ideological opposite-numbers, would utterly shatter the extremist's worldview. For if that worldview is to make sense, to cohere, only varieties of extremism -- good and evil -- can be allowed to exist in it. An extremist is one for whom the political game is always non-cooperative and zero-sum -- because that is the way he needs it to be. That is also why, when their numbers reach critical mass, extremists on one side tend to become productive of extremists on the other. Vivid examples can be found everywhere from Northern Ireland to Israel/Palestine to the Vale of Kashmir.

It would be nice, since Gen. Clark is going to be attacked by extremists of both Right and Left (as proxies for one another), if he could at least count on the support of that great swath of supposed moderates in the center. But unfortunately this is where the Mighty Circle picture breaks down once again. For there simply is not, currently, any such great swath of moderates. The circle is more like an ellipse at the moment, and those who tend to fancy themselves moderates (especially in the punditocracy and the press generally) are in fact usually located somewhere out on the great rightward aphelion that has been the most prominent feature of American political life since the aforementioned ascendancy of movement conservatism. So although the extremes do still meet, they do so without the implied symmetry of the rest of the political system -- without, in particular, the implied equal balance of political forces and the equipoise at the top dead center.

It turns out that such a center -- what Arthur Schlesinger called, more than a half-century ago, the "vital center" -- is not something that is waiting around to be occupied, or returned to, but rather something that has to be laboriously reconstituted, by somehow dragging the whole political order back into phase with reality. That is what Gen. Clark is really up against. And compared to that job, which is nothing less than the job of changing the world, fending off the mirror-image attacks of Rightist and Leftist extremists would be a picnic.


Peace

Saturday, October 04, 2003

The Unbearable Irrelevance of Novak

Following what is becoming a disturbing pattern of behavior for me, I have posted yet another screed in the Fray against the pseudo-moderate editorial faction at Slate, and now I am reposting said screed here (see below). Perhaps I need a time-out -- or an intervention.

Speaking of obsession and paranoia, you will notice that I conclude my screed by yet again bringing up the Watergate parallel. For a pair of first-hand assessments of the similarities and differences, check out what John Dean and Daniel Ellsberg have to say on the subject over at Salon.

Note to Michael Kinsley: Have you noticed how much better the coverage of the Plame Affair has been in Salon than in Slate, so far? I wonder if this has anything to do with the complete absence (at Salon) of pompous, self-satisfied pseudo-moderation and inside-dopesterism as an editorial ethos. Being the rabid partisan and moral myopic that I am, I am sure this impression is just an unfounded (and possibly clinical) suspicion on my part, and is no reflection on the talent and integrity of the estimable Messrs. Saletan and Shafer who, after all, are noble enough to see an equal measure of venality and corruption all around them, whereas I of course am among those dupes who perversely insist on seeing "one side" as distinctly more rotten than the other.

Yours in humility,

Amil


What Novak Case? Shafer versus Suellentrop

Mr. Shafer's increasingly bizarre attempts to downplay the seriousness of the Plame Affair have reached a new crescendo with "Stop the Investigation!"

The arguments Mr. Shafer presents for the proposition that Mr. Novak's source is beyond legal reach are a sloppy mish-mash of sheer speculation and narrow technicalities favorably interpreted (the leaker's knowledge of Plame's cover might not have been "authorized," it might not have been the leaker's intention to burn Plame, her cover can't have been a sufficiently important secret to the C.I.A. unless the agency was "protecting her identity for a future assignment," and so on.)

All this is weak enough, and would hardly add up to a convincing rationale for dropping a criminal investigation of the Novak leak. But what is truly egregious about Mr. Shafer's piece is how wildly off point it is. The Novak leak is much the least of the White House's problems at the moment.

Did Mr. Shafer simply not read Chris Suellentrop's "assessment" (posted on Slate the day before the Shafer piece)? Or did he read it and somehow not get the rather obvious point that it utterly dismantles Mr. Shafer's entire approach to the issue? Or is it that he got the point but decided to ignore his colleague's argument entirely?

Assuming the most generous of these interpretations (i.e., simple ignorance, rather than either intellectual obtuseness or professional scorn), let's recap for Mr. Shafer's benefit why his piece is so off the mark:

A senior Administration official has made it known that two senior White House officials deliberately revealed the identity of an undercover agent to six different reporters in an effort to punish the spouse of that agent, a public opponent of the Administration's foreign policy.

To look at this singular fact without blinders of either partisanship or false non-partisanship, is to be irresistibly struck by its similarity to the dirty tricks campaign that was the genesis of Watergate.

Thursday, October 02, 2003

Wesley Clark, Lincoln Liberal?

There is too much good stuff in Wesley Clark's interview with Josh Marshall to cover in a single post. As CalPundit notes, it is not every day you find a presidential candidate providing both a thoughtful critique of supply-side economics -- for ignoring the marginal propensity to save, of course -- and also the detailed provenance of a famous diplomatic quotation, all in the same car trip. Clearly, we are not in Crawford anymore.

But I can't resist pointing out my favorite bit, which ought to be especially reassuring to anyone who doubts that Clark has thought through his political stance with the requisite care. In response to Josh Marshall's question asking for the central flaw in the Bush administration's domestic policy, Clark comes out with this:
There's an underlying ideological drive that overrides pragmatism. The American people want government to fix the things they can't fix themselves. The American people are basically individualists. They like each other; they're very charitable and generous; they're bound together in a hundred different ways -- they're not a big-government country. They're not socialists. But they recognize there are things they can't fix.

To me, this is an obvious gloss on what J. David Greenstone called the Lincoln Persuasion -- Lincoln's synthesis of the individualist/pragmatic and communal/reformist strains in American liberalism. In fact, but for the anachronisms, Clark's words might be a paraphrase of one of Lincoln's fragments on government:
The legitimate object of government, is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves -- in their separate, and individual capacities.

This was in about 1854, when Lincoln was just beginning the mature phase of his political career, under the pressure of the Kansas-Nebraska crisis. Is it too much to think that Clark is looking to such a model for guiding principles in responding to the crisis occasioned by the GOP's movement politics having captured all branches of government?

Of course he might also be getting it second-hand from Bill Clinton. If I were Bush's brain, this would not reassure me.

What a Real Scandal Looks Like

The word scandal comes from the Greek skandalon, meaning a snare. In Latin and Old French it acquires the more strictly moral connotations of temptation and the cause of sin. Modern English usage draws on both meanings -- scandal can refer both to the actual cause of disgrace (the moral trap I willingly walk into) as well as to the sheer fact of public disgrace (the trap of public opinion which, though it has me fast, might be right or wrong about me).

In other words, a scandal can be real (public disgrace attached to a truly disgraceful act) or fake (the disgrace without the genuine cause).

During the Clinton years, we got used to more-or-less constant pseudo-scandals -- great waves of public disgrace signifying nothing. These were of course topped off by a single, authentic scandal. But even that exception proved the rule, as the story of one very public middle-aged man's entanglement in a very private moral snare was overwhelmed by the sheer size and volume of the scandal machinery deployed to exploit his personal failing for partisan gain.

So it comes as something of a shock to be confronted with the real thing, probably for the first time since Iran-Contra, and it's perhaps understandable that most journalists have had a hard time getting their bearings. They are, after all, out of practice handling the real thing. But that is where we are.

After some initial confusion (much of it intentionally sewn by administration apologists) the basics of the story are now completely clear for all to see: At least two top White House officials repeatedly disclosed the identity of an undercover CIA officer, in probable violation of federal law, in order to punish and/or discredit an influential critic of the administration's Iraq policy.

Early efforts to tone down the story were doomed by the facts: According to several sources, the CIA officer in question is apparently a career spy who has worked under the deepest level of cover. Her work focused on the very issue (WMD proliferation) that the administration hyped as their rationale for speeding to war in Iraq, and the CIA itself has formally notified the Justice Department that national security was in fact compromised by the revelation of her identity. The officials who revealed it were both highly placed and quite deliberate in their efforts to get the story out. Finally, there is nothing remotely routine about this particular kind of leak (that of a covert officer's identity) -- least of all originating from the White House.

I do not see how this can now stop short of high administration officials being questioned under oath (and probably under the gaze of television cameras) about their involvement. Because the Democrats do not control any of the relevant investigative machinery, it is possible that the day of reckoning may be put off for a while. (If Bush holds on to win reelection, '04 may prove to be his '72.) But once the process begins, the incentives for more disclosures -- whether anonymously to the press (Deep Throat) or publicly to the investigators (John Dean) -- is likely to become overwhelming.

Will it bring the administration down? This depends on how much of a house cleaning (if any) Bush is willing and able to do, and how soon he does it (if at all). The longer he waits, the worse will be the eventual revelations, for the closer they will come to the presidency. At the limit of recklessness (or assuming there is already an evidentiary trail that leads straight to the top, one that is too well established to permit of erasure), the administration will bring itself down -- exactly as Nixon's did.

I am pretty sure this is the beginning of the end.